Kushanku / Kanku / Kosokun
Kushanku kata (also known as 'Kanku' and 'Kosokun') is one of the most popular forms in modern karate. It is a physically demanding and visually impressive form (when performed correctly) and it is one of the most popular katas in modern competition. Indeed, it is now one of the compulsory Shotokan katas for kata tournaments. As well as being a popular form with kata competitors, it also has a great deal to offer the practically minded karateka.
The kata is a record of the combative techniques and concepts formulated by a Chinese martial artist who went by the name of Kushanku. Some karate historians believe that 'Kushanku' was a military rank rather than a personal name, nevertheless the kata is named after a specific martial artist from China.
Kushanku (also pronounced 'Kosokun') is said to have come from China to Okinawa in the 1750s with other military advisers at the request of Okinawa 's king. Kushanku was a master of kempo and brought some of his students with him. Whilst in Okinawa , Kushanku gave a demonstration of his fighting skills and is said to have impressed the audience with the seemingly effortless way in which he dispatched much larger opponents.
One person who became a student of Kushanku's was Tode Sakugawa; who is often regarded as being one of the most important people in the history of karate. Tode Sakugawa began studying the martial arts after his father, who had frequently been the victim of bullies, had encouraged him to do so (see 'The Weaponless Warriors' by Richard Kim).
Tode Sakugawa began his study of the martial arts under a monk called Peichin Takahara ('Peichin' also being a title as opposed to a name) and eventually became one of his best students. In fact it was Takahara who said that Sakugawa should adopt the name 'Tode' (which was an old term for karate) in recognition of his outstanding skill. It is said that Peichin Takahara believed Kushanku to be the most skilled martial artist to have come to Okinawa and it was he who encouraged Sakugawa to train with Kushanku.
Tode Sakugawa studied under Kushanku for a number of years and he eventually formulated Kushanku kata as a means to record what Kushanku had taught him. Tode Sakugawa was the first martial arts teacher of the legendary Soken Matsumura, who became Sakugawa's student whilst he was still a child. Matsumura was in turn one of the teachers of Anko Itosu, and it was Itosu who created the Sho (lesser) version of Kushanku. Today, some styles practise both the lesser and greater versions of the form (Kushanku-Dai and Kushanku-Sho), whereas others only practise the main version. Itosu was also the creator of the five Pinan (Heian) katas, and it is obvious from their many similarities with Kushanku kata that Kushanku heavily influenced the development and subject mater covered by the Pinan series.
Gichin Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan) - who was a student of Itosu's - gave both versions of Kushanku the Japanese name of'Kanku' (meaning 'to view the sky') when karate was introduced to mainland Japan as part of his drive to make the art more accessible to the Japanese. Kushanku / Kanku was said to be Funakoshi's favourite form. Kushanku is one of the longest forms and it contains a wide variety of techniques. In common with many modern interpretations of the katas, Kushanku is frequently interpreted in a less than practical way that is only 'valid' when applied against predetermined karate-style techniques.
There are no records of the techniques that Kushanku originally taught Sakugawa, so we have no definitive answer when we ask what the original applications of the form were. One thing that we do know is that Kushanku was a very effective fighter and hence the techniques of the form must be very effective. We can therefore say with a good deal of certainty that the applications attributed to the form today are nothing like the ones Sakugawa created the kata to record! The most common interpretations of the form frequently have the 'combatants' using unrealistic techniques, in an unrealistic way, at an unrealistic distance. However, if we approach the form with realism and pragmatism there is no reason why we can't unlock the techniques and concepts that the form was originally meant to record. It is simply a case of analysing the kata from the correct perspective. And even if our interpretation varies from the original (we have no way of knowing if it does or not) then at least we are staying true to the original intent which was practical fighting methods for use in a civilian environment.
Understanding the applications of the forms isn't particularly difficult if you have an understanding of the nature of live fights and have a grasp of the 'language' of kata (see my book Bunkai-Jutsu: The Practical Application of Karate Kata). Indeed the active study of the katas (as opposed to just practising them) is something that all karateka should engage in.
My own study of Kushanku has revealed strikes, traps, throws, takedowns, joint-locks, chokes, strangles, weapon defences etc. Of particular interest to me was the way in which the 'opening salutation' records a likely 'flinch' that you may instinctively employ during the opening stages a fight, and how that flinch can be used to gain control of an opponent's limbs and create openings for a decisive strike or takedown (see the Bunkai-Jutsu book, or the third video tape in the Bunkai-Jutsu series).
It would seem that the opening movement of the form deals with the opening stages of the actual fight. The other movements toward the start of the form are also quite easy to apply. Could it be that the kata records Kushanku's 'syllabus' in the order it was taught to Sakugawa? Certainly my own interpretation has the more physically and technically demanding techniques (in actual application, not solo performance) towards the end of the kata, and the simplest and most immediate techniques towards the start. The final technique of the form records a rather dynamic throwing technique that requires good timing and a reasonable degree of physical strength. Throughout the martial arts, it is common to teach the simplest techniques first, and teach the techniques that require a better understanding of the basics later on. The fact that the most demanding throw in the form is the last technique recorded by the form would again support the idea that the kata may record Kushanku's syllabus in the order it was taught. Again, we have no way of knowing for certain, but the idea is certainly worthy of consideration.
The last three moves of the form see the practitioner step around with their left leg (Fig 1), assume a low stance as the arms are pulled in (Fig 2), and then straighten the legs as the arms are brought upwards (Fig 3). The application of this sequence is as follows. Turn to the side and take your arm underneath the opponent's lead leg. Lift the opponent's arm just above your head as you step across (Fig 4). Pull the opponent's arm downward so that they are loaded onto your shoulders. At this point your legs should be bent, and your spine should be straight (Fig 5). Straighten your legs to lift the opponent into the air. You can then dump the opponent onto the floor in whatever direction is appropriate. In Kushanku kata the opponent is thrown to the rear (Fig 6).
Kushanku kata includes a number of techniques that could cripple or maim (eg back-breaks, violent neck-cranks etc) and in today's society it may be difficult to justify the use of such techniques in a court of law. However, there are many techniques that are directly applicable to self-defence and even the more extreme methods are worthy of study for historical reasons (or if you should ever be unfortunate enough to find yourself in such an extreme situation that those techniques may be needed). The third tape in the Bunkai-Jutsu Series covers the applications of Kushanku / Kanku-Dai and I'd ask you to refer to it if you'd like to know more about the practical applications of the form.
Kushanku (Kanku-Dai) is frequently said to be one of the most important forms practised within the various karate styles. It is a record of highly effective techniques that were designed and recorded by two of karate's greatest exponents, and as such it deserves to be studied deeply. Thanks for taking the time to read this article. I sincerely hope that you enjoyed it.