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.
This is a continuation of the interview with Ann Marie Heilman. Part 1 of the interview can be found here. In this segment, Heilman Sensei discusses what it was like meeting Odo Seikichi of Okinawa Kenpo and how it changed the direction of her martial arts career. She also contemplates the meaning of being a Hanshi in karate and her growing responsibilities as a role model for women in the martial arts. Please enjoy.
MA: Could you discuss how you met Odo Seikichi Sensei of Okinawa Kenpo? What were your early impressions of him that made you decide to train under him full time?
AMH: The first time I met him was during a banquet we attended with Trias Sensei over in Okinawa. When they announced us and our style as “Okinawa Kenpo” a very small Okinawan man jumped up and yelled “yay! Okinawa Kenpo!” with his arms in the air. That of course was Odo Sensei.
That’s the thing – he was always happy and joyful. Even when he was quite ill, he was always a happy funny man and it was easy to grow to love him. He was also an excellent teacher. We brought him over to the United States the following year and continued to train with him as much as we could until his passing.
We established a routine of going to Okinawa or bringing Odo Sensei to the United States every year. We would be able to spend weeks and sometimes months with him in focused training. It was a great relationship and we were blessed to have him here in our home so frequently.
MA: What did you find similar/different studying with Odo Sensei vs some of your previous instructors?
AMH: It was different in that he was very laid back. I’m not sure if my previous experiences were flavored with American military or Japanese martial art style, which is very very different in the dojo and very serious. While we were training and doing kata with Odo Sensei, although the training was rigorous and focused he always taught with a smile and laughter. That was different and good for me.
Odo Sensei’s training was exacting and he had a huge emphasis on kata. That worked well for us because we could receive the kata and bunkai from Odo Sensei, but then also receive high level application, theory, fighting, etc. from Trias Sensei.
I remember early on in our studies with Odo there was no particular structure for the material. He would teach you what you were interested in or what he thought you should know. I remember attending a meeting in 1984 with a number of other senior students of his and establishing an actual hierarchy of material that students would have to learn. Once we had that scaffolding set up, everyone could then test standardized material. It was in this way that I tested up to 7th Dan directly under Odo Sensei.
MA: Odo Sensei was known for teaching in the old Okinawan manner of suiting material to the student, tweaking it as needed to make it more functional for the individual. Were there any particular ways in which Odo Sensei molded your learning to make it work better for you personally?
AMH: I think the most unique thing about my relationship with Odo Sensei was how frequently he used me as his bunkai partner. Bunkai became a very live experience for me. Before Odo Sensei I trained with a lot of tall, strong men. It was really great to learn from Odo Sensei who was much closer to me in size. That being said, Odo Sensei was very muscular and had huge hands. He was a powerful individual. I remember when we put our hands together his fingers could fold over my fingers.
If I watched him very carefully I could learn how a smaller individual could move, especially with the weapons.
MA: Your husband Bruce Heilman is also a senior in Okinawa Kenpo. This would inevitably lead people to wonder if you were perhaps riding his coattails or getting free rank simply by association. Am I right in assuming this sort of thing came up, and how did you go about handling it?
AMH: Testing and receiving rank directly from Odo Sensei and NOT my husband was critical. In fact Bruce was of the same mind and made sure that it was not him who tested or promoted me. Over the years I noticed a few women who did receive high rank simply because of who they were married to. My testing was always public and I was always sure to keep my training as transparent as possible. This is another reason I did tournaments for a while. I wanted people to see what I could do and prove that I was not just a figurine following my husband.
MA: While studying under Odo Sensei you and Mr. Heilman were also busy building the IKKF (International Karate Kobudo Federation), which Odo Sensei approved and sat on the board for. Could you discuss the challenges of starting something of that nature?
AMH: The organization came about because we wanted to establish a personal identity while being a branch of Odo Sensei’s Shudokan. Bruce Heilman had a talent for organization and was experienced in setting up this kind of structure. He knew about getting accountants, and lawyers, etc etc. We had met a number of excellent martial artists over the years that we wanted to associate with, and we also wanted to help other styles learn things like Okinawan weapons that their style may not have had.
The growth of the federation allowed us to share our art, especially the kobudo, with many people both in the USA and internationally. I never would have thought it possible when I was growing up.
One of the challenges of the IKKF is the desire to maintain high standards throughout the entire organization. Sometimes our style is not ideal for individuals that want to join us, or perhaps our standards are not reasonable for a commercial school. We try to be fair while maintaining what we think is right.
MA: Recently you received the rare honor of being promoted to 9th Dan, Hanshi. I’m sure this was something impactful for you. Could you talk a bit about your feelings and reflections of the promotion?
AMH: I remember my husband brought up the possibility two years ago but I was staunchly opposed to it. I wanted no parts of it and that kind of responsibility. As far as this time around, I feel right about it because I’ve had two years to reflect on the possibility and the things that I’ve done, and the amount of study I’ve done and still want to do. I knew that if I received it this year it would be coming in a legitimate way from teachers outside of the IKKF who are respected in their own right.
(Note: Heilman Sensei’s promotion was made by Hanshi’s Larry Isaac, 10th Dan; C. Bruce Heilman, 10th Dan; and Jody Paul, 9th Dan; with the approval and authorization from Okinawa from Hanshi’s Shihan Toma (ratified before his passing), 10th Dan; Shigemitsu Tamae, 9th Dan; and Kyoshi Satoshi Yamauchi, 9th Dan, representing both the Seidokan and Motoburyu lineages. Additionally Heilman Sensei received recognition from the IKKF (her home federation) and the United States Association of Martial Artists (an organization connected to the original USKA under Master Robert Trias). These ratifications were important as they connected Heilman Sensei to her roots in training (Odo Seikichi and Robert Trias), as well as continuing the historical connection between Okinawa Kenpo, Seidokan, and Motobu Udundi.)
To be honest, I was so much more involved and excited with Mr. Hayes getting his promotion that I was not thinking too much about my own. It felt good that I was more concerned with him than myself – I felt it was a moment of personal growth.
As for the promotion night itself – I do not remember a moment of it! I don’t remember standing in front of everyone…things were a dull roar.
MA: When you think about your overall legacy on the arts, what do you hope your lasting impact will be?
AMH: I’d like to be remembered as a good and fair karate woman, teacher, and judge. If I can do that, and combine it with the IKKF learning materials we have already created, I would be happy. We have set up the scaffold so that people will have what we created for a long time to come.
I’ve never considered myself (nor was I in truth) a natural talent at martial arts. Everything I learned was through repetition over and over and over. I would watch others get it much sooner than I could. I’ve had multiple injuries as well that were very debilitating. In total my learning process has been slow, with many ups and downs.
I hope that other “non-naturals” out there can see my struggles and continue to push through too. I would say to them, surround yourself with a good support system and never let “quit” enter your equation. As I was once told in grade school: “Aim for the moon…even if you miss you’ll land amongst the stars”.
MA: Thank you very much Mrs. Heilman for your time and thoughts!
I’m very pleased to present this interview with Ann Marie Heilman, senior practitioner of Okinawa Kenpo Karate and Kobudo. Heilman Sensei has spent over 45 years training and leading the way for women in the martial arts.
In addition to being a skilled martial artist, Heilman Sensei is a formally educated psychology and special needs professional. She has been an important figure in teaching martial arts to at-risk children, abused women, and other individuals in volatile circumstances. She plays an integral leadership role in the International Karate Kobudo Federation and the long operating Heilman Karate Academy.
It was my pleasure to converse with Heilman Sensei about her past training experiences, views on women in the martial arts, and her responsibilities as a senior practitioner. Please enjoy the interview!
MA: Thank you again Heilman Sensei for agreeing to do an interview here. Let’s start at the beginning – when was the first time you set foot in a dojo or training environment?
AMH: I was a freshman at Albright College and Hidy Ochiai was a senior at the time. He was offering Judo Self Defense classes at the local Y. I was really interested in that, and had some personal safety concerns because one of my family members was being released from the state hospital (mental and behavioral problems). I signed up for it, hopped on a bus, and went down to the Y once a week for self defense training. This began in 1966.
The content of the course focused on street awareness and defense techniques (where to hit, how to hit, how to throw, etc). The basis of the class was on Judo methods, which I found challenging as a smaller woman.
It was a very good experience because Ochiai Sensei had endless patience with us. He always encouraged me to continue, even when the program was coming to an end. I was never sure if his encouragement came because he saw a spark of passion in me for the martial arts or if he thought I was so bad I needed lots more extra help, hahaha.
MA: Where did your training go from there?
AMH: As I mentioned Ochiai Sensei was a senior, so after his time was up at the university I had to seek training elsewhere. One day when I was in my dorm room a friend of mine named Rick Ulrich walked in and invited to take me to a local dojo operated by George Dillman.
I had no real knowledge of what karate was, but Rick and a few other friends were involved. I remember my first class there I had to go through something called a kata named “taikyoku one”. I remember thinking – this is kindof…odd. And I had a lot of problems with it. Coming from an inner city school I had almost no experience with gym classes or sports. To do something in a coordinated and physically organized fashion like that was hard.
MA: Were you tempted to quit at first due to the difficulty and unusual nature of the exercise?
AMH: I don’t think I knew at the time how hard it was for me and how bad I must have been. I didn’t know that I was struggling.
MA: Could you talk a bit about the curriculum at the Dillman School?
AMH: At the very beginning I didn’t realize that what we were doing was different from what other people were doing. However, over time I realized that our style of practice was connected to Isshin Ryu Karatedo. In time the name changed to Okinawa Kempo due to influence from Daniel K. Pai, however the content of the class didn’t change. Our training consisted of Isshin Ryu forms and sparring as well as some self defense.
Things were very tournament oriented at that time. I remember going to a national tournament in Indianapolis in 1969, which coincidentally is the first time I met one of the major figures in United States martial arts – Robert Trias.
MA: What was the climate of martial arts training like at that time?
AMH: Truthfully it was a very macho kind of environment. Practitioners were mostly men and the martial arts were still heavily connected to the military (considering the individuals who were bringing karate back from the East). There were so few women that we were a sort of novelty.
All the women I knew in training at that time were white belts. It wasn’t until I attended a tournament that I actually met a black belt woman named Bobbi Snyder. She was competing in the same ring as us because there was only one ring for women (white through black belt and regardless of age). Bobbi took first place in our kata division, and my roommate Linda took second.
Competitor Bobbi Snyder executing a self defense routine and her preferred performance kata, Chinto:
Linda and I were convinced this woman (Bobbi) was going to be standoffish and /or aggressive, but when we all met in the locker room after the competition she immediately joined us in conversation saying how glad she was to meet us. She really encouraged and supported us in our training and said how she was looking forward to watching us gain rank and skill.
She was a student of Glen Premru at the time, a very well known karateka in his own right located in Pittsburgh.
MA: You met your eventual husband, C. Bruce Heilman, at the Dillman School. Could you talk about that meeting?
AMH: I had been training at that dojo for about a year before Bruce came to town. He was from the Pittsburgh area but was serving an internship near Reading. He was already a Shodan under Hank Talbot when he arrived, which was in a style of Jujitsu developed by Dewey Deavers that featured a healthy mixture of tripping, throwing, and striking methods. The Deavers system was known as a hard knocks style that integrated ideas from other methods, including karate. As such, when Bruce arrived in the Dillman school he was honored as a black belt. Of course, he had to learn the kata before being recertified in our style.
When we first started we were side-by-side students. Of course, he had an unusual natural gift for these sort of things and it didn’t take him long to become one of the instructors there. He was a savant for kata and a very good fighter.
We were married in June of 1971, only about 9 months after meeting.
MA: Could you discuss how you eventually began to train under Robert Trias Sensei?
AMH: We reached out to Mr. Trias who we had known from tournaments for a number of years and expressed our interest in learning from him. He directed us to connect with his regional director, who as it turns out, was Hidy Ochiai. Since Bruce was a Nidan at that time Ochiai Sensei decided to test him, and subsequently made Bruce fight all the black belts in his dojo for hours. Bruce was loving it, and afterward we all went out for dinner and had a great time. Ochiai Sensei was instrumental in helping us with our East Coast training and keeping us connected to Trias Sensei.
Bruce and I established our own school in 1972 in the Reading area. For a few years we were focused on building the school and teaching while still learning from the USKA (Trias Sensei’s organization) members in the area. It was in the late 70s and early 80s that we actually studied with Trias Sensei directly.
It was also at this time that we participated in many seminars and got to meet some of the great American practitioners of the time.
MA: Could you talk about what training was like with Trias Sensei? How was it different/similar to what you did before?
AMH: It was really excellent, he was as good as his reputation suggested. Trias Sensei provided us with fantastic training and helped us understand what made karate work (or not work). He had keen insight into functionality, fighting, and kata interpretation. He was one of the best of his time.
One thing he pointed out to us fairly early was that we were not doing Okinawa Kenpo, even though that is what we were self-labeled through the Dillman School. He suggested that we travel with him to Okinawa in order to meet the headmaster of the style , Odo Seikichi. Of course we were a bit taken aback by this revelation, but Trias Sensei’s honesty and knowledge were part of his value as a teacher. He was rather strict in this regard; he told us that if we wanted to keep calling ourselves Okinawa Kenpo that it was our duty to meet the head of the style and learn his ways.
It took a few years for us to gather the funds and make arrangements, but in 1983 we eventually went with Trias to Okinawa, which turned out to be a huge turning point in our martial arts careers.
MA: You mentioned earlier that you, as a woman, were something of a novelty in the dojo. Could you discuss if that feeling persisted through the 70s and early 80s in the Trias Organization and martial arts world in general?
AMH: Trias Sensei himself was always very giving and open and honest. He would tell you what he thought you needed to do, but not in a hurtful way. Training within that organization was something that I found to be fairly inviting with a productive mindset during training.
MA: What were some of the problems you noticed in general (perhaps not specifically things that happened to you) for women of that era?
AMH: I think one of the biggest hurdles was the mindset of martial arts being “A good ‘ol boys club”. It was a time when women in general were struggling to gain a foothold in the business world. It was very difficult in the martial arts to get respect…you had to prove yourself. The men didn’t want to judge us, and only men judged.
One of the true stories of Bobbi Snyder was that she was very rankled by this idea of women being unable to judge. One day she walked up to a corner judge, tapped him on the shoulder, and informed him that he had an emergency phone call on the line that he needed to attend to. When he left, she promptly took the vacant judging spot. Naturally there was no phone call to be found.
She ended up judging and refused to give the flags back.
Another issue was actually finding space to compete. We only ever had one ring, and often it was pushed to the side away from the regular competition near the bleachers or even under the bleachers. By the time I was nearing black belt we really had to take a firm stand to be respected. I was innately a shy person so this was difficult for me.
It should be said that there were some really good men at this time as well, supportive and fair. I remember Ochiai Sensei was an instructor with a mindset of equality from the first time I met him, and even when I visited his dojo in later years he always had female students.
Another very important matter is that gay men and women of the time had very little protection in society, so they needed to learn how to protect themselves badly. Therefore, since there was a contingent of lesbian women in the martial arts, a stereotype developed amongst men that all women martial artists were lesbian. This developed into hurtful and derogative behavior toward women of both orientations, straight and gay alike.