My recent e-mails on Gojushiho have sparked a series of questions from students. Here is a good one from Dan Lake who trains with Sensei Neville Billimoria. It regards the Bassai kata and its meaning.
“In your fifth message on Shito-ryu which you sent today, you defined the meaning of Bassai as impenetrability. This is completely consistent with the meaning ascribed to that concept as it has been described to me at various times during training.
In Sensei Richard Kim’s book, “The Weaponless Warriors”, in the section on Matsumura Patsai (p. 44 of my edition), he translates Bassai as to breach or penetrate fortifications.
Is this completely opposite meaning due to the same word encompassing both meanings, or perhaps the weakness of translating from Japanese into English characters?”
Bassai literally means “to breach a (fortified) castle.” That is an action. There are two sides to the action; those doing the breaching and those trying to prevent the breaching. Consider the breaching of Tyre by Alexander the Great in about 330 BC. There were those corps of engineers that Alexander employed to make the scaffolding, bridge the moat, deflect the burning “Grecian fire” (actually a type of napalm used by the ancients) by shields in the form of rooves. But Alexander was the aggressor. Then there were the Phoenicians inside the fortress. They hurled Grecian fire down the sides of the fortress, repaired defects in the wall, shot flaming arrows, dropped rocks and hurled imprecations at the advancing Macedonian army.
In the end the castle fell to Alexander, as did all castles that he attacked. But the battle was a dreadful one because both sides worked against each other in the penetration of the castle. Alexander’s men were the attackers; Tyre’s men, women and children were the defenders.
There are two sides to breaching a fortress; the offensive and the defensive. There are two types of Bassai, also; an offensive and a defensive. They are not usually mixed. So let’s look at which are which.
Bassai Dai in Shito-ryu is a defensive kata. It has to do with being inside the castle. The feeling, as you know, is one of impenetrability. It is a heavy, pounding, powerful kata. When you were taught it you were taught that it meant impenetrable or impenetrability. This is true but the name of the kata is no different than before; Bassai which means to breach a fortress. Bassai Dai is done within the fortress and its feeling is impenetrability.
Oyadomari Bassai, Tomari Bassai and Matsumura Bassai are different than Bassai Dai. They are more offensive in character. They represent the army on the outside of the fortress attempting to breach the fortress. Their movements are many and varied, with an emphasis on attacks and maneuvering. Bassai in these kata means to breach the fortress as an attacking army would breach the fortress.
In each case Bassai means “to breach a fortress.” In the defensive Bassai the name implies the protection from the breach while in the offensive Bassai the name implies the sorties and main attacks on the fortress or castle.
I hope this helps to clarify the different “translations” of Bassai, Dan.
I hope this helps to clarify the different kimochi and characteristics of the vastly different Bassai and its variations.