Here, I include an essay written by one of our Nidan Instructors Paul Jefferies. It is a thoughtful article on Kata and its necessity. Gima-Ha students are required to submit an essay on this subject to Japan for consideration of Nidan before, or immediately after, their physical grading.

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In this essay I intend to explore what Kata is in relation to Karate and martial arts in general, it’s origins, where it fits into the training system of Karate, and why it is a necessary, if not an essential, part of Karatedo. 

Most readers should be familiar with the education system’s concept of the “Three Rs’” representing the fundamental skills of Reading, Writing and Arithmetic that the rest of learning is built upon. Without Reading one cannot write, without Reading and Writing one cannot apply arithmetic; and without all three you cannot further progress in your education. Well in Karatedo we have a similar concept of the “Three Ks’” comprising Kihon, Kata and Kumite. 

Kihon, meaning Basics, is concerned with the basic fundamental building blocks of the style, which in Karate are our stances, kicks, punches, blocks, strikes, etc. It is very important to constantly practice all the Kihon diligently; continually honing each individual building block (technique) into the correct “shape” so they can be executed instinctively and so that they can fit together properly with all of the other techniques naturally. 

Kata, meaning Form, are sequences of the individual Kihon organised as a pattern that must be memorised by the karateka. In Karate, Kata are solo-performances where the student must not only demonstrate the correct kihon, but also these combined with other elements like direction, speed, power and rhythm. The pattern of each kata follow useful scenarios of defence and attack against one, or more, opponents. There are many kata forms in each karate style’s syllabus that karateka must learn one by one, starting with the simplest form then working up the kata ladder, each new kata incrementally introducing new techniques and requiring a higher skill level. 

The core kata in Shotokan karate are: 

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  • Heian Shodan 
  • Heian Nidan
  • Heian Sandan 
  • Heian Yondan
  • Heian Godan 
  • Tekki Shodan
  • Tekki Nidan
  • Tekki Sandan
  •  Bassai Dai
  • Bassai Sho
  •  Kanku Dai 
  • Kanku Sho
  • Empi 
  • Jion
  • Jiin
  • Jitte
  • Hangetsu 
  • Gankaku
  • Chinte
  • Unsu
    Sochin 
  • Nijushiho
  • Gojushiho Dai 
  • Gojushiho SHo
  • Meikyo 
  • Wankan 
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Kumite, means Sparring with a partner. Through Kumite karateka are able to apply their attacking and defensive techniques and movements against another person. Initially students learn pre-set training drills in which they must again show good Kihon, as you would expect, but now also enables them to develop and demonstrate other elements like: correct distance (Maai), timing, control and body-shifting (Taisabaki). At the lower skill levels, the prescribed drill sequences are quite rigid and could in themselves be considered a Kata, albeit a two-man kata. As the karateka’s skill level progresses their Kumite drills become increasingly more difficult, less prescribed and with a greater element of surprise. 

Splitting karate training into these “Three Ks”, enables instructors and their students to focus on each of the core elements one at a time, continuously improving each element, and this will ultimately end up with the student being able to combine all three together naturally and instinctively, which is where they really become Karate. 

These “Three Ks” of Karate are in fact a more modern development of the Karate training system. Originally, in Okinawa, when Karate was simply known as ‘te’ (hand) there wasn’t any formalized or documented style for students to learn from, because at that time the practice of ‘te’ had to be done in secret because the Japanese rulers made it illegal for the Okinawans to possess weapons or practice any martial arts, therefore training in dojos like we are familiar with now did not happen. Instead teachers only had one or a few students that they trained in secret, or private locations. 

Also in that time, kata was the only way they practiced their karate techniques. It was later on, in more modern times that the Kihon were taken out from the kata, the kumite sparring exercises were developed, and then organised into the style of training commonly seen today. 

It is lost to the mists of time why kata were, and became, the core of karate training, but clearly there must have been some belief that it served a useful purpose, because if not it wouldn’t have persisted through to this day. 

One important aspect of katas is that they have also served as an un-written catalogue, or syllabus if you like, of a particular Karate Master or lineage. Remembering that at that time, all karate training had to be done in secret, so no documentation of kata could exist otherwise, if discovered, it would be evidence to the crime. Aside from documentation being risky from a crime perspective, if it did exist it may actually have had little practical use in that day and age, when you consider that karate was generally practiced by ordinary people (i.e. farmers, etc) who would not necessarily have been literate. Therefore, the kata were passed down between generations directly from master to student, as such the origins of many of the kata are unknown. 

One kata whose origin is known, and provides a good example of how some of the other kata may have been created, is Gankaku, which was renamed from ‘Chinto’ in Shotokan. 

Chinto kata is named after a Chinese sailor with the same name, who was shipwrecked on Okinawa during the 19th century. Chinto found shelter in a cave, and to survive he started stealing food and livestock from the locals. Chinto’s crimes were reported to the Okinawan king who sent Sokon Matsumura to deal with the problem. Matsumura, in his own right, was a well-known karate master who was serving as chief bodyguard to the king. 

Matsumura was a very skilled fighter who normally had no problems defeating his opponents easily. However, he met his equal match when he found himself pitched against Chinto, who was also well practiced in Chinese martial arts. Matsumura realised he could learn more skills from Chinto, so they made a deal where Matsumura would take care of Chinto if he would teach him his new fighting skills. Eventually Chinto returned to China, so Matsumura formulated the ‘Chinto’ kata to preserve Chinto’s methods in a form that was recorded and passed on to future generations. Many other kata we know, were also developed by an individual’s students in order to record what they had been taught (i.e. Kushanku kata and Wanshu kata are also both named after Chinese martial artists who visited Okinawa). 

While each individual kata has its own characteristic features; there are ten essential elements that are required to be able to successfully perform it. These ten elements are: 

  • Preparation of the mind – Yoi No Kisin
  • Awareness of attack and defence – Inyo
  • Balancing of power – Chikara No Kyojaku
  • Correct speed – Waza No Kankyu
  • Expand and contract – Tai No Shinshuku
  • Breathing and posture control – Kokyu
  • Understanding the target – Tyakugan
  • Demonstration of Martial spirit – Kiai
  • Stance and movement – Keitai No Hoji
  • Remaining completely aware – Zanshin 

In order to incorporate all of these elements into their kata, a student cannot just focus on the individual techniques, and sequences of techniques, as basic kihon against imaginary opponents, but they must also study how they are applied in real combat situations. This area of study is called Karate Bunkai, which essentially means practicing and understanding how those techniques, and sequences, are actually applied against a real opponent. 

Many of the Bunkai from kata, are simply unsafe to practice correctly with real opponents, otherwise student’s would be at risk of some very serious injuries, in not worse. Therefore, solo kata practice is the only opportunity (apart for real combat, of course) for a student to perform those applications, in preparation for use, if ever required, in self-defence. 

One personal criticism I have of modern sports-orientated karate kata performances, as opposed to ‘traditional’ karate practitioners, is that they often don’t demonstrate the real fight, and focus more on kata as a styled performance and show of athleticism. 

In conclusion: I believe Kata is at the core of Karatedo, because without the various kata forms developed and handed down through the centuries, there cannot have been such a complete syllabus of techniques available to karateka today. 

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