Why are Karate Kata Important? And waht are its limitations in terms of form and relationship to full speed/contact fighting?
by Jason Armstrong, 5th Dan. Article authored 2003
The kanji for Kata - sample calligraphy provided by Mayuko Sumida.
Most of the original applications do not only involve the basic kicks and punches but also grabs, breaks, pressure points and close in fighting. However, one should also recognize that many of these smaller strikes & grappling actions (e.g. wrist locks, arm-bars in standing situations) are “pre-fight” self defense motions covering early acts of an attack before an attacker has truly decided they are going to “take your head off”. A litmus test for this is UFC – one does not really see most of the "subtle" kata bunkai moves employed in full-contact events as aggression is full-fledged (as at that point things involve large impact techniques (punches/elbows) or large joint manipulation activities which do not focus on kake-uke grabs and other small distracting things like slaps, back hand impacts or complex moves). This line of thought is further explored in the text Fighting Statistics & Karate Technique Selection & Medical Outcomes in both (Armstrong et al., 2011).
Each kata represents an archived library of self defense techniques. Often the application of each motion within kata is not well understood within many Japanese karate dojos unless the effort has been made to dive into the Okinawan and Chinese roots. One should aim to understand and practice at least one bunkai motion for each action in a kata (probably no one can know all and be proficient in all bunkai variants). There as an architectural maxim that says form follows function (a phrase created by architect Louis Sullivan in an article published in 1896). Many in the modern karate world interpreting kata take the form and try to fit function around the stylized motion i.e. they are having function follow form. Originally the kata were formed as icons to archive self defense scenarios and therefore were created on the basis of form following function. However, one must also acknowledge the kata movements are icons and while one can elect to practice versions of the kata that somewhat mimic the actual application the fact is that karate has evolved where it is not an exact match. The trade-off is simplicity for remembering and passing on to others, a tool that also factors in physical development and body awareness and philosophical components – these should all be observed as part of the tradition of the art.
Related to the above is the fact that numerous 7th & 8th Dan's discard the basic footwork of kata for more sliding, heel raising and reverse foot sliding actions (author travels/observations and discussion with Sensei in Japan & Okinawa) - but it should be noted in following "the tradition" such sensei do not teach these advanced approaches to people unless above 5-6th Dan level i.e. the patience factor for a students's study of Do is observed and only after decades of "getting it right" (i.e. elevated body awareness, breath, tanden, kime, coordination etc.) does one embark on a more free form version of kata beyond the basic form - the emphasis becomes far more focused on the inner feel of a technique after decades of repetition. Watching 1940-60s videos of many Okinawan senior masters shows that even they had very mild use of such actions in kata. Of course these types of actions exist in a few isolated ways in the basic form of some kata (Seipai, Annanko, Pinan Yondan to name a few) but are not the general pattern of moving for kata. The practice of sliding, impacting distance etc. is worked through methodically in karate curricula, typically via kihon-ido, partner combination training and finally free kumite. So when thinking, "why is kata so basic?", one should ask themselves, "have I done enough decades of one kata to hit the moment perfectly in a move where I feel I can discard the basic form and move to something more freestyle?" - speaking as a 5th dan author I know I can't do that yet... After all, this is a lifelong art where transitions should be measured in decades.
Given the elaborate nature of kata actions they are challenging even for Dan ranks to know, practice and execute proficiently. Once a bunkai is understood it should be drilled with partners (like we often drill kumite combinations) at high speed, and in repetition (see article). One must also acknowledge that no matter how much bunkai or pre-arranged drills are performed, free sparring should exist to some degree in one’s training as a necessary activity to ensure one develops street relevant speed, opponent reading skills for when the unknown is coming and familiarization with combat not restricted by a pre-set pattern of activities.
Kata demands techniques executed with precision and power. It trains the body to strike from different stances and different orientations, as is always the case in kumite. Kata trains one to move quickly, to use precise and stable stances for the execution of solid techniques. Without this ability one will be unable to control an opponent during battle. Furthermore, if one cannot execute precise and powerful technique in kata, it will definitely not happen in the heat and chaos of kumite. Finally decades of training continues to create better and better body awareness – positions, weight in technique, centering etc..
Visualization of the opponent for each move is one method of kata development that can be done as a drill. It helps bring a kata to life accentuating "kime", "penetration" and "zanshin". This is one of many training approaches to develop kata, however one must always remember that when kata is performed it should embrace “Mushin”. “Mushin”, a high goal of all martial artists, allows the mind to be open to all possibilities in the fighting engagement with no hesitation, or change of thought pattern prior to execution.
As one approaches black belt, kata must begin to feel like it is a true expression of oneself, presenting all inner and outer attributes. Therefore, when kata is performed, the presence of “Ki” and spirit can be felt which demands the attention of onlookers. As kata is practiced year after year, some of the more difficult techniques and subtleties begin to emerge in one's fighting. This acts as a source of continual growth for advanced karate-ka. The integration of techniques acquired from kata into one's fighting provides a challenge that will easily fill a lifetime (for example the ashi barai take downs in such kata as Seipai, Tekki Shodan or Sanseiru are directly applicable to modern Sports Karate and street fighting). It requires both a combination of physical mastery and the possession of a calm mind amidst the storm of battle. In seminars we often deliberately make a point that kata has direct translations to "Sports Karate" and using examples of strategy, and sometimes technique variants, aids students in understanding this relationship. Of course not all kata bunkai can be transferred to sports karate, just selected parts or variants. However, taking students down this path often helps them understand the need to think about kata for their longer term karate and fighting growth.
A good way to finish the discussion in this section may be via a paraphrased quote from Mabuni Kenwa (founder of Shito-ryu karate), "It is not important how many kata (drills) one knows but how well you know any given kata. One will gain more from knowing one kata in detail than from 10 kata superficially" (Kobu Jizai Goshin-jutsu Karate Kenpo by Mabuni, 1934). I personally experienced this in Japan in Shito-ryu (up to brown belt in Renbukan only 2 very basic kata were part of the curriculum) and in vists to such dojo as the Goju Jundokan, it was indicated to me that the first 4 years of study may only include sanchin and gekisai (8th Dan Jundokan Sensei & deshi communications). This topic is discussed further in the text Fighting Statistics & Karate Technique Selection & Medical Outcomes in both Section A and Section C (Armstrong et al., 2011). I also observed that a good number of 8th dan sensei become very focused on just 2-4 kata rather than trying to a mass insight in to a large numbers of kata on a diverse knowledge quest. After all, 4 advanced kata with an average of 15 applications each amounts to 60 self defense scenarios - how many does one actually need? and how proficient will you be at any one application if your goal is larger than this?
About the author: Dr. Jason Armstrong, 6th Dan
Shihan Jason Armstrong has a 6th degree black, and has been training for more than 25 years which has included living in Japan with a master. His training began in Australia, and then moved to the USA in 1991. In 1995 he began regular travel to Japan and then spent time living in Japan for karate. While in Japan he worked in the corporate environment and ultimately became the CEO of a company in Tokyo. He holds a Ph.D. in human physiology. He founded the traditional Japanese Karate Network in 1997 and facilitates karate through a karate networking & e-learning website (www.DownloadKarate.com). Additionally, this organization has provided corporate seminars on the integration of Budo Strategy, the “Art of War”, and Zen into the corporate world and business. he has also authored a book on the Seienchin.