2. Shito-ryu 54 kata – Useishi-Gojushiho-54

Lee Carmean sent several questions which I am attempting to answer sequentially. The first question was the subject of mailing #1. Here is Lee’s second question; I assume that each Menkyo Sensei has his own 54 kata. Is there a core of Shito-ryu kata which each instructor teaches besides the Pinan?

The system of 54 kata in a style is an ideal rarely reached in this day and age of self-promotion and multiple splits within an organization. It was selected in the shorin styles of Shuri-te in the 1830s by Matsumura.

But why 54? Well the answer here will be necessarily brief. Suffice it to say that the 54 X 2 = 108 and that 108 is a number associated with purity and perfection in the orient. On New Year’s Eve the gongs of the temple are rung 108 times. Each time is to cleanse the old year of one of its defilements and to celebrate the New Year’s clean and fresh start. One hundred eight is a symbol of perfection, totality, circularity. (Please note that Tai Chi has 108 movements in it for this reason.)

Fifty-four is half of 108. Traditionally there are 54 shrines in a buddhist temple. Each shrine has a significance. Each kata in a 54 kata system has a significance. The martial artist views his kata system with the same reverence that a buddhist views his shrines. Then it only makes sense to have 54 kata in the system, as there are 54 shrines in a buddhist temple.

So the 54 kata system was developed, although in this day and age it is no longer rigidly held to. With new kata developing, some trash and some legitimate kata, i.e. Unsu of Nakayama, many schools try to accumulate as many kata as they can. To them it appears the more kata your school teaches the better your school is. Well, maybe, but maybe not. Anyway that is a discussion for the future.

At any rate not many schools in the United States adhere to the 54 kata system. They collect kata from many sources, hoping to gain something; perhaps new techniques, perhaps mystical power, perhaps understanding. To many of these the concept of an all-encompassing-just-as-much-as-you-need-to-know system goes against their modern day concept of freedom. They seek avoidance of commitment to a style, and look for something “better” outside of their style, something to propel them into a state beyond their current state. Hence, they would not be limited by a 54 kata system, even if they only know a few kata of their own system.

Suffice it to say that not all styles have 54 kata. Many “masters” quit their instructors before knowing many kata. They pick put a few new ones here and there and end with a system of 7-20 kata. Then some masters refuse to teach their entire system to their students because the students just never meet the criteria the master has set (Funakoshi in Japan only taught 16 kata but knew 54 or more).

So we find most Shito-ryu styles with about 36 kata, most Shotokan styles with about 20 kata, most Goju-ryu systems with 18 kata, most Wado-ryu with 10 kata.

Interestingly enough most schools with a kata named either Gojushiho or Useishi should have 54 kata in their system. But you cannot count on this for Shotokan has two Gojushiho kata (???) and only 20 kata.

In other words, Lee, few follow the 54 kata system. Its systematology either they never learned (their instructors died before teaching them; they quit their parent organization before learning the system) or they just don’t want to be limited (they don’t want to be limited by any systematology but wish to be greater than the system itself; they don’t want to be connected to the roots of oriental philosophy or religion).

Well, look around. There are styles with exactly 54 kata and they say so. We are one of them.

Now for your second part of the question; Is there a core of Shito-ryu kata which each instructor teaches besides the Pinan?

In Aoinagi Karate the gyo kata are a core; Here they are,


Then there is Chinto-shi (usually considered a shugyo kata) but which we have brought into the gyo-list for the women of Aoinagi Karate.

Many Shito-ryu kata are not in our system. These include Hakucho, Shinpa, Myojo, Papuren, Kenki, Kenshu, Shinsei, Nipaipo. These have been Shito-ryu “secrets” until recently. More on that at a later time.

If you ask me about Shihohai, which does not appear in our 54 you will hear me groan. I want it in the system, but I can’t justify deleting any other yet. So is our system really 55 and we are really outside the limits of the system’s system just like so many other schools?

Suffice it to say, we are close to the essence of the law if not the letter of the law.