Sanseru was taught, and likely created by Kanryo Higaonna. It was preserved by both of his top two students, Chojun Miyagi (founder of Goju Ryu) and Juhatsu Kyoda (founder of To’on Ryu).
However most agree that Miyagi was completing compulsory military service when Higaonna taught this kata, so it was Kyoda who became famous for teaching it after Higaonna died. Kyoda’s style never achieved wide popularity like Miyagi’s. However he was the first to teach karate in Okinawan schools, was a highly respected Okinawan karate-ka and was influential in the development of many leading karate-ka. In 1934 he was named Chief of the Okinawan branch of the Dai Nippon Butokukai (or Great Japan Martial Virtues Association), founded in 1895 to preserve and promote the martial arts and ways.
When Higaonna returned to Okinawa, many of the kata he taught had a numerically based name, most of which had a number that could be divided by 3. Most theorize this symbolizes the battle of the mind, body and spirit. The number 3 is important in both Chinese and Japanese culture and is the reason most kata hailing from Naha have an opening sequence repeating the same moves three times (eg Saifa, Seiunchin, Sanseru, Hangetsu, Shisochin, Seisan and Sochin). While karate was by no means a religion, most believe the katas’ Chinese names referred to Buddhist concepts.
For example, the highest grade kata in Goju is ‘Suparunpei’ (translating to 108 in Chinese) has a special importance to Buddhism. According to this religion, man is supposed have 108 passions, and that is why on the 31st of December, the monks ring a bell 108 times to keep these spirits away. Divide 108 by 3 and you get 36. Why is this significant? Sanseru translates to 36.
Once again, as so little was documented in old Okinawa, there is much debate over the reference. Some studies into Chinese arts that influenced karate’s kata have revealed the number represents the calculation 6 times 6. The first six represents eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and spirit. The second six stands for colour, voice, sense of smell, taste, tact and justice. Other studies have suggested they refer to the systematic method and understanding of certain grouping of vital acupressure points.
Another possibility is that in 1392 a group of 36 families moved from Fukien Province in China, to Kume-Mura, a village just outside of Naha (where Goju was developed). This community of 36 families introduced a style known as Shi Pa Sho Kempo and taught a number of people in Naha.
The kata itself is one of the numerous Sanchin kata – this is easily identified by the opening 3 double block sequence in Sanchin stance. The kata is not as flowing or circular compared to other Naha based Goju kata. Many times it takes a direct linear approach, more in tune with the Shotokan, and likewise, finishes a number of sequences with a block that for bunkai purposes could be used as a strike. However its Naha roots do become evident with a few techniques being typically Goju using the notion of circular movements to win over a grappling attacker.
Sanseru: Summary Points
- Developed by Kanryo Higaonna
- Part of the Sanchin family of kata (represented by the opening sequence of 3 Sanchin stances)
- Sanseru translates to ‘36’ and is one of many karate kata with a numerical title that can be divided by 3. The Japanese character ‘San’, as found in kata ‘San’seryu, Sei‘san’ and ‘San’chin translates the number 3. Most kata that have the term ‘San’ in their name have an opening sequence that is repeated three times and generally in ‘San’chin datchi. The number three is very important in both Chinese and Japanese culture. Sanchin itself means “three battles”. It does not refer to actual physical battles, but the internal battle of harnessing body, mind, and spirit through will.
- It contains a number of blocking techniques that can be used for striking when practicing bunkai.