Pinan Kata — History and Background

Recently, we started learning the karate kata Pinan Nidan at the San Diego dojo. Kata, which in Japanese literally means “form”, are a set of choreographed movement patterns, that can be practiced solo or in groups. At a basic physical level, kata help in drilling movement patterns into “muscle memory” – patterns that are useful in self defense situations as well as in conditioning the body and mind. At a deeper level, a kata may holds the “keys” to entire fighting strategies and tactics of a system, as well as to applications in everyday life. Once you develop a “reading” skill for kata, you can access this rich throve of information.

Origin of the Pinan Kata

Several students asked me about the origin of the Pinan kata. Pinan (平安) literally means “the way of peace” or “peaceful and calm”. The Pinan kata consist of five kata:

  • Pinan Shodan
  • Pinan Nidan
  • Pinan Sandan
  • Pinan Yondan
  • Pinan Godan

Pinan are practiced by many karate styles, including Shito-Ryu,  Wado-Ryu, Shotokan (where they are known by the Japanese word Heian), Shorin-Ryu, Kobayashi-Ryu, Kyokushin, Matsubayashi-Ryu, and others. They are also part of the curriculum in some Korean martial arts styles such as Tang Soo Do. The versions of Pinan that are widely practiced today have originated from the great master Anko Itosu (1831-1915). Master Itosu created the Pinan kata in the late 19th and early 20th century. The history of these forms is a little murky, with some martial arts historians claiming that Itosu created the Pinan kata from older kata, while other holding that that Itosu Anko learned a long form called Chiang Nan from a Chinese man, and then divided it into five shorter forms. In any case, it is clear that master Itosu created the Pinan kata to assist in the teaching of karate.

Anko Itosu is considered by many to be the “father of modern karate”.  Born in Yamagawa village, in the Shuri region of Okinawa, Itosu trained under great masters, including Matsumura Sōkon (aka “Bushi” Matsumura). Itosu served as a secretary to the last king of Okinawa, until 1875 when the monarchy was abolished. In 1901, Itosu convinced the principal of a school in Shuri to introduce karate (then called To-de) into the school’s physical education curriculum. Master Itosu continued to work relentlessly to promote the teaching of karate within the school system until, in 1908, karate became a part of the education that all Okinawan children received in school. Itosu introduced the Pinan kata into the Okinawan School District karate program from 1902 to 1907, and used them as a tool for teaching karate.

Itosu Anko - father of modern day karate

Things are Not Always what They Appear to Be

With the introduction of the martial art of karate to kids, master Itosu wanted to give the young adults the health and character development benefits of martial arts. At the same time, Itosu believed that it would be necessary to conceal the brutal fighting and highly effective (but sometimes dangerous) self defense aspects of karate. For these reasons, Itosu named techniques as “block” and “punches”, and obscured the more dangerous techniques in the kata. This “block” and “punch” nomenclature further spread when karate was adopted in Japan, and continues to this day throughout the world. As we learn and explore kata today, we have to remember that the names of techniques can sometimes be misleading. A “block” may really not be a block, and “punch” may really be something very different than a “punch”. In fact, different strikes, joint manipulations, throws, pins, breaks and pressure point attacks are all part of kata, and externally may look like a “block” or a “punch”. By thinking outside the name of a technique, our minds can be open to the universe of other applications.

Keep on training!

Brian is a life-long martial artist, athlete, and serial entrepreneur. He teaches martial arts and self defense to adult and teen students in San Diego, at the Full Potential Martial Arts dojo in Carmel Valley.

4 comments on “Pinan Kata — History and Background
  1. Ken D. says:

    Interesting article on the Pinan Kata, I definitely like the idea of “muscle memory”, its self-defense usage and the added benefit of conditioning the mind and body.

    I find practicing a little daily, keeps the “muscle memory” and helps me from forgetting the Kata.

    Thanks again for sharing the article.

  2. Harold C says:

    Pinan kata are my favorite karate kata. Thank you for the article!

  3. Mike D. says:

    Excellent blog article about the history of Pinan kata. Thanks!

  4. Jerry K. says:

    Thanks for the excellent article, Brian Sensei!
    Do you have any information about the history of the Pinan kata before Itosu?

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