Ramblings on Kata 

Formalised karate ‘kata’ are normally practised within the Shoto-Ryu/Shoto-Kan/Shoto-Kai systems (and in fact most Okinawa and Japanese Budo systems, not just karate-do/), as a solitary ‘enbu’ (performance); therefore, the ‘Kata No Ju Taiyoso’ (ten elements of kata) appropriately apply to the person practising or demonstrating the kata (read ‘performing’), and not the ‘imaginary’ opponent being ‘contested’ or ‘battled’. 

It is probably fair to say that ‘kata’ is ‘the core’ of karate. ‘Kata’ contain the fundamental principles and concepts of Karate, from striking, to throwing and choking etc.Keeping in mind that in comparison to the 20th centrury there are little  known ‘ancient writings’ on kata. We must, however, remember that they are the ‘hand me down teachings of the ancient masters.

We also know, from our ancient beliefs that it takes years of dedicated practice to execute and understand a kata fully. There is an old adage ‘Hito kata san nen’ (One kata, three years); in other words it takes three years to learn, understand and efficiently execute a kata.  There are several old masters who believe that in-depth study three or four kata are sufficient for a lifetime of karate; albeit some would also state that adding others create depth or breadth to a style.

We should always remember that the father of modern Japanese karate Funakoshi Gichin stated in his Niju Kun (20 precepts):

 “Hitotsu, tekki ni yotte tenka seyo” – “Make adjustments according to your opponent”.  

The “bottom line” is that kasso teki’s intent and movements must be clearly visualised by the karateka whose response must be accurate and with focused intent.  

Shizufumi Ishido Hanshi (Iaido Senior Master) in his article from the book ‘The Eyes of the Iaido Shinsa’  (Iaido Shinsa no Me) 2009 states:

 “Take for example the phrase “Kisen wo seishite (to get a jump ahead of)”. What condition does this refer to? How would you like to deal with your opponent? What will you do when you become aware of your opponent’s ill-intent? Will you draw before your opponent starts to move? What does it mean to draw with Jo-Ha-Kyu? This refers to the draw starting slowly, gradually increasing in speed, then finally reaching its fastest speed the moment the swords leaves the scabbard. It is not good to blindly draw quickly, but rather to draw in accordance with your imaginary opponent’s movement. I am sure that everybody knows this, but it is still important to repeatedly read the manual and confirm this point.” 

To repeat: it is not good to blindly draw quickly, but rather to draw in accordance with your imaginary opponent’s movement. Our “imagination” mentally provides us with a tangible and realistic opponent. 

I believe that an observer of a kata ‘enbu’ should be able to see the ‘kasso teki’ (invisible opponent) if the ‘enbu’ has a realistic feel.  To put in another way, we must ‘sense’ the majority of the 10 elements rather than actually see them. Of course, some are evident and easy to spot as an observer, but others can only be ‘sensed’; such is a fine line of technical proficiency augmented by ‘martial understanding’!

To correctly practice Kata the following elements should be clearly assimilated and demonstrated by Karateka.

Remember the technical details, the understanding of what we do, as we build our habits into practice, we must remember why we are doing what we’re doing!  Not just performing a dance.  Our practise and our thinking must be foundations (Biomechanics) and how we can strengthen each block and strike that we perform.  Our movements cannot just be based on science or academia, but they must also be realistic.

Certain admonishments need always to be made to students, novice, intermediate or advanced, to wit:

  • keep the shoulders down so we don’t telegraph techniques, 
  • use clean lines not to create ‘suki’, 
  • our movements once ’mastered’ should be fast, explosive, and an immediate response/attacks to techniques. 
  • we must remember to learn slowly and increase timing speeds with proficiency. Timing will make sense when we understand the whole kata, i.e. it is  imperative that we understand what we are doing.
  • speed is not rushing
  • low does not always mean long! 
  • stability and rooted techniques are important, not to be discarded at the expense of ‘flashiness’!

In the excellent site ‘Karate by Jesse’ -Jesse Enkamp Sensei writes:

Sakumoto Tsuguo (hanshi 9th dan Ryuei-ryu), perhaps said it best when he once told us:

  “The more you need to change Karate, the less you understand.”

We should study The ‘Kata No Ju Taiyoso’ – read the Ten Elements of Kata, as described by Kanazawa Horokazu Soke and others. These ten elements carry huge importance and are of great significance to the serious karateka.

1. YOI NO KISIN – the spirit of getting ready. The concentration of will and mind against the opponent as a preliminary to the movements of the Kata. 

2. INYO – the active and passive. Always keep in mind both attack and defence. 

3. CHIKARA NO KYOJAKU – the manner of using strength. The degree of power used for each movement and position in Kata. 

4. WAZA NO KANKYU – the speed of movement. The speed used for each movement and position in Kata. 

5. TAI NO SHINSUKU – the degree of expansion or contraction. The degree of expansion or contraction of the body in each movement and position in Kata. 

6. KOKYU – breathing. Breath control related to the posture and movement in Kata. 

7. TYAKUGAN – the aiming points. In Kata you must keep the purpose of the movement in mind. 

8. KIAI – shouting. Shouting at set points in Kata to demonstrate the martial spirit. 

9. KEITAI NO HOJI – correct positioning. Correct positioning in movement and stance. 

10. ZANSHIN – remaining on guard. Remaining on guard at the completion of the Kata.  

In conclusion, karate may have its origins, and much of its current meaning in the ‘Bunkai’ and ‘Oyo’, but these work only when the above ten elements are truly understood and some of proficiency (if not mastery) gained by the karateka.

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