Anko Itosu and Pinan (Heian) kata

Between the firsts COVID lockdowns, on Sunday 26th August 2020, one day into my week-long Cornish holiday a comment, by Sensei Paul Hacker

Brett Jacobs
Brett Jacobs
 min read
April 19, 2022
Between the firsts COVID lockdowns, on Sunday 26th August 2020, one day into my week-long Cornish holiday a comment, by Sensei Paul Hacker
Wyrd bid ful araed is the ancient Norse for fate is inexorable.

Between the firsts COVID lockdowns, on Sunday 26th August 2020, one day into my week-long Cornish holiday a comment, by Sensei Paul Hacker (my lead instructor since 1999 (sparked by our experiment to develop a Personal Training Tool ‘kata’, as part of my fith degree Go Dan Assessment)) led to a brief discussion amongst Paul, Steve and I over the bunkai of Pinan (Heian) Kata. The Pinan (Heian) kata formed my introduction to karate and I have been teaching them, and ideas about their application, for over 15 years.

I realised I’ve never, properly, researched their origin or development.

Much to my wife and daughter’s pleasure, I used my spare time that week (between piloting boats in a piratical way, eating out to help out, and doing touristy things whilst attempting to socially distance in tiny Cornish villages and towns) researching Itosu and his development of Pinan Kata.

This is the result:

I have sought to gain understanding of the Pinan Katas via examination of the little available information about the man who initially developed the Pinans and his development of these kata.

I have recorded, what I consider pertinent information in this article. I haven’t referenced sources but links to all source material can be found at the end of the article.

I intend to record my conclusions in a separate article to accompany this document.

Itosu appears to have been a very highly educated, upper class gentleman. He worked as an administrator (Secretary to the King) for the Okinawan royal family until the Monarchy was abolished by Japan in 1879, when he became a civil servant in the Japanese government, of Okinawa, replacing the monarchy.

It was the abolition of the Okinawan Monarchy and aristocracy that enabled Okinawan martial arts to be learned by members of the general public. Previously only select members of the elite warrior (upper) classes were allowed to learn from the Okinawan masters of the martial arts.

As a child there is some suggestion that he was somewhat small and shy. But by the time Itosu was a fully grown adult he was 5’ tall. Small by modern western standards, but normal in his society in the mid-late 19th century.

He is said to have been a stocky man and have developed incredible strength and body conditioning through martial arts practice. Withstanding beatings with 50mm thick poles and knocking down masonry walls with his bare hands.

He was at the forefront of developing contemporary karate and the general format of modern syllabi. (Itosu’s student, Gichin Funakoshi finished the job when he achieved recognition for karate as a Japanese martial art alongside Judo and Kendo).

Itosu was instrumental in bringing karate from an elite, secret, shadowy Okinawan practice to a public, international, mainstream martial art; initially through the school system in Okinawa. His students, notably Funakoshi spread his syllabus, whilst developing it, across Japan.

There is suggestion that this ‘whole sale’ approach came at the cost of blunting, or declawing, the original highly effective, efficient and deadly art: It could be considered irresponsible to give any Tom, Dick or Haruki access to such a dangerous weapon. And what authority would support turning its work force into a gang of deadly killers who might rise up against the authority of rule?

After WWII, in a large part due to service personnel stationed in Okinawa and Japan, Itosu’s modern karate spread throughout the world.

Itosu developed the Pinan Kata from the, more complicated, kata he had learned during his lifelong martial arts studies; to form part of his school Physical Education syllabus.

In Japanese (the kanji for) Pinan (Heian) translates as a message of peace and tranquility. But in Okinawa there was (and is) great respect for Chinese culture, particularly in relation to martial arts. The Japanese kanji for Pinan translates in Chinese as pingan meaning stay safe or safe from harm.

Chinese people, would use the term when seeing someone off on a long journey or flight and, have been saying pingan to each other a lot during the Covid crisis.

Itosu studied under Sokon Matsumura, who was a friend of his Father. Matsumura was a massively influential, expert, exponent of Shuri-te. He is said to have trained under Tode Sakagawa who is said to have trained under the man who developed the kata Kushanku.

However, studying accounts from Itosu’s students provides some interesting further detail.

Choki Motobu wrote that Itosu was a pupil of Matsumura and trained diligently. But Matsumura thought him slow and didn’t like or care for him.

So Itosu left to train with Nagahama (of Naha) who had a very different style to Matsumura, concentrating on strength development and body conditioning. Itosu was something of a star pupil, with Nagahama referring to him as his disciple and right-hand man. Motobu claims that on his deathbed, Nagahama confessed to Itosu that his teaching had focused predominantly on body development and not much on the liberty in motion or alertness necessary for actual combat (elements he had reserved for his own son’s training) and that Itosu should go back to Matsumura.

It is highly questionable as to whether Itosu would have been willing to lose face by returning to Matsumura or whether Matsumura would have accepted him back as a student.

Although Itosu’s lifelong friend, Anko Azato, was a student of Matsumura; and the two of them would have discussed ideas and likely practised together.

Funokoshi studied under both Azato and Itosu before developing Karate in Japan.

According to Funakoshi, Itosu became a disciple of Gusukuma of Tomari. This would explain the inclusion of Wanshu and (Tomari) Rohai in Itosu’s syllabus. Matsumura didn’t teach these kata in his Shuri-te syllabus.

Also, Itosu did not teach Seishan, which is not found in Tomari styles but was, taught by Matsumura.

Interestingly it appears that Itosu adapted the Tomari katas he taught. The Tomari versions have more upright stances, greater use of open hand technique and greater and more mobile hip motion than Itosu’s versions.

Itosu is known to have mastered Naihanchi kata. Funakoshi claims to have spent 10 years, of his training, studying nothing but Itosu’s three Naihanchi based katas.

Itosu developed a further two versions of Naihanchi from the original and spent a great deal of time in its study.

Mark Bishop, an eighth-dan Karate-ka and author, contrasted the karate of Azato (Matsumura heritage mixed with a swordsmanship perspective) and Itosu: ’’While Azato believed the hands and feet should be like bladed weapons and that one should avoid all contact of an opponent's strike, Itosu held the idea that the body did not have to be so mobile and should be able to take the hardest of blows’’.

Itosu has been attributed with developing and/or promoting the concept of Ikken-hissatsu.

Chosin Chibana (a long-time student of Itosu) once said that Itosu did indeed have a very powerful punch, but Matsumura had once said to Itosu: 'With your strong punch you can knock anything down, but you can't so much as touch me.'

Itosu developed a syllabus where many basic exercises and forms were simplified and organized into a curriculum suitable for the mass instruction of students. In addition to placing importance on basics, Itosu developed his Pinan katas.

In trying to understand the development of the Pinan Katas it is essential to discuss Channan Kata: Itosu was in his 70’s when he finalised his Pinan katas and began teaching them within his school syllabus. There is a legend that Itosu developed the Pinan katas from a longer Chinese kata called Channan, which was subsequently lost to the general karate world. It is claimed this Channan kata was named after a Chinese sailor who, was washed up on a shore in Naha, hid in a cave and taught the kata. In some accounts the sailor is named Annan or Chinto. There is some evidence that such a sailor did teach (Gusukuma) one of Itosu’s teachers. There is also a story that the sailor was called Kushanku and his kata was called Channan.

There is also connection made to the destruction, in the 1700’s, of a Shoalin Temple and escape of one or more kungfu masters. Here the man is named Chiang-Nan, meaning south of the river (in this case the Yantze).

It is also claimed that Itosu learned the kata Naihanchi from a shipwrecked Chinese sailor in Naha. Whilst some suggest Itosu learned Naihanchi from Matsumura, but this also seems unlikely.

Naihanchi kata’s development is more commonly attributed to Matsumura who, is often thought of as the greatest Okinawan martial artist of his time, and did travel to, and train in China. It is quite possible that Itosu learnt Naihanchi from his friend, and Matsumura’s pupil, Azato. Considering Itosu’s investment in the kata Naihanchi, it seems likely that techniques from the kata would be incorporated in the Pinan series.

Mark Bishop recounts that Shinpan Shiroma (a student of Itosu) often admitted to not knowing the technical functions of some movements of Karate kata, and would quite blankly state that Itosu had not known the functions either, merely explaining that they were for show.

Ohtsuka (Ōtsuka) was also a massive fan of Naihanchi. Although he put little value in Itosu’s two versions developed from the original. Ohtsuka felt everything a karateka needed could be found in Naihanchi.

Tempting as the idea, of a lost Channan kata waiting to be discovered, is; accounts from some of Itosu’s students point to a more mundane explanation: According to Motobu, Mabuni, Nakasone and Miyagi, Itosu developed a series of simplified kata, for his physical education syllabus, which he named Channan Kata. Later when he was teaching in schools and had finalised the development of these kata he named them Pinan kata as the youngsters he was teaching said it would be a more popular name.

There is suggestion that a major difference between Itosu’s Channan and Pinan katas was the incorporation of significant aspects of Kushanku into the latter.

Itosu certainly studied Kushanku and, as with Naihanchi, developed a further two versions. (He also did this with Rohai).

An interesting suggestion is that Channan, and subsequently Pinan, was one long kata broken down into segments to assist teaching/learning. Motobu’s description of the first time he saw the Pinan Kata, noting it had changed from the previous Channan kata, and Itosu’s comments, certainly support this idea.

Hisateru Miyagi remembered that when he studied under Itosu, at the end of the masters teaching career, he only had any real enthusiasm for the first three Pinan Kata, and rather neglected the last two.

Interestingly one of Itosu’s top students, Yabu Kentsu, later told his students: ‘If you have time to practice the Pinan, practice Kushanku instead’.

At the age of 76 (whilst teaching karate at an Okinawan school) Itosu wrote to the Japanese education and military ministries, expounding the benefit of teaching a unified karate syllabus throughout the Okinawan school system; setting out his 10 precepts of karate.

There are a number of different translations, most by martial artists and likely influenced by their ideas about karate. Ian Abernethy commissioned a professional translation service and the text was translated without martial arts knowledge. This translation (below) is, in my view, the most objective and sensible version:

Karate did not develop from Buddhism or Confucianism. In the past the Shorin-ryu school and the Shorei-ryu school were brought to Okinawa from China. Both of these schools have strong points and I therefore list them below just as they are without embellishment.

  1. Karate is not merely practiced for your own benefit; it can be used to protect one's family or master. It is not intended to be used against a single assailant but instead as a way of avoiding injury by using the hands and feet should one by any chance be confronted by a villain or ruffian.
  2. The purpose of karate is to make the muscles and bones hard as rock and to use the hands and legs as spears. If children were to begin training naturally in military prowess while in elementary school, then they would be well suited for military service. Remember the words attributed to the Duke of Wellington after he defeated Napoleon, "Today's battle was won on the playing fields of our schools".
  3. Karate cannot be quickly learned. Like a slow-moving bull, it eventually travels a thousand leagues. If one trains diligently for one or two hours every day, then in three or four years one will see a change in physique. Those who train in this fashion will discover the deeper principles of karate.
  4. In karate, training of the hands and feet are important, so you should train thoroughly with a makiwara (*). In order to do this, drop your shoulders, open your lungs, muster your strength, grip the floor with your feet, and concentrate your energy into your lower abdomen. Practice using each arm one to two hundred times each day.
  5. When you practice the stances of karate, be sure to keep your back straight, lower your shoulders, put strength in your legs, stand firmly, and drop your energy into your lower abdomen.
  6. Practice each of the techniques of karate repeatedly. Learn the explanations of every technique well, and decide when and in what manner to apply them when needed. Enter, counter, withdraw is the rule for torite(**).
  7. You must decide if karate is for your health or to aid your duty.
  8. When you train, do so as if on the battlefield. Your eyes should glare, shoulders drop, and body harden. You should always train with intensity and spirit as if actually facing the enemy, and in this way you will naturally be ready.
  9. If you use up your strength to excess in karate training, this will cause you to lose the energy in your lower abdomen and will be harmful to your body. Your face and eyes will turn red. Be careful to control your training.
  10. In the past, many masters of karate have enjoyed long lives. Karate aids in developing the bones and muscles. It helps the digestion as well as the circulation. If karate should be introduced, beginning in the elementary schools, then we will produce many men each capable of defeating ten assailants.
If the students at teacher training college learn karate in accordance with the above precepts and then, after graduation, disseminate this to elementary schools in all regions, within 10 years karate will spread all over Okinawa and to mainland Japan. Karate will therefore make a great contribution to our military. I hope you will seriously consider what I have written here - Anko Itosu, October 1908

(*) - The actual translation where the translator was not a martial artist translated the word "Makiwara" to "Sheaf of Straw" when leaving the word un-translated would have been fine (So, I made that amendment).

(**) - Torite hasn’t been translated. I suspect this is because it is difficult to make sense of, for a non martial artist, other than as a name for something. The word seems to relate to catching or the hand that steals or the hand that enters the gate or door, or a bird in the hand. The term torite is used in Japanese martial arts to refer to grappling. Jigaro Kano (founder of Judo) used the term in some of his writings, referring to jujitsu.

It is important to bear in mind that this letter was written to the ministries of education and the military, of a fairly young democratic government (replacing a longstanding feudal system) in attempt to promote the study of karate in schools and the military.

Below is a list of links to source material. There is a lot of plagiarism and consequent repetition on various sites but every now and again a little gem of new information is found nestling amongst the regurgitation. If you wade through the links below, you will encounter all of the available information I have sifted through to collate the data above (augmented by the two decades or so of amassed knowledge already knocking around in my head).ō_Itosu


Brett Jacobs

Deputy Chief Instructor - 5th Dan Black Belt