Author: Shihan Graeme

Kata is said to contain nanjiru gokuden...... "Nanjiru Gokuden"-- Secrets learned by yourself and understood through great trial and effort.

The Dojo Kun of the late Sosui Ichikawa Sensei includes the following advice:

* Achieving progress with kata requires diligent practice, skillful analysis, and correct understanding of all of the katas.

* When practicing kumite in the dojo it is necessary for each student to grasp the exact meaning of the katas that have been taught. In this way the meaning can be applied to kumite.

* It is imperative that we follow the katas, which our ancestors have created, teach them without change.

The Dojo Kun of the late Kanki Izumikawa Sensei includes:

* The secret principles of karate-do exist within the kata.

* Spirit before technique.

* Study both kata and kumite as one.

* Focus the mind, body and spirit in the practice of kihon, kata and kumite.

* Kumite changes, kata remains the same.

As in all martial arts, katas are made up of imaginary, flowing combats against imaginary opponents. They consist of technical movements of ascending levels of difficulty or complexity which is designed to be trained to achieved competency or mastery. After extensive and dedicated training over many years, one is able to transcend technique to the point where the kata and the various applications philosophies, concepts and principles become integrated and an indivisible part of the person. The applications of the technical aspects are called "waza", and the spiritual content is referred to as "do".

The spiritual path "do", the "way" is an important aspect of budo (and therefore, karate-do). Without the inclusion of the concept of "do", the martial art would be simply a collection of fighting techniques (jitsu).

The word "do" is derived from the Chinese word "Tao" or "Dao", and in Japanese is "michi" which means "path". The "path" or "michi" is to be followed by those wishing to reach the fullness of self, to develop their character to the highest levels, to know themselves and to become one with the totality of the universe. The ultimate goal of following the "path" is to reach the highest levels of human existence, to realize one’s true nature, and to realize enlightenment.

The "way" therefore is a constant search for self improvement, for human growth, and an ultimate union of the self with the universe. This is called "ai".

In a simple sense, "jitsu" is a search for knowledge whereas the "do" can be described as a search for wisdom including knowledge.

The "do" has become inseparable from Zen, and budo schools include Zen concepts and teachings as much as martial teachings. In fact, the Chinese character for "do" (the third character) in the words "karate do", included on many school’s badges and on many practitioner’s embroidered black belts is actually the same character as "Zen".

The translation of these characters is actually "To study Zen through the practice of karate". In my own school’s case, the words "Goju-Ryu Karate-do" more specifically translates to "To study Zen through the practice of Goju Ryu karate".

In the case of "jitsu", there is no emphasis on the aspects outlined above, but rather a total focus on the efficacy of technique leading to the defeat of one’s enemy. The student of the "do" is however also interested in the accumulation of technical knowledge and training required to be an efficient fighter, but is equally comfortable with the concept of moral or psychological victory as physical victory. In a sense, the "jitsu" adherent fights an external enemy, whilst the "do" adherent, whilst also adept against an external enemy, is as much concerned with the battle and conflict and eventual victory against and within themselves.

The various "budos" practiced today have been developed with this moral and self development practice in mind. In the case of judo for example, the most dangerous killing techniques were removed and the syllabus designed to be suitable for all people, including children in times of peace, when such deadly arts became inappropriate.

An understanding of these differences is important in understanding the role which kata plays within your own school’s syllabus, which actually reflects the philosophies and ideals of the school’s founder and consequently its teachers and senior practitioners.

As most schools use the terminology "karate-do" sometimes, and just as often as not refer to their art as simply "karate", it is not immediately obvious just what the school’s direction is. Schools tend not to use the "karate-jitsu" description even if that is their orientation. The test then is to experience the school’s teachings, to talk with the master or teacher and senior students to determine the real orientation of the school. One can then decide the direction which one wishes to follow.

Unfortunately schools with a heavy sport orientation tend not to describe themselves as such and similar enquiries need to be made to determine if the school is practicing the type of karate orientation suitable to the potential student.

Many of the well publicized (and often bitter) splits which occur within martial arts organizations are more often than not, based on a difference of opinion between seniors and Masters regarding the school’s direction and philosophies.

Kata is a concept unique to the martial arts, and no matter what karate style you practice, kata should form an important part of the syllabus.

However, some organizations (or teachers) place no emphasis on kata at all, preferring to bias their training towards sparring. Such organizations are not pursuing traditional karate-do. In my opinion, it is doubtful if these schools could even be called "karate-jitsu", as even karate-jitsu schools base their training upon kata study.

Other organizations do practice kata, but on an aesthetic level, with a bias towards competition. Some even go to the extent of painting footprints on the dojo floor so that aspiring competitors get their pattern exactly right for the competition floor. Unless this is balanced by an in-dojo approach to kata which is more in keeping with the principles of karate-do, then these organizations are not pursuing traditional karate-do either, even if they think they are.

Yet again, some teachers view karate as a "necessary evil", or anarchistic………..a hangover from earlier times. Some even go to the extent of "making up" kata, thinking they are progressive and modern. Usually one finds the teachers alter the kata in a vain attempt to "modernize" them. Such practitioners do not understand the true nature of karate-do or karate-jitsu.

Going further, some practitioners or organizations rack up an impressive repertoire of kata from here, there and everywhere, sometimes including 50 or more kata into their syllabus. One would need 5 lifetimes to master such a burden even if one were to train 25 hours a day 8 days a week. One does not judge the skill or abilities of a karateka by the number of katas they "know". However, if one has the time and energy to train at such a vast collection, then each to his own!

As one will be able to discern from the following discussion, such practitioners will probably not be able to penetrate true karate-do deeply because their time and effort is spread too thinly.

The famous poet Dryden wrote: "Drink deep or taste not the Pyrenean spring". How true this is when applied to the martial arts!

In the "traditional" karate dojo, most particularly those based upon the Bubishi, kata is a vital element of training, taking equal place with bunkai and kumite variations, including weapons. Without these three elements to start with, there is no true karate. Whilst there maybe supplementary kata, some kata which supplements the basic system, or hobby kata, normally one would find a manageable kata list which is extensively trained.

Bunkai links the kata to kumite, so without kata, the bunkai is simply a disintegrated set of partner exercises. In its simplest form, kata could be described as a technique for remembering bunkai, but true understanding of the role kata plays in karate goes far beyond that.

To discuss the kata-bunkai connection, and thus the effect on kumite, it is necessary to firstly accept that kata in its pure form is the distillation of applications according to the principles, concepts and philosophies surrounding those applications as determined by past and present Masters

Every element of every kata must be capable of coherent and accurate explanation and connection, either to a bunkai, a training technique, or a principle.

It is true also, that the higher level katas involve more advanced and intricate understandings, which cannot be comprehended let alone mastered until the lower level trainings have been absorbed.

Kata evolved for a number of reasons, the principle one being that it contains the bunkai, or applications appropriate to the level of the martial artist. The kata contains the principles and philosophies of the system as laid down by the founder and modified over time by subsequent masters.

Some claim kata allowed martial artists to practice their martial arts in secret by hiding techniques within a "dance form", because martial arts practice was banned. This argument is put forward by some trying to explain the Okinawan development of karate, but that ignores the fact that karate was extensively derived from Chinese martial arts which had existed for centuries along with their "forms".

Kata is referred to as the "living textbook" not because it is a kata, but because it contains the principles and techniques of the particular fighting system. But training at kata also includes a number of aspects peculiar to the martial arts that gives the various katas their unique place in human development:-

The ability to train by one’s self. To me this is by itself a very important aspect of kata. Kata does not require much space, it can be performed almost anywhere, and training partners are not required. In kata training the martial artist is training at karate, even if alone.

In training alone, kata provides the opportunity to train at everything you know in karate. Kata trains all the basics.

I have trained kata on my own in parks and hotel rooms all around Australia and in various places around the world. I always travel with a pair of gi pants in my luggage. One of my favourite memories is climbing out my hotel window each night, and training in the dark on the roof of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel (the Pink Palace), in Waikiki.

To me, anybody who dismisses kata training has missed a most important aspect of martial arts, and their potential skill and understanding are diminished accordingly. Kata training is CRITICAL to truly understanding karate. To be serious, one should practice every kata you know every day. This by itself is a good reason to not try to learn more kata for the sake of it!!!

Kata develops the body. In practicing kata one trains the body in coordination, balance, posture, flexibility, strength, breathing, and concentration. It also trains us in stances, and basics at the level of the kata. There is no doubt that diligent kata training in and of itself develops the body . After years of practice, particularly in the Goju system, softness can appear, and hence the clear delineation between hard and soft.

Kata develops the mind. The ability to focus the mind on the task at hand, to grapple with techniques that are difficult, and train and perform under all types of conditions and circumstances are clear outcomes that are available. Continuous, repetitive focused training assists to develop concepts of self awareness, concentration, self discipline focus and commitment. An important element of this training is "metsuke", which means "focus of intention". This diligent training and subsequent mastery leads to the next level:

Kata develops the spirit. Once the body and mind have been diligently trained for a long time, the spirit becomes stronger. This spirit permeates all other aspects of karate, especially kumite, but it is within kata that it is trained. After many years of dedicated, focused kata training, one is able to free one’s self from the physical and mental shackles, and operate on a purely spiritual level. It is clear to most that when first learning a kata, an immense amount of physical and mental energy is needed to train, remember, and perfect the techniques and routines. When the physical kata is overcome, and the mind can relax, the spirit can grow and be polished. After long training the practitioner can free the mind from conscious thought surrounding the kata and then one can enter a meditative state. When kata is performed at this sub-conscious or automatic level, there is an overwhelming feeling that can only be described as liberating or exhilarating.

Kata contains all the elements of the "system" Kata contains all the elements of the system being studied, from basics through to advanced concepts and techniques. Therefore, by careful study, analysis and practice of the kata, one is actually training at, and practicing the core of the system. Other systems can be experienced and included into your learning by cross training, but my caution would be to make sure you are well advanced in your primary system first; otherwise you may compromise your study and understandings. In my own school’s case, appropriate cross training is provided within the school’s syllabus, and introduced at a time appropriate to the student’s level of progress.

Basically there are three steps to learning kata. Firstly, learn the physical kata – all the required movements, steps, strikes, blocks, kicks and so on. Practice where to look, how and where to focus energy. It is said that this stage alone takes 10 years of dedicated training. The second step is to train the breathing. This means to train the breath so that it is coordinated and supports the kata and its purpose. It is said this takes a further 10 years. Within the Goju system, as in Tai Chi Chuan, the breathing method used is Taoist Breathing, or Reverse Breathing. After this, the third step is entered in which the spirit is developed and can take over. This is why Masters with immense experience and training perform kata as if it were "easy", and just as natural as eating or performing any other natural human task. It is also why people with less experience lose their breath and suffer "breathing chaos". We have all been there! An excellent example is to watch middle level practitioners perform kata. Inevitably they go into breathing chaos, performing techniques holding their breath, breathing out after techniques instead of with the techniques, and at the end of the kata being somewhat physically distressed. Perform 12 kata one after the other like this and you may need to call an ambulance!!!!!

When I see Black Belts going into breathing chaos and physical distress after performing 10 or so kata at full power I know they are unfit or do not train enough. In my own dojos we perform all katas every class. It is rare for us to not do this.

There are many ways to train at kata in order to explore and grow in confidence and skill. In my own training I have found the following useful techniques once the kata has been fully integrated into your repertoire: These training techniques are in no particular order.

The techniques described here are particularly oriented towards the "do" concept of karate-do.

    1 Perform the kata with legs only. Put your hands behind your back and perform the kata from the waist down.. This allows the mind to free from the tendency to operate from the "waist up", and instead allows you to concentrate on stepping, turning, stances grounding your body by sinking into the gedan hara, and so on.

    2 Perform kata as TaiChi. Perform the kata slowly and softly, concentrating on balance, breathing, stillness of spirit, and minimalisation of tension.

    3 Perform kata with contrasting degrees of power. Perform kata with an over emphasis on tension, similar to Sanchin kata. Then perform the kata with minimal tension, but focusing the body’s power by "locking" the stomach and thereby the whole body at the moments when power is appropriate, such as strikes, blocks and so on. Relax between techniques. Try to perform each kata using Tensho principles.

    4 Perform kata at dojo speed/power. This means to train at the level you would perform within a standard dojo class.

    5 Perform kata as if it is a Grading, or the finals of the World Championships. This means to perform the kata at your absolute best level. This should not be now and again, but a regular way in which you train your kata. It is amazing how the body/mind/spirit kick in when you operate at this level.

    6 Perform the kata "standing still." This is a unique way to train your kata. This way you can practice in your shower recess, or in a very confined space. It’s difficult to work this one out by yourself, so talk to your sensei for guidance.

    7 Perform kata in your head. Some have been known to use this as an excuse for not going to class! Simply shut your eyes and perform the kata in your mind. There are two good ways to do this….. Imagine you are watching yourself at a venue of your choice, or perform the kata from "within" being conscious of your chosen outer surroundings. These are typical "visualization" techniques employed in many sports. The benefit here is when you practice this way your mind doesn’t have to be aware that your body is not performing, so the mind can be trained in the absence of physical effort. An interesting phenomenon happens though! You will be surprised to find your breathing regulates as if you were physically performing, and you may become aware of "body locking", particularly with the stomach muscles. A favourite of mine is to perform one or two katas in this way when my head hits the pillow at night, just before going to sleep. It’s a good way to train too, when injuries prevent you performing. This is one of many reasons why my students often say "Sensei is crazy".

    8 Perform the kata as if in combat. This method allows you to create timings appropriate to the situation you create in your mind. Obviously, the kata should also be performed at full power, with maximum concentration on disposing of your enemy. Your enemy should be your own evil twin who is stronger, faster, better than you are. In your endless quest to defeat yourself in this way you will become stronger and better!!!

    9 Perform the kata with one arm only. Perform the kata as if you were carrying an arm injury, alternating the non-working arm. Use the same arm for blocking and countering. This will develop your skill at working with one arm only, and help to develop power without using the apposing side. This requires full hip development as well as other power systems such as compression and watta-shu.

    10 Perform kata inserting connecting techniques. This means to insert at least one connecting technique between the techniques currently performed in your present kata. Nakate means connecting two techniques. This concept was developed by Ichikawa Sensei and to my knowledge is not practiced outside of his lineage. It includes, but is not limited to the identification of kamae. Its most practical application is in the performance of kumite.

    11 Perform the kata searching for, and identifying kamae. Kamae forms the cornerstone of kumite, yet it is within kata that kamae is identified and trained. Without kata, it would be necessary for a martial artist to memorise every possible kamae, if that were possible, and if he or she could find a teacher prepared to bother. Without kamae training one will probably be reduced to a kick boxing type kamae.

    12 Perform the kata varying timings. Practice the kata varying the timings or pacings to create varying senses of application. Consider there is a "beat", 1 – 2 – 3 – 4. Then vary the techniques sometimes going 1,2 – 3,4 or 1,2,3 – 4. You will find it is also necessary to adapt your breathing, so this is an advanced training method.

    13 Train parts of the kata only. Select a small number of sequences (usually a bunkai set), and train the set over and over until you have acquired mastery. This is a particularly useful technique if you are trying to correct errors or improve one aspect of your kata. It is time efficient, because it means you don’t have to perform the whole kata to give yourself specific training in one part only. Ask your sensei how to do this, as there is a technique to make the training continuous.

    14 Perform kata at high speed. Perform the kata at extremely high speed, whist ensuring all techniques are properly performed and not cut short, or blurred so that they become unrecognizable. To perform kata correctly at high speed requires one to have mastered the kata to the point where no thought process is required.

A key to remember in kata training is this: kata is perfect form. When performing kata, you are not under attack, therefore your form should be perfect In Zen terms: kata is living art. Imagine a painter busy painting a scene. You are the kata, you are also the painter. You are the paint, you are the paint brush, you are the canvas, you are the frame around the finished artwork. Your art exists as long as the performance. Anybody observing your kata should be able to say "ah! So that is karate!". They should be able to see the finest example of true martial arts!

There is no doubt that diligently performing kata is HARD WORK !!!

To add the next layer to our understanding of kata we need to explore the concept of kata being the distillation of techniques, If the techniques and principles of the system have been put together as a kata for practice and future reference, then the study of karate-do includes working back the other way to get the techniques and principles out. It is these principles and concepts which are important, not just the kata for its own sake.

There are 4 types of information, principles, or concepts which can be taken out of each kata, and which provide an opportunity for a lifetime of study and practice.

These aspects form the basis of the "jitsu" concept within karate.

    1. BUNKAI Bunkai means "to take apart, to dissect, for the purposes of examination". This means that the study of bunkai involves taking discrete parts of the kata and examining them to determine what they mean, and how they can be applied practically. It is a literal translation of the kata with little or no modification. When seeing the techniques performed against an actual attacker, it is very easy to identify which kata, and what part of the kata is being employed. The actual application or practical performance of the technique is known as "oyo". However, through common usage, within the karate environment bunkai means not only the interpretation of the technique, but also its subsequent physical application and training. When learning kata it is very helpful to learn appropriate bunkai and interpretations at the same time. This allows the kata to be practiced with meaning and indicates such things as focus, power, where to look and so on. Kata makes sense only when the attendant bunkai is understood. Otherwise it becomes just a dance or sequence of karate-type movements. Even on this basic level it can be seen that failing to understand the bunkai means failure to understand the kata.

    2. HENTE Hente means "variation", and the study of hente adds a practical depth to the fundamental kata. It is through not understanding the concept of hente that many practitioners are led to believe that bunkai and therefore kata is less than useful in the real world self defence environment. But hente allows the bunkai to be varied to take into account changed circumstances. The original bunkai is modified or varied to suit such circumstances as a different attack than the normal bunkai would address, different distances, angles, number of attackers, nature of the environment and so on. The study and practice of hente does not alter the original kata, but gives the practitioner a deeper understanding of the potentials held within the kata itself.

    3. KAKUSHITE Kakushite means "hidden techniques". In the performance of the kata, the intention doesn't show, as the technique is hidden inside the performance of the kata. It can be used at anytime. It is not the same as hente, as hente can be applied to kakushite. Basically the hidden techniques are the "connecting" techniques which can be practiced with the kata. The hidden techniques can actually occur before, after, or in the place of the original kata technique. Sometimes these techniques have been shrouded in mystery, being referred to as "secret" techniques only available to the most senior and trusted students. In reality they are there for everybody if you have trained long enough to comprehend and deal with the principle. It is suggested that to practice the identification and practice of hidden techniques you should select your favourite or best kata, which you have practiced to the point of total confidence over many years. Then work out your own "hidden techniques" which you may sometimes insert into your kata in private practice, and most certainly into your kumite. Never practice hidden techniques when performing kata in the dojo environment. In the sequence of development of "shu-ha-ri", practicing hidden techniques is something the practitioner can work on after they have entered the "ha" stage of their development. This means 3rd Dan and above.

    4. KYUSHO This is the highest level of application of the kata in a physical sense. In bunkai, hente and kakushite it is a lower level skill to simply "blast away", and hit anything in the general target area. Kyusho implies that the various strikes and attacks are focused, and pinpointed against vital points or acupuncture points. In Chinese systems kyusho is known as "cavity strikes". This requires complete focus and control of the techniques to avoid injury to training partners. It also requires resuscitation training. Kyusho techniques are discussed in great detail in the Bubishi, and call for the highest level of skill in the martial artist. For this reason, kyusho techniques are not introduced below 3rd Dan in our school. Bunkai, hente and kakushite are used to enter the opponent and give the opportunity to employ kyusho strikes. To learn and practice Kyusho, one needs a teacher who is thoroughly familiar with this level of application, who knows all the appropriate acupuncture points, their effect, how to "enter" the target, and how to deal with injuries.

From the above discussions I have tried to place kata into its context as a major part of karate-do trainings. In my own experience, kata and its place in karate and how it translates to kumite via bunkai is a mystery many martial artists do not comprehend. Whilst the forgoing may be deficient in many respects, it is my hope that the discussion helps the understanding of karate-do.