The Pinan Katas

Gregory Allen

In the early part of the twentieth century the renowned karate master Anko Itosu had a problem: he had gotten what he asked for. Anko-san had started teaching karate at the Prefectural Dai Ichi College after spending several years teaching at the Shuri Jinjo Elementary School. At his urging 1 the Okinawan Prefectural Education Department had agreed to his suggestion that karate be added to the curriculum of all Okinawan schools. Unfortunately the karate that Itosu had been studying for almost fifty years, taught to him by none other than Sokon Matsumura, was a dangerous art. Too dangerous, he believed, for young school children.

Out of this dilemma came the Pinan katas. Anko-san took as a base the kata Chaing-nan and mixed in additional techniques currently in use in the Shuri region. The end result, the five Pinan katas, were suitable for a public school curriculum. Anko-san’s inventions provided school children with the health and discipline benefits of formal karate kata by emphasizing fundamental punching, blocking and kicking techniques.

The Pinan katas have always been a victim of their origin. Their beginnings in the public school system left them with a reputation as kata suitable only for children. This begs the question: If the Pinans are suitable only for children then why did Anko-san himself teach them to his adult students? The answer lies in the interpretation. When teaching children, the techniques can be taken at face value, straightforward ‘block-punch’ combinations. When working with adults, on the other hand, the katas’ movements can be interpreted in terms of more dangerous locking, gouging, choking and throwing techniques.

After Anko-san’s death things became a little confusing. His students carried on his work, passing his kata into various styles including Shotokan, Wado Ryu and Shorin Ryu. The founder of Shotokan, Gichin Funakoshi, taught the katas but changed Pinan to the more Japanese Heian. Funakoshi also transposed the names of the first two kata so they matched the usual teaching order. The traditional Pinan Nidan became Shotokan’s Heian Shodan.

1 Anko-san wrote a letter to the Education Department carefully outlining the benefits of karate to school age children.