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Assumptions About Kata

I have been thinking a lot about kata (the forms we practice in Karate, such as Naihanchi Shodan and Passai). If you were going to argue with someone about a certain subject, you might ask that person to state his assumptions. What facts does he accept as true as part of his argument?

Let's argue about kata (not really argue, but think about the subject in a critical way). What are our assumptions about kata -- what facts do we accept as true when we practice and discuss kata? Actually, we tend to make many assumptions. Some of these might apply to you and some might apply to other Karate students.

Each kata was made by a certain person in a certain way. For example, we know that Anko Itosu developed the Pinan kata. That was in modern times, so it is easy. But things get harder with the older or "ancient" kata. Who made the Naihanchi kata, for example?

And what about Passai? There seems to be several different versions. Did the creator make different versions or did people who learned the kata modify it? The answer is probably "yes" to both questions.

While it is possible that a person could have created a kata and only taught it that way all his life, I think it is more probable that the person worked on a set of movements that evolved into what we call a kata. At different times -- at different times of his life -- he probably taught it differently. He probably tried to improve it as he himself improved.

Kata were taught the same to all students. I don't think so. This only matters when you teach a big class. When you have only a few students, you will probably customize the kata for each student's strengths and weaknesses, and these strengths and weaknesses will change during the student's life. So one kata could be taught differently to different students, and differently to a single student as he advances.

Each kata has a special name. I think this is true of the famous kata. But I suspect there were many kata that have been forgotten. Okinawans were not "into" terminology in the same way as Japanese. Techniques were often "like this" and kata probably could have been "that one" or "the first one."

After a while, I think that people knew which kata were more or less "famous" and tied to teach those. It was a sign of status to teach Shuri kata because that was the castle town and the home to "high class" people. I suspect that many people modified Shuri kata with the flavor of their own techniques so that they could say that they taught "Shuri Karate" or "Shuri-Di."

This Shuri fixation is very important. Some people called Naha Karate "low class" (because Naha was a seaport and the place for working people) and also put down other styles by calling them "village Karate." Now it was true that some styles of Karate came from certain villages and there was nothing inaccurate about that. But Shuri was the "high class" place and Karate from Shuri was "the best." I do not believe this to be true. I think it all depended on the teacher and students of the specific style. I respect all styles of Karate. But it would be naive to believe that status and the perception of status did not have at least some role in the development of Karate and the kata practiced in each style.

For the record, I am not Okinawan. And the best Karate in the world comes from... wherever it is practiced sincerely.

Kata have Kanji. I do not speak or write Japanese but I do know that Japanese use Katakana to write foreign words. The names of most older kata were Chinese. Thus, Japanese would use katakana to write the names of those kata.

However, for Karate instructors, it seemed poor, less "high class," or more foreign to use Katakana. So they sought out kanji that sounded the same as the kata names and used those. Of course, those kanji had a certain meaning (or multiple meanings), so those became the meanings of the kata. Let's say that "Passai," for example, sounds like a kanji (is pronounced the same) as a word that means "divine." Great! "Passai" now means a "divine kata." This is not the case, but just an example of word smithing (making up or shaping words for a purpose).

The farther back you go in Karate history, the more you find that Hiragana is used, rather than kanji.

I once asked my Sensei what "Shuji" means in the Yamani-Ryu kata, "Shuji Nu Kun." He said that "Shuji" means nothing -- it is simply the sound "Shuji."

Kata begin and end in the same spot. Not really. I think that this was a modern convention and could have come about because of two things: (1) instructors who also took Okinawan dance an applied dance principles to kata; and (2) it was necessitated by performing kata in groups in public. I do believe that kata usually begin and end facing the same direction, but I will bet that there are even exceptions to this.

Kata have fixed kiai points. As I have written recently, I do not believe so. I believe that this is modern convention. Modern kata may have fixed kiai points, because when they were created, instructors had already starting adding fixed kiai points to the older kata.

Kata represent fighting techniques. Yes, but just some fighting techniques. No kata is complete in terms of a Karate curriculum. Older kata seem to be based on key or signature fighting techniques. Modern kata were often formed to teach basics. In modern times, people were more "intelligent" and "scientific" in their approach to kata formulation. That is why the ancient kata are always so much better!

Kata were originally based on two-man sets. Sensei Patrick McCarthy often writes and teaches about this. I believe it to be true when the kata were formulated in China, but that it was mostly if not completely lost when the kata were transmitted to Okinawa. Even then, there are many Chinese arts where pairing off takes place rarely, at least apparently. I think that kata present the form and that the form was tested in "kumite" or "tegumi," which was generally not very structured. I admire McCarthy Sensei research and work in this area.

Kata have different degrees of difficulty. Come on! There are no numbers associated with kata. Actually, the simpler a kata appears to be, the more difficult it actually is. I tend to teach kata in a certain order because they present materials in a logical way. Naihanchi are a good set to begin with, because after several months or years, the student becomes stronger and thus better able to learn and do other kata.

Kata were not created for performance in public or in tournaments. They were for fighting, essentially, or non-fighting, in a deeper sense.

Even though kata are not rated in terms of difficulty or "highness", people tend to do them in accordance with their rank, at least in public. In some styles, Kusanku is the highest kata. The "highest" person will tend to do that kata in a performance. This is really silly to me. Also, the nature of public performances dictates that different people do different things. Otherwise, the audience will get bored. But in Karate, it would make perfect sense for each person to the same kata or the same small group of kata. There is no need to "run the curriculum."

Karate has been ruined by catering to the public's wants, desires and needs. Karate has been ruined by "applause."

When someone does Karate well, you should not feel like clapping your hands, you should feel like getting out of the way. "Good" Karate is not impressive, it is terrifying.

Each technique in a kata has a specific meaning. Wrong. Each technique in a kata has many meanings and represents a range of movement rather than a single, specific technique only. Pretend that each movement in a kata is a playing card (a five of diamonds, for example). Fixed Karate teaches that each movement is a specific card. More open Karate teaches the students how each movement can be a wild card. If someone attacks you, there is no time to look for the five of diamonds. You have to be able to throw the wild card.

There are three levels of meaning for each movement in a kata. I believe this to be true.

Kata begin and end with a bow. Only in modern times. This probably was a concession to Japanese martial arts, which are bound by greater formalities.

Kata begin with the student yelling out the name of the kata. Oh come on! That really gets me. Actually, I have seen kata performances where this was the best part.

The meanings of the movements in kata are hidden. True, sort of. I believe that kata present a neutral or middle set. Body shifting, foot shifting, dodging, ducking.. variables so to speak, are usually not shown. These come out in the applications.

The plural of kata is katas. One kata, two kata, three kata...

It is not necessary to understand what the movements in a kata mean -- you can just do the kata. That is a little like giving a speech in a foreign language you do not understand. It would just be jibberish. If you are going to put time and effort into doing kata, you should also put time and effort into understanding them, no?

The most beautiful kata is Passai. True (just to me, in my opinion).


Charles C. Goodin