Bassai Dai (Passai): Grappling Kata?

As discussed in an earlier posting, the Okinawan master, Sokon “Bushi” Matsumura was a central figure in developing the now familiar linear technique, at a time when most martial artists on Okinawa were still using the circular techniques of Chinese origin.  As discussed in that posting, Matsumura was also the head bodyguard to the King of Okinawa and the bodyguards (like all Okinawans) were not allowed to carry weapons by Japanese decree.

This left a situation where the bodyguards could end up fighting a superior number of assailants, who might also be armed.  That previous posting discussed how the linear technique would have helped take the fight to the opponents and dispatch them as quickly as possible (necessary when facing larger numbers).

Taking a step further back in history, the earlier Okinawan masters had developed a system that included all modes of combat.  This would include striking, grappling and weapons.  Although Matsumura developed the linear technique and clearly emphasised the “one hit, one kill” philosophy which we are very familiar with today; Matsumura and his men would clearly have needed some grappling skills.  They would not be interested in taking a fight to the ground where others could kick them on the floor and they would not be interested in the time taken to gain a submission when others would be attacking them.  However, they would be particularly interested in knowing how to release any kind of grabs or holds and release them very fast before others came up to hit them.

Matsumura is believed to the be the author of Bassai Dai (also known as Passai or Patsai), which is still practiced in may styles of Karate and Tang Soo Do.  When you look at the opening sequence of Bassai Dai just after the forward thrusting back fist strike/block, you turn 180 degrees and perform 2 chest level blocks, turn 180 degrees again and perform 2 more chest level blocks, then turn 90 degrees to the right, scoop low and perform 2 more chest level blocks.  When you stop to think about it, this is a bazaar sequence.  Firstly, Matsumura was known to be a man who studied his enemies, and in this case his enemies would be angry Westerns wanting to trade (and being rejected by Japanese order).  Matsumura would know that these “barbarians” would not practice straight lunge punches, but would more likely swing at the head.  Secondly, why do so much blocking and not hit back?  You’ve just blocked 3 people and they are still standing, still wanting to hit you!  The defence is not geared to the likely attacks and still leaves you vulnerable at the end.

Was it that Bassai Dai was more for character development than for actual fighting.  Matsumura was practical, clever, ruthless and fanatical about martial arts.  It is very unlikely that he would author a kata that did not have very practical, effective and ruthless fighting movements from start to finish.

So what conclusion can we draw?  The obvious one is that this sequence of 6 chest level blocks are in fact, nothing to do with chest level blocks.  Bearing in mind that Matsumura’s men would expect to be outnumbered, should a fight break out they would expect to be grabbed from all directions.  So try practicing this sequence with a partner.  Have them grab you in various ways from behind, then turn and perform the double blocks.  You will find that most grabs will be knocked off and as you are moving into your opponent/partner, you will find that the second “block” can often be used as a close quarters strike.

My Sensei, Paul Mitchell always says that Bassai Dai is a grappling kata.  Not grappling as in the sporting sense, but to release attackers grabs and line them up for a finishing blow.  He also says that Karate is “a kind art” as it teaches you to strike first (which is the easiest way to dispatch somebody) and grapple later.  However, when learning to strike we place a great deal of emphasis on stance and posture which some people decry as unrealistic and static.  But that stance and posture gives you the balance and stability that you need when somebody has grabbed you and is trying to shake you about as you try to release them.  Furthermore, the mobility that we are supposed to lose by using these stances are more valuable for sporting contest than the reality of the street.

This may seem strange to some people if they are reading these type of ideas for the first time, but the more you analise it, the more you realise that it is the only logical conclusion.

Our own DVD on Bassai Dai and its bunkai is now available at our store.


Why Did Karate Develop It’s Linear Technique?

Although this blog is primarily about the application of martial technique, sometimes understanding the history of how certain techniques developed give a better idea of how those techniques can be applied in today’s world (where competition rules have clouded the issues).

Believed to be born in 1796, Sokon “Bushi” Matsumura was a martial arts fanatic and some would say genius.  He was known to be very clever, good at psychology and ruthless.  At the age of 14, he announced that he would become the greatest fighter on Okinawa; by the age of 25 he was widely accepted as having achieved this goal.

Matsumura is a key figure in Karate history for 2 main reasons.  Firstly, two of his students were Azato and Ituso, who were teachers to Funikoshi, now widely regarded as the father of modern Karate.

Secondly, he appears be central in the development of linear technique.  Before Matsumura there is little evidence of linear technique, with most Okinawan Karate following the lead of Chinese Kung Fu and emphasising circular technique.  The Okinawan style of Naha Te and its main derivative, Goju Ryu were not influenced by Matsurmura, and still today their kata’s employ predominantly circular technique (just look them up on Youtube). Matsurmura was central to the Okinawan style of Shuri Te and most derivatives of this style clearly emphasis linear technique.

Due to his martial prowess, Matsumura quickly rose up in the ranks to become Chief Of Security to the King of Okinawa, a post which he held for 50 years.  The Okinawan king was basically a “puppet government” under Japanese rule.  The Japanese banned the use of weapons on Okinawa, a ban which extended even to the bodyguards to the king.  These were the only bodyguards to a head of state in history who were not allowed to carry weapons, and Matsumura was their boss.  It is known that anybody working for the king in any capacity would have had to be a martial artist as well.  It was a job requirement, even for clerks.  In the vulnerable position that the king was in, everybody would be expected to jump in if a situation arose.

But who was the main threat to the king?  The answer stunned me when I first found out after decades of training without knowing this.  The main threat was Westerners.  Whaling boats would want to trade with Okinawa when supplies got low, but due to rulings by the Japanese overlords they would not be allowed to.  This would sometimes lead to a ship-load of angry Western seamen, armed with whatever they had with them, going up to the Shuri Castle (centre of government) to “sort out” this little king.  Seemed a safe bet on an Island where nobody carried weapons.

However, the most serious incident happened in 1853.  It is widely known that Japanese isolationism was forcibly ended by an American fleet led by Commodore Perry.  What is not so well known is that Perry stopped at Okinawa before going to Japan.  Perry’s behaviour would seem very arrogant by our standards, but Perry understood the Japanese mindset at that time.  He realised that they respected force much more than diplomacy.  As such, he deliberately set about “bullying” the unarmed Okinawan’s, so that when he arrived at Japan he would arrive with a reputation as a hard-man.

The Okinawans had no way to know this, they would have just seen it as an invasion.  Especially when Perry led a parade up to the Shuri Castle consisting of 2 companies of armed US marines, 50 naval officers and 2 brass bands. Oh, and some big cannons from the ships!  This was Matsumura’s nightmare scenario.  Had Perry decided to take over and ordered the king’s detention, how could Matsumura and his unarmed men possibly protect their king against such overwhelming odds?

We can never know with exact certainty how Matsumura planned for such an invasion should it happen.  However, in the book Shotokan’s Secret, by Bruce Clayton, Ph.D., it lays down what skills Clayton believed would be needed in such a situation, why you would need them and what you wouldn’t need.

For a start, you wouldn’t be interested in holds and restraints.  No good pinning somebody down when you are outnumbered, his comrades will simply kick and beat you.

Matsumura would have known that the rifles took about 30 seconds to load and fire the first round, so should a fight break out you have 30 seconds to incapacitate as many opponents as possible and get your king out the back door before bullets start flying.  With circular technique relying on centrifugal force, you are almost waiting for people to come to you.  After you’ve dropped a few people, the rest would likely hang back until the riflemen start firing.  However, with linear technique, taking larger forward steps in any given direction, you can take the fight to them causing confusion, panic and disorientation.  You might even reach the riflemen before they have chance to load and fire.

Also, when surrounded by opponents, being stationary is not a good thing.  By attacking forward (in any direction) you will probably take your opponent by surprise (a mob does not expect to be attacked by it’s intended victim) and you put distance between yourself and anybody behind you.

With rifles being loaded, you also need to incapacitate opponents very quickly; no time to choke them out, just one punch . . . next please . . . punch . . . . next.

I want to make clear that I am not saying that linear techniques are better than circular.  I’m just saying that these are the requirements and circumstances that probably led to the creation of linear techniques.

Fast forward to today.  If fighting one on one, circular systems do generally give you more options.  They include strikes, grapples and pressure point strikes coming in from all odd angles.  These applications do appear in linear styles too, but with much less emphasis on them.  However, if you get attacked by a gang, being able to surprise them, knock some some out very quickly to balance the odds and spread them out so you can pick them off one by one obviously has some advantages too.  It should be remembered that linear techniques were designed to fight untrained multiple opponents, not other Asian martial artist who might be able to cope with such techniques.

If we are set upon by a gang of thugs, these people are basically cowards; not the hardy seaman or trained soldiers that Matsumura faced.  Whilst a basic stepping punch may not work well in a competition against somebody else who is trained; suddenly stepping forward to attack the leader of a gang who is expecting you to cower away is more likely to work.  Especially if you use your lead hand to distract as you move forward.  After a few steps forward (and hopefully a few assailants down), you need to be sure that nobody is about to jump on your back, so spinning round fast (as we do in our katas/hyungs/patterns) is a good idea, even if there is nobody close enough to actually strike at least you keep the initiative.

Incidentally, the elite British Special Forces regiment, the SAS (and probably others), are taught that if ambushed whilst driving along, they put the foot down.  Most people when ambushed run for cover, which allows the enemy to consolidate and concentrate their fire on your position.  This is similar to a group of thugs closing in and all hitting you at the same time.  However, when ambushed the SAS are trained to accellerate, becoming a moving target, not allow their enemy to concentrate their fire and get out as quick as possible.  That is not so different to linear Karate, stepping forward into a surrounding crowd, not allowing thugs to consolidate and not complying with their expectations.  Similar tactics from the top warriors of today and the past.

In Bruce Clayton’s book, Shotokan’s Secret, he makes it clear that the battle plan that he believes Matsumura drew up is just his own theory.  However, by comparing the requirements with the techniques best suited to that particular scenario, you come up with a style almost perfectly matching Shotokan.  Even today you can see in modern Karate and TKD that there is an emphasis in being mobile, forward movement and the emphasis on “one strike one kill”.

All the derivatives of Shuri Te, (including Tae Kwon Do and Tang Soo Do) have these features in common and more closely resemble each other than they do any of the Chinese Kung Fu styles or the Naha Te derived styles.  Again, I’m not saying that any are better than the other, just different in emphasis.

Shotokan’s Sectret is a must read for anybody interested in history of martial arts and although it has “Shotokan” in the title, the history and technique applies to any Shuri Te derived style.