The History of the Kushanku Kata
Kushanku is thought to have been first introduced to Okinawa in the 18th century by a Chinese diplomat and kendo expert named Kung Hsiang Chun (pronounced Ku Shan Ku in the Okinawan dialect). He is thought to have passed it on to Tode Sakugawa of the Shuri-te school though an alternative theory is that it was Sakugawa who invented the kata and named it in honour of Kung Hsiang Chun.
Kushanku is said to have come from China to Okinawa in the 1750s with other military personal at the request of Okinawa’s king. There is a document called ‘Oshima Hikki’ (Note of Oshima). This document details a ship running ashore in Oshima bay and includes interviews with the crew of that ship. In one of these interviews the captain of the ship tells of an extremely impressive grappling demonstration he witnessed that was given by Kushanku. The interview tells us that Kushanku was not a physically strong man and yet he defeated much stronger opponents with ease. We are also told that his methods involved placing one hand on the opponent whilst striking with the other hand. We are also told that Kushanku also made use of effective leg movements.
Tode Sakugawa studied under Kushanku for a number of years and he eventually formulated Kushanku kata as a means to record the combative methods Kushanku had taught him. Tode Sakugawa was the first martial arts teacher of the legendary Soken Matsumura; who was the chief bodyguard to three Okinawan kings. Matsumura became Sakugawa’s student whilst he was still a child. Matsumura was in turn one of the teachers of Anko Itosu. It was Itosu who is credited with creating the ‘Sho’ (lesser) version of Kushanku. Today, some karate styles practise both the lesser and greater versions of the form (Kushanku-Dai and Kushanku-Sho); whereas others only practise the main version. Itosu was also the creator of the five Pinan (Heian) kata, and it is obvious from their many similarities that Kushanku kata heavily influenced the development and the subject mater covered by the Pinan series.
Gichin Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan) – who was a student of Itosu’s – gave both versions of Kushanku the Japanese name of ‘Kanku’ (meaning ‘to view the sky’) when karate was introduced to mainland Japan as part of his drive to make the art more accessible to the Japanese. Kushanku / Kanku-Dai was said to be Funakoshi’s favourite form.
Kushanku is one of the longest forms and it contains a wide variety of techniques. There are no detailed written records of the techniques that Kushanku originally taught Sakugawa. The applications of the form are therefore open to interpretation.
Understanding the applications of the forms isn’t particularly difficult if you have an understanding of the nature of combat and have a grasp of the ‘language’ of kata. Indeed the active study of the kata (as opposed to just practising them) is something that all karateka should engage in.
Kushanku (Kanku-Dai) is frequently said to be one of the most important forms practised within the various karate styles. History tells us that the kata is a record of the highly effective techniques that were designed by Kushanku and then subsequently recorded by Tode Sakugawa. It is a very important kata and as such it deserves to be studied deeply.