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!)
The following video 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.
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 two examples of “Tomari Seisan” followed by an “Okinawa Kenpo 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!
Few things are as critical yet as glossed over as footwork. With proper footwork the body can be moved in an efficient way while maintaining balance, creating driving power for strikes, providing hip availability for throws, and more.
Kata attempts to teach us about footwork, but it's easy to get caught up with what the hands are doing and simply bring the feet along for the ride. In fact, the effectiveness of bunkai can be made or broken depending on how the body orients to the opponent. Discovering some of the more effective applications in kata requires careful attention to body movement.
Ultimately there are only a few ways for the body to get from A to B, but an infinite amount of subtle ways to improve that process. One important concept in karate is known as "diamond stepping", which allows for removal of target, aggression, defense, momentum swing, and balance. In total it allows a practitioner to use virtually all the tools available to a karateka during a combative engagement. Interestingly, this very same concept shows up in other styles as well, going as far back as the Bubishi itself.
Diamond Stepping in Action
The following video shows how you can integrate the diamond step concept into your training. It will also demonstrate a series of techniques from different styles, including Okinawa Kenpo, Aikijujutsu, Motobu Udundi, Kobudo, and more. The goal is to demonstrate how a fundamentally sound concept can be pervasive throughout many different styles. As a bonus, at the end of the video I practice some freestyle randori type of techniques, allowing students to attack me in an unscripted way and seeing what kind of defenses come out of it.
Recently a reader inquired about the matter of kiai. For those who may not be familiar with the term, kiai is most frequently described as a "spirit shout" used in hard martial arts during moments of impact. Kiai is frequently used in kata as well as sparring, basics, ippon kumite, etc.
The crux of the question was as follows (paraphrasing):
"Can you comment on why some kata performances have kiai at the end of every movement? Is it appropriate to kiai that much, and if not how do you know how much to do it? Are there any tricks to sustaining your throat through that much yelling?"
The easy, judgmental answer would be to say "no,no, noooo. don't use kiai on every move. Only a few per kata! Too much kiai-ing is wrong!". But that hardly answers the question. After all, why NOT go nuts with it? If kiai juices you up, wouldn't you want to use it as much as possible?
Let's dig a little deeper!
What is Kiai?
To discuss this matter we have to fix the common interpretation of the word "kiai". Kiai is not necessarily a spirit shout. When broken down, the term "ki" refers to the internal spirit or inherent energy of a person. The term "ai" can indicate harmonizing or focusing, depending on the context.
As Forrest Morgan pointed out in his book "Living the Martial Way", kiai and aiki are two concepts closely related and frequently blended, not unlike a balanced yin and yang. Aiki (as in Aikido) is the practice of harmonizing with an opponent's force and redirecting it. Kiai is an expression of personal force directed into an opponent, disrupting their rhythm. You can see how the two concepts are symbiotically useful (but let's focus on kiai for awhile).
one of the most explicit ways to disrupt your opponent is by overloading their senses via a surprise burst of stimuli. In order to generate that kind of overload, the body's destructive energies can be brought together in an instantaneous moment of exertion. The eyes, ears, emotions, and pain receptors of the opponent can be aggressively overwhelmed. An intense shout, the most noticeable aspect of kiai, is an integral part of that process.
How To Execute a Kiai Shout
Bill Hayes Sensei tells a story of training on the beach with his instructor Shimabukuro Eizo. During that training a storm approached, and instead of packing up and heading home Shimabukuro Sensei had them continue their kata. Just as the students were getting ready to bail out they heard a sonic boom rip through the howling wind, jarring everyone around. When they looked back to see it's origin they found Shimabukuro Sensei laughing. Try as they might, they couldn't replicate their instructor's power in cutting through the maelstrom of the storm.
When listening to kiai, it's important to note that not all are created equal. Any human can scream in anger, not everyone can use kiai. A good kiai is like an auditory gun shot, fueled by intent. The length is brief but delivered quickly and intensely. The emotional fuel is not anger, fury, frustration, or rage (at least not primarily); instead, it is a focused intent to maim or kill. The other emotions may swirl momentarily as byproducts of the intensity.
As with most things in the martial arts, there is no shortcut to a great kiai. Here are some basics to get you started if you still aren't sure about the process:
- Create a solid posture. Tilt your pelvis slightly forward while keeping the spine aligned. Allow your body to relax and sink into the hara (the lower abdomen).
- Breath in through the nose and out through the mouth. Imagine yourself breathing from the bottom of your lungs. You should feel the belly moving in and out instead of the upper chest.
- When ready, push the air out of the bottom of the lungs vigorously. To do this, rely on the abdominal contraction that slightly tilts your pelvis forward.
- Create a vocalization using mostly the back of the throat. A proper kiai will inevitably come out as some sort of vowel sound, but you can guide how it sounds according to what feels natural. It's important to note that you needn't hit a hard "k" at the beginning of a kiai, as you are not actually saying "kiai" during the shout.
- Give yourself permission to be loud. You needn't scream your face off, but there is a barrier of timidity that needs to be broken through. A polite and mannerly kiai doesn't get the job done, so if you've been raised to keep quiet and not make a fuss you'll need to work through that mental block.
- Sculpt your vocalization into a pulse. The kiai is not a sustained scream, but more of an impact tool in it's own right. The hara fires the kiai up and out while the mouth directs it at the target.
More Than Just Screaming
The spirit shout itself is only one aspect of kiai. In order to use it to the fullest extent you have to involve your entire being, including the eyes, posture, and spirit.
There's a story surrounding Matsumura Bushi during one of his famous exploits. It's stated that Matsumura's reputation often preceeded him, even amongst the lower classes on Okinawa. As such, a local craftsman was quite surprised and pleased when Matsumura entered his shop to have some minor work done. Unable to contain his enthusiasm, the craftsman revealed himself as a karateka and promptly asked Matsumura for a lesson. After refusing, Matsumura was challenged to a match by the bold and impatient karateka. Eventually Matsumura acquiesed and agreed to meet the man the next morning.
Just as the sun was rising both men faced each other. At first the craftsman was confident due to his strength, size, and skill. However, as he approached Matsumura to begin the match he noticed something unusual. Matsumura stood naturally with an unflinching gaze. His posture was statuesque, his mouth pursed as if saying something while saying nothing, and his eyes fierce as an eagle. The craftsman felt ill to his stomach and had to sit down. When ready, the karateka tried again to begin an assault but was once again accosted by Matsumura's presence. Just as the craftsman steadied himself for a final attempt, Matsumura let loose a spirit shout akin to a lightning bolt strike and the man was brought to an utter standstill, forfeiting the match and asking for forgiveness.
The exact details of this story are unprovable, but the concepts are quite interesting. What happened here was nothing particularly mystical – Matsumura utilized applied psychology to overwhelm his opponent. Humans have an innate ability to detect threats and impending doom. Matsumura's skill level and confidence were refined to such a fine degree that he was able to instill in his opponent extreme sensations of dread. His kiai disrupted the opponent before a punch was thrown***.
How Much Shouting is Too Much?
As we've established, kiai manifests in subtly different ways, especially during kata performance. The focus and disruptive capabilities of kiai may be present throughout an entire kata, or it may fade in and out depending on what the performer is visualizing.
In order to explore the question of kiai frequency from all angles, here are some reasons why extended kiai might be useful:
- Repeated screaming could put a person into "hulk mode", overwhelming all comers.
- Making noise during a self defense altercation could draw attention and elicit assistance.
- Excessive kiai could make opponents fearful that the victim is crazy, abandoning their attack and running away.
- If every strike in karate is meant to be done as a "killing blow" then every strike would deserve a kiai.
The matter of drawing attention to oneself is certainly true. Screaming and struggling is a very legitimate self defense tactic especially in crowded areas. On the other hand, I wouldn't rely on an attacker concerning themselves about a victim being crazy. It may actually inspire them to do damage more quickly in order to quiet the scene.
The idea of "hulking out" is a perpetuated misunderstanding of how adrenaline works. It's true that ramping up an adrenal dump can increase strength and pain tolerance, but it also drastically reduces cognition and small motor skills. Furthermore, during a conflict, the opponent experiences a similar adrenal dump. Too much "hulk" without any sort of control will not only eliminate fine motor techniques but can also overwhelm gross motor techniques ingrained in muscle memory. The other problem with a scream induced frenzy is the amount of time available before exhaustion. Sometimes individuals get a false sense of security from the dojo. Being able to spar for 45 minutes does not mean a person can last 45 minutes in a street encounter. Even Police Officers experience extreme fatigue in a matter of seconds or minutes when faced with the real struggle of violence. Imagine now if that precious energy was wasted on excessive kiai shouting.
The concept of "killing blows" in karate is a popular one. The phrase "Ikken Hisatsu", "One Punch, One Kill" is frequently used and suggests that full force should be put behind every technique with total committment. This concept is a carryover from Japanese Kenjutsu and the idea of "Ichigo Ichie", "One time, One Meeting". The Samurai were extremely refined swordsmen and the katana was a weapon of immediate effectiveness. The slightest hesitation or uncertainty in a duel spelled certain destruction. The fist of the hard style karateka is designed to be deadly in the same manner. However, when matching the Ikken Hisatsu mindset with the realities of physical combat it's important to rely on the subtleties of kiai usage instead of raw vocalization. Intensity of purpose can be transmitted via facial expression, hard breath, a glare of the eyes, and spirit pressure. Matsumura demonstrated it best. Had he been screaming and having fits as his opponent approached the depth of his kiai might not have been as effective and he would have been exhausted quickly in the fight.
Ultimately, too much shouting goes against practicality for real combat. Consider the element of surprise. The kiai should form a sharp blast against the opponent's senses especially when combined with dehabilitating tuite or striking, never giving the opponent a chance to recover. In the matter of multiple opponents, a blasting kiai used sparcely is just as valuable. A sudden auditory impulse might stop all surrounding aggressors, much like Shimabukuro Eizo's kiai froze his students in place. Kiai may work multiple times in a conflict but if overused it will simply become white noise.
How Many Kiai Per Kata?
Most instructors will indicate a few pre-designed spots where they believe kiai belong. These spots are most often strikes that feel conclusive. As such, many kata feature 1-5 kiai.
Here's a great example from one of my favorite kata practitioners, Shimabukuro Zenpo:
I never doubted his intensity, did you? Not to mention, his throat should be in fine shape even after a full day of training kata.
A Part of the Bigger Puzzle
Throughout this article we've focused on kiai to the exclusion of other concepts. It almost feels as if kiai is the only tool available for spirit transmission, but the truth is quite to the contrary. Kiai is half of a whole with aiki. Furthermore, other concepts such as kime, zanshin, mushin, kokoro, and more add to the collective expression of the classical artist during life protection. Many deeper concepts overlap at times, but are also distinct avenues worthy of study.
Just in case you're still not clear on the matter of kiai among the pantheon of martial skills, I'd like to let Bruce Lee sum it up for me:
***This story should not be confused with other claims of using kiai to knock people out without touching them. The idea of using vocal sounds or visual colors to create knockouts is unproven at best.