|Ryuuken (Dragon Fist), or Nakadaka-Ipponken (Convex Single Point Fist)|
Most kata use the closed fist more than any other hand formation, but even those kata will typically use at least one other hand formation, at some point. When you change hand formation in kata, the kata is usually telling you that you are striking in a certain way, or to a certain type of target. That said, these things are not (and should not) be set in stone. In bunkai (analysis) of your kata, you should find that a wide variety of hand formations can work, depending on the targets available, and still fit the kata. This means that the kata, itself, can use different hand formations, without having truly changed the kata. Striking with a palm strike instead of a fist, because they turned their head and dropped their chin, doesn’t really change what the kata has told you to do.
Take the “Koshiki no Naihanchi” video, above. People who call their kata “koshiki” (old style) are typically claiming that the way they do it is older than what most people do, and more like the original. If you really look at the kata he is doing, however, you will see that there is no difference between his Koshiki no Naihanchi and your typical Naihanchi Shodan, except that he does the gedan-barai (low sweep) and mawashi-tsuki (turning thrust) at the same time. Yes, his hands are open, but the mechanics and movements of the kata remain unchanged. All he has done is perform Naihanchi Shodan with open hands, and the only difference it would make to his applications is his targeting, or slight changes in the way his strikes land.
|Chibana Chosin (Left) and Motobu Choki (Right) performing the same movement in Naihanchi Shodan|
Historically, we can see that different masters favored different hand formations, and changed the kata they taught, accordingly. Recently, the Motobu-Ryu Facebook page posted photos of Naihanchi being performed with a haishu-uke (backhand receiver), and stated that Itosu Anko changed it to haito-uke (ridgehand receiver) to make it safer. This sparked a discussion about changing kata, and that conversation is what inspired this post. Personally, I don’t believe the assumption that Itosu changed that movement to make it safer to be true, for two reasons. First of all, Tachimura no Naihanchi uses a haito-uke, and it was not influenced by Itosu. Second of all, the difference between the two hand formations is minute, and doesn’t really change the applications. If you are using them to strike, for example, then your target may change (throat for haito-uke, face for haishu-uke) but the mechanics of what you are doing stay pretty much the same. Haito-uke actually has the added benefit of passing through the haishu-uke position, which may be why it has become the more prevalent hand formation. One is not inherently safer than the other.
The way I see it, hand formations in kata are like the heads of medieval polearms. The formation at the end of the weapon makes the weapon more or less effective against a particular target. They can be changed to suit your needs, but they remain polearms, and the basics of using them remain largely unchanged. It is only when the mechanics of a kata are changed, that the application really changes. If you put a a halberd head on a 4″ handle, you would have to use it much differently than you would normally use a halberd. In kata, if you put a haito-uke on the end of a straight motion instead of a circular motion, then you have to use it much differently. The same idea applies to both.