A missing technique in Heian Shodan? 平安初段で忘れ去られた技とは
In the past I have picked out and discussed several interesting subjects from Heian Shodan. You can find them in my blog or in my books if you wish to read them. So, you would wonder if there could be another subject worthwhile to discuss from this basic kata.
Indeed, there is still an important subject that, I feel, needs our attention and maybe a better understanding. Once again, I am picking a subject that no-one else (as far as I know) has ever paid much attention to in the past. Some of the readers may not agree with what I present here but I think it is worthwhile to give you my explanation and opinion.
OK, today’s subject is the seventh movement of Heian Shodan. First, we need to agree on exactly which technique is the 7th move. Believe it or not, we need to take this process because it is almost a forgotten move. Here is one popular diagram of Heian Shodan (left) in which the first eight moves are shown. The sixth move is easy to see, as I am sure, we can all agree, it is the left side gedan barai facing shomen (the second image from far right). So, what is the next step? In the illustration it is shown as “step forward and a right side jodan age uke” (the far right image). What’s wrong with this? Were you taught this way? If you had learned Heian Shodan this way, I am sorry to tell you that you learned or were taught incorrectly. You might be shocked with this statement since this kata is taught this way in many dojo these days. In fact, I have learned recently that the JKF (Japan Karate Federation, the sport karate organization in Japan) has decided to omit this move. That decision may have influenced other major Shotokan organizations such as JKA and JKS to follow suit. A recent JKA kata manual for competition, illustration below shows this omission (photo leftt).
So, what do you think is wrong with this? A hint is that one important movement is missing. If you are from the old school, you can quickly point out, “Oh the next move is left hand jodan shuto age uke.” Yes, this is the answer I was looking for. I want to share how this kata was taught to me over 50 years ago. Here is a page from one of the Best Karate books (by Masatoshi Nakayama ). In it Osaka sensei is performing the first seven steps of Heian Shodan (photo right). See the sequence is this photo. The key move is numbered as 7a. When I learned this kata long time ago, we were taught kaishu age uke as a transitional move. We are to execute kaishu age uke during the stepping forward motion with your right foot.
In later editions of the same Best Karate Books (Vol. 5) the designation 7A and 7B were eliminated and were combined into the one movement of 7. In the photo below, you will find that this move is not mentioned and is shown only as a transitional move. The term of hidari jodan age uke is left out.
But we need to look even further into the history of this kata. Here are the photos from Master Funakoshi’s Karatedo Kyohan (空手道教範). The photo below left is from the Japanese version (1936 edition) and the English version (photo below right) is from an edition translated by Harumi Suzuki Johnson (2005 edition).
You can clearly see that Funakoshi put this 7th move as an independent move. He also explained on the page that this move is a combination move of jodan block from gedan block (6th move). He did not say it was a preparation move for right age uke or this should be treated as a transitional move.
OK it may look like I am paying too much attention to this point, but I do not think I am. I am doing this because I consider it an extremely important point for the readers to know. I feel I needed to mention this before we go on to the main point that I will discuss below.
Let’s go back to the main point of this left side kaishu (open hand) age uke technique. You should do this technique without changing the stance, left side zenkutsu dachi. What is most important, however, is that you execute this technique by moving your left arm alone. When you think of this technique in depth, wouldn’t you agree this is not the standard way to do jodan age uke? When you were a white belt, I assume, you would have learned how to do jodan age uke in the way that is shown in the photo sequence shown below. Though it is probably unnecessary to describe the process of this technique as it is almost too obvious. However, I will describe the details of this technique later. This single arm movement of jodan age-uke is the very point of the subject of this essay.
Have you asked your sensei, why we need to do this? If you did, then what did your sensei tell you? He probably told you that pulling the left arm is called hikite which, by pulling it back, gives speed and power to the rising block, jodan age uke. The details of age uke technique are shown blow in the photo sequence (demonstrated by Hidetaka Nishiyama). Since you were only a white belt or a beginner, I am sure you convinced yourself that you understood this explanation. You would say, “Yes, hikite is important as we use this in almost all the techniques such as gyaku zuki, soto uke, uchi uke, gedan barai, and many other.” This understanding is ok for white belts and beginners. However, this is not an acceptable explanation for the advanced practitioners. This is why I am writing this essay. Are you surprised?
Before we go into the in-depth explanation of this move, let me ask you one key question. Did your sensei explain the bunkai for this (the seventh) move? In most of the dojo I am sure the instructors typically skip bunkai for the white belts. I think that is a wise choice as I also believe that the white belts should not worry about bunkai at their level. Despite that, if your sensei bothered to explain, he probably described the meaning as follow: the sixth move, gedan barai, means a down-block to either the opponent’s right mae geri (left side of the photo) or right chudan oizuki. The seventh move starts with a left jodan block (with a shuto or open hand) to the opponent’s right jodan oizuki (right side of the photo, the demonstration here is done with a closed fist) or his left jodan oizuki. Then grab the opponent’s wrist with your left hand and step forward to deliver a counter attack. One popular bunkai shows an elbow joint attack (illustration right). Frankly I must point out that the illustration I found in the public domain is very unrealistic. It assumes the opponent who performed a right jodan gyaku zuki would step back so that the defender (person on the left) can step forward to give an elbow joint attack. Would you not agree that this is very unrealistic? The natural reaction of the attacker would be to stay where he is and immediately strike with his left fist while he tries to pull his right wrist back. Why would he step back? It does not make any sense. The second unrealistic move is an elbow joint attack itself. Even if we assume, no matter how unrealistic it may be, the opponent stepped back, why would the defender want to execute a not so effective counter attack? It certainly does not look like a good choice. I will present a much better bunkai idea later.
If you are an advanced (brown belt and above) practitioner you need to know the bunkai, so I am pretty sure you have studied this or seen this in the video demonstration published by a certain major Japanese Shotokan karate organization. Am I saying that those bunkai ideas mentioned earlier are wrong? No, for the white belt students they are acceptable ideas. What I am saying is that different bunkai ideas are much more appropriate and realistic, especially for the advanced practitioners. Though the bunkai idea is not the core of this discussion, the application of this technique is. If you agree that the 7th or 7a move, a shuto jodan age uke, is considered as a legitimate blocking technique, then why did we learn the other method of age uke using both arms (photo left)? Is this 7a move, a non-crossing method of age uke, an exception? This is something all the advanced practitioners should ask and find the answer. Here is, indeed, a hidden teaching which has been forgotten or ignored by most of the instructors these days.
For the white belt students we teach techniques using both arms as it is easier to perform the technique correctly as well as the body motion resulting in sufficient power. If you teach them how to do those techniques using a single arm, their techniques will be inaccurate and done with much less power. Therefore, the white belts should not be taught the real meaning of this motion. As we advance in the karate skills, we must be able to execute almost all the arm techniques singularly. Of course, there are some exceptions that require both arms, morote waza (諸手技) of various types including hikite (引手), kakiwake (掻き分け), kosa uke (交差受け) or kosa uchi (交差打ち), etc. In other words, as an advanced practitioner we need to be able to execute our arm techniques effectively using only one arm. This means the management of one arm should be totally independent and not to be affected by the other arm as well as the legs unless it is working in coordination with them.
Therefore, I regard this step as a full independent move and not a transitional one or a part of the next step. This single arm technique is not an exception but rather an introduction to an advanced technique. So, I suggest to the advanced practitioners to make a full technique with this move, instead of executing it only as a preparation or a transitional move.
I want to bring up another important subject that is not known by many practitioners. I have mentioned this in another essay in the past. I need to mention it again here because it is the very essence of the technique that is often misunderstood or even unknown for many practitioners.
The subject I am referring to here is the relationship between the techniques and their names. This may seem like a minor subject but it isn’t. We must understand the history of Okinawan karate or Te or Tei (手) to know the reasons. Until the 20th century, the techniques did not have names. This may be extremely difficult to believe for most of the practitioners these days. It was not because the Okinawan masters were illiterate or uneducated. It was certainly because of some other reasons.
First, they did not want to put one name to each technique. If you are a beginner you may have difficulty in understanding this statement. Allow me to explain it further with some facts. Let’s take this technique of jodan age uke. This technique can, of course, be a jodan level block but at the same time, the same technique or arm movement can be used for attacking techniques such as kentsui uchi going upward or jowan uchi, a forearm strike. Even though the arm movement is different, the final form of a jodan mawashi uchi (roundhouse punch) would look like the form of jodan age uke. Thus, they must have known that tagging the names to the techniques would only cause confusion.
Another fact is that before the 20th century, one master typically would have only one or two students. In other words, each sensei used to teach karate in a one to one basis. In a face to face environment, a master would only show how to do the techniques.
In addition, the Japanese culture is we prefer to teach by demonstrations. The verbal teaching was and still is not considered as the best method. So, an Okinawan sensei most likely did not explain much and definitely he did not consider tagging names to techniques at all. For example, to explain the seventh move of Heian Shodan, he would tell the student, “OK bring your right arm this way and do this, etc.”, “Yes, in this case, you will block the opponent, etc.”, “But if he is here, then you will not block but rather strike the opponent under the chin, etc.”, and so on.
By labeling a certain technique as jodan age uke, the practitioners tend to assume that such a technique is used only for blocking purposes. This is exactly what has happened with the seventh move of Heian Shodan. As the technique was labelled as jodan shuto age uke so you assumed the bunkai would have to look like the photo on the right. That is acceptable as just one of the options. However, I wish to suggest that it would make better sense, for the 7th move, if we use the left shuto to strike in the opponent’s neck (photo right).
In the 8th or 9th move, you would strike in the opponent’s neck or the side of the head (photo left). Isn’t this application more realistic and effective than an elbow joint attack?
You may agree with my ideas for bunkai up to now. Then, let me ask you the following question. Why did the creator of this kata, Anko Itosu (糸洲安恒), put in four jodan age ukes (the first one is in shuto hand)? There are at least two answers.
The first answer is Master Itosu thought this technique (currently called jodan age uke) is a very important technique and it should be practiced in a sequence of four times. This can be said for the chudan oizuki in the latter half of this technique (done three times in a row) as well as the chudan shuto uke at the end of this kata. The second answer to the question above is that Master Itosu wanted to show us that there are many different applications using this technique. It can be used as a block using a shuto hand or a fist, a forearm strike, or an elbow joint attack, or even a jodan mawashi uchi (photo right). This idea supports my earlier statement that the Okinawan masters prior to the 20th century did not want to tag a name to a certain technique.
I want to mention another interesting hidden fact of Heian Shodan kata. Many people notice a curious point of the tate kentsui uchi (vertical hammer fist, photo below) that is found in the 4th move.
Many question if this technique could be an anomaly in the seemingly symmetrical kata. We wonder why Itosu didn’t put the same technique going to the left side. Instead, they should have noticed that the right fist is being used as a counter attack right after gedan barai. Yes, this is the same concept you find in the 6th and 7th (or 7a) move, gedan barai and jodan shuto uchi (I prefer to call it this rather than age uke). The 4th move was done with the right arm and the transitional move to the 7th (or 7a) move was done with the left arm. Though it may not look symmetrical in its enbusen, as far as the concept of the techniques now we can see it was planned symmetrical or at least well balanced on using this unique technique on both sides. Itosu hid (most likely intentionally) this advanced technique in the kata that is considered as an “easy” kata. I hope you are happy to find the answer to this puzzle.
- 1. The transitional jodan shuto uke which I believe to be the 7th (or 7a move) of Heian Shodan, is the advanced form of age uke and should be a single arm technique. This teaches the advanced students to perform the arm techniques of uke as well as uchi in single arm movement.
- Often, the names of the techniques do not really mean the true applications. Do not let the names influence you incorrectly in bunkai.
- Many of the bunkai ideas spread around the world are very unrealistic. The advanced students should not accept only one or two ideas. I ask them to spend more energy in their effort to figure out the applications that are more realistic and usable in a real fight. If the techniques do not work in a real fight then what is the kata worth?
Heian Shodan is the very first kata for most of the Shotokan practitioners and age uke is one of the first techniques those beginners to learn. Though these matters are so “elementary” and almost matter of of-course, we must pay closer attention to those subjects as we advance. In doing so, we will discover some new meaning and a new horizon of the karate that will take us to a higher level of understanding of this martial art. I look forward to hearing what the readers think about this subject that was discussed in this essay.