Heian Shodan – Heian Godan (The Famous Five)

For hundreds of years now, the Heian katas have been taught by many instructors throughout the world, with slight variations of movements through different styles. The interpretations of the katas applications have vastly differed from club to club and in some cases, sadly been made up. The Heian kata series have been recognised globally as the first, official 5 kata out of the 26 to be taught in Shotokan karate.

Although these kata are taught to us over and over again, students are often unaware of the story behind them. Why are there 5 kata and not 3 like the Tekki katas? Why do they all start to the left? What are the real applications for each of them?

To understand these three questions we need to go back in time, and travel to Shuri, Okinawa - a district of Naha city. During the reign of King Sho Taikyu, karate was introduced to the king’s bodyguards from great masters such as Sokon Bushi Matsumura and Yasutsune Itosu (the creator of many kata including the 5 Heian kata).

Attempts on the king’s life would be inevitable throughout his reign. Therefore, the king’s bodyguards would have needed to be prepared to deal with all kinds of threats. Not only this, a Commodore by the name of Mathew Perry was planning to invade Shuri castle accompanied with his soldiers from the United States.

With this in mind we come to our first question: Why are there five Heian Kata?

It was the teachings of the Heian kata that the bodyguards needed to know more than any other kata. At first this doesn’t seem to make any sense, as the Heian kata are beginner kata. Why would a well experienced bodyguard need to practice a beginners kata when they are more than trained to deal with more aggressive attacks?

Well, in this period of time, the bodyguards would come across five types of enemies. Each Heian kata was designed to defend against each of these 5 different types of enemy. The katas taught the guards how to deal with enemies whether they were to kill them, disarm them, throw or retrieve an opponent, armed or unarmed from them.

  • Heian Shodan was taught by using select techniques developed by Sokon Bushi Matsumura. These techniques were for dealing with everyday common challengers on the streets of Shuri. In other words, muggers or brawlers.
  • Heian Nidan was developed to deal with everyday armed bureaucratic Samurai, therefore the use of sword techniques and sword disarming methods was vital.
  • In Heian Sandan we learn not to destroy our enemies, but we learn techniques in how to parry attacks, immobilise, restrain and then retrieve our targets. This kata was designed for combatting police tactics.
  • The kata Heian Yondan teaches the bodyguards how to penetrate a samurai soldier in armour to defeat them, striking at all the weak points that the armour does not cover.
  • Heian Godan teaches you how to disarm the modern solider, taking away their musket gun and bayonet and then using them against them.
Why do all the Heian Kata start to the left?

One of the reasons that all the Heian kata start with the first move directed to the left, is that Itosu was the kings left hand man, and he would deal with any attempt on his life from the left. Sokon Bushi Matsumura, was the kings right hand man and would deal with attacks from the right.

One of the biggest mistakes that students make in Karate regarding kata application is that they don’t explore the opening attacks. By this I mean that, yes we move to the left in all Heian kata but in Shodan, is the attack really coming from the left? Are we really blocking a punch or kick?

What are the real applications for each kata?

The real applications of the kata are brutal and most cannot be taught. This is one of the reasons why we now have many clubs and schools having various applications with a kata. The instructors are either substituting the deadly brutal applications for modern day techniques or making them up as they don’t know the correct applications. Although the name Heian means peaceful mind, the applications are not.

If we take Heian Nidan for instance and look at the first Kiai (Nukite or spear hand). You wouldn’t necessarily use this technique to the solar plexus when a punch could do more damage. The real application here is that we are driving a sword through our opponent’s chest. The next move that follows, (Shuto or knife hand block) is actually chopping the opponents head off with the second sword that we are holding in our left hand (that was acquired earlier from disarming a soldier).

So, next time you are practicing the Heian katas, try to imagine that you are one of the king’s bodyguards and that any one of you movements is toward an attacker, ready to pounce.

For more information on the history of kata and bunkai, read Shotokan’s Secret - The Hidden Truth Behind Karate’s Fighting Origins. By Bruce D. Clayton, Ph.D. It is a very good read.