Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Some Thoughts About Kata

"Mike" is a green belt with about two years of training. He'll be graduating from law school soon; smart kid. He has good questions, always, among them this time-honored one:

"Is it possible to learn karate without kata (solo practice forms)"

Before I answer that let's go over some features of karate forms.

The kata...

  • contains the essence of short range self-defense techniques that cannot be gleaned from sportive play.
  • is arranged in sequential moves which are conducive for memorization.
  • each provides a link to the past and may represent what was at one time a distinct fighting system unto itself.*

This list is hardly exhaustive. The last item, the kata as a "distinct style", really has no advantage in training, but could provide a technical glimpse into the modern style of karate one is currently involved in.

I do believe it is possible to learn the techniques of karate sans kata. But to present a traditional karate-style course without kata is artistically and culturally untenable. As a colleague of mine also pointed out, doing so would be an affront to the style's founder (or current sōke) if your still citing said style as your base.

Kata training is good if you don't have a live partner to work with. Pairing up and testing the kata's self-defense applications brings a refreshing sense of realism into practice. But you can work any self-defense move in this way without it having its roots in an ancient form.

With the growing popularity of arts that don't teach forms such as Krav Maga and Muay Thai how have kata survived this long?

I believe the usefulness of karate forms have evolved for the benefit of instructors and students — not the art.


  • takes up class time and possibly staves off the boredom of partaking in otherwise monotonous drills.
  • provides an alternative to sparring, especially for tournaments.
  • is used as a requisite for belt promotion.

Mike's question is an old one, but a good one. And I don't hesitate to admit I have mixed feelings about kata, especially when practiced as a solo form without a live partner. If Mike wants his purple belt he's going to have to dissect Chinto and (try to) explain how a double jump kick devised two centuries ago within this form can still work today.

*Actually, I'm not too sure about this. This odd legend of singular kata as an entire fighting art may have come from the story of Chinto, a 19th century kung-fu master and the namesake for the kata I mentioned towards the end of my post.

Isshinryu's founder, Shimabuku, had black belts that didn't spar. Needless to say they had their kata down cold. Free-style sparring is not for everyone. Movie buffs take note, Jet Li and Cynthia Rothrock were champion forms competitors prior to acting.

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