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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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The Heian Katas

An introduction

The Heian Kata represent the first five Kata that most students are introduced to in Shotokan Karate.  They are supposed to introduce the individuals to the basics of Karate that they will need to advance in Karate. But most students at that level do not learn about the history or origins of the Kata they are training in. Worse is that they often take inaccurate historical information as being truth then pass that on to others. This constant perpetuation of false ideas leads to some very confused individuals that will cling to the information they received from ‘sensei’ as if he was there and witness the creation of the style. Lets face it, most of our instructors are passing on information as a member of the fourth or even fifth generation of instructors since Funakoshi’s style was penned as Shotokan.


The truth often is hidden and sometimes a fake history can be very useful as a marketing tool. Who would not want to train in a style created by a mystic Shaolin monk?...The reality may not realize that the truth of the Katas history may not be as important as the lessons that you may learn from doing the Kata with a qualified instructor.

The name Pinan is translated as ‘Peaceful mind’ or ‘long Peace’ the name comes from an Okinawan saying Heiwa-antei or ‘peace and calmness’. The name therefore suggests that the student who has mastered these Kata can be confident in themselves and their skills. The Kata progresses from Easy practice to harder practice as you learn the Kata series and a lot of reworking has been done from many groups to influence the series over the years.

The Five Kata were created by Itosu Anko from older Kata.  The Katas were designed to instill specific gross motor skills and a sense of body movement specific to his style of training for younger students trying to learn his style of Karate.  The original Kata names were Pinan and the first and second Kata of the Heian series were reversed originally. When Funakoshi brought the Kata to the mainland he changed the names to be more Japanese for the new students and less Okinawan.

The Pinan Katas were not an ancient form of training; they were created in 1906 and were adopted by many different style of Karate after Itosu presented them to the world. You can find versions of this Kata series in Shorin ryu, Shorei ryu, Shotokan, Shito ryu, and Matsubayashi ryu to name a few.

The historical story of why Itosu created the Kata and out of what Katas he culled the Katas tend to get a bit fuzzy! One story about the Katas history claims Itosu learned a special Kata called ‘Channan’ from a Chinese man living in Okinawa.  From this Kata he made five Kata that were easier to mentally digest. The problem with this story is an account of Itosu meeting with a student and having his younger students perform a Kata he had just created for his school program.  The older student commented that he had never seen such a Kata and asked what it was called!  Itosu replied he was calling it ‘Channan’, but that he was not happy with this Kata as it was too long and had weak points. Some speculate that Itosu took this original work of art and broke it down into the five Kata that we now know as the Heian Kata.  


It is more likely that Itosu created a Kata using the older Katas Kanku Dai, Jion and perhaps Bassai Dai.  This Kata was created to bridge a gap between knowing nothing of Karate and the skills that one was practicing during the other Katas by using movements and techniques that would be similar to the student once they begin training in Karate. After completing this New Kata he changed his mind about having one long Kata and broke it into five and then renamed them.  One of the reasons I believe this hypothetical history over that of written ideas lies in the practice of other instructors of that time and the generation after Itosu.  Many of the instructors created Kihon Kata to introduce students to the more difficult Kata of their styles. You can find this in Goju ryu for one.  These ‘bridging’ kata often help introduce younger students and new students to the harder training to come. 


Regardless of the ‘Channan’ Kata, it is obvious that Itosu drew from common and influential Kata to create his master piece introductory Katas.  The Heian Katas demonstrate the Shuri style of fighting and movement patterns to the beginners.  Not too heavy or power focused, the Heian Katas are very flexible and can be used by anyone wanting to learn Itosu’s Style.


When Funakoshi adopted these Kata he was already well past the point of being a beginner.  Which leads us to another false dojo story of Funakoshi being forced to do thousands of Heian Kata over a three-year period before moving on to the next one. This may be an accurate depiction of him learning the Tekki Katas and other more advanced Kata, but not the Heian Katas. Funakoshi would have learned those Kata long after he was seen as a junior student and more when he was assisting in brining the art to the school system for Itosu.


So, where did Funakoshi learn these Kata? 


Some suggest he studied them while preparing to bring Itosu Senseis Karate to school children and Mabuni was told to instruct him, others feel that he learned them directly from Itosu Sensei prior to helping him with his dream of putting Karate in schools.  It is known that Funakoshi had a lot of help and some senior instructors assist him in moving into the school system, but Mabuni was not well known to have taught in schools before Funakoshi sensei did.  It is more likely that Funakoshi learned these Kata from Itosu or from one of Itosu’s more senior students prior to moving into the school system.


When Funakoshi came to Japan he brought with him all of the Kata he had learned from his master and those he had taught to the school children for Itosu Sensei.  When he was in Japan and formulating a style to introduce to the general public in Japan, he took the Okinawan Pinans and changed the name to Heian as well as swapping number one for number two. He wrote at that time that he felt this created a more gentle introduction and a more gradual increase in difficulties for learning. Along with the Pinan to Heian shift Funakoshi also worked on changes to names and movements of other Kata. After Funakoshi made his alterations and taught students for many years the JKA was formed.  From this new organization came many changes in Kata as the students tried to pass on and research the Karate that master Funakoshi brought with him to Japan.

The Kata series has become so much more than just an introduction to the system for school children. Modern Shotokan Karateka feel that the Kata are embodiment of that which ‘Shotokan’.  While remaining Basic they still instill the skills they were called upon to do. With their long and graceful stances, powerful hip movements and all of the basics of modern Shotokan wrapped up in the Katas, these Kata are often viewed as some of the most important Kata to master in the whole Shotokan syllabus.


Most of the Heian Kata follow the same Embussen or path. The path looks like an H turned on its side or a capital I with upturned ends at one end or the other.  This Embussen is historically significant only because several other styles have mirrored this pattern, which allows for practice of turns and also dynamic straight movements in practice.

Each Heian Kata has specific skills and lessons that are introduced to create a smooth flowing lesson plan from the master in order to teach Karate and Kata from a very basic level up to the intermediate student. Keeping in mind that in Okinawa during the time that these Kata were being created, they did not use Rank at all nor did they use the now common Keiko-gi that we see with the color Obi to tell someone what level in your training you are at.  
James James


Further articles in this series will follow in up and coming editions of TSW