Sanchin – An Interview with Higaonna Sensei

Translated by: Maurizio Di Stefano and Enda Flannelly

The below interview is from a Japanese text called ‘The truth about Okinawan Karate’. We will be releasing pieces of this interview with Higaonna Sensei over the next few editions

With regard to “Sanchin”, there are two of them, the original one by Master Kanryo Higaonna and that of Master Chojun Miyagi, correct?

Higaonna: The “Sanchin” brought by Master Kanryo from China calls for three steps forward, one rotation and another three steps going forward. Master Chojun, on the other hand, maintained that it was natural for people to move forward, but not that they go backward. And he said it is by acting in accordance with this that wrong ideas are eliminated. Whether we are going forward or backward, we must apply the same energy. When we go backward we must put our weight on our heels.

Are we allowed to lift our heels?

Higaonna: No. We must go backward by sliding in suri ashi. And neither must we lift our feet when we’re going forward. Everything is based on suri ashi. Nevertheless, Master Chojun taught the “Sanchin” during which one went backward after the war. From 1945 onwards. Actually, from 1947, if I’m not mistaken.

In Japan the “Sanchin” is carried out by going backward after having turned.

Higaonna: The original “Sanchin” is the one passed on by Master Kanryo. In those days it was carried out with open hands. In 1905, having been hired as officials at the Secondary School of Commerce, Anko Itosu and Master Kanryo were called upon to teach Karate to the students: it was then that Itosu, as a promoter of Karate schooling, used closed fists. Master Kanryo used nukite, given that it is faster and more realistic from a combat point of view. But given that it was dangerous, Master Itosu applied the closed fist. Master Kanryo was upset by this and got drunk! [laughs]

There was talk at the previous meeting of the intention to “hide” [eg: hide true techniques]...

Higaonna: Master Kanryo suggested hiding them, not showing them.

Perhaps he meant to keep them hidden as a last resource?

Higaonna: That’s it exactly. In the old days one trained by reinforcing the nukite. It’s faster and allows you reach your adversary sooner, given that it’s also longer.

Or rather, that the reach of one’s fingers is longer?

Higaonna: Yes. Also in China they practice the nukite in training to strengthen it.

Ah yes... Just like with the “Iron Hand” where we strike the sand with the tips of our fingers and other such conditioning techniques! From a beginner’s point of view, the nukite could be considered more dangerous, given that we try to strike by piercing or cutting with our fingers, but it should be practiced until there’s no longer any risk, correct?

Higaonna: That’s right. This is why we strengthen our fingers by doing push-ups on them and similar exercises.

Are we talking about conditioning?

Higaonna: Yes. A complete and thorough conditioning drill. One by one. And given that Master Chojun was well-off, he would also practice at home.

What has the fact that he was well-off got to do with anything? [laughs]

Higaonna: Well, it meant that he has the opportunity to do it. He could dedicate a lot of time to strengthening himself each day. Master Chojun worked in a bank for a year at the age of 19, but otherwise he would train from morning to night. He liked to practice. He spent his youth fighting and got a bad reputation, but when he discovered practice he calmed down quite a bit, and gave himself totally to it.

Master Kanryo Higaonna, on the other hand, was poor, and so he would invite him to his house where they would practice in the tatami room [In Japanese houses there are always at least one or two rooms that have bamboo tatami on the floor. These rooms are normally kept for ceremonial purposes, or for sleeping in]. And so the tatami would get ripped up every time! [laughs]

That was because they would do suri ashi on the tatami while training! [laughs]

Higaonna: That’s right. You move with the soles of your feet held firmly to the ground, as if they were magnetically pulled towards it. When we work on body conditioning, we check our posture by holding our heels. This is how we make sure that our concentration is fully active right down to our heels. Master Kanryo was able to measure a person’s health by simply touching his heels and then measuring his pulse. He would say “Your feet are tired. You were up late last night!”, and then “Today we’ll go easy”!” (laughs) Even so, people still often ended up fainting from practicing Sanchin over and over again without a rest in a closed room.

Is it really necessary to go to such lengths to learn what is required?

Higaonna: He used to say “Strike again!” and he would throw a punch; and then he’d repeat “Strike again!”, “Another time!” And they would go on and on repeating like this.

So basically all they did was repeat Sanchin over and over again!

Higaonna: Exactly. They didn’t train like we do now, instead they would constantly repeat the same thing. Apparently, [Miyagi] would get to the stage where he’d pass out from tiredness! And Master Kanryo would get him up again, by throwing water on him.

I can well believe that! The exertion of contracting his body while concentrating on his breathing...

Higaonna: Yes indeed. He was totally concentrated. The mental tiredness was even greater than the physical one. Brain and concentration. He was using his mental and physical energies at the same time. He didn’t feel physical tiredness (Miyagi in those days) as he was still young. Despite this, it was said that he passed out many times. One time there was even a man who died from overtiredness. He was a poor man, and couldn’t feed himself properly. In such a state he practiced Sanchin all day long in that little enclosed room. This was never made public, but deaths have happened.