Kata: The Kernel of Karate
by Víctor López Bondía (2016)

Kata is the most important element of Karate training. It seems safe to say that any karateka with enough experience under their belt would subscribe to such a statement, for all the past masters of this tradition without exception emphasized its importance, and there doesn't seem to be a single Karate school, traditional or modern, where kata doesn't play a main role in training (whether they are correctly understood or not, that's another matter). Barrett Sensei would also agree, but he would go on to say that if there's anything in Karate which is more important than kata then that's the attitude of the practitioner.

But why is kata so important? Wouldn't it be possible to drop them from the syllabus and still practice Karate? There are many other fighting arts where there's no kata involved and their methods are still quite effective nonetheless...

Traditionally, in Karate, kata has been the instrument to record the knowledge and hand it down from one generation to the next. In the kata we find not only all the techniques that make up our art, but also the principles and strategies that dictate the most efficient and effective way to use them for each possible scenario. All the theory of Karate is kept within its kata, this is why they are sometimes referred to as "the textbooks of Karate", and they are meant to be studied by performing its movements over and over again until the information is absorbed by the body and understood by the mind. The kata are the formulas of the science of Karate, but we need to know how to read them and apply them if they are to be useful.

In Karate, the most important thing is kata. Into the kata of Karate are woven every manner of attack and defense technique.

Mabuni Kenwa
Practice Kata Correctly

I've always enjoyed practicing my kata and I think they are very clever, both as a means to save the information and as a training method where not even a partner but only a little time and space is required. However, kata practice by itself is not enough to make the art effective and well-balanced. Other elements are needed, namely, junbi undo, kigu undo, and kumite, which are meant to enhance the kata and therefore Karate. These elements must relate to the kata, if at some point they no longer do, then we have to wonder whether they still stick to the purpose of Karate. When the link to the kata is lost, junbi undo becomes just "warm-up" or "stretching", kigu undo is considered no different to "weightlifting", and kumite turns into "fighting" rather than self-defense.

Even if you practice the kata of Karate, if that is all that you do, if your [other] training is lacking, then you will not develop sufficient ability.

Mabuni Kenwa
Practice Kata Correctly

Saifa Saifa - ishi-sashi Saifa - kakiya
We must find ways of reproducing and experiencing the real use of each technique, and then transfer that feeling into our kata

A byproduct of kata is kihon. Favored by the Japanese karateka and particularly suitable to drill people lined up in crowded dojo, in some Karate circles the practice of basics has become as relevant as the practice of kata itself, or even more. The original Okinawan approach is different. In Okinawan Karate, the kihon is the kata. The kata are also broken down to focus on a particular sequence or individual technique, but working with equipment is believed to be more productive than endless repetitions in thin air.

This technique is repeated four times in the kata, but the upper hand always matches the lead leg and the lower hand the rear leg... why?

Whenever a question arises, we should turn to the kata in search of the answers, for "everything is in the kata". But, if this is true, then what about techniques that are not in the kata, like the popular mawashi-geri, for example? Is that a Karate technique? If so, how come it doesn't appear in any kata? Should the kata be updated to include modern trends? Could this be called "evolution"?

The topic of whether or not kata should be altered is a controversial one. On the one hand, change seems to be unavoidable, and being adamantly opposed to changing something could be seen as closing the door on improvement. In addition to this, we know for a fact that the pioneers of our art made changes to the Karate they were taught, so rejecting change would imply that what our revered masters once did was wrong. Also, anyone can do Karate, but we are all different in size, shape, age, etc... would it be reasonable to expect that we all fit into the exact same kata?
On the other hand, the kata need to be preserved, but whenever anything is changed there's a risk something of value might be lost in the process.

Itosu Anko Sensei taught that one should "preserve the traditional kata, but it is also acceptable to alter them."

Nakasone Genwa
An Overview of Karate-do (p.87)

Barrett Sensei once said that it might be OK to change the kata... as long as the reason to do it is Budo. If the form of a senior karateka seems to drift away from the mainstream but the principles are intact, that might be OK. If they perform a certain technique in a slightly different way because they have a different application on their mind, that might be OK as well. But let's take Seipai, for example... This is the only Goju-Ryu kata featuring nakadaka-ippon-ken, however, many schools have dropped this to use clenched fists instead. This is wrong for a number of reasons. First of all, seiken might not be sharp enough to effectively strike the aimed targets. Well, I guess someone could argue that it's not about striking any more... Secondly, by removing that technique from the only kata which contains it, we are erasing it from the whole system altogether. And last but not least, it's not OK to change Karate to make it easier, for looking for shortcuts is not the way of Budo. If this is acceptable we might as well remove shoken from Suparinpei, nukite, and so on, and this is how Karate becomes more and more diluted.

It could also be argued that there's no need to be so picky about achieving perfect or most-effective technique, as it is unlikely that we'll be able to replicate it in the chaos of a sudden emergency... Fortunately a technique may work, or at least have some effect, even if it is not delivered in accordance with the highest standards of Karate... This would sound like a not-so-good excuse for a karateka to allow themselves to become sloppy. The way of Karate is all about facing challenges and striving to improve ourselves. Setting the bar too low is no challenge and has little to do with Karate-do. Besides, aim for 100 and 75 may still work; settle for 50 and we'll see if 30 is good enough...

Karate is a personal and private activity, so we can do whatever we like with it. I train alone, nobody is watching... if I want to change my kata, or not train at all for that matter, who's going to tell me otherwise? I train for me and I can do whatever I like indeed, but if I choose not to be honest, I'm just fooling myself. Those who teach should take this even more seriously since they have made the decision to pass the art on to others, and therefore they have the responsibility to do it right.

Mawashi-uke (sanchin-dachi) Mawashi-uke (nekoashi-dachi)
Mawashi-uke is always performed in either sanchin-dachi or neko-ashi-dachi and the lower hand always matches the lead leg... why?

When I practiced modern Karate there was this idea of "basic" kata and "advanced" kata. The stances and movements were basically the same, so I never found the basic kata easier, just shorter. Among the so-called advanced kata, some of them were regarded more advanced than others, and only suitable for higher grades, or those involved in sport Karate. Some kata were very popular while others were totally neglected, to the point some teachers not only didn't practice them but they didn't even know them. I was known among my peers for being reluctant to learn new kata. Not that I didn't mean to get to know all of them in due time, but I was just a lower grade who made the conscious decision of favoring quality over quantity.
When I became a student of Barrett Sensei, however, I was taught all the Goju-Ryu kata quite quickly, as his approach is to teach all the kata before the student gets to shodan. Karate can be likened to a puzzle, with the kata being its pieces. We need to have all the different pieces if we aim to solve it. If we are to learn all the kata, and committing the pattern to memory is the first stage, the sooner we can do that, the better, as once we know all of them we can see the whole picture and then we have all the time in the world to polish them and come to grips with them.

Sanchin is especially important because it provides the framework for all the rest, but all the koryugata (classical kata) are equally important. Saifa is just different from Suparinpei, not easier or less of a kata than Suparinpei. What is an "advanced" kata anyway? One which contains very difficult movements? A showy one with high kicks and impressive jumps? No, there's no such thing in Karate, right?
Karate is about self-defense, so it's simple by nature, and all its kata are made up of uncomplicated movements. It's not easy, but it is simple. The more complicated, the higher the chances of failure when push comes to shove in a real-life situation. I don't think there's such a thing as "advanced" kata. I do think there are advanced techniques though, but these are not the high kicks or the fast turns... Nukite, for example, could be considered quite an advanced technique. Sure, anyone can make the hand form easily, but how many can actually strike confidently with it?

The pulling hand (hikite) is sometimes open and sometimes closed... why?

In order to make our practice of Karate meaningful, our kata practice must be meaningful too. It is unfortunate that so many karateka around the world do their kata like a kind of gymnastics. We know there's a tendency to focus on form rather than function, which is either ignored or taken for granted. The influence of sport aggravates this; competition kata are often taken as examples of good kata that people try to imitate, but these are just visual performances whose only purpose is to impress the judges and that have been distorted to the point they don't even display good (functional) technique.

Budo is not competition. It is not designed for the applause of spectators. It is not designed for the entertainment of onlookers. Budo is designed for training and strengthening one's body and mind through one's own effort.

Nakasone Genwa
An Overview of Karate-do (p.74)

Understanding the kata is not always easy; some techniques are quite obvious, others can be a little obscure. One of the challenges of Karate, and not a minor one, is studying the kata with an inquiring mind to unlock all the information hidden in plain sight. If we don't understand what we are doing, how can we expect to do it right? If we are not willing to look for the answers, maybe we should try doing something else, for weird gymnastics in a white keikogi don't make a lot of sense, do they?

In the old days we trained at karate as a martial art, but now they train at karate as a gymnastic sport. I think we must avoid treating karate as a sport - it must be a martial art!

Chibana Chosin
Masters of The Shorin-ryu (Part II)

What am I supposed to be doing here?

Improving our kata is not improving their appearance, but improving our understanding of the motions and developing the ability to use all the techniques for real. If the technique is correct it will look correct, but it's not about what it looks like but how it feels like. Endless repetitions will not bring about deeper knowledge unless we listen to the kata and ask them 'why?'.

The right thumb touches the third finger and the left thumb the middle finger... why?

Kata must be practiced properly, with a good understanding of their bunkai meaning.

Mabuni Kenwa
Practice Kata Correctly

When practicing a kata, it is necessary to know its meanings. Training without comprehension (of the meaning of the kata) is in vain.

Kyan Chotoku
Karate Do Shogi Vol.I

The kata put many riddles forward... are you willing to solve them and unveil the "mysteries of Karate" for yourself?

Víctor López Bondía
April 2016

“No matter how you may excel in the art of Karate, and in your scholastic endeavors,
nothing is more important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life.”