Pinan Sandan – In The Beginning

Bunkai for the first direction of Pinan Sandan, Yamabashi Ryu

The first move of Pinan Sandan looks the same as the first move of Pinan Godan. 

The follow-up move is different, so we interpret the attack and our response to it differently.  

People grab. 

They grab because: Many of the people we interact with have trained or seen BJJ and MMA. 

They grab because: In Okinawa a century ago the people who formulated our kata were interacting with people who knew Okinawan sumo, judo and jujitsu. 

They grab because: After the initial burst of ATP cellular energy – maybe 15 or 20 seconds for a fit person – people close and clinch.

The US Army empty hand 

combative doctrine tells soldiers to immediately close inside of punching range. The Marines also train a lot of grappling and throwing. 

In Shorin Ryu we stop them using the techniques in the kata. 

Sometimes we strike. Sometimes we counter in other ways. No matter what interpretations were current years ago, many techniques in our kata defeat grapples.  People have said you have to keep your distance. That is one tactic, which has its uses. 

If you are doing Shotokan/JKA style kumite, 

which relies on kicking and punching from a distance, in a ring, with a referee and a hajime, you can make that work. In close quarters, in a cell extraction, a domestic dispute in a single-wide, against a stranger in a train, or in a million other cases, we cannot always choose the tactical distance in which we operate. 

That said: 

The opponent in Pinan Sandan reaches in to grab for a throw.

This interpretation is also effective against a push or against a pull into a punch. Do this defense at speed with good hip rotation, and it breaks the opponent’s balance immediately on contact. The backfist to the brachial plexus at the neck has a stunning and destabilizing effect on the attacker.

His likely next move – the weapon the attacker has free – is his right mawashi geri

to your left ribs. That is the second count in this bunkai.  

It is possible that he might spring onto the right foot 

but his weight is usually on it when you do this move. Either way, he can kick to your groin so you snap your feet together, as shown in the kata. This closes the groin target. He can still use his knee to your peroneal channel on your right leg possibly, but it won’t work well if you turn him fast, destabilize and flank him, as shown in the kata.  

The heels-together stance

also provides a stable foundation for the kick deflection with your right forearm in the gedan position, as you rotate into the deflection, with your whole body. Your rising motion as you stand helps to power the first block to his leg. If you can catch his leg as you stand up you can throw him. If he slips it away from you, your left hand happens to be in place to prevent it from coming back. 

As he loses balance, he might try to stabilize himself by reaching in

and grabbing your left shoulder or lapel with his right, and holding on with his other arm, in an attempt to recover his balance and throw you or pull you down. That effort is blocked by your rising arm in the “splitting” technique at the start of the second count. He might not do that but it is there if you need it. If you practice it this way, you will not have to think about what to do.  

There are a number of unused parts of this move

In this video demo for two reasons: to make it simple to grasp the main approach we are taking, and also to be clear that the opponent does not have to do every grab or turn that this sequence can defend against in order to make sense of the meaning of this move and to use it for good defensive skill training. Also the training partners are not smashing and destabilizing in this demo. 

The splitting move we see here is used in other kata like Rohai, to defend a two-handed grab-to-throw

or push, against an opponent coming from the front. 

Here the “splitting” move is used to

1. deflect the kick with the rising right forearm, 2. break a grab to your shoulder and bicep or forearm (if he tries that), 3. back fist to the face targets and 4. hammer fist to the groin or lower rib targets, 5. twice.  

Another reason to keep the opposing hand in motion throughout 

this splitting technique is for the same reason that we always use the opposing arm and hand for a punch or uke – to maximize speed, power and optimize the natural mechanical advantage of bilateral symmetry. It is an advantageous habit that we always train. 

The second direction, count three and four in this kata,

is the mirror image of this first direction, giving us a chance to practice doing this technique on both sides. Most of our kata are designed this way. 

As you can see, you can catch the opponent’s incoming kick and throw the opponent back, 

as you rise under it from cat stance, with your rising arm.  

If that leg slips your grasp as you deflect,

or if he is flexible enough to yield to the vertical motion, or if you just quickly reverse the direction of the two-arm splitting technique with his leg up, as the kata shows,  

your lower hand attacks his open groin or femoral channel 

targets, as your opposite arm checks his leg as it comes back down, so he cannot come back and kick you with it.  

The split can also function as a second backfist 

to the jaw, brachial plexus at the neck, temple, or other open high target. 

Bear in mind that in this kata as in many others the first move is not necessarily the beginning of the encounter. 

No one stands in a yoi position face to face with someone inside their defensive zone. Yoi is useful for training purposes. For tactics and interpretation, we should understand that it is most likely that something is already underway. 

This opponent is inside your defensive zone and has a hand on you. This happens after the initial burst of energy if the interaction continues, as the fighters close and clinch, or if they are trained primarily in grappling, including the in current US Army empty hand doctrine, in any CQC. 

That is one of the interpretations we use of the first direction of Pinan Sandan.


Video and Post Copyright © 2023 by Jeffrey Brooks, Yamabayashi Ryu, Hendersonville-Columbus area, Saluda, NC 

For more on the essential skill of the kind of quick reversals used in this interpretation read the article Too Fast To See. 


For more on bunkai, and the most lucid, inspiring presentation of the role of Buddhism in martial arts read True Karate Dō.

“One of the best books I’ve read in years, inviting and compelling. Jeff Brooks moves effortlessly from martial arts to Buddhism to consciousness studies, self-transformation, and related fields in this wide-ranging and Illuminating study that has much to offer both novice explorers and veteran practitioners. A splendid achievement.” 
— Philip Zaleski, Editor, The Best Spiritual Writing series

— Co-author, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams. 

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