There are some kata that really seem to get around: Naihanchi, Sanchin, Kusanku…Seisan for sure. But among the popular kata list Passai holds a special place as there is no form more obfuscated and difficult to trace. Its name and techniques have been jumbled around, remixed, smooshed back together, and randomized for reasons that will never be entirely apparent.
If you aren’t sure what I mean, check out this list of commonly practiced versions of Passai (and be ready to experience brain anger):
Matsumora Passai, Oyadomari Passai, Itosu Passai, Funakoshi Passai, Kyan Passai, Motobu Passai, Chibana Passai Dai, Chibana Passai Sho, Koryu Passai, Tawada no Passai, Ishimine no Passai, Tomari Passai, Shimpaku Passai, Ishiro Passai, Teruya Passai, Anzato Passai, Oshiro Passai, Bassai Dai, Bassai Sho, Tomari no Bassai, Gusukuma no Passai, Passai Guwa, Passai Gwa1
Believe it our not we are going to make sense out of this mess today. A lot of these uniquely named versions of Passai are very close derivations of each other. In fact, there are only a few core versions of the kata. With this article you will be able to see which lineage your version hails from and which other styles practice the same way you do.
Let’s get started!
The Basics – What’s in a Name?
When talking about Passai there are three different standard names you will encounter: Passai, Bassai, and Patsai. The latter version, Patsai, is really just a spelling variant of the more common Passai. When you see a “B”, as in Bassai, it usually means you have encountered a Japanese version of the kata. This change was made via Funakoshi when he first brought karate north to Japan (and the change has stuck). For the purposes of this article, we will be using Passai for the Okinawan versions and Bassai for the Japanese versions.
As for the meaning of the name, little consensus has been made by researchers. The most popular interpretation often revolves around a fortress (“storming the fortress”, “extracting from the fortress”, “penetrating the fortress”, etc.) This translation has seen widespread acceptance mostly due to its ability to aid the imagination in exploring the kata’s background and function. Historians have been less than convinced that the fortress angle is the only possible explanation for the name:
“The name itself, Kinjo holds, actually means “Leopard-Lion,” which would be pronounced “Baoshi” in Mandarin, “Baassai” in Fuzhou dialect and “Pausai” in Quanzhou dialect (Kinjo, 1999).
Other theories as to the original meaning of the name Passai include “eight fortresses” (Bishop, 1999). Noted Okinawan karate historian Tetsuhiro Hokama has even hypothesized that it might represent a personal name (Hokama, 1999). “2
Funakoshi Gichin clearly favored the fortress explanation. When changing the title to Bassai he made the connection more explicit:
“Bassai Dai literally means ‘to extract and block off’ but this is taken to mean ‘to storm (penetrate) a fortress’. Bassai dai is one of the variations of the Passai Kata that is practiced in Shotokan Karate, normally starting at 3rd Kyu. Shotokan houses two Bassai Kata, Dai and Sho. Dai means greater while Sho means lesser or minor. Bassai Dai is often mistranslated, The first part of the name (batsu) means to extract or remove, not to penetrate. The name to Penetrate a fortress seems to be more clearly descriptive of the attitude a student should have when practicing the Kata so for my money it is an adequate translation, if not correct 100%.”3
The trademark “leap or shuffle in” at the beginning of the kata lends to the story of penetrating defenses. Also, some historically minded folks enjoy the possibility that this kata could have been used by Shuri Castle guards to defend the king. These ideas are neither confirmed nor denied; they are just part of the rich tapestry of the form’s past.
Origins of Passai
Passai has experienced numerous permutations throughout the generations, becoming more Okinawan and more Japanese as it has split and developed. However, when looking into its history and observing its methods a Chinese influence can clearly be seen.
Even from the earliest days of Matsumura Sokon and Teruya Kishin there has never been a single source for Passai. Its deepest stories suggest that the kata was developed as a result of Okinawans traveling to Fuzhou region in China and/or interacting with Chinese fighters already on Okinawa (think Annan). Here’s a little more on the Chinese connection:
“Akio Kinjo, a respected researcher, believes that the movements of the kata also resemble the leopard boxing of China. The Leopard style uses a lot of blocking and striking while standing in a cross leg stance, for instance. He also points out that the Lion boxing style is well represented, as it holds a great deal of openhanded techniques while using a stomping action.
Among the Chinese origin theorists, some also say that this style represents the Wuxing Quan style of Kung fu, or the five element fist style, and others suggest that much like other mainstream kata, Passai was part of the Crane boxing that heavily influenced Okinawan Karate. This may seem to be a very logical conclusion as most of the Katas come from the Fukien Crane style and are forms or adaptations of forms from this style. However the Fujian white crane style influenced many Chinese styles as well as many Okinawan instructors.”4
The older the version of Passai, the more Chinese connections make sense. Unfortunately we may never know the exact lineage of Passai as it is not specifically practiced in modern China.
One very important note about Okinawan culture and the proliferation of Passai: sometimes a general practice or exercise routine became widespread on the island (for example, a certain embusen or way of using the hands). If these “village patterns” looked similar to a more popular kata the practitioners might have been inclined to adopt the name of the popular kata. Therefore, some versions of Passai may have grown simply because a few practitioners were practicing Passai-like forms and needed a name for them.
The Four Passai Groups – Shuri, Tomari, Japanese, and Nakamura
Now for the main event – viewing and understanding the history of Passai! Thanks to the rise of Youtube and generous sharing by martial artists around the world we have an unprecedented ability to observe different methods of Passai and connect them together in a fine web.
We start our journey by establishing the four main development points for the kata. These four categories can be used to organize not only the methods of kata execution but also their shared lineage. Check ’em out:
* Tomari Passai – Of the three main branches of Okinawan Karate (Shuri-te, Naha-te, Tomari-te) Tomari is the least well known and preserved. A lot of Tomari history is speculation and Tomari kata are often named after the fishing village as more of an homage than an actual well-preserved connection. That being said, Passai is one of the most widespread forms with Tomari influence. The key individuals to the kata’s dissemination were Matsumora Kosaku and Oyadomari Kokan who passed down their knowledge to men like Kyan Chotoku and Motobu Choki.
* Shuri Passai – Shuri is the most important Passai grouping to understand. As with most things in Shuri karate, the timeline truly kicks off with the efforts of Matsumura Sokon Bushi. Matsumura established a Passai Dai and Passai Sho from some collection of influences in China as well as the sailor Annan (perhaps). Matsumura spawned multiple lines of Passai practice including those from Itosu (leading to Chibana Chosin), Ishimine, Tawada, and Matsumura Nabe (leading to Hohan Soken). The Itosu line is also critical for the birth of the Japanese Bassai category.
* Japanese Bassai – Japan’s Bassai was predominantly born of Itosu’s Shuri Passai. Funakoshi Gichin and Mabuni Kenwa were responsible for the widespread dissemination of Bassai Sho and Dai. That being said, Chitose Tsuyoshi, Hayashi Teruo, and Kunibo Shogo all brought Tomari influenced versions of Passai into Japan.
* Nakamura Passai – This is the smallest branch of Passai and is mostly an offshoot of Tomari. The execution of Nakamura Passai is unique and its history is somewhat obscured. More detail will be provided later.
(psssst – want a cheat sheet while looking at different versions of Passai? click here and follow along).
Exploring Tomari Passai
Teruya Kishin (1804-1864) is considered an important patriarch for all Tomari-based karate. He was a pivotal instructor to both Matsumora Kosaku (1829-1889) and Oyadomari Kokan (1827-1905). It was through these two men that known Tomari Passai elements developed. It should also be noted that both Matsumora and Oyadomari could have received training directly from Matsumura Sokon of Shuri fame, so an intermingling of Tomari and Shuri branches is possible (which could also help explain the similar embusen and concepts)5.
Oyadomari no Passai
Oyadomari no Passai was passed down to a handful of Tomari practitioners, including Kyan Chotoku (who’s own version we will observe later). Thanks to the efforts of Hiroshi Kinjo we have a preserved version of Oyadomari no Passai:
This Passai has the trademark aggressive “shuffle in” gambit at the beginning. However, one of the noteworthy Tomari flavors is the slow movement of the left foot out into cat stance at the very beginning of the kata.It also features an opening salutation of the right closed fist resting in the open left hand. Also take note of the slow rising, kusanku-like, hands occurring early in the kata.
Closely related to Oyadomari no Passai is Kyan’s Passai (known simply as Passai). Kyan Chotoku had many teachers but attributed most of his Passai knowledge to Oyadomari. This was passed down to his senior students, including Shimabukuro Zenryo who gave it to his son Zenpo. Here we have Zenpo Sensei’s performance:
You’ll notice the same trademarks as before – salutation, left leg opening movement, and slow rising kusanku-like hands. The execution of the form beyond that is nearly identical.
Tomari Passai (Nagamine’s Passai)
One of the most notable differences in this version is the addition of open hand thrusting techniques on the front 45o angles. Despite that, the performance is still quite similar to Oyadomari.
Coincidentally, this is the form learned by Hayashi Teruo and Kuniba Shogo and brought to Japan as we will see later (click here to skip ahead and see the connection).
Matsumora Kosaku was one of the most important Tomari practitioners in Okinawa history and perhaps the most famous. One of his claims to fame is taking on the rambunctious Motobu Choki as a student. Motobu had multiple teachers but attributed his Passai to Matsumora7. Motobu in turn taught multiple individuals including Nakama Chozo who passed the form on to Shimabukuro Zenpo:
It should be noted that this kata contains the opening left leg movement and salutation similar to Oyadomari, but conducts a sweeping downward motion as opposed to the normal augmented style attack. The form, while different than previous versions, does still contain the same basic format. We can tell this kata is a departure from Oyadomari but shares history with it.
Exploring Shuri Passai
Whenever discussing karate it’s tough to avoid the impact of Matsumura Sokon. “The Bushi” got around and is attributed with infusing Chinese elements with Okinawan Te and maybe even integrating some Japanese bushido / kenjutsu ideas in the process. His impact on Passai is no less significant and the versions we will see here stem mostly from his efforts.
Passai Sho and Passai Dai (Matsumura Seito)
The easiest place to begin is with Matsumura Seito. Matsumura Sokon passed on his two Passai forms to Matsamura Nabe who in turn gave them to Soken Hohan8. This line of Passai is said to be one of the purest directly back to Matsumura with little change (although other versions make that claim also, such as Tawada no Passai). These two forms share concepts with one another but are noticeably distinct in execution. First let’s observe Passai Sho:
You’ll notice this is not terribly different than some of the Tomari forms. The opening is quite similar and the Seito version also possesses the three double punches toward the end.
The Matsumura Seito Passai Dai introduces us to the element where one hand is raised by the head while the other strikes in Shuto Uchi (knife hand). In Matsumura Seito this is done quickly, while in later Passai Dai derivations we will see this as a slower, almost lever-like motion. Passai Dai as seen here shares a similar ending with Kyan’s Passai.
Another version that claims close connection to Matsumura is Tawada no Passai. Tawada Shinzaku was said to be a direct student of Matsumura and preserved this form without significant alteration. Here we see Higa Yuchoku Sensei performing the kata just a year before his passing:
It will be important to note the similarities between this performance and some of the upcoming Itosu versions via Chibana Choshin and the Japanese versions of Bassai.
Ishimine no Passai
Ishimine Peichin is another direct disciple of Matsumura, and one of the senior-most to boot. Born in 1826, he was elder to all previously mentioned disciples (although not necessarily preferred over them). Ishimine’s Passai bears a striking resemblance to Tawada no Passai and the upcoming Passai Dai of Itosu Anko:
You’ll notice toward the end a sequence similar to Tawada – the foot slap, followed by hand stacking, followed by triple striking, ended by two middle blocks and two scans out to the left and right.
Passai Sho and Dai (Itosu and Chibana)
One of the most important sets of Passai Sho and Dai is the pair established by Itosu Anko. Itosu was a senior student of Matsumura Sokon but also a big time mover and shaker in the martial arts world. He co-mingled with individuals of every style and spearheaded the transition of karate as a secret backyard art into one integrated in both Japanese and Okinawan school systems. Because of Itosu’s penchant for innovation, and also his desire to see”sanitized” kata fit into the school systems, we start to see some changes here from other versions of Passai. We will focus on Itosu’s impact on Okinawa first and then jump to the Japanese versions in a moment.
Chibana Sensei is one of the most important practitioners for the spread of Passai, but he also helped to make it confusing. I’ll allow noted researcher Joe Swift to explain:
“Itosu Anko taught versions of Passai in his physical education version of “toudi” and these were designated as Dai and Sho. Chibana Choshin was a direct student of Itosu, and also taught a Passai Dai and Sho. However, these are different. What seems to have happened, is that Chibana had learned a third version of Passai from his relative Bushi Tawada, who was a direct student of Matsumura Sokon. According to direct Chibana student Murakami Katsumi, when Chibana showed this version (sometimes called the Tawada-ha Matsumura no Passai) to Itosu, Itosu had told him that he had never seen anyone perform that particular kata as well as Chibana, and that he should preserve it.
So what had happened, is that Chibana kept this Passai and called it Passai Dai, and relagated Itosu’s Passai Dai to the position of Passai Sho. This left the “other” Passai Sho in limbo…
The “other Passai Sho” is none other than the so-called “Koryu Passai” or “Passai Gwa” that is practiced in some Chibana lineage sects of Shorin. I think that Miyahira had learned this particular version from Gusukuma Shinpan (another direct Itosu student) and this is where the Gusukuma lineage came into being in that tradition.”9
So to clarify – the Tawada no Passai we discussed earlier came down to Chibana. He titled that kata Passai Dai. He then moved the Passai Dai of Itosu up to Passai Sho, kicking Itosu’s Passai Sho off the cliff until it was recovered and renamed Koryu Passai.
Get it? Watch Passai Sho (Itosu’s Passai Dai):
Since this kata was originally Itosu’s Passai Dai and Chibana Sensei renamed it Passai Sho it is sometimes simply referred to as Itosu Passai.
Chibana Chosin’s Passai Dai (aka Tawada no Passai, aka Matsumura no Passai)
Chibana Sensei received the Tawada no Passai kata and integrated it into his art, calling it Passai Dai. Since this one was from Tawada and is said to have experienced little change from Matsumura it is sometimes referred to as Matsumura Passai:
If you’d like you can go rewatch Tawada no Passai quickly. You’ll find that it matches up with this form quite nicely.
After integrating Tawada no Passai into his curriculum as Passai Dai and moving Itosu’s Passai Dai into the Passai Sho position, that meant Itosu’s Passai Sho was left out. During the recovery process this kata has adopted multiple names but can be understood most easily as Koryu Passai. The key is understanding that this kata is Itosu’s Passai Sho and was carried on as Bassai Sho in Japan:
Exploring Japanese Bassai
When it came time to spread karate to Japan, Itosu Anko relied heavily upon Funakoshi Gichin, a well-educated school teacher who not only trained hard but was a skilled orator and writer as well. In addition, Japan had become home to one of the great kata minds in recorded history – Mabuni Kenwa. Funakoshi and Mabuni were both direct students of Itosu and intermingled with each other as they established Shotokan and Shito Ryu on the main island.
Itosu’s Passai Sho and Dai traveled with Funakoshi to Japan and became Bassai Sho and Dai. Unlike Chibana Chosin, Funakoshi opted to keep the “Dai” and “Sho” monickers inline with how Itosu used them. Mabuni followed suit.
Shotokan’s Bassai Sho (aka Itosu’s Passai Sho)
As part of the new “school karate” being integrated into Japanese colleges, Itosu and Funakoshi scrubbed out some of the more subtle Chinese elements and replaced them with powerful ballistic methods and deep stances for body development. These changes are evident in Bassai Sho as the execution is quite similar to Chibana’s Koryu Passai but with that distinctive Shotokan intensity:
You’ll notice the opening sequence closely resembles that of Matsumura Seito’s Passai Dai, although Shotokan uses it in more of a slow lever capacity. The resemblance starts to lose focus after that until the ending scans. The connection to Koryu Passai is unmistakable.
Shotokan’s Bassai Dai (Itosu’s Passai Dai)
Shotokan’s Bassai Dai also exhibits trademark deep stances and linear techniques. However, it is clear after viewing that this is the same kata as taught by Chibana Chosin under the name Passai Sho. This makes sense after understanding the changes Chibana made in order to integrate Tawada no Passai. Here is Bassai Dai:
Interestingly, this kata also shares some sequences with Kyan’s Passai of Tomari lineage. We see again the web of connection as each Passai relates to one another, sometimes closely, sometimes only as conceptual cousins.
Shito Ryu’s Bassai Sho (aka Itosu’s Passai Sho)
Here we see a performance of Bassai Sho handed down through Mabuni Kenwa to Hayashi Teruo. The performance clearly stems from the same Itosu version as the Shotokan version:
Shito Ryu’s Bassai Dai (aka Itosu’s Passai Dai)
Continuing the trend, we see the same connections with Shito Ryu’s Bassai Dai back to Itosu’s Passai Dai. The performance is quite similar to Shotokan and some of the Tomari versions.
This is an interesting one. It seems that some Shito Ryu practitioners (namely Hayashi Teruo and Kuniba Shogo) spent time with Nagamine Shoshin, eventually learning his Tomari Passai and bringing it back to Japan with them10. Tomari no Bassai follows the Nagamine model, made most obvious by the added empty hand striking to the 45o angles near the beginning of the kata:
Bassai (Chito Ryu)
Chitose Tsuyoshi was one of the original Okinawans who helped bring karate into Japan. Unlike Shotokan, his style did not receive quite as much renovation (or popularity). Chitose’s Bassai comes directly from the methods of Kyan’s Passai. You’ll notice a distinct similarity to the performance by Shimabukuro Zenpo above. Here is Chito Ryu’s Bassai:
Exploring Nakamura Passai
The Nakamura line of Passai is referred to as such because it is difficult to trace the kata deeper than Nakamura himself. Nakamura Shigeru (1894-1969) had multiple teachers throughout his life including Hanashiro Chomo, Motobu Choki, Kuniyoshi Shinkichi, Motobu Choyu, and others. He had his hands in both Shuri and Tomari methods, acquiring his Passai from one (or both) of those villages.
The interesting thing about Nakamura’s Passai is that it shares sequences and methods with the other Passai versions we’ve seen, yet is distinctly different. In form it most resembles the Passai of Kyan Chotoku, but not nearly enough to call it a derivative of Kyan’s work.
Before continuing to investigate possible origins of the kata, let’s take a look at it. Here is Oyata Seiyu performing Passai, followed by the author performing it from the Odo Seikichi lineage. The closeness in pattern between Nakamura’s students (in this case Oyata and Odo) helps us trace this particular version of Passai back to Nakamura himself.
Now let’s explore some of the possible sources for the kata.
* Hanashiro Chomo – Hanashiro Sensei was a senior student of Itosu and a well respected practitioner all across the island. Inevitably Hanashiro came into contact with Itosu’s Passai and could have potentially passed it on to Nakamura11. The problem here is in the performance. The methods of Nakamura’s Passai seem to relate much more closely to Tomari and Hanashiro was not particularly connected to Tomari methods. Furthermore, the slow, soft, scanning movements are not indicative of Shuri flavor.
* Kuniyoshi Shinkichi – Nakamura’s early karate experience was in the Okinawa school system, but you might say he got his PHD in karate from Kuniyoshi Shinkichi. Kuniyoshi was a well respected practitioner from Nago who was known to have strong Chinese and Tomari elements in his karate. Unfortunately, it’s fairly well documented that Nakamura got Seisan and Niseishi from Kuniyoshi, but not Passai12.
* Motobu Choki – Motobu Choki was close friends with Nakamura Shigeru’s uncle Teiichi. Nakamura was only 10 years old when his father died, so his uncle played an important role in his upbringing. Motobu was said to have helped introduce Nakamura to karate, especially through the practice of Naihanchi kata. Motobu Choki would be a good choice for a potential source for Passai, but there are a few wrenches in that theory. First of all, Passai is a fairly advanced kata and Motobu was in contact with Nakamura early on in his life. Later in life Motobu spent a fair amount of time in Japan, moving there in 1921. This means that Nakamura could have had access to him into his 20s but not much further on. The other potential problem is that we have a preserved version of Motobu’s Passai in Passai Guwa and it does not particularly resemble the Passai of Nakamura.
* Motobu Choyu – Motobu Choyu, keeper of Motobu Udundi (the Palace Hand), is perhaps the most intriguing connection to Nakamura but also the hardest to prove. According to a number of Ryute senior practitioners Oyata Seiyu listed Motobu Choyu as Nakamura’s source for Passai. In addition, it is reported that Choyu had extended contact with Tomari masters:
“From a young age, Choyu sensei was taught Motobu udundi by his father. In order to broaden his learning, he also studied various kinds of karate from instructors called to his home, such as Matsumura Sokon sensei and Itosu Anko sensei. Along with his younger brother Choki sensei and friend Yabu Kentsu sensei, he studied Tomari-te (tomai-di) at the home of Matsumora Kosaku.”13
One final intriguing factor in support of Choyu is the body movement of Nakamura’s Passai. Unlike other versions, this Passai features a lot of slow, graceful hand movements throughout. Flowing empty hand techniques are a trademark of Motobu Udundi and it would stand to reason that Motobu Choyu would feature it in his Passai. Unfortunately, the worst part about the Choyu theory is that it has the least concrete available evidence.
As of this writing there is no definitive proof where Nakamura’s version of Passai originates.
Passai Master Chart
We’ve seen a lot of Passai throughout this blog post. Hopefully it has helped clear up some confusion and established a few historical connections between styles. Unfortunately, with so many names and styles it still might be confusing who inherited what from whom and how. That’s why, to pull everything together, I have created a master chart of the styles and versions. You’ll notice the four main branches represented and how each grew and shared with one another. Each practitioner has the Passai listed under them that is associated with them (even though they may have called the kata something different personally).
This chart is limited, especially in terms of modern practitioners who have passed the kata along. However, almost everyone should be able to trace their lineage back far enough to connect in some way to this tree.
The Practical Application of Passai
The one thing we haven’t discussed regarding Passai is perhaps the most important aspect of all – application. Tracing the story of Passai is an interesting intellectual endeavor and very worthwhile in order to be better informed of the kata’s original intent…but if we never take that knowledge into practice it will be wasted.
A lot of practitioners have guessed on the primary intent of the kata; some suggest it is for bo disarms while others suggest it is for fighting at night. Researcher Pat McCarthy states: “Allegedly this form is from China and students practicing it will learn the techniques of night fighting, grappling techniques, and will develop unquestionable strength.”14 In the imaginative work Shotokan’s Secret the author suggests that the “extract” and “block” terms inherent in the name Bassai really point to Matsumura’s position as royal bodyguard and hint at tactics specific to removing the king from danger15.
Before you travel too far down any of these rabbit holes I would like to relay this story to you, shared by Bill Hayes Sensei and paraphrased here:
Bill Hayes Sensei had been studying with Shimabukuro Eizo Osensei for a number of years and throughout the course of that training had practiced Passai. Hayes Sensei remembered many details from Shimabukuro’s lessons, including Shimabukuro’s observation that the movements were perfect for fighting opponents at night. The scanning, the light footwork, the dodging body movements…it all made sense. One day while walking Hayes Sensei struck up a conversation with Shimabukuro Sensei regarding Passai’s efficacy at night. Suddenly Shimabukuro Sensei stopped in his tracks. He turned and looked deep into Hayes Sensei’s eyes as if checking to see if anything was still operating behind the curtains.
“Bill-san” he said, “not for fighting at night. LIKE fighting at night.” Shimabukuro Sensei went on to explain that there were deeper concepts like muchimi (stickiness), evasiveness, joint locking, controlling of the opponent’s body, and sensitivity (proprioception) inherent in effective karate. Passai could be used at night…or in a castle…but in fact old kata like Passai were not situation specific. They were omni-useful and should still be pursued as such.
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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
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.
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!