Karate Kagami

Notes on the kata Kanku-sho

Illustration © Garen Ewing 2014


The precise meaning of Kanku-sho means 'viewing the sky' or 'viewing emptiness', minor version. Here are the kanji:

  is for kan meaning view, look or appearance.
  is for ku meaning sky, empty or void. You will probably recognise this as the kanji also for kara in karate - empty hand.
  is for shou meaning little or small.

The original name was Kusanku-sho, and while Kusanku was the name of the Chinese official who's 18th-century teachings were eventually codified into the kata Kusanku (by Tode Sakugawa), in the case of Kanku-sho the name is merely there to label it as the little brother kata to Kanku-dai.

Kusanku-sho was originally created, it is said, by the famous Shuri-te karate teacher, Yasutsune Itosu (1831-1915). It contains one of his signature techniques, the jo-uke, a variation of which can be found in another 'little brother' kata that bears his stamp, Bassai-sho.

Gichin Funakoshi - kasei-dachi (Kanku-dai)

When Itosu's student, Gichin Funakoshi, renamed the kata to ease introduction to the Japanese mainland, Kusanku-sho became Kanku-sho, gaining the name purely because the kata Kusanku became Kanku (dai). There may be a case for saying the slow haishu-uke towards the end is the lesser kata's 'to look at the sky' moment, but I think this is a convenient afterthought rather than a definite ideological representation, as is the case with the opening move of Kanku-dai.

Hirokazu Kanazawa says that Kanku-sho was preserved by Choshin Chibana (1885-1869), one of Itosu's students and the founder of Kobayashi Shorin-Ryu. I was intrigued by this as I wondered, in that case, how the kata came to exist in the Shotokan syllabus. Looking more deeply into it, the idea quickly falls apart - Kanku/Kusanku-sho also appears in Shito-Ryu and Okinawan Kempo, both styles which, along with Shotokan, had no known influence from Chibana.

Soke Kanazawa - kasui-ken

So was Kanku-sho imported into Shotokan via some other route? The most likely explanation is that Gichin Funakoshi himself already knew the kata. He was a student of Itosu, the kata's creator, for a number of years. He mentions the kata in his 1925 book, Rentan Goshin Karate Jutsu. The first appearance of the kata in a text book was as early as 1930 - in Kempo Gaisetsu - written by two of Funakoshi's students, though it is true they wrote it after returning from a trip to Okinawa.

Another suggestion is that Gichin Funakoshi's son, Yoshitaka, learnt the kata on a return trip to Okinawa and brought it into Shotokan, but as several facts point to Funakoshi senior knowing more kata in his early years before deciding on a 'core fifteen', the most likely explanation is that Yoshitaka learnt the original form from him.

Yoshitaka Funakoshi - tobi ushiro-geri

Yoshitaka's stamp can be found on the kata, however. It is he who forged Shotokan into a more dynamic and physical art, and the two jumps are almost certainly his innovation. Some people say these jumps are a later invention, introduced by Westerners in order to bring some glamour to tournament kata. This can easily be disproved: firstly, there is an early-1940s photograph of Yoshitaka Funakoshi performing the second jump in Kanku-sho; if you think there is the possibility that could be the similar jump from Unsu, then: secondly, the Shotokai master Mitsusuke Harada recalls seeing Kanku-sho in the early 1940s and being impressed by "the jumping kick" - which appears only in the Shotokan version. Funakoshi senior explicitly states that Kanku-sho was being taught at the Shotokan as of 1943.

Application and Practice

1) Soete kake dori

The 'main sequence' starts with what Kanazawa refers to as soete kake dori, literally 'added-hand suspended capture', but translating more properly as augmented hooking grasp. Nakayama gives it the name tsukami uke, or grasping block. Here are Sensei Kanazawa and Sensei Yahara demonstrating the technique from different angles...

It is similar to the move in Bassai-dai/sho sometimes called kaeshi dori (reverse grasp), except in Bassai the hand and wrist do not usually make contact throughout the motion (some practitioners do teach the fingers lightly touching on the wrist, eg. Enoeda and Kanazawa).

There are a variety of feasible applications for tsukami uke, many of which do not really utilise the augmenting hand, but the one I will detail here is a wrist trap, known in Shaolin Chin-Na as xiao chan si (small hank of thread). Here is a picture from a 1936 Shanghai police training manual showing the first stage - compare it with the image of Kanazawa above.

The next part of the sequence sees the defender turning their right palm on top of the aggressor's wrist and pulling down. In Kanku-sho the pull also brings your opponent on to a mae geri (see the illustration at the top of this article).

To complete the sequence, the osae uke can push the opponent's grasped wrist away and then you strike to jodan shomen with uraken (kosa dachi). If the opponent avoids that and counters with a mid-level punch then do uchi-uke, but with no time for the full technique (bringing it back and blocking out) you can bring your fist from the uraken position down onto your attacker's forearm (a striking block, uraken-uke), then finish with nihon zuki.

2) Ushiro haishu-uke, mikazuki-geri, tobi ushiro-geri

Towards the end of Kanku-sho you reach out behind you, slowly, with jodan haishu-uke. You follow this with a spin into a mikazuki-geri, hitting the sole of your foot against the open hand, then continue round, thrusting the left foot out into ushiro-geri and landing into ryote-fuse, again facing the front.

According to Nakayama, the jump should not be a high one. It is really a fairly level spin (though the left foot does leave the floor) into a sudden drop to the ground, thrusting the left leg out into ushiro-geri before landing. A jumping spin in Shotokan often represents a throw, but is also good for athletic, balance and control training.

It is important to note that in Kanku-sho, in ryote-fuse, the left extended leg is positioned on the ball of the foot, different from Kanku-dai where the foot is sideways on and flat on the ground - as demonstrated in the images below by Takashi Yamaguchi (see video here).

Sensei Yamaguchi
1) Kanku-dai; 2) Kanku-sho

One application for this technique is to move away from a close-quarter grab or punch, while parrying with the haishu-uke. With the open hand, grab the assailant's arm and twist it slightly so the mikazuki-geri strikes hard against the now-locked elbow joint. Keeping hold of the arm, turn quickly into ushiro-geri, thrusting your heel into the attacker's mid-section at close-range.

3) Jo-uke, jo-zukami tsuki otoshi

This is most often shown as grabbing a jo (short staff) and then twisting it out of the opponent's grasp. Here is an alternative application against a jodan zuki.

You block the punch with hidari age-uke (open hand) and grab your opponent's wrist. At the same time step into kokutsu-dachi and strike migi gedan-taisho. Your left hand then twists their arm down while you also slide in and attack again with migi gedan-zuki. The next move is the spinning jump, at which point you can turn and throw your opponent (perhaps with kubi-wa, neck ring, or tsubami-gaeshi, swallow reversal).

Jo uke
Illustration © Garen Ewing 2014

TECHNICAL NOTES - relationship between Kanku-dai and Kanku-sho

A cursory look on the Internet reveals that Kanku-dai concentrates on techniques to jodan-level, whereas Kanku-sho focuses on the techniques at chudan-level. In actual fact, both kata have a very similar number of chudan techniques (about 32 dai, 38 sho), though Kanku-dai, a much longer kata, does have many more jodan techniques (about 17 dai, 4 sho).

Out of interest, I have categorised the moves in Kanku-sho into those that are exactly the same in Kanku-dai, those that have a counterpart in Kanku-dai but are not exactly the same, those that have counterparts or are the same as moves in other kata (apart from Kanku-dai), and moves that are unique to Kanku-sho. Some of these present themselves in more than one category, depending on how they are viewed.

Techniques in Kanku-sho that also appear, unchanged, in Kanku-dai

1) Gedan-gamae, taken out of its sequence in isolation, appears twice in both kata and is performed slowly in both.

2) Yoko-keage, yoko-uraken, mae-empi-uchi, appears in both kata just before the final main sequence.

3) Kosa dachi, uraken, uchi-uke, nihon zuki, appears twice in the main sequence of Kanku-sho, and once in the altered final main sequence of Kanku-dai.

Techniques and sequences that have a counterpart in Kanku-dai

1) What I call the 'main sequence' in both kata are analogous. In Kanku-dai it consists of jodan shuto-uke, mae-geri, turn into manji-uke, nagashi-uke gedan nukite and then it ends with gedan gamae. In Kanku-sho it consists of kake-dori, mae-geri, uraken, uchi-uke, nihon zuki, turn into kasui-ken, and end with gedan gamae.

In both kata the sequence is performed in the same way - first to the south (I'm calling north the direction you face when you start the kata), then to the north, and then to the south again, and in both cases the third sequence is altered at the end.

Both contain an opening move and a front kick. Both turn into a technique that is related - manji-uke in dai, kasui-ken in sho, and both end in gedan gamae done slowly.

In Kanku-dai the changed main sequence becomes the end of the Kanku-sho sequence (uraken, uchi-uke, nihon zuki). Both changed main sequences then turn into the move that leads to ryote-fuse.

2) Ryote-fuse. In Kanku-dai a jodan ura-zuki is executed before a drop straight down into ryote-fuse (both hands on the ground), then you turn into gedan shuto-uke in a low stance. In Kanku-sho you jump into a mikazuki-geri and drop into ryote-fuse with an ushiro-geri (sometimes executed in mid-air, sometimes upon landing). You then perform a rapid switch-step into the low-stance gedan shuto-uke.

3) The final four techniques of Kanku-sho (turn west into uchi-uke, oi-zuki, repeat to the east) have something of a counterpart in Kanku-dai's turn west into uchi-uke, gyaku-zuki, repeat to the east with nihon zuki. In Kanku-sho these techniques mark the end of the kata, while in Kanku-dai they mark the end of the section before it changes to moves with no counterpart in Kanku-sho.

Techniques in Kanku-sho that relate to other kata (not Kanku-dai)

1) Manji-uke, shift into kiba-dachi, morote-zuki, has some correlation with Jion's sequence - the same but kagi-zuki instead of morote-zuki.

2) The spin-jump into kokutsu-dachi, shuto-uke also appears in Empi, and also after a shifting move forward. As the kata have very different origins one can assume this characteristic Shotokanisation came from the same person, the dynamic Yoshitaka Funakoshi.

3) The jo-uke can be seen in Bassai-sho, another Itosu creation, though it does not have the follow-up otoshi move seen in Kanku-sho. It does appear twice with otoshi in the kata Meikyo, though the otoshi thrust is done in zenkutsu rather than kokutsu-dachi.

Sensei Harada
Sensei Harada - jo-uke

4) The kake-dori is similar, though not quite the same, as Bassai-dai and sho's kaeshi-dori. Kanku-sho's kake-dori is followed up with a mae-geri, whereas the Bassai grasp is followed up with a gedan yoko-geri.

5) The haishu-uke and then jump into mikazuki-geri, ushiro-geri, ryote-fuse, has a strong counterpart in Unsu. In Unsu, however, the haishu-uke is to the front, giving a full 360 degree technique. The spin is also 360 degrees in Kanku-sho, but the haishu is to the rear, so it is possibly slightly easier.

6) I have not really included techniques that are also seen in the Heians or Tekkis, but these would include morote uchi-uke (nidan, sandan, yondan, godan), a run of three oi-zuki (shodan), mae-geri into uraken (yondan), manji-uke (godan), yoko morote-zuki (Tekki shodan), shuto-uke (shodan, nidan, yondan), and yoko-keage, empi-uchi (yondan).

Techniques that are unique to Kanku-sho (within the best of my knowledge)

1) Morote uchi-uke appears in a number of the Heian kata, but coupled with the backwards slide, it becomes a characteristic technique of Kanku-sho.

2) The follow-up tsuki and sharp pull-backs (hineri-kaeshi) don't appear in another Shotokan kata, as far as I know, though the Naha-te kata, Seisan (related to Shotokan's Hangetsu), opens with familial techniques.

3) The kasui-ken, though related to manji-uke (Kanku-dai) and jodan nagashi-uke - gedan-zuki (Tekki shodan), appears only in Kanku-sho. It does appear in the Kusanku (dai) kata of other styles.

This analysis of the techniques is interesting because it shows clearly that Kanku-sho is a definite 'little brother' kata to Kanku-dai, one of the two or three defining kata of Shotokan.

Sensei Kase
Sensei Kase - kasui-ken