Chances are, if you’re reading this post you’ve heard about something called kata. It’s that long choreographed sequence of movements they do in karate? A bit like a dance? Good for demos but not very practical right?
Kata (型 or 形) is often translated as "form" or "pattern/mold", and applied to martial arts (or other traditional arts) describes a codified sequence of steps that should be performed. In martial arts that generally means a sequence of attacking and defending movements, usually for a solo practitioner.
"I don't like it because it's not practical", "there's no point to it", "it won't help on the street": those are some of the most common criticisms of kata I've heard (and read) over the years. They're all valid points of course, but really it comes down to how you train in kata that determines whether it's practical, meditative, or basically just dance.
In this post, I want to talk about kata and share some of the conclusions I’ve reached from my own reflection and research. Tl;dr I absolutely believe kata is an important part of balanced training, and not just something you dust off for demos every 6 months. Why? Because done right, it hones the basics: good form, balance, stance, timing, distance, speed; in a controlled and repeatable way.
Shorinji kempo kata
There are 14 official ‘empty hand’ kata in Shorinji kempo. There are also several unique kata for shakujo, nyoi and dokko (totaling 16 more, that I know of!), and which are a subject for a future post!
Several of the kata are direct single form (tanen) versions of full pair-form techniques (hokei). Ryuoken dai ichi (1) is the single-form of the basic technique kote nuki (ryuoken 2 and 3 are single-form versions of yori nuki, and ryote yori nuki respectively); byakurenken dai ichi is single-form tsubame gaeshi. To emphasise this difference, the forms are often referred to collectively by a different name in Shorinji kempo: tanen kihon hokei (single form basic techniques).
The kata of Shorinji kempo are quite different in character to the traditional kata of karate. In general they are a lot shorter, and in many ways simpler; the practical application is much more obvious and direct. To understand the context of that, it’s useful to consider a bit of history:
Before martial arts like karate gained mainstream popularity, masters would often only have a small number of students and competition was fierce. The essence of the family style was a closely guarded secret and only passed down to the master’s top student or successor. To protect these secrets (and also to make it easier to pass them down), they were “encoded” as sequences of movements, containing only the offensive or defensive halves of techniques, and often stylised to disguise their true action. The counterpart to each movement, forming the full technique, would only be known to those in the inner circle: those who would understand the essence of that specific style and could “interpret” each movement into its full technique. Thus even if the sequence was discovered or copied, it would be meaningless without knowledge of the counterparts of each movement. This is what often gets described as 'traditional kata'.
Over time, you can imagine how these stylised movements would take on almost mystical qualities, especially as knowledge of the counterpart movements was lost. And of course, wherever anything becomes more stylised and esoteric, it becomes one step further removed from practicality.
One of the key changes Gichin Funakoshi made following his introduction of karate into the mainstream, was to simplify the way kata was taught (especially at earlier levels) in order to make it more accessible.
Where students would traditionally study one kata for many years before proceeding to the next, and maybe in their lifetime only mastering a small number, this was quickly frustrating for the young university students who took to karate. Thus Funakoshi reformulated several of the kata, simplifying them and splitting them into different levels, allowing students to feel a quicker sense of progress and to make them easier to learn. Arguably this is one of the factors that led to the rapid popularisation of karate (and Japanese martial arts in general).
In Shorinji kempo, Doshin So took this a step further and introduced kata comprising a much reduced number of movements, and a more direct connection to base techniques (with a few exceptions).
Martial artist and historian Kiyoshi Arakaki makes an interesting distinction between these traditional kata and more modern, direct applications. In fact, he identifies three fundamentally different types of kata:
Application kata: how to practice
For any kata to be relevant and useful, it is important to approach it with practicality in mind. For me, this means the following:
The first is obvious: kata is not simply moving the arms and legs around like a dance, but the practice of a fighting art. Each strike or block should be executed while visualising the opponent in front of you; their attack coming towards you or their body position receiving your counter. This helps to better focus each movement as a practical action (it also makes the kata look more real from the outside too!).
Once the individual movements have been learnt, it's helpful to practice the kata at different speeds. Slow movement (underwater speed!) is helpful for improving form and fluid transitions between each step, while practicing fast (full speed) really tests balance and body position. Equally playing with different rhythms (think of it like punctuation) can lift a kata from being a dull and predictable string of movements, to something that is much more exciting to perform (and watch). Unpredictable rhythms are also an effective strategy in sparring, and developing your own via kata are a good way to build up this skill.
To really appreciate the meaning of the various movements of a kata however, the most important form of practice is to test it with a real partner. Where the kata movement is offensive, have the partner try to defend it. Where the movement is defensive, work on how to transition to block and counter the attack. Consider both in a way that sets up for the next movement to come. Over time, as you work out attacks and responses that are effective and flow well, speed and power should be increased to make sure they stand up under pressure.
The application of a kata to offensive and defensive movements with a partner is not always obvious, and as with many traditional forms, the original application has been lost. In karate the study of interpreting kata to work out the pair form applications is called 'bunkai' (分解). It has a few rules (for example where the single-form kata may change direction multiple times, in the bunkai application the attacker is always considered to be in front). Equally there isn’t only one solution; there are multiple ways the movements of the kata can be interpreted to make sense.
I try to ensure anything I teach is going to be useful and practical (and hopefully fun too!). I don't want to give anyone false confidence, and I don't want to waste anyone's time on things that look cool, but won't help on the street (side note: practicing for demos is a whole different story!). Kata are part of the heritage of many traditional Japanese arts, from karate, judo, aikido etc, to even chado (tea ceremony). However, just because it's part of the heritage, it doesn't mean it automatically needs to take center stage in our practice.
I think it’s important for us all to continuously challenge and test the ‘accepted’ way of doing things, and not just maintain traditions for the sake of it. If we challenge the traditions, and the answer comes back that they are still useful and relevant to today then absolutely we should continue to integrate them into practice. And if they don’t stand up to the challenge, then we should consider other ways to preserve our history, without getting in the way of practicality.
What are your views on kata? What's your experience of sotai or bunkai practice? Let me know in the comments!
Ben is instructor at East London Shorinji Kempo. He has been practicing for 16 years and has reached the rank of 3rd dan.
Shorinji kempo stances