The Kata of Okinawa Isshinryu
An Informal Discussion
on their Possible Origins
©2000, Joe Swift, Tokyo,
Since its official
announcement in 1956, Okinawa Isshinryu Karate Kobudo
has spread throughout the world, with dojo in most continents.
There have since been many books, articles, and videos
published on the system in the English language. However,
more often than not, these materials utilize the same
sources for their research, with little, if anything
written based upon research of primary materials, that
is, Japanese language books on karate-do by Okinawan
This article will attempt to trace the origins of the
Isshinryu kata utilizing mainly these types of primary
materials, in the hopes that it will clear the air of
some of the myths and misinformation that have plagued
the English-speaking Isshinryu community for literally
Seisan no Kata
Meaning 13, some people refer to it as 13 hands, 13
fists, or 13 steps. Customarily taught in both Shuri
and Naha, this kata, following the tradition of
Chotoku, is the first kata the Isshinryu student
It is unclear exactly what the number 13 actually represents.
Some think it was the number of techniques in the original
kata; some think it represents 13 different types of
"power" or "energy" found in the kata; some think it
represents the number of different application principles;
some think it represents defending against 13 specific
attacks; and some think that it is the number if imaginary
opponents one faces while performing the kata. Out of
all these theories, this author must disagree with the
last, as it is highly unrealistic that kata teaches
one to handle such situations. On the contrary, kata
was designed to teach the principles needed to survive
more common self-defense situations, rather than a long,
drawn out battle against several opponents (Iwai, 1992).
Kinjo Akio, noted Okinawan karate researcher and teacher
who has traveled to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan well
over 100 times for training and researching the roots
of Okinawan martial arts, maintains that this kata originally
had 13 techniques, but due to a long process of evolution,
more techniques were added to it (Kinjo, 1999). He also
maintains that the Okinawan Seisan kata derives from
Yong Chun White Crane boxing from Fujian Province in
It is unsure who brought this kata to Okinawa, but we
do know that in 1867, Aragaki Seisho (1840-1920), a
master of the Chinese-based fighting traditions (Toudi)
demonstrated this kata (among others) in front of the
last Sappushi, Zhao Xin (Tomoyori, 1992; McCarthy, 1995,
The main lineages that include Seisan include those
passed down from Matsumura Sokon, Kyan Chotoku, Aragaki
Seisho, Higaonna Kanryo, Uechi Kanbun, and Nakaima Norisato,
among others. Shimabuku learned this kata from Kyan.
Both the Kyan and the Shimabuku versions of this kata
strongly resemble the Matsumura no Seisan (see Sakagami,
The "Master Seishan" theory, which claims that the kata
was brought from China to Okinawa by a Chinese martial
artist named Seishan (or Seisan) is uncorroborated myth
at best, probably propagated by well-meaning, but not-so-well-researched
American Isshinryu instructors. This legend cannot be
found in any of the literature coming out of Okinawa
This kata seems to have been brought to Okinawa by
Higaonna Kanryo, who is said to have learned it
under the master Ruru Ko, or perhaps under Wai Xinxian,
who is said to have taught at the old Kojo dojo at Fuzhou
City in Fujian Province. Recent research has indicated
that Ruru Ko was actually Xie Zhongxiang, founder of
Whooping Crane boxing, but this kata is not included
within that style, thus hinting that Higaonna had either
learned it elsewhere, or else developed it himself.
However, here we run into a problem, as Nakaima Norisato
(founder of Ryueiryu) is also said to have learned this
kata under Ruru Ko. Another theory is that Miyagi may
have been responsible for creating this form or introducing
it from other sources.
The word Seiunchin is written as "Control, Pull, Fight"
by many Okinawa Goju-ryu stylists, as well as Isshinryu
teacher Uezu Angi (son in law of Shimabuku Tatsuo),
perhaps hinting at the various grappling and grabbing
techniques contained within. A good example is the "reinforced
block" which can actually be applied as a wrist-crushing
joint lock (Tokashiki, 1995), and the "archers block"
which can be used as a throw (Higaonna, 1981; Kai, 1987).
Otsuka Tadahiko, a Gojuryu teacher who has spent considerable
time in China and Taiwan researching the roots of his
system, tells us that his research indicates Seiunchin
may mean "Follow-Move-Power" which would be pronounced
Sui Yun Jin in Mandarin Chinese (Otsuka, 1998). Kinjo
Akio says that his research has revealed to him that
Seiunchin may be from a Hawk style of Chinese boxing,
and mean "Blue-Hawk-Fight" which is pronounced Qing
Ying Zhan in Mandarin, or Chai In Chin in Fujian dialect
This kata is preserved in many modern styles of karatedo,
including Gojuryu, Shitoryu, Isshinryu, Shoreiryu, Kyokushin,
Shimabuku Eizo lineage Shorinryu, Ryueiryu, etc.
Naihanchi no Kata
Naihanchi (a.k.a. Naifuanchi) is typical of in-fighting
techniques, including grappling. There are three kata
in modern (i.e. post 1900) karate, with the second and
third being thought to have been created by
Anko (Iwai, 1992; Kinjo, 1991a; Murakami, 1991).
Another popular theory is that originally the three
were one kata, but were broken up into three separate
parts by Itosu (Aragaki, 2000; Iwai, 1992).
This kata was not originally developed to be used when
fighting against a wall, but this does not preclude
such interpretations. While the kata itself goes side
to side, the applications are more often than not against
an attacker who is in front of you, or grabbing at you
from the sides or behind. Some say that the side-to-side
movement is to build up the necessary balance and physique
for quick footwork and body-shifting (Kinjo, 1991b).
Interestingly, most versions of Naihanchi start to the
right side, including Itosu, Matsumura and Kyan's versions.
Isshinryu's Naihanchi starts to the left. There are
others that start to the left as well, including that
of Kishimoto Soko lineage schools like Genseiryu and
Bugeikan (Shukumine, 1966), the Tomari version of Matsumora
Kosaku lineage schools like Gohakukai (Okinawa Board
of Education, 1995), and Motobu Choki's version (Motobu,
1997). This last may account for Shimabuku Tatsuo beginning
his Naihanchi to the left.
Isshinryu Naihanchi is basically a re-working of the
classical Naihanchi Shodan, in order to keep it in line
with the principles around which Shimabuku built his
style. The main reason Shimabuku did not retain Naihanchi
Nidan and Sandan is probably because his primary teacher
Kyan did not teach them (Okinawa Prefectural Board of
Wansu no Kata
This kata is said by many to have been brought to Okinawa
by the 1683 Sappushi Wang Ji (Jpn. Oshu, 1621-1689).
It is possible that it is based upon or inspired by
techniques that may have been taught by Wang Ji.
The problem with this theory is that why would such
a high ranked government official teach his martial
arts (assuming he even knew any) to the Okinawans? Also,
Wang Ji was only in Okinawa for 6 months (Sakagami,
Wang Ji was originally from Xiuning in Anhui, and was
an official for the Han Lin Yuan, an important government
post (Kinjo, 1999). In order to become an official for
the Han Lin Yuan, one had to be a high level scholar,
and pass several national tests (Kinjo, 1999). Just
preparing for such a task would all but rule out the
practice of martial arts, just time-wise. However, assuming
that Wang Ji was familiar with the martial arts, the
Quanfa of Anhui is classified as Northern boxing, while
the techniques of the Okinawan Wansu kata are clearly
Southern in nature (Kinjo, 1999).
So, if Wansu was not Wang Ji, just who was he? This
is as yet unknown. However, in the Okinawan martial
arts, kata named after their originators are not uncommon.
Some examples include Kusanku, Chatan Yara no Sai, and
Tokumine no Kon. It is entirely possible that this kata
was introduced by a Chinese martial artists named Wang.
As the reader probably already knows, in the Chinese
martial arts, it is common to refer to a teacher as
Shifu (let. Teacher-father). Could not the name Wansu
be an Okinawan mispronunciation of Wang Shifu (Kinjo,
Other schools of thought are that Wu Xianhui (Jpn. Go
Kenki, 1886-1940) or Tang Daiji (Jpn. To Daiki, 1888-1937),
two Chinese martial artists who immigrated to Okinawa
in the early part of the 20th Century, may be responsible
for the introduction of the Wansu kata (Gima, et al,
1986). As a side note, Wu was a Whooping Crane boxer
and Tang was known for his Tiger boxing. They were both
Shimabuku is believed to have added on several techniques
to this kata, such as the side kicks, evasive body movement
into double punches, and elbow smash as these are not
found in any other version of Wansu known in Okinawa
Chinto no Kata
This kata is said to have been taught to Matsumura Sokon
by a Chinese named Chinto, but this legend cannot be
corroborated. According to a 1914 newspaper article
by Funakoshi Gichin (1867-1957, founder of Shotokan
karatedo), based upon the talks of his teacher Asato
Anko (1827-1906), student of Matsumura Sokon):
"Those who received
instruction from a castaway from Annan in Fuzhou, include:
Gusukuma and Kanagusuku (Chinto), Matsumura and Oyadomari
(Chinte), Yamasato (Jiin) and Nakasato (Jitte) all of
Tomari, who learned the kata separately. The reason
being that their teacher was in a hurry to return to
his home country." (sic, Shoto, 1914).
It is believed by this author that the "Matsumura" in
the above excerpt is a misspelling of Matsumora Kosaku,
of Tomari. The fact that Matsumora Kosaku, is evidence
that Matsumora may have also been taught this kata as
well (Kinjo, 1999).
Now, what exactly is Chinto? There appears a form called
Chen Tou in Mandarin Chinese (Jpn. Chinto, lit. Sinking
the Head) in Wu Zho Quan (a.k.a. Ngo Cho Kuen, Five
Ancestors Fist), which was a style popular in the Quanzhou
and Shamen (Amoy) districts of Fujian (Kinjo, 1999).
Chen Tou refers to sinking the boy and protecting the
head. In the Okinawan Chinto kata, this is the first
technique, but in the Five Ancestors Fist it is the
last (Kinjo, 1999). However, this being said, this author
has yet to see the Chen Tou form to make a comparative
analysis. It is, however, worthy of further investigation.
There are 3 distinct "families" of Chinto in modern
Okinawan karate: Matsumura/Itosu lineage (performed
front to back), Matsumora Kosaku lineage (performed
side to side), and Kyan Chotoku lineage (performed on
a 45 degree angle). Looking at technical content, we
can see that the Matsumora and Kyan versions are nearly
identical, which is only natural since Kyan learned
this from Matsumora.
Sanchin no Kata
This kata has been described by many writers as the
original exercise that Bodhidharma taught to the monks
at the Shaolin Temple. However, this theory has no substantive
proof either way, so this actually remains nothing more
At any rate, the Okinawan versions of Sanchin have their
origins in the Quanfa originating from Fujian Province,
where many, if not most, Quanfa styles have a form of
this name. In fact, the term Sanchin (written as "three
battles" in kanji) seems to be found only in Fujian-based
Quanfa systems, as forms of this name are not found
in the martial arts of other areas (Kinjo, 1999).
Many researchers, especially from the Gojuryu tradition,
credit Higashionna Kanryo with bringing back Sanchin
from his studies in China (Higaonna, 1981; Kai, 1987).
However, there is evidence that Sanchin had existed
in Okinawa since before Higashionna's voyage to Fujian
and was passed on by Aragaki Seisho, who was Higashionna's
first teacher (Iwai, 1992; Okinawa Prefectural Board
of Education, 1995).
Higashionna's teacher in Fujian is believed by many
to be Xie Zhong Xiang, founder of Whooping Crane boxing
(McCarthy, 1995; Okinawa Prefectural Board of Education,
1995; Otsuka, 1998; Tokashiki, 1995), although there
is opposition to this theory (Kinjo, 1999). Higashionna
is believed to have learned the Happoren form from Xie,
which is said to be the basis for the modern Gojuryu
version of Sanchin (Otsuka, 1998). Higashionna probably
integrated concepts from Happoren to the Sanchin he
learned under Aragaki. When practicing Happoren alone,
however, the breathing is silent (Otsuka, 1998).
In either case, Higashionna had his students spend several
years on Sanchin alone before allowing them to move
on to the other kata he taught. Higashionna apparently
taught Sanchin as an open hand kata at first, with fast
breathing, but later changed it to a slower, closed
fist version (Higaonna, 1981; Murakami, 1991). Others
give Miyagi Chojun credit for closing the fists and
slowing down the breathing (Kinjo, 1999).
One provocative account survives about the importance
of Sanchin in Higashionna Kanryo's teachings:
"When I was still a child, I wanted to see the
karate of the famous Higashionna Sensei, even if only
once. So I went to the place he was teaching. However,
no matter when I went, I never saw Higashionna Sensei
perform karate. His students were practicing only Sanchin
with all their might, and Higashionna Sensei was instructing
them." (sic, Murakami, 1991, pp. 133)
The three of Sanchin is often described in English as
the battles between mind, body and breath. Other descriptions
refer to attack and defense on the three levels, i.e.
the upper, middle and lower levels (Kinjo, 1999; Otsuka,
1998; Tokashiki, 1995). The three important points of
Sanchin have been described as the stance, the breathing
method and the spirit, and if any one of these three
are lacking, one will not be able to master Sanchin
Higashionna Kanryo's Sanchin features two turns, and
only one step back. In order to remedy the lack of backward
Miyagi Chojun created a shorter version of the kata,
featuring no turns, and two steps backwards (Higaonna,
1981). It is this version that Shimabuku Tatsuo utilized
in his Isshinryu system.
Kusanku no Kata
Often described in Isshinryu as a "night fighting kata,"
this form was passed down from Kyan Chotoku to Shimabuku
Tatsuo. Interestingly enough, no references to night
fighting are found in the primary references coming
out of Japan and Okinawa, leading this author to conclude
that such interpretations were contrived to fit movements
that are not very well understood.
In the year 1762, a tribute ship sent to Satsuma from
Ryukyu was blown off course during a storm, and ended
up landing at Tosa Province in Shikoku, where they remained
for a month. The Confucian scholar of Tosa, Tobe Ryoen
1713-1795), was petitioned to collect testimony from
the crew. The record of this testimony is known as the
Oshima Hikki (literally "Note of Oshima", the name of
the area of Tosa where the ship had ran aground). In
this book, there is some very provocative testimony
by a certain Shionja Peichin, describing a man from
China called Koshankin, who demonstrated a grappling
technique (McCarthy, 1995; Sakagami, 1978).
It is commonly accepted that this Koshankin was the
originator of the Okinawan Kusanku kata, or at least
inspired it. However, there are several unknowns in
this equation. First of all, was Koshankin his name
or a title, or even a term of affection towards him?
Second, if it was a title or term of affection, what
was his real name? Thirdly, what martial art(s) did
he teach, and how do they differ from the modern karate
kata of Kusanku? Most of these questions are still being
researched by this author and others.
For now, suffice it to say that Kusanku is a highly
important kata in the Okinawan martial arts, and has
spawned many versions over the years. Some of them include
the Kusanku Dai/Sho Itosu Anko lineage styles, the Chibana
no Kusanku of Shudokan, the Takemura no Kusanku of Bugeikan
and Genseiryu, the Kanku Dai/Sho of Shotokan, the Shiho
Kusanku of Shitoryu, and the Yara no Kusanku of Kyan
Chotoku lineage styles, including Isshinryu. Of course,
there are numerous others as well.
Kyan Chotoku is said to have learned Kusanku in Yomitan
under a certain Yara Peichin (Nagamine, 1975; 1976).
It is unknown at this time whether there is a familial
relationship between this Yara Peichin and the Chatan
Yara who is believed to have studied under Koshankin
during his mid-18th century visit to Okinawa.
Sunsu no Kata
This kata was created by
Tatsuo, although it is still unclear as to exactly
when he created it. It is often described as a combination
of techniques and principles from the other seven Isshinryu
karate kata. However, there are elements of other kata
as well, such as Useishi (Gojushiho) and Passai that
Shimabuku is thought to have learned under Kyan.
There is also one sequence that appears as if it came
out of Pinan Sandan. However, Shimabuku's teachers appear
not to have taught the Pinan kata, so we are faced with
the problem of where he learned them. However, looking
at the timeframe in which Shimabuku was active, it becomes
clear that he could have learned the Pinan just
about anywhere, or even just taken the technique via
observing the Pinan kata being performed.
There seems to be some confusion as to what the name
Sunsu means. It has been stated that it means either
"strong man" (Uezu, et al, 1982) or "son of old man"
(Advincula, 1998). However, a recent newspaper article
from Okinawa tells us a different story:
"It is said that when Shimabuku performed Sanchin
kata, he appeared so solid that even a great wave would
not budge him, like the large salt rocks at the beach,
and his students nicknamed him "Shimabuku Sun nu Su"
(Master of the Salt) out of respect." (sic, Ryukyu Shinpo-sha,
Another possibility is that Sunsu may be named after
a family dance of the Shimabuku family (Advincula, 1999).
No matter what the meaning, it is safe to say that Sunsu
kata represents the culmination of Shimabuku's understanding
of the principles of the defensive traditions, and was,
along with Isshinryu, his unique contribution to the
classical art of Okinawa karatedo.
The Kata of Okinawa Isshinryu Karatedo
The Lineage of Isshinryu Kata
Sokon - Kyan Chotoku - Shimabuku Tatsuo
Kanryo(?) - Miyagi Chojun - Shimabuku Tatsuo
Sokon - Kyan Chotoku - Shimabuku Tatsuo
Matsumora Kosaku - Motobu Choki - Shimabuku
- Kyan Chotoku - Shimabuku Tatsuo
Kosaku - Kyan Chotoku - Shimabuku Tatsuo
Kanryo - Miyagi Chojun - Shimabuku Tatsuo
- Kyan Chotoku - Shimabuku Tatsuo
Table Three: Alternative Kanji for Kata as Specified
in the Text
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the Author - Joe
Swift is a professional translator, martial artist and
karate researcher based in Tokyo, Japan.