February 3, 2012

Kata is about correct and proper form; engaging in a real fight is something else

Kata wa tadashiku, jisen wa betsumono

This is Master Funakoshi’s 18th entry in the Niju Kun, and this principle relates very well to training attitude and application.  This is only one potential interpretation, and the beauty of the Kun is that they apply to many aspects of life and training.

Think of karate as a universal language, similar to mathematics.  The benefit of this, and the benefit of being part of an international organization, is that you can go anywhere in the world to any dojo and speak the same language of karate.  This allows for continuity across an organization and across time.  Kihon are the fundamentals upon which everything else is based.  These are the numbers, formulas, and theorems.  Kata are the textbooks which are used to teach us the fundamental principles of karate.  Kumite is our homework and then applications to real world problems, depending on our stage of development.  At first we are given simple “problems” with answers in the back of the book, similar to training with sanbon kumite and ippon kumite.  Later, we are left to synthesize what we have learned and apply the principles that we have learned to real world applications, as in jiyu kumite and self-defense.   

By striving to perform our kata exactly, we learn precise control over our movements.  We study the fundamental principles of the fighting style of the kata.  Techniques, cadence, and movements define a kata, and we learn from studying the principles of body movement that each kata teaches.  By demonstrating the kata with correct and proper form, you can demonstrate that you understand the principles of body movement and self-defense philosophy that are transcribed within the kata movements.  These principles are the most important thing to learn from kata study – we can never learn every single possible application for every single person’s body type in every situation.  Instead, we learn the principles so that we can study and apply them to our unique circumstances. 

Similar to learning math, there is a progression to acquiring knowledge.  We start with more fundamental principles before we can move on to more advanced concepts.  Yet we can never forget the fundamentals as we move on to more advanced levels.  These basics inform and support all our future understanding.  As we progress in our training and gain more knowledge, we continue to train and study the kata that we already “know” to improve our technique and to apply our new understanding to correct our performance of the movements.   

To get the most from the kata, we need not study just the end position of a technique.  The path of the movement and the range of motion are at least as important to understanding the kata.  With kata as our textbooks, we understand that they are written precisely and do not change.  We should then strive to demonstrate our understanding of the kata’s principles by performing the kata exactly, rather than trying to make it “look better.”  Performing kata in a way to make it flashier is like writing a series of numbers and math symbols on a piece of paper.  To someone who doesn’t understand, it may look really good and really smart.  However, to someone with an understanding of the principles, this jibberish will only demonstrate your lack of understanding.  Kata performance should not be dramatized, but should demonstrate understanding of that kata’s core principles. 

Application of kata is where we open up for interpretation and adaptation.  We take the fundamental principles that we have learned and apply them to the real world.  It will never look exactly as it did in our textbook, but the principles remain the same.  Techniques are given names in kata to transcribe the movements, but in practice these may be used differently than the name suggests.  For example, a technique labeled as “age uke” may not be a block, but that same movement may be used as an attack instead.  We should not get caught up in the names, but rather seek to understand the principles of movement which are more important.

Our applications change based on many factors, including: your size, the size of your opponent, distance, surroundings, and attack.  We can, and should, adjust according to our opponent.  To apply the principles of the kata, we may change aspects such as the order of movements, timing between movements, timing within a movement (e.g. slow movements), level of attack (jodan, cheudan, gedan), stances, angles, and/or techniques.  In studying bunkai, a limited number of these aspects may change in a given application, to remain true to the principles of the kata.  By independently adjusting these various attributes of a kata and studying how that changes the application, we can discover the many layers of bunkai which make kata study so interesting.  In a live fighting situation, we move according to trained responses from all of our previous kata study that we have absorbed and synthesized.      

Kihon, kata, and kumite training build upon each other in our training.  Each has an important function in our development as karateka, but we must use each for its intended purpose to gain the benefits.  Through striving to perform kata with correct and proper form, we preserve important principles which are essential for application.  By approaching kata with the precision and focus required, we are setting ourselves up to be able to apply these principles in a variety of situations to best defend ourselves.  Perform kata exactly; actual combat is another matter.

Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Sandan