Article by Manuel Vignola

Naihanchi is one of the most famous kata of Okinawan Karate, considered from the beginning of 1900 onwards the basis of the styles of Shuri and Tomari (the most famous admirers and scholars of this kata were Anko Itosu and Choki Motobu, who founded practically on this unique kata all its teaching). However, for such well-known and ancient forms, as is often the case with historical sources, especially for an art like Karate lived in the shadows and in secrecy for many years, they are extremely dubious and incomplete. One of the many theories reports that Ason, one of the two personal guards of the Chinese Sapposhi who arrived in Okinawa in 1866-1868, taught this kata, presumably born for military training purposes, with the name Daipochin (“fighting on an uneven surface”); the kata would have been learned by Ufu Giko (according to what Shugoro Nakazato told Scott Mertz) and transmitted to Kosaku Matsumora from Tomari, therefore according to this hypothesis the kata would have an origin in the Tomari area. The researcher Akio Kinjo in 1960 would instead have known in Yonabaru an acupuncturist expert in the Taiwanese style of the White Crane Qiu Ban Ban Si Ban Quan, who included among the forms taught a kata called Neixi characterized by the technique of namigaeshi, the same used in Naihanchi; from further investigations, in the Fujian dialect Neixi was pronounced Nohanchi, and Kinjo considers it the precursor of Okinawan Naihanchi. Others claim it was imported from Fujian by exponents of the so-called Naha-te such as Kanryo Higaonna, who would have included it in the teaching curriculum as ā€œKoshiki Naihanchiā€ and after an initial period it would have been deleted by Chojun Miyagi after the Second World War. Still others claim it would have been learned from Sokon Matsumura (or even from Kanga Sakugawa) while studying it in some Fujian Shaolin temple. According to Ryozo Fujiwara and Shinkin Gima, Anko Itosu learned this kata from a Chinese castaway who lived in the caves around Tomari. These are just some of the countless theories that circulate about this kata, leaving aside the common rumors that see it as a form to fight in balance on boats, rocks, or between the paths of the rice fields, or to act as a shield to the Okinawan royals in the corridors of the palace from any attackers.

As for the form, here too the theories are many: there are those who argue that there was a “longer form” learned from Sokon Matsumura and subsequently divided into two, as claimed by practitioners of Mastumura Seito, or always a “longer form” divided by Anko Itosu in the three Naihanchi, or that the current Naihanchi is only a portion of an older and lost Chinese kata, or that Itosu has developed from scratch the second and third Naihanchi gradually including more sophisticated principles to make learning more organized at the time of introduction in schools, this latter theory is the one I think is more probable and is also reflected in the works of Hiroshi Kinjo.

Even as regards the transmission line of the kata, the information is extremely incomplete and discordant:

ā€¢ according to some, the kata originated in the so-called Naha-te with Kanryo Higaonna, and from there it would later be imported into Shuri-te and Tomari-te, to then disappear in the style of Naha except for a short period in which it would be taught by Chojun Miyagi in Goju-ryu, however we know that Miyagi often exchanged knowledge with Anko Itosu and that Meitoku Yagi, his only pupil who carried out Naihanchi in Goju-ryu, performed a kata in line with the characteristics of Itosu’s;

ā€¢ according to others, the origin is to be found in Tomari-te and with Kosaku Matsumora (or with Gusukuma, Itosu’s master) the kata would have spread to Shuri; therefore Sokon Matsumura according to this hypothesis would not have taught it, and this would be confirmed by the fact that practically no student of him claimed to have learned this kata (eg Kyan Chotoku, Chogi Yoshimura); however Motobu clearly explains the differences between Matsumura’s Naihanchi and Itosu’s (it is true that Matsumura and Matsumora in the Okinawan dialect are always pronounced Machimura, but the kanji are different, and Shuri’s Machimura is indicative of the origin of the kata);

ā€¢ according to still others, the kata was imported in the course of the 1800s from China into the so-called Shuri-te (where it was modified and adapted to the Okinawan mentality), from where it spread into Tomari-te (according to Choshin Chibana this style is a synthesis of the methods practiced both in Naha and Shuri, with Chinese influences during the second half of the 1800s); I personally believe this last hypothesis the most probable, since both Seikichi Hokama and Iken Tokashiki (heir of Seyu Nakasone of the Tomari-te) name more than one Naihanchi and being, according to the most recent research, Itosu to have created the second and third Naihanchi, this statement would corroborate what Chibana claimed regarding Shuri’s martial knowledge migrated to Tomari on several occasions;

On the basis of the testimonies both direct and given by the comparison of the various versions, we try to draw up a series of characteristics that presumably had the old Naihanchi, keeping in mind that these are mostly hypotheses, each Master modified the kata based on the his ideas, sometimes merging multiple versions into a single form, and moreover it was common to explain the concepts differently according to the level, knowledge and characteristics of each pupil:

-The starting position tends to include the open left hand covering the right, which is also open, but in some versions (Choki Motobu in Konishi’s book, as well as the Tachimura version) the initial position includes a fisted hand enclosed in the other ( similar to the starting position of the Passai / Bassai kata).

-it is commonly believed that the old position adopted was with the feet not turned inwards but parallel and facing forward (as Choki Motobu, Chomo Hanashiro and Gichin Funakoshi in the book Rentan Goshin Karate Jutsu of 1925) or a position with the toes of the feet turned out (like the versions popular in Tomari, the Tachimura no Naihanchi or the position adopted by Kentsu Yabu and Shin’ei Kaneshima of the Ishimine-ryu school, or again Gichin Funakoshi in Karate Do Kyohan of 1935); we know that in his book Watashi no Karate Jutsu of 1936 Choki Motobu criticized the position introduced by Anko Itosu, with the toes turned inwards (present in the schools derived from the teachings of Choshin Chibana, Chotoku Kyan, Hohan Soken) calling it ā€œsmall turtleā€ and judging it dangerous in a fight; however, as Kentsu Yabu reports, Naihanchi was Itosu’s specialty so much so that even his friend Anko Asato, a student of Matsumura, recognized his performance as the best of his time. It is believed that this modification was adopted to train the muscles of the torso (concept of gamaku) perhaps integrating concepts typical of another basic kata generally abandoned by the Shorin schools, the Sanchin.

-It is believed that the old Naihanchi started from the left (like Chomo Motobu, Tachimura, the typical versions of Tomari, Shine’i Kaneshima, Higa no Naihanchi of the Bugeikan school) and not from the right, modification perhaps introduced by Anko Itosu (Gichin Funakoshi, Kenwa Mabuni, Choshin Chibana, Kentsu Yabu, Chomo Hanashiro, etc.).

-The first technique would have been a namigaeshi (return wave kick) followed by a haishu uke (like Chomo Hanashiro and Kentsu Yabu, Gichin Funakoshi, Tomari’s versions), instead of the haito typical of the post Itosu versions combined with the absence of first namigaeshi (Choshin Chibana and schools derived from him and from Chotoku Kyan, Kenwa Mabuni, Hohan Soken etc.); this too would be a modification of Itosu who had the preference in grabbing and pulling the opponent to himself after having intercepted him.

-The way of walking in Tomari Naihanchi and derivatives involves steps performed by raising the foot a lot, while Choki Motobu (a concept practically followed by all the others) included transition steps in kosa dachi without lifting the foot in order to avoid injuring the soles of the feet hitting the ground hard after lifting the foot.

-The kagi tsuki technique in front of the chest would be a recent variation (Choki Motobu, Choshin Chibana, Gichin Funakoshi, Kenwa Mabuni, Kentsu Yabu, Chomo Hanashiro, etc.). In the interview conducted by Shoshin Nagamine in 1936, Choki Motobu recalls that Shuri’s Matsumura style originally involved a direct upward stroke with the hirate technique (as from the only video released it would seem to be present in the Ishimine-ryu) ; in some schools (Chomo Hanashiro, Higa no Naihanchi, Tachimura no Naihanchi, some Matsumura Seito schools) the punch is first stretched and then brought back in front of the chest to train the student to forcefully withdraw the blow back after throwing it without carrying it alongside (concept advocated by Choki Motobu). Note that the current versions performed with open hands are recent modifications (in Gohaku-ryu Seyu Nakasone introduced this method of performing kata with open hands, in Shito-ryu Kaishu Naihanchi is transmitted).

-The punch technique commonly performed as uraken can be performed in various ways depending on the preferred application, Choshin Chibana opted for an inside punch, Morinobu Maeshiro of the Shidokan school moves outward and strikes, Gichin Funakoshi follows the same concept differently, Choki Motobu and Kentsu Yabu strike directly from the front position, etc. In some versions, this technique would even be a backward fist (Ishimine-ryu, Shinpan Gusukuma) preceding the so-called yoko uke.

-The yoko uke technique was performed with the back out (Choki Motobu, Chomo Motobu, Kanken Toyama, Tomari Naihanchi, Ishimine Naihanchi, etc.) rather than with the wrist turned outwards, a modification derived from Itosu and criticized by Motobu.

-Basically two namigaeshi are performed, one on one side and one on the other (Choshin Chibana, schools derived from Chotoku Kyan, Kenwa Mabuni, Choki Motobu, etc.), however in the old versions there were more kicks of this type or tending more to trampons on the ground, for example during transits in the kosa dachi position (Chomo Motobu, Tomari Naihanchi, Kenstu Yabu, Gichin Funakoshi, Chomo Hanashiro, etc.). Other versions use even more kicks (Ishimine-ryu) and some less (see Motobu version presented by Yasuhiro Konishi).

-The second yoko uke would be an introduction of Itosu according to Choki Motobu (who nevertheless uses it in one of his two taught versions, as in the 1936 book Watashi no Karate Jutsu), which would have made more evident an originally hidden technique (version presented by Motobu in the book by Yasuhiro Konishi, Ishimine-ryu, Tachimura Naihanchi) to make it more easily assimilated.

-The morote tsuki today is taught at a medium level, while in the past (Ishimine-ryu), according to what reported by Choki Motobu, it was directed upwards, and Katsuya Miyahira explains the motivation: originally it was a technique to grab the tuft of the enemy, at present this hairstyle has been eliminated so the application of the kata has also changed.

Summing up this brief exposition, we can deduce that there are a variety of versions of this kata, sometimes they vary from Master to Master even if the source was the same, but in addition to what was previously said (each Master adapted the teaching according to the ‘pupil and each integrated the acquired knowledge and remodeled the kata according to his conceptions) it is also necessary to consider the changes made over time to direct the practitioner of his school towards a favorite application rather than towards the others, as well as the changes made with the changing needs of time; however the basic principles remain the same and this kata is confirmed as one of the most important of all Okinawan Karate, containing within it a sophisticated training in the movement of the body and its strengthening, sophisticated principles of movement, a lot of technique extremely effective at short distances, the basics of fist techniques as well as a whole series of Tuidi techniques (joint manipulation) and attacks on the weak points of the body (chibu nigakiree).

Article by Manuel Vignola