Where do the Karate kata come from?

The practitioners of Karate can be arranged in a pyramid. Go back to about 1700 and there’s two or three Karate practitioners we know the name of (Hama Higa, Takahara), go to about 1750 and there’s a few more, like Sakugawa, Yara, members of the Kojo family, members of the Motobu family. Go to the mid 1800s and the number increases exponentially – we’re talking masters like Matsumura, Azato, Itosu, Aragaki, Motobu, Kyan, Higaonna, Uechi, Matsumora, Gusukuma, then in the next generation, circa 1900 men like Funakoshi, Mabuni, Miyagi, Chibana took the art further afield. By the 1950s the art was everywhere from Essex to Hawaii and now of course the number of Karateka probably numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

But who taught these early Okinawan practitioners of Karate or Toshu Jutsu? One really good resource is Gichin Funakoshi since he trained with the previous generation Itosu and Azato but was also a student of their teacher Matsumura and friendly with others like Miyagi and Mabuni.

In the Karatedo Kyohan he records:

There is no doubt that the many experts who travelled between Okinawan and China contributed heavily to the bringing of Karate to its present level. For example, it has come down by word of mouth that about two hundred years ago*, a certain Sakugawa of Akata, in Shuri travellled to China and then returned to Okinawa after mastering Karate to become known as Karate Sakugawa** in his time. 

Again, according to Shiodaira of Shuri, one hundred and fifty years ago*** (as noted in the Oshima Note by Tobe of Tosa, Japan), a Chinese expert, by name of Ku Shanku**** arrived in Okinawa with a few of his students and introduced a type of Kempo.

*He was writing in 1956, therefore referring to around 1756
** Usually written Tode Sakugawa, his given name was Satunuku
*** Here Funakoshi would be calculating the date of around 1800 but this is likely too late and we should look at his previous date closer to 1756.
**** In my study The Lost Book of Kushanku I identify Kushanku with the Bazi Quan (or Taiji Quan) master Wang Zongyue who Richard Kim states was a teacher of Chatan Yara and who wrote a book with a name somewhat similar to Kushanku.

Introducing Ason, Iwah and ‘The Southern Chinese’


Funakoshi writes:

Okinawan experts such as Sakiyama, Gushi and Tomoyori of Naha studied some time with the Chinese military attache Ason [other translations say Buken];

Matsumura of Shuri and Maesato and Kogusoku [Kojo] of Kume, with the military attache Iwah;

Sokon Matsumura - pioneer of Naihanchi and Bassai

Sokon Matsumura

and Shimabuku of Uemonden, and Higa, Seneha, Gushi, Nagahama, Aragaki, Hijaunna* and Kuwae all of Kunenboya, with the military attache Waishinzan.


Seisho Aragaki

It is said that a teacher of Gusukuma, Kanagusuku, Matsumura**, Oyatomari, Yamada, Nakazato and Toguchi, all of Tomari, was a southern Chinese who drifted ashore at Okinawa.

*Hijaunna is more than likely Higaonna
* Here Funakoshi probably means Matsumora rather than Matsumura. The former was Kosaku Matsumora of Tomari, the later Sokon Matsumura of Shuri.

So Funakoshi alone gives us the following masters:

  • Kushanku who taught Karate Sakugawa
  • Ason who taught students from Naha
  • Iwah who taught Matsumura of Shuri and students from Kume
  • Waishinzan who taught students such as Aragaki
  • A Southern Chinese who taught students such as Gusukuma, Matsumora and Oyatomari.

In my study The Lost Book of Kushanku, I argued that the kata Wansu (Empi) was introduced to Okinawa in the late 1600s by Wang Ji and that Kushanku was introduced in around the 1750s by Wang Zong Yue’s students Sakugawa and Yara so I will add nothing of these masters and kata here. So let’s look at the others. Which masters taught which forms, and from what styles did they come?

Before we visit these Chinese pioneers, we must first look to a few key Okinawans:

  • Higaonna Kanryo, founder of Naha Te or Shorei Ryu and teacher of Goju Ryu founder Chojun Miyagi and To-On Ryu founder Juhatsu Kyoda. Higaonna visited China in 1870 where he became the student of RyuRyu Ko.
  • Nakaima Norisato founder of Ryuei Ryu who was in China around the same time.

Higaonna Kanryo

These men are often assumed to have brought back the Naha Te forms  Sanchin, Seisan, Sanseiryu, Seiunchin and Suparimpei and possibly Kururunfa.

But this cannot be the case – as a number of these kata were already in Okinawa. We will disregard Wang Ji (Wansu) and Wang Zong Yue (Kushanku) as potential originators/bringers of these forms, and we return to what Funakoshi told us:

Matsumura of Shuri and Maesato and Kogusoku of Kume, with the military attache Iwah;

Shimabuku of Uemonden, and Higa, Seneha, Gushi, Nagahama, Aragaki, Hijaunna* and Kuwae all of Kunenboya, with the military attache Waishinzan.

One thing we know is that Aragaki knew some of the above Naha Te forms before Higaonna ever went to China:

In 1867, some 20 years before the Naha Te pioneers went to China, Aragaki led a public demonstration of Karate and Kobudo. This was the first public demo of Karate in the world, in which Kata, Kumite and Kobudo were demonstrated as an artform and a way of life.

The running order of the event was:

  • Tinbei and Rochin (shield and straight sword) by Maesato Peichin
  • Tesshaku (iron ruler or Sai) and Bo by Maesato and Aragaki
  • Seisan by Aragaki
  • Bojutsu and Toshu Jutsu by Maesato and Aragaki (unarmed vs staff)
  • Chishaukiun (Shisochin? or perhaps Preying Mantis) kata by Aragaki
  • Tinbei and Bojutsu (shield vs staff) by Tomimura Pechin and Aragaki
  • Tesshaku (Sai) by Maesato
  • Kou Shu (Kou as in Ku in Kumite, Shu as in Toshu) Maesato and Aragaki in two man sets
  • Shabo (wheel staff) by Shusai Ikemi Yagusuku (maybe Nunchaku?)
  • Suparinmpei by Tomimura
  • Kogusuku Peichin reading poetry and playing the Biwa lute

So we can conclude that Seisan, Suparimpei and possibly Shisochin predated Higaonna, Uechi, Norisato and Kyoda in Okinawa.

Who was Iwah?

In the Lost Book of Kushanku I argued that Iwah could be a pseudonym of Bagua master Dong Hai Chuan, but leaving that hypothesis aside, Iwah was famously the teacher of Matsumura, Kojo and Maezato.

We now go to a quote from Chojun Miyagi:

Miyagi wrote:

“Most styles of Chinese kung fu were created by mimicking fights of animals or birds. You can see it from the styles’ names such as Tiger Style, Lion Style, Monkey Style, Dog Style, Crane Style and so on. In the age a little later, Chinese kung fu split into Southern school and Northern school. Moreover, each school split into Neijia and Waijia.

“According to popular opinion, we can categorize karate into two styles: Shorin-Ryu and Shorei-Ryu. They (traditional view) insist that the former is fit for a stout person, while the latter for a slim person. However, such an opinion proved to be false by many studies. In the mean time, there is only one opinion we can trust.

“It is as follows: In 1828, our ancestors inherited a kung fu style of Fujian province in China. They continued their studies and formed Goju-Ryu karate. Even today, there still exists an orthodox group which inherited genuine and authentic Goju-Ryu karate.”

Goju Ryu founder Chojun Miyagi and Shoto Ryu founder Gichin Funakoshi were friends

Goju Ryu founder Chojun Miyagi and Shoto Ryu founder Gichin Funakoshi were friends

So 1828 was remembered as the year “our ancestors inherited a Kung Fu style of Fujian province in China.”

So who were the ancestors who went to China?

The were Bushi Matsumura and Bushi Kojo.

Since we know Seisan and Suparimpei were in Okinawa as early as 1867 and since Miyagi referred to Goju Ryu as having been brought to Okinawa in 1828, it stands to reason that these could be forms brought back.

Seisan is in almost every Karate style

Seisan is in almost every Karate style

However, that no Matsumura-based style contains Suparimpei means we should turn our attention to Seisan.

It was Seisan that was the original Goju Ryu “style” brought back in 1828 – Seisan was the kata of Iwah.

Tatsuo Shimabukuro, whose teacher Chotoku Kyan learnt Seisan from Matsumura performing the kata:

Who was Ason?

Ason was famously the teacher of Sakiyama, Gushi and Tomoyori but what was his background and contribution to karate?

The Funakoshi evidence on Ason:

All Funakoshi tells us about Ason is that he was a Chinese military attache and the students he taught were based in Naha. We don’t know from this when he lived or what kind of martial arts he practiced. So let’s instead try to track down his students:

Sakiyama, Gushi and Tomoyori 

Sakiyama Kitosu lived from 1830 to 1914. He was a peer/training brother of Nakaima Norisato who was the founder of Ryuei Ryu. Norisato was a student of a Chinese master called RyuRyu Ko. It seems somewhat likely then that Ason and RyuRyu Ko taught similar or the same style. Patrick McCarthy identifies RyuRyu with a master of Whooping Crane, while others have claimed he taught Hsing-I. It is also possible he taught a type of Tiger Boxing related to Pangai Noon since the kata believed to have been passed from RyuRyu to Higaonna Kanryo are the same as those passed to Kanbun Uechi from the Pangai Noon style. RyuRyu may have taught a style called Kingai Noon.

Mark Bishop tells a story of Sakiyama that also relates him to RyuRyu Ko:

Kuniyoshi had been a student of Kitoku Sakiyama who had travelled to Fuchou with Norisato Nakaima and trained with him at Ru Ru Ko’s Dojo…

When one of Ru Ru Ko’s disciples came to Okinawa on official duty, he was grieved to learn that his former brother disciple Sakiyama was almost dead from some unknown illness….

Kata shared by Goju Ryu and Ryuei Ryu (and therefore possibly taught by RyuRyu Ko):


Therefore the kata Ason taught to Sakiyama and co, would most likely resemble these types of movements.

If Ason taught Sakiyama, he would have arrived in Okinawa in around 1845 (when Sakiyama was 15 to 20), so he post-dates the 1828 introduction of Naha Te staple Seisan. He also post-dates the Shuri Te staple forms Wansu, Kushanku and Bassai. But he pre-dates people like Aragaki, Itosu and Azato.

Funakoshi tells us that Ason taught Shorei Ryu and we can determine from the previous evidence that it was likely to have been a form somewhat akin to the Goju Ryu forms it was related to.

The forms Funakoshi calls Shorei Ryu are:

  • Naihanchi (Tekki Shodan, Nidan, Sandan)
  • Jion, Jutte
  • Chinto
  • Sochin
  • Nijushiho
  • Seisan

We have already identified Seisan as being from the Iwah transmission. we will also eliminate Nijushiho and Sochin as these were Aragaki kata (see later) and Chinto (see later).

So this leaves two forms for Ason – Naihanchi and Jion/Jutte.

Of these Naihanchi is the most closely resembling a Goju type form, whereas Jion/Jutte has a distinctive Tomari Te feel about it.

We are beginning to build a picture of the start of kata in Okinawa in the mid 1800s.

We had Wansu, Kushanku, Bassai (the original Shorin forms) and now Seisan (a Shorei form) being taught in Shuri.

Now, from 1828 in Naha we have Seisan and perhaps Sanchin and Suparimpei beginning the kata tradition there.

Now from the mid 1840s we have the sense that a Naha form (in other words a Shorei form) has come to Shuri. Matsumura must have integrated it into his system either by training directly with Ason, or by training with Sakiyama.

Useishi (Gojushiho) would seem to be the link between Naihanchi and the white crane forms. It carries movements in common with Naihanchi but is more comprehensive. It is almost as if Naihanchi broke away from Useishi.

Who was the Southern Chinese?

Wansu, Kushanku and Bassai were the original Shuri/Shorin forms.

Seisan was the original Naha Te form.

Naihanchi was an important Shorei form which ended up in Shuri.

So what forms were taught by the “Southern Chinese”?

Funakoshi tells us:

It is said that a teacher of Gusukuma, Kanagusuku, Matsumora, Oyatomari, Yamada, Nakazato and Toguchi, all of Tomari, was a southern Chinese who drifted ashore at Okinawa.

The kata most associated with Tomari Te and these teachers are as follows:

  • Jion, Ji’in, Jutte (the so-called Temple kata)
  • Chinto  Gankaku), Chinte
  • Rohai (Meikyo)

It is commonly held that Chinto was named after the Chinese sailor who drifted ashore in around 1855. He is otherwise referred to as Anan

This allows us to see how the family of katas came together in the mid 1800s:

Shuri Te (Shorin)

Channan (learnt from Chatan Yara)
Wansu (learnt from Sakugawa)
Bassai (devised from Bazi Quan)
Kushanku (learnt from Chatan Yara) – the most advanced kata according to Matsumura Seito

Shuri Te (Shorei)

Seisan (learnt from Iwah)
Naihanchi (learnt from Ason by Sakiyama)
Useishi (learnt from Ason by Sakiyama) – often considered the most advanced kata

Tomari Te (Gusukuma, Matsumora, Oyodomari)

Chinto, Chinte (learnt from Anan)
Jion, Jin, Jutte (from Monk Fist Boxing)
Rohai (from Monk Fist Boxing) – the most advanced Tomari kata

Naha Te of the Kojo family

Seisan (learnt from Iwah)
Suparimpei (learnt from Iwah) – the most advanced Naha kata

Preliminary Timeline

1798: Sokon Matsumura is born
1810: Sokon Matsumura studies under Sakugawa and learns Wansu and Kushanku
1828: Sokon Matsumura travels to China and studies Seishan under the Chinese master Iwah
1829: Kosaku Matsumora is born in Tomari
1832: Yasutsune Itosu is born
1834: Matsumura trains in Satsuma
1840: Seisho Aragaki is born
1848: Kojo Sho Sei and Kojo Isei travel to Fuchou to study under Iwah. In addition to forms he teaches them the “hand spear” and archery
1850: Ason comes to Okinawa and teaches Naihanchi to Sakiyama, Gushi and Tomoyori
1853: Aragaki begins training in Shuri under Kitoku Sakayama. Higaonna Kanryo is born
1854: Anan (also known as Chinto) arrives in Tomari. He teaches Kosaku Matsumora.
1867: Aragaki begins teaching Higaonna in Naha.

Who was Waishinzan?

Funakoshi tells us:

Shimabuku of Uemonden, and Higa, Seneha, Gushi, Nagahama, Aragaki, Higaonna and Kuwae all of Kunenboya, with the military attache Waishinzan.

We have already determined that Gushi was senior and had studied under Ason in 1850.

And we have determined the Aragaki was teaching in 1867 and that Higaonna was his student.

We can therefore work out that between 1853 and 1867, Seisho Aragaki went to China and studied under Waishinzan.

The kata most associated with Aragaki are:

  • Niseishi (Nijushiho)
  • Unsu
  • Sochin
  • Wankan (debatable, possibly innovated)

He is also associated with versions of these forms:

  • Seisan
  • Sanchin
  • Shisochin
  • Niseishi seems to be related to Sanseru and may represent an older version
  • Unsu seems related to Shisochin and may represent an older version
  • Rohai seems related to Seiunchin and may represent an older version

Let’s compare the forms:

Niseishi (Shotokan’s Nijushiho):

With Sanseru:

let’s compare Unsu:

with Shisochin:

And finally observe some of the similarities between Rohai:

and Seiunchin:

The Karate styles by 1870:

Now we can see the Karate styles coming together:

Shuri Te, headed by Matsumura:

  • Channan
  • Naihanchi
  • Seisan
  • Bassai
  • Wansu
  • Kushanku
  • Useishi

Tomari Te, headed by Matsumora & Gusukuma

  • Tomari Bassai
  • Tomari Seisan
  • Tomari Wansu
  • Chinto
  • Chinte
  • Jutte/Jion/Jin
  • Rohai

Naha Te, headed by Aragaki

  • Seisan
  • Sanchin
  • Niseishi/Sanseiru
  • Unsu/Shisochin
  • Seiunchin
  • Suparimpei

We must note that these traditions are already taking shape before the time of Shorin Ryu patriarch Yasutsune Itosu and Shorei Ryu founder Higaonna Kanryo.

Not only did Kanryo, Goju Ryu founder Chojun Miyagi and the founder of Uechi Ryu and Ryuei Ryu, study in China themselves, but Chinese masters like Gokenki and Tang Daiji also came to Okinawa.




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