I recently read a book by Bart Ehrman entitled “Misquoting Jesus” regarding the challenges associated with interpreting the New Testament. In describing these challenges Ehrman points out that the method used by most academics, called Textual Criticism, is a process designed to help resolve questions regarding originality when there are discrepancies between various texts. Ehrman explains that there may be more textual variations in the New Testament than there are words in the commonly accepted versions of it. Textual criticism provides a framework for adjudicating between various competing claims to authenticity. One common mistake, Ehrman explains, is to disregard the methods by which texts were generated in medieval and pre-medieval periods. These texts were individually copied by hand. Naturally this led to transmission errors. Those scribes who could actually read what they were copying (many could not in the early years of the church) made efforts to filter out of their copies those things they took to be errors in their source material. Another type of error involved the addition of material, thought by the copiest’ to be missing in the source material so that the resulting text was more consistent with the scribes’ beliefs. This meant that errors that seemed to fit the biblical narrative that the scribes had come to know, were sometimes left in tact regardless of their authenticity.  Generations of copies derived from a single source document may then contain the same error. Ehrman points out that this means that the mere prevalence of a particular version of a text is not in itself sufficient evidence to conclude that all the elements comprising it were present at the time the book was first written down.

Being a fully-fledged karate nerd I couldn’t help thinking about kata. It seems to me that karate people could easily be prone to making similar errors with regard to kata. Prevalence of a particular gesture or passage in a kata may simply be the result of a transmission error that has been reiterated for several generations. If, for example, I am interested in what Itosu Anko intended the original pinan to look like and what work they were designed to do for his students I may want to look at a range of different versions of the pinan. Imagine that in doing my research I look at versions of the pinan/heian from the shotokan, shotokai, wado, and kyokushinkai schools. These are found easily enough, but, being determined, I press on and find a version of one of the pinans from the shito-ryu. Spending some time looking at these I find remarkable similarities in the first four and some rather interesting differences in the shito-ryu versions in technique and performance line. I could be tempted to regard the shito-ryu as the out lier and focus on the other versions. This would be a mistake however because it ignores the fact that the versions of the pinan/heians in shotokan, shotokai, wado, and kyokushinkai all come, more or less, from one particular student of Itosu’s, Funakoshi Gichin. These four provide us with a window into how Funakoshi understood and performed the kata. The shito-ryu version coming from another student of Itosu’s, Mabuni Kenwa, gives us another data point that, because it is not in the Funakoshi lineage, is especially epistemologically valuable.

Any discussion as to the “correct” way to perform a kata hinges, in part, on what some constituent set of gestures is designed to represent. A gesture understood to be a percussion of one’s opponent will require a different set of performance criteria than if the same gesture is understood to be a throw of some sort. If bunkai is just a wide open game in which applications are imagined with little or no regard to what it is that the gesture was intended to represent, then the correct way to perform it (the relevant criteria) is no more than those elements of gesture, rhythm, and line that maximize the effectiveness of the gestures as they are understood by the performer. There is little room for productive disagreement regarding correct, or even sensitive interpretation or performance.

Believing that interpretation of kata should be informed by historical knowledge doesn’t require that we imagine that there is a single definitive version of a particular kata nor does it eliminate the possibility of innovation. Many kata developed over generations and had many contributors. Sensitive interpreters of kata must seek to understand what was intended by previous generations. I doubt that anyone can claim to come close to a complete understanding of how a kata was understood by previous generations, however, by being honest with our students regarding the limits of our knowledge, and what bits we are transmitting to them that are just our best guess, we can involve them in the process of interpreting kata. I think this process is vastly superior to one that encourages simple imitation. Interpretation is an active process whereas imitation is passive. It is messier of course, but it goes a long way towards inoculating a lineage against transmission errors.

While we may be tempted to only show our students interpretations or evaluations of kata that confirm our views, exposing them to differing interpretations of the kata can help insure that our own prejudices are not enthroned as dogma by the next generation. It is important that students are exposed to real experts and exemplars from other schools. Students need to learn to be able to distinguish between “street corner masters” who may have little to offer, and the informed view and performance of an expert in a particular tradition.

We at TKRI have been developing a video reference page that sorts kata (mostly youtube.com videos) by family groups so that the viewer can look at related versions of a particular kata side by side. We have tried to make sure that the versions we have included are performed by highly qualified experts in the particular style of karate they are representing. There may be errors and dead links, but we check these regularly and these are being sorted out. The list is still being developed so it is worth checking back regularly. It is our hope that this can become an easy reference tool for the karate community.  Our video reference guide may be found at www.tkri.net/videosonline.html.