Monthly Archives: July 2013

Why we need to preserve Kata: Part 4

This is the last chapter of this article and I will conclude this article with the answers to a few of the popular questions about kata. 

best karate nakayamaFirst, let’s review what kata is again.  According to Wikipedia katais a Japanese word describing detailed choreographed patterns of movements practiced either solo or in pairs.  There are many different kata and they represent the samples of the fighting sequences.  We have covered, in the previous chapters, the reasons why the ancient masters created kata.The most important message of this article is that they created not only for the solo practicing purpose, but more importantly they believed kata was the best training tool for bujutsu karate, the most complex physical-mental activities.

Hopefully you agree that our kata must be preserved. At the same time, I am sure you are aware that there are so many unanswered questions with kata.I listed several of them in the last chapter and I feel strongly that they should be answered.If I did this here it would become a book so, for this article I will select the following three questions and share my thoughts with you. In the future, I may need to write a book just for the answers to those unanswered questions. 

      OK, let us start with the first question.

      1. Why kata techniques do not work in kumite? 

Here is a great question that many people wonder.This is true that many techniques you practice in kata cannot apply or they are not usable in your jiyu kumite.In fact, some people have given up kata because they could not find an answer that made sense to them.I will attempt to provide the answer here.Believe it or not, the answer is not that difficult or complicated. 

If you try to apply the kata techniques into the competition kumite, you are figuretively trying to plug a square into a round hole.In other words, you are not comparing apple to apple.Kata techniques are the techniques to maim, hurt or kill an opponent.You may say that the techniques that are used in a competition kumite could hurt or maim the opponent. That is true but there is one big difference here. Nihon nukiteThe purpose or the objective of the techniques you use in a competition kumite is to get a point.If you happen to knock out your opponent or break his bones, you will be disqualified. In addition, there are too many techniques of kata that are not allowed or permitted. For instance, stabbing your fingers into an eye (nihon nukite), kicking the groin, grabbing the hair, etc. are the key techniques in bujutsu but they are prohibited from competition kumite. 

Some of the short distance techniques such as enpi uchi, knee kicks, kagi zuki, and ura zuki are possibly allowed in a tournament kumite. However, how many times have you seen anyone getting a point with one of those techniques? Not too often or never, I suppose.The reason is obvious and simple.It is extremely difficult to make a visual if such a technique is effective in a non-contact tournament.A judge needs to see a long distance technique such as a straight punch or a kick to determine if such a technique would be effective. A short distance moving of an elbow or a knee is much more difficult for such a judgment so the competitors will not try those techniques even if they are allowed. 

Then you may ask “Do those kata techniques work in a real fighting?” Of course they do and that is what you train in bunkai. To be able to use those techniques in a real fighting situation, you must go through the kata training correctly.Let me define the word “correctly” here.  Remember the various processes I have covered in the previous chapters that are needed in learning? You need to learn and acquire the techniques first.Then you need to do a lot of bunkai training to understand how those techniques are used and applied.With bunkai training, you need to learn how to use the techniques.There are so many different bunkai to each technique so it is almost impossible to practice and learn all of them.It will take much time meaning years to learn one kata and its bunkai. This is why the ancient master said you need to spend 3 or 5 years with one kata. 

How do we really know that we are capable of using those dangerous techniques?The only way is to test it in a real fight.However, I cannot recommend it to anyone to start a bar or a street fight just to test this.  The samurai of the ancient time faced the same dilemma with their sword skill. They either challenged to a duel or practiced a lot of kata and other solo training such as swinging the sword thousand times per day.As the real sword was too dangerous to use in a daily training with an opponent.They used bokken, wooden sword, but there were many serious injuries including death.So, they came up with another solution in the 19th century that was an invention of shinai, bamboo sword and the full protectors.                                                           kendo promo photo

This method became very popular and you can see this in the modern day kendo. Though kendoka may disagree, kendo is no longer bujutsu as it lost most of the real kenjutsu techniques. Why and how kendo lost bujutsu part is an interesting subject but we will not touch it here. 

One thing I want to add here is that the samurai believed kata was the best training tool to improve sword fighting skills. The idea of inventing a shinai and a full protector method was not conceived all through the medieval time when they had many wars and fights.It was invented only at the end of the feudal time of 19th century.

2.  Can kata be changed?

Here is a heavy and also a controversial question. 

The ancient masters (as well as the modern day masters) told us not to change the kata, however, many of us know that most if not all of the kata have been changed to some degree since the time when Funakoshi brought karate to main land Japan.

In fact, Funakoshi himself changed the kata, some slightly (such as Chinese sound names to Japanese sound names, switching Heian Shodan and Nidan) and the other greatly (i.e. nekoashi dachi to kokutsu dachi, mae geri to yoko keage, etc.). So, was it ok because he was the master who brought karate to Japan? 

Let me share my thoughts and personal opinions on this subject.  空手道教範

A wise-man said in the past that there is nothing that does not change except for the change itself.I believe the kata is one of the cultural products that include languages, dances, etiquette, customs, etc. No matter how hard we may try to keep these things unchanged but I am afraid it is impossible. Kata is no exception.I already mentioned that our Shotokan kata have already experienced many changes and many of these changes came from Funakoshi himself.Even though I may not be qualified to judge the decision making of Master Funakoshi, after examining the challenging situation he was immersed while he was trying to propagate karate in Japan in early 1920’s, I concluded that these changes had to be made and were acceptable changes if not improvements.I wrote an article on this particular subject and it was included in my recent book, Shotokan Mysteries (available from Amazon bookstore). If you are interested in reading further in this subject I suggest my book, Shotokan Mysteries.

I am not encouraging nor supporting, in general, the idea that kata can be or should be changed.In fact, my stance is that we must keep the kata we have exactly the way they are.As kata is a textbook and the model that means it is a standard form from which we practice our fighting method.We must have the uniform base to learn and teach among the millions of practitioners around the world. All of us forget or remember incorrectly as we practice the kata for many years.As our body make ups are all different so we naturally perform the same kata differently to some degree.If any of us whether students or instructors change the kata according to their liking or preference, we will have thousands of different version.Here is a good example of how kata should not be practiced:

So the conclusion to this question is that only a few masters who truly understand the art of karatedo, can change the kata. The average instructors and practitioners or almost all of us must not.Who are those few masters other than Funakoshi?One may be Kanazawa and another may be Asai (see the next question).

3.    Asai sensei created many new kata.Why did he do this?

There are two schools of thoughts on the number of kata one needs to learn. Motobu_Choki_kamaeI will not debate which is correct or better. I will only mention the brief description of the two schools. One school’s belief is that it is better to concentrate on only a few kata and master them thoroughly. This school is headed by Choki Motobu who was said to have practiced only Tekki or Naichanchi.The real story is that he, of course, knew other kata but he did not teach too many kata in his class.He emphasized more on bunkai and applications. Apparently, he used the techniques from Tekki kata mainly so the people incorrectly believed Motobu knew only one kata.    

Another school is headed by Master Asai who knew and practiced 150 kata. The belief of this school is to learn many kata to widen the variety of the techniques. Demo jump The following statement is very controversial but he believed the JKA 26 kata was not enough to cover all the necessary techniques.He was the technical director of JKA for many nears through 80’s until the breakup of JKA in 1990.  After passing of Masatoshi Nakayama (then Chief Instructor of JKA) passed in 1987.He wanted to change the syllabus of JKA and it met a very strong opposition from many JKA instructors.After the departure of Asai in 1990, many of the JKA dojos reduced its kata menu down to 25 or 24 by taking off either Wankan or/and Ji-in from the list. 

Of course, it is up to the individual organizations to decide how many kata they should choose to practice. My stance is to keep the number of kata small to the beginners and intermediate.Once a practitioner become a dan rank, I recommend he will gradually increase the number of kata and not to stop with 26 kata if you are 3 dan or 4 dan and above.  How many more is a difficult question.I know all together 50 or so kata.It is extremely difficult to keep training all those kata and remembering them.My memory is poor so maybe the younger practitioners would have no problem but I do not know.The upside of knowing many kata is that it forces you to practice them otherwise you will forget.Another benefit is that you will be able to practice the additional techniques that are missing in 26 JKA kata. 

However, there are some downsides too.You will have to spread your time over many kata thus you will have less time to focus on the key kata unless you increase the amount of training time.  If you are a Shotokan then there are many instructors who can help you or teach you with the JKA kata.There are only a few who can teach or coach you with the Asai kata.If you wish to practice the kata from Shito-ryu or Goju-ryu then you have to belong to another style and another dojo.It is possible to learn a kata from a video clip and I met many practitioners who do this.I say it is good that they are motivated to learn a new kata despite lacking a proper instructor and instruction.I respect that but on the other hand, I find many are practicing incorrect techniques.There are three major problems with this learning method.One is the video is limited in showing the techniques and the viewers can easily misunderstand some of the moves.For instance, sometimes it is not clear if a stance is sochin dachi or zenkutsu dachi.Tateken zuki (vertical punch) can be viewed as seiken zuki (regular straight punch). 

I find an important and possibly a serious flaw for an Asai created kata is that many of the video demonstrations are done by the non-certified instructors who learned the kata incorrectly. Asai sensei published a kata textbook for Junro (I also published the English version of Junro) so for Junro there is no problem. You can check the textbook and you can be sure of the techniques. 

Bunkai photos FunakoshiIn addition, the video clips of Junro by JKS are done correctly and I recommend to use them as your training tool. For the other kata we have video in which Asai sensei himself performed the kata but there are many other we do not have his video performance or an official textbook that we can go by. The biggest and most serious problem with a video learning is that you will not learn the bunkai which is the heart of kata.Without knowing the true applications from the senior instructors who know the bunkai, the kata you learned will be only a karate dance.


There are many other interesting questions about kata and most of those questions have not received the logical answers. One day I will list those important questions and attempt to provide my thoughts and understanding to shed the light on the mysteries of kata. 

Why we need to preserve Kata Part 3

  BujutsuThe ancient masters knew that solo practice was necessary for bujutsu practice so they created kata.  Interestingly they did not invent the kumite nor the kihon syllabus.  In fact, both of them were invented and added to karate training in early 20th century.  The ancient Okinawan masters practiced only kata and bunkai (applications).  Why?  The key to this question lies in the way they practiced (one to one teaching) compared to the modern day training (many students of various skill levels). It is an interesting subject and I will touch this again briefly later in this chapter. I need to bring up an important concept as I explain kata.  In the learning process there are two kinds of learning that are necessary particularly for the martial artists. As far as I know this concept has never been fully explained (especially the second part) to the karate world in the past.  I do not think it is a difficult concept but it is easily missed or unrecognized. The concept needs some explanation and understanding this is important when we come to the objectives of kata which will be discussed later. Learning process 1: Acquiring technique: One learning need for a karateka is pure acquisition of a technique. As we all know in karate we must learn many basic techniques such as stances, punches, kicks, blocks and many other skills.  After learning the single techniques separately you need to go on and learn various combinations (and the number of combination is huge).  The important point in this learning process is the word, “acquire”.  This is not only learning, knowing and understanding how the techniques work but one must acquire them which means the techniques must be a part of his body system.  In other words, after having learned the correct techniques one needs to be able to execute them as he wishes.  To get to this stage it requires a large number of repetitions to ingrain those techniques into your body system.  We have already discussed that in this process a solo practice is needed. During a solo practice a practitioner does not have anyone or anything to disturb his execution thus he can pay 100% of attention to his performance. By doing this he can get the maximum result in learning and acquiring the techniques. Learning a technique by repetition is well known and all of us, karateka, have been doing this diligently.  To learn all the sports and new activities you need to do some repetition as well.  Even to learn a small task that may involve only the fingers or hand repetition is required. Here are a couple of examples.  When you went to a Japanese restaurant for the first time you could not handle the chop sticks well.  You needed to practice using them. It’s a new skill of fingers coordination that you had to acquire. chopsticks funny Have you experienced a situation that you had to write with the non-natural hand (left hand if you are right handed)?  It is a hand and wrist coordination that had to be transferred to the non-natural side. In both cases, you will become capable after many repetitions. Of course, we can list all the sports activities as almost all of them need to be learned with some numbers of repetition. The ancient masters created a kata as a sample of a fight sequence and this is an excellent tool to learn and acquire the basic fighting ability.  It is impossible to cover every techniques and scenarios no matter how long one kata may be. Therefore, they selected the most frequently used combinations in an attempt to make a best sample of the actual fighting.  A student can practice this slowly initially to learn the correct techniques then he will repeat until the techniques become a part of him.  I will cover more on kata after the explanation of the second learning requirement. Learning process 2: A technique of how to use/apply those base techniques: I am sure the first one was easy to understand and everyone knows. Here is the second one which I feel has been ignored and missed by many karateka and instructors.  It is the learning of how to use or apply the techniques in a real situation (in a fight) and that itself is a technique.  This is extremely important and I want to make sure the readers especially the instructors understand this concept. seiken_chokuzuki In the first process a student learns how to punch, for an example.  After learning a base technique of how to throw a punch, it is still not enough to make it useful or usable. To make it usable (effective) he must learn the other critical skills (techniques) such as ma-ai (distance), accuracy (hitting a correct target spot), body shifting with your techniques and many more. For an example, unless a person can shift to or move to the correct distance in relation to his opponent, his punch or kick will be ineffective no matter how fast or strong his attacking technique may be.  If he misses a target then that technique is also ineffective. Those skills (ma-ai, accuracy, body shifting, timing, etc.) are the necessary additional techniques to “use” or “apply” your base karate techniques. The same principle applies in a smaller degree to the regular sports events. It may be easier to understand this point so let me give you some examples to illustrate it. ButterflyLet’s take a swimming situation. A swimmer wants to learn how to do a butterfly stroke. As this is a very difficult stroke, say, he learns it on the ground.  After learning the body moves for this stroke eventually he will be able to simulate all those movements while he is on the ground.  This means he learned the technique of this stroke.  However, this does not mean he can swim with this stroke in the water even if he knows how to swim with other swimming styles.  He needs to get in the water and be able to do this stroke and to swim forward. Basketball-Shooting-WorkoutsAnother example we can look at is a basketball situation. A player learns how to shoot a ball nicely.  He learned a technique of throwing a ball. This technique alone does not guarantee what he needs to do in a game that is to make a hoop. Making a hoop requires other techniques such as accuracy, distancing, etc.  In a baseball playing, one learns how to swing a bat.  Just learning a technique of bat swing is not enough, of course.  He needs to learn the other requirements such as timing, distance, etc. so that he can actually hit a ball.  However, even that is still not enough.  You have to be able to hit the ball in a way that a ball will fly to the desired direction and the distance.  I hope I made the point regarding this concept.  Now when you review these cases this second requirement or technique is much more difficult to acquire than the first one.  With the first one all you need to do is to repeat the actions.  With the second one you have to acquire a skill that may or may not come with the simple repetition.  This is why I say that understanding this point is important for all karateka. Let me divert to another idea which I will not go into but just to touch as it is a very interesting part of human learning.  There are certain learning skills that needs a knack (in Japanese kotsu 骨) and not simply by the repetition.  Let me give you a few examples.  One is how to ride a bicycle and another is how to float in the water. I can also include a skill to whistle.  In all cases, you try several or many times and it does not necessarily result in a gradual improvement.  You really don’t know how you did it but at one point you find that you can do it.  Once you learned how to, whistle, float or ride a bike you will retain those skills almost all your life even if you do not practice them for many years.  Most of the people can acquire these skills but a few cannot.  These skills did not come from only pure repletion you needed to acquire a skill or ability.  There was, somehow, a different mechanism in our body that made possible. Believe it or not, you can find this kind of skill in the karate skills.  Let me give you two examples: one is the ability of kime and the other is ki. I will not go into this in this article and maybe I will have another article touching this interesting subject. funakoshi_makiwara2So, the ancient masters created kata for the solo training but did they expect kata would fill the particular requirement of “how to use the base techniques”? Obviously they did not.  They realized the short coming of simply punching in the mere air so they invented a makiwara.  Hitting a makiwara can teach you some things that you cannot learn from practicing only kata. The things you can learn from hitting a makiwara include ma-ai, accuracy, power delivery, etc.  However, the target is fixed and the distance is the same, therefore, it lacks many conditions and situations.  For instance, you cannot learn timing as the makiwara does not move or react.  It also does not teach you ma-ai and accuracy in the moving situation as the target is always fixed and unmovable.  Many modern day karateka use a punching bag as it can move (swing). It is softer so the hitting it feels somewhat similar to hitting a real person. However, the movements of a hanging bag are unfortunately very simple and also predictable.  It does not move like a person so it is still not a perfect training tool. As a conclusion, to learn the technique of how to use the base techniques, we need a person or an opponent.  With my conclusion you may protest saying “What’s going on? You told us that kumite was not a good training tool for karate training earlier.” I am well aware of this so now I tell you that the ancient masters taught bunkai and not kumite. Bunkai photos FunakoshiBy doing this process the students learned how to use those base techniques in kata.  As you may already know bunkai is an application specific to a technique or a combination.  It is not free sparring or anything similar to the free exchanges of the techniques in a real fighting.  You asked earlier why the ancient masters did not create or adopt the kumite syllabus in their regular training. There may be two good reasons.  One is simply it was not very possible because in those days a sensei had only one or two students.  As I wrote earlier that the systematic kihon kumite became popular after a large dojo operation came into play in early 20th century.  Another reason was that they believed shiai (competition) was not appropriate or suitable for the bujutsu concept.  This is another interesting and challenging topic why it is so but we will not go into this in this article. We know that this was the belief Funakoshi had and he did not change his mind all through his life. Nakayama, Chief Instructor of JKA had to hold off the All Japan Championship till 1957, the very year Funakoshi passed.  It is true that Okinawa masters did not approve or taught jiyu kumite but unofficially they did.  ThisMotobuChoki is one of the secrets Funakoshi did not share and the Japanese found there was an event  in Okinawa called kake dameshi from Choki Motobu (1870-1944, photo right), another Okinawan master who moved to Japan in 1921. He is a very unique karate master and here is a general information about him in Wikipedia: The word of kake dameshi is not a popular one in Shotokan karate so I am happy to introduce it. The first part, kake means to throw a technique. The second part, dameshi means testing or experimenting.  But this word meant a free fight or almost a duel (though the purpose was not to kill each other).  There were supposed to be a few open spaces or the crossing of the roads in a town where the karateka who want to test his karate skills would gather at night. Motobu 1 Motobu was well known among the karate practitioners that he was the champion in kake dameshi. He was said to be so good that no karateka would accept his challenges. So he used to climb up to the top of a house near the crossing.  He would hide and wait there till an unsuspecting karateka passed the area then he would jump down and started fighting without announcing a formal challenge.  They say that no karateka would dare to approach those “dangerous” spots at night any more.  If you are interested in learning more about Choki Motobu, here is an article; “Through the myth…To the man” and was written by Tom Ross, at Fighting Arts. There are two parts and here are the links; Link 1: Link 2: The ancient masters, excepting Motobu maybe, did not openly admit that karate training must include free sparring or street fighting training.  They claimed it was barbaric and un-gentlemen like. Funakoshi was a highly educated man and he was a very proud person so it can be easily guessed that he would definitely forbid such training.  And this was exactly what had happened in his teaching in Japan. He was totally against free sparring practice and his students had to practice jiyu kumite secretly. He even resigned from a teaching position at one of the universities as he discovered that his students were secretly practicing free sparring.  I will not go into this area of why he did not see the value in free sparring in this article. He also prohibited shiai all through his life and I have already mentioned the first JKA tournament had to wait till the year Funakoshi passed.  I wonder very much why Funakoshi did not consider or realize the need of the technique called “using the techniques”.  This suspicion is somewhat surprising even to myself as Funakoshi was an educator and he was a true believer of bujutsu karate.     In Part 4, hopefully the final chapter, I will cover the topic of changing and preserving kata.