What does Kata mean to you?

Miki during a Kata competition

What does Kata mean to you? Many karate practitioners interpret it in different ways. This article will attempt to bring some clarity and explain how a Karate-ka can benefit from performing kata.

By Derick Kirkham

Seminar with Andre Bertel in Germany
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What is the meaning of Kata? What’s it all about? What’s the point of it? Many people have asked me these questions over the years. Among them were

  • members of the general public,
  • novice students,
  • advanced students,
  • teachers of the subject,
  • kumite specialists,
  • kata specialists,
  • sport-only karateka,
  • self-defense enthusiasts,
  • petty politicians in karate,
  • pundits, who are deliberately trying to be controversial,
  • heads of other associations,
  • practitioners of other style of martial arts,
  • mean spirited individuals, who are just looking for loop holes, who have an axe to grind,
  • candidates for a promotional exam,
  • Japanese cultural enthusiasts,
  • karate historians,
  • traditionalists and
  • modernizers.

I have gone into print and given a wide range of answers to the same question. Not because I constantly change my opinion. But my answer was dependent upon the recipient of the message, their motivation for asking, their area of interest and what is their level of experience.

What Does Kata Mean to You?

However, I believe, that many of them meant to ask: “What does Kata mean to you?” If they had asked that question then they would have got a completely different answer.

I feel whatever the person believes to be true about Kata, is as valid of an explanation as every other persons interpretation. As long as a practitioner gets something in exchange for them holding their particular belief of what it is, then I think that this is a good thing. However, the return on investment must enhance their experience of, their practice of, and their performance of the kata.

But What Does Kata Mean in General?

It is part of the physical culture of Karate. The Japanese term means shape or form. All Kata have individual names. They comprise of a set number of prescribed basic techniques and performed following a specific route Embusen. Although different styles of Karate use different names to describe the same Kata, one can recognize them as being from the same root.

The Embusen of Kanku Dai.
The Embusen of Kanku Dai.

Kata can be seen as a martial war dance, similar in nature to the New Zealand “HAKA”. They hold similarities to shadow boxing or gymnastics floor routines, as the student practices them individually. Aesthetics play a major role in the appearance of it. But they are definitely Martial and warlike by nature.

Kata as Library of Basic Karate Techniques

Kata can be viewed as a library of rehearsed fighting routines. While in reality they do not portray an actual continuous fight scenario. That does not mean that individual techniques or mini sequences of techniques in it would not work in a real fight, because they do work. It holds self-defense nuggets of gold, but not necessarily in the format they are often presented when cumulatively performed in Traditional Bunkai. As a result, every kata depicts a library of basic Karate technique put together in a series of combinations. They are misleadingly represented a series of continuous techniques against four or eight imaginary opponents instead.

Despite some kata having been invented only 50 years ago, the roots of the majority date back several hundred years. Some people gain great strength and enjoyment during practice when they think about the history and tradition of the it. It creates great pleasure to reflect how they have been handed down from generation to generation.

Kata Changes – Constantly

In reality it has been changing over the generations. The kata, which Gichin Funakoshi taught, varied slightly from how he was taught and likewise Masatoshi Nakayama, taught them slightly differently to his students.  Hirokazu Kanazawa teaches them with slight nuanced differences to the way that Nakayama taught him. Nevertheless, it links us all to the past. For me personally Kata are even more enjoyable for that very reason.

Yoshitaka Funakoshi: He changed also plenty of kata. He introduced the Kokutsu-dachi to Shotokan, for instance.
Yoshitaka Funakoshi: He changed also plenty of techniques. He introduced the Kokutsu-dachi to Shotokan, for instance.

Enjoy It!

Keep in mind: Kata is not a punishment beating for the performer. So, whatever ones motivation to practice it is: Please enjoy the experience, even if you only perform it as a means of physical exercise and perform it without any traditional appreciation whatsoever. One should still enjoy the experience.

How to Study and Perform It?

When one has chosen a kata to study, the first aim must be to achieve excellence in the delivery of the techniques. Then the secondary aim is to perform it to express the elegance of the Art and to execute Kata with martial intent. Kata practice and performance should lead to the experience of personal growth. For me it is a form of moving Zen, something that allows me to gain a focused state, albeit for the duration of the performance.

Kata is the ideal vehicle to allow one to block out the everyday worries of life and channeling ones concentration elsewhere in a positive manner. If one performs it well and the viewer understands the broader message. As a result they appreciate the effort, time, and levels of hard work that has gone into delivering that performance. Then that in itself is a bonus but that should never be the aim. Perform Kata with the initial intent of you being the main beneficiary.

Good Luck and Good Practice.

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