Naihanchi a History

The kata known as Naihanchi is a unique, linear, side-stepping form with most of the techniques done in what is known as horse stance (kiba-dashi).  There are three kata in the Naihanchi family, usually labeled as Shodan, Nidan, and Sandan; referencing the numbered order or level of the kata. It can also be referred to as Naifanchi, or Tekki depending on the style it is in. There are some systems that consider Naihanchi to be the “master kata.” Kentsu Yabu (1866-1937) often told his students “Karate begins and ends with Naihanchi.”

Without looking at any statistics, Naihanchi could be considered one of the most popular kata in martial arts. A version of the kata can be found in almost every style or iteration of karate. Regardless of which origin story you subscribe to, it is commonly accepted that the kata is at least a few hundred years old and originated in China. From there the story gets a little murky.

The history of Naihanchi can read like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. One origin story states sometime in the late 18th century Kanga “Tode” Sakugawa (1733-1815) brought the kata to Okinawa from China, he then taught the kata to his students, one of them being Sokon “Bushi” Matsumura (1809-1899), a bodyguard and chief martial arts instructor to the king of the Ryukyu Islands. The second origin story starts directly with Bushi Matsumura, having him learn the kata from a Chinese man living in the city of Temari, Okinawa. Or he may have learned it in China on one of his official visits to the province of Fuzhou and brought it to Okinawa himself.

Bushi Matsumura had many famous students, one of them Anko Itosu (1831-1915).  Itosu is credited with introducing karate into the Okinawan public school system.  He is also credited with creating the Nidan and Sandan versions of Naihanchi. It has also been speculated that Matsumura split the original kata into three sections, and to make it more complicated, that same speculation of the split is said to be Itosu’s idea and doing.  There are theories supporting both outcomes, not necessarily who did them. There are some who believe the second and third versions of the kata do not contain any useful self-defense and were designed for school children. Hironori Otsuka (1892-1982) founder of Wado-ryu has been quoted as calling them “almost useless.” However, the way the kata seem to blend together and the fact that most versions of Nidan and Sandan don’t have formal openings like the original, suggest it was separated into three parts.

However they came to be, we end up having a family of three similar kata. It is your job as a martial artist to find whatever value they give you.

What’s In A Name

As for the multiple names mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, we might be able to chalk this up to pronunciations and dialects. Naihanchi is more of a Japanese pronunciation while Naifanchi is more of an Okinawan pronunciation. As for Gichin Funakoshi’s name change to Tekki, this could be seen as political.

Aside of the pronunciation, there is a belief the kata was named after someone, more specifically the person who developed the kata.  There are several kata in Karate where this belief is held. George Dillman tells a story at the beginning of his Video #16, Advanced Pressure Points, where he talks about some research he was doing on Taichi.  In his research he read about a man by the name of Han Chi “…who worked the pressure points in very short patterns, mainly going sideways.”  Could this be the person who developed the kata? No one knows.  However, he does refer to a second source, not by name though, where in a Chin Na book the author states that the word “Nai” in Chinese translates to “points.” Dillman then suggests the name Naihanchi could be translated as “The Points of Han Chi.”

Not knowing the Chin Na book Dillman was referring to, there are several places on the internet, including Wikipedia, that when referring to spelling Naihanchi in kanji, use the character (内) to spell “Nai.” In Chinese it is pronounced “Nei” and translates to “inner, inside, internal.”  Could we say that “inner” refers to inner points? Possibly. It’s a stretch, you would definitely be using the Outside the Box rule.

When it comes to Funakoshi’s name change from Naihanchi to Tekki (鉄騎), he explains in his book, Karate-Do Kyohan, “The names of the kata have come down to us by word of mouth… includ[ing] Naifanchi… many of which had ambiguous meanings and have led to frequent mistakes in instruction. I have therefore changed those names [of Chinese origin]… Tekki (horse riding) refers to the distinctive feature of these kata, their horse-riding stance… tension is applied on the outside ridge of the soles of the feet with a feeling of gathering the strength in toward the center.” This explanation is an excellent naming convention redesign, and makes perfect sense.

However, Dai Nippon Butokukai, the governing and accreditation organization for Japanese martial arts, did not initially recognize karate as an official art when it was first introduced in 1922. In his book Analysis of Genuine Karate, author Herman Bayer explains some of the requirements for acceptance were a “…change of purpose from self-protection to self-perfection” and “…change of techniques from ‘creating the most possible damage in the most effective way’ to speedy, fencing sport moves with tagging contact.” Herman refers to this as part of the “Japanization” of karate.

Along with other requirements Funakoshi implemented, such as a standardized uniform and ranking system, he could have felt changing the Okinawan names of the kata to Japanese couldn’t hurt the acceptance of karate as an official martial art.  This could be considered a political move, but if it helped with the Japanese acceptance of Karate, who could blame him?

The Applications Within

The meaning of the moves in kata have always been subjective. Not just for Naihanchi, but all kata.  There have been several theories as to the purpose of Naihanchi for self-defense.  It has been said it is a kata for fighting in rice fields teaching you to step over rice paddies, it could be used fighting in a narrow ally, or when you are up against a wall. Then there is the belief each move is a self-defense technique with grappling, strikes to pressure points, and body positioning, it’s just taught in a unique side-stepping pattern. In the last 30 years or so, this thought process has become more accepted than the latter.

Ian Abernathy wrote in an article titled Naihanchi: Karate’s Most Deadly Kata “It is ridiculous to suggest that the creator of Naihanchi was a ‘paddy field fighting specialist’, that a warrior like Matsumura would be even remotely interested in such methods, that Itsou would specialist in these methods and then insist that his students spend a decade perfecting techniques for such a remote possibility. It is far more probable that Itsou believed Naihanchi to be so effective that even if it was the only thing the student ever learnt they would be an able fighter.”

In the end, it doesn’t matter which line of history you believe. And it doesn’t matter how you interpret the kata either. Naihanchi has been around for so long, and the documentation so poor, the adventure you choose is yours. However, no matter what truth you hold on to, be open to the fact, you might be wrong.