Members of the Arizona Hombu dojo in Mesa, Arizona, learn Itosu's Passai kata. In this system of Shorin-Ryu Karate known as Seiyo-Kai, members actually learn two different Passai kata: Passai Dai (大 dai meaning major) and Passai Sho (小 sho meaning minor). Passai is nearly universal in traditional karatedo schools, but the kata have many differences depending on the style of karate. Soke Hausel kept these kata relatively intact based on the forms taught to him nearly 50 years ago.
The kata includes a variety of bunkai depending on the ryu. Some historians suggest the kata was created by a left-hand martial artist; while others suggest it was designed to defend against an antagonist armed with bo. Soke Hausel noted that he sees no evidence the kata was created by a left-handed martial artist particularly when there are at least a half-dozen movements that favor right-handed martial artists.
As far as defending against bo? Soke Hausel claims there is no evidence for this. Anyone attempting to block a full-force strike of a bo with closed fist blocks like those in Passai dai would spend a lot of time in the ER. Bunkai demos of Japanese Shotokan practitioners emphasize blocking bo, but Soke doesn't believe anyone in their right mind would try this with a closed fist block against a bo swung with power. This is because the force of the strike of a bo in flight, would be greatly increased by blocking with an arm producing an additive force of a head-on-collision between the bo and the arm. Visualize blocking a baseball bat swung at full force with your arm - your baseball career would be over. For those unfamiliar with Shotokan - Shotokan is variety of Shorin-Ryu karate introduced to mainland Japan by Funakoshi in 1922.
But others turn to the translation of Passai to help find the origin for the kata. The kata is called Passai on Okinawa. On mainland Japan, it is called Bassai. The kata is also found in Korean martial arts such as Taekwondo and Tang Soo Do. In Korea, the kata is known as Bassahee, Bal Se, Pal Che, Palsek, Bal Sae, Ba Sa Hee, and Bal Sak.
In Gichin Funakoshi’s 1922 book, the kata is referred to as Passai which was also the name used by Motobu Chōki of Okinawa in 1926. But for some reason, Funakoshi decided to rename the kata as Bassai in 1936. It is suggested “Bassai” was the Chinese pronunciation.
The meaning of Passai can be “to penetrate a fortress” or to “extract from a fortress”. The Japanese meaning of batsu is "to pull out or extract” while the Chinese meaning is "to seize or capture”. Additional insight comes from an interpretation of kanji for sai/soku which can mean “fort”. In the 1973 translation of Funakoshi’s book Karate-do Kyohan, the author refers to the kata as “Breaking through an enemy's fortress.”
This may be in reference to the power in which the kata (especially closed-fist blocks) is executed, as well as emphasizing power from hip rotation. The kata focuses on destroying an attacker’s defense with very strong and powerful blocks. When we practice this kata, we have a feeling of precise movements with fast execution of each individual technique, with attention to balance, speed and power. Remember the TV series ‘Tool Time’ - this is a kata that needs MORE POWER to be done properly! Each closed-fist block in the first half of the Passai dai kata needs every ounce of power, strength and speed you can muster. Your blocks should shake the walls of the dojo! If you practice this kata like tai chi (slow and with no power) you are doing yourself a great disservice and butchering the art. You need to feel the power and snap in every closed fist block!
So, it may be that the kata was an Okinawan family kata or had some other lineage. Even so, karate has its origins in Chinese gung-fu. After Okinawan martial artists learned gung-fu in China, they stream-lined or remove many of the aesthetic movements and deep stances, and developed a more pragmatic self-defense system. It is thought this kata also originated from Chinese boxing before it fell into the hands of Okinawan martial artists. This is supported by Gichin Funakoshi who stated that the form is “a Shōrin-ryū form derived from Chinese Shaolin styles”.
Some historians point to similarities of Leopard and Lion gung-fu to movements in the kata. Okinawan karate historian Akio Kinjo believes the name of this kata originated from the Chinese term “bàoshī” meaning “leopard-lion” which is pronounced “bá-săi” or “pà-sai” in some Chinese dialects. Other historians see a resemblance to Wuxing Quan (Five Element Fist) gung fu.
There are several Okinawan versions of Passai. The version practiced by members of Seiyo no Shorin-Ryu Karate Kobudo Kai could be termed Itosu no Passai Dai or Funakoshi no Passai Dai to imply the version of our kata was authored by these two great Okinawan karate men. Anko Itosu popularized karate by introducing it into the Okinawan school curriculum. Itosu was also known for modifying kata to fit his karate personality. He modified Passai Dai from the Matsumura version. The Passai who kata is thought to have been created by Itosu. Funakoshi, a student of Itosu, also modified the kata when introduced to Japan.
It is also interesting to note that Passai may have roots in Tomari village on Okinawa, simply because Passai dai begins with the right fist covered by the left hand, like other kata thought to have originated from Tamari, such as Jutte, Jion, Giin and Empi. This hand gesture is a common salutation in China.
Watching some variations of this kata on videos just to see the differences employed by different karate schools. It is important to look at every variation because we can sometimes gain important insight into the bunkai.
For the various kata bunkai, the initial stance in the kata can relate to a simple self-defense technique against a wrist grab. Other wrist grab self-defense applications are found throughout the kata and include single wrist grabs, cross-wrist grabs, double wrist grabs, as are defenses against kicks, punches, arm bar defenses, sucker punches, chokes, etc.