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Bassai Dai: to extract and block

Posted Jul 26 2010 12:00am
Since becoming a 1st kyu student I have started to learn the first of the black belt katas – Bassai Dai. This is an important kata for many systems and is often chosen as the kata to test students for their black belt. It therefore resembles a ‘rite of passage’ for many karate students and so becomes a much coveted kata.

There are many variations of the Bassai kata (Passai in Okinawa) and it is found in Okinawan, Japanese and Korean styles of karate. It is likely that its origins are Chinese as it is thought to resemble Chinese Leopard and Lion boxing forms.

The origins of the kata are thought to be about 400 years old. The evidence for this is the existence of a carbon tested silk drawing of the form. It is said that the form was created as a left-handed one and if you bear that in mind when performing it then several hidden techniques are revealed!

However, this early history of the kata is a little vague and confused. What is clearer is that there were two versions of the kata practiced on Okinawa. First, there is the Matsumura version, which he allegedly brought to Okinawa following a stay in China. Matsumura learned Chinese boxing when he visited Fuchou and the Matsumura version is said to have a ‘Chinese flavour’ to it. Matsumura’s style of Passai was light and flowing with fast attacks and counters, but little power. It was circular and light.

The second version is accredited to the karate master kokan Oyadomari who lived in the Tomari district and practiced the Tomari-te style of karate. It is said that he was taught the kata from a visiting Chinese man. This version was more ‘Okinawanised’, showing a more linear style and a greater emphasis on muscle power over light speed and more direct force over whipping techniques.

Itosu was a student of Matsumura and a contemporary of Oyadomari (they all worked as bodyguards at the Shuri castle) and would probably have learnt both versions. However, instead of working with the Matsumura version as one would expect, he developed the Oyadomari version, making it even more linear and passing it onto his students, including Funakoshi who then took it to Japan.

There is much confusion over the meaning of the name Bassai. It is commonly thought to mean, ‘The storming of a fortress’, but this is more likely to be a misinterpretation and is certainly not a direct translation of the kanji characters for Bassai. A more literal translation of Bassai is, ‘To extract or remove (an obstruction) and to block (a corridor or passageway)’. It was Funakoshi who changed the name from Passai to Bassai when he took the kata to Japan.

The Bassai kata is characterised by the idea of changing a disadvantage into an advantage by the switching of strikes to blocks and blocks to strikes. It uses a lot of hip rotation to generate power and its execution requires a lot of spirit, with fast moves and proper attention given to an appropriate balance between speed and power.

The version of Bassai Dai that I am learning is the Itosu version as practiced by Shito Ryu stylists. Here is a video of it:

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