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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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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 Karate-K.com 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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Tekki Shodan for Self-Defense: Okinawa Strikes Back

Tekki Shodan belongs to the foundation of Karate katas. Its purpose was to prepare Karateka for real-life conflicts.

Tekki Shodan belongs to the Shotokan katas with the most commonalities with Okinawa katas. First of all, this does not come as a surprise. Because Karate was developed in Okinawa. Therefore, all Shotokan katas share a certain amount of commonalities with Okinawa katas.

However, the Tekki katas are by far the closest to the Okinawa originals. One can grasp this relatedness by considering the Bunkai of Tekki Shodan. It is a close-range Kata. Above all, no high kicks take place during the kata. On the other hand, the focus lies on a very complex hip rotation. Such an refined application of the hips is needed in close combat situations with limited space for maneuver. This relationship becomes more obvious, if one stands a little bit higher than in a regular Shotokan kiba dachi. Then the hip can rotate even more freely. As a result, the whip-lash effect, which is fundamental for Okinawa Karate, becomes emphasized.

Tekki Shodan in Okinawa Karate

The Okinawa Karatekas call Tekki Shodan Naihanchi. The name means “internal divided conflict”. Gichin Funakoshi, however, changed the name to Tekki, which means “iron horse”. The name refers to the “horse stand” (kiba dachi). The kiba dachi builds the foundation of Tekki. While some authors claim the use of the stance focuses on leg training, this argument seems unplausible. Its advantage in close-combat situations might has justified its use more than considerations of physical fitness.

Choki Motobus Favorite Kata

This fact also made Tekki Shodan/Naihanchi the most favorite kata of grand master Choki Motobu, who was a specialist in self-defense. Many Karateka know Choki Motobu because of his famous quote:

Nothing is more harmful to the world than a martial art that is not effective in actual self-defense.

For him, Karate aimed at self-defense in the first place. He considered the other aspects as minor important. The legend says, that his strong focus on self-defense derived from his career as a “bar brawler”. According to rumors, he used to had regularly fights in the streets Naha the capital of Okinawa. Therefore, his sense for self-defense emerged during real-life conflicts.

From his point of view, Naihanchi was a perfect routine to prepare Karateka for such situations. Another quote of him says, for instance:

“Twisting to the left or right from the Naifuanchin stance will give you the stance used in a real confrontation. Twisting one’s way of thinking about Naifuanchin left and right, the various meanings in each movement of the kata will also become clear.”

To make this thinking process a little easier and inspiring for you, we have selected several excellent application videos for you. You can find them at the end of the article.

Tekki as Foundation of Karate

Choki Motobu also argued that the heart of traditional karate lies in kata, especially Tekki (Naihanchi). Above all, Tekki served as the main and only original training forms. Many different versions of the Kata exist in other Karate styles. Shotokan also distinguishes between Tekki Shodan, Nidan, and Sandan. Thus, no other Shotokan kata has three variations. Hence, Karateka must study Tekki in oder to get a feeling for the physical foundation of Karate. In short, to focus on hip rotation to generate speed and power.

Selected Tekki Shodan Bunkai Videos

1. Don Came – Origins seminar ep 1 – Naihanchi/Tekki-Shodan part 1

2. Iain Abernathy – Practical Kata Bunkai: Three Bunkai Drills for Naihanchi/Tekki Shodan

3. David Gimberline – Tekki Shodan Orientation Intro

4. Drobyshevsky Karate System – Tekki Shodan-Combat Bunkai-First Six Combinations-Kuro Obi Fight

5. Iain Abernathy – Practical Kata Bunkai: Naihanchi / Tekki Basic Clinch Bunkai & Drills

6. David Gimberline -Tekki Shodan