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Names regarding Kata

Grey shifu

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Hi all,

I've been doing some research into the back ground names of shotokan karate. Can anyone explain what they mean and why direct translations mean completely different things?

Kanku dai
Bassai dai
Enpi - Kata not elbow strike
Sochi
Embusen - suppose to be line of movement but doesn't translate as that.

Thanks for any of your time spent helping
 

nice gaijin

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Good question, @Grey shifu! For it all to make any sense, there a couple things to keep in mind.

Karate and its kata have undergone several, let's call them "marketing changes," over the years. Okinawa's position between Taiwan and Japan made it a trading hub, and prior to the Japanese invasion the Ryukyu Kingdom had closer ties to China. Chinese culture was much more trendy at that time, and you can still see a lot of that influence in traditional architecture and fashion. Some individuals who came to stay in Okinawa brought their martial arts practices and shared them, and some Okinawans traveled to China to deepen their own studies, bringing back what they had learned.

Many kata have roots in Chinese martial arts, or are nods to specific individuals.

I'll start with the first one and I'll research and answer the others later, because I think this explanation sets the stage for the others in your list, and it's already quite long.

1. Kanku dai

I once created an AMA thread on the Karate Nerd Facebook group and was asked about the various pronunciations of this kata, so I'll plagiarize myself a little here. Addendums are in purple and italicized:

As we know, the history and evolution of Karate has happened in stages between four different entities: the origins in China, which then spread to Okinawa, and on to Japan, and eventually, the rest of the world. This means that the names of things have passed through several languages before they've arrived at our doorstep. The shared use of kanji with different pronunciations, and then the history of the different lineages, has led to a variety of names used today that are as varied as the kata themselves.

Now we can sprinkle a little bit of linguistics in. Like I said, I'm not super familiar with uchinaguchi... or any Fujian dialect, let alone the one spoken in the 1600's, So there's a bit of a disconnect there. As I understand, Uchinaguchi is much simpler phonetically (with fewer vowel sounds) than Chinese and Japanese, so it seems like many words and phrases are the result of bring Chinese to Ryukyu, and then transliterating it into Japanese. This is still apparent in certain styles, just look at the Goju kata names like Saifa, Seiyunchin, Suparinpei, and kururunfa; they contain sounds that don't exist in Japanese, and they're often written in katakana these days. When you learn what they mean, you can see how it's kiiiind of like onyomi, but not quite (probably because the origin is an old Fujian/Hokkien dialect, and it passed through the local language). If they were written in kanji, the meaning would be obvious, but no one could sight read them and guess the pronunciation.

You didn't ask about this one but I think it's worth leaving in:
I also found an article that suggests many different possible names for naihanchi that point to possible origins and meaning, ranging from "horse stance/step battle" to "inside leg step" to "battle between the rice paddies". Certainty in what is true has been lost over time, and all of these variations have been used in one school or another:
  • naihanchi
  • naihanchin
  • naihanchen
  • naifanchi
  • naifanchin
  • naifanchen
  • naifuanchi
  • naifunchin
  • mafuchin
  • mahochin
In Shotokan karate, this name has been changed completely to 鉄騎 (Tekki, iron horseman), more on that below. The meaning is similar but the word is very different, which fits into the pattern of modifying karate terms to appeal to the Japanese.

The consensus seems to be that the kusanku/kanku kata is named for a Chinese diplomat from Fukien (modern Fujian) who came to Okinawa around 1750 and despite being slight of stature, displayed such prowess that he was sought out as a martial arts instructor. As I understand it, Kanga "Todi" Sakugawa was encouraged by his teacher Peichin Takahara to study under him, and after some years of training, consolidated what he learned from him into a kata that he named for his teacher posthumously. The Chinese diplomat was known as 公相君 (possibly "kōsōkun), which was likely a title or given nickname meant to praise him. His actual name may be lost to the ages (how crazy is THAT?!).

Peichin and Todi were also titles of honor; Todi being the old name for Karate itself: 唐手. 唐 meaning the Tang dynasty, aka China at the time, and 手 meaning hand. Although it's often written "Tōdi," it was also written as "Tuidi," which I think is perhaps closer to the actual pronunciation in Okinawa. I'll need to consult with a native speaker to be certain. The name pointed directly at the origin for a long time: Chinese hand. In Japanese onyomi (the "sound" readings of kanji that came from Chinese), 唐手 would've been tōte, and the kunyomi (Japanese native reading) was "karate." This "kara" kanji is still used today for 唐揚げ/karaage, fried chicken. Don't ask me why.

Okinawa had much stronger cultural ties to its neighbors to the west than Japan up north; up until the 1800's they were a tributary of China and a vassal of Japan (after the Satsuma invasion), serving as a conduit through which trade flowed. In the late 1800's, due in part to a failure of diplomacy by US President Grant, Japan just annexed the whole archipelago in 1879, then set out to colonize Ryukyu, shaming them out of their local culture and language, and shifting the trends to cater more to Japanese. It's not a very happy story for the Okinawans, I'm afraid.

In order to make karate more palatable to the Japanese, the Chinese connection would need to be downplayed.
Enter Gichin "Shoto" Funakoshi, a student of Yasutsune "Anko" Itosu, who himself was a student of Soken "Bushi" Matsumura, who reportedly trained under Todi Sakugawa.

This part is my editorial assumption: both Itosu and Funakoshi wanted their art to thrive; they knew which way the wind was blowing, and they would need to appeal to the colonizers to spread their art. So they assembled a group of masters and decided to change the name from 唐手/karate/Chinese Hand to 空手/karate/Empty Hand, distancing the art from its roots, and started promoting and marketing it for building healthy, strong bodies.

The timeline is a little fuzzy for me, but many changes were made as a result of this meeting, and karate was adopted as part of the school curriculum first for Okinawa, and then throughout Japan as it proved to be effective at physically conditioning the youth. For a country with imperial aspirations, this was a valuable resource to help hone the future generation of soldiers. Uniforms and belts were borrowed from Judo, and I imagine a lot of the formalized structures, practices, and etiquette of karate were also introduced both to create an easily replicated curriculum and to create a sense of order, hierarchy, and systematic approach to fighting arts. Having some experience training "the old way," I realized that a lot of the elements we associate with karate are more Japanese than Okinawan, and are far less "traditional" than we imagine.

And this brings us back to the 公相君 kata names. Most styles retained some version of the name based on the original 公相君 moniker, with the noted exception of kyokushin and shotokan:
  • Isshin-ryu: Kūsankū クーサンクー
  • Kyokushin: Kankū 観空 (Dai 大)
  • Shito-ryu: Kōsōkun 公相君 (sho, dai 大, and shiho kosokun 四方公相君)
  • Shorin-ryu: Kusanku クーサンクー or Kushanku, depending on sub-style. Sometimes still written 公相君
  • Shotokan: Kankū 観空 (shō 小, dai 大)
  • Shotokai: Kwankū 観空
  • Wado-ryu: Kūshankū クーシャンク
  • Tang Soo Do and Tae Kwon Do: Kong Sang Koon 공상군, the Korean pronunciation of the hanja 公相君
My thought is, just like the name of Karate itself had been changed to cater to the Japanese, so too did the kata names and terminology for Shotokan, which was more or less the style that was spread throughout Japan. It's also worth noting that in order to scale up to the national education system, a whole lot of people were hastily made into karate sensei, which has had a haphazard effect on how it's practiced around the country.

Pinan (the Okinawan pronunciation of 平安, which already may have been changed from something else) became Heian, the Japanese onyomi. Naihanchi became Kiba-dachi/騎馬立ち/horse stance and later Tekki/鉄騎/iron horseman. And of course, the point of this whole meandering story, is that Kūsankū became Kankū, or "looking to the sky," supposedly named after the initial moves of the kata.

So where do the w's come from? Well, when we look up the first character: https://dictionary.goo.ne.jp/word/kanji/%E8%A6%B3/

One definition of 観 is 詳しく見る, to look intently/in fine detail. This is pronounced "kuwashiku miru." This may just be a coincidence, but then we see that the onyomi of the old form (觀) is クヮン, kwan. This sound doesn't exist in modern Japanese words, and it is produced using a compound kana like I mentioned above. And so when the name changed to 觀空 it may have been originally pronounced "kwankū," or possibly even "kuwankū," which isn't THAT far off "kūsankū." But like I mentioned about the chouonpu getting dropped in transliteration, it's most commonly spelled simply, Kanku. sho 小 and dai 大 denote the "small" and "big," AKA "short" and "long" forms of the kata.

At least, that's what I've been led to believe.
 
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nice gaijin

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2. Bassai Dai - 抜塞大

I learned the Passai kata in Okinawa, at a very traditional Shorin-ryu dojo for Matsumura Seito, where they were written as パッサイ小 and パッサイ大, Passai sho and dai. It's a bit of chicken-and-egg of pronunciation and kanji origins.

You can read more about my experience in my journal entries from the time:

Back to Passai/Bassai. Per wikipedia:
Some researchers believe the Passai kata is related to Chinese Leopard and Lion boxing forms, with some sequences bearing a resemblance to Leopard boxing (the opening blocking / striking movement in cross-legged stance) whereas others are more representative of Lion boxing (open handed techniques and stomping actions). Okinawan karate researcher Akio Kinjo believes that the name originates in the Chinese bàoshī/豹獅 meaning "leopard-lion" which is pronounced "Bá-săi" or "pà-sai" in some Chinese dialects.

So this seems to be another possible example of the name change that follows a kanji homonym, possible as a result of burying the origins of the original name. The article continues:
Other historians have noticed the resemblance between some parts of Passai and Wuxing Quan ("Five Element Fist") Kung Fu.[citation needed] Yet another theory as to the naming of the kata is that it may represent a person's name.[citation needed]

In his 1922 book, Gichin Funakoshi names the form Passai/パッサイ and provides no Kanji characters to go along with this name.[1] The same "Passai" spelling is used by Motobu Chōki in 1926.[3] By 1936, Funakoshi switches to calling the form Bassai/バッサイ but uses the characters "拔塞" which he spells as "Passai/パッサイ".[4]:37 "Bassai/Bá-sāi" would be the Chinese pronunciation of "拔塞", which in Japanese would be pronounced "Batsu-sai/ バツサイ".[5]

This Shotokan organization (Shuhari Institute) translates the name as "Penetrating the Fortress." But the exact meaning of the kanji in Japanese doesn't match up, as their individual meanings seem to be different.

The wikipedia article sheds some light on this:
Whereas the Japanese meaning of "拔(batsu)" is "to pull out or to extract",[6] in Chinese "拔(bá)" can mean "to seize or capture";[7] and "塞(sai/soku)" means a "place of strategic importance" or fort.[8] Thus Funkaoshi's characters of "Bá sāi(拔塞)" would mean "to seize or capture" a "place of importance/fortress." However the 1973 translation of Karate-do Kyohan lists Funakoshi's explanation of the form name as "Breaking through an enemy's fortress."[9]
And it becomes clear how the apparent meaning and expressed meaning of the kata name seem mismatched as it's been stretched across multiple languages and sometimes deliberately modified.

3. Enpi/Empi - 燕飛

Flying swallow, or the swallow takes flight. According to the Shuhari Institute, this is one of the oldest kata in Shotokan's curriculum. This name isn't too far off the apparent kanji meaning, but this name also seems to have been coined by Funakoshi after he changed it from Wanshu (which clearly indicates Chinese origins).

Per wikipedia:
Enpi comes from the Okinawan martial art of Tomari-te, where it first appeared in 1683[citation needed]. It is believed to have been influenced by Chinese boxing. It is the sister kata to Wansu. Funakoshi Gichin changed the name to Enpi when he moved to the Japanese mainland in the 1920s. Funakoshi changed the names of many of the kata, in an effort to make the Okinawan art more palatable to the then nationalistic Japanese. The most commonly accepted theory about its creation and development is that a Sappushi Wang Ji, an official from Xiuning, transmitted the kata while serving on Okinawa. Legend has that Wang Ji had the habit of throwing and jumping on his adversaries. Because of this dynamic form of combat, this kata resembles a swallow in flight.[2][3]

4. Sochin - 壮鎮 or 壯鎭


Per The Martial Way:
Sochin is most commonly interpreted as "Strength and Calm" or "Energetic Calm." The translations of "Preserve the Peace," or even "Peacekeeper," are also sometimes used.

This kata was absorbed into the Shotokan curriculum by Gichin Funakoshi's son, Gigo. It's said that he learned it from Kenwa Mabuni, another member of the original meeting that changed karate.

More history can be found here:


5. Embusen - 演武戦
This isn't a kata name, but a term used to refer to the movement and positioning during embu (martial arts demonstration), which can be shown as a diagram of lines (線, sen). This concept is stressed in Japanese styles that demand the kata starts and ends on the same spot, to show perfect balance/symmetry in the movement.

Embusen diagram for Pinan/Heian shodan
Heian_Shodan_Embusen.gif




However, this isn't really addressed in Okinawan styles, and because many kata aren't naturally balanced in this way. So in the Japanese versions, some of them have added extra steps or even hops in order to return to the same starting point. Not realizing the reason for this, some people have come up with some silly bunkai to explain the reason for the little hops.

 

Grey shifu

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That's very very interesting. Earlier you mention the 'traditional' being not so traditional which was something I noticed from lots of karate clubs advertising. Would It would be fair to say that most Japanese systems of karate are more modern than traditional?
You mention funikoshi and Itosu knowing which way the wind was blowing. Obviously we can only guess, but I wonder if they really did not want change names old ways of karate to conform with Japanese ? But I suppose there was a risk of certain arts being lost perhaps?
 

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That's very very interesting. Earlier you mention the 'traditional' being not so traditional which was something I noticed from lots of karate clubs advertising. Would It would be fair to say that most Japanese systems of karate are more modern than traditional?
You mention funikoshi and Itosu knowing which way the wind was blowing. Obviously we can only guess, but I wonder if they really did not want change names old ways of karate to conform with Japanese ? But I suppose there was a risk of certain arts being lost perhaps?
To your first point, yes absolutely. There are a lot of things that we think of as "traditional" that are relatively new. Just as en example, many "traditions" around marriage are not that old.

Looking at this painting from the 15th century, who today would immediately recognize it as being a wedding portrait? Probably only art historians. Yet this painting is jam-packed with icons and imagery that would've been immediately recognizable to someone from that era. If you're clued in to the trends of that era, the iconography here tells a whole story that most people today would completely miss.
arnolfini_portrait_oil_painting_reproduction_by_marcellobarenghi-d64ur2l.jpg


The idea of engagement rings was invented and aggressively marketed to sell diamonds. The white dress and many other elements of the ceremony are also younger than we'd expect; much of these elements being introduced around 1830, inspired by the high-profile wedding of Queen Victoria. This is the modern tradition of the "White wedding." Just a few generations back, wedding ceremonies would be unrecognizable to us now, but so many of these invented elements are marketed as being "traditional." But why?

Whether it's for an industry revolving around a special event, or a martial arts school, "tradition" is an effective marketing tool. It creates a sense of continuity with the past, a nostalgia for a world that only exists in our imaginations. The idea that "the old ways" are somehow better because they've endured for so long before us; there must be "timeless, ancient wisdom" in it. Furthermore, it connects us with our ancestors, or at least those who came before us in our lineage.

Martial arts is full of questions that don't always get answered definitively; techniques need to be explored and tested to fully understand their use, and not all schools do this work. As a result, there are a lot of misconceptions that persist, and they're usually wrapped in the cloak of "tradition" because that's the easiest way to answer a question without admitting you don't know the answer. Just like how the origins of certain techniques in karate have been obscured, so too has the apparent age of these components been distorted to make them more appealing to that mindset.

Fighting itself is nothing new. Wrestling and melee combat have been around for thousands of years, but not many techniques or teaching methods have survived that long; many had to be pieced back together or "rediscovered," and while we can find effectiveness in old ways, we should always think about the context in which violence is warranted and used, which is constantly changing.

I think there's merit in trying to preserve elements of training and passing them down; inheriting a system of etiquette, a didactic approach to self defense, the benefits of discipline, exercise, body conditioning, movement and meditation, and showing respect to those who came before us... these things all have great benefit for the students. But we must also be clear-eyed and seek the truth hiding underneath the pleasant fantasies swirling around our arts, in order to have a full picture of why things are as they are. Otherwise, we'll end up mistakenly interpreting the little hops at the end of a kata as having some hidden deadly stomping technique, rather than returning to the starting point, or adapting to a cramped practice space.

There's a fun analogy for this way of thinking, called the "pot roast principle." We make up all kinds of excuses to continue doing things as we were taught, because we don't know the real reasons behind them. This is all good and well, but in martial arts you must be willing to test your theories if you want to pass down "effective" techniques. Everything else is window-dressing.
 
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nice gaijin

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You mention funikoshi and Itosu knowing which way the wind was blowing. Obviously we can only guess, but I wonder if they really did not want change names old ways of karate to conform with Japanese ? But I suppose there was a risk of certain arts being lost perhaps?
To your second point, we would have to analyze the writings of Funakoshi, Itosu, and their contemporaries to understand their thoughts about these changes, and even then, we may never know for sure whether they were excited about it or simply doing what they needed to ensure their martial arts spread.

This is all my own conjecture, but whether they were happy about it or not, I believe these masters understood that if they wanted their art to survive and spread they would need to appeal to the colonizers, which meant some changes were necessary. So they adopted some of the elements of Japanese martial arts, changed the terminology, and obscured the Chinese influences, specifically to market karate to the Japanese. This was in effect changing the "window dressing," while leaving as much of the heart of karate as possible.

This thumbnail and video title are pretty bombastic, but the video has a good breakdown of how the myth of "styles" originated.


It only stands to reason that other teachers were resistant to change, and continued their own traditions. But the old ways of 1-1 mentorship simply don't scale, and the training was too harsh and unappealing to all but the most diligent students (most people want the result, not the journey). So today, these traditions are very rare indeed, while other styles that adapted are thriving.
 
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