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Kata Corner - Bassai Dai

This content is taken from "Kata: The Folk Dances of Shotokan" by Rob Redmond

Bassai probably means something like "Extract from a Fortress." In short, "Rescue." The first character can be read as nuki or batsu, depending on the combination and the natural way of using them already intuited by native speakers. It means "to extract" or "to draw out." The second character can be read fusagu or sai which means "close, shut, obstruct, or get in the way of." There are many meanings that could possibly be drawn from this character combination.

The name "Bassai" can be written with six different characters, and no Japanese Karate instructor is really sure which of the kanji are the originals. The ones I picked above seem to be repeated in Funakoshi's Ryukyu Karate Kenpo (1922). One such reading gives the meaning of "extract from a fortress." Another means "remove an obstruction." The common English translation is "To Penetrate a Fortress," however, there does not seem to be a kanji for penetrate among the many that are used in the name of this kata. What caused so many publishers of karate books to put the name "To Penetrate a Fortress" for a translation of this word out there is a mystery, because I don't see how that translation is possible.

Best Karate Volume 6 by Nakayama Masatoshi (English edition) and Karate-Do Kyohan by Funakoshi/Ohshima (English edition) both present the "Penetrate a Fortress" translation of Bassai. Japanese editions of the books use the characters that I used above. Another famous book about kata says that the meaning of Bassai is "To Thrust Asunder."

I do not believe such translations of these characters are possible, and I have looked everywhere, including through Chinese and Korean interpretations of the characters. No "penetrate" is anywhere that I can find it. Perhaps I am missing something? But it has been over a decade since I discovered this, and I haven't seen any evidence to the contrary in that time.

Dai and Sho Kata

The last character, Dai, means "large." The three "Dai" kata in Shotokan are Kanku-Dai, Gojushiho Dai, and Bassai-Dai, and each is apparently given that name to distinguish it from a different version of the same kata that has been brought into the Shotokan system. The Dai kata are the "large" kata, hence the character for "big" being tagged onto the name. The other kata in these pairs are the "Sho" kata or the "small" kata.

From Tomari or China?

Bassai-Dai is a very old kata, and there are many different versions of it. While some credit its creation to Matsumura Sokon, in reality no one knows for sure if the kata was created by him or not. We don't really know where all of these Bassai kata came from, nor do we know who created the first one. We don't know how old the kata is, nor do we know if it was born in China or in Okinawa.

Bassai-Dai is thought to come from Tomari, however, this is based upon tertiary evidence and is probably not possible to prove today. There are other versions of the kata which have names which refer to the city of Tomari such as Oyadomari Bassai, which means "Bassai Parented in Tomari." Some claim that this name refers to a man named Oyadomari. There is also a Tomari Bassai. Both Tomari Bassai and Oyadomari Bassai look very similar to each other. I do not believe it matters where these kata come from. It is more important who they come from. But in this case, even that is unknown.

Like the other Shotokan kata thought to have been parented in Tomari, such as Jutte, Jion, Jiin and Empi, Bassai begins with the right fist covered by the left hand. This movement is apparently peculiar to some of the kata in Shotokan which seem to come from Tomari City. This gesture may come from China as a sign of respect, or it could simply be a way of performing kata that the person who gathered these particular kata together enjoyed. Maybe an Okinawan karate expert always started his kata in this position, and we retain the movement today. We really cannot be sure about the history here.

Version, Version, What's the Version?

There are many different versions of Bassai-Dai such as Matsumura Bassai, Tomari Bassai, Oyadomari Bassai, and Ishimine Bassai. All of these different versions are similar in their basic shape, but none of them are identical to each other. The common theme between these different versions of Bassai seems to be the large number of blocking motions at the beginning of the kata, followed by several sword hand blocks and a low level side thrust kick. The differences lie in the kinds of blocks and the body motions made during the blocking maneuvers. One version has the sword hand blocks executed to the lower level. Many of the versions prefer the cat leg stance over the back stance, but this is not surprising considering that the back stance seems to have been brought into Shotokan in the 1930's.

Applying Bassai-Dai

Bassai-Dai, more than any other kata, leads one to think about alternative applications for the techniques beyond those given in most karate books. The techniques simply make no sense at all given the Shotokan combat style based on aggressive attacking punches, kicks, and foot sweeps. Block, block, block, and block some more. Why would anyone do that? The answer, of course, is that no one would do that; therefore that is not what is being done. There must be more to this kata than simple blocks. Once you have reached that conclusion, you begin traveling down the road of finding advanced applications in all of the kata.

There are many interesting applications of the kata Bassai-Dai. Of course, the most obvious applications involve blocking and countering a large number of kicks and punches from opponents surrounding the performer. Actually, the kata contains even more interesting applications among the group of blocks that have no counter attacks built into them. The blocks can be interpreted as a series of throws and sweeps combined with wrist locks and arm bars to form a deadly array of techniques thrown against much fewer attacks and attackers than the simplistic interpretation would allow. Reverse engineering of kata like Bassai-Dai requires great knowledge of karate techniques, and it also requires a rather extensive knowledge of Jujutsu techniques so that the throws, locks, and other un-Shotokan-like techniques will become apparent through careful analysis.

Go Tell it on the Mountain

The three Yamazuki near the end of the kata shape the upper body like the kanji character for "mountain" in Japanese. Thus, the punches are named "mountain punches." This is a repeating theme in Shotokan kata. Hangetsu and Jutte also contain postures named after Yama that resemble this kanji. Postures that are designed to show various kanji are not uncommon among the kata. Some kata draw a kanji on the floor if you follow the foot patterns.

Bassai-Dai is considered a representative kata of the Shotokan style because of the usage of large scale techniques which have wide motions, like the Yamazuki. The kata is very similar to the other most common kata performed in Shotokan: Kanku-Dai. Movements 9-14 especially resemble Bassai-Dai. Whether one kata steals this motion from another is unknown.

Bassai-Dai is generally considered to be an intermediate kata. Many brown belted students are exposed to it and required to perform it for examinations for the 2nd or 1st kyu rank.

Probably the hardest part of performing Bassai-Dai is the hip motions. The hip is frequently put into the reverse front facing posture in this kata. That is not a posture that many karate enthusiasts are suited to making. Fast, strong, and snappy hip rotation are needed to really pull off a good Bassai-Dai in a competition. Because this is considered a required kata for competition, you will not see it performed as someone's specialty kata in the final stages of any tournament.