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Kata Should Never Change?

I often hear that kata should never change. The people saying this, usually also say that they are practicing and teaching the kata exactly as they were created by their originators.

If that is true, something is definitely wrong! Take the Pinan kata. They are only about 110 years old, young by comparison to other Okinawan kata. These kata were taught in the public schools by Anko Itosu and his students and now are widely practiced in many styles of Karate.

But... each style seams to to perform the kata a little differently, sometimes a lot differently. So who is right? Who is wrong. If no one changed the kata, how is it that they are all different?

Obviously, kata do change. OK, I know the answer -- everyone else changed the kata, but we did not.

But even in the same style, kata are often practiced differently by senior instructors. Even one instructor may perform the kata differently over his lifetime. A little change here and a little change there, and soon the kata changes a lot.

I question the basic idea that kata should not change. Why? Since when are kata sacred things? I do not practice Karate for religious reasons. Kata are not like prayers to me. Kata are like tools to me.

Imagine a big toolbox filled with tools and some student putting it on an altar and worshiping it rather than using the tools for their intended purposes. That would be crazy.

Kata are tools. I do not mean that we should change them. The basic form of a kata should not be changed (unless the Sensei decides to do so, in which case the students will follow along).

But each movement in a kata is not a single movement. Each movement is an invitation of a range of movements and variations. How and where we punch, for example, depends on the attacker. We cannot follow the exact specifications of a kata. That would also be crazy.

Rigid, fixed, stuck, frozen. This is how it is when we have a strict interpretation of kata and movements. Kata should not handcuff us, they should free us to movements and applications.

How much of a kata translates into self defense? This is a very fundamental question. How much? What percentage or proportion? In some cases I have seen, I would say none at all!

Kata have no value in and of themselves. They are only valuable if they teach us a useful skill. So what if a kata "looks good?" An attacker won't care. And the odds are that you will not think of the kata when you are attacked. Actually, if you do think of the kata you will almost certainly get beaten very badly. When someone attacks, we have to react (basically without even thinking). No one attacks in the pattern of a kata. We have to be able to appropriately apply each movement of the kata, as needed, adapted to the situation at hand.

Kata should not change, but they have changed. We are missing the point when we elevate kata to items of religious worship. They are tools.


Charles C. Goodin