Most historians believe that the Pinan kata were composed and introduced after 1902 by Anko Itosu (1813-1915), the legendary karate master from Shuri. Others, however, contend that Itosu only created Pinan V, and the other four forms existed before his time. To support this argument, Chosin Chibana (1885-1969), the founder of Kobayashi-ryu and one of Itosu’s top students who is know for faithfully passing on Itosu’s teachings, only taught Pinan V in his later years out of respect for Itosu. Itosu was one of the most accomplished students of Soken Matsumura, and a teacher to Chotoku Kyan and Choki Motobu, two of Grandmaster Nagamine’s most prominent instructors. Pinan kata has many techniques and sequences that are similar to the Matsubayashi-ryu version of the Kusanku kata. Therefore, many believe Itosu derived Pinan from this form. Others, like John Sells in Unante: The Secrets of Karate, argue that Itosu modeled the Pinan kata after the “Channon” kata taught by Matsumura. Very little is known of these Channon forms, and others, like Patrick McCarthy, have suggested that it is also possible that the Chanon kata was the same form as Kusanku.
When karate was first introduced publicly in the high schools in Okinawa, Itosu did not want to give the impression that karate-do was about violence or aggression. Consequently, he introduced Pinan kata. Translated into English, Pinan means “peaceful mind.” Pinan kata are useful for helping to develop a mental state in the practitioner that is like a Zen state of awareness. That is, the mind is relaxed and yet completely alret at the same time.
In Pinan kata, the practitioner is surrounded on all sides by several imaginary opponents, but he does not know from which direction the first attack will come. Developing a peaceful mind is critical. Otherwise, the practitioner will be unable to react to an attack by multiple opponents. It is essential to learn to clear the mind of all distractions to change direction fast enough to prepare for the next attack. On the street, especially when adrenaline can make it difficult to maintain a peaceful mind, it is necessary to concentrate on one opponent at a time, then prepare to face the next as quickly as possible without hesitation.
All five Pinan kata begin with an imaginary opponent attacking from the left. In Matsubayashi-ryu, it was decided that on the first move of each Pinan kata the practitioner should move away from the attack by stepping back with the right foot and twisting into a cat stance. In other Shorin-ryu styles, the practitioner moves into the oncoming attack by moving the left foot first. Psychologically, this is an enormous difference. Sensei Ota feels the way this techniues is performed changes the entire nature and philosophy of the Pinan forms.
According to Sensei Ota, Pinan kata is about developing the skill to move out of the way of harm by stepping at an angle in the cat stance. The practitioner must land with the weight down so that the spring is already tightly compressed once the practitioner’s leg touches the ground. In Pinan, the practitioner learns to move away from the opponent’s attack, which is a fundamental skill, especially for beginner- and intermediate-level practitioners. In more advanced kata, the practitioner develops the skill to move in when being attacked. The first time in the Matsubayashi-ryu curriculum that this techniques is used is in the opening move of Wankan kata.
In Pinan, step at an angle, away from the attacker, which puts the practitioner at an advantageous position to deliver the counterattack. As soon as the toes of the right foot touch the ground, use the legs to snap the hips and generate power on the blocks. When the practitioner steps back to avoid the atack, he must lang with his weight already dropped, so that the coil is already compressed. This enables the practitioner to generate greater speed and power on the subsequent counterattack.
Before turning or changing direction in Pinan, or any kata, the practitioner must always look in the direction of the attack. This may seem simple or even obvious, but Sensei Ota has learned that it is one of the most common errors made.
The Reinforced Block
Some practitioners place one fist on the elbow when executing this maneuver. This provides extra support on the blocking arm; hence the name “reinforced” block. To Sensei Ota, this interpretation is counter to the way blocks are executed in Matsubayashi-ryu. That is, all blocking techniques are performed with snap to deflect the incoming attack. The moment the practitioner’s arm makes contact with the opponent’s body, the arm and hand immediately snap to generate power. Placing the other hand on the elbow does not generate extra snap or power. At most, it may provide support for a type of pulling or pushing block, which may be consistent with other styles, but not Shorin-ryu. In Shorin-ryu karate, the stylist deflects the blow by snapping the wrist upon contact with the opponent’s arm. Shorin-ryu practitioners do not pull or push with the arms.
Sensei Ota’s preferred interpretation is that the other arm is guarding the ribs against a potential kick, while the blocking arm is defending against a punch. This is exactly the same premise behind the hand positions on the shuto. Sensei Ota believes this is also the proper way to execute a reinforced block. The arms should snap in the same way that they do when executing a shuto.