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Kata Corner - The Purpose of Kata

This content is taken from Kata: The Folk Dances of Shotokan by Rob Redmond

Kata were imported originally from China where they were called quan and were practiced each as an individual fighting system's total collection of style, strategy, and techniques. The kata were imported by the Okinawans either by meeting with Chinese during their visits to Fuzhou or during Chinese visits to Okinawa. One way or another, many kata made their way to Okinawa.

On Okinawa, the kata were modified, combined, separated into parts, or passed on almost intact. Some of the kata were created on Okinawa, and perhaps a few of the supposedly older kata we practice in Shotokan were created in Japan during or after the 1930's.

Where the facts blur into speculation is the topic of their purpose. You see, we have a problem today in that our instructors only ever practiced the Shotokan kata historically as routines of basic techniques – a kind of performance art shown off in tournaments and exhibitions.

We asked our Japanese instructors, "What does this represent? What am I practicing to do here?"

The Japanese knew that Westerners were not going to be happy hearing, "The kata have no meaning. No one showed me any meaning for these things. JUST DO IT YOU STUBBORN FOREIGN BARBARIAN!" Well, maybe a couple of them tried saying that to us, and the results quickly taught them to try to come up with something to show.

As the years have gone by, it has become more and more apparent that Shotokan Karate clubs practice kata as dance routines – strings of basic techniques to be performed alone.

But what was the original purpose of the kata, and was there originally more information in the instruction book that now seems to be impossible to locate? There have been so many arguments long those lines it is really difficult to say. But there are a few prevailing theories.

A few of those theories are presented here:

The Jujutsu applications were lost. Some people are convinced that the kata are actually a clever way to remember an entirely different way of moving in combat. They believe that kata are truly Jujutsu techniques which have been styled and restyled to the point that they are hardly recognizable. The people who feel this way are convinced that the applications they have been shown by their instructors for the movements are the originally intended meanings for each of the movements in the kata. Their claim is that Shotokan has become watered down, that critical information has been lost. Most people believe the information was lost because of the rise of Sport Karate and competitive tournament interest. Others have proposed that Shotokan in particular has become watered down because Funakoshi, while an excellent politician and diplomat, was not very skilled nor very informed about the inner meanings of the Karate he brought to Japan, mostly because he was teaching children in Okinawa, and therefore had never really struggled to learn the inner meanings of many of the more secret techniques.

Funakoshi intentionally watered down Karate. Another theory is that Funakoshi watered down the Karate that he taught in the attempt to create something safe for the whole family to do. The theory is that he was concerned primarily with creating a sport or athletic activity that would spread Japanese good manners around the world, and in order to popularize it, he removed the more dangerous techniques.

Kata are war dances. A theory I have proposed is that kata were originally war dances. In other words, techniques were cataloged using the folk dance technique of East Asia. It is possible that the originators practiced the kata as dances thinking that the repetition of these routines without a partner would somehow mysteriously and organically give them superior fighting ability (something that very few people today believe). While the originators probably each had explanations for the meaning of each technique in their kata, their primary method of practice was probably solitary.

The truth is that no one knows. Every possibility is equal, and anyone with an imagination knows as much as anyone else does. It is not possible to be a scholar on the subject of the history of kata practice because the Okinawans did not document their work.

We do know that a long time ago people punched and kicked each other for sport. They also wrestled one another. Such combat methods are not unique to Asia. Such fighting methods are probably older than language itself. Asian nations their knowledge in folk dances. Thus, it was entirely natural to develop combat folk dances.

It is also likely that folk dances used to pass on other knowledge were practiced, seen as a useful practice in the aid of fighting, and then adopted and changed to become kata. Kata probably come from both origins: folk dances converted to fighting, and remembered battles and fighting methods. As the kata were mainly organized and created before the artificial separations we call martial arts and styles today, they are probably encoded using every possible form of fighting known to the creator at the time without any division between grappling, punching, or using weapons.

Kata probably evolved to become the central theme of fighting training in China and Okinawa. As the kata concept was adopted for fighting, the fighting methods probably changed to match the demands of the kata.

Kata today are an anachronistic, antique training method left over from the days when no other media truly existed to accurately record Karate knowledge. Some people believe that Karate was more of an art like Jujutsu that involved arm bars, joint locks, nerve strikes, and other entangling, grappling, non-Shotokan fighting methods.

Take a class in Shorin-Ryu, an art that is descended from the very roots of Shotokan. Shorin-Ryu avoids all of the Shotokan emphasis on very pretty techniques that are so precise you could perform eye surgery with them. Instead of rotating the hips and keeping the rear heel down for maximum output, Shorin-Ryu focuses more upon tangling up the opponent in a spider web of twisty joint manipulations. In Shorin-Ryu, after you get the enemy all twisted up and off balance, then you hit him. And, maybe you hit him before you twist him up so that he won't resist you as much.

In Shotokan, we use our punches and kicks like guided missiles. The missile slips past the enemy's defenses and hits him so hard in a soft spot that he's out of the fight. And even if the technique can't find a soft spot, it's so overdeveloped that it is still likely to maim whatever it happens to land on.

Shotokan is a distinctly Japanese art. Funakoshi arrived in Japan just in time for the middle of Japan's gigantic military campaign of aggression against the entire Pacific Ocean and Asia. At war with all of her neighbors, Japan was probably not in the best mood to accept a foreign art. Funakoshi therefore worked to make karate something that Japan could call her own.

Japan already had the growing art of Judo. Funakoshi worked to make karate more like Judo. Japan also had a national pastime of sword fighting called Kendo. Karate was easily adapted to the Kendo competition style: two men dueling at a distance, each working to outsmart the other in order to tag him with a single technique - a metaphor for a killing blow. A little Judo here, a little Kendo there, and Karate was fully Japanified. All that remained was to develop a way to practice live techniques for military training and athletic sport so that the art would become popular all over war hawk Japan - and in the nations that she conquered.

Since you cannot twist necks and break them in athletic competition or military training, those types of techniques became less practiced, and instead the techniques that were possible to control became the center of the art: the ballistic strikes of punching and kicking. Just like Kendo, where two men take bamboo swords and try to tag each other, Shotokan became an art that emphasized only a few techniques and very subtle distancing and timing.

And why wouldn't Funakoshi and his students do that? Almost all of the Japanese who learned karate back in the day were kendo experts. Nakayama accidentally stumbled onto his first karate class while looking for his daily kendo class at school.

So, here we are today studying an empty-handed Kendo called Shotokan. How ironic that the kata, which probably began as a separate appendage that a few fighters adopted as an alternative training method centuries ago, have once again become little more than an alternative training method for the Shotokan style.

What to do with the traditional kata? The kata were handed down from the past, and being Japanese with a strong sense of historical connection to the past, they could not allow a tradition to be tossed aside out of pragmatism. So, they paid homage to history by doing kata at the end of training, just not as much as before. As time went by and better training methods for learning to win sparring matches were found, the kata were practiced less and less.

That doesn't mean that there is no value in kata as performance art. There is a lot of value there that can be harvested from the practice of kata. But it does mean that most of us think that the kata are mostly just that: dances that we perform when we have to test for a belt. And, it also means that in order to be really good at sparring, kata is not the way to go. No matter which theory you believe, kata are not intended nor a productive practice that will improve your sport sparring skills. Kumite (sport sparring) is a new direction for karate, and it is best trained for by practicing kumite drills of increasing complexity.

If you allow me to continue wildly speculating about the possible past of the kata of which no one truly can be sure, there are, in reality, two fighting arts compressed and encrypted in modern Shotokan Karate training. One art is a punching and kicking art of attack with some blocks thrown in for emergencies, and the other art is a defensive jointlocking system that also uses strikes, but utilizes the things we call blocks as two-handed techniques with a cover and a strike in each of them.

What does all of this mean? It means that first you have to learn your basic techniques. Without all of the punches and kicks, neither art form will work. It also means that all of the skills you learn doing sparring drills can combine with your practice of kata to be applied in some pretty complicated defenses. However, it also becomes clear that kata aren't giving a lot back in the other direction.

This is great news for all of us! It means that by obsessing over the basic techniques in Shotokan, we have built up amazing levels of skill in the striking portion of the other art. It also means that performing all of those kata wasn't such a bad thing after all, because now you have quite a data warehouse you can query for many hundreds of thousands of defensive maneuvers.

If you want to learn nothing but basic techniques and some sparring drills, you will be on a solid path toward competition sparring. And, thanks to our friends in Japan, those simple strikes are refined to such a ludicrous degree that they are still useful in a fight, perhaps even over-kill. So, not learning all of the Jujutsu stuff is not a total loss for you. Your ability to target, time, distance, and then fire a lightning fast punch might be all anyone needs to wipe out an entire street gang. It is an amazing and useful skill.

If one day you get older and decide you are bored with punching and kicking, you can then switch tracks without really switching tracks, because everything you have learned up to this point supports the learning of all of the joint locking and Jujutsu art.

Whether those techniques are truly the original intent of the creators of the kata or their caretakers is irrelevant. Reverse engineered or passed down through the ages, valid fighting techniques found in kata are valid fighting techniques, and once you begin looking, they start to fall out of the trees like overripe apples.

Stretching Our Abilities. Kata practice certainly forces us to learn something that we would not have asked of ourselves without having been handed the template from someone else. Learning someone else's kata helps us explore our potential and learn our limits. Making up our own movements in the beginning of our Karate practice only results in us repeating things we can already do, and it is not nearly as challenging. Kata serve this function well, and as we mature, we move from obedient learning to loyal repetition, and finally to selective preference and finally, hopefully, to creation in order to pass down our own challenge to the next generation.

The Purpose is Yours. No one can tell you what the purpose of your practice of Karate is. You decide what your purpose for taking up Karate as an activity is. This also applies to the practice of kata. The practice of kata will ultimately be what you make it, not what someone scribbles on rice paper and hangs on the wall in a pretty frame. If you want to do kata applications and ignore sport sparring, you can. If you want to learn war dances and revel in the repetition of something beautiful handed down through generations, you can do that too. And the really wonderful thing is that you do not have to choose. You can have it all. You are the decision maker, and the sooner you become comfortable with that, the more advanced your practice of Karate becomes.