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Perspective on Empi

PostPosted: Thu Feb 05, 2009 8:45 am
by HanshiClayton
Reference, "dumping down a well," page 42 of Iain Abernethy, Karate's Grappling Methods, Summersdale, 2001.

There are four things to understand about Empi kata before we begin:

  1. The kata's real name is "Wanshu," after its creator.
  2. The kata has a history in Okinawa going back to 1683. This means it is very old compared to other Shotokan katas.
  3. A major element of this history is the kata's nickname: "The Dumping Kata." Wanshu kata teaches you how to throw your opponent on the ground. According to Iain Abernethy, it is about throwing your opponent down a well.
  4. Okinawan martial artists thought that katas should be changed, adjusted, and adapted by the performer. This one has been adjusted down multiple paths for more than 300 years.

For these reasons, non-Shotokan karate styles practice versions of Wanshu that are very different from our familiar Empi kata. In fact, some of them are so different that a Shotokan student would not recognize them as being related to Empi. That makes it difficult to fit them into a step-by-step comparison framework. The best I can do is to comment on the parts of these katas that still overlap with ours.'

As part of his effort to make the Okinawan katas more "Japanese," Master Funakoshi renamed Wanshu to "Empi," meaning "flying swallow." This refers to movement 8 of the kata, which resembles a swallow's ability to flap one wing at a time when maneuvering. This is a drawing of a swallow in flight borrowed from the gallery of Siegfried Woldhek.



Step 1-2: The opening kamae has our right fist pressed into our left palm at the left hip. Then in step 1, we turn west and kneel on the right knee in handachi position. The right arm is extended to the north as if doing a downblock, and the left fist is held at mid-chest, roughly over the heart. In step 2 we rise slowly to standing position, feet about shoulder-width apart, and both fists in koshi kamae on the left hip. (Standard Shotokan.) Some Shotokan groups perform the downblock directly to the north. Others twist the torso to extend the block to the northeast.

Downblock to the north:

Downblock to the northeast:

The opening move is not visible in the Funakoshi films from 1924.

In Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu, there is a left-hand downblock to the west before dropping into handachi. The hand positions look like an inside block (left) and a downward, almost floor-level punch (right), both pointing directly west. They skip step 2 by rising directly from the floor into step 3.

Seito Shito Ryu and Shito Ryu Genbu Kai don't kneel. The opening kamae holds the right fist over the left, both in the center of the chest. Step 1 extends the right leg forward in cat stance, with a right downblock directly north. The left hand makes a normal hiki te.

Seibukan Shorin Ryu begins with the fist-over-fist position in the center of the chest, but then does a left downblock to the west in side stance. They don't kneel.

Isshinryu opens this kata with the right fist in the left palm, like Shotokan, but with the hands held over the center of the chest. The feet are a little more than shoulder-width apart. This is followed by a downblock to the west and a hook punch. They don't kneel, and in fact, they don't take a step.


Step 3-4: In step 3, we step to the east into an in-line front stance, and downblock with the right hand. In step 4, we pivot the feet in place to form a north-facing kiba dachi stance. This pivot provides power to a left kake zuki (hook punch). (Standard Shotokan.) There is some difference of opinion about foot placement in the front stance.

Linear front stance, pivoting feet in place to create the side stance:

Normal (full width) front stance, pulling left foot back (to the south) to even up the side stance:

Wado Ryu does the downblock and hook punch, but without moving the feet. They stay in the same stance as step 2.

Isshinryu and Seibukan Shorin Ryu appear to skip steps 3-4 entirely:

Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu does the expected front stance and downblock in step 3, but then steps forward again in front stance and does an oi-zuki instead of a kage zuki.

Seito Shito Ryu and Shito Ryu Genbu Kai do an eastward downblock in cat stance (step 3) followed by a reverse punch (step 4), still in cat stance.


Step 5-6, 9-10, and 25-26: In Step 5, we step forward in left front stance doing a left downblock. Step 6 is a reverse furi zuki (rising punch). At the end of the punch, we open the right hand, allegedly to grasp the opponent's hair. These moves are repeated twice more later in the kata.

There are interesting differences in the way this cluster is performed by various branches of the art. The furi zuki (rising punch) of step 6 is performed as a sweeping upward gesture with wrist bent upward in Sugiyama's book:

Kanazawa and Yamazaki do the sweeping upward punch, but with wrist straight:

Other groups perform the furi zuki as a straight jodan-level punch with little or no rising motion, and with the wrist straight:

These groups don't do a rising punch. They do a middle-level reverse punch for this step:

At the end of step 6 (furi zuki), most groups simply open the hand into a palm-down nukite. It looks just like a Nazi salute.

Some groups open the hand in a small circular gesture, ending with the hand in a half-grasping pose.

Isshinryu makes an open-palm "polishing" gesture that extends well to the right side, like a hooking block.

Seibukan Shorin Ryu pulls the hand all the way back to the left shoulder and then does a slow-motion knife-hand block or hooking block instead of the "hair grab."

And then there are the styles that don't do anything after the rising punch.


Step 7, 11, 27, is a shift forward in kosa dachi. The right knee rises high before stamping down. There is a low left punch (otoshi zuki) and a gesture that brings the right fist back to the left shoulder. (Standard Shotokan.)

Kanazawa does a knee-level sweep with the right foot as he steps in.

These styles don't lift the knee, and do an upright kosa dachi.

Isshinryu does no knee-lift, and no kosa dachi. They perform this move standing up in what looks like a sanchin dachi.

Seito Shito Ryu and Shito Ryu Genbu Kai perform this cluster so differently that there isn't an analogous move to step 6 or 7.


Step 8, 12, 28 is a step back to the south in a long. low front stance, with the body leaning steeply forward (to the south); with a right "downblock" to the north (above and parallel to the rear leg). The left hand is in full hiki te position, tight to the left hip. This leaning downblock is the "swallow block" position. (Standard Shotokan.) Shotokan groups all perform the "swallow block" move exactly the same way:

The Shito Ryu groups use almost the same "swallow block" position, but they hold the left (pullback) hand with the fist in front of the heart, and the left elbow pointing up at a steep angle (forearm in line with the downblock).

Wado Ryu has simplified the "swallow block" stance to a standard right-hand downblock in front stance, facing north.

Seibukan Shorin Ryu does a right-hand downblock to the north from kosa dachi.

Isshinryu does a right-hand nukite to the north in kosa dachi.

Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu substitutes a side-stance with double downblock, facing west, for the "swallow block" pose:


Step 14 and 15: In step 14 we begin by facing north in front stance, having just performed a left downblock. We pull back to balance on the right foot. The left foot makes a sweeping gesture back toward the right knee. The left hand makes an open-hand sweeping gesture across the face to the right shoulder. From this posture we move the left foot in a high, slow step to the left into kiba dachi. The left open hand moves to a position at face level to the northwest. We look into our palm, as if it were a mirror.

In step 15, we balance on the left foot, tuck the right foot behind the left knee (looks like a knee strike), and bring a right outside forearm block against the palm of the left hand. Kiai. (Standard Shotokan.)

Shotokan groups all do these two moves (14 and 15) essentially the same way, allowing for individual emphasis and timing.

Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu mixes up the pieces. From the down block, they snap the left hand up into the hand-mirror position (step 14). There is no left-foot sweep, and they remain in front stance. On step 15, they bring the right block against the left palm, as done in Shotokan, but they make a sweeping motion with the right foot before settling down into side stance.

Seibukan Shorin Ryu skips step 14 entirely. They proceed from the downblock directly to the block-against-palm gesture, with no foot motion.

Isshinryu performers substitute an open-hand upblock for the hand-mirror in step 14, followed by step 15's block-against-palm. They remain in front stance for both moves, with no foot motion.

The Shito Ryu groups don't do any move that even remotely resembles step 14 and 15.


Step 16, 17, 18 is a left-hand kake uke that starts at the right shoulder and sweeps out slowly to full extension; followed by chudan renzuki (double punch). Within the Shotokan world, there isn't much difference of opinion about these moves. Some groups perform the kake uke quickly, but all perform it the same way.

Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu appears to skip step 16 (kake uke), proceeding directly from the block-into-palm gesture to the following renzuki.

These groups don't have any cluster similar to step 16, 17, 18:


Step 19-24 is called the "Westmarch," so-called because we suddenly advance to the west. We need a special name for this sequence because it is a "shotoism," meaning a special set of moves found only in Shotokan (and in styles that learned empi from Funakoshi).

We turn west in front stance in step 19 and perform a downblock. Step 20 is a gyaku furi zuki (reverse rising punch). In step 21 we step forward in right kokutsu dachi and do a knife-hand block. In step 22, we pull the right foot back to the left, and then step out in a left knife-hand block. Step 23 is a middle-level reverse punch still in left kokutsu dachi. In step 24 we step forward to right kokutsu dachi and knife-hand block. (Standard Shotokan.)

Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu turns west at this point in the kata. They do a downblock (step 19), a reverse punch (step 20), and then step in with a knife-hand block (step 24).

Shotokan's Empi does the "swallow block" cluster three times, facing north, south, and east. Seibukan Shorin Ryu does the "swallow block" sequence four times, once in each cardinal direction. Their "swallow" cluster consists of a left downblock (step 19), right reverse punch (step 20), and then step forward in back stance and right knife-hand block (step 21). They do not include our stance reversal (step 22). Their next move is a left reverse punch in back stance (which is necessarily the mirror image of step 23). They end the cluster with a final west-facing right-hand downblock from kosa dachi, which is at least a right-hand block like step 24. Although Shotokan's "swallow block" cluster and its "Westmarch" cluster seem utterly unrelated, it is easy to see that the Seibukan "swallow block" cluster is intermediate between the two and is related to both. Apparently our "Westmarch" is the missing fourth "swallow block" cluster, retasked to a new purpose.

The Shito Ryu groups have a cluster, performed in each of the four cardinal directions, that is similar to the Seibukan "swallow block" cluster and to the Shotokan "Westmarch." They turn west and do a left downblock in cat stance (step 19). Then, without stepping, they perform a left kake uke (like our step 16 out of sequence). This is followed by a reverse punch (step 20). They step forward into right kosa dachi with a right knife-hand block (or kake uke, hard to say), which is our step 21. They do not reverse the stance, so there is no step 22. The next move is a left reverse punch, a mirror image of our step 23. Then, without stepping, they do a right downblock (weakly similar to our step 24) and another left reverse punch.

Isshinryu doesn't seem to be doing this cluster.


Step 30-33 is the teisho uke (palm block) sequence. Step 30 finds us in a west-facing front stance, having just done a downblock. We slowly press upward with the right hand palm block, in the northwest direction. In step 31, we quickly pull the left foot half a step back toward the right foot, and then step out to the north in front stance with the right foot, doing double palm blocks (right hand up, left hand down). Steps 32 and 33 are additional slow, deliberate steps to the north with double palm blocks. (Standard Shotokan.) Almost everyone in Shotokan does this cluster the same way.

But not quite everyone. On step 31, these two groups leave the left foot planted (instead of taking a half-step). They bring the right foot back to the left one, and then step out to the north with the right foot (step 32).

Some Matsubayashi performers do three inside blocks in side stance at this point in the kata. Some do only one.

The Shito Ryu groups do three double-blocks in front stance at this point in the kata. The double-blocks are a downblock and an inside block, like the opening of Heian Sandan.

These groups have no analogous sequence of three techniques:


Step 34-37 form the "jump" sequence at the end of the kata. In step 34, we shift both feet forward into right kokutsu dachi, with a right downblock. In step 35, we shift both feet forward again into kiba dachi. The right hand reaches out at groin level, palm up. The left hand reaches out at head level, rotated clockwise all the way so that the palm is up. In step 36, we turn back (anti-clockwise), leap into the air into a highly contracted "cannonball" position, and land in right back stance, knife-hand block, having turned 360 degrees in midair. Step 37 is the final move, where we step backwards in kokutsu dachi, with a knife-hand block.

Shotokan performers all do this sequence the same way, or at least they attempt to. Not everyone is a young athlete.

Very early films of Funakoshi's students performing Empi show that step 34 (backstance, downblock) is performed as the "swallow" posture! The Shito Ryu groups still perform the "swallow" posture at this point in the kata.

Isshinryu's Wanshu contains step 35 (open hands reaching out to grab opponent), followed by a 270-degree anti-clockwise turn into side stance facing east. There is no jump.

Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu does step 35 twice (once, then shift in and do it again), then a 360-degree turn into back stance, knife-hand block (step 36). There is no jump.

Seibukan Shorin Ryu splits the difference between Isshinryu and Matsubayashi. They do step 35 twice, like Matsubayashi, and then turn 270 degrees into side stance, like Isshinryu. There is no jump.

All the styles I viewed, except for Isshinryu, ended the kata by stepping backwards from a right knife-hand backstance to a left knife-hand backstance, just like Shotokan.


Looking back on this analysis, perhaps we should keep in mind that the non-Shotokan styles aren't jumping in step 36. That gymnastic feat seems to be confined to Shotokan and styles strongly influenced by Shotokan, such as Wado Ryu. We might be correct to think that the jump wasn't in the historical kata.

Re: Perspective on Empi

PostPosted: Tue Jan 29, 2013 1:58 pm
by HanshiClayton
Empi was originally all throws and counter-throws. That interpretation holds for every move of the kata if you use the many variations to reconstruct the "original" kata.

Some of what we have in Shotokan is certainly not "correct." There are places where someone has stuck in extra moves. Steps 17 and 18 (renzuki) interrupt a perfectly obvious te kagame throw, for instance. It makes no sense to put the person in a wristlock, then let go and punch him, then grab the wrist again to complete the throw.

The many different Okinawan variants are all "valid" because that's how Okinawan fighters treated katas. You were supposed to change the kata to suit yourself. They did, for 300 years.

Re: Perspective on Empi

PostPosted: Fri Feb 01, 2013 8:42 am
by ninjanoir78
what do you mean by counter-throws, some exemples?


Re: Perspective on Empi

PostPosted: Fri Feb 01, 2013 11:58 am
by HanshiClayton
Empi kata teaches the te kagami wristlock, described in Empi, Step 14-19, Te Kagami, Te Nage.

The very next cluster is the counter to this classic wristlock: Empi, Step 20-25, Counter to Te Nage.

Stand in right back stance, doing a standard knife-hand block. Your right hand is out there in front.

Have you partner grasp your right hand to perform a simple te nage or kanoha gaeshi wristlock and thrown. This twists your wrist anti-clockwise and forces your balance back into your heels, threatening to drop you on your back. Your balance is very brittle in that direction while in back stance.

To counter the attempted throw, pull your right foot back even with your left, and step out strongly using the left foot, in left backstance. Do the left knife-hand block, and then examine your situation.

This usually pulls your captured hand free, but if not the pressure of the wristlock bends you toward your toes now instead of toward your heels. It is much easier to resist the lock in this position. Your left shuto can hit him in the head, neck, collarbone or arm, which will force him to release the lock to defend himself. You finish with a reverse punch and another shuto.

The second example of a throw/counterthrow lesson is in Empi, Step 34-36, Tai Otoshi fails, use Kata Guruma. In that one your attempted tai otoshi is countered when the opponent step across your extended leg and braces himself against the throw. Your response is to shift into a kata garuma throw instead.

The kata contains these neat little lessons in give-and-take throwing. Of course, you have to know the throws and counters before you can see what the invisible opponent is doing. Without that, you are just waving your arms.