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Kata and waza are both limited by themselves. They are useless until one learns how to apply them in context.”

Motobu Choki

I’ve been fascinated lately with the struggle to define what karate is, why it is or is not special among fighting arts, and specifically, what role kata play in all of this. A quick look around karate blogs and discussion forums makes it evident that more and more practitioners are looking for answers.

Some seem to content to lean on the dojo kun or Confucian-esque observation of customs and “correct behavior”, which implies that karate is not unlike the Boy Scouts. Often this comes with a distinct air of “if you don’t do it like this, you’re simply a heathen running around on the mats.” When other martial arts groups that use codes of conduct are pointed out, many traditional karate people act like wine critics and put on an air of superiority- even when the codes are worded the same as the dojo kun. So much for open-mindedness.

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This is a continuation of some ideas presented in the post The Representation and the Represented. Reading the first installment will provide the background information for the concepts explored here.

Kata as Algorithms

Moving down through these three schema, the major practical implications are the degree to which the training method resembles/prepares one for actual conflict, and the degree to which the student is taught to think for him/herself with regards to interpretation. In the case of kata as an algorithm, prescribed applications are understood to be the practical meaning of the gestures. These may be taught as part of a required organizational syllabus, or be derived by independent instructors. This level of interpretation seeks to use a portion of a kata in its exact form to counter an attack. There are two common ways that students learn these:  executing a specific application against a specific attack (ie, one-step sparring), or there may be a multiple-technique exchange of attack and defense, a ‘set’ that students perform together. A series of such drills might be taught alongside a corresponding kata.

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During a recent conversation, Bob said practicing kata without having developed the prerequisite skills and attributes is like someone trying to appreciate a limerick who can’t even speak English.  I thought that was a wonderful way of explaining why the practice of kata usually doesn’t result in real fighting ability.  Most people can’t understand the meaning of the kata, because they don’t even know the words, so to speak.  A good deal of time must be spent on learning the fundamentals of the language, before we can appreciate poetry.

So, what are the fundamentals?  One way of looking at a martial art is that a small set of physical and mental attributes are required to develop a slightly larger set of skills.  Then, these skills form the basis of an even larger set of techniques. Each kata is meant to function as a mnemonic and includes a variety of techniques performed within an imagined strategic context.  Pretty high level stuff, huh?  You wouldn’t try teaching a small child to speak English by having them read Shakespeare, but a lot of karate people think they are learning to fight by practicing kata.  I disagree.

The attributes that make someone a good fighter are fairly obvious.  The training methods used to produce them are not.  At TKRI, Bob’s knowledge of modern sports science and corrective exercise principles informs everything we do.  Each class, we spend a lot of time stretching our ankles, hips, and shoulders.  Tight muscles can inhibit a joint’s range of motion and result in movement compensations.  If you can’t move, you can’t fight.  Also, we activate the core muscles by performing front and side planks.  These require us to stabilize the shoulder joint, too.  Strong core muscles allow us to effectively transfer momentum from the ground, through the waist, and out the arms.  If you can’t hold the plank position for at least 30 seconds, you shouldn’t be punching.  It’s as simple as that.

In addition to these foundational exercises, and others, we do a lot of balance and power training.  At the end of our last power cycle, I was able to catch and throw a six pound ball with one hand, while standing on a wobble board.  I felt pretty good about that.  And, squats emphasizing eccentric stabilization combined with agility ladder training have definitely put some extra bounce in my step.  These kinds of things are the attributes that will allow us to develop fighting skills.  No matter what you are trying to do to an opponent, your body will always be the delivery system.  Fighting is an athletic endeavor, and the same things that make someone a great football player, gymnast, or track and field star, also make you a better martial artist.  Think about it.  How much more confident would you be in your next sparring session, if you were put together like Bo Jackson was back in the day?

After a certain level of athleticism is achieved, you can just expect your body to respond the right way.  When you move your center, your feet will sort of automatically end up in the best position for whatever you’re doing.  But, in the beginning, an important mental attribute to develop is the awareness of your body, or kinesthetic sense.  If you are doing floor bridges and your hamstring on one side engages more than the glute, something’s wrong.  The most important thing is how a movement feels to you, not what it looks like.  If you are able to mimic your instructor’s kata moves exactly but don’t have the feeling of being “stacked,” then it’s no good.  Bob says we have to discover the best way to perform the techniques based on our own unique morphology.  You can’t do that, if you’re not “in tune” with your body.

The specific skills necessary to execute a technique properly are a little less obvious and will have to be the subject of a future article.  But, you get the point.  Kata practice can be an enjoyable and rich experience for someone who has already mastered the basics.  For someone just starting out, they are virtually useless as a training device.  There are much better ways to develop the fundamental attributes and skills required in fighting.  And, that’s what is special about Bob’s method.  He’s put together a system that introduces skills gradually through a series of exercises and drills.  You don’t have to start out being a super athlete.  An “average Joe” can get there by taking baby steps.  At TKRI, nobody gets left behind.  That’s what it’s all about.

If I could move and react like this, I’d never lose a fight.  The way he controls ground force and adjusts his balance, while repeatedly being hit with the opponents’ entire body mass is truly amazing…not to mention, his explosive speed and power.

He didn’t get that way by practicing kata.

I was thumbing through Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception last evening and came to one of my favorite lines:

“However expressive, symbols can never be the things that they stand for.”

That idea dovetails well into a few thoughts on kata that I’ve been mulling over lately, namely a categorization scheme of the current trends in interpretation, and rationalizations about the role of kata in training (there is an awful lot of variety here, but two sweeping categories can be made: the absurd and the plausible).  Lifting a few ideas from the cognitive science approach to studying human problem solving, it seems like there are three interrelated ways that kata are used within karate (which we will refer to here as schema):

  1. As prescriptive algorithms- performing and applying the kata in an exact way will always yield a “correct solution”(a subset here could be performance only, depending on the group in question)
  2. As heuristics- simple, efficient strategies (rules of thumb) that help us to discover a “correct solution” in training for conflict, or actual conflict itself
  3. As mnemonics- viewing kata as patterns without an inherent meaning, upon which skills developed (discovered) through drills, sparring and violent experiences can be  superimposed where there is a similarity to gestures or across sequences of gestures; the “correct solutions” are arrived at independently, and the kata serves as a way to catalog them

Obviously, an enormous amount of variance is possible among these three schema. Each produces models of fighting and the skills used to negotiate conflict that have a lesser or greater similarity to actual fighting.  The greater the similiarty, the better chance that the skills will be sucessfully applicable in an actual conflict. However, development of these skills and faith in their succesful application in a fight is balanced by the understanding that “symbols (kata, drills, techniques) can never be the things that they stand for.”

Here are a few more videos of various sesan/seisan kata performances that I find interesting.  Any of the videos showing “embedding disabled” may still be viewed by clicking on the video itself which should open the respective youtube page in another tab or window.

My posting of the comparative Goju/Uechi versions of the Seisan kata has prompted the following comment:

“The Seisan version you do is the version Higaonna Morio started teaching in 1977 after he left the Jundokan and hooked up with Aniichi Miyagi. It’s not the Seisan done by the Jundokan (or Higaonna Morio before 1977) Check versions done by Miyazato on Youtube.”

For the sake of comparison, let’s do exactly that!  Below are several clips showing Miyazato in the 1980’s, Miyagi in 2003, and Higaonna in 1975 and again in the 1990’s,  performing the Seisan kata.  If, as the commenter stated, Higaonna changed the kata after leaving the Jundokan in 1977, there should be an appreciable difference between his 1975 version and the more recent one.  Likewise, there should be a difference between Miyagi’s version and Miyazato’s. If you can spot an appreciable difference (beyond age-related factors) among these  renderings or time periods, please share!

Here is Miyazato Eiichi of the Jundokan in 1983:

Morio Higaonna in 1975  (Seisan begins at 1:04):

Morio Higaonna in the 1990’s:

Morio Higaonna’s teacher, An’ichi Miyagi in 2003:

Ryuei-ryu Seisan

Goju-ryu Seisan

Uechi-ryu Seisan

Shito-ryu Seisan

Shotokan Hangetsu

Wado-ryu Seisan

Seibukan Seisan

Isshin-ryu Seisan

Kyudokan Shorin-ryu

I have slowly been making progress again on the TKRI Reference Video page. I have been weeding out dead links and adding others. I expect to be at it for a couple more days. Have a look here.

Siu Lim Tau (Wing Chung)


Tensho ( Shito Ryu karate’s version in this example)

"Try to see yourself as you truly are and try to adopt what is meritorious in the work of others. As a karateka you will of course often watch others practice. When you do and you see strong points in the performance of others, try to incorporate them into your own technique. At the same time, if the trainee you are watching seems to be doing less than his best ask yourself whether you too may not be failing to practice with diligence. Each of us has good qualities and bad; the wise man seeks to emulate the good he perceives in others and avoid the bad."
Funakoshi Gichin


July 2020

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