Gojushiho (54 steps) is considered by many schools to be the most advanced kata of Shorin-ryu even if, given its purely Chinese origin, it would be more properly defined as Naha-te / Shorei kata, as it was probably imported from China during the course of 1800. Tradition attributes the introduction of this form to Okinawa to Sokon Matsumura. The well-known master would have studied this kata in China during one of his travels in the 1800s, presumably with the military attaché Iwah. There are already some articles on this topic, including that of Olaf Steinbrecher, but in light of the new details discovered thanks to the research conducted in recent years, we have decided to write a new article. We also thank Matteo Muratori (https://my2centskarate.com/) for allowing the consultation of his personal copy of Kenpo Gaisetsu.
There are numerous written sources on this kata, starting with an article of 25 January 1911 in the Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper, which describes a martial arts performance (Shihan-ko no Tode Taikai 師範校の唐手大会), during the which the kata was performed by Kentsu Yabu, a student of Matsumura and Itosu, as well as a teacher at the Shihan Gakko (teaching institute). Yabu performed the same kata, his specialty, also in the performance reported in the article of March 21, 1918 by Ryukyu Shimpo (Tode no tatsujin-tachi 唐手の達人達). The kata is also mentioned in some of the first Karate books, precisely by Gichin Funakoshi in Ryukyu Kempo Tode (1922) and in Rentan Goshin Tode Jutsu (1925. This is an updated version of the first text), and by Choki Motobu in Watashi no Tode Jutsu (1932), however neither of the two masters includes it in their official curriculum. This form is mentioned among the kata studied at the Shotokan dojo in the book Karate Nyumon (1943), with the Japanese name of "Hotaku" (phoenix or, according to some sources, woodpecker), although this new name will not take hold, and the kata will once again be called by its old name. Instead, the first book where the kata is also shown by some illustrations is Kenpo Gaisetsu (拳法 概 説), written by Mizuho Mutsu (Mizuho Takada) and Jisaburo Miki. There are also at least three written sources that confirm the fact that this kata was taught by Sokon Matsumura. In this case we find this information in the articles:
- Itosu no buyuden (Ryukyu Shimpo, March 19, 1915): in this article Kentsu Yabu writes: "If we were to report the names of martial techniques specialists, as regards martial arts directly deriving from China, the name of Matsumura with his Gojushiho would be all over the lips […] ”.
- Autobiography of Chogi Yoshimura (1941): in this text the nobleman claims to have learned this kata (as well as to have also practiced the kata Kusanku) directly from Matsumura.
- Karate no Omoide (Ryukyu Shimpo, May 7, 1942): here Chotoku Kyan claims to have learned the kata directly from Matsumura.
ITOSU: although Itosu's Gojushiho is often spoken of, sometimes to indicate one version, sometimes another, there are no sources that prove that Itosu sensei taught this kata. The few changes attributed to him (first technique in ukiashi-dachi and not kneeling, tsuki-uke instead of kakiwake-uke, elimination of the drunken man's steps and introduction of the crab's step) may have been devised by him or by his students, to facilitate the teaching of this kata at Shuri's Shihan Gakko. Although Mabuni inserts this kata among the forms of the Itosu lineage (Kobo Jizai Goshin Kenpo Karate do Nyumon, 1938), this does not mean that he learned it directly from him. It is also true that in the same book Mabuni writes that there are differences between the Itosu-ha Gojushiho and the Matsumura-ha Gojushiho (五十四歩なども糸洲派と松村派によって多少の相違があります。), but this not necessarily means that he refers to a Gojushiho of Itosu, but rather to a Gojushiho of another master belonging to the lineage of Itosu. In support of this, as noted several times by other authors, Mabuni inserts as kata belonging to the lineage of Higaonna some forms (Saifa, Tensho) not transmitted by the latter, but introduced by one of his students: Chojun Miyagi. It is therefore not excluded that Itosu taught it to some of his students, or that he even participated only in the works of modification of the kata, but (at the moment) there are no sources that can prove one of the two options.
However, Patrick Nakata stated in 2010, during an interview conducted by John Oberle, that he had learned the Itosu Gojushiho from Chibana sensei. In the same interview he says that Chibana explained to him the differences between Itosu Gojushiho and Matsumura Gojushiho, and that all his other students (e.g. K. Miyahira, Y. Higa, S. Nakazato, C. Nakama, etc.) had learned various interpretations of Matsumura Gojushiho from other teachers. We tried to find this version, practiced today by the students of Nakata sensei, but at the moment no one has made himself available to show it or talk about it.
KYAN: As mentioned above, Chotoku Kyan (1870-1945) is one of the few to clearly state that he learned the kata from Sokon Mastumura himself. Bearing in mind that Kyan, like the other masters, modified the katas to adapt them to his interpretative lines, we cannot say with certainty that his version is identical to that of Matsumura. The kata was transmitted to some of his direct students (Joen Nakazato, Zenryo Shimabukuro, etc.), and is characterized by the execution of the first technique in a kneeling position, by the so-called "drunken man's steps", and from other peculiarities that distinguish it from others.
YABU: Kentsu Yabu (1866-1937) was renowned for his performance of this kata, which he demonstrated several times over time during various performances. By analyzing the various versions related to Yabu, we can clearly identify two versions that we will call "short" and "normal", taught to different people at different times.
Short version: it is the version that is also found in the book Kenpo Gaisetsu, where it is called “Yabu sensei no Gojushiho”. It is a shortened version of the classic kata (it is much shorter than Kyan's), characterized by several elements including the execution of the first technique in a kneeling position. In the same book there is also another (normal) version known only as "Gojushiho", which is very similar to the more commonly handed down versions of this kata. This second version may have also been shown to Mutsu by Yabu, or perhaps by Chojo Oshiro.
Normal version: the “normal version” can be found in the Shudokan school of Kanken Toyama, a student of both Itosu and Yabu at the Shihan Gakko, who emigrated to mainland Japan. The version of him, called “Koryu Gojushiho”, is characterized by the execution of the first technique in a standing position and an initial double step. Very similar is also the version that Anbun Tokuda (who studied in the same years as Toyama at the same institute, and who subsequently took the place of Yabu) handed down to Katsuya Miyahira (Shidokan Shorin-ryu), and probably to Yoshihide Shinzato (Shinshukan Shorin-ryu). This version is characterized by the presence of tsuki-uke instead of kakiwake-uke, and by the first technique performed by advancing with the left foot. The latter variant could derive from the elimination of the double step, instead preserved by the Toyama version. Unfortunately, no written sources have been found that attribute this "normal version" to Yabu with certainty, however Toyama and Tokuda studied at the Shihan Gakko under the guidance of Yabu sensei from 1906 to 1911, which makes it very probable that this version was handed down by him. Furthermore, Hisateru Miyagi, who studied in the same school from 1911 to 1916, specifies in his book Karate-do (1953) that it was Yabu sensei who was mainly in charge of teaching, while Itosu sensei had the role of senior teacher. The version also differs in order of execution of the techniques (but not in the number of them) from the version of Hanashiro sensei. For these reasons, this "normal version" is also often attributed to Yabu, but as mentioned above, there is no written source to confirm it.
Another version linked to Yabu (which corresponds in part to the description in Kenpo Gaisetsu) of which unfortunately there is no complete video, appears in a video, performed by some students of Motoku Yabiku, an emigrated student of Kentsu Yabu in Brazil. Yabiku studied at Shihan Gakko from 1905 to 1910, while Toyama and Tokuda from 1906 (when Itosu began introducing Karate at this school) to 1911.Shoshin Nagamine's version is most likely a derivative of the short version of Yabu's kata (corresponds to enbusen and number of techniques), although it is not clear how it came to this master.Finally, a Gojushiho (Hotaku) and a Yabu sensei no Gojushiho are mentioned in the book Karate-do Nyumon (1955), by Kojiro Ichikawa (Nippon Karate Kenkyukai / Nippon Karate-do Shotokai): "五十四歩 (又 は 名 鳳 啄） ・ ・ ・ ・ ・ ・ 別に屋部先生の屋部五十四歩があります。 "
HANASHIRO: the version of Chomo Hanashiro (1869-1945), a great friend of Yabu and Karate teacher at Okinawa Prefectural Daii ichi Junior High school, is also characterized by the execution of the first technique in a kneeling position, as well as other elements that distinguish it from the others. This peculiar version was handed down from Hanashiro to Chozo Nakama (1899-1982), a student of Choshin Chibana. Nakama himself passed it on to his students (Ankichi Nakamura, Takao Nakaya, Masahiro Nakamoto and Seitoku Higa) and it is extremely similar to the Gojushiho performed by Hohan Soken (1889-1982), a great friend of Nakama himself and founder of the Mastumura Seito Shorin-ryu school. The kata, although performed without the first technique in the kneeling position (but keeping the one present in the second half of the kata), replaced by the initial double step, is also present in the Shubukan Shorin-ryu school, performed by Yasuhiro Uema. Some of the aforementioned students of Nakama handed down the kata with the straight leg kick (called in the Motobu-ryu “bo-geri”), others with a classic mae-geri. Same thing for the so-called "drunken man's step", present in most of the variants, but not in all.
GUSUKUMA: Shinpan Gusukuma (1890-1954) handed down two versions.
Short version: almost identical to that seen in Kenpo Gaisetsu and attributed to Yabu, although with the execution of the first technique in ukiashi-dachi and not in a kneeling position. This version was handed down in the Shubukan Shorin-ryu school of Joki Uema (1920-2011) with some customizations by the latter, as well as in the Ryubukan school of Seitoku Ishikawa (1925-2013), both pupils of Gusukuma.
Normal Version: Another Gusukuma student, Seiichi Iju, handed down a longer version instead. This version is similar, and corresponds in enbusen and other typical details, to that transmitted by Chozo Nakama, and is now practiced in the Shorinkan Shorin-ryu school under the name of Iju Gojushiho.
MOTOBU: Tadahiko Otsuka, interviewing Yuchoku Higa (1910-1994), learned that the Gojushiho transmitted in the Kyudokan Shorin-ryu school came from Choyu Motobu (1865-1928), older brother of the better known Choki Motobu. The kata was not taught directly by Choyu Motobu, but by a student of him named Kinjo (source here). Analyzing the kata, we can see the execution of the first technique in a kneeling position. Overall the kata looks very similar to Chozo Nakama's.
MABUNI: Kenwa Mabuni (1889-1952) was mainly a pupil of Anko Itosu and Kanryo Higaonna, but he also studied and attended Yabu, Hanashiro and many others, as well as collected a large amount of kata from the most disparate sources. His version of Gojushiho, whose exact origin we do not know (see the part relating to the ITOSU version), is very similar to that of Kanken Toyama (including the characteristic double step at the beginning), but with some peculiarities of other versions. It could therefore be a personal interpretation based on multiple versions.
SHOTOKAN: Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) did not include this kata in his curriculum, however Masatoshi Nakayama (1913-1987) and Hirokazu Kanazawa (1931-2019), students at the Shotokan dojo, said that the two Shotokan Gojushiho came respectively from Kanken Toyama (Gojushiho dai) and Kenwa Mabuni (Gojushiho sho). We find this information in the interview with Nakayama, and in the book The complete kata by Kanazawa. Funakoshi frequented Mabuni and his compatriots very often in Japan in the 1930s, and often sent his students to learn new kata. For a short time Funakoshi changed the name of Gojushiho to Hotaku (鳳啄) however the old name was re-adopted after a short time.