June 25, 2012

Shotokan Kata Geneology

I was thinking about kata applications recently, and how to best interpret the kata movements in a self-defense context.  However, since many kata were developed over a century ago, the self-defense meaning has become obscured and clouded by the passage of time.  In an effort to part the clouds, it occurred to me that the early teachers of the kata in Okinawa had many students besides Master Funakoshi that went on to produce the many branches of karate styles we have today.   This means the kata we practice in Shotokan can trace a lineage back to the same masters as Shito-ryu, Matsubayashi-ryu, Isshin-ryu, etc.  In a way, these karate styles are siblings, cousins, aunts/uncles, and nephews/neices in karate, and looking for consistent elements in another version of kata could help reconstruct the important themes.

When I set out to create this kata family tree, I greatly underestimated the complicated geneological nature of early karate.  Many students practiced with multiple instructors instead of training with a single instructor for their whole life.  The question of when and where a kata was learned or how it was changed by a karate practitioner is basically unknowable.  Further, the same instructor may have taught one student in 1890 and another student in 1900, and the style and emphasis of their teaching could differ greatly.  So even a shared influence in karate is not a gaurantee of kata similarity.  The first step toward a family tree was to trace back the teacher-student lineage (see ShorinRyuTimeline.pdf) of the founders of Shorin-ryu karate styles from about 1950 back to 1800.  The data in the timeline is compiled primarily from Wikipedia entries on karate styles and karate practitioners.

On a side note about the Shorin-ryu timeline, there were two interesting and unexpected results of compiling the data in this way.  First, Kanga Sakugawa is one of the earliest Okinawan practitioners recorded, and he supposedly influenced Sokon "Bushi" Matsumura.  However, the chart shows that Sakugawa died when Matsumura was six years old, a rather young age to believe there was a link between them.  Based on one report of their lifespans, I left their alleged connection out of the chart.  It should be noted that Sakugawa and Matsumura have their lifespans reported at widely varying ranges, and some reports agree with a potential overlap in their training time.  Second, Anko Itosu in my estimation is the most prolific and influential karate practitioner on the current state of Shorin-ryu karate.  The sheer number of students he influenced and the styles his students founded just about covers all of modern Shorin-ryu based karate.  His influence on modern karate is staggering to me.

The next step in my quest was to observe the differences in kata performance across the common Shorin-ryu karate styles.  There are numerous named styles these days, so I followed the karate lineage chart and looked for style founders and direct students of those founders for legitimate, mainstream karate styles.  Then, I searched around the web for the kata syllabus of each style to look at the overlap between Shotokan and the other Shorin-ryu styles.  I produced a comparison chart (see KataSyllabusByStyle.pdf) of the 26 kata practiced in Shotokan to a corresponding kata and the name it is given in the other Shorin-ryu styles.  This chart enables you to pick a Shotokan kata for analysis then search around YouTube and elsewhere for the same kata performed by another style to find consistent kata themes across styles.  The underlying assumption is that the important kata elements will be common to many styles and will aid the discovery of meaningful kata applications.

Finally, with the first two charts in place (and two months later), I could construct my initial goal of a Shorin-ryu karate family tree (see KarateStyleFamilyTree.pdf).  The major caveat is that the only link shown between styles is the shortest link to a historical influence.  The founders were actually influenced by many teachers in a complex web, as shown in the timeline chart.  So the family tree is a "best case" or "closest possible relation" between styles.  Among Kihon, Kata, and Kumite training methods, kata is the oldest method and probably the most difficult to understand.  Hopefully the information I have compiled can help us grasp these ancient training tools and make good use of them.

Note: all of the pdf files linked can be found at https://sites.google.com/site/nittanyshotokankaratedo/Resources

Submitted by: Matthew Baran, Sandan