Excerpted from Chris Thompson’s Black Belt Karate:
Karate kata (formal exercises) was the only way karate was taught up until the 1930s. In the kata, all the elements of correct karate practice are stored. The vast majority of kata that are practiced in the dojo today and used on the tournament circuit can be traced right back to China or Okinawa.
They appear to be dance-like drills, constantly repeated by students, yet hidden in these movements are hundreds of kakushi waza (secret techniques). These appear to be one form of technique, but in fact may be doing something completely different. Quite often, a technique that is performed while moving forward in kata practice is actually performed moving backward in a real combat situation.
Kata consists of many gymnastic movements, in which various offensive and defensive techniques are arranged harmoniously. The movements allow the student to understand the relationship between the spirit and body, since kata are designed to develop them effectively.
Once meaning of kata is “perfect form”.
Kata was one person’s way of memorizing certain fighting sequences without the use of a partner, and to remember techniques that had a high rate of success when used in combat. Putting these movements into an organized drill that could be practiced regularly meant that they could not only be remembered more easily, but could also be taught to others. Many practitioners of Chinese martial arts, then Okinawan martial artists, continued this pattern.
Kata has become more than just an exercise in practicing karate. Kata has become a form of moving meditation that enhances both the mind and body. Learning to fight is not the ethos of karate-do; to karate traditionalists, learning to fight your failings is the true essence of the art, and this can be achieved through austere kata training.
While many karate techniques have been lost over the centuries, many remain, and it is through the sensei teaching them in the dojo that they are kept alive. They have also changed over the centuries. This is inevitable, as one sensei may add a technique and another may replace a technique. No matter, they are still a link to the past.
Many modern styles of karate do not practice kata at all, and in my opinion, they are not really studying karate-do. There is also no great merit in being able to remember lots of different kata. It is best to learn a few and understand them extremely well, rather than learn a lot and not know their true value. It takes many years to understand some kata fully. Many senior black belts often say it has taken more than 20 years for them to understand completely a kata they learned 15 years earlier.
Bunkai (the application of the kata techniques) is invaluable. Not all the kata can be deciphered, but many can, especially the more modern kata. It is this element, where the kata can be broken down and the techniques put into practice, that allows the student to really “know” the kata, and to polish and “buff it up” constantly until the moves become refined. A perfect display of kata is where seeing the practitioner perform the kata enables you to visualize an actual fight taking place without an opponent. The true essence of karate-do is in the continuous practice of kata.