Article by Emanuel Giordano and Matteo Muratori

At the end of 2021 I was contacted by Matteo Muratori, who had come across some particular modifications of the Heian sandan kata, presented by Funakoshi sensei in his 1935 book: Karate-dō Kyōhan. Building on those changes, we began to do more extensive research, the results of which are published in this article.


As we have already seen, kata have changed over time. The modifications were sometimes made to adapt a kata to one's practice, other times to insert or modify its applications, or to simplify the form to be handed down in schools. The various evolutions took place both in Okinawa and, more recently, in mainland Japan. However, it is plausible to think that the changes made to the kata proceeded by attempts, which, at times, could lead to a return to the "original" form, as the master who had modified, considered discarding the changes introduced. At other times, however, it is possible that the changes were rejected by certain groups of students, and carried out by others, as when the raised heel kokutsu-dachi (known as ukiashi-dachi or nekoashi-dachi in Okinawa) was introduced by Funakoshi Gigō sensei, probably learned during one of his trips to Okinawa, and which was later handed down in the Shōtōkai, but not in the Shōtōkan.

The kata examined by our research is precisely one of these modification attempts which, for one reason or another, never caught on. The texts we have examined are, first of all, those written by Funaksohi sensei in 1922, 1925 and 1935, namely: Ryūkyū Kenpō Tōde, Rentan Goshin Tōde-jutsu and Karate-dō Kyōhan. The following books were also examined: Zukai setsumei Karate-dō Nyūmon Hyakuman nin no goshin-jutsu (日本 空手 研究 会 / Nippon Karate Kenkyūkai, 1957) and Zukai Karate-dō Kyohon (Nakahiko Maeba, Shimabukuro Seiei, Gotou Masafumi, 1957). We immediately anticipate that between the book of 1922 and that of 1925, as far as this kata is concerned, there are no differences. Therefore, taking as a reference the Pinan sandan kata presented by Funakoshi sensei in 1925, the techniques on which the modifications were found are:

1- The morote-uke that precedes the nuki-te
2- The 360° rotation that precedes the tettsui
3- The sequence of the three shiko-dachi

After performing the initial sequence of techniques, to the left and identically to the right, the kata involves turning 90 degrees (counterclockwise) along the center line (assuming a back weight position) and performing a receiving technique (uke -waza) with the left arm:
- in the Shorin-ryū version the right foot is pushed back and the receiving technique is a soto-uke (uchi-uke in Shōtōkan / Shōtōkai terminology)
- in the Shōtōkan / Shōtōkai versions the right foot remains stationary, and the left foot advances; the receiving technique is a morote-uke
Indeed, in the books of 1922 and 1925 the master Funakoshi does not use a specific terminology for the reception technique, but says that he refers to the relative figure. In this case there is no doubt, it is a morote-uke.
But here comes an unexpected surprise: only and exclusively in the 1935 book, Funakoshi says to perform a shutō-uke! And it is not a careless error, so much so that he describes the technique using the terminology 左手 刀 受 け / hidari shutō-uke; to remove any doubt, Funakoshi specifies that it is exactly the technique shown (again in the same book) in point 19 of Heian Shodan's explanation: exactly one shutō-uke.
The interesting fact is that even in the 1957 Nihon Karate Kenkyūkai book it is clearly specified to perform a left shutō-uke.
What happened to this missing shutō-uke? Was it abandoned because the shutō-uke nukite sequence was already present in the Heian Nidan kata? Or was this open hand technique considered too dangerous and preferred to insert its closed hand counterpart?
As regards this part of the kata, we must first emphasize the difference between the current Heian sandan Shōtōkan, and the Pinan sandan Shorin-ryū. While the second has remained practically unchanged today, the first has undergone changes, up to the current version. In the Shorin-ryū version, after nuki-te, one turns 180° into left zenkutsu-dachi, extending the open right hand back and down (as if to hit the testicles of an opponent who has grabbed us, see the corresponding application of the Bubishi), bringing the left hand closed on the left side. Then, rotate 180° again by moving the left foot, and performing a technique (tettsui or tsuki, depending on the school) with the left fist, using the ukiashi-dachi position. In the current Shotokan version, however, only one rotation of 360° is performed, advancing in left kiba-dachi and striking directly with the left tettsui, previously prepared under the right armpit.
Unfortunately, the explanation given by Funakoshi sensei in the books of 1922 and 1925 is very concise, and devoid of illustrations of the aforementioned part of the kata. The text is identical in both books, and describes a rotation on the back and to the left (therefore counterclockwise), as well as an unspecified technique performed by extending the left hand (most likely the aforementioned tettsui) and bringing the right hand on the hip . The next step is the one relating to the right tsuki, therefore the entire rotation, including the left fist technique, is described in its entirety in point 9. Here is the original text: 同一 線上 で 左後 か へ 廻 は り 左足 を 一 歩進 め る と 同時 に 左手 を 打 伸 ば し 右手 を 右脇 腹 に 引 く。 Although the translation suggests a strong similarity with the execution mode of the current Shōtōkan version, the Shorin-ryū execution mode cannot be totally excluded, due to the fact that in this book the explanations are very concise, and since, as we are about to see, in 1935 the technique is different from the current Shotokan one.
In fact, in the 1935 book, Funakoshi sensei not only describes a 180° rotation in zenkutsu-dachi as in Shorin-ryū, with consequent rotation of 180° and execution of a left tettsui, but also attaches a photograph that leaves no doubts. Also in point 9 he describes both the method of execution of this part of the kata, and the possible application as a technique of liberation from a grip on the wrist, with consequent counterattack with the left hammer fist (tettsui). Although this way of performing the above technique is very similar to the Shorin-ryū one, it still has some differences:
1- The first difference is given by the presence of the left hand under the right armpit (as can be seen from the photo) during the first 180° rotation, which is absent in the Shorin-ryū version. This difference can easily be explained by the absence of osae-uke during nuki-te in the Shorin-ryū version.
2- The right hand, again during the aforementioned rotation, is higher than in the Shorin-ryū technique itself. This difference is also very simple to explain. This is a difference in the application of the kata. In Shorin-ryū, that hand is used to strike the opponent's genitals, while the application described by Funakoshi concerns a technique of liberation from a grip on the right wrist.
3- During the left tettsui, the ukiashi-dachi position is used in Shorin-ryū, and kiba-dachi in the version of Funakoshi sensei. It should be emphasized that at the time, the term kiba-dachi did not indicate the Shōtōkan position of the same name, but a similar position but with the feet facing outwards, called shiko-dachi in other styles.
Comparing the technique of 1935 with that used in the current Shōtōkan, and taking into account that this technique is still explained as a release from a wrist grip, exactly as Funakoshi sensei did in 1935, it is immediately evident that while the technique of 1935 it makes sense, the current one doesn't make sense, at least with regard to this application. In fact, the 1935 technique, thanks to the two 180° rotations, creates the space (between the practitioner and the opponent) necessary for the execution of a tettsui on the side or directed to the head, while the single rotation of 360°, being performed by advancing, it reduces the space between the two opponents, making the tettsui technique totally useless, as a too close distance would not be enough even for an elbow strike.
The triple sequence that moves you forward while keeping the body in a lateral position does not show great differences in the Shorin-ryū versions and those described by Funakoshi in the books of 1922 and 1925. Funakoshi does not mention the position to assume, but the photo he proposes clearly shows one shiko-dachi. In addition, the advancement involves a simple sliding, no leg lifts.
In the book of 1935 various aspects change, starting from the position that is specifically indicated as 騎馬 立 / kiba-dachi, while remaining in fact a shiko-dachi (as can be seen from the other kata described in the book and from the chapter on positions). Secondly, the advancement involves raising the knee and performing a 踏 込 / fumi-komi (from which the action of trampling is clearly evident).
A first consideration should be made on the position of the legs. The term kiba-dachi is also used to describe the last movement of the kata, which is supported by a photo. However, this photo clearly shows Funakoshi in shiko-dachi, albeit performed at a reduced angle compared to that shown in other kata. It can therefore be deduced that in Funakoshi's idea, despite the adamantine formalism required by the current Shōtōkan / Shōtōkai schools, the millimeter care of the angle formed by the feet is not so essential, as long as the peculiar characteristics of this position are maintained unchanged (correct tension in the legs and rooting).
The second consideration, all in "home" Shōtōkai, is that the mikazuki-geri (instead of a simple knee lift as described by Funakoshi and as such performed within the Shōtōkan / JKA) preceding the fumi-komi is a very modern introduction, probably by the master's third son, Yoshitaka. Unfortunately, this variation was accompanied by a rather senseless explanation (stop a blow), distorting the meaning of the original movement even more if possible. It would have been enough to read the master's text from 1935, in which Funakoshi suggests that the knee lift movement is a blow to the thigh, and that the subsequent elbow movement is a direct blow to the 水月 / suigetsu point (CV14, the solar plexus). 
In these books both the text and the accompanying drawings relate to the 1935 version of Funakoshi sensei. The left shuto-uke instead of the morote-uke is confirmed, the double rotation of 180° instead of the single 360°, and the fact of advancing in the sequence of the three shiko-dachi by lifting the foot as if to crush the thigh of the opponent.
In the book Tangosoo-do Kyobon, written by the Korean Kee Hwang in 1958, you can see the photographs relating to the aforementioned parts of the kata (Kee Hwang also studied Karate Shōtōkan). In the photos Kee Hwang performs the morote-uke in the first sequence under consideration; in the second he performs a hybrid rotation between that of Funakoshi sensei of 1935 and that of the current Shōtōkan (the movement of the feet is like in the modern version, while the movement of the hands is like that of 1935); and in the third he not only raises his leg as in the 1935 book, but he executes a kick similar to the mikazuki-geri, almost as in the current Shōtōkan.
Unfortunately we do not know what prompted Funakoshi sensei to modify the kata, but it is clear that his main students, the members of the Shōtōkan and the Shōtōkai, today no longer hand down the first two modifications presented in the 1935 book. The books of 1957 show that that version of the kata survived, for a certain period, in some circles, while the 1958 book makes us understand that when Kee Hwang was able to study Heian sandan Shōtōkan, it was already much more similar to today's version.
  • "Shorin-ryu Karate: kata 2" (here)
  • "Shorin-ryu Karate: kata" (here)
  • "Shorin-ryu Karate: The legacy of the bodyguards of the king of Okinawa" (here)
  • "The legend of the masters of Okinawan Karate: Biographies, curiosities and mysteries"  (here)