Gojushiho Kata History & Bunkai



A little of the kata history & origins:

matsumura gojushiho
Gojushiho,
formerly called Useishi in Okinawa (Sells, 1995)
is probably most trained, in terms of numbers of karate-ka around the world, in the two styles of Shito-ryu & Shotokan (the kata is also nick named Hotaku - woodpecker). However, Shorin-ryu and Itosu-kai are two other examples of major styles which carry the kata. These styles all possess this kata due to their heritage with Itosu Ankoh (see also the Itosu article). However, it is Matsumara Sokon (1809 [exact date debated] -1889) who was key in the initial spread of this kata in Okinawa (see WIKI lineage chart). In fact, some argue that he may have been the creator of it. However, its moves and and even name, would suggest it may in fact have arisen from Chinese origins. The various bodies of research around its origins leads one to believe that its origin is somewhere in China, but drawing specifics beyond that would seem to be stretch (as discussed below the name itself sheds some light on this).

Image 1: Matsumura is considered the founder of Shuri-Te karate (Sells, 1995), and he was also the author of the "Principles of Karate". He was the only karate-ka in history to receive the honorary title of Bushi from the king of the kingdom of Ryukyu. It is Shuri-te karate which of course lead to Shorin-ryu karate, makes up the backbone of Shotokan and is central to components of Shito-ryu.

Short video excerpt on history, form & bunkai


gojushiho kata kanji
The meaning of Gojushiho is most often directly translated from the kanji (pictured left), and literally this means 54 steps, but is often cited as 54 "moves/techniques" (a premise is that an early version may have had this many techniques within it). Another interesting take on the name stems from the fact some of the movements of Gojushiho are found in the Bubishi, an ancient Chinese text on martial arts. Depending on the version of the Bubishi, and its translation (McCarthy, Sells, Cook), the kata may have been referred to as “Fifty four steps of the Black Tiger Style”. Research around the internet also suggests that the "Black Tiger" components (a Northern Chinese martial art which originated in Shandong Province) exist within the kata when considering the stance varieties and the potential claw/palm/nukite strikes which are combined with shuffling forward steps. However, at least  as a casual glance at the history and time frame, the links to "Black Tiger" Kung-fu raises some unanswered questions. Article continues below....




gojushiho kata dvd bunkai
54min Video Gojushiho Kata & Bunkai 
The Kata history and meaning is presented, bunkai options for all moves, the kata is performed fast and slow at different angles and includes a slow walk through of the pattern. Selected bunkai are referenced to an evidence based approach related to street, emergency, police & UFC data/statistcs. Provided as revision for the Bassai Dai seminars run in early 2012. 

1. Click here to purchase the DVD $24  
          (includes free shipping anywhere)...

           or

2. Click here to download the 54min HD  Gojushiho video for $19...


Shihan Jason Armstrong, 7th Dan, is the primary instructor in this video, with support from sensei Greg Scovell. Shihan Jason's version is influenced by his time living in Japan mainland and bunkai related to his training visits to Okinawa.



gojushiho mabuni bubishi

Image 2: A bubshi image taken from the Mabuni 1934 text 
Seipai no Kenkyu KoboJizai Karate Kenpo.

A further possibility for the name stems from the significance of 54 and 108 in Buddhist derived arts. The association is that 108 steps (defined in a few different ways) can be seen as a pathway to enlightenment (see sensei Scovell article on the significance of 54 & 108 in karate and kata names). The link to Gojushiho is based on a notion that  mastery of the 54 steps will get you half way there...

The oldest versions began by dropping to one knee with an accompanying block (Sells, 1995). In comparison, the more modern versions (Itosu-Mabuni-Funakoshi lineage) start with a standing backfist strike with an associated check/block. In regards to the modern forms, there are now two main versions of this kata, the Shuri-te version (which is the one that shito-ryu & shotokan perform) and the Tomari-te version. The Tomari-te version has a movement in the middle which resembles the movements of a drunken man, while the equivalent sections of the Shuri-te version has a side-to-side movement, and it is not performed to resemble a drunken man. A very identifiable part of the kata involves sliding-in (suri ashi) "nukite" strikes. These moves, as mentioned above, have been connected by some to the "Black Tiger" practices within Chinese martial arts. As we discuss bunkai below, and show in the video, the nukite strikes are not necessarily just finger tip strikes, but are often interpreted as striking with all surfaces of the hand, which includes palm strikes, slaps an an action to induce "coupe/contrecoup" effects to the brain or carotid blows with the corresponding effects described in the medical injuries section of 
Karate technique selection & Street Fighting Statistics & Medical Outcomes. The nukite(s) may also involve grab releases and body strikes, the bias from my experience on the bunkai for these motions in Japan and Okinawa is style dependent.

Throughout the internet, Gojushiho is quoted as a good example of udundi, which translates to "Palace hands" and refers to aikido like throwing and locking techniques, reputed to be related to martial control by guards inside castles, palaces etc. And as we list below, and in the video, our ryu-ha also views Gojushiho bunkai as containing underlying principles of unbalancing grappling and kansetsu (joint locking). As a quick aside, Motobu-ryu, founded by Choki Motobu in 1922, also goes by the name Motobu udun-di (本部御殿手). The connection to udundi (i.e. law enforcement) has very strong implications in terms of the difference between male-on-male street violence versus law enforcement regarding probable skill-set needs and bunkai interpretation (which we outline a little below & in the textbook
Shotokan further iterated on this kata, as they did for so many in the 1930-150 era, and came up with Gojushiho-Sho and Gojushiho-Dai. The reversing of the dai (big - 大) and sho (small - 小) names relative to the apparent complexities of each version of the kata has a few rumors surrounding the senior Shotokan sensei of the post-war era. In this article we will not explore that debate, other than to say it exists.

The opinion that this kata, or others, will remain unchanged and that an original exact form must be sought, is most likely a naive view, given that over time things change and that instructors at high Dan levels begin to put their insights/flavor into kata causing continual evolution, even within a sub-style (ryu-ha). In the authors experience, from both living inside Japan and outside Japan, these gradual changes can be attributed to at least the following:
  1. Kata insight at high ranks - as a master of the art understands a kata better, or its function (bunkai) the art/kata is tweaked
  2. Forgetfulness as a kata was placed in the background for a particular ryu-ha, followed by re-teaching, which introduces a few changes due to recall issues.
  3. Tournament & public performance, particularly as "standards" are introduced (such as the WKF introducing "shitei kata" - which has interestingly after a decade or so been changed again as an approach). Not a reason for change that I favor, as I feel sticking to one's ryu-ha traditions and its small evolutions (due to such things as bullets 1 & 2 above) has its value.

The line of thinking that kata change of course is well documented in a number of quotes from style masters of eth 1800-1900s era. For example, the Yasuhiro Konishi quote below taken from the 1934 text Karate Kenpo: The art of self defense mostly authored by Kenwa Mabuni. Furthermore, the masters themselves obviously changed kata and hence we see the style variants between goju, shotokan and shito-ryu.

"In Fact, karate-jutsu kata are not fixed or immovable. Like water, it is ever changing and finds itself in the shape of the vessel containing it." Yasuhiro Konishi, 1934.

A little on kata bunkai and pattern variants:

Given moves in kata have more than one bunkai (stated by a number of masters of karate in the early 1900s; reviewed  in "Seienchin"  ISBN 978-1-4092-3733-4, pages 11-13), a variety of our Network instructors have been fine tuning kata bunkai selection by pulling from the traditional pool of karate techniques and overlapping that with at least the following:
  • street fighting data 
  • emergency department data from street fights
  • a technical audit of 50 UFC fights
  • interviews with BJJ/Judo experts
An evidenced based analysis (driven by data) allows one to create at least the following  4 categories of violence which may be relevant to karate-ka. Depending on the need of the practitioner, or emphasis of a given dojo, one may select a bunkai set for Bassai dai, or any kata, that matches the below (rather than simply following classical martial arts or street hearsay):

1. Male-on-male violence
2. Law enforcement (bouncer/police) - which has different psychological considerations and physical relaities
3. Female domestic violence
4. Female violence derived related to a stranger attack

The aim is not to get away from classical karate bunkai, but given data is available now, to find the overlap of techniques of one of the above 4 categories with the broader bunkai set of classical martial arts – as depicted in the below figure and reviewed in the book “Street Fighting Statistics & Medical Outcomes linked to Karate & Bunkai Selection”. That review process most importantly not only states what is the top 7-8 likely street events that lead to a medically relevant injury, but also which techniques do not (and this, surprisingly to many for male-on-male stranger violence, includes a broad range of commonly used kansetsu waza often displayed by karate-ka in bunkai).

karate bunkai

Figure:
 A representation of the overlap zone of the pool of classical karate bunkai techniques with what street data and probabilities indicate actually occur. Taken from page 177 of “Street Fighting Statistics & Medical Outcomes linked to Karate & Bunkai Selection”.

As three examples of some high level data on violence, the differing violence categories have different violence ratios and therefore need for a particular technique class:

1. non-intimate (stranger) based female assaults have a 1:1.5 grappling to strike ratio
2. intimate attackers (husband, date etc.) for female violence, the ratio of strike versus grappling events is 1:1
3. male 9:1 strike to grapple need for injury based outcomes

In closing, it should be noted that while karate-ka should know and preserve the traditional bunkai that has been passed down from style founders, alternate bunkai sequences and variants should be explored in light of their effectiveness given the defender's sex and the likely violence category. For example, practitioners should not consider a bunkai sequence as gospel for a self defense scenario that begins with a male-on-female attack entry (e.g. a single handed wrist grab) and then finishes with a male-on-male oriented technique (e.g. a throw requiring significant power and strength given presumably the larger male attacker). Commonly people mix sex/scenarios in the display of a single bunkai sequence. Although the archives of karate knowledge may include this mix, it is best rationally thought through to ensure the most effective self defense is executed (this is not a creative/colorful invention of bunkai as one might see in the WKF but rather a methodical mapping). In our belt tests, we have our students demonstrate bunkai variants representing the sex type as well as size, with less emphasis on law enforcement biased techniques (although some moves in kata have only one meaning & the kata Gojushiho has rumoured ties to law enforcement hence in this case we bias a number of the bunkai this way). With the above said, the pool of bunkai techniques taught and demonstrated in our ryu-ha are always pulled from techniques which our instructors have been shown at some point by senior Okinawan or Japanese instructors to ensure we are drawing on traditional karate heritage. 


gojushiho kata dvd bunkai
54min Video Gojushiho Kata & Bunkai 

1. Click here to purchase the DVD $24                   (includes free shipping anywhere)...

           or

2. Click here to download 54 min HD Gojushiho video $19... 

The Kata history and meaning is presented, bunkai options for all moves, the kata is performed fast and slow at different angles and includes a slow walk through of the pattern. Selected bunkai are referenced to an evidence based approach related to street, emergency, police & UFC data/statistcs. Provided as revision for the Bassai Dai seminars run in early 2012. 


Shihan Jason Armstrong, 7th Dan, is the primary instructor in this video, with support from sensei Greg Scovell. Shihan Jason's version is influenced by his time living in Japan mainland and bunkai related to his training visits to Okinawa.




Article References:

The above article was authored by Jason Armstrong (7th dan) and pulling together personal knowledge and using the below texts & articles:
  1. Mabuni. Seipai no Kenkyu KoboJizai Karate Kenpo. 1934.
  2. Karate Kempo: The art of self defense mostly authored by Kenwa Mabuni. 1934.
  3. Graham Noble with Ian McLaren and Prof. N. Karasawa. Masters of The Shorin-ryu. Fighting Arts International, Issue No. 50, Volume 9, No. 2, 1988. 
  4. Scovell article on the significance of 54 & 108 in karate and kata names.
  5. The Bubishi by Harry Cook.
  6. Karate technique selection & Street Fighting Statistics & Medical Outcomes by Armstrong et al., 2011
  7. Goodin. The 1940 Karate-do special committee: The Fuklugata. IRKRS. Q1, 2000.
  8. Itosu article on this website and its listed references.
  9. Sells. Unante. ISBN 0910704961. 1995 
  10. Seito Shito-ryu Santa Barbara dojo website by Kyoshi Bartholomay. http://www.sbdojo.com/curriculum.htm
  11. Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”. First published over 2000 years ago. Modern translation by Samuel B Griffith, ISBN 0195014766.
  12. Funakoshi. Karate-Do Kyohan: The Master Text. ISBN-13: 978-1568364827. 1935.
  13. Nakasone Genwa. The Japanese book "空手道大観" (A Broad View of Karatedo). 1938