This Guest Post is by my friend and senior, Sensei Pat Nakata. Nakata Sensei is the head of the Okinawa Shorin-Ryu Karate Association in Hawaii. He was a student of Chosin (Choshin) Chibana in Shorin-Ryu, and also studied Ryukyu Kobudo under Sensei Fumio Nagaishi. When he was a young man, he studied Wado-Ryu Karate under Sensei Walter Nishioka.
After I completed performing some of our Karate Katas, Murakami Katsumi Sensei said, "Yappari, Chibana Sensei no Karate wa kirei ne" (After all Chibana Sensei's Karate is very clean). Chibana Chosin Sensei often emphasized that a clean Kata was a strong Kata. In a clean Kata, blocks will be viewed as a block and not confused as a strike, strikes viewed as a strike and not a thrust, and thrusts viewed as a thrust and not a strike. Chibana Sensei explained that if one had to alter a waza or movement in the Kata to match the meaning (application), the meaning is incorrect.
Chibana Sensei never talked about combinations within his Katas, because most of the techniques should be decisive (ippon kowashi no waza [one technique to destroy]). When I asked Chibana Sensei on how I could improve my combat ability, he said to practice Kata. He went on to explain that there are no secrets in Karate, but through the practice of Kata, one would discover the true meaning of Kata. Each Kata must be practiced 10,000 times before one can start to learn the true meaning. He often said, "Karate wa karada de narau koto" (one learns Karate with one's body). Knowledge (shirimasu [I know]) can come from intellectualizing, but understanding (wakarimasu [I understand]) comes from experiencing/training. True Karate knowledge and understanding is empirical.
When one studies the strong (fighters) Karateka of yesteryears, one discovers that these strong Karate masters did not practice too many Katas. Most of the old masters talked of refining one's Kata, which was the doing away with unnecessary movements and excessive strength. Chibana Sensei said, "Honto no Karate no chikara wa waza kara deru" (true Karate power comes from technique). So refining of one's Kata is the refining of the techniques within the Kata.
Chibana Sensei said, although much of the Shuri-te techniques within the Katas are from Ti or Tuite, which encompasses many grappling applications, one should first concentrate on developing strong punches, strong strikes, strong kicks, and strong blocks. All the thrust, strikes, kicks, and blocks should be done with ippon Kowashi no waza. In many cases, a strong thrust, strike, kick, or block will set-up the opponent for an effective grappling technique, but then if the thrust, strike, kick, or block was strong enough, there would be no need to grapple. Chibana Sensei never turned to theatrics in demonstrating Karate, it was always thrust, strike, kick, or block. Most of the time it seemed too simple; close the distance (osae [press in]) and destroy the opponent with a single technique. Kata should be done with a natural fighting timing, which is one's breathing rhythm (iki no hyoshi). Chibana Sensei felt that learning too many Katas distracts from refining the Kata, because one would just be practicing movement with no time to work on refinements. On the other hand a limited amount of Katas is also detrimental, in that one would lack versatility.
When Chibana Sensei approached Itosu Anko Sensei about limiting the Katas for his teaching curriculum, Itosu Sensei told him to use the 12 core Katas, which were: Naihanchi Shodan, Naihanchi Nidan, Naihanchi Sandan, Pinan Shodan, Pinan Nidan, Pinan Sandan, Pinan Yondan, Pinan Godan, Kusanku Sho, Kusanku Dai, Chinto, and Patsai. After watching Chibana Sensei perform the Matsumura no Patsai that he had learned from Tawada Sensei, Itosu Sensei told Chibana Sensei to retain both Patsai. Itosu Sensei said, his Patsai should be called Patsai no Kata Sho and the Matsumura no Patsai be called the Patsai no Kata Dai. Chibana Sensei and many of his contemporaries called this curriculum the orthodox Shuri-te. Chibana Sensei maintained that Shuri-te techniques are from the indiginous Okinawan art of Ti, which in a distant past had its start from the Chinese martial arts. Later, Chibana Sensei developed a very basic series of Katas, which he called: Kihon no Kata Shodan, Kihon no Kata Nidan, and Kihon no Kata Sandan. This brought his complete Kata curriculum to 16 Katas.
I was told a story about Miyagi Chojun Sensei (founder of Goju-ryu) going to see Itosu Sensei to learn some Shuri-te Katas, namely the Pinan Katas. Itosu Sensei supposedly told Miyagi Sensei that he should modify and perfect his Naha-te Katas, rather than add Shuri-te Katas to his curriculum. Itosu Sensei continued, saying that if Miyagi Sensei tried to mix his Naha-te with Shuri-te, doing both may weaken his Naha-te and the Shuri-te will never be strong.
Chibana Sensei never confirmed this story, but spoke of his interchange with Miyagi Sensei about limiting the number of Katas in their respected curriculums. Miyagi Sensei agreed and said he would do the same for his curriculum.
The Kata contains the recorded history of fighting maneuvers and strategies of the past masters, mainly the original creator. Also, Kata is a prearranged set or drills against multiple opponents. When there are multiple opponents, each blow must be decisive. In other words, each blow, be it a thrust, strike, kick, or block, must have kime/kikomi for maximum effectiveness. This type of unrestrained blows can only be practiced in a Kata or with a makiwara. The Karate Kata is not static, making it ideal for practicing moving into an opponent, from one technique to another, or from one opponent to another. This movement or transition is vitally important in the effectiveness of the application. About the most important aspect of this transition as taught by Chibana Sensei, is the osae (press).
In the early days of Karate (60s and 70s), Karateka were labeled as fighters or Kata persons. A Kata person was a non-fighter who could perform Kata well. After studying this dilemma, it became noticeable that the truly good fighters, also did good, strong Katas. A Kata person that was not a good fighter, had a 'dead' Kata. A strong Kata, which was alive was performed with kimochi (feeling) and fighting spirit. This kimochi and/or fighting spirit is difficult to explain, but is recognizable when one sees it. This kimochi and fighting spirit gives the Kata a certain seriousness and connotes something deadly and primal. Fighting is fighting. Kata is Kata. One starts to understand Karate when one sees that fighting is fighting, Kata is Kata, and Kata is fighting. As it was said earlier, understanding is empirical. One reaches this understanding of Kata through diligent training.