Empi - An introduction
Empi is a Kata of dynamic movements and changing rhythms. The Kata is set up to teach a student how to be agile when moving and to use distance, unique movements and encourages a student to study movements that will confuse an attacker. The Kata is based on a theme that encourages the student to move like a Swallow, a bird that moves in a similar fashion to the style that is being encouraged. Its Chinese roots and many of the movement patterns from age-old Kung fu are still found in this Kata, which heavily influence Empi. I was encouraged by my instructor to practice this Kata along with its opposite, Hangetsu. I continue to suggest this to anyone I teach the Kata to.
Empi is normally seen by students who are Shodan and above but it can be taught to brown belts in some organizations. Some say that the Kata is best performed by light students that are of slight build. The flamboyant and dynamic movements are best performed by smaller people that can make their movements mimic the Swallow, but I have seen many larger students pull off a nice Kata that shows a different more power-focused side to the Kata. Empi is a dynamic Kata but it does not have to be done as a quick and light Kata, it can be done as a dynamic and powerful Kata as well.
My favourite performance of this Kata was during my instructor’s sixth Dan examination. His wife ushered me into the Office at the dojo and I got to watch my instructor do his Kata in front of his instructors. It was a very big honour and I will never forget the mastery my instructor did that Kata with. He was light on his feet and faster than I had ever seen anyone move. His techniques were sharp and he altered his directions faster and sharper than I had ever seen.
History of Empi
Empi was heavily influenced by Chinese boding and was originally known by the name "Wanshie" or "Wanshu". Gichin Funakoshi changed the name to Empi in the 1920's when he moved to Japan to teach Karate. The most accepted Origin of the kata is that the form was created by a Sappushi (diplomat) named Wang Ji and that he created this form while he served the Chinese government in Okinawa in and around 1683. Rumor had it that Wang Ji made a habit of throwing and jumping on opponents . Wang Ji was placed in Tomari because Tomari was a hub for Naha and a major Sea port. Many government officers would have been located here and this would have been a government hub for many foreign dignitaries.
Two other ideas have surfaced about Empi and its creation. One is that the Kata was created during training interactions between the members of the ‘36 families’ that immigrated to Okinawa in the 1300's from China. The other is that the Kata is fashioned after the dynamic sword style of Sasaki Kajiro, a Kenjitsu instructor. The issue with the first is that the dates do not match, this would make it the oldest Kata ever in Okinawa and that simply is not so, and the sword story...while quaint is not historically accurate.
Apparently Wang Ji (1621-1689) adapted this name when he went to Okinawa as a member of the ambassadorial mission. He was sent to Okinawa by the Qing government to the village of Tomari in 1685. As a poet, calligrapher and Diplomat he met many people in the Okinawan government, including the royal guards and diplomats. He was an expert in Shaolin Fujian White Crane and shared this art with the Okinawans he met. Wanshu is used in many Karate style such as Isshin ryu, Goju ryu, Shito ryu, as well as Shotokan and its derivatives.
Wanshu was either created directly from Wang Ji or by his students when he left for China as a way of remembering his teachings. Many styles use Wanshu or use variations, Ansu, Washo, Hansho, Oushu and Anshu, as the name for this Kata. One version of the word Wanshu is "dumping form". This interpretation clearly refers to the throwing movement in the Kata.
Two specific versions have emerged as variations of the original Wanshu. Matsumura Wanshu and Itosu Wanshu. Despite the fact that Itosu studied with Matsumura, the two Kata vary from each other considerably. It is Itosu’s Kata that Gichin Funakoshi brought to Japan and renamed Empi. The Matsumura version has some similar movements, but lacks a jump, preferring to just throw the opponent. The Kata also uses very fast open hand moves, back fist strikes in place of the pressing palm techniques and even has a very different Embusen due to the variations in the movements. Tomari Te was not the only area that this Kata showed up in. Shuri te also has the Kata Wanshu in its syllabus. This suggests that Shuri stylists were training in Tomari village. This is very possible due to its close proximity to Tomari village.
One way of writing Wanshu in Kanji translates to ' oar in the water' which apparently refers to the first movement in the commonly used form where the person drops down and places a block to 45 degrees to the front. This is not a widely accepted translation but worth mentioning simply because it demonstrates the confusion over names and the use of different Kenji for the same Katas. This is not something that is unique to Empi.
Gichin Funakoshi and Itosu made many alterations from the original Kata and its practice. One such alteration was the up and down movements in the Kata. The 'original' Kata was done with in and out movements and the alteration was to add the up and down movements to create more dynamic movements and differentiation in body position. The up and down movements have led to the suggestion that Funakoshi felt the Kata made a person look like they were a Swallow or small bird, darting about.
Wanshu/ Empi is often associated with the other Tomari te Kata. Wankan/ Matsukaze and Wandoh/ Wanduan are the other two kata that often are associated with Wanshu in other styles, and in most styles practicing Wanshu normally leads to training in these other two Kata. The original versions of each of these Kata look very much the same in principles and fundamentals. But over the years, with many changes, the Katas no longer really resemble each other. Wankan and Empi are both part of the Shotokan syllabus while Funakoshi never selected Wanduan to be part of Shotokan’s training regiment.
Notes on Empi
Shotokan’s Empi relies on fast, snapping movements, strong hips and sharp techniques. It should have a light and dynamic feel to it. One mistake to guard against is in running the Kata together to make it appear you have speed. This is not the correct way to show proper technique skills. One should make speed but focus on making appropriate timing for each move and remember pauses should be set and not rushed. A combination of slower techniques are added to provide instruction in merging the two timings.
The translation from Kenji to Roman lettering is often confusing for Katas. In the case of Empi you may also see it printed as Enpi and on one occasion I read it spelt Enpy! The accepted anglicized versions are Enpi and Empi however. Most organizations teach this Kata after Shodan, but some do teach it to 2nd and 1st Kyu level students.
One of the more common issues with Empi is the over exaggeration of parts of the Kata during competition and by good intentioned students. One of my sempai had seen a demonstration by a high level instructor were he over emphasized a hand movement and then my senior adopted this as the way of doing the Kata. The hand movement was a gross over-exaggeration for teachings sake, but it became a part of my senior’s Kata very quickly.
One of the harder techniques to master in Empi is the Jump. This in fact is a misnomer; it is in fact not a jump! I happened across an interview with Oshima Sensei were he describes the movement perfectly. "Tomikomi is sure and very effective!", "Remember that your hips do not go up, the knees go up, but the hips go down. And you hide your whole center section". The idea is to draw the knees up to the center of the body to protect yourself from a punch, at the same time you draw up your feet to avoid a stick attack, this is one bunkai.
The other piece of advice that Oshima Sensei gave for those interested in Empi was to not perform this Kata too quickly. "In the 20 last years (1970-1990), everyone almost doubled the speed of this Kata, like to see young people make fast movements in this Kata, but you must take to your calm time"!
Empi is a hard Kata to master and has many unique movements. The rushing in and out, up and down and the hectic pace in which it is done is designed to make you feel like a Swallow, jutting in and out and changing directions as if you were engaged in an aerial dog fight with another bird of pray and you are using your dynamic mobility and flexibility to out fox the attacker and counter movements as the opponent is convinced that they have the upper hand you take that away from them.
In the old days it was said that the Kata had an extraordinary amount of groin strikes and pain producing attacks, like a bird attacking vital points and over powering the attacker with many small pin point attacks. When I was learning this Kata I would watch Dingman Sensei do the Kata and I thought I would never be able to do that Kata like him. His movements were always powerful and always showed proper rhythm change and the jutting in and out like a Sparrow. The only other person I have ever seen personally, on tape mind you, that I thought was natural for this Kata was Asai Sensei.
I can remember going out to a park with the JKA of Manitoba and Dingman Sensei had us all doing Empi with the jump uphill! It was a very interesting day in the park to say the least.