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Kata Corner - Heian


Have you ever considered the historical background, perhaps even significance, of a particular kata? In this issue we take a look at the meaning of "Heian."

This content is taken from the book, Kata, The Folk Dances of Shotokan by Rob Redmond

Hei means flat, even, level, calm, ordinary, and peaceful. An means safe, stable, easy, peaceful, or inexpensive. The word Heian therefore refers to a concept that combines the two meanings above into a single concept. "Peaceful" is likely. "Basic" is another possible interpretation if we consider the meanings "ordinary" and "easy." No matter the interpretation of the name's meaning from the two kanji, the concept of Heian as safe, easy, and unchallenging is obvious.

For this kata, "Peaceful Mind" is a popular translation, but technically, it is incorrect. It is possible that one can assume that the word Heian refers not only to the state of the kata as safe and easy, but also to the state of the mind of the performer of any karate kata as peaceful. However, it is not possible to interpret the word Heian to mean Peaceful Mind. Neither of the characters refers to "mind." It must be irresistible for some people to add a little creative flair to the name of the kata to further the mystique of these simple kata.

One explanation for the name of this kata I have read says that the name comes from the Japanese word heiwa-antei which means peace and stability. That is probably not the case, because the kata were not even originally named Heian. In fact, the name Heian comes from the Okinawan name for the kata - Pinan. Pinan is the Okinawan pronunciation of the same two characters. In fact, in Funakoshi's first book, he referred to these kata as the Pinan– not as the Heian. The name Heian came from Funakoshi's efforts to take the Okinawa out of his karate in order to make it more acceptable to the Japanese during the war. Therefore, I think it is very unlikely that a Japanese pronounced word is the source of the name Heian. I believe he simply pronounced the original Pinan kanji in Tokyo's dialect of Japanese.

Another popular myth is that the name of the kata refers to the fact that all five of the Heian begin with blocks instead of attacks. But, having a blocking action as the first technique is not a unique trait for a Shotokan kata.

There are five Heian kata. They are respectively known as Heian Shodan, Heian Nidan, Heian Sandan, Heian Yondan, and Heian Godan. Each of these name tags means first level, second level, etc.

How difficult are the Heian? Common thinking about the Heian kata is that they are basic kata, easy kata, and therefore targeted at beginning students. Students typically learn Heian Shodan before they learn any other kata, unless the instructor has an affinity for the rapidly disappearing Taikyoku kata. However, when we analyze the movements in the Heian, we find that the techniques, motions, rhythms, and other demands placed on the karate student are equal to any challenges found in Bassai-Dai, Kanku-Dai, Jion, or any other kata. The only difference is that the Heian kata are short - topping out at 22 techniques. However, performed one after another, they total about 108 techniques, as long as any Tai Chi long form or the longest known kata in karate: Suparinpei.

So, why do we consider these kata less difficult than the others? I think the concept of one kata being more difficult than another is unfounded. Heian are not less difficult. They contain all of the challenges that a karate student will face later on when learning

supposedly more advanced kata. The idea of relative kata difficulty is probably in our minds, not inherent in the kata. After all, before these kata existed in the 19th Century, the kata we think of as advanced were used to teach Karate, and people seemed to learn

the kata just fine. The first kata learned might be one that we considered to be extremely advanced today, or even more basic than the Heian.

Who created the Heian? Thanks to the tendency of Itosu, Funakoshi, and other karate experts from Okinawa to not keep any sort of journal or diary, we have no idea where the Heian come from. We know that the Heian were originally called Pinan on Okinawa. We know that they are not unique to the Shotokan system, so that means that Funakoshi did not create these kata. We know that other styles of the Shorin-Ryu legacy practice them, so they must have been created before karate was brought to Japan. One legend says that the Pinan were created by Itosu Yasutsune of Shuri City, Okinawa circa 1905. Supposedly, he created these five kata specifically for the purpose of teaching karate in public high schools. Having experienced difficulty teaching children in a large class, Itosu is said to have hoped to simplify the process of teaching Passai (Bassai-Dai) and Kushanku (Kanku-Dai) by creating the Pinan kata to simplify the process. Itosu allegedly took techniques from Passai and Kushanku and compounded them in increasing order of difficulty to create the Pinan. And supposedly the smaller kata served as introductory kata that endowed the high school students with the skills they needed to take on more difficult kata later on - much the way we use the Heian in a modern Shotokan curriculum today.