Article by Emanuel Giordano

In some Shorin-ryu kata, and in some Kobudo kata (Taira lineage), there is a very particular step. Some call it shinobi-yori, shinobi-ashi, or nuki-ashi, others give it no name, but all agree on its purpose. For practitioners of Shorin-ryu and derived styles (Shotokan, Shito-ryu, Wado-ryu, etc.), this step is found for the first time in the Naihanchi shodan (or Tekki shodan) kata. Starting from heisoku-dachi, the left foot passes over the right foot, and the practitioner momentarily assumes the position of kosa-dachi, followed by the movement of the right foot and the consequent naihanchi-dachi position (in other styles shiko-dachi or kiba-dachi). The first movement described must be performed in a natural and soft way, like a cat silently placing a paw on the ground, while the second movement is explosive. The same thing happens at the beginning of the Matsumura no Passai kata, where the left foot advances first in a natural manner, to then be followed by the right foot, which instead must advance decisively and with explosive force. The same thing happens in several Kobudo kata of the Taira lineage, and this is not a surprise, given that the use of the body at the basic of this style, as well as various movements and principles derive from the Karate of the Itosu sensei lineage, the one that then Chibana Choshin sensei officially registered as Shorin-ryu.
Be careful though, the movement I described above has nothing to do with the slow movements seen in kata competitions, it is no coincidence that I used the adjective "natural" and not "slow".
My teacher, Maeshiro Morinobu sensei, has repeatedly explained that this way of moving serves to reduce the distance from the opponent without being noticed. In fact, the correct execution of this movement does not include pauses between the small natural step and the complete and fast step that follows, thus deceiving the opponent about the actual distance between us and him (obviously we are not talking about sparring, but about self defense). Although in both kata described the movement is connected to uke-waza, we must not imagine them as passive defenses (in this case one should retreat or, at least, not advance)! It is not uncommon, in fact, for uke-waza to also be used to strike, or to be performed together with "hidden" counterattacks.
Taira Shinken sensei presented the kata Shushi no kun in Nakasone Genwa's book, Karate-do Taikan, published in 1938. In this book master Taira used the name Kongo no kata, but in the brief description preceding the illustrations, he says that the original name of this form is Shushi no kun. I would like to point out that this version of the kata precedes the subsequent Sho and Dai versions, and contains peculiar elements of the older versions (see my article KORYU SHUSHI NO KUN? ). Towards the end of the kata there are two of these stealthy steps: one performed moving forward, 忍び寄りShinobi-yori; and one retreating, 忍び退き Shinobi-hiki (thanks to Shotokan Path for the Japanese text). Master Taira, using these terms, provides us with a description similar to that of Maeshiro sensei: it is in fact respectively a furtive advancement and a furtive retreat.
Finally, I would like to mention my teacher's teacher, Miyahira Katsuya sensei. In one of his manuscripts Miyahira sensei describes the details and applications of the Naihanchi shodan kata. Regarding the stealthy step at the beginning of the kata, the one I talked about at the beginning of the article, he wrote (informal translation):
"This is a defensive position against an opponent [on your] right, and it also allows you to approach the opponent with one step, making it easier to attack. Especially in the dark, such as at night, you can approach your opponent and enter in the attack area without him noticing you."
Once again, therefore, we have the description of a stealthy step whose aim is to vary the distance between us and the opponent in the least evident way possible.
This may seem like a small detail, but keeping knowledge alive about technical elements like this one helps us have a better understanding of our martial art.
  • "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)