Jion, an introduction
Jion is the first Kata a student normally encounters from the "temple Katas". It is normally at this point that they are told about the "temple" Katas and how they are related. In my research, this seems to be one of those false stories that is passed on from instructor/Senior to junior and then becomes Dogma. The truth is that all three Kata (Jion, Jutte and Jiin) may all be related and or from the same area of Okinawa, being the Tomori area, but they were not in fact created at some Temple. First off Jionji or Jion-Ji is a temple in Japan's Gujo Hachimon town in Yamagata prefecture....a fair way away from Okinawa! So, it is not likely that the Kata took its name from a Japanese temple when it was created in Okinawa years before Karate came to Japan!
Having said that, all three Kata are linked and have similar movements. Jion and Jiin are virtual twins with only some variations of the movements. And Jutte has a similar feel and opening preparation stance. They surely could have been created by the same person or around the same persons teachings.
The first of the three Katas (meaning Jion in this case) teaches a student how to deal with rotational movements, and directional shifts. It is also a great Kata for more powerful students. The basic feel of the Kata is only overshadowed by the powerful movements and destructive nature of the Kata. The essence of the Kata is to meet the opposition straight on and honestly, with no hidden or secret movements. All three of the "temple" Kata have valuable lessons interwoven into the practice of them. But as I stated, there is a lot of suspicion as to the dubious history attached to the Katas’ past.
History of Jion
Jion is a very common Tomari Kata whose history is a bit fuzzy. It is accepted that it has roots in the Tomari style of Karate and has "family" roots with both Jiin and Jutte! Jion, or Gion as it is sometimes written, also has strong Buddhist flavours in it and as such also has links to the Shaolin Tradition and some connections to the Kata Passai / Bassai and Wanshu / Empi.
The name for this Kata is thought to describe its roots and creation at the Buddhist temple Jion-Ji, but this is doubtful. The name may be translated as a direct reference to the Jion-ji temple or less commonly as "temple bells". At some point in the transportation of the Kata from Okinawa to Japan, Gichin Funakoshi felt that he should change the name of Jion and replace it with a more "suitable" name that described the feelings that he thought would bring meaning to the Kata for the students learning this Kata. He attempted to change the name to Shokyu or 'Elimination', a name meant to describe the feeling of total dominance and destruction of the opponent. The name did not stick and the old name came to be used again for this Kata. Funakoshi had tried to change many names to "Japan-ize" them and make them more acceptable to the Japanese, few stuck.
Funakoshi learned Jion from his primary instructor Itosu sensei and Itosu learned this Kata from his instructor Matsumura. The Kata is a common Kata to the Tomari Region and the Shuri Region. Some literature I have found suggests the original name was more properly pronounced Jihon. The Chinese Ideogram from Jihon does appear more frequently in Chinese writing in reference to this Kata.
Some Interpretations of the Kenji used for the Kata suggest a different meaning for the Kata name. One Kenji used for 'Ji' is to develop techniques and ability, and 'on' is to condition or forge the body. Granted this is not mainstream and is more than likely a descriptive from a old instructor to illustrate a feeling for the Kata. But, it does play into the feel of the kata when performed properly. The name could mean to "develop techniques to condition the body" and not "temple bells" and would fit the Kata almost better than the accepted name.
Itosu was taught the Kata by his instructor Matsumra when he returned from China and this was likely its introduction to Okinawa. Itosu was also said to have gone to Hanashiro chomo, a Fellow teacher and a schoolteacher and friend of Itosu’s to help further develop or ' Okinawan-ize' the Kata. Together they made this Kata more linear and used more traditional Okinawan characteristics in the newly re-formatted Jion.
Despite all of the mystery and issues with lack of information, what is known about Jion is it has roots in Chinese Gung fu, was taught by Sokon Matsumura to Itosu Sensei, modified by Chomo and Itosu to be more like his Shuri style and it is practised by styles with roots in both shuri and Tomari te. The date that the Kata was formalized in Okinawan Karate would be between 1663 and 1680, which is around the same time as Kusanku/Kwanku/ Kanku dai came to be practised on the island nation.
One more story of the Jion name has to do with a bridge named Jion and the inventor of the Kata working or practising on the bridge. The inventor then named the Kata after the bridge. Again, some of the stories of how Kata are named are just that, stories. Many a "story" has been made to be "history" by good intentioned instructors that know Karate but do not research its history.
Notes on Jion
Jion has a grandeur to it that should show through with all the movements. This may be attributed to its strong Buddhist links or it may be because Jion is a powerful but very basic and honest Kata. Mistakes are very hard to hide in Jion due to its calm power and smooth transitions in the movements. Jion is often used for black belt testing because of its nature and the fact that a student must have good Kihon Waza to make the Kata run smoothly and with power.
Jion is also one of the favourite forms of many Kumite champions simply because it is direct and works on basic ideas and techniques. This Kata should be done with the proper attitude and outlook or it will not produce an aesthetically correct form.
Over the years many of the smaller details of the Kata have changed and it is important to note that some of the changes were seen as going back to the root of the Kata to bring backs its original JKA flavour. But the Kata has always been a stand out in the Shotokan Syllabus.
The breathing of the Kata is Nogare or natural to movements and not forced or over controlled during practice. The movements should be crisp and direct with linear power being used. The techniques should be rooted and students should be well versed in stance and movements to be able to shift when required and not shift when the Kata is not calling for this.
When practising Jion, a student should have the proper spirit. It is a Kata that brings out a powerful spirit and has a noble feel to it. Nothing is hidden and all the movements should be performed with power and overpowering spirit. Jion is often forgotten when a student is being taught the junior Kata. Much is said about Kanku Dai and often when a student is looking at learning Jion the fact that it may have been used to create the Heian Kata is omitted.
Jion is a very important Kata to practice to ground yourself in basic movement and principles when most students are looking to advanced Kata and more fancy movements. Jion is more than the myth that has sprouted up about it being a Buddhist Kata or a Kata created at a Temple. It is a Kata that works on improving a students power and dynamic use of the body in a very fundamental and basic way.
One of my most memorable moments with the Kata Jion was being taught this Kata by Master Tanaka at a summer camp. Not only did he demonstrate a lot of the techniques that left us all knowing the potential of the Kata but he showed a great passion for the Kata and brought up many common sense ideas that most of us had over looked. I came away with a renewed appreciation for a Kata that I had been losing interest in. I can again see the beauty in the basic and powerful movements of this Kata.