Shihohai: The Ceremonial Kata

In Japan, Shihohai (worship in four directions) is the first ceremony conducted in the Imperial Court at the beginning of each New Year. It is said to have its origins in yin and yang (two primal opposing but complementary principles) but there is no documentation available that clearly indicates this path. However as yin and yang itself has been systematically included in Chinese learning, ideology, sorcery, rituals and other areas, and based on the fact that various Chinese cultural practices were adopted by Japan, it is considered accurate to say that it has influenced some Japanese cultural events.

Shihohai opens with punches in four different directions. This evokes a New Year’s day ceremony in which the Emperor of Japan performs the rite of Shihohai, paying reverence in four quarters to various shrines and Imperial tombs. As a result, in Ryusei Karate, Shihohai is also performed on ceremonial occasions – to open, for example, the first workout of the year or a special demonstration of technique, such as an embukai.

The origin of Shihohai in Japanese Imperial Court functions can be traced back to the early stage of the Heian period (794-1185). However it is not known when this ritual started to be performed in Okinawa’s Ryukyu Dynasty (1429-1879). Since belief in god was strong in the Ryukyu Kingdom, and it was surrounded by the sea on four sides, it is surmised that the Shihohai ceremony was probably carried out there well before it was first performed in Japan.

O-Sensei learnt Shihohai from Aragaki-Sensei. However in the many different styles of karate, I have heard of another one that has a Shihohai kata. This is truly a mysterious matter.

Why did O-Sensei go out of his way to explain only to me that “this is the real Shihohai”, and then instruct me in the final five movements? This is also a mystery.

The Ryusei version of Shihohai departs significantly from Chito-Ryu in how it ends. Sakamoto-Sensei learned the alternative moves from O-Sensei and adopted them because they strengthen the ceremonial nature of the kata.

On the surface it can be said that the kata Shihohai, when compared with other kata, is rather simple. However, for me it is very special. Shihohai is neither a Shinto (the native religion of Japan) kata nor a kata belonging to any other religion. It is a kata that gives thanks to life-sustaining Mother Nature and the abundant crops with which we are blessed. The kata also pays respect to the karate pioneers who forged a path before us. Even if O-Sensei’s successor or others are against it, Shihohai is a ceremonial kata of Ryusei karate.

I understand that you may view Shihohai as a beginner’s kata. However, please be aware that that view is based on the current Chito-Kai version of the kata.

Sakamoto Ken
Technical Head
Ryusei Karate-Do International

Many thanks to John Stuart, a Canadian who works as a professional translator in Japan, for helping to produce the English version of this article.