I can still remember learning Bassai Dai for the first time. It was 20 years ago and my sensei was sitting on his garden chair while I performed the kata on the patio.
“BASSAI DAI!” I announced.
Sensei nodded, it was going well so far.
I covered my right fist with my left hand in the opening salutation, brought up my right knee and lunged forwards into the initial augmented blocking movement.
“No… Do it again”, said Sensei.
He demonstrated the move, I noticed how he seemed to glide across a full paving stone weightlessly and then his body contracted with Kime. I copied the move.
“No… Do it again”
And so on, for what seemed like an hour before he permitted me the next move.
My Sensei had trained under a number of teachers in Shukokai, Wado Ryu, Shotokan and Budokan and I wasn’t sure of the heritage of the form I was learning, except that its name, “to penetrate the fortress” made me imagine with every step I was climbing the steps of a castle defeating guards and sentries.
After the five Heian/Pinan kata and Tekki Shodan (Naihanchi), Bassai Dai was the next kata we learnt. It was usually learnt as a brown belt kata prior to learning, say Kushanku or Empi (Wansu).
I fell in love with it. It seemed to embody all the strength of our system. It was, and still is, a kata I’d show to people as an example of our system.
I then moved into a more orthodox Shotokan system and again, Bassai was an important kata.
Fast forward 20 years and I found myself once again in the position of a beginner as I attempted to perform Bassai Dai (having spent the last 15 years exclusively doing the Shotokan version) in front of Shito Ryu master Fumio Demura. Demura Sensei teaches various versions of the form including Tomari Bassai and Ishimine Passai.
What struck me was that, despite tripping over my own feet, I found far more common ground in Shito Ryu’s Bassai than with other common forms (for example Meikyo and Rohai).
BASSAI DAI (PASSAI DAI, ISHIMINE PASSAI, MATSUMURA PASSAI)
Bassai Dai (Passai) was introduced by Gichin Funakoshi in his popular books such as Karate Do Kyohan in which he translated its name as ‘to penetrate a fortress’. He also classified it as belonging to the Shorin school.
Choki Motobu referred to Passai as being one of the kata “among those styles… which have been used in Ryu Kyu from ancient days” and said it was, along with Kusanku and Naihanchi “very widely known to many islanders.”
Here is Hirokazu Kanazawa performing Bassai Dai some time in the 1970s. Although Kanazawa Sensei did train under Funakoshi, he is mostly the product of the Japanese University Karate and therefore his stances are much more athletic:
It would seem that Funakoshi’s Bassai Dai is almost wholely derived from Anko Itosu’s Passai Dai.
Here is Itosu’s student Chosin Chibana performing the equivalent form:
However, some masters who studied more with Matsumura performed a very similar form (suggesting Funakoshi could have received the form from Matsumura or Azato).
For example Bushi Tawada and Bushi Ishimine’s form:
So we might conclude that Matsumura practiced Bassai, since it was clearly practiced by at least five of his students, namely Itosu, Ishimine, Tawada, Motobu and Funakoshi.
BASSAI SHO (GUSUKUMA PASSAI, KORYU PASSAI)
While most Shotokan students learn Bassai Dai at around brown belt, it is not usually until around 3rd or 4th Dan that they encounter Bassai Sho.
Here is Kanazawa Sensei performing it:
Interestingly Chosin Chibana referred to this form as “Koryu Passai” (old school Passai) but the similarity is apparent:
Chibana Sensei swapped the names around. While Itosu and Funakoshi maintained consistancy with Bassai Dai and Sho, Chibana down-graded Itosu’s Dai to Sho when he adopted Tawada Passai (so really his Dai and Sho were both versions of Dai) and so he gave Sho the name Koryu Passai.
Chibana’s Koryu Passai is sometimes called Gusukuma Passai, suggesting Itosu learnt it from his primary Tomari Te teacher Gusukuma.
TOMARI PASSAI (OYADOMARI PASSAI)
From observing Tomari Passai, we can see that Funakoshi’s Bassai Daii is actually a cross between Matsumura Passai and Tomari Passai.
Here is Kinjo Hiroshi performing it:
A similar version is Chotoku Kyan’s Passai (learnt from Oyadomari), seen here performed by Shimabukura Sensei:
Another version is Passai Gwa, which may be one taught by Kosaku Matsumora:
And a further version Nakamura Passai:
We have essentially three Bassai forms:
BASSAI DAI (Passai Dai, Matsumura Passai, Ishimine Passai, Tawada Passai)
BASSAI SHO (Passai Sho, Koryu Passai, Gusukuma Passai)
TOMARI PASSAI (Oyadomari Passai, Nakamura Passai, Passai Gwa)
Sokon “Bushi” Matsumura is the source of Bassai Dai
Gusukuma is the source of Bassai Sho
Oyadomari and Kosaku “Bushi” Matsumora are the source of Tomari Passai.
However, the three Bassai forms are ultimately versions of the same form. This leaves two strong theories:
1) Matsumura of Shuri and Gusukuma, Matsumora and Oyadomari all learnt it from the same person – this would be Anan/Chinto of Tomari.
2) Matsumura learnt it from Sakugawa, and the Tomari masters learnt it from Teruya Kishin, who shares his name with Sakugawa (real name Teruya Kanga).
For me, the second option is most likely. Chinto/Anan is unlikely to be associated with Bassai – he is almost always associated with forms like Chinto and Rohai, or maybe Jutte.
However there is a third theory I would like to present:
3) Matsumura learnt the form in China from Iwah and the Tomari masters adapted it from his teachings.
Funakoshi cites Iwah as Matsumura’s teacher (see Matsumura article for more details) and it is believed that this is who Matsumura learnt the Shorei forms Useishi and Seisan (Gojushiho and Hangetsu) from. But could he have also learnt the Shorin Ryu form Bassai in China? And if so, we have two more theories I would like to present:
1) Bassai is derived from the Chinese art of Baji Quan.
2) Bassai comes from Fujian Lion Boxing.
Baji Quan has two forms Baji Da and Baji Xiao which sound tantalisingly like “Bassai Dai and Bassai Sho” this is strengthened further by the fact that Baji used to be called Bazi.
Furthermore Baji is related to the art of Bagua (Pakua) which may explain “Passai Gwa”.
Note Baji contains some of the principles of Bassai, rising and sinking, stomping, driving forwards.
The Lion Boxing theory comes from the fact that Lion Boxing was one of the key styles in Fujian. The Goju form Saifa may also pay homage to this style, since Sai in the Fujian dialect is Lion. In other articles I have argued that Bassai should be translated as “white lion.”
Bassai is comprised of the characters Batsu (also pronounced Nukitsu) which means withdraw (a drawing cut in Iaido is called Nukitsuke); and Sai which means obstruct.
Bassai therefore means to withdraw and obstruct. However, Funakoshi uses the character Chai (fortress) rather than Sai and it has been argued that “to blockade a fortress” is a reasonable translation.
However it is possible that in the days when few martial artists could read or write, it is possible Bassai meant nothing of the sort.
In Tai Chi the move Lan Za Yi (lazily tying the coat) was misheard in another region of the country as Lan que wei (grasp sparrow’s tail) – thereby completely changing the meaning of the move. Likewise with Dao Jun Hao and Dao Jun Hong – changing the meaning of the move from “repulse the monkey” to “whirl the arms”.
An Okinawan like Matsumura could have easily misheard Bazi as Bassai or misheard pai sai (white lion) as pai chai (obstruct fortress).