The Performance of Kata
by Richard Barrett

The kata allow the student to understand the relationship between spirit and body, since these forms are designed to develop them efficiently.

Chojun Miyagi Sensei

Originally there were only fighting techniques, the early students of our art practiced those that worked and disregarded those that didn't. Over time, and for the sake of teaching and preserving, these techniques were linked together to produce the first stages of kata. In China/Okinawa at the time, people were very superstitious and added to those forms elements that were lucky, or that would bring them good chi, or blocked bad chi. Some practiced Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Elements of these religions crept into the kata too.

This then gave these crude fighting techniques more depth; they became more balanced, rhythmical, and symmetrical. They also incorporated different directions; these fighting sequences or scenarios could be used against one opponent or many, armed or unarmed. The depth of these kata grew like the trunk of a tree. With each generation a new layer of knowledge of fighting tactics and principles were added.

Okinawa until the Second World War was still a very rural place with a basic lifestyle. The people who practiced the martial arts were still refining kata, and when Kanryo Higaonna returned from China with his "kata", they would have been slightly altered to make them more Okinawan. How much he altered them no one knows, because to date no one can find the originals in China (in-fact, we are not sure that our katas in Goju-Ryu were not already in Okinawa at that time?).

Chojun Miyagi Sensei, I would imagine altered the kata slightly again and this can be seen from the different students that trained under him, and also those who trained under Higaonna Sensei.

In the past, traveling around Okinawa was normally limited to walking from village to village. Communication was also limited to writing or talking (most books on Okinawa were destroyed during WW2) so the practice and preserving of kata was not as easy as today where we can fly to Okinawa, film kata or talk by phone or internet, to our friends or seniors, to ask questions, etc. This is one of the reasons why there is so much variation in Goju groups; you only have to look at the differences between Okinawan Goju-Ryu and Japanese Goju-Kai!

Miyazato Sensei told me that he had taught the kata unaltered from his training with Miyagi Sensei. So why didn't Miyazato Sensei feel he could change the kata? After all he had served in the Second World War, seen real combat, and had trained in Karate and Judo for most of his life. Did he feel that he wasn't up to the task, or was it that he respected his teacher too much to want to change any of his teachings? Or was it that he felt he still had much more to learn from these forms and until he'd mastered them, would not change them?
Miyazato Sensei once told me (when he was a ninth dan) that he didn't want to receive tenth dan as it meant that he'd reached the top. He said "they can give me tenth dan when I die". So I think he was still challenging kata until the day he died.

Should the kata be changed now? It is said that for every change made to gain something, you also lose something. The techniques are simple, non-spectacular, but at the same time efficient and effective. So why change them?

The performance

I will now go on to talk about how I would like our group to study and practice our kata.


When we bow at the beginning and end of a kata (or whenever we bow) we must be consciously thinking of courtesy and respect. If we do not then the gesture is hollow and empty. "No one is qualified to be a karateka without courtesy, even if he excels others in technique. Karate begins with courtesy and ends with courtesy." I have met so many so-called karateka that have let themselves down both inside and outside the dojo because they have neglected the lessons of rei.

The technique of rei is to bend at the hip, keeping the spine straight to an angle of 30 degrees. Our hands come around to the front of the thighs to show that we conceal nothing (only seen by me, at least in the Jundokan kata). Our eyes, from looking straight ahead run down an imaginary opponent and to the floor, checking for any other attackers around us. When bowing we should, in our mind, keep the opponent at a safe distance, so when we are looking at the floor we keep our eyes focused on an imaginary boundary circle and at the same time, keeping our chin in to not expose the throat.

Please remember that your kata is not over until you have finished your final bow.


This technique is used to prepare you both physically and mentally for what comes next.

Physical: Allow your weight to travel forward to the balls of your feet, relaxing your knees and tightening your buttocks and stomach. At the same time bring your hands slowly and smoothly to the front of your body. This technique of crossing your left hand atop of your right relates to the Chinese hand sign of non-aggression. Your head should be slightly drawn back, your mouth slightly open with your teeth closed, your eyes widened and looking straight ahead.

Mental: Your mind needs to concentrate on the job at hand, thinking of only budo. Let go of the past, future or any other preoccupying thoughts.


The first stage of practicing kata in our group will be the learning and committing the movements to memory. So to begin with, our concentration will be on ourselves. Where our body is going, our balance, timing, breathing, etc. This stage of learning will take a minimum of 3 years, depending on a student's commitment and ability. This takes a student through to shodan grade.

The second stage of practicing kata will be of concentrating on the opponents. When we travel through our kata, our mind will be on the imaginary enemy. Power will be added to our technique through a balance of weight and speed.

Adding weight (go) by chain linking our muscles along the skeleton to the point of contact, learnt in Sanchin/Tensho, our kihon kata, and speed (ju) in relaxing our muscles and tendons to allow swift movement to take place. Supplementary training (junbi/hojo undo), makiwara, conditioning, resistance work, etc., will all add to the realism of our kata practice. But the mind must lead, see the opponent, visualize his attack, and respond. The more real you can see this, the more your mind will learn. During your kata focus your eyes at the imaginary opponent, but do not fix your gaze. Use peripheral vision for the unexpected.

It is said that in feudal Japan, some samurai visualized every day, during their meditation, themselves fighting and being killed so that they wouldn't feel fear when it came to the real thing. They had already met death in their minds a thousand times before.

Your breathing should be calm, relaxed, and efficient to the body's needs. Sounding your breath to an opponent is not good practice. The ki-ai, as taught in the first stage is at pre-designated points of the kata, but in stage two the ki-ai is made real. It's a spirit shout to bring together the strength of your mind and body to the technique. The shout is also used to intimidate opponents, give you confidence, and expel stale air. It is said that it can be developed by training outdoors in the mountains or by the ocean to compete with nature. If again, at this stage, you can really imagine the enemy when practicing kata, then the ki-ai you produce will be real.

Two other points come to mind when training at this stage. First, when you are fighting for your life in the middle of your battlefield of kata, there are certain points where you pause for just a couple of seconds between opponents. This is a time when the karateka takes stock mentally and physically of his situation and surroundings. The second point is your expression. Like your breathing, nothing should be given to your opponent, so your expressions should be of concentration, confidence and control.

Under the sword lifted high there is hell making you tremble, but go forward into the land of bliss.

Samurai maxim

The second stage of training can take you from shodan to godan grade and can last 14 years. You will have practiced your kata thousands of times and encountered tens of thousands of fighting scenarios. During this time you will come to understand and study the principles and strategies of your kata. For example adhering, blending, advancing, putting your opponent on the defensive, etc. This is all researched through practice and study solo and partnered (bunkai).

If the first stage of kata is to commit to memory then the second stage is to make them live by becoming the warrior and fighting the battle. The third stage is to become the general.

If during kata the person is fighting for his life, the mind must be trained to remain calm and almost detached from the fury of the battle. Just like a general looking down at the scene from a hill. Seeing all so that he, from all his years of experience can make calculated, rational decisions to win the war.

Karate is self training in perfection, a means whereby a man obtains that expertise in which there is not a thickness of hair between a man and his deed. It is training in efficiency; it is training in self-reliance. Its rewards are here and now, for it enables a person to meet any situation with the right expenditure of effort, neither too much or too little.

Shoshin Nagamine Sensei

Kata training at this level takes on a new slant. The repetition of kata stays the same but now the aim is for the performer and the kata to become one. Morio Higaonna Sensei said: "the difficulty of kata is that there is nothing to grasp on to, it's just you and space".

Kata can be seen as both simple and complex depending on the knowledge and experience of the viewer and the performer. Kata reveals its complexity to those who look deeply enough. We are taught no to compare or compete with others. There is always someone faster, stronger, more coordinated in their kata, but at this level we fight against ourselves. We compare against past performances aiming to improve for the future. We draw together all the lessons learnt and reflect upon what our practice has given us. Good health for our body, good health for our mind. It has given us a self-improvement vehicle to see for ourselves our limitations and improve our characters. Kata has taught us coordination, appreciation, control, patience, resilience, courage, broad mindedness, an open mind. It has given us a self-defense system to help us with the trials and tribulations of life. It has given us a code or direction to become people who are strong enough to lead their own lives, rather than be led. All this from what started off as crude fighting techniques.

In the third stage your kata flows from what you have learnt about goju, a balance of opposites. Kiai raises naturally from within during personal practice, and even though at this level you will have been practicing or studying kata for a longer period you will also have learnt shoshin, or beginners mind. You will still have things to learn and study. Your ego will have been kept in check and will still feel that you have a long way to travel. Your kata will start to have an individual feel or flavor, or presentation. You will not have changed any of the principles of the kata but at this level your kata takes on your individuality. In the first and second stages our thoughts were with something. The next hurdle is to free our minds of conscious thought and develop an intuitive judgment and understanding of everything. Mushin, or no mind.

Miyamoto Musashi wrote the "book of the five rings" in the last two years of his life in 1645. After studying the way of the warrior and dueling in over 60 contests to the death. He wrote: "Polish the two fold spirit heart and mind and sharpen the two fold gaze of perception and sight. When your spirit is not in the least clouded, when the clouds of bewilderment clear away, there is a true void."

When you witness a senior karateka that has embraced his art and is wise enough to display what they have learnt through their study of Karate-do, we witness a performance which incorporates a balance of opposites, a grace and power, a calmness of control that years of self reflecting has given the performer.

Kata truly is the heart and soul of Okinawan Karate and its most important tool.

Richard Barrett

“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.”