Kata is a name for the pre-arranged training rituals that contain karate’s teaching syllabus. The concept of using prearranged training rituals to preserve and transmit martial knowledge is as old as civilization and can be found in all styles of fighting.
Kata/Prearranged training rituals have four basic goals:
1. They preserve techniques and tactics.
2. They allow fighters to transmit techniques and tactics.
3. They allow practice of techniques that are to dangerous to be used in free sparring.
4. They help the fighter to develop neuromuscular responses that can be applied to combat.
Like other martial arts, early forms of Okinawan Te were practiced in a ritualistic manner to ensure consistent strategies and preserve existing martial knowledge. However, with the Satsuma’s occupation of Okinawa, the practice of Te was initially forced underground and alternative methods were used to preserve the fighting art. As Mark Bishop observed, “After the Satsuma invasion several (bugyo) were set up, one of which was for dance, i.e., dance Te, and it is not surprising that the highest Ryukyu court officials were the most accomplished dancers. Neither is it strange that, with the gradual demilitarization of the kingdom, these dance commissioners (odori bugyo) encouraged the choreographic interpretation of the meditative forms of advance Te practice into set patterns of court dance. In short, Te dances became secret Te katas,” (Bishop, Okinawan Karate, 105).
This method of preservation was only the beginning of a process that would have much affect the development of karate kata. For as the popularity of Chinese boxing grew on Okinawa, so too did prearranged boxing patterns, each one being a tradition complete with striking, blocking, joint locking and grappling techniques. When transplanted to Okinawa, these prearranged patterns, which became karate kata, underwent an assimilation that made them more suitable to Okinawan culture. Morio Higaonna noted the effects of this assimilation:
Sanchin kata was practiced with Nukite when Chojun Miyagi first learned it from Higaonna Sensei. Chojun Sensei related to An’chi Miyagi that during Sanchin practice, when executing Nukite, Higaonna Sensei would tell him to blow hard as he thrust out his hand quickly.
It is not certain exactly when Nukite in Sanchin changed to the closed fist, but An’ichi Sensei did say, ‘From olden times in China, Nukite had been practiced and tempered to be a strong and dangerous technique. In Okinawa on the other hand, tijikun (Okinawan Fist) has been practiced for centuries. Punching the makiwara is natural for Okinawans. It is most likely for this reason that the Nukite strike changed to a closed fist (Higaonna, The History of Karate, 37).
The Chinese boxing patterns assumed the physical characteristics considered most acceptable by the Okinawans, their appearance altered by social decorum and individual taste. This is the reason one finds several variations of many of the karate kata. For instance Kusanku kata, which although present in several styles of both Okinawan and Japanese karate, differs due to the varying tastes of each styles founder. Moreover, with karate’s exportation from Okinawa and Japan to Korea, America and other western cultures, its kata underwent even further changes due to nationalistic pride and competitive demands.
With karate’s initial introduction to Japan, attempts were made to classify the kata as being either Shorei or Shorin based, Shorei being those which emphasized forcefulness and muscular strength, while Shorin based kata were those that relied upon light and rapid movements. However, this classification process fell short of its intended goal because most, if not all, of karate’s kata contain both internal and external elements, light and forceful actions, blocking, striking, joint locks, grappling and even in some instances weapons play. Kata evolved out of a pragmatic need to preserve martial knowledge, and their identities were established with this in mind. They were not intended to represent a system per se, although many are complete paradigms in their own right, but were instead used to preserve a combative theme, its strategies and techniques. As such, traditional concerns focused more upon those strategies found within a kata than they did which style it came from, as is the case today.
The Evolution and Experence of Kata
St Matthew 13.13 reads, “This is the reason I speak to them in figures because they see and cannot perceive, and they hear and yet do not listen, nor do they understand.”
This passage, though set in a Christian religious context, undoubtedly speaks volumes about the negative perceptions levied against kata today. We see but do not perceive kata; we hear but do not listen to it, and this leaves us ignorant about the rituals higher knowledge. Consequently, it is no small wonder that kata is considered useless and why our opinions blame the tradition instead of our ignorance. It was, after all, Gichin Funakoshi who penned the phrase, “Perform Kata exactly; actual combat is another matter,” and Genwa Nakasone who added further insight by writing “But in actual combat, it will not do to be hampered or shackled by the rituals of kata. Instead, the practitioner should transcend kata, moving freely according to the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.” (Funakoshi, Twenty Guiding Principles, 104)
Despite the insights of Gichin Funakoshi, Kenwa Mabuni, Chojun Miyagi and many other prominent karate-ka, the practice of kata is an ambiguous one for many westerners. Either they love kata or they hate it, but usually there is no middle ground. Hence kata is never viewed as a process which develops one’s physical and spiritual attributes until the ritual is transcended, or even cast aside completely. Ironically, this all or nothing attitude is a by product of the western mind, not karate’s kata. While exploring the meaning of symbolism and ritual in both Eastern and Western cultures Joseph Campbell, renowned professor of creative mythology wrote:
For in the history of our still youthful species, a profound respect for inherited forms has generally suppressed innovation. Millenniums have rolled by with only minor variations played on themes derived from God-knows-when. Not so, however, in our recent West, where, since the middle of the twelfth century, an accelerating disintegration has been undoing the formidable orthodox tradition that came to power in that century, and with its fall, the released creative powers of a great company of towering individuals have broken forth: so that not one, or even two or three, but a galaxy of mythologies-as many, one might say, as the multitude of its geniuses-must be taken into account in any study of the spectacle of our own titanic age. (P.3)
Although Dr. Campbell’s statement concerns religion and mythology, the mindset to which he alludes, can and does, influence Western and Eastern perspectives where kata and karate are concerned. Hence, one reason why many westerners’ tend to shun kata completely, and, are more apt to found a new style of karate, than say their Okinawan, or Japanese counterpart. It is part of the Western heritage to disregard rituals which we either don’t understand or disagree with. And while this independence of mind has helped elevate Western society, it has simultaneously hindered it in other areas, kata being one of them.
Kata, like karate, is a complex experience whose private dimensions vary from person to person. A medium through which physical and spiritual growth can be achieved, the horizons of kata broaden with time allowing the artist to transcend the experience itself. Yet despite the complexities involved, the substance of kata is elementary and its role in karate has remained unchanged for many years. However, for us to understand its role, we must first examine the conditions which gave birth to kata because they existed long before the word karate was ever spoken.
Knowledge is gained thorough experience and this maxim is never as true as it is in mortal combat. Throughout history from Paleolithic times to the present, mankind has sought ways to retain and transmit martial knowledge. With our early hunter-gather ancestors, this task was fairly simple due to the primitive weaponry and tactics involved. However, as weapons and tactics grew more sophisticated, so did the ways mankind stored and transmitted marital knowledge. Dance, folksongs, cave drawings and poetry have all been used to fill this need. Yet the most effective means was, and still is, through the use of pre-arranged sequences of movement, or kata, as they are known in karate.
Prearranged forms of fighting, in all probability, evolved from folk dancing which was used within many pre-modern cultures both to record and transmit information. Dance is a story enacted three dimensionally complete with music, movement and dialogue that recreate past events or celebrate existing traditions. Likewise even today in remote regions such as New Guinea, where many people cannot read nor write, dance serves as a medium to preserve a society’s history and transmit information. Such was the case in Okinawa where dance, as Geroge Kerr observes, served as one of the oldest forms of celebration and communication: “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.” (Kerr, Okinawa History of an Island People, 217)
Dance mirrors kata in utilizing muscular energy, body motion and mental alertness to convey its message and has been a keystone in many cultures for perfecting the warrior’s skills. Used by the ancient Greeks, the pyrrhic war dance was complete with body shifting, strikes, blocks, weapons play and intricate footwork and was often performed while wearing armor. The same relationship can also be found throughout Africa, Indonesia, the Philippines and Okinawa where traditional weapons dances have been used to preserve martial strategies. Likewise, dance has both directly and indirectly influenced the Okinawan fighting arts. However, today these rituals differ, for while dance maintains prearranged sequences of movement for aesthetical purposes, kata uses them to preserve martial strategies. Hence, one’s goal is visual, the other’s combative.
The traditional Kata of Okinawan karate are uniformed paradigms, which through constant practice of the karate-ka develops first a basic insight and then an abstract understanding greater than the paradigm itself. A process based on the tenet that the karate-ka achieves mastery through direct, hands on experience, rather than verbal debate or written explanation. Therefore, much like the Renaissance painters and classical dancers, who by replicating the master’s works perfected their own skills, so is it for the karate-ka who practices kata. And while dance can be used as a preparatory exercise for combat, the intrinsic movements of karate’s kata often simulate behaviors endemic to fighting much more closely because of their grounded, forceful actions, traits commonplace when two enemies meet at arm’s length, their adrenaline rushing as blows are exchanged.
Despite dance and kata sharing complimentary bonds, the ritualized structure of karate’s kata is often attributed to earlier neo-Confucian influences which impacted the development of both Chinese and Japanese martial arts. Neo-Confucian teachings placed much emphasis on ritualized action, believing that one might rationalize or explain an experience with verbal debate but that it was only through ritual practice that one could acquire true knowledge and understanding of a subject. Li, or ritual, brings organization to chaos and aligns specific ideas and principles so that they may be understood through direct experience. Likewise, the principle of Li, when applied to human realms, serves as both the fabric which holds society together and the instrument that instills religious, sociological and physiological dimensions into humanity. Li and its importance are best described in The Book of Rites which states that “While the rules of ceremony [li] have their origin in heaven, the movement of them reaches to earth. The distribution of them extends to all the business (of life). They change with the seasons; they agree in reference to the (variation of) lot and condition. In regard to man, they serve to nurture (his nature). They are practiced by means of offerings, acts of strength, words, and postures of courtesy, in eating and drinking, in the observances of capping, marriage, mourning, sacrificing, archery, chariot-driving, audiences, and friendly missions” (Legge, The Scared Books of the East:vol.27,388). It is because of this Confucian and Neo-Confucian ideology that karate’s kata are so ritualized and possess various levels of interpretation. They are physical embodiments of Li, used first in China, to create combative rituals which were later transmitted to Okinawa. However, other Neo-Confucian philosophies have also influenced the development of kata, such as Xin which stresses the cultivation of both heart and mind through ritualized practice; Nei/wai which recognizes the internal and external dimensions associated with the process of ritual; and liyi fenshu which is the principle that while one ritual may be united, its manifestations can carry over to many things. It is due to these philosophies that kata manifests itself both physically and symbolically.
The strength of symbolic representation is that one object holds several meanings, and serves not only a literal purpose but also a metaphoric one, thus stirring the human imagination and allowing us to ponder unlimited parallels. When applied to kata, this process gives one technique both literal and metaphorical qualities- the literal being the techniques most basic application while its variations serve as metaphors, or the higher concepts, which are built upon literal applications.
This metaphorical process was, in part, inherited by karate’s kata from Chinese boxing, which utilizes Jin (Martial Power) patterns to manifest both internal and external power, as well as offensive and defensive strategies. Dr. Yang Jwing- Ming wrote about the Jin patterns role in White Crane boxing that “From each Jin pattern, many applications are derived. Normally, how to apply the Jin patterns into martial applications is kept secret by the master. How deep a White Crane practitioner understands these applications depends on individual ability in White Crane styles. It also depends on personal martial arts experiences. Although the number of Jins is limited, the applications can be countless and profound.” (Yang, Shaolin White Crane, 263)
This process of learning can and often does give rise to the myth of secret bunkai among the ranks of younger, more inexperienced karate-ka. While it is true some explanations are kept from the student, the reasons usually have to do more with ability than mysticism. The student has to grow within his or her own training and achieve a certain level of maturity and skill before understanding the correlation between concept and technique, as well as abstract and literal translations of the kata. It is at best a tedious experience. However, its true worth is that every time the student performs kata, he or she learns something not only about the form, but about their self. The process, though, is never complete, for just as a mirror shines brighter with each polishing, so to is it with kata that with each passing year a deeper realm is uncovered.
Copyright 2012 by Michael Rosenbaum