The 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.
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.
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. Let’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.
Another 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.
So, 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.
By 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. This 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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motobu_Ch%C5%8Dki
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 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;
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.