The Evolution of Kata

Itosu Anko, the root of many modern Shorin-Ryu styles

Many karate masters of old have commented that the kata should not be changed, and this statement has been handed down to modern-day instructors. Despite that, we can look at pictures from the past and see, quite clearly, that the kata have been changed–even by people who said not to change them! A pretty significant example would be Itosu Anko, who is the source of what we would recognize as most of the Shorin-Ryu branches, today. He told his senior student, Chibana Chosin, that the Naihanchi kata came from “Todi” Sakugawa Kanga, and should never be changed. Evidence shows that Itosu did change the kata, himself, however. Not only that, but he may not have taught it the same to every student, or those students made changes, themselves.

Motobu Choki, karate fighter and proponent of classical kata training

Our best sources of information, when it comes to classical karate, are written accounts. Motobu Choki, for example, was quite vocal about the changes being made in modern (at the time) karate training. An article from Ryukyu Shimpo (the primary Okinawan newspaper) in 1936 quotes Motobu as saying that the way the fist was formed had changed, as had the angle of punches (from upward to downward angles). This is hardly the only thing he had to say about the changes, either. He also commented, to others, on his dislike of Itosu’s “pigeon-toed” stance in Naihanchi, the way he twisted his arms, and the prominence of neko-ashi-dachi (cat stances) in the Pinan kata.

Toyama (L), Funakoshi (M), and Motobu (R) performing the same move from Naihanchi Shodan

All that said, we can look at a collection of karateka who learned karate from Itosu, and see some very interesting differences. This would indicate that either Itosu taught each person differently, he changed the kata over the course of his teaching (so they each learned it the way he taught at the time they were training with him), they each made changes of their own, or some combination of those things. Recently, the Okinawa Seito Karatedo dojo in Austria posted a side-by-side comparison of Naihanchi Shodan, as demonstrated by Toyama Kanken, Funakoshi Gichin, and Motobu Choki. All three men trained with Itosu, as well as training with others.

Toyama, Funakoshi, and Motobu demonstrating another move from Naihanchi Shodan

There is often temptation to claim that the way one style performs a kata is correct, while the way another style performs it is incorrect. I believe that this stems from generations of karateka being told that kata should never be changed. They accept this suggestion as gospel, and believe that all of the people in their lineage must have also followed it. Clearly, this is not the case–rather, there can be multiple ways of performing a kata correctly. There are certainly ways to do it incorrectly, but those are either mistakes, or changes made without an understanding of what the kata is for. I am of the opinion that comparing different versions of a kata can give us a better understanding of what the kata was intended for, as different instructors will emphasize different aspects of it.

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About Noah

I began training in karate (Shuri-Ryu) in the Summer of 2006. Subsequently, I started training in judo, kobudo, and iaijutsu within the next 6 months. During my training there, I earned the rank of Sankyu (3rd Degree Brown Belt) in Shuri-Ryu, Gokyu (Green Belt) in judo, a certification in the use of the bo, and passed proficiency tests for the four tachigata of Shinkage-Ryu iaijutsu. I moved to Arizona in the Summer of 2008, and continued training and researching karate at home. I continued regular training in judo at a local club until 2010, when I was able to start training in Shorin-Ryu with Sensei Richard Poage. I have been training with him ever since, and currently hold the rank of Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) in Shorin-Ryu under him. In addition, I began studying KishimotoDi under Sensei Ulf Karlsson in 2014.