Since I first began Karate at nine years of age, kata has been an integral part of the training process. I was told many times over that kata is the essence of all Karate, and that it held all the secrets of self-defense that I would ever need.
So for many years I studied all the various kata I could find, from the perspective of body mechanics, holistic benefits, application principles, history, and pedagogical principles.
Lately, I’ve been wondering if the ideal I have been chasing is just bullshit.
“The Classical Mess”
Kata are time capsules that allow us to access the self defense principles and techniques that the Okinawan pioneers found effective in Toudi’s formative years (mainly the 18th and 19th Centuries). While those strategies and techniques were useful at that time, there are reasons to believe they may not be so today.
First of all, most kata underwent radical changes in the early 20th Century, when Karate was introduced to Japan. Budo served as a precursor to military service, indoctrinating young men with national pride, loyalty, and obedience, as well as physical conditioning. Kata’s role in the process was primarily as a form of militaristic calisthenics; bunkai or application practices were entirely absent. This was also when, in many systems, movements were altered for aesthetic purposes or to increase the level of physical exertion. As an example, in Shotokan, the depth and length of stances became exaggerated to increase muscle stimulation in the legs.
Ultimately, this means that many of today’s surviving kata are bastardized versions of the originals, which prevents us from knowing what exactly the movements were–thus, we can’t know what applications they were intended for. Until recently, most mainstream bunkai practices have been artificial and extremely impractical.
Many modern practitioners–at the forefront of whom is my instructor, Hanshi Patrick McCarthy–have made significant headway in reconstructing practical application practices based on Habitual Acts of Physical Violence (HAPV), historical influences, and the contextual premise of which the original versions of the kata would have been based. The ancient Chinese text Bubishi contains a number of scripted HAPV and response scenarios that relate to templates found within the Okinawan kata tradition, which sheds light on the original thought processes that went into their creation.
The fact remains though that it cannot be verified that these were the exact intentions of the original kata creators. Furthermore, while these practices are historically valid methods, they might not remain the most direct and effective way to learn self-defense for today’s brand of violence.
As I discuss kata, I want to ensure that we have the same understanding of what that word actually means. The way I intend it in this article is to mean set patterns that were created by the Okinawan martial arts pioneers, primarily before Karate’s transition to mainland Japan in the early 20th Century. These are Karate’s historical exercises that have been used to encapsulate and hand down the art’s principles to the next generation of learners.
Solo exercises are any practices that represent a two-person application without a partner. Shadowboxing would fall under that category, as would many warm-up drills used in BJJ that simulate the motion and mechanics of a practical technique without actually doing it on a partner. Kata falls under this broader category.
The word “kata” actually means “form” or “template” in Japanese. Karate kata is a method of template-based learning. Template-based learning refers to any sequence or pattern of movements. Virtually every martial art, whether traditional or modern in nature, makes use of template-based learning. In boxing or Muay Thai, any striking combination is an example of template-based learning. In BJJ or wrestling, any drill that involves more than a single technique is template-based learning.
For pedagogical purposes, it would be pretty near impossible to learn any martial art without template-based learning. Even something as simple as hitting focus mitts relies on having a pattern you follow to drill and memorize combinations of techniques, as well as develop muscle memory and efficiency with your body movement. Any curriculum is based on sequential learning. Just like you learn how to write a language by memorizing an alphabet (a template) with letters put in a specific order, you learn a martial art by learning techniques and strategies that have been organized in a specific pattern to ensure maximum retention by the student.
Solo exercises can also have their function. It allows the individual to focus on maximizing speed, correct positioning and movement, and increase efficiency without having to worry about all the other variables that a training partner brings into the equation. Elements of the technique such as breathing and footwork can also be easier to emphasize in solo practices. Some potentially dangerous techniques can be difficult to practice with full power and intensity without injuring your partner, but done in solo form, no restraint is needed.
In terms of kata, I would argue that many kata contain useful application practices that address realistic and vital aspects of self-protection. Utilizing these application practices can definitely help an individual develop the technical skill and strategic knowledge to deal with violence. By working these scenarios over and over with a partner, gradually increasing the resistance provided and pressure-testing the techniques in order to learn from where they fail, the practitioner can improve their ability to protect themselves from the unpredictability and viciousness of real violence. There is never any guaranteed victory when it comes to self-protection, but at the least this type of training can increase the odds of success (i.e. survival) if the individual ever finds themselves in a violent encounter.
The question then becomes, in a roomful of practitioners who you could be training with, why practice the solo form of the kata at all?
Why Still Kata?
There are two valid reasons why kata practice may be relevant for a Karate-ka in the 21st Century. The first is for sport. Karate competitions have specific standards for the performance of kata, and if your goal is to win a tournament by performing the kata in a way that judges will score you favourably, then it makes sense to spend hours of your training time towards that end.
The second reason is as a form of cultural anthropology. In other words, some practitioners just like the idea of learning the same training methodology that the pioneers of our tradition once did. It is equivalent to historical reenactment or cosplay; the goal is historical authenticity rather than training for the purpose of modern use.
While those two uses of kata are legitimate, neither will make someone better at protecting themselves. In other words, they are very heavy on the art, but neglect the martial.
The way you study should reflect the outcomes you wish to achieve. If you are a body builder, you don’t exercise the same way as a yogi. In the same manner, if your purpose is to train to protect yourself from a chance violent encounter, you should not train as if you are preparing for competition or as if you are doing it for historical authenticity.
You don’t get good at defending yourself from modern violence by practicing obsolete kata. You only get good at doing obsolete kata.
If there are practical applications associated with kata that translate effectively to the modern context, of course it makes sense to retain those templates in your martial arts practices. However, I would argue these practical aspects should be kept mostly in two-person training form. If you can work something practical with a partner, it doesn’t make sense to spend the majority of your training replicating the sequence of movements by yourself. This also allows you the freedom to discard templates of the kata that you don’t understand or can’t apply in self-protection.
Kata once served a mnemonic tool to remember the application practices in sequence. Luckily, today we have better mnemonic tools. Rather than memorize a solo version to summarize the two-person practices, students today can merely pull out their phones and record the information that was presented. This is a far more accurate and reliable way of summarizing two-person drills.
Even the leaders in the current generation–the most innovative and dedicated minds in Karate today–struggle to come up with realistic and efficient application practices for every single template, movement, and aspect of historical kata. They often have to neglect elements of the way the solo is traditionally done, modify positions of hands or feet, or arbitrarily leave out techniques in order to make it practical for today’s self-defence. It’s a lot like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
The historical kata may have once been a vehicle for passing on practical self-defence, but either the techniques that worked then wouldn’t work now, or the kata got lost in translation to such a degree that the original meaning is impossible to reconstruct. Rather than worship the bones of a broken tradition, I think it is a better use of our time to take what we know works, practice it with partners, and, if needed, do it in solo version when we don’t have anyone to work with.
Insisting that practicing the old, obsolete solo forms is a way to effective self-defence is a dangerous fallacy that, if Karate is going to have any relevance to future generations of martial artists, needs to be stamped out.
Lowry, Dave. The Karate Way. Shambhala Publications, 2009. Pg. 122.
Sidney, James.The Warrior’s Path: Wisdom from Contemporary Martial Arts Masters.Shambhala Publications, 2003. Pg. 8.
Bishop, Mark. Okinawan Karate: Teachers, styles, and secret techniques. Tuttle Publishing, 1999. Pg. 7.
McCarthy, Patrick. Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts, Volume B. Tuttle Publishing, 1999. Pg. 44, 73.
Lowry, 2009. Pg. 153.
Willoughby, Paul. “Kata Bunkai”. Shotokan Karate Magazine, issue 101. SKM Publications, 2009. Pg. 26.
Nagamine, Shoshin. “Tale of a Great Bujin.” Karate: My Art. International Ryukyu Karate Research Group, 2002. Pg. 45.
Sasaki, Gogai. “Secret Fighting Techniques”. Tanpenshu: The Untold Stories of Gichin Funakoshi.International Ryukyu Karate Research Society, 2006. Pg. 28.
McCarthy, Patrick. The Bible of Karate: Bubishi. Tuttle Publishing, 1995. Pg. 11.
Lowry, 2009. Pg. 159-160.
O’Dowd, Seamus. “Takayuki Mikami 8thDan JKA: Open Mind”. Shotokan Karate Magazine, Issue 107. Pg. 4.
Cook, Harry. Shotokan Karate. Page Bros. Ltd, 2009. Pg. 170.
Nagamine, Shoshin. Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters. Tuttle Publishing, 2000. Pg. 78.
Bishop, Mark. Okinawan Karate: Teachers, styles, and secret techniques. Tuttle Publishing, 1999. Pg. 100.
Nakaya, Takao. Karatedo History and Philosophy. JSS Publishing Company, 2007. Pg. 43.
McCarthy, Patrick. The Bible of Karate: Bubishi. Tuttle Publishing, 1995. Pg. 11, 29.
Lowry, Dave. Essence of Budo. Shambhala Publications, 2010. Pg. 155.
Cook, 2009. Pg. 259.
McCarthy, 1995. Pg. 167-191.