Discussing the concept of kata is a huge task and an extremely complex one because it involves almost every aspects of physical and mental functions. I am always amazed by the beauty of the design and the capability of human being. I cannot help but to thank God for the master piece he had created. Our body (physical and mental) is far more complex and precisely designed than any machines or mechanisms we have been able to create.
Now let us talk about kata. According to Wikipedia kata is described as a Japanese word describing detailed choreographed patterns of movements practiced either solo or in pairs. The term form is used for the corresponding concept in non-Japanese martial arts in general.
Most of the readers already knew that much but probably you may not know that the kanji for the word of “kata” has not been agreed in Japan. Two kanji: 形 and 型 are used for the same pronunciation but two different though similar meanings. The first kanji, 形 means form or shape and the second one, 型 means model, mold or pattern. So, the meaning of 形 is more general and describes ambiguous concept of form or shape. On the other hand, the meaning of 型 seems to be more specific as it means a mold to make a certain form or a pattern. As I wrote earlier that there is no consensus among the Japanese karate styles and organizations.
Depending on which karate style different kanji is used and even that is not 100% accurate as these two kanji are used interchangeably. Here is a book cover of Karatedo Kata Kyohan (photo left) published by Japan Karatedo Federation (JKF). They used 形 and Shotokan also tend to use this kanji. Another book (photo below) published by Okinawa Gojuryu, shows 型 in its title “Karate no kata”. Okinawa styles seem to prefer this kanji. This is historically interesting because the pure Japanese martial arts such as kenjutsu (fore father of kendo) and jujitsu (that of judo) have their kata and they use形.
Okinawa definitely had a unique history and did not receive much cultural influence from the mainland Japan until as late as mid-19th century. Therefore, the Okinawan people may have a different understanding or feeling about these kanji.
OK that is enough with the kanji lesson. I assume that many of the readers will agree that kata is a very unique component of not only karate but also of all Japanese martial arts or bujutsu. The training method of kata really separates bujutsu from the western fighting arts (i.e. boxing and wrestling) and the sports events. Now you know this, then why did the Japanese masters developed and adopted the concept of kata? What is the true purpose of kata? It is true that kata is a perfect training method when you are alone or when you do not have a training partner. With kata you can train any time and almost any place. You can also train secretly if you want to keep your karate training confidential. All these reasons seem like the good enough reasons why the ancient masters created kata. However, some of you already know that they were not the real reasons. The training had to be alone even though some kata were made (for instance in jujutsu) for the multiple practitioners to perform as tori (attacker) and uke (defender). There is a real secret of bujutsu and the depth of its teaching. I hope my article will help you to appreciate the wisdom of the past masters.
Let me explain why the Japanese masters of bujutsu believed in the necessity of kata (mostly solo performance). First of all, in order to start discussing this subject we must understand the complexity of the body (including mind) mechanism in martial arts. In fact, it happens to be most complex and most demanding out of all physical activities. I am not saying this because I am a proud karate instructor. This is not a biased statement and I will explain exactly what I am saying below. By the way, as far as I know, the theory I am going to present here has never been discussed or mentioned by any instructors in the past.
To illustrate the complexity of the physical/mental mechanism of bujutsu I will compare it with some of the popular sports. In fact, I will list from the simplest (mechanical) structure to the most complex (with bujutsu). A few sports events such as boxing, wrestling, fencing and archery originated from atrial arts. The sports events were invented and created for the pleasure and leisure. To maximize the pleasure many of them take the form of competition. This is why we can put kendo, judo and karate in sports category. Those who want karate in Olympics feel very comfortable with the idea and those who are into bujutsu feel very unhappy with the recent movement which did not succeed for the 2020 games.
Before I go further into the comparison I want to stress the true intention of my action so that the readers will not misunderstand the point I will try to make. What I will present here is simply that the complexity of physiological and mental mechanism of the martial arts is higher and more complex than that of the sports events. What I want to emphasize is that I am not looking down on the sports category nor claiming bujutsu is better or more valuable than sports events. Such comparison is futile and meaningless as those two are two totally different animals. Let me restate that the comparison I present is only from the mechanical (both physical and mental) structure and complexity perspectives and not from the value perspective.
That’s been cleared hopefully, I want to start with the simplest or easiest competition structure of the sports events. The good examples in this category may be the track and field running and the swimming competitions.
Let’s take a 100 meter sprint as the first example. In this event, you will have only a few rules and the requirements such as react to the starting gun and you have to stay in the given track but not too many more. With those rules only thing a competitor has to do is to run as fast as he can. First of all, a competitor does not need to learn a new technique. Almost everyone knows how to run naturally so what he needs to do is to improve his running technique to go faster. What is more important here is that the other competitors will not bother you or interfere with your running. If someone does this then that runner will be disqualified immediately. In other words, in a normal track and field sprint event a runner can focus all his attention to his running. These are the key factors that make this event the simplest event. This means the performance of the runners will mostly depend on the runner’s natural talent. Of course, to run faster he has to train his body, run a lot and also he needs to improve his running style. However, the amount of the new techniques he must learn or acquire is extremely small.
Swimming is a little more complex because the ability of swimming is a learned or acquired one unlike the ability of running which is given and unnecessary to learn (of course a toddler must learn this ability). In a swimming competition, there is little interaction between the swimmers and the only objective is to swim as fast as he can or faster than any other swimmers in the same race. From the structure wise this is pretty primitive and you can see why I say it is the simplest.
The second level of complexity is an event that involves some interactions between the competitors. The simplest of this category includes tennis, ping pong and badminton where you play only against one opponent (I will mention about doubles later). You can easily see that the biggest difference from the previous category is that your opponent will directly affect and almost dictate your actions and reactions. In other words, if he hits a ball to the right side of the table or the court you have to run there to hit the ball back. If he hits high then you have to reach out high to catch the ball. It gets more complex as the number of the players increases. Playing the doubles is of course more complex than playing singles in ping pong and tennis. For the same token it gets more complex in baseball and volleyball. The events in this category share the similarity that they have an offensive and a defensive teams. However, baseball is simpler than volleyball as the most of the interactions are between a pitcher and a batter. The rest of the players are basically standing still and waiting until the batter hits. Volleyball is a little more complex as the volley or hitting of the ball to each other will continue as long as the ball stays in the air. Both of them have the rule that will keep all your opponents in their court or off the field while your team is playing. The opponents are not allowed to come into your court or field to disturb you.
Another rule we must pay attention to in baseball is that the offensive side is fixed. Until the pitcher throws the ball the game does not start. Of course there is a rule and limit the time to get ready so the pitcher cannot spend one hour before throwing the ball. But he can basically take his good ole time to get set before he throws the ball. This means he will be, though under the stressed condition, able to prepare himself in the best condition for his attacking action (throw the ball). In this category, the more complex structure can be found in football (soccer) and basketball.
It is more complex because the offensive and defensive sides are not fixed and they can switch very easily if the ball is intercepted. In addition, there is basically not off limit in the field for the players. Even though the players of the opponent team cannot harm you intentionally but they can block or even tackle you (in rugby) which means not only you have to carry the ball but you also have to defend yourself by running away or dodging from the pursuing opponent players. This is a huge key factor that makes the game faster, more unpredictable and complex, and challenging to play. The players must learn and acquire more and different kind of techniques to play in these ball games than tennis and baseball. On the other hand, there still exists many rules that would keep the game fairly simple. Let me list a few. There is always only one ball to play in the court or the field. Can you imagine if there were two or three balls in a basketball game? The goal or the hoop belongs to one team and you have to get the ball to the other side. In basketball a player cannot carry a ball like in rugby, he has to dribble or pass it to one of his team mates. In rugby a player can carry the ball but he cannot throw it forward. Interestingly, the more rules you have the simpler the structure of a game becomes.
Once again, I am not saying all these ball games are inferior to martial arts or claiming it is easy to become a top player. For instance, in basketball and volleyball a player needs to be able to jump high so those players are definitely much better at jumping than the average martial artists. I am sure most of the football and basketball players can run faster than the martial artists. They may even have more stamina and possibly endurance as they have to run for many minutes in their game. These things are all true but still the difficulty and complexity of the game or the competing structure are simpler than those of bujutsu.
Now the last category before bujutsu is the martial arts like sports. I want to list boxing, kendo, judo and sports karate (both full contact and non-contact karate) and compare them to bujutsu. The martial arts like group has the much more complex structure. Once a fight or a competition starts there is no offensive or defensive side. After a bell or hajime your opponent will attack whenever he can and you will do the same. This means you will have to assume the offensive and defensive sides at the same time. Please note that this fact is the key point that has a deep relationship to the creation and adoption of kata. This I will explain further later.
Out of these four events I listed earlier, boxing and full contact karate are probably most brutal as in those two events the competitors really hit each other. The fear factor must be also considered and it is very important though often times being ignored. Though it is a very interesting subject I will not go into this at this time. From the structure wise this group must perform under the most complex and challenging fighting or competing condition. However, they still have some rules such as a game time and a fixed fighting ring or a mat. And the rules prohibit or limit some actions due to the safety reasons. For instance, in boxing they cannot use their legs for kicking. In full contact karate, for instance the punches to jodan or gedan are prohibited. They certainly do not allow eye poking, kicking in the groin, pulling the hair, biting, etc.
In the concept of bujutsu/martial arts there are no rules and anything goes (though in the actual training, there are some rules and limitation in a kumite part). In bujutsu training one must practice for all possible situations and scenarios. This very fact or requirement puts martial arts into the most complex and demanding environment. The fighting time extends to 24 by 7 and 365 days per year. All the places you go could turn into the fighting site and everyone and everything you meet or see could be your opponent or enemy. In bujutsu there is no clear separation of offense and defense sides. You may have to, often times, perform both functions at the same time. Another big difference that sets bujutsu far more difficult is that there are infinite number of situations and possibilities of attacking and defending. First, the physical characters of the opponent/enemy are all different. They come in all sizes and they may even have the weapons in their hands. They may attack you, unlike in a tournament, from behind or they may be hiding behind a door, a car, etc. Therefore, there could be millions of different bunkai situations.
Of course, the techniques of their attacks will be infinitely different too. Most of them may punch (but almost never like a karate punch) and some opponents may be the experienced street fighters or the boxers. Some may swing a stick or a knife at you. Some may be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. I worked as a bouncer in a bar when I was training in Philadelphia many years ago so I know a drunken man can be a monster. He does not feel pain and can be totally unpredictable. I have also fought against a group of thugs in a parking lot that was covered with snow. I was not smart as a mawashi geri came out of me naturally as one guy pulled up his arms up to strike me. I was lucky that I did not slip and fall down. I could not knock him down with that kick as I was off balanced but they gave up and ran away after realizing that I was a karate practitioner.
In your bujutsu training these variable environments, situations and requirements (mental and physical) must be considered and also practiced accordingly. In essence no rule fighting of bujutsu brings the most complex and challenging situation and condition you can have and engage.
I spent a lot of space and time to explain the concept of complexity levels of fighting/competing structure of different physical activities. This was necessary before I explain why kata is necessary. I am not sure if I was successful in making myself clear on this concept but I needed to do this before I can dive into the real subject of kata and learning process which is intricately combined and associated between the physical and the mental.
So the big question is “How will you be able to practice that is feasible for no rule fighting?” I will cover this in Part 2.