Understanding Itosu’s Pinan (Heian) Kata

A discussion of (my personal view of) the implications for bunkai from examination of available information (augmented by existing personal kn

Brett Jacobs
Brett Jacobs
 min read
April 19, 2022
A discussion of (my personal view of) the implications for bunkai from examination of available information (augmented by existing personal kn
A discussion of (my personal view of) the implications for bunkai from examination of available information (augmented by existing personal knowledge (see previous article: Anko Itosu and Pinan (Heian) kata):

Prior to Itosu’s development of modern karate, Okinawan martial arts were predominantly taught and studied by, members of the aristocracy, under a feudal hierarchy system, the Samurai.

Whilst these individuals would have used their martial arts for self-protection, bodyguarding and a degree of civil law enforcement they would have practiced fighting each other (trained martial artists) and, no doubt settled disputes between themselves in accordance with rules of honour. Consequently, the Okinawan martial arts would, to a significant degree, had to have dealt with a ‘fair fight’ between two competent martial artists.

Itosu’s contemporary karate was for all, including the (majority) working classes. The name Pinan and Itosu’s first precept suggest his new style was for self-defence against the worst elements of society who would be unprincipled and not bound by concepts of honour.

Itosu was of average height. Consequently, he would often have had to have dealt with working around a taller attacker’s longer reach; and it is likely this would be dealt with in his karate.

He was stocky and very strong, with incredible body conditioning. Most of his instruction, during his studies, seems to have focussed upon strength development and body conditioning, over and above the strategy of combat. Numbers: two, three, four, nine and 10 (half) of his precepts have significant focus upon strength training and physical body conditioning, improvement and development. The only advice within the 10 precepts as to how to achieve this is via daily repetitive practice of technique and impact training.

However, he was highly educated and would have very likely studied the works of strategists such as Sun Tzu and Miyamoto Musashi. He would have also discussed Matsumura’s approach, with his close friend Azato. His reference to a quote attributed to The Duke of Wellington, also tells of study of western military strategy.

Nonetheless, his fighting style seems to have been more one of digging in, blocking and absorbing and striking hard Ikken-hissatsu. Rather than delicate evasion and careful precision striking. Which it is suggested previous Okinawan styles had much greater focus upon.

It’s certainly noticeable that many of the older kata have far more complicated, intricate patterns of foot work than the Pinan.

Consequently, it may be reasonable to suppose that the Pinan katas were not designed with a very significant focus upon dealing with attackers with a high proficiency in the use of bladed weapons.

It seems that Itosu sought to develop a karate for the masses to produce a strong healthy population in preparation for military service. Every citizen trained to gain the muscle memory necessary to enable each or any individual to become proficient in the deadly ancient arts; but without the key knowledge necessary to unlock this deadly ability. Although all were taught basic blocks and punches.

This is what happened to Jujitsu when it was developed into the sport of Judo and when Kendo replaced the swords of Ken Jutsu with sticks.

This is the karate which was disseminated throughout the world.

However, Itosu’s first precept indicates his karate could be effectively utilised for self-defence and bodyguarding/close protection.

His third precept may be considered to suggest that a practitioner who adheres to his precepts, for three or four years, will discover the deeper principles for themselves.

His sixth precept indicates that there are applications for the techniques that are to be learned and the practitioner must judge when and how to apply them. This is commensurate with the notion that a kata is a tool box for the karateka to pick and choose, the best tool for the job at hand. His third precept is clear that three to four years of daily practice, are required not only to develop the body but also to discover the deeper principles of karate. Suggesting a far more complicated application than simple blocking, kicking and punching.

The seventh precept makes it clear that the practitioner needs to understand the various benefits and purposes of the art, determining which they are utilising karate for (at any particular time). It is made clear that there are health benefits as well as defence/protection applications (of self, family and master (retainer/employer)).

Precept six also seems to advocate fast efficient effective application of techniques: getting in, doing damage efficiently and effectively to incapacitate, then disengaging, rather than getting tied up in long exchanges or grappling. This suggests short bursts rather than long combinations to fend off a succession of an opponent’s attacks. This fits with the claim of the 10th precept, that a trained Karateka should be able to overcome 10 attackers. As soon as you are grappling, tied to one and immobilised, others can inflict damage upon you. No matter how conditioned a body it can only withstand so much of this.

Precepts four and five give very clear instructions about stance and body attitude for performing kihon, kata (and bunkai/kumite).

Precept eight gives further instruction about stance and physical attitude as well as mental attitude and visualisation.

I’m not sure much should be made of Itosu’s introduction, in relation to the Pinan kata and their development/bunkai/application: Dispelling ideas of connection to Chinese religious/philosophical traditions would have been helpful in selling his system to the young democratic Japanese government. The Chinese history of the art would not have been so popular with the new Japanese regime, but would have garnered respect from the Okinawan officials, into whose educational system Itosu initially sought to integrate his karate.

When examining Pinan kata and it’s bunkai it may be useful to look for links to the older kata’s it was developed from. It would seem Seishan can be dismissed as Itosu doesn’t appear to have been familiar with it.

Elements of Kushanku are clearly evident within Pinan, and generally accepted as such. Although there is suggestion that this was a late amendment to the earlier Channon version. Elements of Kushanku are most evident in the last two Pinan Kata and it has been suggested that Itosu lacked passion for and became somewhat disenchanted with Pinan Yondan & Godan. (This may be because the elements of Kushanku found in the Pinans are just as accessible via study of Kussanku). So perhaps the original essence of Itosu’s kata can be found in Shodan, Nidan and Sandan. There is strong suggestion that Itosu invested significantly in the study of Kushanku, Naihanchi and Rohai. There is more contentious suggestion of his development of other katas but these three seem most probable. So maybe this is the best place to start.

I am known as a karateka for whom the kata element of karate constitutes the weakest element of my three K’s (Kata, Kihon & Kumite). So, it is perhaps better for those more capable than me to examine and compare the Pinans with Naihanchi and Rohai to see what gems may be revealed.

That said, I am familiar with both kata (Naihanchi more than Rohai). I can see the intrigue of study of Naihanchi: a deceptively simple but in fact deeply complex kata. At an initial, perfunctory, consideration of this matter I can see elements of Naihanchi in Sandan and the opening of (tomorai) Rohai in Nidan.

With regard the suggestion that the Pinan are one long kata, broken down into stages in five segments: This makes sense to me. Whilst I agree that Nidan is, perhaps, easier to learn than Shodan; Shodan Kata (arguably) opens with flinch responses to defend against strikes to the head, and therefore (as this is the most common form of (unarmed) attack) it makes sense that a kata begin with this. (Translation: Stay Safe: 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5, is perhaps also telling).

It is interesting that the initial, (arguably) more aggressive, flinch responses in the openings of Kushanku and Naihanchi are disregarded in favour of the retraction from attack using arms to shield the head, found in Shodan.

However, using the arms as shields makes sense in consideration of Itosu’s emphasis on body conditioning. Also, the Irimi of, flinching forwards into the eye of the storm, required in Naihanchi and Kushanku is counter intuitive and takes significant time and training to master application. The opening to Shodan is built upon natural instinctive action and easier for the novice to master.

So, my research, and consideration of such, to date bring me to a point where I have some ideas about Itosu and how he was influenced in developing his Pinan katas. Which provides an informed starting point in attempting to determine the bunkai he is likely to have prescribed.

In conclusion:

The Pinan kata is/are likely designed to be learned via regular and constant daily repetition over a period of years.

This process incorporating impact training and assumption of required mental attitude with visualisation, on a daily basis in accordance with the practitioners desired outcomes from practice, will assist in developing the physical and mental strength and conditioning required to correctly apply the kata and gain the benefits it is designed to provide.

Once the kata is learned, as muscle memory, it’s techniques and applications must be fully understood so the practitioner can select and utilise them as necessary and helpful in response to circumstance and environment.

The kata is designed to provide protection by dealing with attacks quickly and ruthlessly, not to provide skill for competitive combat.

The kata is designed to deal with opponents within striking distance, preparing the practitioner to absorb initial strikes, using limbs to block, as they enter the eye of the storm to ruthlessly incapacitate their opponent. Immediately withdrawing ready to repeat the process with any other opponent as may be required.

When practicing/utilising karate the practitioner should drop their shoulders, open their lungs, keeping their back straight, muster their strength, grip the floor with feet and standing firmly adopt the feeling of putting strength into their legs and concentrating their energy into the lower abdomen (perhaps with the feeling of a volcano waiting to erupt).

When training the practitioner should maintain a constant awareness of the purposes for which they train. They should be fully alert and aware of their surroundings. They should try and perceive what they see through their eyes (and other senses) with a feeling of intensity and transmit this feeling through the glare of their stare; so as to be ready to implement their training in a situation of reality.

In the absence of any record of prescribed application of technique the practitioner will have to determine their own bunkai, which works for them. They may discover such after strict adherence the precepts for several years.

The practitioner should bear in mind that the Pinan katas were likely not designed to deal with attacks using bladed weapons, from attackers highly competent in the use of such. Mastery of older traditional katas may likely be more helpful with this.

Once mastery of the Pinan kata has been achieved the practitioner will be well prepared to examine the older more complex katas and incorporate the knowledge contained within them into their bunkai.

It would make sense to begin with Kushanku as its correlation with Pinan kata is most obvious. Then Naihanchi and perhaps Rohai, although if a practitioner has mastered the Pinan, Kushanku and is competent to begin tackling Naihanchi, they should be well prepared to competently examine and consider any of the older traditional katas and begin considering the different styles and form of combat they were designed to deal with.

My own view is that the Pinan kata form a sound solid basis for the commencement of the study of karate. By the time Shodan, Nidan & Sandan are mastered the practitioner will have developed some useful basic self-defence skills. Once Yodan & Godan are mastered combined with subsequent examination of Kushanku, the practitioner will be well prepared to begin considering older more traditional katas, to develop the level of competence required for black belt. Further study and practice to the expert level of third-degree black belt, Sandan, should equip the practitioner with the knowledge and competence to, follow in Itosu’s footsteps and, develop their own individual training tool or personal Kata (which, if you recall the beginning of my previous article, is where inspiration for me to begin this exercise began).

Brett Jacobs

21st November 2020

Brett Jacobs

Deputy Chief Instructor - 5th Dan Black Belt