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Karate Kata. Non-Negotiable?

Concerning Kata, you’ve heard it all before: Kata contains all the fighting principles of Karate; Kata is the method through which you understand Kumite; Kata contains hidden secrets; and mastery of Kata is the real value of Karate.

Let’s assume at least some of this is true. If Kata is the hinge on which much of our karate swings, there should be a concerted effort to do it correctly.

So, how do we know if we are doing it correctly?

One thing is for certain, YouTube doesn’t have all the answers. Well, it might, but there is so much garbage mixed with the good stuff that’s it’s impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff. There are Sensei adding moves to Kata, and more who are dropping moves from Kata. The same kata are being done in various styles and they differ so much you can’t recognize them. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, as many legitimate styles of Karate exist. The problem develops when a new style crops us and traditional Kata are chopped up to make them proprietary to that style.

Another pet peeve of mine is that of showboat Sensei who do Kata to highlight their own skill. Demonstrating how a movement should look is one thing, doing it with lightning-fast movements fifteen times is quite another, especially when we see them do it with the front of their Gi wide open! Nishiyama Sensei always said: ten times slow, one time fast. A student introduced to a Kata who is trying to immediately mimic the ways of an athletic Sensei is like passing a newbie musician a guitar and telling them to play along with Keith Richards.

So, if the answers to correct Kata aren’t in the media, and we can’t always find it in mimicking others, what do we do?

Well, we can start by addressing what NOT to do. Don’t blindly join a Karate club where the same Sensei is teaching five different Martial Arts. There is still a good choice of Karate Dojos where the Sensei has what I call a living lineage.

‘Living’ is key here. There are countless examples of where teachers of the Art have trained for years under a particular Sensei, and then it stops for one reason or another. Karate is evolving and the hunger for knowledge needs to continue.

It is very common for Sensei Power to come to class on a Sunday and say something like, “Yesterday while I was training with Sensei Shimoji [or Sensei Rokah] we were going over transitions between movements in Kata.” Sensei Owens often says, “In discussing this with my teacher from Japan…”

These are perfect examples of where a living lineage exists. A lineage is where you came from, and a living lineage, I believe, is where you are still coming from, and the connections remain. It’s quite easy to see the truth in their Kata. You can hear a pin drop in the Dojo when Sensei Power does Unsu, and you can literally feel a light go on in your head when Sensei Owens gives you a physical test to do so that you can feel how compression and expansion work in a movement.

Kata that comes with a pedigree is more reliable Kata.

Something else I'd suggest is to not take everything you see and hear (even in the Dojo) as the undeniable Karate gospel. Yes, we are dedicated to our Sensei and to the Art, but, especially as you progress, you need to ‘feel’ how certain movements in Kata are working for you. Making Karate your own means discovering for yourself. Cross-reference explanations and demonstrations of Kata movements and you’ll probably find that each example has a tidbit of truth that you can draw upon. Truth is sometimes built like a puzzle.

Another thing I have learned is that to do Kata properly, you need to absorb the movements: you must pull out every technique and figure out how to execute it, you need to know how you transition into that movement, and you have to feel what is happening to your body’s center and your weight as you do. Further to that, a technique has component parts. If you were to break down the first movement in Jitte, you’d see that the technique is a tekubi-osae-uke, or wrist-pressing block, but that is only the finished movement. What happens with the hands to get that block to work? How does your settling into your stance relate to the uke (receiving) part of the move?

There are principles that are unchanging in Kata: there is nothing passive – both sides and both halves of the body are always engaged and involved. Kata contains tempo – fluid, quick, continuous strong, etc. Intention – mental and physical – are toward your opponent. A concerted effort to find and understand the fighting principles in Kata is not optional.

I think this sort of training constitutes studying Karate, not merely doing Karate.

If we looked at the first movement in Nijushiho we’d see it isn’t simply an osae-uke and yori-ashi. It begins with the hands reaching forward, the weight shifting to the left leg slightly and a flowing two hand movement - as if you are drawing the opponent to you - backward into a kokutsu-dachi, with the technique and stance terminating at the same time. The osa-uke is chudan, and the right elbow (hikite) is drawn well back. The kokutsu-dachi is well defined, with the right leg loaded in order to produce the energy to propel forward for the gyaku-zuki. Undefined stances translate to lack of efficiency in movement.

So, how do I know that the osae-uke, yori-ashi, and kokutsu-dachi are the correct first movements in Nijushio?

I don’t.

But, I do my best to research and find out. First of all, even after 34 years of karate practice, I’m not too old or conceited to learn from those who are closer to the source (Sensei with living lineages) – and I’m not afraid to ask. Secondly, I think it’s important to take the time to research whatever history there is on the Kata and its origins.

For example, it is said that Nijushiho is a Kata from Arakaki Seishō who was known for kata that comprised “quick and sharp movements”, along with those that were “fluid and deliberate.” With this tidbit of knowledge, I can feel somewhat confident that the slow osae-uke/yori-ashi, followed by the quick yori-

Adam Masek executes Heian Godan in front of competition judges

ashi/gyaku-zuki is probably true to the Kata’s origin.

Something else I’ve learned is that there is a correct way to do basic movements. These basics are literally the foundation that Karate stands on. If we gloss over hip position in Kihon, Hikite position in waza, posture in stances, excess head movement, definition in stances, or the full execution of zuki – as a few examples – we are letting the building blocks of Kata fade.

I also find insights into Kata parts by digging into the Japanese terminology for them. I am never far from my Best Karate (Nakayama) series of books for this reason. Oftentimes the Japanese offer us insight into the technique itself.

The critics of my Blog will ask who I am to say how Kata should be. My answer? I’m a seeker. Even with numerous physical hindrances, I want to know Karate’s truth, and I want to teach Karate 1) the way I have been taught it by Sensei who have been there and know and are still learning, and 2) the way I am understanding it.

Kata: study, practice, question, practice, repeat.

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