Key Elements in Kata (Part I)

By Master William Scott Shamblin

The primary purpose of this two-part article is to out-line essential basic elements in the study of traditional kata that can aid the student in overall training and performance.  The secondary purpose would be to give instructors and assistant instructors a brief guideline to go by in analyzing their student’s kata; thereby pinpointing more accurately areas of needed improvement. Thus, the goal would be then to understand how kata may be used as an advanced tool for teaching.  Part I deals with the concept of kata.


What we do is considered martial art.  Why is this and what is is so artful about it?  Kata is the key.  It would not be incorrect to say that the performance and evaluation of traditional kata can accurately be compared to that of any other form of art. Comparatively, kata is an external experience that produces an internal response, which in turn produces an external result. Great art in any form does this.  It touches people in different ways; always giving back so much in the form of beauty, inspiration, education, and accomplishment.


Externally, when we see a painting, hear a fine piece of music, watch a ballet, or see an accomplished athlete in action, we generally can appreciate the technical skills involved.  If done well, and with a sense of purpose and feeling (that we can relate to), then these things produce in us some type of an internal, often times emotional, response.  Consequently, it doesn’t even really matter if we agree with what the artist or performer is trying to convey.  What matters is that the work itself invokes a personal reaction deep within us.  This is the essence of any higher skill that can be considered an art form.  If it is exceptional, and we have an appreciation for the skill that brings the work to life, then something special happens.  If we can, without prejudice, acknowledge the effort that went into its creation, then we can allow the work to motivate us into achieving similar results.  If we are perceptive, we can uncover the multiple layers of depth within the work or performance.  Discerning these depths provides the impetus for all of us to achieve greater things. This is the reason why we have a tendency to attach great value on exceptional works of art, or on performers and athletes whose skills have depth and transcend the ordinary.  Great work and abilities tend to inspire.


How many of us have been inspired by the stories of the extraordinary skills of the karate masters of old?  They were real people, like you and I. They came from different backgrounds, had different personalities, different skills, just like we do.  The commonalities were that their ideas about martial arts came from a practical point of view; self-preservation. They needed to learn to fight, and they needed to learn to fight well. Without exception, they valued the functionality of kata (even the forms of kata that the Japanese jujitsu and schools of swordsmanship taught) above all else.  Is it possible that they knew something that we do not?  Perhaps we should listen to them.  Our martial arts ancestors understood that learning fighting techniques alone was simply not enough; not if you wanted to survive.  There had to be more.  To them, simply being “tough” and able to fight well was a short lived skill.  It was a start, but physicality alone could eventually get you killed. You have to learn to survive in everything that you do.  Kata held value to them because it not only trained their bodies, but it engaged their minds in ways that nothing else could.  I am not sure that we fully understand or appreciate that concept today.


I agree that times and the culture are different - very different in many respects – but there is also much that is still the same.  Human nature hasn’t changed.  Without a full understanding of the rationale behind kata, it is irresponsible to say that it is outdated or of little value. 


Technology aside, the human mind is still the greatest weapon. Why is this?  It is because depth of knowledge gives us practical skills that can allow us to become multifunctional in any environment – that is, IF we are mature enough to discern and take advantage of it. This is what the correct study of traditional kata offers to us. Unfortunately, this is very difficult for some.


For many individuals, the usefulness of kata is limited by a very shallow understanding of it.  Even after practicing for many years, the deeper concepts often elude them.  The tragedy is, they don’t know, and don’t know that they don’t know, what they are missing.  Kata is often extremely frustrating for them. Not always physically, but more often than not, intellectually. It is simply very difficult for them to reconcile the practice of kata with what they perceive as “reality”.  They judge it purely on what they see on the outer layers, eventually discarding it as useless.  They may be sincere in their desire to get to the truth of fighting; they just don’t know how to do it through kata.


Then there is another group; the tough guys.  Kata is perhaps the most difficult for them. This is no accident…kata is supposed to be this way.  While it is true that anyone can learn karate, not everyone should.  Traditional karate possesses an intrinsic “weeding out” process. Aggressive or immature individuals have no place in karate…they never have.  Most of the time these individuals will either mature or they will gradually drop out all together.  Sometimes they gravitate towards arts and activities that they consider to be more physical or “realistic” in nature.  Eventually, even in these activities, if their hearts are not right, time, age, and the abuse of their training, coupled with their hostile spirits, will catch up to them.    


As a definition, it is worth noting that one who practices a fighting art is simply a martialistAnyone can learn to fight pretty well (especially while you are young); you don’t really need kata for that.  However, one who is able to create from that practice - in EVERY area of life - is a martial artist.  Martial artists have the ability to react more effectively, more spontaneously and more appropriately with what they have learned, for the duration of their lives. To me, there is a big difference.  One is limited by age and physical status, the other is not. 


To be sure, kata is not magic – it is simply a discipline – and it is only what we make of it. So what really is the value?  If kata were to be simply looked upon as a physical exercise, then I suppose Zumba would get you into better shape.  If its’ purpose is primarily as an “encyclopedia” of fighting techniques, well, to be honest, the abstract nature of the techniques themselves leaves a little to be desired. Techniques in kata are very ambiguous in nature.  If you simply want to learn fighting techniques alone, books, DVDs and now of course, the Internet, are a whole lot easier to study from.  But neither of these things are what kata is really all about (although kata does contain many elements of both ideas).  Kata develops a mind/body connection that is an essential key to martial arts mastery.  


Kata is a combination of: 1) fighting techniques, 2) movement, 3) breathing,4) internal energy development and transfer, 5) body mechanics, 6) kinetics, 7) muscle control, 8) fighting strategy, 9) philosophy, 10) conduct, 11) memorization and 12) advanced martial principles…all rolled up into one neat package!  EVERY traditional kata has these elements!  If kata is done properly, it helps us to channel our physical and emotional responses, and control them…not be controlled by them.  Think about it; is that not the true goal of Isshin-ryu Karate?


Make no mistake about it, kata is training for self-defense…never forget that fact. Ultimately all of the benefits that we achieve through the practice of kata should, and do, relate back to self-defense.  Balance, speed, power, focus, techniques and applications, all serve to foster self-confidence.  This self-confidence comes through knowing that you are physically prepared for conflict. Real self-confidence (not false confidence or misguided arrogance), is the result of having done all of your homework, both physically and mentally. It is quiet, calm, respectful and unshakable.  It is both passive and intense; steel wrapped in silk.  It is what the Japanese would consider as true budo fighting spirit. For us, it would be akin to the great American resolve in times of crisis. Kata is an important tool we use to develop this fighting spirit. Fighting spirit identifies character, and character translates back to increasing your chances in self-defense and in life.


As with all things in the martial arts, there is often much complexity interwoven with simplicity.  The complete study of traditional karate kata is a prime example of this truth.  The on-going goal is to make the techniques found within these unique forms of training as simple and as straight forward as possible, thereby making them more effective for self-defense.  However, in order to reach this goal we need to have specific guidelines of what is acceptable and what is not.  Good (effective) karate does not just happen, it is developed. It is important to remember that good techniques are those that work when you need them - bad techniques do not.  In many ways, it can be likened unto carving a piece of wood into a simple statue; one must eliminate the excess wood, sculpt what is left, and continue to polish it to perfection.   What is left is either a work of art that has value, or a valueless chunk of wood that resembles “something”. The same is true with kata. Wasted or unnecessary movements must be eliminated.  Sloppy or incorrect movements must be corrected, and then continued, diligent practice to make perfect. By so doing, your karate can be considered effective. Only then can the result of your efforts be considered a live, functional martial art


Part II of this article deals with a few specifics.