Kushanku kata (also known as ‘Kanku-Dai’ and ‘Kosokun’) is one of the most popular forms in modern karate. It is a physically demanding and visually impressive form (when performed correctly) and it is one of the most popular kata in modern competition. As well as being a popular form with kata competitors, it also has a great deal to offer the practically minded karateka. In this article we will briefly look at the history of the kata and examine some of the key concept relating to its application.
The kata is a record of the combative techniques and concepts formulated by a Chinese martial artist who went by the name of Kushanku. Some karate historians believe that ‘Kushanku’ was a military title rather than a personal name – a breakdown of the individual characters used to write Kushanku would seem to support that – nevertheless the kata is named after a specific martial artist from China.
Kushanku is said to have come from China to Okinawa in the 1750s with other military personal at the request of Okinawa’s king. There is a document called ‘Oshima Hikki’ (Note of Oshima). This document details a ship running ashore in Oshima bay and includes interviews with the crew of that ship. In one of these interviews the captain of the ship tells of an extremely impressive grappling demonstration he witnessed that was given by Kushanku. The interview tells us that Kushanku was not a physically strong man and yet he defeated much stronger opponents with ease. We are also told that his methods involved placing one hand on the opponent whilst striking with the other hand. We are also told that Kushanku also made use of effective ‘piercing’ leg movements (#).
One person who became a student of Kushanku’s during his time in Okinawa was Tode Sakugawa. Tode Sakugawa began studying the martial arts after his father, who had frequently been the victim of bullies, had encouraged him to do so (see ‘The Weaponless Warriors’ by Richard Kim).
Tode Sakugawa began his study of the martial arts under Peichin Takahara (‘Peichin’ being a title as opposed to a name) and eventually became one of his best students. It was Takahara who said that Sakugawa should adopt the name ‘Tode’ (which was an old term for karate) in recognition of his outstanding fighting skill. Peichin Takahara is said to have seen Kushanku demonstrate his fighting prowess and was greatly impressed by him. Takahara then encouraged Sakugawa to seek out instruction from Kushanku.
Tode Sakugawa studied under Kushanku for a number of years and he eventually formulated Kushanku kata as a means to record the combative methods Kushanku had taught him. Tode Sakugawa was the first martial arts teacher of the legendary Soken Matsumura; who was the chief bodyguard to three Okinawan kings. Matsumura became Sakugawa’s student whilst he was still a child. Matsumura was in turn one of the teachers of Anko Itosu. It was Itosu who is credited with creating the ‘Sho’ (lesser) version of Kushanku. Today, some karate styles practise both the lesser and greater versions of the form (Kushanku-Dai and Kushanku-Sho); whereas others only practise the main version. Itosu was also the creator of the five Pinan (Heian) kata, and it is obvious from their many similarities that Kushanku kata heavily influenced the development and the subject mater covered by the Pinan series.
Gichin Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan) – who was a student of Itosu’s – gave both versions of Kushanku the Japanese name of ‘Kanku’ (meaning ‘to view the sky’) when karate was introduced to mainland Japan as part of his drive to make the art more accessible to the Japanese. Kushanku / Kanku-Dai was said to be Funakoshi’s favourite form.
Kushanku is one of the longest forms and it contains a wide variety of techniques. There are no detailed written records of the techniques that Kushanku originally taught Sakugawa. We have the kata itself of course, but we have no definitive answer when we ask what the original applications of the form were. The applications of the form are therefore open to interpretation.
From the Oshima hikki we do know that Kushanku was a skilled grappler, that he used one hand to control the opponent whilst striking with the other hand, and that he used ‘piercing leg movements’. We can therefore confidently say that the kata contains plenty of grappling. Certainly my own breakdown of the form includes many throws, takedowns and locks.
The use of one hand to control and locate the head whilst the other limb strikes it is most definitely a key methodology of old style karate. Essentially the non-striking arm has two jobs in kata. The first is to locate and control the head during the chaos of close range combat so that the accuracy of strikes is improved. This is a method I personally refer to as ‘datum setting’ and Oshima hikki suggests that this was a key part of Kushanku’s methodology. The second use of the non-striking limb is to clear obstructions i.e. if the opponent’s arms get in the way of the target, one hand will move them so that the target can continue to be struck by the other hand.
The final methodology referenced in Oshima hikki is ‘piercing leg movements’. It is not clear to me if this refers to kicking or driving in with the legs to disrupt the opponent’s balance and posture. Both methodologies can certainly be found within Kushanku kata.
We can therefore say with a good deal of certainty that the motions of the form should be applied in a way that includes grappling, datum setting, kicking and driving in with the legs to disrupt the opponent’s balance and posture. Sadly, that is not how the kata is commonly interpreted in many of today’s dojos. The most common interpretations of the form frequently have the ‘combatants’ using unrealistic techniques, in an unrealistic way, at an unrealistic distance. However, if we approach the kata armed with the historical information we have access to, and with realism and pragmatism there is no reason why we can’t unlock the techniques and concepts that the form was originally meant to record. It is simply a case of analysing the kata from the correct perspective and in the correct way. Indeed, in many cases it is blindingly obvious how the motion of the kata is to be applied. And even where our interpretation may vary from the original then at least, if we approach the kata in the right way, we are ensuring we stay true to the original intent which was practical fighting methods for use in a civilian environment.
Understanding the applications of the forms isn’t particularly difficult if you have an understanding of the nature of combat and have a grasp of the ‘language’ of kata. Indeed the active study of the kata (as opposed to just practising them) is something that all karateka should engage in.
My own study of Kushanku has revealed strikes, traps, throws, takedowns, joint-locks, chokes, strangles, etc. Of particular interest to me was the way in which the ‘opening salutation’ records a flinch that you may instinctively employ during the opening stages a fight if taken by surprise. The opening part of the kata also examines how that flinch can be used to gain control of an opponent’s limbs and create openings for strikes (see the 3rd DVD in my Bunkai-Jutsu series for more details). This flinch is presented in a very formal way in kata; as can be seen in the photograph of Gichin Funakoshi performing the opening motion of Kushanku kata (Above). However, in combat the flinch will of course be instinctive and rough around the edges.
It should always be remembered that kata is a record of information and as such it can be compared to a collection of recipes. We need recipes to know how to cook good food … but we don’t eat recipes! Similarly, the kata gives us the information needed to fight and this information is presented in a formal way. However, we should never mistake the formal instructions for the actual fighting skills those instructions are supposed to develop. The kata is always formal and precise. The live application of the kata in the chaos of combat will be far from formal and precise! As Funakoshi himself wrote, ‘Always perform the kata exactly; combat is another matter’. Kata tells us what methodologies we should drill and take into our live training. The solo kata should never be considered as an alternative to, or substitute for, that live practise. Sadly, that is a very common misunderstanding about the purpose and nature of kata.
It seems to me that the opening movements of Kushanku kata deals with the opening stages of the actual fight. The other movements toward the start of the form are also quite easy to apply. Could it be that the kata records Kushanku’s ‘syllabus’ in the order it was taught to Sakugawa? Certainly my own interpretation has the more physically and technically demanding techniques (in actual application, not solo performance) towards the end of the kata, and the simplest and most immediate techniques towards the start.
The final technique of the form records a rather advanced throwing technique that requires good timing and a good degree of physical strength. Throughout the martial arts, it is common to teach the simplest techniques first, and teach the techniques that require a better understanding of the basics later on. Kushanku kata contains many throws and takedowns. The fact that the most demanding throw in the form is the last technique recorded would again support the idea that the kata may record Kushanku’s syllabus in the order it was taught. Again, we have no way of knowing for certain, but the idea is certainly worthy of consideration.
The last three moves of the form see the practitioner step around with their left leg (Figure 1), assume a low stance as the arms are pulled in (Figure 2), and then straighten the legs as the arms are brought upwards (Figure 3). The application of this sequence is as follows. Turn to the side and take your arm underneath the opponent’s lead leg. Lift the opponent’s arm just above your head as you step across (Figure 4). Pull the opponent’s arm downward so that they are loaded onto your shoulders. At this point your legs should be bent, and your spine should be straight (Figure 5). Straighten your legs to lift the opponent into the air. You can then dump the opponent onto the floor in whatever direction is appropriate (Figure 6).
As motioned previously, there are numerous throws recorded in Kushanku kata (i.e. neck-ring, tackle, hip-wheel, etc.) but this throw is definitely the most advanced and its advanced nature is very likely to be the reason why it is the last motion in the form. The kata starts by working with our instinctive reactions and steadily progresses through more technically demanding methodologies. It is my view that not only does the kata provide the syllabus of a holistic combative system, it also records the correct teaching / training order in which to develop competence in that system.
Kushanku (Kanku-Dai) is frequently said to be one of the most important forms practised within the various karate styles. History tells us that the kata is a record of the highly effective techniques that were designed by Kushanku and then subsequently recorded by Tode Sakugawa. It is a very important kata and as such it deserves to be studied deeply.
(#) – An in-depth discussion of Oshima hikki and its impact on our understanding of the development of karate is found in the book 'Motobu Choki and Ryukyu Karate' by Iwai Kohaku – Gavin Poffley provided the author of this article with an English translation of the section on Oshima Hikki).