Unlike most kata of Chinese origin, Kanku-dai was formed in Okinawa. Before being changed to Kanku-dai, the kata was originally called Kusunku and was named after a Chinese military advisor who came from China to Okinawa at the request of Okinawa’s king. He (Kusunku) lived in Okinawa from 1756-1761. (Note that Kusunku is the Okinawan name for Kung Siang Chin). Kusunku (also pronounced Kushanku or Kosokun) was a master of Kempo and whilst in Okinawa he gave a demonstration of his fighting skills. Legend says he impressed the crowd with the seemingly effortless way in which he dispatched much larger opponents.
At the time, one of Okinawa’s top martial artists was Tode Sakugawa (often regarded as one of the most important people in karate’s history). Tode, which is the old term for karate, was given to Sakugawa as a title in recognition for his skill. At the time, Sakugawa was one of the top students of monk and Astronomer Peichin Takahara. Amazingly, it is said that Takahara suggested to his student Sakugawa to go and train under Kusunku as Takahara believed him to be the most skilled martial artist to ever come to Okinawa.
Tode Sakugawa studied under Kusunku for 6 years. Kusunku died when Sakugawa was 28 years old and Sakugawa formulated the Kusanku kata as a way to honour his instructor and more importantly, to record what Kusunku had taught him. This illustrates the importance of kata. Dating back to the 1700‘s, there is no written text or film footage that archives any of the fighting philosophies or techniques of a man who had a large influence on the development of modern-day karate. However, by studying kata (in this case, Kanku-dai) we gain insight into the mind of past martial arts masters. In Kanku-dai, we find numerous circular hand techniques that when combined with powerful hip rotations become a highly effective means of escaping various holds and grabs at close range. Once we find ourselves at distance, Kanku-dai involves swift stance shifting, numerous faking techniques and low defensive postures. It often aims to attack an opponent with kicks, bringing their guard down to open upper body targets for follow up striking.
Although the kata is now known as Kanku-dai, it is not an abbreviation of the word Kusunku. Okinawa’s Gichin Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan), upon taking karate to mainland Japan gave the kata a new, although similar, Japanese name of ‘Kanku-dai’, which means to ‘view the sky’ (‘Kun’ – view and ‘Ku’ – sky). He also changed the names of all kata he taught (eg Passai became Bassai, Wansu became Empi etc).
Over the years, much symbolism has also been promoted of this kata. For example, commonly promoted is the final move of the kata where the arm swings in a big arc symbolising Yin and Yang or the flight of the moon. As there are no written records of this kata, much of its mystery has been lost. Studying its lineage, early on it was passed to Master Tatsuo Shimabuku.
Shimabuku was deeply devoted to Taoism and Zen Buddhism, so many believe the majority of the metaphysical explanations began with him. Additionally, the kata’s creator (Sakagawa) also trained heavily under the Astronomer, Takahara. Therefore, it is possible that Sakagawa enjoyed combining the fighting philosophies and techniques of Kusanku (who background was in the Military) with astronomical symbolism taught to him by of Takahara.