Hawaii Karate Seinenkai

The following article appeared in the premier issue of Martial Arts Illustrated. Photographs have been omitted. Copyright © Charles C. Goodin. All rights reserved.


Kata: The Living History of
Matsubayashi-Ryu Karate

By Charles C. Goodin

Imagine for a moment that you are a karate historian. If you traveled to Okinawa, the birthplace of karate, where would you begin your research? Aside from Matsumura Sokon's "Seven Virtues of Bu" (written May 13, 1882), Itosu Anko's "Ten Lessons of To-te" (written October, 1908), and the collective writings known as Bubishi (which are actually Chinese in origin), there is a scarcity of substantial early literature on the art. Given the secretive nature of training prior to this century, it is not surprising that teachers were reluctant to reduce their techniques and strategies to writing. And we can only wonder how many priceless documents and photographs were either destroyed during the war or lost by the mere passage of time.

Fortunately, the history of the Matsubayashi-ryu form of karate has been preserved in a living form: kata. A noted karate historian in his own right, the late Nagamine Shoshin (Fig. 1) (1907-1997), hanshi, 10th dan, adopted the name Matsubayashi-ryu in July of 1947. As he describes in his classic The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do (Tuttle, 1976), the name was selected to honor Matsumura Sokon (1809-96) of Shuri-te, and Matsumora Kosaku (1829-98) of Tomari-te. Through his own teachers, Nagamine Sensei is in the third generation from these renown karate pioneers. The forthcoming English translation of Nagamine Sensei's Tales of Okinawa's Great Masters (also from Tuttle), sheds further light on his teachers and the exquisite kata he inherited from them.

The Fundamental Kata

To begin, eighteen kata are practiced in the Matsubayashi-ryu system:

  1. fukyugata ichi
  2. fukyugata ni
  3. pinan shodan
  4. pinan nidan
  5. pinan sandan
  6. pinan yondan
  7. pinan godan
  8. naihanchi shodan
  9. naihanchi nidan
  10. naihanchi sandan
  11. ananku
  12. wankan (or okan)
  13. rohai
  14. wanshu
  15. passai
  16. gojushiho
  17. chinto
  18. kusanku

These kata were derived from the Shuri-te, Tomari-te, and Naha-te traditions.

Nagamine Sensei began his karate training in 1923 at the age of 17. By that time, karate had become part of the secondary school curriculum in Okinawa. The five pinan kata created by Itosu Anko (1831-1915) were already widely practiced. Prior to their development, most beginners in Shuri-te and Tomari-te learned the three naihanchi kata, which owe their name to the naihanchi (straddle-leg) stance in which most of the movements in the series are performed. Determining that the naihanchi kata were not quite suitable for secondary school youngsters, Itosu formulated the pinan kata as an alternative. Most karateka will readily agree that the pinan kata were derived from more advanced kata, particularly kusanku. Nagamine Sensei's first notable teachers were Shimabuku Taro and Arakaki Ankichi (1899-1929), both of whom were well-known students of Kyan Chotoku (1870-1945). In addition, Arakaki Sensei had studied under Gusukuma Shinpan (1890-1954) in primary school, Hanashiro Chomo (1869-1945) in junior high school, and Chibana Choshin (1885-1969, founder of Kobayashi-ryu) after he left school. Kyan, Gusukuma, Hanashiro, and Chibana Sensei were all students of Itosu Anko, among others. As such, they were all intimately familiar with the pinan kata as well as the advanced kata from which they were derived.

While still in high school, Nagamine Sensei had the opportunity to train under Iha Kodatsu (1873-1928), one of the three leading disciples of Matsumora Kosaku. At the time, Nagamine Sensei was the captain of his high school's karate club. In preparation for a karate demonstration in Naha, the club had to train every evening with Iha Sensei. From Iha, Nagamine Sensei learned the following Tomari-te kata: passai, chinto, wankan, rohai, and wanshu.

Matsumora Kosaku studied under two teachers. From the first, Uku Giko (1800-50), he learned the Tomari-te naihanchi kata (there are three kata in the series). After three years with Giko, he was referred to Teruya Kishin (1804-64), from whom he learned passai and wanshu.

After training with Shimabuku and Arakaki, Nagamine went on to train with Kyan Chotoku himself when he was assigned to the Kadena Police Station. By that time, Nagamine had already learned Kyan's favorite kata (passai, chinto, and kusanku) from Shimabuku and Arakaki. During his several years with Kyan, Nagamine greatly deepened his understanding of these and other kata.

The kata kusanku has a long history. It was taught to Sakugawa To-te (1782-1862) in 1761 by a Chinese martial artist named "Kusanku." Sakugawa was the teacher of Matsumura Sokon. The form of the kata practiced in Matsubayashi-ryu, however, was taught to Kyan Chotoku by Yara Chatan, a contemporary of Matsumura. Kyan taught the kata to Arakaki, who taught it to Shimabuku, who in turn taught it to Nagamine. Because of this derivation, the kata is sometimes referred to as "Yara no Kusanku"). Nagamine opened his first dojo, called the Tomari Ken Yu Kai (Tomari Fist Group Association) in Naha, in May of 1942. Kyan Sensei, despite his advanced age, traveled from Yomitan village for the opening ceremony of the dojo and performed the kata passai, as well as a bo kata.

In 1936, Nagamine Sensei was sent for a six month assignment to study at the Metropolitan Police Department in Tokyo. There he had the opportunity to study under the renown kumite (sparring) expert Motobu Choki (1871-1944). The younger brother of Motobu Choyu of the Motobu-ryu tradition, Motobu Choki was not afforded the opportunity to study the family's art. Instead, he practiced on his own, developing great strength and striking power by the use of chishi, makiwara, and other training aids. During the evenings, he could often be found testing his fighting abilities in Naha's red-light district called the Tsuji. Despite his reputation as a self-taught fighter, Motobu eventually sought and received kata instruction from Matsumora Kosaku and others.

After his much publicized bout against a foreign boxer in Kyoto in 1921, Motobu developed a following of students. In contrast to the relatively fixed style of karate being taught in Tokyo by Funakoshi Gichin, Motobu stressed practical applications with tai sabaki (body movement) and ashi sabaki (stepping and sliding).

Nagamine Sensei recalls that kata was also diligently practiced in Motobu Sensei's dojo. As a result of Motobu's instruction, Nagamine adopted a higher rear hand position when blocking and striking. In some styles, the rear hand is held just above the hip. In Matsubayashi-ryu, it is chambered near the nipple to better protect the ribs. Also as a result of Motobu's influence, Nagamine developed seven yakusoku kumite forms. Photographs of the forms, which continue to be practiced in Matsubayashi-ryu, are presented in The Essence of Karate-Do (as are all the 18 kata of the system).

The "New" Basic Kata

As mentioned earlier, prior to the creation of the pinan kata in 1907, beginning students in both the Shuri and Tomari traditions were usually taught the naihanchi kata. Designed for high school students, many of whom may not have had any prior karate training, the pinan kata proved to be fairly difficult. Given their source (advanced kata such as kusanku), this might have been expected. Even today, they are considered to be intermediate, rather than basic, kata.

In 1940, the Governor of Okinawa, Gen Hayakawa, organized a special committee on Okinawan karate- do. One of the committee's acts was to authorize two new formal basic kata to help propagate the art. These came to be known as fukyugata ichi and fukyugata ni, and were created by Nagamine Shoshin and Miyagi Chojun (1888-1953), respectively. Miyagi had recommended Nagamine for his renshi grade. Fukyugata ichi was a truly new kata, being created in its entirely by Nagamine Sensei. Fukyugata ni, in contrast, was based on a pre-existing gekisai kata practiced in Goju-ryu. Miyagi Chojun, the founder of Goju-ryu and the most well-known student of Higaonna Kanryo (1853-1915) of the Naha-te tradition, simplified the movements of gekisai for the new basic kata. The ending of the new kata (tomoe-zuki- circlular blocks and punches in zenkutsu dachi), in particular, differs from the older version (tomoe shotei-ate-circlular palm-heel smash in neko-ashi dachi). In some Goju-ryu schools today, the two fukyugata kata are known as gekisai dai ichi and gekisai dai ni.

The word fukyugata means "basic kata." Fukyugata ichi in particular, features very basic movements: only two stances (zenkutsu dachi and shizen dachi); three strikes (chudan-zuki, gyaku-zuki, and jodan-zuki); and two blocks (gedan uke and jodan uke). There are no kicks in the kata. The kata covers all eight directions and, true to the Shuri-te and Tomari-te traditions, begins and ends in the same spot (referred to as "positional coincidence"). Despite its basic nature, fukyugata ichi is one of the most cherished kata by Matsubayashi-ryu students.

In 1980, over 1,500 Okinawan school children gathered to perform fukyugata ichi and ni before the Emperor of Japan. Nagamine Sensei was present at the historic event. In the weeks prior to the performance, teachers from many systems had gathered at Nagamine's Naha dojo to practice the two kata under his watchful eye. In various forms, the kata are now practiced in several styles. Matsubayashi-ryu is firmly founded on the 18 kata practiced in the system. The formal testing requirements for shodan (black belt) require the performance of the two fukyugata kata, the five pinan kata, and the kata ananku-only eight kata in all! Nagamine Sensei has always frowned on the practice of learning a great number of kata quickly, reasoning that it is far better to thoroughly master just a few. Even within Matsubayashi-ryu, there is a modern tendency to equate one's level with the number of kata one knows. The author has heard of many kyu-level students (even children) learning advanced kata such as passai, gojushiho, chinto, and kusanku. At one seminar, he even heard the saying "one kyu level, three kata." The old adage "one kata, three years," better represents the philosophy of Matsubayashi-ryu. In addition, fairly standardized bunkai (applications) are practiced for each kata. These, along with the yakusoku kumite forms and jiyu kumite practice, give the student a better understanding of the myriad of ways each movement may be used.

Properly performed, the kata of Matsubayashi-ryu are explosive, dynamic, frighteningly powerful, and lightning fast. These words were not chosen lightly. The art combines cat-like agility with bull-like striking power. Such ability does not come easily or quickly, but by dedicated, long-term repetition of the basics and kata, and a thoughtful inquiry into the deeper meanings of each movement.

Until his death in 1997, Nagamine Shoshin was truly one of Okinawa's leading karate founders and historians. He had preserved the living legacy of Shuri-te and Tomari-te, and the memories of the great teachers who created and passed on the traditions, in the 18 kata of Matsubayashi-ryu. Early this summer, the English translation of his Tales of Okinawa's Great Masters will further illuminate the rich history of the art.

In the following photographs, Master Nagamine Takayoshi, hanshi, 9th dan, performs the fukyugata ichi kata created by his father almost 60 years ago. This is believed to be the first time the kata appears in any journal. Officially recognized as the successor to Nagamine Shoshin in 1991, Nagamine Takayoshi is well-known for his exceptional kata and kumite abilities. He is also fluent in English and has greatly extended the reach of the art in North America and overseas. Combining modern technology (he personally supervised the development of the art's internet site) with an abiding respect for the past, Nagamine Takayoshi is dedicated to preserving Matsubayashi-ryu and leading its global practitioners into the next millennium.


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Copyright © Charles C. Goodin. All rights reserved.

Hawaii Karate Seinenkai