The kata of okinawan Isshinryu

An Informal Discussion on their Possible Origins

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 karatedo by Okinawan researchers.

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 decades.

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 Kyan Chotoku, is the first kata the Isshinryu student learns.

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 Southern China.

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, 1999).

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, 1978).

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 or Japan.

Seiunchin no Kata

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 Gojuryu 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 (Kinjo, 1999).

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 Itosu 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 Education, 1995).

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, 1978).

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, 1999)?

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 from Fujian.

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 karate.

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 than speculation.

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 (Higaonna, 1981).

Higashionna Kanryo’s Sanchin features two turns, and only one step back. In order to remedy the lack of backward stepping, 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 demostrated 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 Shimabuku 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, 1999, p.9)

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.

Table One: The Kata of Okinawa Isshinryu Karatedo

Table Two: The Lineage of Isshinryu Kata


SEISANMatsumura Sokon – Kyan Chotoku – Shimabuku Tatsuo
SEIUNCHINHigashionna Kanryo(?) – Miyagi Chojun – Shimabuku Tatsuo
NAIHANCHIMatsumura Sokon – Kyan Chotoku – Shimabuku Tatsuo
Matsumora Kosaku – Motobu Choki – Shimabuku Tatsuo
WANSUMaeda Peichin – Kyan Chotoku – Shimabuku Tatsuo
CHINTOMatsumora Kosaku – Kyan Chotoku – Shimabuku Tatsuo
SANCHINHigashionna Kanryo – Miyagi Chojun – Shimabuku Tatsuo
KUSANKUYara Peichin – Kyan Chotoku – Shimabuku Tatsuo
SUNSUCreated by Shimabuku Tatsuo

 Table Three: Alternative Kanji for Kata as Specified in the Text


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About the Author – Joe Swift is a professional translator, martial artist and karate researcher based in Kanazawa, Japan.

c 2000, Joe Swift, Kanazawa, Japan


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