A Historical Walking Tour of Seisan Kata
Not all styles of karate possess a version of Seisan…but enough do to warrant a rather ubiquitious reputation, causing some practitioners to refer to it as the “universal” karate form. A bold nickname, but perhaps a well deserved one. Styles that have Seisan include: Goju Ryu, Shorin Ryu, Uechi Ryu, Shito Ryu, Okinawa Kenpo, Ryukyu Kempo, Ryute, Ryuei Ryu, Wado Ryu, Shotokan, Chito Ryu, Koryu Uchinadi, Seibukan, Seidokan…you get the idea. This kata is well traveled.
When different versions of Seisan are viewed in close succession they clearly exhibit unique stylistic quirks, yet preserve common aspects of some original pattern or set of concepts. That being the case, this “walking tour” article intends to do two different things:
- Establish a few bits of historical info that provide insight into the possible origins of the kata.
- View different styles of Seisan so as to observe and appreciate how each ryu has grown the form over time and made it “their own”.
Let’s get started!
The Historical Tidbits You Need to Know
Seisan, like many aspects of Okinawan Karate, can trace it’s roots back to China. Also, like many aspects of Okinawan Karate, the details are murky at best.
It is evident that the many varieties of Seisan originating from Okinawa do NOT stem from a single, central practitioner. In fact, it appears that multiple individuals went to China at various times and brought back bits, pieces, and versions which conjealed and fractured over time.
One of the big defining points in karate’s history was after the fateful invasion of the Satsuma Samurai in 1609. It was then that records and stories began to take shape in meaningful ways. Throughout the 1800s the Meiji Restoration was taking hold and karate on Okinawa was developing into three nebulous, sometimes interweaving prongs: Shuri Te, Naha Te, and Tomari Te.
Two foundational versions of Seisan were imported/created at this time, one predominantly via Shuri Te and the other Naha Te. Both Shuri and Naha had strong roots in Chinese Chuanfa, especially from the Fuzhou Region (the Okinawans had a settlement in Fuzhou and Kume Village was a fairly direct historical connection). From that launch point we can analyze the backgrounds of both foundational forms, starting with the trickier one.
The Shuri Te variety of Seisan is very difficult to pin down lineage-wise. To see what I mean, read the following two quotes, both from respected researchers:
“Noted senior Okinawan karate authority Hiroshi Kinjo (b. 1919) states that there is no evidence of a Seisan kata being passed down in the “Shuri” lineages of Sokon Matsumura and Anko Itosu, and that the familiar “Shuri” lineage Seisan versions such as the Hangetsu of Shotokan and the Seisan of Kyan lineage systems, should be referred to as Tomari Seisan. His reasoning is that the so-called Oshiro Seisan as presented in the 1930 “Kenpo Gaisetsu” by Nisaburo Miki and Mizuho Takada was actually passed down from Kosaku Matsumora to Kodatsu Iha to Kinjo’s own teacher Chojo Oshiro of Yamaneryu Bojutsu fame.” – Joe Swift on Fighting Arts
“Then there is the kata Seisan. It was a kata taught by Soken Matsumura. If Itosu’s primary karate teacher had been Matsumura, surely he would also have taught this kata. But he did not. An explanation for the absence of Seisan can be found in the existing Tomari te (Tumaidi) traditions. For example, the continuing Tomari traditions as were passed down through the Oyadomari brothers of Tomari, as well as those of the Matsumora ha Tumaidi (Tomari te) as passed down to Tokashiki Iken, also lack the kata Seisan, as does the tode passed on by Itosu. Seisan was not a Tomari kata.” – Tom Ross on Fighting Arts
Ahh buh? Well someone had to have it, the darn thing is all over the place!
Despite common belief, Matsumura was not the only teacher of Itosu Ankoh. Itosu was also heavily influenced by two Tomari gentleman named Tomari Gusukuma and Matsumora Kosaku, as well as one Naha based individual named Nagahama who was an expert at body conditioning. Therefore, either of the quoted suppositions above could be true. Itosu could have never learned the form from Matsumura because Matsumura didn’t have a chance to teach him and/or Matsumura didn’t know it, OR Itosu may never have learned the form from Gusukuma/Matsumora because they didn’t utilize it. Furthermore Itosu may have actually learned the form from either branch but forgot it or chose to pass it on selectively.
Noted researcher Patrick McCarthy seems to believe that Seisan existed in both lineages:
“Arguably, the martial art-like traditions in an around the old castle capitol of Shuri predate those elsewhere on the island. As such, the Shuri-based version of Seisan is believed to be the oldest. While several, if not many, other proficient Bujin are known to have resided in the Shuri district prior to the time of Matsumura Sokon [1809-1898], he is regarded as the father of its karate movement; hence, Matsumura Seisan “is” the oldest version.”
“Kinjo Sensei sometimes refers to Seisan as Jusanpo (i.e 13 steps/ways). This Tomari version was taught to him by his teacher, Grandmaster Oshiro Chojo. It originally came from Oyadomari Koken by way of Iha Kotatsu who passed it onto Oshiro. Kinjo sensei believes the Tomari version of seisan may be the “cross-over” Okinawan representation from old Chinese quanfa (i.e. possibly the version from Aragaki or Kume).” – Patrick McCarthy, also pg. 73 of “Classical Kata of Okinawan Karate”
Many other resources seem to reinforce the idea that Matsumura was responsible for a variety of Seisan, some of which are:
- “Okinawa Island of Karate”, George Alexander, pg.100
- “Unante”, John Sells, pg. 258
- “Katas of Shorin ryu Seibukan”, Kim Mitrunen & Tommi Prami
It is stated that Matsumura Nabe, grandson of Matsumura Soken, learned and passed along Seisan to Hohan Soken. Unfortunately, the history and circumstances surrounding Nabe are difficult to verify. Kyan Chotoku is also often cited as learning his Seisan from Matsumura or one of his disciples (Sources: Graham Noble, Bill Hayes, others). Some individuals have suggested that Matsumora Kosaku is responsible for Kyan’s Seisan, but it’s known that Kyan added Tomari flair to a few of his pre-existing forms so the case may be made that the end product of Kyan’s form was based in Shuri and flavored in Tomari.
You’d think such a popular form would have a simpler history, but such is never the case with Okinawan Karate. Let’s move on to a blissfully easier topic: Naha Te Seisan.
As mentioned earlier, both Shuri Te and Naha Te had strong Chinese roots, but Shuri Te was more apt to changing and “Okinawan-izing” things. Both branches did it, but Naha seemed a little more inclined to preserve Chinese elements.
Two men, Aragaki Seisho and Higaonna Kanryo, are the forefathers of what is considered “mainstream” Naha Te (mostly thanks to the titanic efforts of their disciple Miyagi Chojun). These men both travelled to China and definitely secured a version of Seisan there. In addition, Nakaima Kenri and Sakiyama Kitoku made travels as well (at one point traveling together) and brought back versions. Let’s also not forget Uechi Kanbun who was an avid student and preserver of Chuanfa. Each important individual constituted a separate spawning point under the Naha umbrella.
The final unmentioned “branch” of Seisan development is that of Funakoshi Gichin. In his writings Funakoshi explained that Itosu Ankoh and Itosu Azato were his primary teachers. Nevertheless, he also had extensive contact with Aragaki Seisho/Higaonna Kanryo of Naha Te and Iha Kotatsu of Tomari Te during his time as a teacher in Tomari (Source: Patrick McCarthy). As such his version of Seisan, which would become Hangetsu, took on a life of it’s own as he developed it for the Japanese masses.
One thing most researchers agree upon is that the movements for Seisan, in all of it’s original variations, were likely imported from Fuzhou, China. Specifically, it seems likely that it was part of the training regiment of the White Crane families who resided there (MORE specifically, Kinjo Akio suggests that it derives from the Yong Chun White Crane branch). Over time Seisan has grown on Okinawa while fading in China to the point where a direct mirror form can no longer be found in Chinese styles. The variations found on Okinawa contain pieces of the original concepts, stylistically emphasizing different ideas and growing in ways that agree with the overall construct of each Okinawan method.
That all being said, I think it’s time to view some kata! Let’s pay attention to the differences and similarities between each style, keeping in mind their roots in Naha and/or Shuri as well as their shared history reaching back into Fuzhou.
The Walking Tour (Right This Way!)
There are two samples of Goju Ryu below. The first is from Yamaguchi Goshi, student of Yamaguchi Gogen (The Cat). The form has distinct Goju characteristics and highly emphasizes rooting and breathing technique. As a Naha Te form you’ll notice an above average usage of open hand vs fist, although both striking methods make an appearance. The second video features well known practitioner Morio Higaonna, student of Ei’ichi Miyazato.
Kanazawa Hirokazu aptly performs the Shotokan variation known as Hangetsu. You’ll notice similar tension in some spots with increasing pace in later sections. This changing dynamic hints at the multiple influences on Funakoshi as he developed the form. You’ll also notice big wide stances and arm/leg movements which became signatures of Shotokan as it developed.
Founder of Wado Ryu, Hironori Ohtsuka, was a direct student of Funakoshi Gichin and an important Shotokan practitioner. It should be no surprise that the Wado Ryu variety of Seishan (aka Hangetsu aka Seisan) closely relates to the Shotokan version. Tatsuo Suzuki Sensei demonstrates.
Tang Soo Do
One thing we haven’t mentioned yet is the expansion of karate outside of Okinawa and Japan. The Korean art of Tang Soo Do traces much of it’s lineage to Shotokan Karate. We see here Nathaniel Verbeke perform a Tang Soo Do version of Seisan which shares many of the same qualities as the two previous videos. you’ll notice a little high kicking sneak in; Tang Soo Do is Korean after all.
Isshin Ryu traces it’s Seisan through Tatsuo Shimabukuro, a student of Chotoku Kyan and other Shuri influences. As such, this is the first form on the tour that could be considered predominantly “Shuri Te”. It is important to note that the practitioner in the following video, Angi Uezu Sensei, executes the kata while incorporating specific Isshin Ryu concepts like the vertical punch. Despite this being Shuri instead of Naha, the embusen remains similar especially in the opening three strike sequence and the turns to the side and back. One trademark of Kyan flavored Seisan is an “Ananku” like sequence toward the end.
Kyan Shorin Ryu
The next clip comes to us via one of Kyan Chotoku’s direct students: Shimabukuro Eizo. You’ll notice slightly higher stances and less emphasis on the hard breathing than in Goju and Shotokan versions. While the footage is quite old and seen at a distance, you’ll still be able to notice the rigorous pacing and application of body movement.
Don’t be fooled, we are still in Kyan country. In fact the father of our next performer is often considered the individual with the most personal time spent under Kyan. Watch as Shimabukuro Zenpo, son of Zenryo, demonstrates the acceleration, snap, and percussive power of Kyan style Seisan. Although the very end appears slightly different, you’ll still notice the twisting technique to finish the final opponent.
For the next video we go back to Naha Te, but not in the standard Goju way. In fact, the next performer was not heavily influenced by the popular Aragaki/Higaonna/Miyagi chain and instead traces his roots to Nakaima Kenri. Sakamoto Tsuguo became well known for his Annan form, but he performs a skillful Seisan as well. Despite the Naha nature of Ryuei Ryu and it’s close connection to China, you’ll notice Sakamoto Sensei emphasizing the speed and acceleration of the form not unlike Kyan style. You’ll also notice he shares the high stances utilized by Kyan and Tomari styles.
Tomari Seisan / Okinawa Kenpo
This next one offers an interesting dilemma. We can surmise from historical context that there probably was a Tomari Seisan at one point and it may have been influenced by Aragaki Seisho, Matsumora Kosaku, and Iha Kotatsu. However, there is a Tomari Seisan floating around in modern culture that is completely unrelated to these men.
Tomari Seisan as it can be found today traces back to Ryukyu Kempo, a style named by Oyata Seiyu. Interestingly, Oyata received his Seisan from Nakamura Shigeru, the same man who taught Odo Seikichi of Okinawa Kenpo. Not so coincidently, the “Tomari Seisan” of Ryukyu Kempo and “Seisan” of Okinawa Kenpo are identical. The snag is that Nakamura Shigeru’s Seisan came from Kuniyoshi Shinkichi. Kuniyoshi was one of the primary students of Sakiyama Kitoku, the travel mate of Nakaima Kenri (Ryuei Ryu) and one of the individuals who brought Seisan concepts back to Okinawa. Sakiyama is largely grouped into the Naha vein of things, and Kuniyoshi lived in Nago village. As such, Okinawa Kenpo’s Seisan has virtually nothing to do with Tomari, and thus Ryukyu Kempo’s Seisan also has little to do with Tomari. It might be argued that both Nakamura Shigeru and Oyata Seiyu had Tomari influence in their arts, which is true (Nakamura with Motobu Choki and Oyata with earlier experiences before Okinawa Kenpo). But as we have seen many instructors were influenced by Tomari, some much more than Nakamura and Oyata (namely Kyan), and thus we would be teeming with Tomari Seisans if everyone affected by Tomari was labelled as such. Furthermore, the Okinawa Kenpo Seisan is well documented to have come from Kuniyoshi and is preserved in form by both Okinawa Kenpo and Ryukyu Kempo. Possible differences in bunkai alone would not warrant such a geographical name change.
As of this writing I have not uncovered the explanation for this matter.
View below Oyata Seiyu Sensei demonstrating Tomari Seisan (located at 2:43 in video) and Odo Seikichi Sensei performing Seisan:
Last but certainly not least is Uechi Ryu. Uechi Kanbun spent significant time in China and developed an art which preserved Chinese elements more than most. In the following video Uechi Kanei, son of Kanbun, demonstrates his version of Seisan. Notably, Uechi Ryu was originally taught with just three kata: Sanchin, Seisan, and Sanseirui. You’ll notice similarities to other versions of Seisan in the beginnings of Kanei’s pattern, but pretty soon significant differences emerge. The most unique aspects come in the form of persistent open hand usage and lengthy additional concepts toward the middle and end of the form.
That Wraps It Up
I hope you enjoyed this stroll through one of the most frequently practiced kata of our time. When viewed back to back it becomes easier to see some of the common threads. Seisan’s opening sequence has some interesting differences between Naha and Shuri but follows a very consistent structure. Various karate styles have taken the form and used it to express the functional concepts of their system. On one hand the growth of the form over time has moved it away from it’s roots; on the other hand the kata has grown into a distinctly effective Okinawan method.
I imagine if you do this form it is probably subtly different than many of the examples of above. Let those subtleties inform your training and give you ideas about the breadth and possibility of Seisan!