The Tekki Katas
The Tekki katas were originally known as Naihanchi or Naifanchi or "internal divided conflict". These older kata are very popular training kata in most Okinawan styles. Prior to Itosu Sensei introducing his Pinan kata to the Karate world, the Naihanchi kata were usually the first kata trained in when a student came to learn Karate. There are many stories of masters, especially Itosu, insisting that a student learn this kata and practice it many times till its lessons were mastered and the body had been conditioned. He often had students perform this kata for three years to prepare them mentally and physically for the next step of training.
The Naihanchi kata was the primary kata for many styles, especially those with roots in Tomari and Shuri schools of Karate. This kata was very popular and was viewed as very important to the Karate-Ka of Okinawa. It was also used to represent Karate as an image placed on one of the official postal stamps of Okinawa in a series of Stamps depicting Okinawan Karate. For a full year a sketch of an Okinawan doing Naifanchi was used with a student doing Makiwara practice and other Karate practice on the official stamps of Okinawa.
While the original Naihanchi became the basis for the first Naihanchi kata, Naihanchi Shodan, Itosu is known to have created two other kata that go by the names Naihanchi Nidan and Naihanchi Sandan to create a second "series" of kata for his Karate, the Pinan katas being the first.
The original Naihanchi was a single kata almost exactly the same as the modern Tekki Shodan. The kata makes use of 'in fighting' or 'close combat' techniques and strategy, which is somewhat different to other Shotokan kata. It was passed on to Anko Itosu by Matsumura Sokan and Itosu generated the second and third versions to create the series.
The Chinese origins of the Tekki/ Naifanchi kata are in the Fuzho area of China. It is thought that Matsumura picked up the kata or ideas to create the kata in his travels. To back up this idea, an acupuncturist named Daichi Kaneko travelled to Taiwan and studied a style of Kung fu called Dan Qiu Ban Bai He Quan in the 1960's. This style translates to "half hillock, half white crane boxing". Kaneko was from Okinawa and upon his return he taught the art to his fellow islanders. With this art was a kata called Neixi in mandarin or 'inside knees'. The form included similar techniques to the Tekki Katas, such as the name Gaehi. Neixi is pronounced Nohachi in Fuzhou dialect, which some say, indicates it may be a forefather of Naihanchi. It is important to point out that Taiwanese martial arts do borrow heavily from other styles from mainland China and many Okinawan masters did go to the Taiwanese shores and may have brought this kata with them along with other Chinese styles and forms. With time this cultural exchange was camouflaged and many of the kata and styles that were picked up were merged into local practice, with the true history and origins lost in stories and myth. It is more likely that Matsumura learned a form from a Chinese style that very much resembled the Taiwanese Kung fu system and he taught this kata to his students.
A second history, one that has many holes in it, has been brought forward that the kata are actually part of one large kata and Sokan Matsumura learned them from a Chinese master in Okinawa. He broke the kata into three learnable forms, more suited for learning. He taught the forms in three parts to Itosu and Azato who in turn altered them slightly to teach their students. The individuals that support this theory point out that only the beginning moves of Tekki Shodan have the normal pre-kata hand positioning and beginning that many of the other katas all have. Then the next two kata start from a neutral position. The issue with this history is Itosu is known to have created the second and third Tekki, so Matsumura would not have introduced those to Itosu at all.
One source I read stated that Itosu picked up the original kata from Matsumura and changed the kata slightly to meet his own ideas. The source stated that Matsumura had learned it from a Chinese gentleman and/or developed it from principles he had learned from this gentleman in the Tomari village. This begins to look a lot like the history of Empi and other katas, so I do not know if this is accurate or not. This is one of the issues with picking up "history" from seniors in a dojo setting. Often they are repeating stories that they were told. Stories that, while meaning well, do no justice to the actual history of the kata.
Funakoshi Sensei renamed the kata when he brought it to Japan, as he did with many of the kata. He renamed the Naihanchi kata to the Tekki katas. Most of his "renamings" made sense or were direct translations of the original Okinawan names. But in this case he renamed the katas from 'Internal Struggle' to 'Iron Horse' or ' Iron Knight'. Over the years I have been told many reasons for the new name and many translations have been brought forth. Most of the suggestions were centred around the side stance that is used during the kata. Some renditions state that it is because you look like you are riding a horse and the leg strength you would get makes your legs like iron. Others get more colourful, but none come very close to being plausible. I had to find a source that would seem correct and maybe not think in the "normal" Shotokan box for this one...and this is what I found....
Funakoshi had learned the kata from Anko Azato, one of his primary Karate instructors and it has been suggested that it was from Azato that the name change came from. Azato Sensei was the son of a Tunchi or Okinawan Samurai and enjoyed horseback riding and performing Samurai arts like archery. He was regarded as one of the best horseback riders in Okinawa. It is thought that that term 'Iron Knight' was directed as a reference to this modern Okinawan Samurai Anko Azato! This may not be the "party line" but it seemed to answer a few questions without leaving others unanswered...and it is more fun to take this answer over some of the other traditional answers.
Many instructors taught Naihanchi to their students and some felt that this kata was all that was needed for a student to learn Karate. Motobu Sensei, who is well known for his strength and fighting prowess, was one such instructor. His Naihanchi made use of higher stances but his practice of Karate relied a lot on this kata. Shotokan’s Tekki katas are a very important part of training in Shotokan and many other styles of Karate. They are perhaps one of the older training kata brought to Japan by Funakoshi to show the power and body control Okinawan Karate can develop.
Some research has suggested that the original kata was a 'tanren" or 'conditioning' kata designed with grappling in mind and could be used to counter grapple or as a two man set to learn these skills. Ancient Tode had Sumo-like grappling in its arsenal. This Sumo-like training would require a lot of body conditioning. It is abundantly obvious that Naihanchi would suit this goal perfectly.
The Tekki Kata is often categorised as Shorei or harder styles of kata because it is often thought of as tanren or for conditioning and therefore is harder, slower and with focus on muscle conditioning. They are often seen as being better suited for stronger people, however it would seem that Tekki Nidan and Sandan may be suited for smaller people with faster bodies, due to the hand movements and the very nature of the defence drills that are built into the kata. The three kata represent different stages of training for close range fighting, with Tekki Shodan being a primer, Tekki Nidan being counter grappling and Tekki Sandan being counter-striking based. Each kata has a slightly different "flavour" to them that make them very unique while still meeting the "norms" for a Tekki Kata.
When one wonders if we have been practicing that which the masters of old practiced all you have to do is watch Funakoshi Sensei doing Tekki Shodan and you will soon see that we are in fact doing the kata fairly unchanged from the times that Funakoshi and his students did this kata. The First Tekki is often used at brown belt to give a student a challenge while training the body in a new course or direction. It is nice to see that the kata that Funakoshi Sensei performed is the same kata, if not close to, that we train in today.