During this year’s first training class, my instructor asked me what Kata we should do for the month of January. At first I was not sure and could not pick one. We had done Jion, Jutte, Nijushiho and it was time to shake it up a bit. So, I picked Hangetsu. Not exactly a Kata many would pick to "shake it up" but it was so different from the other Kata we had been doing and I really wanted to give the students something to work on that was VERY different.
I always give them a bit of background and share my notes with them. Even if you are not a huge fan of Hangetsu, I am hoping you enjoy the info I found on the Kata.
Hangetsu, an introduction
Hangetsu comes from a system of training in Okinawa that focused on improving the physique. The Katas from this system of training generally come from the White Crane style of Kung fu and were transmitted with a different intent than pure combat training. They are practiced for development of internal energy and for training the body to be stronger. Hangetsu was altered by the JKA to be a different kind of Kata.
While the JKA version has a great deal of combat application as its focus, the practice of this Kata still retains much of it original fitness training.
When I started learning Hangetsu, all I was told about the Kata was that it meant half moon and it was built for bigger guys because it was slow. This is obviously not the case. The Kata has so much more to offer the student who chooses to practice the Kata. Hangetsu is much more than I was originally taught, and yet such a simple training device. My favorite memory of this Kata was being taught it by Yaguchi Sensei. I knew this Kata from before, but Yaguchi Sensei had a special way of teaching this Kata and he had some unique terms. The cross over step was not referred to simply as a cross over step but as the “steeling step”. He also had a great way of teaching how to move in this Kata. But I still did not learn the true history of the Kata or any thing else. This is one of the reasons that I started digging into the histories and truth of the Katas.
History of Hangetsu
The original name of this Kata was Seisan and it’s meaning was '13'. Some people feel it refers to the 13 hands used in the Kata or 13 steps used to perform the Kata. Seisan is taught in both Tomari and Naha Te styles, and is seen as being a very important Kata in some styles. Seisan is so important to some styles that it is the first Kata taught to new students, Isshin ryu (Editor’s note: This is not referring to the British Ishin Ryu) is one of these.
Many interpretations exist of the origin of the name of this Kata and no real solid interpretation seems to bear any more truth or realism over another. It would seem that even the proposed origins of the Kata are conflicted between sources. One of these sources, Mabuni of Shito ryu suggests that Seisan is a derivation of the lion and dragon boxing in China, While noted Okinawan historian and martial arts historian Kinjo Akio states that Seisan is of young Chun Fujian White Crane lineage. Seeing as Seisan is so closely related to Sanchin and Sanchin is a White Crane adaptation it would bare that the Origin of Seisan is of White Crane lineage.
It is unknown who brought the Kata to Okinawa originally. However, several masters that travelled to China, after Seisan was already on the island, also brought back versions of Seisan that closely resemble the Okinawan version of the Kata. Aragaki Seisho demonstrated this Kata in front of the last Sappushi, Shao Xin and was supposed to not only be the biggest advocate for the Kata but is seen by many to be the original Okinawan to have been taught this Kata by the Chinese.
The lineage of Shotokan’s Seisan/ Hangetsu was not passed on through Itosu to Gichin Funakoshi, but rather it has been suggested that Gichin Funakoshi may have learned it when he was teaching at a school in Tomari village and he probably was taught it by Iha Kodatsu, a contemporary of Itosu whom Funakoshi is known to have trained with while away from his master working. Iha also had a lot of influence on other masters from the Tomari area and was seen as a master’s master.
The running theory of who brought Seisan to Okinawa seems to be that a master named Seihan brought the Kata to the islands, but this is an unsubstantiated myth at best. No record of an individual named Seihan can be found and easily authenticated.
It must be noted that many instructors travelled to China and studied Kata independently and brought versions of Seisan back with them. There are also instructors that have passed on Seisan to their students who did not leave Okinawa to obtain this Kata for their syllabus. Many trained with other Okinawan masters and Chinese White Crane masters, and then altered their versions for their students.
Instructors such as Arakaki, Matsumura, Iha, Oshiro Chuyu, Kyan Shotoku and Nakaima Norisato all learned and passed on this Kata in Okinawa from a source that will remain somewhat unknown or at least unconfirmed. Other instructors such as Higaonna Kanryu of Goju Ryu and Uechi Kanbun of Uechi Ryu both travelled to Fujian China and brought this Kata back as a syllabus Kata in their styles.
Gichin Funakoshi changed the name from Seisan to Hangetsu, meaning Half Moon. Again it can be suggested that Funakoshi did this to make the Kata more "Japanese", and to distance the Kata from its Chinese origins. Funakoshi also changed some of the techniques that he saw as not flowing with his ideas of Karate. Some of the techniques were also removed outright to streamline the newer version of the Kata. This was done to "shotokanize" the Kata as well as to adjust the harder Tomari style with circular movements and replace them with more linear movements and more
natural breathing to match up with Funakoshi’s ideas. Funakoshi lengthened the stances from an hour glass stance to the longer half moon stance and the cat stance to the back stance. He then lengthened the body movements and along the way the last half of the Kata was sped up to off set the slow powerful movements of the first half.
Shotokan also does not use the theory of Tanren as much as other styles do. Tanren is an internal style of training to condition the body using various breathing techniques and dynamic tension movements physically. This type of training is what Sanchin and Seisan are designed to facilitate. They focus on breathing and conditioning using the 'hara' and powerful and extended periods of 'Kimae' or focus with the dynamic
tension or focusing the body. Originally Seisan/ Hangetsu was a Tanren Kata focusing on conditioning and still has the stylized block-punch combinations that connect it to Sanchin and other Tanren Kata.
The hard controlled breathing with complete focus was replaced with the more Shorei style of natural breathing. The slow dynamic tension movements make way for faster but very controlled movements with little tension as the Kata progresses. All of these changes made Hangetsu meet up with the new ideal that Funakoshi was creating for this new style of Karate. Changes in speed and rhythm are important as is control and focus. A unique step is also used in his Kata not often seen in other Katas,
and not seen in any other Shotokan Kata. The 'steeling step' is used to gain distance and power for a front kick and can be used to fool the attacker into thinking they have better range for defence than they actually have.
The Kata’s Chinese origins are well documented. In the Fijian White Crane style the Kata’s name is "Four Gate Hands", but the name 13 still poses a bit of a mystery. One theory on the name is that it was in reference to the 13 day cycle of the moon and knowing this Gichin Funakoshi renamed the Kata "half moon/month" for the 13 day cycle.
Seisan contains many low and tense movements common in Naha Te style Katas, like Goju Ryu, but rare in Shurei Te styles like Shotokan, which may be why Funakoshi rejected the Tanren practice using this Kata. He was not acquainted with this training or simply felt it was counter productive to the training that he was trying to create.
While Gichin Funakoshi’s main teachers were Itosu and Azato, he also trained and studied under Soken Matsumura (Shurei Te), Kodatsu Iha (Tomari Te) and Shiho Aragaki (Naha Te) and all of these men knew and taught a form of Seisan. It is widely felt that Funakoshi took the best aspects of all the different studies from the different masters to create his Hangetsu.
Notes on Hangetsu
The Hangetsu practiced by Shotokan still has some of the older Naha styling to it. The first half of the Kata is done as it would have been in the Naha Te school, with slow dynamic tension and controlled breathing. But the last half has been changed to suit the Shotokan mentality more closely. It is said that the strong similarities that Hangetsu has with Sanchin caused Funakoshi to omit the use of Sanchin in the Shotokan Curriculum. Having two Tanren Kata that focused on slow and powerful
Naha Te style movements did not fit into Gichin Funakoshi’s vision of what
his Karate should look like.
Even with the dynamic changes that Funakoshi and his students made to the Hangetsu Kata it still does not fit into the new Shotokan mould. Unlike other Kata that deal with middle to long range attack and defense, the Hangetsu Kata is still a Kata that focuses on close quarter counter attacks, deep breathing and slow precise movements.
Hangetsu, or Seisan as it was once called, is an old training Kata that was converted into a combat Kata that still trains the body for strength and uses a unique dynamic tension to work on muscle strength and endurance. The Kata was altered to be more presentable to the new ideals of Shotokan and to not confuse students that were starting in the style with only the Heians as a background. Many great masters enjoy this Kata as their favorite and use it in demonstration to show the power that
Shotokan has to offer.
Dingman Sensei would have me perform this Kata along with Empi over and over again to get the light active feel of Empi along with the solid stable fell of Hangetsu and I now advocate that students do this as well. The Kata seems very fundamental at first but its advanced ideas make it very hard to train in if you are simply dancing through the movements. Hangetsu has seen resurgence in the last several years as a
tournament Kata in the senior division but still lacks explosiveness enough to make it popular in the junior’s divisions.
Hangetsu was a favourite training Kata of many masters and still has its place in the Dojo. I have seen that many students do not practice the Kata however and thus miss out on much of the training ideals that Hangetsu presents. It is a rare Kata and a Kata that should be looked at once a student gets their Shodan. It may be a hard Kata to understand, but once you do it is a Kata that is very appreciated in someone’s training tool box.