Searching for the "ancestral" naihanchi: Part 1


Hot on the heels of my articles about "stem cell" movements, I came across this version of naihanchi shodan kata recently, courtesy of a Facebook group to which I belong.

Naihanchi (in particular, naihanchi shodan) is one of the most popular and widely known and practised karate kata on the planet, so I think it is one that is truly worth examining more closely. And in my opinion, the version below provides one of the best benchmarks for analysing the various differences and similarities.

Naihanchi shodan by Zenpo Shimabukuro

This is a performance by Zenpo Shimabukuro, head of the Shorin-ryu Seibukan karate organisation.

He is the son of the founder, 10th Dan Zenryo Shimabukuro, the longest-seving student of Chotoku Kyan who, along with people like Choyu and Choki Motobu, Kentsu Yabu, Chomo Hanashiro, Gichin Funakoshi, Shinpan Shiroma, Choshin Chibana and Kenwa Mabuni, studied directly under the legendary grandmaster Anko Itosu, who was himself a direct student of the even more legendary Sokon Matsumura, regarded as the father of Shuri te (the "suidi" school of karate).

However, as my friend K-Hirakis notes, Kyan did not in fact teach naihanchi to Zenryo Shimabukuro. Instead, it seems that the younger Zenpo Shimabukuro learned those kata (as well as the pinan series, among others) from Chozo Nakama whose primary teacher was Chosin Chibana (although he also trained with many of Itosu's other top students). [See this interview with Zenpo Shimabukuro in the Dragon Times.]

I have posted this video not just because it comprises what I think is clearly an exceptionally powerful and economical performance of naihanchi shodan, but also because I believe it exhibits the greatest combination of the disparate features, at least in embryonic/stem-cell form, many of which are then brought into sharper focus by the various ryu (often to the exclusion of others).

In this respect I see it as the most "composite" version of naihanchi shodan in existence today (and in that sense, possibly most reflective of all of the "ancestral options", at least dating back to Itosu's time – we'll see about the latter as the article progresses!).

I thought I'd go through some of the features that I feel are "ancestral" but which are left out of many modern forms. (I hasten to add that I do not think their absence from some of today's forms automatically disqualifies those forms from being effective).

I'll also be pointing out a couple of "ancestral movements" that might be missing from, or altered in, Zenpo Shimabukuro's version.

The stance

Okay, I know I'm a bit of a pain to some folks on this one. Readers will recall that I've written about this extensively in the past (see my article "The naihanchi stance"). Others have debated this topic with me extensively by email. Yet more recently I've had even more discussions about it on Facebook and other social media sites. But really, as far as history goes, I hold it to be self-evident that there simply is no debate. Practically every single photograph and (rare) motion picture performance by Okinawan masters who were direct students of Itosu reveals what is unmistakably just "mabu" (horse step) or "kiba dachi" in both Okinawa and China alike.

The only possible exception I can think of is, oddly enough, Choshin Chibana's naihanchi as shown below:

Choshin Chibana's naihanchi kata. Note the ultra narrow stance.

[I say "oddly enough" because Zenpo Shimabukuro's naihanchi came from Chozo Nakama who presumably learned it from Chibana. Yet Shimabukuro's and Chibana's kata are very dissimilar, indicating that either Nakama or Shimabukuro, or both, studied naihanchi with other instructors. Indeed, this almost certainly accounts for the mix of different features.]

In his kata, Chibana seems to be doing nothing more than a heiko dachi (shoulder width parallel stance). But then again, this footage was taken when he was already quite old, and the narrow stance might have been a reflection of this.

If Chibana's is just an "ultra narrow horse stance" (especially accommodating his age), it is worth noting that the Chinese mabu varies greatly - from a very wide and deep stance (as per kiba dachi of shotokan) to the fairly narrow and higher stances of the kind I've been studying in the Chinese internal arts and hybrid internal/external arts (eg. of the late Hong Yi Xiang of Taiwan).

But when it comes to differences, at least Choshin Chibana's stance seems to differ only in terms of width. By contrast, in today's world there is a tendency (particularly in some schools of isshin ryu, but also in many other systems, eg. wado ryu) to adopt a "new beast" - a "naihanchi dachi" comprising a narrow stance that also has the feet overly turned-in.

In historical terms, I am of the view that this bears no resemblance to any old footage or photographs of naihanchi.

To me, this is clearly a modern innovation: an intention to create a "sanchin-like or wing chun-like" stance. If anyone needs confirmation of this, they need only look directly at the kata performances of the founder of isshin ryu, Tatsuo Shimabuku. These show that his stance was not a "turned-in" stance reminiscent of sanchin or wing chun. Instead it is manifestly just a horse stance – albeit a slightly narrower one.

Tatsuo Shimabuku's naihanchi kata. Ignore the fact that he elected to start his kata to the left, as per Motobu (the kata is perfectly symmetrical, so it really doesn't matter in which direction you start) and focus instead on his stance.

The same goes for wado ryu: have a look at Hinori Otsuka's naihanchi below:

Hinori Otsuka's naihanchi - again, note the stance and compare it to the "naihanchi dachi" proposed above.

Now it's true that in naihanchi your feet might (some would say "should") be oriented so that the outside edge points forwards. This results in a slight inward emphasis (visible in the photographs of both Funakoshi and Motobu and even Otsuka's video, for example). But it is most definitely not the turned-in posture of the preceding video purporting to show the "Isshin ryu naihanchi stance". That is simply not consistent with either isshin ryu history nor the history of naihanchi.

By the way, I'm not saying that there is no point in practising a narrow, turned-in stance. There are good reasons for turning feet in a little more than the "outside edge forwards", namely grounding/rooting as per wing chun, the other Hakka systems, sanchin/sanzhan and zhang zhuan postures. I'll get into this another time.

For now I will just note that I don't think naihanchi is the place for this sort of overtly "pigeon-toed" stance. And I say this for one simply reason: such a stance does not favour sideways movement. In fact, it is the antithesis of sideways movement.

If you doubt me, adopt a pigeon-toed stance, then try to move quickly from side to side using kosa dachi (cross step). Then try it with feet forward. Then try it with feet pointing out. I'm sure you'll agree that the "feet forward" option is by far the most natural.

Slight variation (outside or inside edge forwards) doesn't really make much difference. Adopting an overtly pigeon-toed stance (or, for that matter, a ballet-like plie!) does. Why? Apart from the fact that you might trip over your own feet, you'll note that turning your feet has significant consequences for your hip alignment - impeding sideways mobility in both cases.

In my view, it is for the latter reason that arts that feature "pigeon-toed" stances (eg. wing chun, various Fujian-originated systems such as ngo cho kun, goju ryu karate etc.) do not have forms with side to side embusen (at least not while holding a pigeon-toed stance).

Instead, inward-turned stances are used for moving forwards and backwards (see sanchin kata in Naha te, for example).

Opening inverted ridge hand vs. back hand

The opening strike/deflection/throw is one that is generally performed in two different ways:

* as a haishu uchi/uke – ie. a backhand strike, projection or deflection; or
* as a haito uchi/uke – ie. an inverted (palm up) ridge hand strike, projection or deflection.

Which one is the "ancestral" one? Here I must confess that I don't really care that much.

I actually do the kata with a backhand. But it is important to note that I also perform applications with the move as an inverted ridge hand.

I think the "palm up" is the fuller movement. Now the "fuller movement" doesn't always represent the movement chosen by the kata designer: it might be that a smaller part of the movement is more consistent with the general utility of the kata sequence.

And an argument along these lines can certainly be made to prefer the backhand versus the "palm up".

For this reason, if I were to express a view as to which was the "original" I would have to go with what Funakoshi and Motobu did - ie. the backhand - and against Zenpo Shimabukuro's "palm up" ridge hand. Let me explain my thinking:

First, when two instructors with such different perspectives, such as Funakoshi and Motobu, choose the same hand shape, you have to take note.

But second, let's examine applications for the two options (ie. palm up vs backhand) and see which is really the primary one that we might use in karate, given the dominant tactics of that art:

For the purposes of a throw, you really want the full turn of the forearm all the way to palm up – as I illustrate in the following video:

Some applications of naihanchi's opening moves

But for a deflection or strike (as I demonstrate immediately after the above throw application), I think you will probably never go beyond the "backhand".


First the deflection: In this case, the backhand allows you to use the rotation of the forearm to "slip" even the most momentum-heavy punches and other upper body attacks. Yes, a further rotation to "palm up" would theoretically help even more, however in practice I've found that the deflection is invariably completed early in the piece, making further rotation redundant.

This deflection is a very powerful, yet "soft" technique – a bit like a crane's wing (indeed, I think it might be originally related to one of the crane schools – albeit from northern China (near Beijing) not southern (eg. Fuzhou, Yong Chun, etc).

And this "soft" wing movement also sets you up beautifully for the empi uchi (elbow strike) – particularly if you haven't rotated your palm all the way around to face upwards (because your opponent's head then falls naturally into your hand following the deflection).

Second, as a strike I feel that once you rotate fully over to the ridge hand you've gone a bit too far and you start to lose impact force. I think this has a lot to do with extending the arm out fully "palm up"; this is not a strong or "natural" position (see my discussion in "Why corkscrew your punch" as an example). If you think of most "power" backhand moves (eg. a baseline tennis shot) you'll notice that at the point of impact the hand is holding the racquet so that back of the palm lines up with the strike. The wrist only twists over "palm up" as a follow-through.

Without an extension such as a racquet or stick, humans are even unlikely to execute the "palm up" as a follow-through. If you think of the standard uraken (backfist) it is not executed with a "twist". Nor have I ever noticed a backhand slap being executed with such a "turn over".

Last, one telling feature of the "palm up" naihanchi executions is that the arm is invariably overly bent at the elbow when the strike is completed. This tells me that the movement feels weaker and less stable to the practitioner (who is subconsciously drawing the arm in so as to bring it closer to the core).

Essentially, I hold it to be self-evident that karate is more about "striking" than it ever was about "throwing" and grappling. So for a simple power technique, used either as a strike or as a defence against a strike, you can't go past the haishu (backhand) in performing naihanchi shodan. The haito (inverted ridge hand) is, to me, a secondary option, primarily for throwing and off-balancing generally.

Correct use of forearm rotation and pullback arm

But whichever way it goes (whether you use a palm or backhand finish), Zenpo Shimabukuro's kata is more notable for two other details accompanying this hand movement, namely:

* an optimal rotation of the forearm through to that finish position; and
* the correct the use of the pullback arm to assist the movement.

These details are nothing short of crucial, yet they are often omitted or simply glossed over.

Let's examine details more closely:

First, in order to correctly rotate the forearm to add force to the movement, the deflecting/striking hand should be loaded, palm down and move to a palm vertical or palm up position.

Second, it should be loaded underneath your armpit of your pullback hand, not above it.

In this respect it is the polar opposite of the downward palm gyaku shuto uchi (reverse chop) in Miyagi's gekisai dai ichi and ni (and many shorin kata that feature the gyaku shuto), because this technique starts palm towards the ear.

It then operates on a falling moment, finishing facing palm down).

This naihanchi technique is the exact opposite (ie. it has a rising moment, finishing facing palm up). In that circumstance, it shouldn't be at all surprising that the technique also requires an upward moment with more or less the inverse action to the gyaku shuto (chop).

Now this "upward roll" of the forearm is critical for a number of reasons: It not only allows the forearm rotation to deflect a punch but it also exerts force on the attacker in the form of a off-balancing manoeuvre.

Last, the pullback arm acts to protect you, then assist with any follow-up technique.

Occasionally I see naihanchi palm technique being performed with a "downward" action starting above the pullback arm. In biomechanical terms, I think this is plainly at odds with what how the kata was designed.

Here is one example I've found – and I hate to mention it because the practitioner is not one I wish to be seen to "criticise": his karate (and naihanchi) is nothing short of excellent. And just because he's not doing it the way I think it should be done, doesn't mean it doesn't "work": of course it does. It's just that I don't believe it is being done in a way that optimally uses the movement in the context of this kata – in particular the rotation of the forearm in the particular kata move.

For example, he starts palm down, yet in his application his technique finishes "palm down" in a kind of chop to the opponent's neck. This would imply that almost no circular rotation of the forearm is being employed at all - or that a kind of rotation is being employed that is more like gekisai than naihanchi.

An example of the "above shoulder" version of naihanchi's opening move

If one wants to chop with the palm downwards (as per the gekisai kata), I believe this is best done starting high, palm twisted up near the ear, and rotating downwards (again, as done in gekisai). Now this is a very effective movement, for sure. But in my respectful opinion, this is not what is happening in naihanchi. In that kata the hand starts low, palm down, and has to rise. As it rises, it will naturally rotate. And in that context it cannot rotate to a gyaku shuto (chop) (unless it goes one way, then the other).

It is important to note that just because I feel that the "backhand finish" is more "ancestral" than the "inverted palm finish" doesn't mean that I can realistically believe that the backhand was ever intended to turn over first, then downward into a gyaku shuto (chop). Or, perhaps, that the strike would feature no forearm rotation whatsoever, simply swinging horizontally.

In this regard it is salient that I have not found even one version of naihanchi shodan where anything like this occurs.

They all start palm down, then turn over - either to a vertical (palm sideways) backhand strike or a horizontal (palm up) ridge hand strike. Either way, the rotation happens in the same direction as a natural "completion" of the movement (and the hand starts relatively low!). To me, this speaks volumes.

Otherwise, I have also found a number of variations where the practitioner uses a kind of "pancake flip" motion on the primary arm (and doesn't use the pullback arm at all). Most notably this occurs in Tatsuo Shimabuku's isshin ryu system (see above).

It is also done, rather strangely in an almost identical way, by Choshin Chibana (see my earlier comments about the lack of similarity between Chibana's naihanchi kata and Zenpo Shimabukuro's, despite the suggestion of at least some lineal connection).

Regardless, the school that most features the "single arm" movement today appears to be the isshin ryu school and its offshoots. Consider the adjacent images with the single-arm motion, taken from the video below:

Another isshin ryu performance of naihanchi

[Continued in Part 2.]

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic