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Standardization of Kata/Kihon

Today I was reading Shorin Ryu Seibukan Kyan's Karate (Coal Mountain Productions, 2014) by Zenpo Shimabukuro and Dan Smith, an excellent book.  I came across the following on page 27 (bottom):

"One of Kyan sensei's greatest contributions to Okinawan karate was that he kept the kata that he learned from these great masters without changing the basic movements for the purpose of standardization.  Many Okinawan teachers learned the pattern of the kata from different teachers and then standardized those kata to their own kihon.  Learning the pattern of the kata and then changing the kihon is one of the key reasons for there being so many variations of kata today."
This is one of the truest statements I have ever read about Karate.

I practiced Matsubayashi-Ryu for about 20 years.  Our second kata is Fukyugata Ni.  We learned that Shoshin Nagamine, the founder of Matsubayashi-Ryu, developed Fukyugata Ichi and that Chojun Miyagi, the founder of the Goju-Ryu form of Karate, developed Fukyugata Ni.  This was in 1940 or 1941.  See: The 1940 Karate-Do Special Committee: The Fukyugata "Promotional" Kata, by Charles C. Goodin (me).

Several years ago I got to see my friend, a Goju-Ryu instructor, perform their Gekkisai Dai Ichi kata (I believe), which is what we call Fukyugata Ni.  Anyway, I was surprised by how much his kata differed from mine -- both in form and meaning.

So... was I doing my Fukyugata Ni wrong or was he doing his Gekkisai wrong?   Since Chojun Miyagi developed the kata, and my friend was a senior instructor or Goju-Ryu, I had to conclude that his version was the original or closer to the original.

Upon closer examination, I realized that our Fukyugata Ni was essentially the pattern of his Gekkisai, but with his basic movements replaced by ours.  In other words, it appeared that we were performing the pattern of Gekki Sai with Matsubayashi-Ryu basics (kihon).  And at that, we were replacing the Goju-Ryu basics with post public school Karate (about 1900) basics.  Fukyugata Ni was a good example of a kata from one style being changed by standardization, just as Shimabukuro and Smith described.

From time to time, I have taught students from other styles one of the kata we practice in Kishaba Juku.  Almost inevitably, they perform our kata their way.  They perform the pattern of our kata using their basics.  Of course, the most important thing is to learn our basics, not just the pattern.  The pattern is just a convenient tool.  The basics -- the form, dynamics and applications of the movements -- are what really count.

If I learned someone else's kata, I would want to learn to move like they do.  Why should I learn their kata and still move my way?  That would be a waste of time.  I have too many kata anyway!

Later in the book, Shimabukuro and Smith write (on page 28):

Kyan's kata was thought to be "Inaka Di" or primitive, country methods.  The reason for the look of his kata was Kyan had kept the techniques as they were taught by his father, Sokon Matsumura and his other teachers."
I have also heard a Karate instructor's kata referred to "Inaka", "country", or "village", usually as a veiled insult.  Actually, the old way, the pre-standardization way, was the advanced way.  Now, I am extremely impressed when I have the rare privilege to see anyone who can perform basics or kata in the old way.

Zenpo Shimabukuro's father, Zenryo Shimabukuro, learned from Chotoku Kyan.  So did Shoshin Nagamine.  Some of the kata of Seibukan and Matsubayashi-Ryu have very similar patterns, but different basics.  Karate students of all styles might question the extent to which their own kata were modified by standardization.  [It does not help that just about everyone claims that their form of movement is the original!]

From with my interaction with senior Karate experts over the years, I firmly believe that the Karate masters of old were not using the standardized basics that we largely see today.  The key to understanding kata is the rediscovery of the old ways of moving.

And just doing or learning an "old" or "ancient" kata is not much help -- if that kata has already been changed by the standardization process.  Who knows if the Kusanku kata performed in many styles is done the same way that Mr. Kusanku originally taught it?


Charles C. Goodin