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Karate Kata: Its history and what you can accomplish with it

The picture shows Karateka in Keiko Gi who practice Kata.

Kata is the foundation of Karate. But why is that? What does it mean? Where does it come from? And do other martial arts also practice it? In this article, TD McKinnon with friendly support of Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Herbert is going to answer all your questions you ever asked yourself about Kata.

Kata: its place in the teaching and cultural heritage of Karate

I can just hear the sighs, moans and groans: ‘Not another Kata article!’ and, ‘How many  things can you say about Kata?’ or, ‘You are either a fan of Kata or you are not!’ 

Firstly, well… yes, ‘This is another article about Kata.’ Secondly, ‘there are so many things  that can be said about Kata that one could write volumes about.’ And lastly, and let’s just  get one thing straight… the, ‘You are either a fan of Kata or you are not,’ statement just  doesn’t hold water. Kata is the very essence of Karate! 

Let me just clarify that; if Karate-Do is your ‘Way’… Kata, in its varying forms and patterns, is the defining ‘Path’; with the many capricious names serving as the guiding road signs  along its length. 

The etymology of the word Kata in the way that we use it

Kata of course is a Japanese word (型 or 形) meaning, quite literally, ‘form’: and in Karate it  refers to a detailed pattern of movements designed to be practised alone. There are actually 16 different kanji that are pronounced ‘Kata’ but only the two below which can be  used for ‘a form within a martial art.’ In the sporting world the 形 kanji is mostly used, but  both are technically correct.

The pictures shows the first Kanji for Kata.
The pictures shows the second Kanji for Kata.

Personally, I agree with Jesse Enkamp, the 形 kanji, broken down, means vessel and water and the 型 kanji means punishment and ground… I prefer  the 型 kanji. However, on the technical intricacies of the subject of its kanji, I am happy  to defer to our, ‘The Dojo’, resident expert on Japanese culture… Professor Dr Wolfgang Herbert

An in-depth look at the Kata kanji by Prof. Dr Wolfgang Herbert

The characters used for writing ‘Kata’ is quite a long and ongoing discussion.  We should recur to the meaning the Kanji have in their usage, which reveals slight  differences. Just a cursory look into some of my books/dictionaries shows: 

型 means the basic form/norm or pattern, habit, convention, traditional set form, mould,  matrix. 

形 means the outer shape, form, appearance or manifestation during performance,  allowing for individual adaptations, even deviations.

Nagamine Shôshin prefers 形 and claims the 型 has “no life”, because it implies formality,  neither character nor individual expression. 

Hokama Tetsuhiro prefers 型 because it has the meaning of “archetype” and is more  “spiritual” than 形 which only designates the material form. 

Nakazato Tsunenobu claims that the writing 形 comes from Kendo and Judo and that in  Okinawa 型 was the general way to write it. He further comments that single techniques or  a short combination of them can have a prescribed form, i.e. 形, whereas a Kata in the sense of Karate-Kata like Seisan or Kushankû as a long sequence of defensive and offensive movements should be written with 型. (discussion in  Hokama Tetsuhiro: Okinawa Karatedô, Kobudô no shinzui. Haebaru/Kanagusuku: Naha  shuppansha 1999, pp. 107-111) 

Funakoshi Gichin and Motobu Chôki indeed use the Kanji 型 in their writings. JKA uses 形, SKIF (Kanazawa) prefers 型.

One author, Nakayama Takatsugu) explains that Kata evolves in the sense that as long as  you train the basic forms and learn the moves and handed down techniques you perform  型. Once you incorporate it in the sense of adapting them to your individual body type  and also in practical application according to your body or interpretation you perform 形.  There is a saying in Japanese: kata o yaburu 型を破る= “to break the mould”.

This  corresponds to the shu-ha-ri 守・破・離 principle. As long as you learn the basics you are  in the stage of “shu”, preserving the tradition (you do 型). Once you “break” with tradition ( 破) in the sense of finding your individual way to express it or even transcend (離) it you  practice 形. Thus, Nakayama remarks, Kata evolves from 型 into 形 during a lifetime  practice of them. (discussion: Nakayama Takatsugu: Dakara, Karate wa tsuyoi! Himeta pawâ o dasu, dentô no shintai gihô. BAB Japan 2013, pp. 214-6.)

WKF has decided to write Kata with 形 and this has become the more common way to write it as far as I can see in Japanese martial arts magazines. The irony is that Kata in WKF style lack individuality and look all quite the same and robotic, because the athletes perform them in a way they think will please the judges rather than as a way of personal expression. 

Personally I think either way to write it is legitimate, but if a preference is shown, it should be plausibly explained.” 

Thank you, Professor Dr Wolfgang Herbert, for your insights.  

Maintaining the Neural Pathways 

In most Japanese martial arts, Kata is seen as an essential teaching and training method by  which successful combat techniques can be preserved and passed on. Practicing it allows  the Karateka to train, in a repetitive manner, the ability to execute tried, proven techniques  and movements in a natural, reflexive manner. This does not mean that a given Kata is  meant to rigidly represent a complete combat situation.  

When you practice it you reinforce the neural pathways (something I used to refer to as  cellular memory). I am not going to delve into neuroscience here. Basically, you practice  something enough (as in a technique that you fully understand) in response to a certain  trigger (as in a particular attack) and eventually the required response happens, seemingly,  automatically. For this to happen you need to not only practice your Kata, repetitively, you need also to be aware of the Bunkai within the it. If, as I claim, Kata is the essence of  Karate, then Bunkai can be said to be the essence of it. 

Bunkai (分解): ‘Analysis’ or ‘Disassembly’

Bunkai… Even the seemingly obvious techniques can be deceptively, elusive. In fact, there can be many stages in the depth of understanding of Bunkai applications. Through the passage of time and in-depth study, the Bunkai can evolve to be simplicity itself, or to be as complex as the Karateka who is interpreting them.  

Many years ago, I performed Kata for competition; and I performed it the way I was taught. As I grew and developed as a Karateka I performed it differently, to more suit the way  I interpreted the Bunkai, with more realism. Today’s competition performances take Kata in  an entirely different direction. In fact, it seems that I am watching a completely different  concept. There are a couple of different reasons for this trend.  

The ever widening gap between sport performance and real Bunkai

One of the reasons, I believe, is definitely the concept of sport that more and more Karateka believe Karate is all about. Instead of training for self-defence (defence against attacker/attackers), Karateka train to fight each other, with rules. The distancing for sport  Karate – or any conflict where two parties voluntarily agree to take part in some form of combat – is probably double the distancing of that in an attack from an antagonist in an  adverse situation. The flow through of that kind of training is that Kata becomes viewed  and performed with the same kind of distancing in mind as viewed from the sport… Consequently, the original techniques and body movements are completely misinterpreted. 

The other main reason for the ever widening gap between reality (transferring into realistic Bunkai) and competition might be the multi-style competition arena. It appears – particularly in the multi-style arena – that particular Kata seem to dominate: the clipped, staccato type of performances with over emphasized, melodramatic pauses, almost  like a martial tango. And I find the Bunkai demonstrated in team competition almost comical in its dramatic, acrobatic presentation. A performance that is more about flash and  entertainment than it is to do with reality. 

Kata: what is it good for?

I understand the reasons it has gone this way; and I can tell by the “Oohs” and “Aahs” of the  spectators that that is what’s expected: entertainment. However, to me, and I believe to  rest of the Budo Karate community, it all seems a little staged. When I began performing  Kata I aspired to emulate Danny Bryceland Sensei, Kawazoe Sensei, Enoeda Sensei and  Kanazawa Sensei who all appeared to me to be in the midst of battle and not, as it now  appears, a theatrical Karate dance. 

During Kata performance, my goal is to internalise the feeling tones, the holistic sensation of  the movements and techniques. Along with proper understanding of the Bunkai – in that  adverse situation we hope will never come – the movements and techniques can be  adapted and executed, without thought or hesitation. Hope for the best, prepare for the  worst.  

Over the years, I can’t count the amount of times I have been asked, “What good is Kata  training to real conflict situations?” I’ve found the simplest way to answer is with a question, “Think of Kata as a kind of shadow boxing exercise… What good is shadow  boxing?” Invariably, they will just nod, with at least a little understanding. 

Kata History: Where it came from and the different martial arts that use it

It is accepted now, by most Karate practitioners, that the very origins of most Karate can be  traced back to Bodhidharma and the Shaolin Priests’ method of self-defence. A major part  of the Shaolin Gung Fu, or Kung Fu, method of continuing the cultural transmission is via  their Kata, or more accurately, Taolu; of which there are literally hundreds.  

In fact, the number of Kata , Taolu, Lul (Korean), Ram Muay (Muay Thai), or simply  combinations of fighting techniques (the label does not matter) would probably number in the thousands. If you think about it, almost any fighting art has combinations of techniques  that represent attack and defence procedures. A Kata does not need to be a long, complex combination of moves. For instance: Iaido is almost entirely practiced through the learning and perfecting of 12 Kata with the  number of Techniques in each Kata varying between 4 to 10 moves only. 

Judo practitioners learn the principles of techniques through Kata practice, and utilise it to demonstrate their knowledge and skill during advanced gradings, and they consist of only  a few techniques. 

Traditional Muay Thai, or Thai Boron is the original battlefield martial art, and has many  forms or Kata; also weapons. Muay Thai, the combat sport, is often referred to as the ‘Art  of 8 Limbs’ and has many and varied combined punch, kick, knee, elbow, practiced strikes  and blocking combinations: anywhere from 2 to 15 techniques. 

Boxing has more practiced combinations than you would think; from 2 punch to 10 punch and body movement Combinations. 

The Himitsu of Kata 

The literal translation of Himitsu would be ‘secret’, undisclosed’ or ‘hidden’. However, to  avoid the inevitable clash with those who would arguably say there are no secrets in Karate,  I prefer to see Himitsu as meaning that: the purpose of the Kata, or certain moves within the it, is not obvious. Every Kata has its own essence (underlying principles). Once the basic pattern of the it has been learned, the Myō (meaning ‘essence’ in this case) must be  studied…  

Over time, each Karateka will find their individual level of understanding in regard to the  Myō and interpret the Kata accordingly. The Myō is generally not readily seen by the novice Karateka; however, a more intense study, when the Karateka is ready, will reveal the Himitsu within.  

Lao Tzu: What we can learn from him about Kata

Lao Tzu, the 6th century BCE priest, philosopher, and founder of Chinese Taoism, purportedly wrote: 

The Uses of Nothingness  

Thirty spokes meet in the hub, but the empty space between them is the essence of the  wheel… 

Pots are formed from clay, but the empty space inside is the essence of the pot… 

Walls with windows and doors form a house, but the empty space within is the essence of  the house… 

Lao Tzu

A single movement may be anything from one simple delivery, to the entry of a dozen  applications. The same sequence of Kata moves may be interpreted in radically different  ways, resulting in several completely different Bunkai. After learning the classical Kata  pattern, Karateka should be encouraged to seek out the Myō of it 

When a Kata is performed to capacity, no matter who that Karateka is or where they are  performing it (a competition, an examination, a demonstration, a student for his sensei, or  simply done to experience the intensity) it should be performed with Zanshin, Mushin,  Fudoshin and Senshin. 

Personal Kata training at 70 years of age.

Now, at 70 years of age, Kata is the majority of my Karate training. In fact it forms the  basis of the preponderance of my entire martial arts training. Committed to my memory  are: 29 Shotokan, 2 Goju, 2 Shito Ryu, 12 Iaido, 2 Shaolin, 1 Thai Boron (Muay Thai), 4 Bo  and Jo, and 2 Nunchaku/Taolu/Ram Muay/Forms. Also, many boxing, Muay Thai, and  close-quarter combat (armed and unarmed) combinations are committed to memory and  practiced. I meditate, I write, I train, and I assist my wife to rescue and care for abandoned and abused cats. That is my life.