It has often been said that the Heian/Pinan Kata were the creation of Anko Itosu (1832 – 1916). The most common source of this idea is the writings of Gichin Funakoshi, one of Itosu’s students, who said that “Itosu had a natural genius for Karate-Do. It is said that he created the five Heian Kata.” (Karate-Do Nyumon). However Gichin Funakoshi only reports this as a rumour rather than fact. Itosu’s greatest strength, according to Funakoshi, was actually his practice of the Tekki/Naihanchi forms.

Fortunately we do not merely have the anecdotal asides of Funakoshi to rely upon in our search for the origins of the Heian/Pinan Kata. In fact there is strong evidence that Itosu was not the originator of the five stage form. It is possible to question Itosu as their creator through a study of the prevalence of the Heian/Pinan kata in styles not descended from his students. Taking the excellent study of Okinawan Karate by Mark Bishop as a guide we can see that the form is studied in the following styles: Chubu Shorin Ryu, Matsubayashi Ryu, Shorin Ryu (Shaolin) and Ryukyu Shorin Ryu. These Styles are descended from Chotoku Kyan (1870 – 1945), not Anko Itosu. This would suggest that the originator of the set is a teacher common to them both; Sokon Matsumura (c1809 – 1901). It is still possible though that Itosu created the forms and that Kyan, as a contemporary, would have been exposed to them and decided to use them as a teaching method for his own students. It is certainly not unusual for martial artists to borrow ideas and methods from their peers. This might seem to balance the arguments against Itosu, so perhaps we should examine the problem from another angle; the careers and teachers of both men.

Anko Itosu, a well educated member of the gentry class, had a career as a scribe and practiced martial arts as a secondary occupation (taking up the teaching of karate as a full time occupation only for the last fifteen years of his life). Itosu apparently began his study of Karate under Matsumura, but was disliked by his teacher for his slowness and thus left to study under Nagahama (whom Gichin Funakoshi believed had studied under Wai Shin Zan). Nagahama apparently only taught karate as a means of physical exercise and body building, a fact he confessed to Itosu on his death bed, urging his pupil to return to his former teacher, Matsumura, for further instruction. According to Gichin Funakoshi, Itosu’s methods of practice more closely related to a teacher called Gusukuma who had been taught by a shipwrecked sailor from Fuchou. Itosu’s ‘main’ teacher, Sokon Matsumura, worked as a bodyguard from 1827 to three successive Okinawan Kings(Sho Ko (1804-1834), Sho Iku (1835-1847) and Sho Tai (1848 – 1879). Matsumura is known to have been a good scholar and had ability sufficient to become an official in the Ryukyuan government. Matsumura’s teacher on Okinawa was ‘Tode’ (China Hand) Sakugawa, of whom we have little information other than his name, social status (gentry) and martial ability (few sources can agree on the dates of his life, but he was certainly active in the second half of the eighteenth century). Sokon Matsumura is known to have twice visited Fuchou and Satsuma as an envoy and while at Fuchou he is said to have studied under two military attaches, Ason and Iwah. It is said that he went to Peking and trained at the Shan P’u Ying (Camp of Skilful Fighters), entirely possible if he travelled to the city as a member of an Okinawan delegation. There is no recorded evidence to my knowledge of Itosu having travelled as widely as Matsumura during the course of his life even though he is known to have had more than one teacher. Matsumura’s occupation (throughout his life he was a professional warrior) and direct experience of contemporary Chinese fighting methods (Matsumura seems to have gained his experience through professional martial arts teachers and military envoys whereas Itosu’s teachers other than Matsumura seem to have been individuals with only amateur knowledge), make it far more likely that he and not Itosu, was the father of the Heian/Pinan Kata. Attribution of these to Itosu is based on the hearsay of two of his students (Gichin Funakoshi and Choshin Chibana) rather than any solid evidence. It is more likely that Itosu made slight modifications to the form when he introduced it to elementary education in 1901, and this innovation has been confused with invention.

I have heard it said many times that the Heian/Pinan Kata is derived from the Kata Kushanku (Kanku-Dai). It is true that as a whole, the two have movements in common, but only a martial artist with a very superficial knowledge of both Kata could believe that the Heian/Pinan set is based upon Kushanku. The simple process of analysing the techniques in both forms is enough to establish that they are in fact very different. For a clearer picture look at the excellent technique Morote Uchi Uke (assisted inside receiver), it is one of the most common techniques in Heian/Pinan after Gedan Barai (down sweep) and Shuto Uke (knife hand receiver), occurring nine times. It does not appear at all in Kushanku. The Heian/Pinan set uses Age Uke (upward receiver) five times, it is also conspicuous by its absence in Kushanku. There are other techniques unique to Heian/Pinan that do not appear in Kushanku and visa versa. This of course does not prove that Heian/Pinan was not derived from Kushanku, what it does tell us is that it certainly had another source in addition to Kushanku for its techniques. The next logical step is to turn the argument on its head and examine Kushanku. This Kata has entire sequences that are found in Heian/Pinan, but then it also contains complete sequences that are found in Passai/Bassai Dai. Suddenly it seems more likely that it is Kushanku/Kanku Dai that is the derivative Kata, formed from the bones of Heian/Pinan and Passai/Bassai Dai. Heian/Pinan is closest to the source, not Kushanku.

The root of the Heian/Pinan form has been attributed to a (now lost) Chinese form known as Chiang Nan. Chozo Nakama (a second generation student of Anko Itosu) believed that the Heian/Pinan form was a remodelled version of Chiang Nan and that Itosu had learnt this from a Chinese who lived on Okinawa, changing the name to make it easier to pronounce. I would not dispute that Itosu simplified elements of the form, but it is possible to form a simple chronological argument against his being the originator. If Heian/Pinan is merely a staggered form of Chiang Nan, a Chinese Kata, with no other influences, then Kushanku/Kanku Dai is a combination of elements of Chiang Nan and Passai/Bassai Dai (along with other influences). We know that Kushanku is believed to have been engineered by a Chinese known as Kusanku (also Kushanku or Koso Kun) who visited Okinawa in 1756 as part of the retinue of the Chinese envoy. This suggests that Chiang Nan must predate 1756, its age making it more likely that this Kata was initially studied and revised by Sokon Matsumura rather than Anko Itosu (though it was Itosu who changed the name). It certainly seems unlikely that the wider travelled and more experienced Sokon Matsumura did not know the Chiang Nan form.

The question of who formed the Heian/Pinan Kata remains a multi layered puzzle. How do we define the formation of a Kata? It is likely that Itosu, probably not a speaker of Chinese given his difficulties with pronunciation (unlike Matsumura who as an envoy to China we would expect to have been a competent speaker), changed the name from Chiang Nan. It is also likely that he made alterations to simplify certain techniques and make them safer for practice (such as the use of the corkscrew punch) – a process that was continued to even greater extremes by another Karateka with a strong interest in physical education; Nakayama of the Shotokan. But do these changes really make a new Kata? Very few people would claim that Tekki Shodan is really a different Kata to Naihanchi Shodan. The introduction of the form to the physical education syllabus by Itosu does not necessarily mean that it was he who divided the single form into five teaching segments, something that could also have been done by his mentor Matsumura. One or two techniques may have been changed or repeated as the form was split (such as the three sequential punches, three sequential Age Uke (upward receiver) techniques, three sequential arm bars and three sequential Morote Uchi Uke (assisted inside receiver) and the last four techniques of Heian/Pinan Shodan and Nidan are most likely additions to smooth the end of the form (taking a common line that mimics earlier elements of the form and being very different in nature to the endings of Sandan, Yondan and Godan). It is up to the individual practitioner to decide whether these changes really constitute the creation of a new form. I suspect that of those reading this article the belief that the form is something truly different in its present incarnation will be in inverse proportion to the length of time they have spent actually studying (as opposed to practising) Karate.

What we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty is that the root form from which the Heian/Pinan Kata are derived is at least two hundred and fifty years old (since it predates Kushanku), and that the present segmented version of the form is at least one hundred and five years old.

So perhaps at the end of this article you are no wiser, but you are better informed.

March 2005

john titchen

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