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Early Standardization -- Two Forms of Karate

When did formal standardization of Karate happen in Okinawa?  Arguably, the most important event was the introduction of Karate to the public school curriculum around 1900 (or so) primarily by Anko Itosu.  School students had to learn a simpler form or Karate -- something that could be learned in just a few years at school.  For this, Itosu developed the five Pinan kata (one for each year).  Whatever the kata (plural) that Itosu may have used to formulate the Pinan may have been, it is pretty clear that the Pinan kata share a uniform set of basics -- each kata does not represent a different style or teacher's influence.  They are the same basics done to five different patterns (kata).

Itosu and his senior students taught the kata in the school.  At this point, there were two forms of Karate -- the original one and the new standardized one.  Itosu and his students knew both, but the public school students only knew the new standardized form.

For someone like Itosu (or his senior students), learning the simpler kata and basics must have been really easy.  They probably could have done so in a weekend or two.  Compare this to the Naihanchi kata, Passai, Chinto, etc.  These kata could be practiced for years and years, and the student would still be just scratching the surface.

Do you think that Itosu and his students practiced the Pinan?  I don't think so.  I'll bet that they did those kata only enough to remember how to teach them to the school students.  Back at their home dojo (or whatever place that might have been), they only practiced the old way because that was the only effective and useful form of Karate.  The new standardized form was just for kids.

I remember reading somewhere that Yabu Sensei used to say that if your know the Pinan kata and the Kusanku kata, you should just practice the Kusanku kata.  Makes sense!  The Kusanku kata -- the original form -- was not modified by the standardization process.  When you practiced Kusanku, you were practicing undiluted Karate, rich with meanings.

I am sure where I am going with this.

Flash forward a few decades.  Generations of Karate students were raised on the new standardized form only and never had the opportunity to learn the old way.  Given enough time, the new standardized way became the only way, and eventually was considered to be the "old way."  If an 80 year old instructor practiced a form of Karate for his or her whole life, that form will seem like the "old" way, even if it was in fact the new standardized form of Karate back in 1900.

And when such a student practiced the Kusanku or other "old" kata, they were done the new standardized way.  They were essentially just the pattern of the old kata with the new basics replacing the old varied and variable techniques.

And that 80 year old would swear the he or she was practicing the kata exactly as he or she learned them -- thus they were the old, original forms!  In this, he or she would be correct -- they were the original forms that he or she learned.

We have to remember that a person who is 80 years old today, was only 24 in 1960.

Oh my goodness!  It seems hopeless!

But the first step to recovery of the old form is the recognition of the problem.  I do not expect you to believe me.  I certainly did not come to this opinion overnight -- it was one of those things that gnawed at me for years and years.  As I grew older and became more and more dissatisfied with the new standardized form of Karate, I began to recognize and appreciate the traces of the old form of Karate that I was lucky enough to see in some elder Karate experts.

One thing.  When it comes to age, I am only 58 -- still a Karate child.  My friend, Sensei James Miyaji tells his students that 50 years of Karate training is a good start.  I still have years to go to just have a good start!

More to come.


Respectfully,

Charles C. Goodin