Saturday, July 29, 2023

The Mythos of Kata

A student once asked me if it was possible to learn karate without learning the pre-arranged forms (kata). Of course it's possible. But this notion of "knowing karate" without kata is taken as an affront to a tradition and culture that is foreign to many of us. But let me ask you this: do you think memorizing an entire catalogue of block-and-strike sequences will allow you to prevail in a fight? And how many forms are there in your karate syllabus? In Isshinryu there are a total of eight karate (empty handed) kata, but some styles contain dozens! Why so many? Conversely, Chojun Miyagi, the famous founder of Goju-ryu karate, would exhort his students to train on just a single (!) form for years before being considered for advancement. Entire books have been written on the Sanchin kata, an ancient form of Chinese origin that emphasizes isometric muscle contractions and constricted breathing techniques used to refine ki (chi or qi).

A high ranking Isshinryu instructor once described a training session he once had many years ago with Grand Master Seikichi Odo of Okinawa Kenpo karate. A veritable "collector of kata", Odo-sensei was described as having a petite build, barely over five feet tall, but possessed an innate kind of strength that was indescribable. In karate, chinkuchi refers to a type of focused energy that is the stuff of legends. In reality, developing this kind of mystical super human strength is probably the by-product of decades of training and performing certain moves tens of thousands of times.

I put the word mythos in this blog title to be a bit provocative. It's just a recurring theme in culture or tradition that may or may not be true. But is it a myth that kata will translate into being a competent fighter? 

Consider this tale:

Kuwada had begun martial arts training with the desire of becoming feared by all men. But he soon discovered there was no short-cut to his transformation into a master.

Discouraged by the incessant kata training, Kuwada asked his sensei, "When are we going to learn something else? I've been here for quite some time, and it's kata, kata, kata, everyday."

When the sensei gave no reply, Kuwada went to the assistant to the master and made the same inquiry. He was told, "The kata training is to polish your mind. It is better to shave your mind than your head. Understand?"

Kuwada did not understand, and in protest, he left the dojo, embarking on a notorious career as the best street fighter in Shuri. He was tough. No doubt about it. "A fight a night" was Kuwada's motto, and he often bragged, "I'm not afraid of a living man."

One night, Kuwada eyed a stranger walking calmly alongside a stone wall. It irritated Kuwada to see such composure in a person. He ran to the cross section of the road and waited for the man to pass.

When he did, Kuwada jumped out and threw a punch, but the man avoided the blow and grabbed Kuwada's arm. As he pulled Kuwada toward him, the man calmly stared into his eyes. Kuwada tried to pull away, but he could not. For the first time in his life, Kuwada felt a strange emotion—fear of defeat.   

When the man let him go, Kuwada ran, but he glared back to see the man calmly walk away as if nothing had happened. Kuwada later discovered the man was a master of kata; a martial artist who had never engaged in a fight in his life.*

 The summation of the story, "He who conquers himself is the greatest warrior" is banal. Tales like this are meant to be inspiring, but they're misleading. If you've never engaged in a fight, you'll never be prepared for the real thing by being a "master of kata". As Okinawan street fighting pioneer Choki Motobu (d. 1944) advised,“Nothing is more harmful to the world than a martial art that is not effective in actual self-defense.”


*Richard Kim 1974. The Weaponless Warriors. Ohara Publications, Inc.

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