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Modern karate training is divided into three main disciplines, kihon (basics), kumite (sparring) and kata (set forms). This was not always so – for most of its history karate was a hidden art in Okinawa and the Ryukyu archipelago, its practice having been forbidden since the seventeenth century. During this time, kata were the only means by which karate was taught and practiced, and they still form the soul of the art. Many techniques are commonly found only in kata; unlocking the myriads of applications contained within even the simplest of forms is an essential part of the education of all karateka, and something which only experience and hours of practice can bring. Beyond this, the performance of kata is where the highest demonstration of a student’s abilities can be made, combining elegance with power, beauty with effectiveness, and strength with control.
Given karate’s secretive development, it was inevitable that divergent forms of kata should emerge, as each master put their own interpretation on what they themselves had learnt. Even in today's highly interconnected world, we often find different karate organisations performing the same kata in different ways. Sometimes the result of this is indeed the formation of two "rival" forms of the same kata, but sometimes we see the same original kata evolve in divergent directions to yield two different but complementary versions – the Dai (large or major) form and the Sho (small or minor) form. Furthermore, in some cases it is thought that one master deliberately took a single kata and created two versions in order to emphasise different aspects of karate.
It is this complementarity of the alternative versions of katas which we will explore. Remembering that the practice of kata is the essential spirit of karate, striving to master both forms enables the student to deepen their understanding and increase their abilities in two different and yet complementary disciplines. Each kata has commonalities with its sibling, yet emphasises one side of a coin, which is completed by the other. Power and finesse, high and low, left and right, orthodox and unusual – in each case we will find that combining the lessons of the twinned katas will make us far more effective karateka.
There are four katas within Shotokan karate that have Dai and Sho variations – three in the "standard" canon, with the modern addition of Gankaku Sho by Sensei Kanazawa in some organisations. How are these katas classified – what makes one version major and one version minor?
At one level, the naming seems simple – Dai means large, and Sho means small. A first guess might be that Dai katas are longer than Sho. This holds for both Bassai and Kanku, but the Gojushiho pairing are more or less identical in length, and Gankaku Sho is actually longer than Gankaku.
Another attempt at interpreting the names might concern the nature of the movements in the kata. Looking through the katas, for the Bassai and Kanku pairings, this seems to work fairly well, with the Dai versions often featuring larger, more expansive techniques than the matching points in their siblings. Take Kanku as an example. For Kanku Dai, the sequence of movements with a mae-geri followed by a turn are much bigger than those in the corresponding section in Kanku Sho. Dai features a large shuto to the neck, with an immediate turn after the kick into manji-gamae, one of the most distinctive, largest and showiest moves in Shotokan katas. This is then followed up with a powerful nukite strike to the groin, and a pull back. The Sho version, meanwhile, has the karateka turning into a gedan-barai and uchi-uke at 90°, followed by a much softer pull back, which is more of a return to a position of readiness. So far, so good.
It doesn’t completely work, though. Kanku Dai has one high jumping technique, while Kanku Sho features two, the second of which corresponds to a simple duck to the floor in Kanku Dai. In Bassai Dai, the sequence of tate-shuto, followed by punches and uchi-ukes is all done from hachiji-daji and a very short zenkutsu-dachi, while Bassai Sho’s matching section is done from kiba-dachi, followed by two manji-gamaes – which we’ve already noted to be big. There are other examples.
This naming falls down completely with the Gojushiho pairing, where Gojushiho Sho clearly favours longer stances and larger moves than Gojushiho Dai. Gojushiho is an interesting case, with SKIF affiliated organisations actually naming the katas the other way around from what might be called mainstream karate. We’ll explore this more in the section devoted to those katas, but there is quite a good case to be made that SKIF are more logical in their naming. Gankaku Sho can also hardly be said to be "smaller" than Gankaku, with both katas having their fair share of small, subtle, and large, powerful techniques.
If simply "large" and "smal" don’t seem quite adequate, it’s important to realise that all Shotokan katas are highly evolved forms. In developing the style, Sensei Funakoshi and his son, Giko, moved karate away from the original Okinawan patterns. Most of us are aware that the names were changed to make them sound more "Japanese", aiding their acceptance on mainland Japan. The changes went well beyond this, though, with the introduction of many new techniques and stances. For example, a common Shotokan motif combines a side snap kick and backfist, followed by a forward elbow strike in front stance. The original versions of many katas use instead a front snap kick and a straight punch, with a follow up into cat stance, and in styles such as Shito-Ryu they still do. In fact, yoko-geri-keage and kokutsu-dachi are both Shotokan inventions, and don’t appear in other styles of karate, even though they are some of the most distinctive elements in many of our katas. Shotokan is also unique in the emphasis that it places on low stances with tension in the outside of the legs. It is essentially a karate of large, powerful, linear movement.
These thoughts about the way in which katas evolved can expand our insight into their names. Ignoring Gojushiho, the techniques that we find in the Dai katas are, generally speaking, more orthodox and common Shotokan techniques, while those in the Sho katas are slightly away from the mainstream. This explains why generally the Sho katas are taught after the Dai, as students need to learn to master standard techniques before they move on to the more exotic. It also provides us with a better explanation for the naming – Dai katas are the "major" form because they are the ones which fit in more closely with the rest of what a karateka learns, while Sho katas are "minor" in that they are taking the student off the main Shotokan highway, and onto some of its smaller roads. Indeed, in the Best Karate series, Sensei Nakayama refers to Kanku Dai and Bassai Dai as just plain Kanku and Bassai – the qualifier is only used for the Sho variants. Seen in this light, it’s also not surprising that many of the moves in the Dai variants are bigger; as we noted, Shotokan has evolved to become a style of long, wide and large techniques, so it is only natural that the orthodox form of the katas should contain a predominance of those types of movement.
Having compared Sho and Dai katas in the general sense, let us now move on to more detailed investigations of each pair in turn.
Bassai is often translated as "Storming a Fortress", but could equally well be translated as "Removing an Obstruction." It is sometimes known in other forms of karate as "Passai", and according to Sensei Kanazawa, the two different forms of the kata were created by Sensei Itosu. Forms of the kata appear in many different styles of karate, sometimes named after the master to whom their creation is attributed (for example Oyadomari Passai, Matsumara Passai), the region with which it is associated (Tomari Passai), or just a descriptive name such as Koryu (traditional) Passai. With such a wide acceptance, it’s not surprising that Bassai Dai is seen as a central kata in Shotokan, nor that when the Shotokan canon was being established in the 1950s, more than one version of the kata should find its way into the style.
Looking at the two katas, they obviously share a common structure – sequences of turning blocks to open, a set of forward and backward shutos, rapid changes of direction, then three double punches in the rearward direction, finishing at 45° in both forward directions. In comparing them, Sensei Nakayama writes that "Bassai Dai outwardly shows power and solemnity while Bassai Sho, in the calmness of its techniques, contains an inner strength." Sensei Kanazawa, meanwhile, notes the powerful, dynamic techniques of Bassai Dai, and the emphasis on balance in Bassai Sho.
As a karateka, the two kata seem very different when performing them. Sensei Kanazawa’s observations are very pertinent. Bassai Dai feels very firmly rooted, with stance changes forward and backward effected in the standard way, by lateral movement of the back foot followed by a strong twisting action in the hips. Throughout the kata there is an emphasis on a strong front stance, with powerful hip movements generating power without moving the feet. Bassai Sho, in contrast, hardly uses front stance, and contains many movements involving turning either on a single foot, or with the feet together, requiring excellent balance on the part of the performer. Here too, however, correct use of the hips is essential in order to twist rapidly and perform an effective block or strike while retaining control.
Both katas, then, teach us how to use our hips, but in very different ways. Bassai Dai is classic Shotokan; strong and powerful, with long stances and hip movement absolutely typical of the style. Bassai Sho feels light and sharp, evading and dodging where Bassai Dai simply blasts through. Practicing the two shows us two ways to storm a fortress – Bassai Dai’s battering ram, and Bassai Sho’s lockpick.
The Kanku katas are another pair based on a form that is widely found throughout different karate styles. It was originally named Kusanku, reportedly after a Ming Dynasty Chinese envoy named Kosokun or Kung Siang Chun, who was an expert in Chinese boxing, and this is still the name under which it is more usually known outside Shotokan. Sensei Funakoshi changed the name to Kanku, meaning "Viewing the Sky," after the opening movement of Kanku Dai. There is no equivalent in Kanku Sho, but as we have already noted, Kanku Dai was at one point just known as plain Kanku – presumably the Sho variant inherited the new name when it was incorporated into the style.
Once again, the structures of the katas are quite similar, although they each contain unique elements – Kanku Sho’s stick block and first jump, and the whole ending section of Kanku Dai after the uchi-uke, gyaku-zuki combinations have no direct equivalents. In style, they are both powerful, dynamic katas.
The striking difference between the two forms comes in the targeting of the blocks and attacks that one finds. In the case of Kanku Dai, while the kata contains a number of chudan techniques, there are also many delivered as jodan. Kanku Sho, in contrast, takes place almost entirely at chudan. This is noted by Nakayama and others. Redmond suggests that this may be a feature of how the kata was created. It is often attributed to Sensei Itosu, and many of the katas that he created contain a predominance of mid-level techniques.
As karateka, we need to be versatile, able to attack and defend against all targets. A successful head attack is likely to end a fight in one blow, but the head gives us much less to aim at, is instinctively defended by our opponent, and potentially leaves us more vulnerable to a kick as we leave the lower level undefended. The body, on the other hand, gives us a much bigger target, albeit one which is likely to be able to take more punishment. Learning both Kanku katas enables us to practice both – the high-risk, high-reward jodan of Kanku Dai, and the pragmatic, repeated chudan of Kanku Sho.
The two Gojushiho katas originate from a kata known as Useishi. Both Gojushiho and Useishi mean the same thing – 54 steps. Sensei Funakoshi attempted to rename the kata as "Hotaku" which means "Woodpecker", but for some reason this failed to stick, and it reverted to its rather more prosaic current name. There are different theories as to the origin of "Hotaku" as a name – it could refer to either the repeated nukite strikes, or the forward head movement which appear in both versions of the kata, or even to both.
More than any other pairing, the similarities in the structures of these two katas are very obvious. Each technique in one kata has an exact counterpart in the other, and the rhythm and embusen of the two are identical. The naming of which is Sho and Dai is more problematic. Sensei Nakayama’s naming scheme has the back stance/shihon nukite version named Sho, and the cat stance/ippon nukite version named Dai. Sensei Kanazawa, however, names them the other way around. Who is right? Most of the karate world (including the SKA) follows Sensei Nakayama’s naming, yet examining the two katas suggests that Sensei Kanazawa may be correct. What is widely known as the Sho kata is clearly more mainstream in its stances and techniques, with its thematic repeated movement using back stance, front stance, and large scale movements, as opposed to the cat stance and intricate hand movements of Gojushiho Dai. Following our suggested naming convention, should not the names be reversed?
One story about the reason for this relates that at a competition in Japan, a high ranking instructor stepped up to perform this kata. He announced one kata, and then proceeded to give a perfect performance of the other. Unsure of what to do, the judges awarded him the win, and from that point on everyone referred to the katas using reversed names. There doesn’t seem to be much concrete evidence to back this story up, but it’s all too believable. Whatever the truth, Sensei Nakayama’s names are now the mainstream.
Apart from the noted obvious difference between the large scale Gojushiho Sho and smaller scale Gojushiho Dai, one more subtle difference becomes obvious once one performs one of the katas and then follows it up immediately with the other. This is that at many equivalent points in the kata, the weight-bearing leg is actually reversed. When the Sho version requires weight on the right leg, the Dai version requires weight on the left, and vice-versa. This is particularly noticeable during the previously mentioned thematic movements. The flowing-cloud block in Gojushiho Sho is immediately followed by a step into front stance, and both of these put most of the weight on the right leg. In Gojushiho Dai, by contrast, the chicken-head wrist block is performed in a cat stance, followed by a slide into another cat stance, and both of these have most of the weight on the left. (The control required to perform this technique well while keeping all their weight on what for most people is their weak foot is one of the things that make Gojushiho Dai a considerably harder kata, in my opinion) It’s not just these movements, though – right from the beginning, the movements in back stance in Sho are in front stance in Dai, and the oi-zukis in Sho match gyaku-zukis in Dai, with a correspondingly reversed weight distribution. Even the mae-geri near the end uses different feet.
These are long and hard katas. Learning and mastering either of them requires excellent control, and an understanding of rhythm, of fast and slow, hard and soft. Learning and mastering the two of them enables us to do so with both sides of our bodies.
While Gankaku is a well-established part of Shotokan karate, Gankaku Sho is a comparatively recent addition, and not performed across all organisations. Introduced by Sensei Kanazawa, it is actually based on an older form of the kata, and is also known as Koryu Gankaku – traditional Gankaku. The katas were originally known as Chinto. The version created by Sensei Itosu was incorporated into Shotokan, and renamed to reflect the kata’s characteristic pose – in the same way as Kanku Sho picked up Kanku Dai’s new name despite not containing the technique after which it was (re)named, Gankaku Sho carries Gankaku’s name without using its tsuru-ashi dachi crane-leg stance.
Both versions of Gankaku are athletic, dynamic, katas, involving jumping kicks and frequent turning movements. More than any other pairing, though, these katas illustrate the principle that the major form of a kata uses orthodox Shotokan techniques, while the minor form introduces the student to unusual methods and stances. Apart from eponymous crane-leg poses, Gankaku is performed entirely using very standard stances – zenkutsu-dachi, kokutsu-dachi and kiba-dachi, with two instances of kosa-dachi, a stance widely found in other katas. Gankaku Sho, in contrast, makes frequent use of stances that are not found elsewhere – shiko-dachi (square stance), tori-dachi (tiger stance), and hiza-kakushi kosa-dachi (hidden knee crossed-leg stance). What’s more, almost every step in the kata takes the performer into a different stance from the previous step, a change from most other katas, which contain sequences of steps or techniques where the stance does not vary. The embusen is also highly unorthodox, being entirely on a diagonal line, as opposed to Gankaku’s straight up-and-down.
If the stances of Gankaku Sho are unusual, how about the techniques? Gankaku itself is a kata with a number of unique elements. Gankaku Sho takes this to a new level, however, introducing feints with the hands and feet, frequent changes of stance with no or minimal foot movement, and many hand movements not found anywhere else. Also of note is the manner in which the kicks are performed. Gankaku uses the standard Shotokan yoko-geri-keage – what we see in Gankaku Sho is a mae-geri. As we noted earlier, keage is a kick which is only found in Shotokan, and in this respect Gankaku Sho gives us a glimpse into how katas were performed in years gone by, and indeed still are performed in many other styles of karate. Gankaku Sho is a less "Shotokanised" form of the kata, and as such, its practice widens the repertoire of the advanced student by giving him or her the chance to feel how karate used to be.
Diligent practice of kata is a vital part of any karate student’s development. Only through kata can we gain insights and experience of many techniques which are not found in our kihon and kumite training. In studying the Dai and Sho forms we enhance our knowledge and understanding, through discovery of the diverse interpretations that different masters have put on the original source material. As we have seen, in each case the pair of katas emphasise similar yet complementary skills. In performing each one, our journey to master each of the pair enables us to become more effective karateka.
Kanazawa, H. “Karate. The Complete Kata.” Kodansha International, 2009
Nakayama, M. “Best Karate. Volume 6. Bassai, Kanku.” Kodansha International, 1979
Nakayama, M. “Best Karate. Volume 8. Gankaku, Jion.” Kodansha International, 1981
Nakayama, M. “Best Karate. Volume 9. Bassai Sho, Kanku Sho, Chinte.” Kodansha International, 1985
Nakayama, M. “Best Karate. Volume 11. Gojushiho Dai, Gojushiho Sho, Meikyo.” Kodansha International, 1989
Redmond, R. “Kata. The Folk Dances of Shotokon.” Digital Publication, 2006
Yokota, K. “Shotokan Myths.” Xlibris, 2010
Yokota, K. “Shotokan Mysteries.” Xlibris, 2013