One of the benefactors and proponents of the modernization of karate was a man named Konishi Yasuhiro. He served as a sounding board to many of the masters who would go on to found the first major formalized branches of karate in Japan. In his one of letters, “Kenyaku no Shikatsu” (“The difference between life and death lies with your fists and legs”) he warns against some of tendencies of training in karate that modern day critics still observe.
What is at the core of this criticism you ask? Kata. (E.g. the karate version of one-person drills.)
You’re doing it wrong…
Konishi’s main point in his letter was about the importance of speed and timing in a fight. He calls the awareness of distance between you and your opponent ma-ai. In his words, good practitioners of karate would keep this principles in mind while they train and even “while they dream”.
Even in the early days of the popularization of karate, Konishi observed that “[he] noticed practitioners spend unnecessary energy on pointless movements which, in the end, only draws laughs from experts at their wasted efforts.” He goes on to say that there is an over-emphasis on physical fitness and how an individual performs a technique at the expense of training ma-ai.
Central to this criticism is the way kata is trained where the tendency is to treat kata as “immovable forms” or dance competitions trying to put on “gorgeous displays“.
Instead, he says, “[kata] are intended to behave like water being swirled about in a bowl, something that is capable of a multitude of changes and limitless ability to adapt to what is around it.”
Sting like a bee
So how does Konishi suggest that one train? And how does a karateka make use of the tools and drills, including kata, to train for a self-defense situation?
He says, “the way you utilize the distance between you and your opponent is far more important than the effectiveness [of the actual strikes] you apply. It follows that other details of the encounter… could be thought of as an after effect of reaching your ideal distance.” In other words, good techniques applied with poor timing or at the wrong distance are essentially meaningless, and worse can be dangerous because they leave you exposed.
Boxers, wrestlers, Brazilian jiu jistu practitioners all have their own versions of solo drills
So how does kata factor into all of this?
Based on what the forbearers of karate said, kata should be used to practice speed, timing, distance, power and transferring of weight.
But as we’ve seen from Konishi’s writings, kata is simply not enough. For kata to be effective, it must be paired with two-person drills that use kata as a template, or lesson plan, for specific self-defense applications. The drills must increase in terms of speed, resistance and chaos so that they can closely replicate a real self-defense scenario.
Whether these new self-defense schools realize it or not, they rely on the same format used by good dojos (karate schools) minus the kata. Boxers, wrestlers, Brazilian jiu jistu practitioners all have their own versions of solo drills intended for the same purpose. The main difference between kata and these other one-person drills is that they usually don’t have a prearranged pattern to them. (Definitely don’t tell them that they are doing a version of their styles’ kata!)
So, kata is not useless… as long as it is not the only thing being trained.
If kata is the sole focus, and it is not being paired with additional training that focuses on speed, distance, timing, resistance and violence of action, then, as Konishi says, you’re just getting ready for fancy dance competitions.
So to wrap this up, karate, like any other self-defense system or martial art, requires an understanding of your spatial relationship to an attacker. Defending yourself means that you close (or increase) the distance to a where you feel that you can gain a position of advantage, and then apply whatever technique is best suited to the situation.
The goal of the Shindokai Kobujutsu Research Society is to join the efforts to restore information that was lost about the traditional Okinawan martial arts and elevate their status legitimate self defense systems that are applicable to our times. In some cases, we can piece together bits of information that is scattered around the world like a bunch of forensic historians. In other cases, we just have to experiment with concepts, just like the forbearers of karate did, and figure out what works (and then ditch the rest).
Source: Karate Kenpo by Mabuni Kenwa, translated by Eric Shahan, 2020