Channan: The "Lost" Kata of Itosu?
The series of five basic kata called Pinan (later
renamed Heian in Japan) are probably the most widely
practiced kata in karate today. It is commonly understood
that they were developed by Anko (or Yasutsune) Itosu
(1832-1915) in around 1907 for
inclusion in the karate curriculum of the Okinawan
school system. However, the actual history of the
Pinan series has been the subject of intense curiosity
as of late. There are basically two schools of thought,
one that Anko Itosu (1) developed them from the older
classical forms that were cultivated in and around
the Shuri (capital of Okinawa) area, and the other
that Itosu was re-working a longer Chinese form called
Unfortunately, most of the written references to
the Channan/Pinan phenomenon in the English language
are basically re-hashes of the same uncorroborated
oral testimony. This article will examine the primary
literature written by direct students of Itosu, as
well as more recent research in the Japanese language,
in an effort to solve the "mystery" of Channan.
In order to understand the Pinan phenomenon, perhaps
it is best to start off with a capsule biography of
their architect, Anko Itosu (1832-1915). Many sources
state that Itosu was born in the Yamakawa section
of Shuri (Bishop, 1999; Okinawa Prefecture, 1994;
Okinawa Prefecture, 1995), however, noted Japanese
martial arts historian Tsukuo Iwai states that he
was actually born in Gibo, Shuri, and later relocated
to Yamakawa (Iwai, 1992). He is commonly believed
to have studied under Sokon ("Bushi") Matsumura
(1809-1901), but also appears to have had other influences,
such as Nagahama of Naha (Iwai, 1992; Motobu, 1932),
Kosaku Matsumora of Tomari and a master named Gusukuma
(Nihon Karate Kenkyukai, 1956).
There does not seem to be much detail about Itosu's
early life, except for the fact that he was a student
of the Ryukyuan civil fighting traditions. At around
age 23, he passed the civil service examinations and
was employed by the Royal government (Iwai, 1992).
It seems as if Itosu gained his position as a clerical
scribe for the King through an introduction by his
friend and fellow karate master Anko Asato (Funakoshi,
1988). Itosu stayed with the Royal government until
the Meiji Restoration, when the Ryukyu Kingdome became
Okinawa Prefecture. Itosu stayed on and worked for
the Okinawan Prefectural government until 1885 (Iwai,
There is some controversy as to when Itosu became
a student of Matsumura. Some say that he first met
Matsumura when Itosu was in his late 20s (Iwai, 1992),
whereas others maintain that Itosu was older than
35 when he began studying from Matsumura (Fujiwara,
1990). Matsumura appears to have been friendly with
Itosu's father (Iwai, 1992).
Be that as it may, Itosu is said to have mastered
the Naifuanchi kata (Nihon Karate Kenkyukai, 1950;
Okinawa Pref., 1995). In fact, one direct student
of Itosu, namely Funakoshi Gichin, recalled 10 years
of studying nothing but the three Naifuanchi kata
under the eminent master (Funakoshi, 1976) (2).
Again, there is some controversy as to where Itosu
learned the Naifuanchi kata. Some give credit to Matsumura
for teaching this kata to Itosu (Murakami, 1991).
However, others say differently, and here is where
we first start to see reference to Channan, as the
name of a person. It is said that a Chinese sailor
who was shipwrecked on Okinawa hid in a cave at Tomari.
It was from this man that Itosu supposedly learned
the Naifuanchi kata, among other things (Gima, et
In either case, it is known that Itosu was among
the first to teach karate (toudi) publicly, karate
having previously been taught and practiced in secrecy
for hundreds of years. Itosu began his public teaching
pf karate as physical education in the school system
as early as 1901, where he taught at the Shuri Jinjo
Primary School (Iwai, 1992; Okinawa Pref., 1994).
He also went on to teach at Shuri Dai-ichi Middle
School and the Okinawa Prefectural Men's Normal School
in 1905 (Bishop, 1999; Okinawa Pref., 1994, 1995).
In addition to his "spearheading a crusade"
(McCarthy, 1996) to modernize toudi practices and
get it taught in the school system, Itosu was also
known for his physical strength. It is said that he
was able to crush a bamboo stalk in his hands (Funakoshi,
1976, 1988), once wrestled a raging bull to the ground
and calmed it (Nagamine, 1986) and one could strike
his arms with 2-inch thick poles and he would not
budge (Iwai, 1992).
Itosu's unique contributions to the art of Karate-do
include not only his 1908 letter to the Japanese Ministry
of Education and Ministry of War (3), expounding on
the 10 precepts of Toudi training, but also the creation
of several kata. These include not only the Pinan
series, but also Naifuanchi Nidan and Sandan (Kinjo,
1991; Murakami, 1991), and possibly Kusanku Sho and
Passai Sho (Iwai, 1992). Another kata that has often
been attributed to Itosu is the Shiho Kusanku Kata
(Kinjo, 1956a; Mabuni et al, 1938), but more recent
evidence points to the actual originator of this paradigm
to have been Mabuni Kenwa himself (Sells, 1995).
In addition to creating several kata, the other kata
that Itosu taught, such as Chinto, Useishi (Gojushiho),
Passai Dai, and Kusanku Dai, etc., were changed from
their original guises, in order to make them more
palatable to his physical education classes (Kinjo,
Itosu Anko passed away in March 1915, leaving behind
a legacy that very few today even recognize or comprehend.
Early Written References to Channan and Pinan
References to Channan can be found as far back as
1934. In the karate research journal entitled Karate
no Kenkyu, published by Nakasone Genwa, Motobu Choki
is quoted referring to the Channan and the Pinan kata:
I was interested in the martial arts since I was a
child, and studied under many teachers. I studied
with Itosu Sensei for 7-8 years. At first, he lived
in Urasoe, then moved to Nakashima Oshima in Naha,
then on to Shikina, and finally to the villa of Baron
Ie. He spent his final years living near the middle
I visited him one day at his home near the school,
where we sat talking about the martial arts and current
affairs. While I was there, 2-3 students also dropped
by and sat talking with us. Itosu Sensei turned to
the students and said 'show us a kata.' The kata that
they performed was very similar to the Channan kata
that I knew, but there were some differences also.
Upon asking the student what the kata was, he replied
'It is Pinan no Kata.' The students left shortly after
that, upon which I turned to Itosu Sensei and said
'I learned a kata called Channan, but the kata that
those students just performed now was different. What
is going on?' Itosu Sensei replied 'Yes, the kata
is slightly different, but the kata that you just
saw is the kata that I have decided upon. The students
all told me that the name Pinan is better, so I went
along with the opinions of the young people.' These
kata, which were developed by Itosu Sensei, underwent
change even during his own lifetime." (Murakami,
There is also reference to Pinan being called Channan
in its early years in the 1938 publication Kobo Kenpo
Karatedo Nyumon by Mabuni Kenwa and Nakasone Genwa.
Mabuni and Nakasone write that those people who learned
this kata as Channan still taught it under that name
(Mabuni, et al, 1938).
Hiroshi Kinjo , one of Japan's most senior teachers
and historians of the Okinawan fighting traditions,
and a direct student of three of Itosu's students,
namely Chomo Hanashiro, Chojo Oshiro, and Anbun Tokuda,
wrote a series of articles on the Pinan kata in Gekkan
Karatedo magazine in the mid-1950s. In the first installment
he maintains that the Pinan kata were originally called
Channan, and there were some technical differences
between Channan and the updated versions known as
Pinan (Kinjo, 1956a).
Again according to Hiroshi Kinjo, Hisateru Miyagi,
a former student of Itosu who graduated from the Okinawa
Prefectural Normal School in 1916, stated that when
he was studying under the old master, Itosu only really
taught the first three Pinan with any real enthusiasm,
and that the last two seem to have been rather neglected
at that time (Kinjo, 1956b). Although one can speculate
about what this means, it is nevertheless a very interesting
piece of testimony by someone who was "there."
Ryusho Sakagami, in his 1978 Karatedo Kata Taikan
as well as Tokumasa Miyagi in his 1987 Karate no Rekishi
both give extensive kata lists, and both list a kata
known as Yoshimura no Channan (Miyagi, 1987; Sakagami,
1978). It is unknown who Yoshimura was, but he may
have been a student of Itosu.
American karate historian Ernest Estrada has also
stated that Juhatsu Kyoda (1887-1968), a direct student
of Kanryo Higashionna, Xianhui Wu (Jpn. Go Kenki),
Kentsu Yabu, etc. and the founder of the To'onryu
karatedo system, also knew and taught a series of
two basic blocking, punching and kicking exercises
known as Channan (Estrada, 1998).
Shiraguma no Kata
According to Tsukuo Iwai, one of Japan's most noted
Budo researchers and teacher of Choki Motobu's karate
in Gunma Prefecture, Motoburyu Karatejutsu, which
is being preserved by Choki's son, Chosei Motobu,
in Osaka, contains what is known as Shiraguma no Kata,
which he maintains used to be called Channan. He also
states that this kata is "somewhat similar to
the Pinan, yet different." (Iwai, 1997).
The Other Side of the Coin
The flip side to this theory states that Itosu did
not create the Pinan kata, but actually remodeled
older Chinese-based hsing/kata called Channan. This
theory states that Itosu learned a series of Chinese
Quan-fa hsing from a shipwrecked Chinese at Tomari,
and reworked them into five smaller components, re-naming
them Pinan because the Chinese pronunciation "Chiang-Nan"
was too difficult (Bishop, 1999).
It has been argued that the source for these Channan
kata was a Chinese from an area called Annan, or a
man named Annan (Bishop, 1999). On the other hand,
others say that the man's name was Channan (Iwai,
1992). Still others go into even more detail, stating
that Itosu learned these hsing/kata from a man named
Channan, and named them after their source, later
adding elements of the Kusanku Dai kata to create
the Pinan (Gima, et al, 1986; Kinjo. 1999).
There is also interesting oral testimony passed down
in the Tomari-di tradition that is propagated in the
Okinawa Gojuryu Tomaridi Karatedo Association of Iken
Tokashiki that states that Itosu learned the Channan/Pinan
kata from a Chinese at Tomari in one day. The proponents
of Tomari-di said that there was no need to learn
"over-night kata" and that this is the reason
that the Tomari traditions did not include instruction
in the Pinan kata (Okinawa Pref., 1995).
This sentiment also echoes the statement by one of
Itosu's top students, Yabu Kentsu, made to his students:
"(sic) If you have time to practice the Pinan,
practice Kushanku instead (Gima, et al, 1986, p. 86)."
While more research, such as in-depth technical analysis
of Motobu's Shiraguma no Kata, needs to be done, the
evidence at hand seems to point not to a "long
lost kata" but rather to the constant and inevitable
evolution of a martial art.
Although there is opposition, most of the primary
written materials point to the fact that Itosu was
indeed the originator of the Channan/Pinan tradition,
based upon his own research, experience, and analyses.
However, in either case, Anko Itosu and his efforts
left a lasting mark on the fighting traditions of
old Okinawa, and will probably always be remembered
as one of the visionaries who were able to lift the
veil of secrecy that once enshrouded karatedo.
© 2000, by Joe
Swift. Posted with permission of the author.
1- Japanese names in this article are listed by given
name first and family name second instead of customary
Japanese usage which places the family name first.
2- According to noted Japanese martial arts historian
Ryozo Fujiwara in his 1990 book entitled "Kakutogi
no Rekish" (History of the Martial Arts), Funakoshi
first learned Pechurin (Suparinpei) under Taite Kojo,
then Kusanku under Anko Asato, and finally Naifuanchi
3- For a comprehensive English translation of this
letter, see (McCarthy, 1990)
The Itosu drawing was contributed by Kyoshi Frank
Hargrove from his book, The 100 Year History of Shorin-Ryu
Karate. Since there are no know photos of Itosu, the
drawing was a composite done in Okinawa based on available
The Funakoshi photo was reproduced from his 1935
book, Karatedo Kyohan.
The Motobu photo was reproduced from his 1926 book,
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Us Know Your Comments & Opinions On This Article
About The Author:
Joe Swift, native of New York State (USA) has lived
in Japan since 1994. He holds a dan-rank in Isshinryu
Karatedo, and also currently acts as assistant instructor
(3rd dan) at the Mushinkan Shoreiryu Karate Kobudo
Dojo in Kanazawa, Japan. He is also a member of the
International Ryukyu Karate Research Society and the
Okinawa Isshinryu Karate Kobudo Association. He currently
works as a translator/interpreter for the Ishikawa
International Cooperation Research Centre in Kanazawa.
He is also a Contributing Editor for FightingArts.com.
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