The Truth of Kata
-Anders F Lowenfish
Kata, which can be defined as a sequence of prearranged movements that are meant to be performed with technical accuracy, are an integral training tool in the traditional, or Koryu arts, of Japan. The true usefulness, and their effectiveness for the training of students of these arts has been a source of great controversy and misunderstanding, mostly in the West, and especially by the proponents of “Modern” Martial Arts systems. The universal efficacy of this training method, in fact, is so evident that it has gone beyond the Koryu arts to post Meiji Era Martial Arts such as Karate and Aikido, as well as beyond to modern forms of combat and the non combat realms of training.
The earliest Kata were seen in the late Kamakura (1185-1333 CE) to the early Muromachi (1336-1573) periods. These prearranged “combative forms” became a standard of training throughout the development of the various martial systems in Japan even beyond The Warring States or Sengoku Period (1467-c.1600 CE) and the reign of the Tokugawa Shoguns, known as the Edo Period (1603-1868 CE). The methods by which the Kata were derived in the Koryu arts fell to one of three sources. In the first, warriors who had survived battle designed forms utilizing successful techniques to pass on actions that had true combat origins to the next generation of combatants. The second method was to create sequences that were derived by practitioners with no combat experience, which was seen in the Edo period when Japan enjoyed an era of peace thanks to the rule of the Tokugawa Shoguns. Lastly, variations and modifications were made to earlier forms from the previously mentioned methods to address different scenarios. The first mentioned method is the most valid way to create Kata because the constituent parts, known as Waza, have already passed the Acid Test of actual combat where lives were on the line, and success was easily verified. It was these Waza that were strung together and then were tested outside the arena of combat by other practitioners repeatedly to prove that they would always work, and only then could they be known as Kata. So, Kata are made up of “ingredients” of Waza that are known to work on their own, and work based off of physical laws such as gravity, momentum, and the tensile strength, or lack there of, of the human body.
The true genius of Kata as a training tool can now be seen as a way of teaching students how to combine individual techniques to develop a flow to actual fighting. In other words, when I do “A” what happens to my body (center of gravity, balance etc.), and what happens what happens to the opponent’s body, so what techniques are logical and physically possible next? The road to physical mastery of a Martial System is the ability to do any Waza after Waza while maintaining control over myself and my opponent. Further practice of Kata, and Waza, done with greater speed and intensity will also lead to a unifying of psychological/spiritual and physical energy so the Mind and Body are moving together. This is often seen as a difference a Novice and a Master executing the same Kata, especially with weapons based Kata. The Novice appears uncoordinated and uncomfortable with a weapon that may as easily hurt themselves if a mistake is made, whereas the Master flows through the movements and a weapon will appear as an extension of their body. This is often referred to in the West as “getting in the zone”, and has the effect of thought and action becoming as one.
The transition is now obvious. Any critical or vital tasks are arranged in sequential movements to drill them to the point of creating a neural pathway, meaning it is second nature and is often referred to as “Greasing the Groove”. It also develops a physical proficiency in these physical tasks, especially a new physical movement, that produces a confidence and calm when performing them under pressure. Some of the applications of this method of teaching are seen, for example, in the physical actions performed by Rescue Swimmers before exiting an aircraft, in shooting drills teaching clearing a misfire or loading error and reloading a weapon, and even when professional athletes repeat complex plays multiple times in practice to make them second nature during actual play. Arguably these are all Kata.
It now appears the criticism of Kata seems to be a marketing ploy by only attacking Japanese words. The “Modern” Martial Arts systems all employ drills to create neural pathways in response to attacks or problems encountered during attacks that follow not only the designed teaching goals of Kata, but at times, were composed using any and all three of the previously mentioned techniques to do so. Popular arguments against the use of Kata also include that opponents will not attack in the order designated in the Kata, and the length of the Kata. To which the responses are that the Kata are meant to teach practitioners the effects of physical laws on themselves and opponents during the execution of these techniques, and how to utilize them logically, as well as with physical proficiency; and since there has never been a set minimum or maximum for the number of moves in a Kata the length is set by the task at hand and the experience or level of the practitioner.
Proper training, especially in activities like the Martial Arts, that combines both physical activity and mental focus requires proper training methods. Kata are truly suited to the task and have produced the desirable results time and again. The use of Kata should remain in the training regimen, along with other methods, to allow students of all levels to continue to learn the length and breadth of their respective systems; and as students of life tis method should be taken in to all aspects of our lives to help us develop physical and mental proficiency.
- Hall, 1990