Book Review: Shotokan’s Secret: The Hidden Truth Behind Karate’s Fighting Origins

My apologies for the lengthy delay between posts. I’ve had a few articles in the works, but they are not really turning out the way that I would like. While I was trying to sort out the next article, I dusted off a book that I bought nearly 10 years ago, “Shotokan’s Secret: The Hidden Truth Behind Karate’s Fighting Origins,” by Dr. Bruce Clayton.

Before launching into the review of the book, I think it bears mentioning that I’ve studied Shotokan for a total of nearly ten years and with several different organizations. The origins of Shotokan are essentially identical to Shito-ryu and Motobu-ryu in that Mabuni Kenwa and Motobu Choki had the same teachers as Funakoshi Gichin. This importance of this statement will be evident later in this article.

About the book

Shotokan’s Secret: The Hidden Truth Behind Karate’s Fighting Origins” attempts to uncover the historical applications of the Pinan (“Heian” in Shotokan) katas developed by Anko Itosu. There are three parts to Dr. Clayton’s approach. First, he sets the historical scene in painstaking detail. Second, he suggests some principles and heuristics for analyzing kata. Finally, he lays out his “discoveries” of the historical applications of each Heian kata put in the historical context he outlined in the first section.

Early Figures of Karate

Dr. Clayton attempts to walk down a path that many a karate historian has tried to take before. He gives us a picture of some incredibly tense times in 19th Century Okinawa as the local nobility attempted to serve two masters, the Satsuma samurai and the Ming Dynasty. This split fealty was made even more precarious by the increasing frequency of visits from Western traders and whalers, and then finally, by Commodore Perry’s fleet.

Anko Itosu

The nobility of Okinawa had to protect their king and maintain order against several hostile actors and do it all while unarmed. Dr. Clayton lays out what is known about the men of this age, their concerns, their training and their methods. The central character in this story is Itosu Yasutsune, also known as “Anko”. Anko Itosu is widely revered in the karate world as being the grandfather of karate. Many of his students would go on to create and spread modernized styles of the teachings they learned from him and his contemporaries. Dr. Clayton discusses other figures, as well, but the main focus of the narrative tends to revolve around Anko Itosu.

Three key facts are known about Anko, his career and his teachings. First, he served as the head bodyguard to the Okinawan kings from the mid-1800s until the disbanding of the nobility after the Meiji Restoration in Japan. Second, he created the Pinan (later called “Heian” in Shotokan) katas. Third, in the late 1800s, Anko Itosu lead the effort to teach karate in Okinawan public schools as a physical education program for Okinawan youth.

One of Dr. Clayton’s conclusions about Anko and his fighting methods is probably something with which most people can agree: Anko had to be brutal and efficient. He could not waste time with flowery movements and symbolism when teaching his small cadre of bodyguards and police how to fight. This tendency towards ruthlessness naturally would carry over to all of his teachings in both his early and late career.

However, Dr. Clayton challenges a popular, but historically unverifiable, belief about the Pinan/Heian kata. Most styles hold it as history/lore that the Pinan/Heian katas were created by Anko late in his career as he began to develop lessons for the public schools. Dr. Clayton however, claims that the Pinan/Heian kata were much older, and created by Anko while he was still the chief of security in Shuri Castle.

Neither of these claims can be verified since many written records and people with first-hand knowledge of the origins of these kata were killed in World War II.

Suggested methods for studying kata

After discussing Anko Itosu’s career and the fact that he had no time to waste on extraneous movements, Dr. Clayton lays out some guidelines for unpacking the applications buried in the kata created by Itosu. Here are some of the main rules that he outlines:

  • Keeping it Real – The historical applications were actual techniques taught at the time of the kata’s creation.
  • Other Mountains – The applications of kata may be resident in other arts that have been separated from modern karate.
  • Lesson Plan – Kata are a lesson plan with a specific goal in mind.
  • Occam’s Razor – The simplest explanation is usually the best.
  • Crabtree’s Bludgeon – One can make up explanations for anything.
  • Dinglehoppers – A term borrowed from “Little Mermaid” to explain embarrassing applications created through Crabtree’s Bludgeon
  • Shadow Principle – If the application and the kata share the same form, it may be a good fit.
  • Symbolism Rule – Just because we cannot explain a move, doesn’t mean that it is somehow symbolic (think of the opening of Kusanku/Kanku Dai).
  • Last Move Rule – If we can’t make sense of the last moves seen in the kata, they are probably added in for symmetry. He cites the “bunny hops” in Chinte kata as a prime example.

Dr. Clayton’s Interpretations of the Pinan/Heian kata

I should state that, up until this point in the book, I was largely along for the ride. Dr. Clayton’s history, while a bit biased, seems plausible enough, and the rules he creates for analyzing kata are pretty good ones. In fact, Bill Burgar, has a similar rule set for analyzing kata applications.

Based on the rules above, here are the general themes that Dr. Clayton lays out for each of the Pinan/Heian kata:

  • Pinan Nidan/Heian Shodan – How to disarm an unarmored Samurai (or two) and use their swords.
  • Pinan Shodan/Heian Nidan – Wandering around throwing linear, bodyweight punches against other unarmed combatants (I’m not making this up).
  • Pinan/Heian Sandan – Fighting drunken sailors in Naha.
  • Pinan/Heian Yondan – Fighting an armored Samurai.
  • Pinan/Heian Godan – Fighting against a bayonet-wielding U.S. Marine.


Frankly, I have mixed feelings about this book. Dr. Clayton clearly put a great deal of research and thought into this work. That said, aside from being riddled with biases against other styles of modern karate and their teachers (he holds particular disdain for Motobu Choki and Kyan Chofu), he takes the excellent list of principles for analyzing kata and violates almost every one of them.

Dr. Clayton’s historical analysis and setup ignores the fact, documented by Mabuni Kenwa, Motobu Choku and Funakoshi Gichin themselves, that kata were treated as complete fighting systems. Many of the old masters only knew between 3 and 5 of them because they held a wide variety of self-defense applications. They were not, in fact, “themed” in the manner that Dr. Clayton suggests.

In addition to taking aim at some of the masters of old, Dr. Clayton also calls out a particularly prominent kata researcher, Iain Abernathy… twice. He says that while Abernathy’s application of kata are “viciously practical”, they are not historically accurate.

Interestingly, if one were to compare the analysis of kata done by Iaian Abernathy and Dr. Clayton against Dr. Clayton’s principles for understanding kata, Iaian’s explanations would tick every one of Clayton’s boxes.

Clayton violates his own rules by creating incredibly complicated explanations for kata that were, in all likelihood, created after Itosu served as Shuri Castle’s head of security. He bludgeons his “dinglehopper” explanations into the kata and ignores the fact that other kata that existed at this time are compilations of grappling techniques, throws and locks.  

Oh… and the “bunny hops” from Chinte? Iain Abernathy shows an incredibly practical explanation for those in a way that uses every move of Chinte kata instead of being discarded.

Chinte “bunny hops”

While there is a great deal that I disagree with in this book, there is one thing with which Dr. Clayton and I could agree. One should not be limited to one style or school of thought within the martial arts – although, given the overt bias towards Shotokan in this book, this is a bit of an ironic conclusion. Perhaps this conclusion is, in part, meant to deflect from the vast amount of criticism that Dr. Clayton received from his first release of the book. After all, if someone disagrees, they must be stuck in their ways.

Still, the point stands. Martial artists should do what the old masters did: learn from anyone and everyone with something of value to teach.

Overall, I’d recommend that folks pass on this book. The history presented in it is riddled with bias and the kata applications shown in it are far-fetched. Other books have more to offer in terms of historical value and understanding of martial arts than this one.

The goal of the Shindokai Kobujutsu Research Society is to join the efforts to restore information that was lost about the traditional Okinawan martial arts and elevate their status legitimate self defense systems that are applicable to our times. In some cases, we can piece together bits of information that is scattered around the world like a bunch of forensic historians. In other cases, we just have to experiment with concepts, just like the forbearers of karate did, and figure out what works (and then ditch the rest).

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