The Controversy of Itsou
Widely recognized as the man responsible for Okinawan karate’s transition from the private dojo and backyards of Okinawa, from the veils of secrecy to the limelight, and primarily for the introduction of Okinawan karate to the public schools, Itosu Anko’s place in history is solid and universally accepted. His famous letter, now widely known as ‘Itosu’s 10 precepts of karate’ was undeniably nationalistic with an overbearing political flavor, as he campaigned to bring to-de out of the shadows and into the accepting arms of the Japanese government.
Itosu is famous (or infamous) for creating the five Pinan kata for the purpose of introduction to school children; he is also allegedly responsible for breaking naihanchi into separate kata. Among some intermediate and senior (Western) karate practitioners, this in particular seems to be a source of controversy; some are even talking seriously of dropping pinan kata from their syllabus, citing that, because of their intended nature as introductory kata to school children, the pinan are no longer useful in comparsison to more advanced kata such as passai, chinto, kusanku (from which the majority of pinan is drawn) and useishi/gojushiho. A few have even accused Itosu of being responsible for the weakening or ‘watering-down’ of Shuri-te, simply because he introduced new kata, and was responsible for making karate public.
How do people overlook his obvious contributions to all of Okinawan karate so easily? How do they not read and comprehend what karate really meant to him. Let’s review the 2nd point of his ‘1o Precepts’
2.The purpose of tode is to make the body hard like stones and iron; hands and feet should be used like the points of arrows, hearts should be strong and brave. If children were to practice tode from their elementary-school days, they would be well prepared for military service.
This doesn’t indicate that Itosu was attempting to ‘weaken’ or ‘water-down’ karate; in fact, it indicates that Itosu believed that introducing hard karate training to school children would prepare them to be more effective warriors.
Itosu was a visionary, a pioneer, and he was the catalyst for karate’s public introduction and widespread acceptance. If not for his efforts, you and I may very well have never had the opportunity to learn Okinawan karate. People are quirky I suppose, As a new student, we (that practice shuri-te based ryu) struggled to learn the 5 pinan; we looked forward to becoming proficient enough to move on to the next one, and personally, I felt a great sense of accomplishment after having learned the five pinans, and being allowed to learn passai. If we are to drop fundamental and entry level kata, can we also drop fundamental and entry level kihon? Can we drop chudan uke, mae-geri, and gyaku-zuki after we’ve become proficient with kyusho and tuidi based defense? I suppose we could, but then again, people do illogical things all the time.
So, what is that drives the desire to drop kata from the syllabus; what entitles a karate practitioner to summarily dismiss basic kata once they have learned more advanced kata? I don’t know the answer, honestly; I suppose it depends on the experience level of the practitioner. If he/she has been training for 50 years and has learned all that their teacher taught them, perhaps they’ve earned the right to add or drop kata. This is commonly known as ‘Ri’ or transcendance (remember shu-ha-ri). At this level, karate-ka are considered masters, and have earned the right to ‘customize’ or change their art, and many do; in fact, this is common. If teachers never changed anything, there would be no splinter groups, different ryu, or kai, within the same styles. However, it could also be that these karate-ka have lost their ‘sho-shin’ or, beginner’s mind. This, I believe, is the more common problem; if someone has been training for only 10 or 20 years, they are very likely still at the ‘shu’ level of Shu-Ha-Ri. They are expected to conform and adhere, without question, to everything that is taught.
Over the years, my teacher has constantly reminded me of one thing – basics. Always practice basics. In nearly every conversation, no matter the topic, he will always ask about it, or sneak it in the conversation; it’s that important. Kihon are the building blocks of karate. Pinan kata could very well be considered among the building blocks of shorin-ryu, along with the naihanchi kata. To me, and to most Okinawan teachers, they are. To others, mostly Western karate practitioners, no so much.