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Turning Your Back

In my last post, I mentioned An Impressive Uke who was careful to avoid stepping in front of his sensei after each technique.

Afterwards, one of my friends happened to mention the Sanchin kata. This kata is practiced in Goju-Ryu and some other styles as well. My friend mentioned that when Chojun Miyagi was near the end of his life and in poor health, he would sit on a chair in front of the class and observe his students performing kata.

In the Sanchin kata, the students would move forward, turn, move in the reverse direction, turn again, and finish the kata. Forgive me if I have described this incorrectly as I do not practice the kata.

The students felt uncomfortable moving toward their Sensei, and then turning their backs to him. So they modified the kata. Instead of turning, they simply moved backward to the starting position.

Should the kata have been changed? We often hear that kata should never be changed. Was it right to change the kata so as not to offend Miyagi Sensei?

What do you think?

In my opinion, it was right for the students to do this. A kata is important but being respectful to your sensei is far more important. It would not have been right for the students to turn their back to their sensei, whether it was Miyagi Sensei or any other sensei. Respect is respect.

Of course, if Miyagi Sensei had insisted that they preserve the turn, then they should have listened to him. It would not be right to disobey your sensei. But if he allowed the kata modification, it would be perfectly proper and respectful for the students to have done so.

What is my point? Kata are a means toward an end -- skill in Karate. Kata are not sacred. They are very useful, but we should never lose sight of their purpose.

Besides, the kata we know today may have been modified many times in the past. There is no guarantee that they have never been changed. Even if we know how a kata was performed in the 1940s, that does not mean that it was never changed before that time. How was the kata performed in China?

Kata might change, but being respectful must not.

That said, I sometimes like to observe my students performing kata from the back. It helps me, in particular, to notice when they improperly raise their heels during a technique.


Charles C. Goodin