Thursday, 1 April 2010

Pinan katas and Itosu's legacy to karate

The Pinan kata series (Pinan means ‘peaceful mind’ or ‘peaceful spirit’) are widely taught to students in a variety of shurite karate styles, generally as beginner’s katas. They are attributed to Itosu Yasutsune (1830-1915) who is said to have adapted them from older kata. However from which kata is less than certain.

Itosu introduced karate into Okinawan schools, systematised it and simplified older kata to make them easier for children to learn. Some sources suggest that Itosu developed the pinan katas from the katas kusanku dai and Gojushiho. Other sources suggest that Itosu learnt a kata called Channan (Chiang Nan) from a Chinese man living in Okinawa and developed the pinan katas from this.

The Channan kata no longer exists although I did manage to find this YouTube video of a kata called Channan which is a combination of pinan nidan and pinan shodan:

Since the kata in this clip does not contain all the pinan katas it is hard to say whether it preceeds the pinan katas or has been invented as a way of linking two pinan kata together.

The Kusanku dai kata seems a more likely precursor to the pinan series. If you watch this video you can pick out several combinations found in the pinan katas:

Itosu simplified the katas by changing many of the more lethal strikes into straight forward punches. He felt it too dangerous to teach the applications of the kata to school children and so taught karate as a form of physical exercise and means of self-discipline. He also re-labelled many movements to disguise their true meaning and dissociate them from their applications. So the use of the word ‘block’ was used to disguise the more lethal strikes, grabs and locks that these movements in the kata really represent.

Without Itosu’s modifications to the katas, and later, Funakoshi’s continuation of the process in Japan, such that karate gained wide acceptance in the Okinawan and Japanese schools programme, karate may not have found its way to the rest of the world. Indeed it may even have died out altogether. However the downside of this watering down of the kata is that the understanding and appreciation of what kata are really about has been lost amongst many karate clubs and systems.

Many of the pinan kata’s movements are often misinterpreted in the study of bunkai with many applications wrongly interpreted as ‘block and punch’ combinations. A skilled bunkai practitioner will see that the pinan katas are in fact a rich source of strikes, locks, grabs, sweeps, throws and ground techniques.

When Funakoshi took karate to Japan in the early 20th century he renamed the pinan katas to Heian katas. They are still known by this name in Shotokan karate. Funakoshi also inverted the names of two of the katas so pinan nidan became heian shodan and pinan shodan became heian nidan.

In Shukokai karate we teach pinan nidan first as it is considered easier for beginners to learn. Here are the five katas:

Pinan nidan:

Pinan shodan:

Pinan sandan:

Pinan yondan:

Pinan godan:

My favourite pinan kata is pinan shodan, followed by pinan yondan. Do you have a favourite pinan?

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Anonymous said...

Good explanation on why and how karate lost its combat-orientation and hence much of its effectiveness and in effect turned into a martial sport rather than a martial art. Should be nice to know you’re basically performing techniques designed for children… That’s the problem when martial arts become too popular: they tend to water down technically and realism & requirements tend to decline to make it suitable for mass-consumption (not in the least promoted by Hollywood). With the whole MMA-craze they’re trying to do the same to ju-jutsu: now they’ve come up with what they call the ‘ju-jutsu fighting system’, basically it’s a competition system with a longe range (punching & kicking), short range (throwing) and a ground range. In essence this means ju-jutsu gets stripped from all its dangerous & effective techniques (those elements that make it work for real) and degenerates into a hybrid of sports karate & judo. A bad evolution if you ask me since a) the competition variant has so many restrictions and rules it won’t likely be effective outside the format (it’s much softer than MMA with no direct strikes to the face allowed, no grappling & striking, no full-contact) and b) there’s an inverse commensurate relationship between self-defense & sports application meaning (in general) the better you become at the sports aspect the more your self-defense skills will suffer since you’re basically conditioning yourself not to use certain techniques and rely on those techniques that are specifically designed to be used against an opponent of similar size & weight (unlikely in a real confrontation). Any system that doesn’t teach striking to the face and defense against this sort of technique is not a true martial art in my view: I’ve heard of a sandan in judo who got his ass handed to him by a 16 year old punk just because he wasn’t conditioned to strike before attempting any type of grappling, I imagine this fighting system wouldn’t fare much better.

That guy who performed the channan kata urgently needs to lose some weight, how can you claim to be a martial artist when you’re that overweight? Just dance around him a little and he’ll be out of breath in no-time. Even advanced age isn’t an excuse for being fat: I don’t know what his training regimen looks like but sweat and a lean physique is something that generally accompanies any serious activity and proper exercise has been known to be the best way to burn fat and lose weight. Unless he has some kind of medical problem of course, then it would be another matter entirely.


Sue C said...

Hi Zara, You are right to suggest that some of the more combat effective techniques of karate have been removed from the pinan katas and the bunkai for these kata can be difficult to deduce. However, I was only referring to the pinan katas which are considered by most to be 'beginners katas'. Some of the more advanced katas remain 'unabridged'. However, it still requires your instructor to be skilled in bunkai interpretation and sadly a lot of karate clubs don't have this. This is particularly true in clubs that are very sport focused.

As for sport karate (or any other martial art) I personally don't have a problem with people who are only concerned with practising their art as a sport. It's not for me but I can appreciate people needing an outlet for the skills they are practising - as long as they realise the skills needed in sport are not combat effective in a real situation.

Not many people will actually use the skills they learn in a real situation so the level of training needed to maintain those skills can often seem disproportionate to the level of risk one faces in real life and motivtion wains.

Others use teaching or writing about martial arts as a long term outlet to maintain motivation - others prefer competition. Each to their own!

That channan kata video? I'm afraid it was the only one I could find to illustrate my point!

Prof. Guilherme Fauque said...

Oh, you change your blog! It's very beatiful!!!! And I like the videos!


Now I will read - lol.

Sue C said...

Glad you like the new look. I've wanted 3 columns for ages!:-)

Stephen Irwin said...

Hi Sue,

Funnily enough my favourites are pinan shodan and yodan too :)



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