Zenkutsu-dachi and its Variants in Shotokan-ryu
by Henning Wittwer
Is there something like an uniform teaching standard within the Shotokan current? Open minded spirits certainly will try to answer this question with a phrase like “There is only one karate.” While expressing a basic sense of community his response, however, does not correspondent to technical reality.
Herein I would like to show that there is nothing like a uniform style of Shotokan; yet there is a multitude of teacher personalities advocating their own conceptions. He, who can understand and accept this point, is able to approach karate in a very non-political fashion.
One of the most fundamental elements of karate happens to be the correct stance (tachi) or just that the respective teacher considers, practises, and imparts as “correct stance”. If there were uniform guidelines in the karate of the Shotokan current, accepted likewise by each of its adepts, then a stance like zenkutsu-dachi would be assumed in the same way everywhere in the world.
Some voices will not hesitate to disclose aright that this is simply not possible because of differing physical conditions. However, it would be superficial to regard them as decisive reason for the various shapes of stances, techniques, and kata. Rather the reasons for those distinctions should be searched for in the individual objects of practice. If the target of training is successful participation in a sport karate competition ideally the stance will fit into the required aesthetic picture. In case the object of practice is of martial nature our stance will be aligned in a way optimal in order to effect the opponent with our own energy. If the goal of exercise is defined by keeping the body sound and strengthening it anew different standards have to be applied. It is difficult if not impossible to realise all those objects in one single practice.
From a sheer technical point of view zenkutsu-dachi (前屈立) is a front (zen) bent (kutsu) stance (tachi). Through the use of the term “stance” the whole affair seems to be quite static. Frequently in older texts one refers only to “zenkutsu” (front bending). Again this word is, according to Funakoshi Gichin (1868-1957), an abbreviation for “zenkutsu shitsu” (前屈膝), which signifies in our case “forward bending of the knee”. Since probably all readers became acquainted with it, there is no need to explain it in detail here. In this text we want to discuss its various forms of execution.
Probably the best known and therefore the form we are best acquainted with would be the standard taught by the Japan Karate Association. Naturally from teacher to teacher there are nuances here, too. Most significant feature is that the leg extended to the rear has to be completely stretched. Nakayama Masatoshi (1913–1987) also points out that six tenths of concentration shall be put into the front leg and four tenths into the leg extended to the rear.
Within one group of the Shotokai we meet a variant which seems entirely different. Especially some teachers originating from the karate club of the Chuo University use a zenkutsu with an extremely far bent front leg. Yet, here the leg extended to the rear is also bent.
In recent years Nishiyama Hidetaka (1928–2008) began to introduce a version of zenkutsu revised by him. There he set great store by keeping the leg extended to the rear bent and adjusting the coccyx frontward as well as upward. Through a circa fifty-fifty distribution of ones bodyweight onto both legs he seeks for a bettered technical efficiency.
Let’s go a little back in time and observe the zenkutsu as performed by Funakoshi Gichin. Conspicuous in this case is that his stance is quite narrow if watched from the front. Frequently he stands on one line. In 1935 he wrote that one stands a little so that both feet are drawn together, the front foot to the rear and the back foot to the front. This idea steams, according to my research, from his teacher, Itosu Anko (1831–1915). For Funakoshi zenkutsu is just the counterpart to the kokutsu-dachi, or the back bent stance.
However, Funakoshi followed a motto, which reads (2): “Reject the deficient, seize the outstanding.” In this way together with his son, Funakoshi Yoshitaka (1906–1945), he improved his view concerning the zenkutsu-dachi in certain points. His students at the historic Shotokan (1938–1945) learnt a form where the leg extended to the rear is slightly bent. Furthermore one paid attention to bring six tenth of power into the back leg and four tenth into the front leg. The line from the front knee down to the ankle had to be vertical.
All five examples above are sharing at least two similarities. Always the front leg is bent (which, of course, is given by the denotation of the stance itself) and the foot of the leg extended to the rear is placed completely on the ground. Particularly the heel of that foot shall not be suspended in the air.
On the contrary the alignment of the tips of the toes, the relative distance between the feet in length as well as breadth, the angle of bending of the legs, the positioning of the knees etc. differ.
All these points depend on the goals of practice, as indicated above, and the individual experiences of each master teacher. From my personal point of view zenkutsu has to embrace two criteria:
1.) It has to enable one to transmit an energy directed frontward in the most effective way.
2.) Simultaneously it has to guarantee a high degree of mobility.
Finally I present a formula to calculate the individual distance between the feet (which should not be taken too seriously). In 1935 Funakoshi Gichin wrote that it has to be around 2 shaku 5 sun (75,75 cm), with some regard to ones height. If we take into consideration that he himself was the measure of that number and that he was around 1,55 meters tall, we can use this in order to create the following formula:
0,4887 [times] individual height = individual feet distance in cm
So a 1,85 m tall person’s feet distance would be 90,41 cm and the one of a 1,65 cm tall person would be 80,63 cm.
I have to heartily thank Ian Ferguson for his help with Funakoshi Gichin’s 1943 Karate Nyumon, and Rico Fuchs for his photographing.
1 - G. Funakoshi: Karate-do Kyohan (The Teaching Standard of Karate-do), Tokyo 1935
2 - G. Funakoshi: Karate Nyumon (Introduction to Karate), Tokyo 1943
About the Author
Henning Wittwer took up his karate practise in 1992. From the beginning he followed the Shotokan current, initially in the more sport and tournament orientated organisations. Since 2005 he published his translations of old Japanese sources and his research regarding karate in German as well as in English journals and magazines. Wittwer is the author of three German books on the history and doctrine of karate. In 2014 he published the English work Scouting Out The Historical Course Of Karate: Collected Essays (http://gibukai.tumblr.com/).