Martial Development

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What are Karate Kata?

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Black Belt Karate by Chris Thompson

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.

Jion kata

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.

Categories: Karate · Reviews

15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Karate_and_Taiji_student // Feb 25, 2009

    Nice post, very interesting thoughts, indeed.

    However, I wonder if it does not improve your kata, if you also practice sparring with an opponent. This way, you will learn how to apply some of the techniques and how to get appropriate timing of single moves and sequences. Which in turn will help your kata practice a lot.

    Most Karate dojos I have been to do exactly this – they devote about 1/3 of their practice time to individual techniques, 1/3 to sparring and 1/3 to kata.

    I should point out, though, that the practice of the first two items focussed only on a subset of all kata techniques. Although some teachers would pick out specific moves from the katas and work on them for the entire practice.

  • 2 Michele // Feb 25, 2009

    Thanks for posting this book review and the links to your related posts. My karate background is in traditional Okinawa Kenpo. We spend time working on kata during every class. In my opinion, kata is the core of training.

  • 3 joshuahyoung // Feb 25, 2009

    How did Karate relate to aikijutsu and judo before the 20th century?
    Is the term Karate referring to Okinawan arts?
    Who founded the Karate system in Japan?
    Old martial arts seem to have things like swimming in armor and horseback archery, ninpo did this for example, but now ninpo is conflated with the taijutsu from the system.
    I was under the impression that Karate was one side of a system with several facets, so I had thought that it was taught, not only through Kata, but through conditioning and timing exercises and drills.
    Please forgive my insatiable curiosity.
    Josh

  • 4 Chris // Feb 25, 2009

    Joshua, these are all good questions. I have some Karate background, but as it is not an area of my expertise, I will let someone else answer.

    Chris Thompson’s book is focused on modern, “international” Karate, but provides a brief historical introduction concerning Chinese and Okinawan influences.

    And I quote him not because I agree completely, but as background for another post I intend to publish soon.

  • 5 The Question // Mar 3, 2009

    “Quite often, a technique that is performed while moving forward in kata practice is actually performed moving backward in a real combat situation.”
    -Isn’t this counterproductive to real training, since you are ingraining the wrong reflexive responses?

    “to karate traditionalists, learning to fight your failings is the true essence of the art, and this can be achieved through austere kata training.”
    -How? Could you provide a concrete example? This is a major claim in the article, it should be backed up with an example or data.

    “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.”
    -Doesn’t this refining produce nothing more than a technique that looks pleasing but cannot actually work without changing its details? Example: heian shodan has a series of high blocks in it, interpreted as blocks, elbow attacks, or other joint locks, depending on who is asked. However, none of those application work without changes to them.

  • 6 Chris // Mar 3, 2009

    I can only speak for myself, not for Chris Thompson…

    “Quite often, a technique that is performed while moving forward in kata practice is actually performed moving backward in a real combat situation.”

    Isn’t this counterproductive to real training, since you are ingraining the wrong reflexive responses?

    Good martial arts training results in deprogramming, not reprogramming. I am no fan of “reflexive response” or “muscle memory”.

    “to karate traditionalists, learning to fight your failings is the true essence of the art, and this can be achieved through austere kata training.”
    -How? Could you provide a concrete example? This is a major claim in the article, it should be backed up with an example or data.

    Value judgments such as this are not subject to proof or disproof. A similar statement was made by Gichin Funakoshi, the “father of modern karate”. If Funakoshi didn’t know Japanese karate, then who does?

    …heian shodan has a series of high blocks in it, interpreted as blocks, elbow attacks, or other joint locks, depending on who is asked. However, none of those application work without changes to them.

    Some people would say this is a flaw of the karate kata. I say it is a flaw in their interpretation. Those “blocks” can be made to work as elbow attacks, without modification, but so what? One should not expect to win a fight by following a recipe.

  • 7 The Question // Mar 6, 2009

    Thanks for responding, Chris. Too many forums today just degenerate into snide comments. Glad to see that is not the case here.

    I like some of your points, especially the interpretation comment and can agree with that. Perhaps you did hit on my fundamental problem- that of interpretation of the kata and practice of the applications. Someone can can wave hands around in the air all day but until they have manipulated a real wrist many times, they will never know how to apply a wristlock buried in a kata movement. This is not a problem of the kata but of how it is being taught. And I did read the follow up article, thank you for the link.

    I have to argue though that any specific training results in specifically conditioned reflexes. You perform how you practice. This is true in almost every skill, mental or physical. It is why people practice complex tasks and then (hopefully) get better at them.

    It does not matter who makes a claim, it needs to be backed up. How does “austere training” help us fight our failings? I would still have questions about that no matter whose lips say those words. And a value judgment can still have reasons beyond “because I say so.” Granted, everyone can have an opinion, but some opinions can be grounded in more solid reasoning or facts than others.

    The fight-recipe analogy is spot on. Any cook can follow a recipe, but the difference between a cook and a chef is that the chef knows what to do when things go wrong.

  • 8 Chris // Mar 6, 2009

    Claims do not need to be backed up. And I do not need to back them up, nor do I need anyone to believe in them. These are the facts.

    Funakoshi defined Karate-do as a lifestyle, not a fighting method. You may take his niju kun as “evidence” of this position. It is an important distinction.

    The advanced study of martial arts reveals “systems of correspondence” that guide both interpersonal and intrapersonal behaviors. As summarized by Mark Hyman, MD:

    The key distinction between modern and ancient medical systems is their way of seeing. Conventional medicine understands the world by inductive reasoning and a phenomenological description of the body and illness. It is primarily an anatomical approach, or what the ancient Chinese call “dissection science.” Dissecting the body, the organs, the cell, and analyzing the cell’s parts, machinery, genome, and the body’s infirmities is the purview of Western medicine. Ancient systems of healing…follow a dramatically different path of inquiry into health and disease.

    At the center of Chinese medicine is the notion of functional relationships within the body. Organs are of interest, not for their anatomical relationships, but for their functional patterns and distant effects with other “organs.” Organs in Chinese medicine are concepts organized around function, not discrete anatomical entities.

    ["Failures"] are perceived not as discrete entities arising from diseased organs, but imbalances in the functional relationships within the system.

    The relationship between kata and “character development” is IMO to be found primarily within functional models. If the average karateka (or sensei) does not understand this, it is perhaps because they have trained only to the level of butchers, and not doctors. Translating that understanding into Cartesian English is a still greater challenge.

    If you want to explore this topic further, you may enjoy the works of Ordosclan.

  • 9 MARTIN WAKOLI WEGULO // Sep 7, 2009

    i need some chuck norris books

  • 10 Eng. Peter Otaya Nalyanya // Aug 10, 2010

    This book review has been very refreshing. How can purchase this book, and get a DVD on Kates

  • 11 Eng. Peter Otaya Nalyanya // Aug 10, 2010

    Am in Nairobi, Kenya and would like to purchase some materials on Kates. where can i get these materials?

  • 12 Chris // Aug 10, 2010

    Peter, to get the book, you can click on the link at the top of the page. Amazon ships to Kenya.

  • 13 gustavo cezar ferreira mares // Jul 18, 2011

    eu queria saber os nomes e significados do karate faixa branca vc poderia manda para o meu imail

  • 14 HARSHITA // Sep 8, 2011

    Actually I know what are Karate’s katas but becouse of Karate’s
    positions like Masobadige,Hikodache and Ray I have forgeted
    them.I am a student of Sholars Rosary High School.I HAVE
    CHOSE THE SPORT OF KARATE FOR ME

  • When and Why to Quit Kata Practice // Feb 26, 2009

    [...] Search ← What are Karate Kata? [...]

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