Who’s Real? – Karate Myth Busting Through Pictures

“His grip was so strong that he could rip the bloody flesh from his opponents arms”

Yeah, right.

We often read about these (supposedly) great masters of Karate, with their seemingly supernatural skills and abilities. It’s in almost every book on Karate (and believe me, I have read most of the ones worth reading)!

What do we make of these stories?

These small remarks like “His fingers were so strong that he could pierce the enemy’s side and rip his ribs out.” Or “He crushed his opponent’s Adam’s apple with his vice-like grip”.

(Okay, that last one was maybe a bit over the top.)

Should we take them for the truth? Or are they simply exaggerated stories, made up by some sly author to inspire us in our pursuit for Karate-enlightenment?


But you never know.

So… is there some way for us to somehow take a look at these deceased masters for ourselves? To see if they were the real deal? Well, there are some old videos out there, but they can be hard to find. And they are often of poor quality (but not always).

So, what do we have left?

One option remains.

I’m talking about pictures.

You see, there are plenty of pictures of the old masters, both Karate and Kobudo. You just have to know where to search (hint: inside old books). Most of it is not on the internet (yet) actually.

So, today I thought I would share some pictures with you of Gusukuma Shinpan (1890-1954) (who I have written plenty about before). He’s one of my favorite “old guys”.

And if you want to see pictures of him, one special old book is better than the rest:

Nakasone Genwa’s 1938 “Encyclopedia of Karatedo”

Described by famous Karate researchers as “legendary” and “the book of the era”. This rare masterpiece (standing in my bookshelf of course) features so many pictures of the old masters that it’s almost too good to be true.

Or what do you say about kata and kumite demonstrations by people like Otsuka Hironori (knife defence), Hanashiro Chomo (kata Jion), Chibana Choshin (kata Matsumura Passai), Mabuni Kenwa (kata Aragaki Sochin), Taira Shinken (bo-kata Shuji)… and Gusukuma Shinpan (various kata moves and bunkai).

Now, I’m not saying that you can see any real “skills” from photographs.

Nope. At least I don’t think so.

But… I do believe you can see certain things like body alignment, angles, posture, techniques, distance, and other small details that can give hints.

Hints to skills.

And sometimes these things can’t even be seen on video, or in real life (especially if the teacher is fast)!

So let’s just look.

And let’s do it carefully (a picture says more than a thousand words)!

Here’s Gusukuma Shinpan showing you some different kata techniques and very basic “bunkai”.



These picture are clearly from kata Passai/Bassai and perhaps some other.

Notice the relaxed neko-ashi dachi (cat stance), compared to today’s more forced version (look at the heel). It’s all about body weight distribution.


Typical Shuri-te techniques.


Basic kumite exercises.

The classical “shiko dachi jun-zuki”(lower left picture) is seen, as “made famous” by Funakoshi Gichin. A typical Itosu-style move.


More advanced kumite.

Using jodan/age-uke as close quarter technique (top left for example) as well as from longer distance, with the mae/shomen-geri (lower right).

The kumite to the lower left reminds me of Motobu Choki. In fact, it’s almost the exact same technique.



More kata pictures.



More Pinan/Heian pictures, along with Kushanku/Kanku Sho.


Variations on simple “omote” (surface) bunkai.


These are a interesting. For example, top left we have a mawashi-uke, not your typical Shuri-te technique. Not your typical target for it neither. We also have knee strikes, thai-style shin blocks (sune-uke) and osae-uke with uraken (lower left).



More bunkai.

I see some Kushanku/Kanku Sho in there (top right) and possibly Passai/Bassai (lower left).

Can it be Seienchin (lower right)? Since we just saw the mawashi-uke, who knows? After all, he did train briefly under Higaonna Kanryo, the “father” of Naha-te (Goju-ryu etc).

Cross-training is not new.


More Passai/Bassai and Kushanku/Kanku kumite.


Kushanku/Kanku technique (takedown?).


The old Kushanku/Kanku Dai technique, that has ceased to exist in all styles today, except Shotokan (!) for some reason.

Wonder why.


A gedan-uke.

Notice hip position.


A yama-zuki.

Today mostly done with the top hand a bit lower.

Or maybe not if you’re a short Okinawan…


More Pinan/Heian and Passai/Bassai “omote” bunkai.


And then the last picture.

Motobu-style kumite again (lower right), with some simple Kushanku/Kanku Dai bunkai, similar to what Funakoshi Gichin wrote/showed in his books.

And that’s it!

No more pictures.

Gusukuma Shinpan – the real deal?

You decide.

Evidence right in front of you.


  • Diego Romero
    i notice that he does not use a hikite when he strikes after defending this pleases me
  • John Arena
    Brilliant! These photos and your descriptions are a real treasure. Regarding the stances: as a youngster and real know it all, I remember seeing a book by Bruce Tegner that made all of us "real karate students" laugh. At the time I was part of a very large Japanese karate organization. Why were his stances so relaxed and upright? Why so many hight changes in his movements? From our perspective Mr. Tegner was either lazy, inept or a fake. Of course 40 years later it becomes obvious that what we were seeing was probably more practical and certainly more close to authentic karate than we imagined. As you pointed out a photo can reveal many things, if you know how to look. Thanks for another great post- John
  • Igor
    I do not have too much of expirience (see, can't even spell it) in karate, but about the blocks, I am more used to (and always suggested by sensei) to make them more compact (a smaller angle between my upper and lower arm), because then you have more strength in it, true your range is smaller, but is it not batter to use dodging techniques, then to extend your self with such a far away block which can leave you kinda open? Can't wait to get more experience, so I can be able to cherish this pictures the way they seem to deserve..
  • matty reader
    I have been a student of Seikichi Iha for over 20 years, and he was a student of Gusukuma, and I can tell you that his stories of Gusukuma's odd gymnastic abilities and powerful martial skills are impressive. But they are in part owing to his own natural ability, his teacher's ability, and mostly tons of practice. He was fanatical in his training, and as a school teacher he had lots of time on his hands. One correction, your note that no styles still use the kuskanku dai move/application is not correct if I am understanding you rightly. We use it every class, as the kata or the bunkai. Thanks for a great overview of the photos. It's a super book!
  • DojoRat
    Reading this post got me thinking about the purpose of the forced and seemingly impractical stances often taught. Books on the topic rarely mention the reason for the difference but I found the best answers in the photos of old timers such as the ones above. I compared them to photos of stances and kata of the next two generation of sensei following Gusukuma, Chibana etc.. and then my own sensei here in Okinawa. They were all the same, high and relaxed....just like in the pictures here. So what you see Gusukuma doing here is not the old way but the advanced way. My sensei is only two generations from Gusukuma`s and he teaches lower stances as familiar to us. After this comparison I recalled something he repeats often.`sit low on your stances`. In other words, the purpose of teaching so-called forced stances is to train lower body power and endurance. That is often lacking for many people. It is also important not to take things at face value and distinguish between the training version and the advanced version, closer to practical version of techniques.
  • otaku4karate
    The answer you seek is in the 20 precepts about the stances and follow the same logic in the advancement of basics. I could tell you, but it is something you must learn for yourself, this is why karate takes a lifetime to learn. Only through training will the truth be revealed, that's probably the appeal to MMA it's quicker and easier to learn then karate.
  • Jack M
    Jesse, it would have been nice to have a note about the order of the pictures. I read it from top-left to top-right and so on. rather confusing. I got it eventually though, great stuff!
  • Jack M
    on closer inspection, his zenkutsu dachi is a bit too upright, and being able to see his belt means his hips aren't forward facing. I usually do mine leaning forward, making a continuous line of my back and leg. Also his hip position means his leg isn't as involved and contributing as much of it's strength as it could be (or something like that, I just know that it works, not sure why) a Tom Hills video on youtube demonstrates why this way of doing it is not as effective as a really good zenkutsu-dachi
  • Felix
    What's the point of omote bunkai? Maybe he really didn't know better. Didn't Funakoshi say that his teacher wouldn't explain the applications, only do the kata over and over again when he trained at night? Maybe the original bunkai was lost before Gusukuma Shinpan learned the techniques or even before. The pictures don't convince me otherwise. Stance: Maybe the stances aren't all that important here. Jesse only mentions that the neko-ashi-dachi is different. Low stances aren't only used in Shotokan. Various (Shaolin?) Kung Fu/Wushu/Quan fa styles also do them. Look up "Bow and Arrow Stance". They also have "hikite". I wonder what their justification is and if it's an ancient tradition or only as old as Shotokan. I guess the deep stances are a conditioning thing, like DojoRat and okatu4karate imply. Also, if you don't just block and counterattack but apply a lock or a throw, sometimes you naturally go into a deeper stance to direct weight downward.
    • ady
      i think you are spot on. These bunkai look bs.

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