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What does Kata mean to you?

The picture shows Miki Nakamachi performing kata during a tournament.

What does Kata mean to you? Many karate practitioners interpret it in different ways. This article will attempt to bring some clarity and explain how a Karate-ka can benefit from performing kata. By Derick Kirkham

The Meaning of Kata?

What is the meaning of Kata? What’s it all about? What’s the point of it? Many people have asked me these questions over the years. Among them were

  • members of the general public,
  • novice students,
  • advanced students,
  • teachers of the subject,
  • kumite specialists,
  • kata specialists,
  • sport-only karateka,
  • self-defense enthusiasts,
  • petty politicians in karate,
  • pundits, who are deliberately trying to be controversial,
  • heads of other associations,
  • practitioners of other style of martial arts,
  • mean spirited individuals, who are just looking for loop holes, who have an axe to grind,
  • candidates for a promotional exam,
  • Japanese cultural enthusiasts,
  • karate historians,
  • traditionalists and
  • modernizers.

I have gone into print and given a wide range of answers to the same question. Not because I constantly change my opinion. But my answer was dependent upon the recipient of the message, their motivation for asking, their area of interest and what is their level of experience.

What Does Kata Mean to You?

However, I believe, that many of them meant to ask: “What does Kata mean to you?” If they had asked that question then they would have got a completely different answer.

I feel whatever the person believes to be true about Kata, is as valid of an explanation as every other persons interpretation. As long as a practitioner gets something in exchange for them holding their particular belief of what it is, then I think that this is a good thing. However, the return on investment must enhance their experience of, their practice of, and their performance of the kata.

But What Does Kata Mean in General?

It is part of the physical culture of Karate. The Japanese term means shape or form. All Kata have individual names. They comprise of a set number of prescribed basic techniques and performed following a specific route Embusen. Although different styles of Karate use different names to describe the same Kata, one can recognize them as being from the same root.

The picture shows the Embusen of Kanku Dai. The Embusen is one way to answer the question: What does kata mean?
The Embusen of Kanku Dai.

Kata can be seen as a martial war dance, similar in nature to the New Zealand “HAKA”. They hold similarities to shadow boxing or gymnastics floor routines, as the student practices them individually. Aesthetics play a major role in the appearance of it. But they are definitely Martial and warlike by nature.

Kata as Library of Basic Karate Techniques

Kata can be viewed as a library of rehearsed fighting routines. While in reality they do not portray an actual continuous fight scenario. That does not mean that individual techniques or mini sequences of techniques in it would not work in a real fight, because they do work. It holds self-defense nuggets of gold, but not necessarily in the format they are often presented when cumulatively performed in Traditional Bunkai. As a result, every kata depicts a library of basic Karate technique put together in a series of combinations. They are misleadingly represented a series of continuous techniques against four or eight imaginary opponents instead.

Despite some kata having been invented only 50 years ago, the roots of the majority date back several hundred years. Some people gain great strength and enjoyment during practice when they think about the history and tradition of the it. It creates great pleasure to reflect how they have been handed down from generation to generation.

Kata Changes – Constantly

In reality it has been changing over the generations. The kata, which Gichin Funakoshi taught, varied slightly from how he was taught and likewise Masatoshi Nakayama, taught them slightly differently to his students.  Hirokazu Kanazawa teaches them with slight nuanced differences to the way that Nakayama taught him. Nevertheless, it links us all to the past. For me personally Kata are even more enjoyable for that very reason.

Yoshitaka Funakoshi: He changed also plenty of kata. He introduced the Kokutsu-dachi to Shotokan, for instance.
Yoshitaka Funakoshi: He changed also plenty of techniques. He introduced the Kokutsu-dachi to Shotokan, for instance.

Enjoy It!

Keep in mind: Kata is not a punishment beating for the performer. So, whatever ones motivation to practice it is: Please enjoy the experience, even if you only perform it as a means of physical exercise and perform it without any traditional appreciation whatsoever. One should still enjoy the experience.

How to Study and Perform It?

When one has chosen a kata to study, the first aim must be to achieve excellence in the delivery of the techniques. Then the secondary aim is to perform it to express the elegance of the Art and to execute Kata with martial intent. Kata practice and performance should lead to the experience of personal growth. For me it is a form of moving Zen, something that allows me to gain a focused state, albeit for the duration of the performance.

Kata is the ideal vehicle to allow one to block out the everyday worries of life and channeling ones concentration elsewhere in a positive manner. If one performs it well and the viewer understands the broader message. As a result they appreciate the effort, time, and levels of hard work that has gone into delivering that performance. Then that in itself is a bonus but that should never be the aim. Perform Kata with the initial intent of you being the main beneficiary.

Good Luck and Good Practice.

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Mikio Yahara: Unsu is my Life! Interview

There have been many very dynamic Shotokan karatekas. Today, we would like to introduce you to Mikio Yahara, chief instructor of the KWF. Like most karateka he has a signature kata. For Mikio Yahara it is unsu. In the below incredible interview he reveals his passion and the challenges of the kata.

Unsu: A reflection of Life

His incredible jumping power and his flexible body movements are leopard-like. Especially in kumite, he utilized his flexibility and became a very unpredictable fighter. Even by the age of 71 he is still quick and sharp as ever.

Like no other kata unsu trains dynamic movement. The deep stances, long techniques, quick changes of direction, and the signature unsu-jump require an extraordinary physic. Speed, balance, precision, and power must come together in order to master the kata. Its constantly changing pace gives it a unique rhythm. Pure hectic accompanies silence and meditative motions.

Therefore, Mikio Yahara concludes: “In a way, the kata is a reflection of life itself.”

Mikio Yahara: Killing with One Blow

Unsu also fits to Mikio Yaharas general attitude toward Shotokan karate. In a recent interview with Oleg Larionov he said:

I know karate as a martial art, but now karate seems like dancing. I would like to return to the original karate, to its sources. Budo karate, according to my opinion, is when I may finish my opponent definitively by one killing blow.

The strong and dynamic passages in unsu, therefore, prepares the karateka for the budo karate. Because in order to kill with a single blow the fighter must put all his commitment into the action. Only fully concentrated and ready to deliver the final technique unsu can be mastered.

The kata is therefore a perfect routine for the practice of ikken hissatsu as the kill with one blow is called in Japanese. Like no other principle it defines the Shotokan spirit and mind set.

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“Learn to Move”: Kata as Movement Based Learning

Kata belongs to the three k´s of karate: Kihon, kata, kumite. But although it has an elementary function most karateka do not use it as a trainings tool. Although it teaches to move. By Florian Wiessmann

Before you do a kata, ask yourself what you can learn from the kata.

Manabu Murakami

What can we learn from kata?

This quote was published on The Shotokan Times a while ago with the friendly permission of Jeff Christian. So, let us take it seriously and ask: What can we learn from kata? Before we give an answer let us assume that most people (Karate practitioners, too) are average Joe´s rather than top-athletes. They won’t become highly trained experts in utilizing kata because they have daily jobs, families, and other duties.

However, they like to train. To be beneficial for them, one must reduce complexity, build focal points, and find a practicable approach to use kata as a learning tool. For me this works best by understanding kata as universal movement principles about how to generate power and to organize one’s body. This leads to more efficient movements and a better utilization of the body. Especially, efficiency cannot be stressed enough. Because it is the foundation for any martial application.[1]

What Kata for Movement means and what it not means

“Kata for movement” does not mean to stand in deep kiba dachi to build up leg muscles. It also does not mean doing kata with maximum kime for developing a strong punch. To become strong, it is better to punch a heavy bag or makiwara. Fighting off air will not create the same results.[2]

The movement-based approach of kata is a holistic way to train the whole-body movement and the underlying movement principles.[3]The following quote by Dr. Perry Nickelston expresses that idea very well:

“The goal is not to learn a movement; the goal is to become a mover”[4]

Dr. Perry Nickelston

Power generation, aligning and connecting your body, structure and how to manipulate it – these elements are key in martial arts training. Kata proves to be an excellent tool for experiencing and developing that in a structured way. From kata can be learnt:

  • whole body movement and re-positioning,
  • transitional movements,
  • initiating movements,
  • shifting your center of gravity,
  • adjusting your posture,
  • connecting your joints,
  • harnessing certain muscle groups,
  • experiencing different ways of generating power,
  • motion economy etc.

The Benefits of Slowing Down

To achieve this beneficial effects one should not to go full force or think about certain applications for ‘imaginary opponents’ while practicing kata. One should rather slow down, turn inwards and listen to the body. There is much truth in the following quote by Ram Dass:

“The quieter you become, the more you can hear”.

Ram Dass

By slowing down you can thoroughly dissect and observe movements and transitions, getting aware of how you initiate a movement, shift your weight and resettle in a stable structure, feel how different stances affect your alignment and what joints and muscle groups come to play in certain movements. Eventually you will get to know yourself better. Then you can start to analyze and improve this step by step.[5][6]

A brief Example: Naihanchi (Tekki) Shodan

This progress can be very subtle. For instance, the first and most important kata students learn in our school is naihanchi shodan.[7] The first sequence after “yoi” is a falling step to the right into naihanchi dachi, then haishu uke and mawashi enpi. Rather than just stepping, one could start by moving the eyeballs in the direction of the first step. That will give the head a first movement tendency and initiates actual head movement.

In turn, it will initiate further body movement and a falling tendency in the direction of the planned moving-direction. When the body begins to fall sideways, one does a step and transition/re-position into naihanchi dachi. Before one starts the next action, one should take time to feel the own stands. How are the feet planted on the ground? Are the joints aligned properly? Can the body rest and settle effortlessly into the structure of naihanchi dachi? Does the stands feel unstable and uneasy? Is muscular force required to maintain the stance? Then one should take the time to re-adjust the body to a comfortable, natural and connected position.

The Benefits of Kata Kitae

Kata kitae (hardening the body through assisted training) done by a partner can support finding weak points and help the body and structure to re-adjust into a connected state. This will also allow a teacher to individually focus on the points that must be corrected at a student. This is important, because connections are also the foundation for power generation and -delivery. If one is not properly connected, actions will also be weaker. One will be more prone to be unbalanced by the opponent. One will need to use more energy and force to compensate for unbalance.

The importance of kata kitae cannot be overemphasized. On the contrary, general commands like “stand deeper” or to adjust the foot in a 45-degree angle do not help anyone. They just satisfy a superficial and general sense of outer appearance, rather than focusing on the individual needs of a student. Because everybody moves a bit different and needs individual adjustment.

While the next sequence of the naihanchi routine, one has to take note

  • how the chest opens up and then closes for mawashi enpi,
  • the movement of spine, core and hips,
  • how the arm extends up into the fingertips,
  • how the wrist rotates,
  • which connected muscle groups like abdominal muscles come into play,
  • which are contracted and which are relaxed etc.

Then one resets into a neutral position while moving both hands into hikite and start the next movement sequence to the left in a similar fashion. One can do it even more meticulous and e.g. just concentrate on how the feet while moving through the kata. Later, more parts can be changed or added one wants to focus on.

Brief Excursus

For arranged partner exercises like kihon kumite I also advise not to block full force, because this will reduce the possibility to actually feel what is going on. Rather engage into a bodily dialogue with the partner. One should connect to his structure and feel how oneself and he are aligned. This gives the opportunity to learn how to work with his structure. It is also hard to learn if one´s partner applies full resistance from the beginning. One can start to gradually add resistance and variation with more experience. At the beginning it is counterproductive though.

The Benefits of Kata as A Movement

Gradually one will become more fluent and connected. With more coordination and a growing understanding for utilizing and moving the body can start to integrate applications and turn one´s ideas into practice. Sgt. Rory Miller, an expert in real world violent encounters, defines kata as the coordinated movement of hands, shoulders and hips simultaneously with dropping the center of gravity for power generation. He finds the body mechanics developed by kata practice to be identical to violent encounters and advises “learn to move” with kata practice. Digging too much into the “deeper secrets” of kata movements is rather counterproductive.[8[

Simply put, become a mover, kata will provide you with an excellent method to this end.

About Florian Wiessmann: Practicing Karate since the mid-1990s, he holds a nidan at the Nihon Karate-dō Shūshūkan, which is headed by Sugimori Kichinosuke (9.Dan) and its German branch is lead by Stephan Yamamoto (6.Dan).

[1]Also take a look at this worth reading article from the Budo Bum:


[3]Asai Tetsuhiko and Ōtsuka Hironori were also known for using kata as a mean for fostering certain movement principles.

[4], also take a look at his youtube channel for excellent movement tutorials:

[5]Driscoll, Jeff 2010: Ultimate Kempo, North Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing, P. 65-166.


[7] My teacher substituted Tekki with Naihanchi, because it better fits our needs.

[8]Miller, Roy 2008: Meditations on Violence, Boston: YMAA Publication Center, P. 14-115.

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Gojushiho Dai and Sho: The Solution of the Confusion

The naming of the Gojushiho Kata differs between associations. Some call the longer Gojushiho Kata “Dai” and the shorter “Sho”. Myths emerged about the reason for this confusion. Some revolved around JKA Chief Instructor Ueki Masaaki. Today, Peter Crawford is going to shed light on the history of this paradox and he is going to give us an answer that seems to solve the Gojushiho Riddle. By Peter Crawford

The Ueki Masaaki Legend

The first time I encountered the legend about Ueki Masaaki mixing up the names of the Gojushiho kata he was performing and the JKA subsequently changing the names to spare his blushes was back at the end of the last century. Rob Redmond, on his sadly long-gone website “24fightingchickens” wrote:

“It is rumored that in a JKA tournament some years ago, a now very high-ranking Ueki performed the Dai kata while accidentally calling out the name “Gojushiho-Sho!” in the last round of competition on National Television in Japan. 

According to this story, the judges were befuddled, since the performance was perfect, about what to do with Ueki and his misnamed kata. Their solution: give Ueki first place, and switch the names of the two kata. So, today the karateka who outrank Ueki generally call the more basic kata Dai. However, most people in the JKA, and the Best Karate series of books refer to the more difficult kata as Dai and the easier kata as Sho. Is the story about Ueki true? Maybe not.”

Despite the obvious caveat, this story gained traction, more often than not masquerading as “the truth”, as people copied and pasted bits of this article into their own websites. Until last year, the Wikipedia article on Gojushiho also presented this story as fact.

The Truth about the Different Naming of Gojushiho

However, the truth about the naming disparity between SKI and the other Shotokan organisations is quite easily discovered. When Kanazawa Hirokazu formed his own SKI organisation after being expelled from the JKA, he decided to change the names around as he felt that the smaller, more subtle kata deserved the “sho” designation so that the Gojushiho pair would align better with Bassai and Kanku. Since then, Kanazawa sensei has been asked many times at seminars and dinners why the SKI kata names are different to everyone else’s. I have heard him recount his decision on a number of occasions, and way back in 2003 Traditional Karate Magazine published an article by David Lewin, a senior with SKKIF in the UK, where he writes the following account of a weekend course he attended:

“One particularly interesting explanation Shihan gave was the reason why on founding S.K.I.F. he swapped the names of the two katas (Gojushiho Dai and Sho around). He explained that as with the Bassai and Kanku katas, the first one studied was usually the Dai form a kata. The Dai form is usually the longer but less complicated of the two forms. The instructors at the JKA were already practicing the JKA Gojushiho Dai form (i.e. the one with the ippon nukite techniques) before the JKA Sho form (the one with the shihon nukite techniques) had even been introduced into the JKA. Once the new form had been introduced, it was clear that the old kata was the more complicated and so should have been the Sho form, and so Shihan swapped the names over.”

Why is the JKA naming “wrong”?

This hopefully clears up the issue of the difference between the SKI kata names and everyone else, but really brings up a larger question. Why is the JKA naming “wrong”? Why is the smaller kata “dai”, and the larger one “sho”?

Kanazawa provides some pointers here too. In his 2009 book “Karate: The Complete Kata”, he provides the following information about Gojushiho:

 “Through Master Kanken Toyama, the kata ‘Koryu Gojushiho’ […] was introduced into the Shotokan style…”

“The author believes that the ‘Sho’ and ‘Dai’ designations […] became reversed at the time of their introduction…”

I find this explanation very plausible. We know for example, that in his 1935 book “Karate do Kyohan” Funakoshi Gichin describes the fifteen core kata of the Shotokan system. Yet, by 1943, we also know that more kata had been added. In 1943’s “Karate Nyumon”, on pages 58 and 59, Funakoshi lists a number of kata that were being studied at the Shotokan, including one “Hotaku” (Hotaku, or “phoenix-peck”, was the name Funakoshi gave to Gojushiho). Both Kanku and Bassai are listed separately as dai and sho, but there is only one Hotaku listed.

Masatoshi Nakayama Introduced Gojushiho Sho to JKA

According to Nakayama Masatoshi, he was asked by Funakoshi to travel to Osaka and learn kata from Mabuni Kenwa. In addition, in Randall Hassell’s book “Conversations with the Master”, Nakayama is quoted as saying:

“Some of the kata have come into the JKA system because Master Funakoshi took me around Japan to visit and pay courtesy calls on some of the other old masters in Osaka, Kyoto, Okuyama and Hiroshima”


“…when we visited Master Mabuni, Master Funakoshi told me to learn Gojushiho and Nijushiho so we could study them more carefully. So Master Mabuni taught me these kata.”

We know that the JKA syllabus already contained one Gojushiho kata at the time Nakayama was asked to learn from Mabuni. According to what Kanazawa said, this second kata should be the JKA “sho”. Fortunately, we are able to compare the two Shotokan kata with the versions that Kanazawa claims are the originals.

The Original Gojushiho Names are reverse

Toyama Kanken published details and photographs of his “Koryu Gojushiho” in his 1956 book “Okugi Hijutsu Karate Do”. His kata is clearly the smaller kata which, according to Kanazawa, was introduced first.

The current Shito-ryu Gojushiho can, therefore, be viewed on YouTube and is obviously the larger kata that was introduced to the JKA second and given the “sho” designation as a result.

Hopefully this information clears up the mystery of the inconsistent naming, and will kill off the somewhat bizarre “competition myth” once-and-for-all!

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Koji Arimoto: Unsu Jump and Bunkai

Koji Arimoto is a Shotokan prodigy. The world champion of 2012 has displayed his excellent skills in several Kata videos lately. One of the most astonishing is his explanatory video of the Unsu jump which was published by Andre Kok. He not just explains the right motion. He also shows its Bunkai.

Koji Arimoto About his Technical Education

Hi tremendous technical level comes stems from the rigorous education of his Sensei Masao Kagawa. In a recent interview with he described what it means to take part in Masao Kagawas master class and instructor program: “Normally, it lasts two years. But for me, it lasted three years. After the first two years, Kagawa Shihan felt that I was not enough ready to teach yet. I then worked harder for another year to get my instructor exam. It is a training that requires a very high technical level and an outstanding will.”

The Difficulty of The Unsu Jump

However, the jump in Unsu confronts every Karateka with a challenge. The rotation takes place, on the one hand, around the horizontal axes. At the same time, the body is slightly diagonal. So the body also rotates around the vertical axes.

For some Karateka this move already poses a challenge to envision it. But Koji Arimoto does an excellent job in the video to explain, what the jump is about. In addition, he also shows its bunkai. It requires very advanced skills to execute such a jump without hurting or missing the opposite Karateka. Whether the bunkai comes close to reality or not, can be deemed as secondary. Above all, the control of the body and to master the movement are more important.

We in the editorial office of The Shotokan Times cannot remember that we have ever seen such a precise Bunkai of the Unsu jump? Have you? Then send us the video!

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How to Use Taikyoku Shodan for Kumite Practice?

For advanced Karateka, Taikyoku Shodan seems rather boring. The Kata only consist of Gedan Barai and Oi-Zuki. Many deem it as beginner kata and forget that the simplest thing ofter become the most challenging. That is why many dojos do not practice it. And many Karateka do not know it. This is undeserved because the kata has a great potential and can be used as a challenging training regime especially for kumite.

Taikyoku Shodan for Kumite Practice

Sensei Keigo Shimizu shows in the following video one way how to use it effectively in classes. While he keeps the walking pattern he changes the techniques to Jodan Gyaku Zuki. When he rotates the body he drops the front hand. From here he winds it up to hikite in order to gain more power and acceleration. With a more fluent way of moving Taikyoku Shodan becomes a good routine for individual kumite practice.

Do you have a special way of doing you Taikyoku Shodan? Let us know. We are curious!

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Vote: Best Unsu Performence

Unsu 雲手, which means literally “cloud hands”, is by far one of the most difficult Katas and a strong indicator for athleticism and technical mastership. Practicing it requires tremendous body control and mental focus.

Last week, we presented you an stunning application of the Unsu jump by Koji Arimoto. This week we want to elect the best Unsu performance we could find in the web. Please, write the number of your favorite performance in the comments.

1. Rebecca Nakamichi (until 1:42), video by kuro-obi world

2. Soke Hirokazu Kanazawa, video by z0az0az0a

3. Unknown Karateka, video by
Jason Leung (who knows her name?)

4. Michael Milon, video by ninja1217

5. Ohta Sensei, video by Tasseikan JKA KARATE

6. Sandy Scordo, video by Jesse Enkamp

Opener Picture source: Kuro-obi World

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Have you solved the online Kata puzzle?

Especially for beginners, to learn a new Kata can be challenging. To make it more easy the website offers online Kata Puzzles. We find it an excellent and innovative way to teach Kata. In paticular, children will find it easy to memorize them in a playful way.


Unfortunatly, they provide not all 26 Kata. If someone has programming skills on his disposal we would invite him or her to develop the rest of them for us.

Have fun solving!