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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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What is Okuri-tsuki? And How To Do it Correctly?

Okuri-tsuki is the most prominent unknown technique of Shotokan karate. Many karateka have seen or applied it. But they do not know its name or to describe it in technical terms. That is why we going to describe what it is and how to do it in this article. By Derick Kirkham

What is Okuri-tsuki? Hopefully this article will unravel any misconceptions that surround this neglected and under-used technique. The word Okuri in this application referred to as a meaning for “to slide”. But it is also probably the main reason why it is still occasionally mistaken for a form of Nagashi-tsuki (flowing punch).

Where Does it Come From?

Many of the Japanese instructors in the early days came to Karate after studying other oriental arts such as Judo and Kendo. Here they learnt the foundational concept of Okuri. For instance, Judo has a technique called Okuri-ashi-barai, which is the sliding leg sweep. Also in Kendo a specialized footwork technique named Okuri-ashi (sliding leg)Fig 1 exists and is a key part of Kendo’s tactical armory. This Shizen-tai footwork technique is important in Kendo. Because it permits the Kendo-ka to move extremely quickly forwards and backwards with only the minimum of “dead time”. Therefore,one should bear it in mind as a pertinent concept. To understanding the essence of Okuri-tsuki one needs to understand this concept.

The foundation of Okuri-tsuki is Okuri ashi.
The foundation of Okuri-tsuki is Okuri ashi.

The confusion about this technique has therefore several roots:

  • influences from other Japanese martial arts, which most Westerners did not learn;
  • complexity and too often ambiguity of the Japanese language;
  • the reluctance of some, not all of the Japanese instructors to give detailed explanations to their Gaijin students, of the names, concepts and meaning of every technique.

However, today our sources of information are better. Therefore, we want to explain how Okuri-tsuki works.

How Does Okuri-tsuki Work?

Okuri-tsuki means a punching technique that is delivered and reaches its target between the firm placements of ones launching and landing stances. The fist hits the desired target area whilst one’s body mass is still on the move. Therefore, its transit nature of the technique makes it difficult for some people to identify, classify, and perform. On the other hand it also makes it such a powerful hard hitting technique.

It’s not a variation of Oi-tsuki, Kizami-tsuki, Nagashi-tsuki nor Gyaku-tsuki. But understandably it can and is often mistaken for these techniques. Because it does resemble a poorly coordinated Oi-tsuki, or an over stretched Gyaku-tsuki, where the rear foot isn’t firmly rooted upon impact with the target area. Thus, some observers have difficulties to identify it, as its characteristic delivery speed masks the technique.

In this fantastic video Toshihito Kokubun executes Okuri-tsuki twice.

The Important Aspects of Okuri-tsuki

Its runaway freight train effect depends upon a couple of things:

  • timing of the launch of the punch,
  • forward projection of ones opponent, and
  • proficiency of the performer.

It’s neither a new technique nor a neglected one. By many it simply has been overlooked for many reasons. In my experience many neglect it in Kihon because it doesn’t appear in kata nor as a grading syllabus requirement. Due to its more agricultural and practical functionality it has also been over-looked in the modern sporting arena as it is believed to be too brutal and it lends itself more for use in Jissen and Jiyu-Kumite. Therefore, it poses the question: does it actually exist? Or is it just a quirky variation of another tsuki?

Does it really exist?

While the overall technique is somewhat Kamikaze looking in appearance, the underlying tactics employed are of equal importance to its success as the mechanics of the technique itself. The tactics involved are; selecting the correct mind set prior for delivery, ones timing, line and direction are all key. The technique can be delivered using a permutation of various tactics. However, the most commonly used and most devastating effects result by using a combination mind set of Ikken Hisatsu, Sen no Sen and Irimi. Therefore, the delivery of the technique in the following examples focuses directly in the forward direction.

Among the accomplished exponents of Okuri -tsuki, was the late Steve Cattle. Others worthy of note are the late Taiji Kase and Keinosuke Enoeda. In the new generation of Japanese Instructors people such as Tatsuya Naka and Takahashi Yamaguchi use it. 

In this video Keinosuke Enoeda shows Okuri-tsuki in combination with a Deashibarai.

The execution of the technicques marks the most important aspect in its distinction from other techniques. While it appears somewhat Kamikaze-like, the underlying tactics employed accounts for its success as the mechanics of the technique itself. The tactics involved:

  • selecting the correct mind-set prior for delivery,
  • ones timing,
  • ones line and
  • direction.

Mind-set and Strategy Behind Okuri-tsuki

When it comes to the right mind-set a combination of Ikken Hisatsu, Sen no Sen and Irimi works best. The karateka in the follinwing examples deliver the technique straight forward with 100% commitment to and belief in the success of the technique.

However, the technique can also be delivered using the strategy of Go no Sen: “seizing the initiative later”. This requires blocking and then countering after the attack of the opponent. But commonly Okuri-tsuki becomes utilized in Sen no Se: “seizing the initiative early”. That does not mean that one necessarily makes the first move. More often it involves one intending to counter precisely at the same time that your opponents attacks.

Sliding in

Where does the sliding in take place in Okuri-tsuki? After one observes the technique, one could never describe it as being of a sliding motion. The Okuri name occurs after Kamae-te and refers to the essential preparatory footwork of Okuri-ashi. Fig 1 Its usage lies in the gain of territorial advantage and to ensure the correct launching distance the long range Tsuki technique. Therefore, Okuri -tsuki describes the tactical footwork of using the sliding leg (Okuri-ashi). 

What makes Okuri-tsuki so effective?

Is it the unusual nature of its timing and delivery, which generates high speed with the minimum amount of “dead time”?  Probably! But it comes as a payoff. The increased speed and reduced “dead time” leads to a loss in stability upon impact with the target.Especially during the mid-flight section the karateka stands only on one leg. This loss in stability, however, is due to the body’s full commitment and its follow through motion.

How to Execute Okuri-tsuki?

So, with the tactics firmly in place and the correct distance to launch one Okuri-tsuki gained by using Okuri-ashi, then let’s go through the execution of the technique itself.  As we are using “Ikken-Hsatsu”, “Sen no Sen” and “Irimi” we will be stepping forward to deliver the technique.

1. Assume a right foot forward Kamae-te. Fig 2

The First Steps

The execution of Okuri-tsuki.
The execution of Okuri-tsuki.

2. Use Okuri-ashi to gain advantage to ensure that the correct launching distance is obtained. Fig 1

3. Quickly rotate the hips from Hanmi through to Sokumen and begin to punch Jodan-tsuki with the left hand, slightly before you start to move the left leg (Do-Kyaku) forwards. Fig 2 A 

So far you can see why initially it may look like a static Gyaku-tsuki. However, where in Gyaku-tsuki one is expected to keep the body perpendicular throughout the hip rotation, and any forward projection and extension is achieved by the extent of the hip rotation, the distance the stance travels and the bending of the knee of the front leg. Whereas in Okuri-tsuki, one achieves forward projection by leaning slightly forward into the target. Fig 2 B

Note: unlike Gyaku-tsuki, the coordinated Hikite and the firmly planted back foot is not present throughout.

The Further Steps

4. Fig 2 C Shows a side view just prior to impact. This is the phase where the left leg (Do-Kyaku) starts to catch up by driving towards ones over stretched center of gravity point.

5. The left leg (Do-Kyaku) has now reached the body’s balanced centre of gravity point and the body is perpendicular, it is at this point when the explosive collision impact of the punch occurs. Fig 2 D  Note how the left leg (Do-Kyaku) is still moving and not on the floor.

6. After the impact in the basic form of the technique one should snap back the left hand and firmly place down the left leg (Do-Kyaku). Variants of the snap back are employed if the use of a follow on technique requires it Fig 2 E

7. The snap back of the left hand is in readiness. Assume a left leg forward Kamae-te.

Some Picture Studies

Photo Group A 1-8 demonstrates Okuri-Tsuki with the follow up technique of a highly destructive leg sweep performed with Ikken-Hisatsu in mind, as always by K.Enoeda. Note how much the front left foot moves forward in photos 1-2 gaining distance prior to the launching of the punch. Also consider how at the impact point in photo 3 his right foot lifts off the ground and on the move forward in photo 4. In this case the right foot not lands. But it delivers a leg bar to execute a powerful double leg sweep followed up with Otoshi-Tsuki.

Keinosku Enoeda shows how to execute the Okuri-tsuki.
Photo Group A: Keinosku Enoeda shows how to execute the Okuri-tsuki.

Although the fighting art differs in Photo Group B 1-3 the physics, the theory and the end result remains exactly the same. Photo 1 shows the total commitment of the body to the techniques delivery as it approaches the impact point and notice that the arm is already at full extension, Photo 2 shows the impact point and by the way this particular punch was responsible for breaking the jaw of the durable and very tough competitor Ken Norton, Photo 3 shows that there is very little pull back of the technique after impact and the back leg of Muhammad Ali has still not caught up the forward projection of the attacker’s committed technique.

 Okuri-tsuki by Muhammad Ali.
Photo Group B: Okuri-tsuki by Muhammad Ali.

Conclusion and A Simple Test

Hope this article has introduced Okuri-tski to some and stimulated the interest in trying out Okuri-tsuki in your training regime to all. Although the objective of the article was to clear up the mysteries and misconceptions surrounding Okuri-tsuki, I invite you to conduct this simple experiment. I first saw it demonstrated by Masahiko Tanaka. As I firmly believe that it may help you as it did help me, to fully appreciate the advantages that “a moving mass” impact technique such as Okuri-tsuki can add to the overall effectiveness of your technique.

So then if you are in the game, then try this simple test:

1. Stand in a left leg forward Zenkutsu-Dachi 

2. Position yourself close to a wall and extend the right arm out so that the fist of your right hand is firmly making contact with the wall.

3. Then push with the right arm into the wall constantly and experience what it feels like (in other words do not put on and ease off the pressure you are putting through the arm and fist during the experiment).

4. Next, without moving from the previous position, just lift the foot of the left leg and feel how your mass is being pulled further into the wall, i.e. into the would be target.

This is simply because the bodies mass is now unsupported and is subject to gravitational pull. Thus it simulates being on the move, whilst making contact with the target. This happens just a fraction of a second prior to landing your mass through the foot of the moving leg (Do-Kyaku) and just as you would experience it with a correctly delivered Okuri-Tsuki.  Good Luck and Good Practice.