Kata and The Transmission of Knowledge in Traditional Martial Arts
Michael J. Rosenbaum
Can it be that the vision has, long back, already come-
And you just didn’t recognize it?
-Robert Penn Warren
Kata is both a mnemomic and a process. In preliterate societies fighting arts were catalogued and transmitted via pre-arranged drills and Jigoro Kano considered practicing a single technique kata. However, just as it is with many Traditional Martial Arts systems, the practice of kata in our post modern world is frequently misunderstood and often considered obsolete. This is because during our current quest to reinvent the fighting arts we have forgotten from whom and where many traditional styles and systems came. The Medieval knight was a traditional martial artist and one of the most effective killing instruments of his day and age. So to was the Japanese Samurai. Both of these men of arms were very skilled not only with the sword, but also the staff, knife, spear, and empty handed methods of combat. Today with the term “martial art” being used in such a generic fashion, and hand-to- hand combat becoming overshadowed by the wide spread use of firearms in our society, the differences between modern sport orientated systems and those designed exclusively for use on the battlefield have become blurred. Likewise, the same holds true for traditional kata because the environment, times and cultures from which they evolved and were used, have changed due to our modern day lifestyles.
What does communication have to do with anything?
The methods of communication we use today have greatly improved all our lives. Due to the internet we can chat online with a person on the other side of the world as if they were living right next door to us. The same holds true with cell phones which now are owned by a vast majority of the worlds population. We can also transmit images, pictures and events just as they happen in real time to any where we chose. Yet despite our advances in communication there are three basic things which we must be able to do if we wish to transmit information between one another. They are: make use of sound, such as talking, singing, reciting folktales and poetry; making use of illustrations which would include written words, drawings, and pictures; and last but not least the transmission of information through physically based movements such as dancing. Prior to our modern electronically based communications age, information was transmitted only as fast as a man traveled. Therefore all three of these methods were used to not only send information but also assimilate and store it as well. Though considered somewhat primitive by our modern standards of communication, they were effective, and in some cases even more so than our current methods are. We need to remember that two hundred years ago there were no power outages to contend with therefore, no one ever worried about their computer crashing. And though there was no electricity when many traditional martial arts were developed man’s collective memory still managed to retain and transmit information in an accurate manner.
The written word along with paintings and drawings has been used to transmit information about the fighting arts for many centuries. The European masters of martial arts produced numerous manuscripts and the printing press helped spread the information contained within their covers throughout the Renaissance world. Even prior to the Renaissance, earlier pagan societies used runes to record information some of which was related to the fighting arts. In his article Circumstantial Evidence I which examines the similarities between Eastern and Western fighting arts, J. Christoph Amberger states: “One of the earliest enigmatic clues to shamanic martial arts originated in Iceland. The Edda, one of the few literary monuments of Germanic paganisn features two verses that have been interpreted as being indicative of a close link between warrior arts and naive cults.”1 The importance of preserving knowledge pertaining to the fighting arts and their techniques has long been recognized by man. However, of all the forms of transmitting information writing has probably been the most difficult for him to develop. Not only has he had to design signs and symbols for the various sounds and words used within society, but do so in a manner that remains consistent despite variances in tone and volume. As Jared Diamond said about the early forms of writing and their inventors: “Somehow, the scribes solved all those problems, without having in front of them any example of the final result to guide their efforts. That task was evidently so difficult that there have been only a few occasions in history when people invented writing entirely upon their own.” 2 And even with the invention of writing systems by various cultures such as the, Chinese, Japanese, Greeks, Irish and others, these methods remained largely known only to the ruling class, scholars, and priests. Therefore, for the large majority of many societies, other forms of information transmission was used, poetry being one of them.
In the early English epic Beowulf, the poem opens with the following passage:
“So. The spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.”3
Not only does this ancient verse make reference to the Danes courage and martial prowess, but it also states that others have “heard” of their heroics and skill of arms. In the day and age when Beowulf was composed poetry was used extensively to transmit and preserve knowledge about a peoples history. It was a skill not confined solely to the ranks of artists and scholars as it so often is today.
Although the early Anglo-Saxon warrior was well known and feared for his battlefield prowess, he was respected for his abilities with both the bowstring and harpstring. Stephen Pollington described their abilities best when he said: “Although the primary purpose of the warrior was to fight, it is no coincidence that the warrior who could use the harpstring as well as the bowstring was greatly admired. Poets fulfilled a useful, almost central, function in early societies in that they were jointly the ‘collective memory’ of their people.’ 4 It was the warrior who recorded and transmitted their cultures history and folklore through their poetry. And this was not just found in the Anglo-Saxon culture either. For the Chinese this also proved true in the transmission of information about their fighting arts. As Dr. Yang Jwing Ming said about the transmission of information pertaining to Chinese fighting arts: “since most of the Chinese population was illiterate, even in the last century, it was very difficult to compile and record history. In fact, in order to preserve the essence of the arts, the secrets of each style were often composed into songs or poems which could be more easily remembered by illiterate people.”5 A poem was easily passed on from one person to another, teacher to student, or parent to child. And even though a particular verse may prove simple to recite, the nuances and metaphors so commonly found within poetry can allude to vast depths of knowledge. As Joseph Campbell said about poetry and its power: “Poetry is a language that has to be penetrated. Poetry involves a precise choice of words that will have implications and suggestions that go past the words themselves. Then you experience the radiance, the epiphany. The epiphany is the showing through of the essence.”6 However poetry alone was not the only method of transmitting and preserving knowledge.
Of all the methods used to transmit information, dance is probably the most three dimensional in nature simply because not only are physical movements used as a means to communicate, but accompanying these movements is music, song and poetry. Like the runes which were used to record and transmit information, dance also played a central role in many pagan religious ceremonies. In Okinawan society dance has long been used as a means to transmit information, preserve legends and history, and also as a form of entertainment. George H. Kerr said of the culture and the role dancing played in it that: “Themes for the pantomimic dance-dramas and the songs which accompanied them were drawn from legend and history, treated with a bawdy humor or tinged with melancholy, alternating between rollicking and lusty gaiety and the haunting, sad themes of separation, or poverty, or thwarted love.) 7 This proved true for not just Okinawan society but many others as well. For the Zulu dance served not only as a means to express themselves but also as a form of military drill. For the ancient Greeks war dances were used not only to exhibit individual martial prowess but also to boost morale amongst the Hoplites. Dance has even influenced particular fighting arts, for instance Pentjak-silat has borrowed movements from Indonesian folk dances, and in turn Indonesian dancing has borrowed movements from Pentjak-Silat.8 In other cultures dance was also used as a means to both hide and preserve fighting techniques, for instance many steps and movements found within Scottish folk dances can also be used in combat. According to some scholars these techniques were preserved in folk dances to keep their presence hidden from the English who had occupied Scotland. For the Filipino culture martial forms of dance were tightly intertwined with daily life. Martial dancing was used to record battles and portray the feats of early warriors. Mark Wiley observed about the Filipino martial dances that they were broken down into three categories, or as Wiley said: “Martial dances are concerned with war and the warrior and are organized into three basic types: war or fight dances, dances which commemorate warriors of times past, and dances designed specifically for solo and paired practice of Filipino martial arts.”9 Those folk dances which were used specifically in the warriors training were known as Langkas.
In all of these methods of communication, symbols and metaphors are used, often extensively depending upon the time and culture involved. This is because when trying to interpret matters of a humanistic nature, the subject proves to be so immense that it cannot be accurately described in written form, spoken word, or physical movement. Therefore these ways of communicating become symbolic of something greater than themselves. For example, ancient Jewish mystics believed that God’s presence was far beyond man’s power of comprehension. So much so, that any attempts to describe it would be inaccurate. Therefore, the word “Yahweh” came to mean much more than God. Likewise in describing battle the same phenomenon happens. Soldiers of the Civil War spoke often of “seeing the elephant”. This was a phrase that referred to both the fear of combat and the immenseness of battle which due to its chaos, bloodshed, and horror proved too overwhelming to be captured in words. In describing the fighting arts the same holds true. D. T. Suzuki once stated that: “The sword is the soul of the samurai.”10 At first the meaning of his words seem apparent, but upon closer study they go far beyond the obvious.
The spur of development: Combat
The same creative process which was used to develop dance, writing and poetry was also used to create kata, or pre-arranged forms of movement. As it was with the other means of transmitting and preserving knowledge, early man realized that the same had to be done with techniques and tactics that had proven themselves effective during the hunt or else on the field of battle. Therefore he began to record these techniques in pre-arranged movement patterns which proved to be very effective in the preservation and transmission of fighting techniques and the foundation on which many systems and their teachings were to be based.
Although kata is a term frequently used to describe a standardized sequence of techniques, the term itself is a by product of the Asian fighting arts, one used due to their overwhelming popularity today. In actuality, the practice of combative techniques in pre-arranged sequences is a methodology that has been used by many cultures throughout time and history. In times when hand to hand combat was the normal way of fighting the use of pre-arranged movement patterns was employed by both individuals and groups to increase their combat efficiency. The Phalanx formation employed by the Greek Hoplites is one such example of a group use of pre-arranged movement patterns.11 The Phalanx served not only to train the Hoplite but also as a means to harness the full potential of an armed and armored group of men. It channeled their individual actions, beliefs and emotions into a highly disciplined and very lethal weapon of war. To quote Victor Davis Hanson who said about the Phalanx: “Like so much of their art and literature, the Greek manner of battle was a paradox of the highest order, a deliberate attempt to harness, to modulate, and hence to amplify if not sanctify the wild human desire for violence through the stark order and discipline of the phalanx.” 12 The harnessing and amplifying of the wild human desire through stark order that Hanson speaks of is also the goal of solo forms practice. But for an individual to harness, amplify, express, and transmit this human desire for violence, physical based movement is a requirement.
As man began to study then store those techniques and tactics which had proven so successful on the battlefield and during his hunt for food, two types of movement were recognized which formed the foundation of all his techniques. Those that were executed in a natural manner and those which he learned. The International Hoplology Society classifies human movement patterns into two categories. They are “primary movement patterns’ and “secondary movement patterns’.13 Primary movement patterns are those which we do naturally, and increase in their complexity as we develop and mature from infant to adult. A child grabs hold of its bottle which is a primary movement but by the time it has reached adulthood the grab can be applied to numerous things and in under a great many circumstances. Secondary Movement patterns are those which have to be learned such as walking, climbing, jumping etc. Both of these types of movement patterns are found within kata and used in unison. An example of the two movements being used together would be the Greek Hoplite and the Phalanx formation. Those who made up the phalanx wore heavy armor and were armed with 6 to 8 foot long spears. Due to the close confines of the formation the Hoplite could only use their spear in one of two manners; either as an overhand thrust, or an underhand thrust, both of which are primary movement patterns. These techniques were performed within the Phalanx formation, which is a secondary movement pattern, and had to be learned by the Hoplite. On a more individual level, an open handed slap would be considered a primary movement pattern, and can be used quite effectively in a combative scenario. In contrast to the slap a straight snap kick is what would be considered a secondary movement pattern and has to be taught to the combatant for it to be used.
More often than not the number of techniques retained numbered in the hand-full and each one was perfected by the warrior to a high degree. As Mr. Armstrong said about the role of kata and pre-arranged movement patterns: ‘ The purpose of kata (or any pre-arranged movement pattern(PMP) designed for combative application) was not to develop the individual’s ability to respond to any attack with the choice of a wide variety of techniques, but to train that individual to effectively utilize a select few proven techniques in response to a wide variety of attacks or combative situations. “ 14 Likewise this same sentiment was put forth 100 years earlier by Egerton Castle. In his classic work Schools and Masters of Fence first published in 1885, Castle said about the teachings of the seventeenth and eighteenth century fencing schools that: “ The long traditions of the “Academie,” an institution unique of it’s kind, at least during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, necessarily favored the development of a very perfect system. Benefited by a long series of masters, each imbued at the outset of his career with sound principles, it was but natural that constant improvement should take place. This improvement in the art of elegantly dispatching a neighbor to the next world consisted rather in the clear definition and restriction of particular movements, and the elimination of imperfect or uncertain actions, than in the discovery of fresh modes of attack and defense.”15 In hand to hand combat especially when done with edged weapons, fear often proves to be as great an enemy as your opponent. This is because fear induces paralysis, it reduces motor functions and often makes even the most conditioned responses become difficult to execute. Italian fencing great Aldo Nadi, testified first hand as to the effects that fear has on one engaged in mortal combat. In 1924 he was insulted by Adolfo Cotronei, who was the fencing editor of the Corriere della Sera, a Milan newspaper. Nadi seeking to defend his honor issued a challenge to Cotronei who accepted. The two met at the San Siro racetrack in Milan. Although Nadi was a championship fencer who’s skill was legendary he had never fought a duel before. In contrast to the young champion was Contronei, who, although a much older man, had fought and survived five previous duels.16 On the agreed day Nadi arrived at the racetrack to see Contronei chatting with his seconds as if it were a Sunday picnic. As Nadi prepared for the duel a white silk handkerchief was fastened to his wrist. Inquiring what it was for the young champion was told that it was to protect the main arteries in his arm.17 Nadi later wrote about his duel and described in part his feeling and actions during the action: “You counterattack, and your sword-point lands precisely where you wanted it to-at the wrist, piercing both the glove and the white silk. But during you opponent’s flurry of action his blade has clashed with yours, and it’s point whips into your forearm.... “Halt!” shouts the referee. Oblivious to your own wound, you look at once at your opponent’s wrist, then up at his face. Why on earth does he look so pleased? Wasn’t he the one to be hit first? Yes, but this is not like a competition bout. He has every reason to be pleased at having wounded you....”18 Although both men survived the duel Nadi’s performance was less than spectacular. In competition his form was picture perfect however during the duel, it was much more like that of a novice fencer instead of the champion he was. Pictures taken during the duel show Nadi’s left foot far off the ground during a lunge, his left arm well out of position, leading foot miss-placed, and other mistakes commonly associated with beginning fencers. Nadi’s paralysis is precisely why the movements found with in combative forms are of a pragmatic, and simplistic nature. They are designed and practiced to ensure a quick solution to the engagement. The closer the movement is to its actual application the easier it will be to execute during the heat of combat. Movements done for aesthetic appeal have no place in the realm of combative kata.
The depths of Kata, metaphors and nuances
In a large majority of today’s modern fighting arts schools the student is first taught a kata and then tries to unlock the mysteries of their newly learned form. In many ways this is putting the preverbal cart before the donkey because there can be no kata without the techniques of which it is comprised. True combative kata and prearranged patterns of movement were built from techniques which the warrior had used successfully. Those kata were in turn practiced by people who had first hand combat experience, or by those uninitiated to the battlefield but with the full understanding of their combative applications. In his longstanding work; Japanese Swordsmanship Technique and Practice Donn Draeger said about the development of classical kata that: “Genuine classical sword kata are sequences that have been extracted from successful battlefield experiences. The careful manner in which individual techniques were selected and linked together to form a meaningful combative sequence was accomplished by men who had considerable experience on the battlefield and elsewhere. In classical kata there is no preset “winner” or “loser,” for any single technique executed on the part of either of the participants is designed to produce shobu, lethal results, if carried to conclusion.” 19 This approach to kata training was not just found in Japanese swordsmanship but in many other fighting arts as well. In the classical kata of Okinawan Karate each movement executed is a direct response to a specific combative scenario. The same can also be said for other systems and their pre-arranged movement patterns. These were violent times and kata mirrored that violence.
Despite the fact that combative kata have a pragmatic nature, it is because of this pragmatism that they often have a metaphoric side as well. In writing about Hsing Yi Chuan Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming said: “ Like Tai Chi Chuan, but unlike external styles, Hsing Yi Chuan has only a limited number of practice routines which reflect the depth and profundity of the art’s principles. This means that while it is easy to learn Hsing Yi, it is hard to comprehend the deeper essence and meaning of the art.”20 Dr. Yangs statement implies that the techniques which make up kata can often become metaphors, which spur on the practitioner to explore other possible uses for them. Likewise due to this metaphoric side it is not unusual to find one kata that is in itself a complete system which encompasses not only striking methods, but also grappling, throwing, joint locking, strangulation techniques and even weapons in addition to empty handed methods of application. This often proves true in many Okinawan Karate Kata where in addition to combative applications other areas of development can be found within them. In discussing the magnitude of kata Patrick McCarthy listed the following behavioral traits as being gained from kata practice in addition the techniques found.
yoi no kishin -(mental preparation)
inyo (yin/yang-understanding the magnitude of cause and effect)
go no sen, sen no sen, and sen (the three aspects of defensive initiative)
maai (understanding engagement distance and how to utilize ma-the space or interval established through body-change) and tai sabaki (expansion and contraction, gyration and body mechanics)
chikara no kyojaku (the proper amount of power for each technique)
kiai-jutsu (the gathering and releasing of ki or qi)
waza no kankyu (the speed and rhythm of technique)
ju no ri (the principle of resiliency, and the willingness to bend in the wind of adversity)
bunkai (understanding the defensive themes and application of technique)
zanshin (mental alertness and continued domination before and after the fact)
seishi o choetsu (transcending the thoughts of life and death)
As McCarthy said about the depths of learning found within kata; “Through understanding the magnitude of kata, especially when it is combined with spiritual doctrines, it becomes perfectly clear how a single paradigm (kata) can represent an entire fighting art.”21 Although his study is primarily concerned with the Okinawan fighting arts the same could also be said of other fighting arts. However, in discussing these “depths” and metaphors, it should be kept in mind, this applies to traditional kata whose function was the preservation of effective techniques and the training of combatants. Modern tournament kata and many of those found within the modern Budo do not apply. For these are kata which were designed and practiced for reasons other than combat. As Mr. Draeger said about them: “Deprived of combative integrity, the kata of modern disciplines thus stand tangential to the very discipline they are said in theory to support, the disciplines being characterized more by an emphasis in “free” action directed toward sport-orientated applications that are far removed from the exigencies of combat.” 22 Likewise the developmental traits that Mr. McCarthy associates with kata practice should not be considered blanket coverage for all kata and pre-arranged movment patterns. Some systems and styles may include all of the traits McCarthy listed while others may only include a few.
With the demands of hand to hand combat being so severe it was not uncommon for other elements to be incorporated into kata which although esoteric by nature were still used to help prepare the warrior on a mental plain for combat. Some of these esoteric methods were believed to affect not only the warrior’s mental state but also enhance their physical abilities while diminishing the abilities of their foe. Therefore it is not uncommon to find esoteric Buddhist symbolism incorporated into both the Japanese and Chinese martial arts. To quote Hoplologist David A. Hall who wrote about these esoteric incorporations: “Mahayana and, consequently, esoteric Buddhist philosophy, which is based on the Madlhyamika and Yogacara schools of thought, make no distinction between what the modern scientific mind may call the real world and the world of the mind. The world seen from this angle is thought to be influenced through the use of various esoteric devices such as mudra, mantra, mandala, various ritual implements, and so on. Since a mudra or mantra can affect the mind, it is also believed to be able to affect the body of the practitioner, and consequently, someone else’s body or mind. Thus we find mudra used by various martial traditions in Japan and China for protection in battle.”23 For the Filipino warrior Orasyones are used. These are words, sayings or sentences which are believed to hold mystical powers and were used in ritual salutations by the Filipino warriors. As Mark Wiley said about these rituals: “this combination of prayer and ritual body movements acted as a mechanism through which a metamorphosos occured in the patayan participant. During this time he surrendered to God, accepting death as a reward not a punishment, and became one with the combative dance of death. At the conclusion of the ritual salutation the participant masters became warriors once again and gained access into a realm of martial-spiritual existence that few have entered.”24 These esoteric additions to the kata and prearranged movement patterns were often drawn from the cultures religious belief systems. In Japanese Martial Arts there is a degree of Buddhisim found, in Chinese systems, Taoism, and in Indonesian fighting arts Islamic influences can be found. Though the esoteric elements may or may not have held direct bearing on the execution of techniques they still yet played a major role in the warriors mindset and in doing so became an integral part of the kata. Thus the physical became balanced with the spiritual.
All Kata are not alike
As stated earlier the term kata is used in a very generic fashion to describe all and any pre-arranged movement patterns which are found within the Asian fighting arts. However, when Mr. Armstrong’s term of: “pre-arranged movement patterns” is used instead of the word “kata’ we come to realize this practice was used within many other societies.
For Masters of the European Martial Arts who sought to convey their teachings both directly and in written word general principles and techniques were identified which were then practiced in pre-arranged sequences. Sydney Anglo said of the masters, and their methods that: “ The majority of masters thought otherwise and preferred straightforward exposition although, whatever the literary form used, most authors would have agreed with Marcelli that their principal aim was to achieve clarity. It is also evident that they believed it possible to achieve this: first by deducing, from a multiplicity of sword, arm, foot and body movements, some communicable general principles; and then, by analysing particular actions and arranging them in sequences, to form some kind of system.”25 Although the European martial artists may not have begun their techniques with the bow which is so commonly seen in today’s karate kata, their pre-arranged movement patterns were sophisticated ways for transmitting and practicing the European martial arts.
On a more contemporary level, distinctions are made between the kata found within the different Asian fighting arts. For instance, the difference between the execution of a Tae Kwon Do kata, and the Yang Tai Chi form would be very apparent. With the emphasis placed on sport karate today the differences between “Classical’ kata, those developed as a result of life or death combat and “Modern” kata those developed for other means than combat, are not so readily seen. This is because “Classical” kata are very seldom presented in the tournament atmosphere for reasons such as; they are not aesthetically appealing, nor are they practiced by many people today. And if they are presented at tournaments the kata often have been modified to ensure greater crowd appeal.
Classical kata and pre-arranged movement patterns are methods which evolved from combat during a day and age when hand-to hand combat was the norm, not the exception as is today. They were used, in addition to preserving techniques, to train combatants in the use of simple but effective techniques that could be executed during the stress of combat. Although he was writing about the Koryu Bujutsu, Mr. Armstrong summarizes this quite well when he said about the Koryu and their kata that: “The aim of classical training was and is not simply the learning of movement techniques, but the development of combative behaviors that prepare one for the implementing simple-but-learned-movement techniques in the face of the overwhelmingly traumatic stress of combat.”26
The techniques found within classical kata are not flamboyant but instead, simplistic in their appearance. However, it is this simplicity, that allows the practitioner to so successfully internalize the katas techniques to the point that they become behavioral patterns, conditioned responses, that are executed without thought or preponderance. In many instances the techniques are isolated from the kata and practiced in two person segments, not just solo as is often seen in modern kata. Likewise, safety in training is another factor that the classical kata embraces. Since many of the classical kata utilize weaponry and lethal empty hand techniques, their practice cannot be done in a free-form manner as sparring is conducted in sport karate. To do so would risk the practitioner’s lives and would deprive the technique of its simplistic nature and execution.
“In the past, it was expected that about three years were required to learn a single kata, and that it was usual that even an expert of considerable skill would only know three or at the most five kata. Thus, in short, it was felt that a superficial understanding of many kata was of little use.” Gichin Funakoshi. 27
With the increased effectiveness of firearms and their widespread use on the battlefield, many of the classical fighting arts became obsolete. This also had an effect on kata practice. For as the use of firearms became more prominent in history, hand to hand combat became more obscure, and with this kata came to be viewed as a tool to be used for reasons other than combat. As more time passed many fighting arts came to be practiced for health reasons, spiritual aspects, and for sport. The practice of kata reflected these changes and even gave rise to modern versions that met these new needs. A prime example of this is how classical Okinawan Karate Kata were modified upon being introduced to Japan in the early part of the 20th century. Their role in the new Karate-do was viewed not so much as means to transmit and perfect combative techniques, but as tools to train karate-ka in the fundamental movements found within the newly organized Karate-do systems. What had once been taught to small and often select groups, was now being offered to the masses, and breadth in learning was favored more than depth of knowledge. Karate great Shoshin Nagamine reflected on this change when he recounted a conversation he once had with the legendary Motobu Choki. Said Nagamine about Motobu Choki‘s comments: “ He was sad that with the popularity of the discipline there also had come great change. The kata practiced in Tokyo had been carelessly changed, and in some cases had completely disintegrated. In Okinawa during the old days students spent years meticulously learning a single kata or two. That custom in Tokyo had changed to the pointless but popular practice of accumulating many kata without ever understanding their respective applications. The practice of kata had been reduced to stiff and fixed postures, without tai sabaki (body movement) or ashi sabaki (stepping and sliding.) Kata had become a lifeless practice, Motobu believed.” 28 The kata had become very standardized methods which were performed and not studied. They were viewed as a whole entity instead of a grouping of proven techniques that were to be taken from the kata and studied on an individual basis. However this mass-standardization of Okinawan karate did allow it to be taught to large groups of people, and for the Japanese this was more important than the depths that had previously been found within the kata. Much of this was due to the Militaristic doctrines of the Japanese government at the time, which sought to use the modern Budo as a way to instill a similar mindset in the country’s populace. The modern Budo systems, Karate-Do, Judo, Aiki-do etc, reflected this mindset in their teachings and appearance. Uniforms were issued, ranking structures were set up, senior students gave commands to junior students in harsh tones much like a drill instructor would to a recruit, and the kata was then used as a means to conduct organized drill for large groups of people.29 Within a few years time this militaristic form of both kata, and karate became the normal way of practice. And with the introduction of karate and other modern Budo into the United States, this militaristic form which stresses quantity over quality, came to be viewed as Traditional Martial Arts. In time with the popularity of karate becoming world wide and organized competitions being held, the emphasis on sport soon influenced kata practice. Kata in not only karate, but in other fighting arts as well, came to be executed for their aesthetic appeal and soon were designed for no other purpose than to win in competition. Therefore the process of devolution in Traditional kata practice, which had begun in the early 20th century with the injection of militaristic ideologies, and mass training procedures, had by the end of the 20th century come to be aesthetically appealing routines that held no combative applications what so ever. Yet they were, and still are, called kata, even though they hardly resemble those Motobu chastised some 80 years ago.
It can be said that with the development of firearms, that the bell began to toll for traditional martial arts systems. It was not an over night process, but one that was centuries in the making. Within 300 years time from 1550 to 1850, the classical martial arts were swept clean from the worlds battlefields by the musket’s roar. Holdouts were not unheard of and some systems were preserved, but their widespread use was forever gone. Likewise the growing use of firearms also influenced those fighting arts practiced by civilians. By the turn of the 20th century many of these non-battlefield orientated systems had come to be viewed as sport and in keeping with the trend, their kata reflected this change.
As technology has spread and influenced the world, many cultural traditions have been lost due to it’s steady march. In our society today, the bonds we once held with earlier methods of transmitting and preserving information have been broken and are now maintained by only a small number of people. Likewise our ability to use the human spirit in transmitting information has been lost, and the “epiphany” Joseph Campbell spoke of is absent in modern transmissions. Thus the essence of the message often becomes replaced by a one-dimensional sound bite. As the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu said: “Words exist because of meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the word.”30
In keeping with this modern trend in communications our bond with kata has been lost. Today it is a lifeless practice, one in which we focus on the “words” Chuang Tzu spoke of, and not their meaning. The renowned Hoplologist, Donn Draeger, addressed our modern day views of both kata and the Asian fighting arts when he said: “The exponent of today’s modern budo gropes about in a maze of classical traditions that he does not understand, and thus, the cleverest of his kind declare that the classical disciplines must be freed from the feudal Japanese superstitions and raised to great heights of rational efficiency so as to yield wealth, prestige, and practical use. Some foreigners proudly declare that they aim to “Americanize,” or otherwise nationalize, Japanese budo in terms more suited to their country‘s way of life. Most foreigners have selfish aims that they disguise by mouthing lofty phrases that are nothing but lip service.”31 Both Chuang Tzu’s and Mr. Draeger’s statements shed much light on our attempts to understand an ancient methodology, one based on traditions very different to those that we value today. Thus, in our attempts to assimilate and reinvent the fighting arts, we often discard the most valuable parts, ones that have proven themselves reliable for many centuries and in under the harsh extremes of hand to hand combat. The rule we use to measure both kata, and the Classical fighting arts is one based on contemporary times and values, not those from which they came.
Can the practice of kata ever be understood in this post modern world of ours? Maybe, but to do so is to study a way that involves more than a simple bow, and the execution of a few crisp movements. In the study of kata, less does mean more, more depth of knowledge that is, and this idea runs contrary to how many fighting arts are practiced and taught today. For us to fully comprehend kata training we need to understand that our present use of the word “traditional” is one born of recent times. It does not reflect the long heritage of the Classical martial arts, nor the kata, which they gave birth too. To study kata as it was intended, is to discard much of what we now embrace and begin afresh by exploring traditions that have long since been forgotten. At best it would prove to be a daunting task, but one that if undertaken would give life and meaning to so much more than just those movements which are done on the tournament floor.
Michael Rosenbaum is the author of: Okinawa’s Complete Karate System: Isshinryu and The Fighting Arts: Their Evolution From Secret Societies To Modern Times. In October of 2004 his book: Kata and the Transmission of Knowledge in Traditional Martial Arts was published by YMAA publishing of Boston Mass. If you would like more information about Mr. Rosenbaum’s latest book contact YMAA publishing at firstname.lastname@example.org . The book’s ISBN is 1-59439-026-6 Or you can purchase it via Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Kata-Transmission-Knowledge-Traditional-Martial/dp/1594390266/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1332433317&sr=1-1
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1. Hammerterz Forum Volume 1, Number 3*Winter 1994/95
2. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel. p. 218
3. Beowulf 10, p. 3 Translated by Seamus Heaney
4. Stephen Pollington, The English Warrior p. 65
5. Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming Baguazhang p. 37
6. Joseph Campbell The Power of Myth p. 283
7. George H. Kerr Okinawa The History of an Island People p 217
8. Donn F. Draeger The Weapons and Fighting Arts of Indonesia p.36
9. Mark Wiley Filipino Martial Culture p. 112
10. DT Suzuki: Zen and Japanese Culture p. 90
11. Hunter B. Armstrong: Pre-Arranged Movement Patterns Hoplos WInter 1988, Vol. VI, Nos 1&2
12. Victor Davis Hanson: The Western Way of War P. 16
13. Hunter B. Armstrong: Pre-Arranged Movement Patterns Hoplos Winter 1988, Vol VI, Nos 1&2
14. Armstrong, Hoplos Winter 1988, Vol. VI, Nos. 1&2
15. Egerton Castle, Schools and Masters of Fencing p.150
16. Richard Cohen, By the Sword p. 289
17. Richard Cohen, By the Sword p. 289
18. Richard Cohen, By the Sword p. 290
19. Donn Draeger Japanese Swordsmanship p. 44.
20. Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, Hsing Yi Chuan p. 18.
21. Patrick McCarthy Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts p. 109
22. Donn Draeger, Japanese Swordsmanship p. 44
23. David A. Hall Bujutsu and the Esoteric Tradition Hoplos December 1979, Vol. I, No. 6
24. Mark Wiley Filipino Martial Culture p. 99
25. Sydney Anglo, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe p. 121
26. Hunter Armstrong, Koryu Bujutsu Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan p. 24-25
27. Gichin Funakoshi Karate-Do Kyohan p.38
28. Shoshin Nagamine Tales of Okinawas Great Masters p. 100
29. Hunter Armstrong, Koryu Bujutsu p. 26-27
30. Chang Tzu, Basic Writings p. 140
31. Donn Draeger p. 181 Modern Budo and Bujutsu