Bassai-dai is introduced to GKR students at 5th kyu, and remains a student’s kata through both their 5th kyu (blue belt) and 4th kyu (red belt) grades.
Bassai-dai was purposely chosen as the fourth kata of GKR, appropriately following Saifa. Saifa introduces students to the Goju element of karate. It endorses correct breathing and rhythm. As a self-defence aspect it trains them in three new stances; shiko datchi (sumo stance), sanchin datchi (Pigeon toe stance) and neko ashi datchi (cat stance), and includes some basic grappling techniques. Bassai-dai in comparison is nearly twice as long (38 counts in all) so this alone challenges a student. Bassai-dai also develops excellent overall karate and self-defence principles: It trains a student to move with explosive speed and to move without telegraphing. It trains a student to turn their opponent around from a deep rooted defensive stance and incorporates some unique attacks such as kicks to the knee and double punches.
Generally regarded as being one of the oldest and most representative kata of Okinawan karate, the kata’s originator is unknown. However, the oldest versions have been passed down by Soken Matsumura, the chief bodyguard to the King of Okinawa, and thus, head of law and order in Okinawa. Matsumura, who was later called ‘Bushi’ Matsumura (Bushi meaning warrior) studied under Okinawa’s Sakugawa and China’s Kusanku. There seems to be no evidence of either of his masters teaching the kata.
Unlike most kata whose lineage is traceable back to one master or city, this kata is found in almost all styles descended from two of Okinawa’s major cities (Shuri and Tomari). This unique occurrence again is placed back to Matsumura. Being the head of Law and Order in Okinawa, there would have been much cross-training between government officials (note also that these cities are only 5km apart).
Because of its spread and popularity in Okinawa, there are a number of Bassai kata, the most common being Bassai-dai, Bassai-sho, Matsumura Bassai and Tomari Bassai and each display a similar embusen (performance line) as well as similar techniques.
Originally it was called ‘Passai’. However, the Okinawans did not have a clear definition for the name ‘Passai’ nor did they use kanji for many of their kata (leading to many katas’ real names dying with oral tradition). So it was years later when Gichen Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan) took the kata to mainland Japan. Without a name to translate it to, he substituted it with a similar sounding kanji, “Bassai”. This can be literally translated to mean, “extract from a fortress”, “destroy a fortress” or “remove an obstruction”.
Considering all this, there are three schools of thought on the name Bassai.
Common Theory Number 1: Some suggest as its true name ‘Passai’ may represent a person (the kata’s true creator – as many kata are named in reference to their creator), or may even be the name of a fortress in China.
Common Theory Number 2: Many speculate also that the castle/fortress reference goes back to the kata’s lineage. Considering its original teacher was chief of the King’s team of bodyguards, it was used as a training kata for bodyguards that taught how to penetrate and wreak havoc among a crowd posing a potential threat to the king.
This theory perhaps explains the bunkai of the kata – the first half consists of a rapid series of turns in a variety of directions, all the while executing a series of fast and brutal techniques (note, whilst predominantly a blocking kata in appearance, many of the blocks within this kata can be easily transformed into devastating strikes or breaks for bunkai purposes). Being amongst a crowd, it stresses the ability to transform disadvantage to advantage through the use of body movement (tai sabaki). At some point, about half way through, the kata begins to slow and the focus changes to techniques that are more about controlling the situation, and restoring order. Joint locks, defences against throws and throwing techniques come to the fore. Whilst this theory is somewhat speculative, it is both plausible and interesting.
Common Theory Number 3: Another popular theory uses the fortress reference as the body. During combat a person experiences an adrenalin rush. When the body is full of adrenalin it can withstand extreme amounts of pressure. The face and frontal torso (where most strikes land in combat) can be struck without regard. In this way the body become a fortress, covered by an adrenalin coating – so to speak. Bassai-dai focuses on maintaining a deep, well-grounded stance while blocking. It then executes ren uke (one arm blocking followed by the other arm blocking the same technique in the same direction).
Performing ren uke from a strong stance allows a person to turn their opponent around, exposes their sides. Interesting to note, a powerful blow to atemi (vulnerable points) found on the sides of the torso can instantly wound an opponent (even one full of adrenalin). It does this by applying pressure to an area that will send signals beneath the adrenalin coating… in essence, breaching the fortress (the fortress being an adrenalin coating).
Have you ever been full of adrenalin and still found a technique hurt you? This is because it hit an area that sent pain signals beneath your adrenalin coating. You will see this with professional Rugby players. Full of huff and puff (adrenalin) they seem imperious to pain. But one quality tackle where the shoulder of the tackler strikes into their side and they lie on the ground wounded.
Bassai-dai: Summary Points
- Most likely introduced by Sokon ‘Bushi’ Matsumura.
- The kata shows up in many styles of karate and has many versions. Thought to be a result of its original teacher travelling as Chief Bodyguard and instructor for the king of Okinawa.
- The kata has a self-defence philosophy of dealing with multiple attackers, hence training a student to use tai-sabaki (body movements and changing directions) and dynamic straight-line speed. It seeks to avoid toe-to-toe combat by turning an opponent around.
- Originally called Passai, but was changed when Gichen Funakoshi took karate from Okinawa to Japan.
- The ‘Sai’ in Bas’Sai’ is the same character in ‘Sai’fa (meaning destroy or breach). The meaning of Bassai-dai is generally regarded as ‘To breach the fortress’ or ‘destroy the fortress’.