What is Kata?

Kata is vocabulary.

The end.

Okay… I guess I’ll explain!

Many military organizations throughout the world use a concept called “doctrine” to impart specific ways of approaching common situations and showing ways to deal with them. Doctrine is often a distillation of important lessons learned throughout that military’s history and experience. Military leaders spend hundreds of hours studying doctrine and learning how to apply the precepts in real-world situations.

The situations described in doctrinal scenarios can only approximate real world situations. When militaries operate, they use doctrine as a starting point for understanding a situation and the range of potential solutions for that situation. But since doctrinal solutions are tailored to doctrinal scenarios, the solutions in doctrine have to modified to fit the situation at hand. While anyone could work out a similar solution to a given problem, doctrine helps arrive at good solutions more quickly by because the trial and error involved to identify those solutions has already been worked out.

Kata is martial arts doctrine

Many martial arts historians view Okinawa as a crucible of eastern martial arts. It was positioned as a crossroads of several civilizations with their own martial arts and self-defense traditions. From the 1400 to 1800s, Okinawans learned these different traditions and began melding them together to help them deal with the dangers they face.

There are two catalysts for the development: the prohibition of carrying weapons by King Sho Hashi in the 1400s and the occupation of Okinawan by the Satsuma samurai starting in the 1600s. The Okinawans had to develop ways to protect themselves and resist foreign occupation, but doing so was dangerous and punishable by execution. So, the deposed Okinawan nobility developed their fighting styles in secret.

The early self defense methods and concepts couldn’t be written down for two reasons. First, the risk of discovery was too great. Second, literacy during this time period was not wide spread. So how could Okinawans transmit important self defense concepts and techniques in secret without writing them down?

It is important to remember that the Okinawans did not “invent” kata. They adapted a number of older, more ancient forms from Chinese kung fu. As they stripped down kung fu, combined it with their own manner of grappling and other arts from the Philippines and Japan, Okinawan teachers began creating their own forms to reflect the hard lessons that they learned over time.

In short, kata became the physical embodiment of self defense doctrine for Okinawans.

The “Aha” Moment

On the surface, kata looks goofy. Seriously.

For example, I learned the Isshinryu kata, Wansu, about three months ago, and my initial impression was that it is strange and disjointed. The “surface”, also called “omote”, explanations of kata simply don’t contribute this initial impression. But after researching some of the less apparent explanations, the kata began to make more sense. Interestingly enough, I quite enjoy the kata now.

In my time of studying martial arts, I’ve learned close to 30 kata and some of them still remain as mysterious to me as the day that I learned them.

About a week ago, we were going through various wrist locks with Sensei Rob. He showed us a block and flow drill to a wrist lock/arm bar.


We had just done the “high x-block” to “down block” movement in Pinan/Heian Godan, a kata that I learned when I was 10. Thirty-some years later, I now have an understanding as to what it actually means.

As this moment of clarity popped into my mind, I blurted out, “Just like in ‘Pinan Godan”, right?” And everyone standing there, who has also spent countless hours practicing this same kata, knew exactly what I meant and needed no further explanation.

Just as military planners and leaders are able to communicate specific concepts with doctrinal terminology, we used the language and concepts imbedded in kata to communicate about solutions to a specific situation. It was a pretty cool moment.

The problem with kata and karate

Reread the paragraph where I said that the four of us working on the techniques had “countless hours” in studying a specific kata. Collectively, the four of us probably have about 125 years of experience in martial arts.

The challenge is of course, that those moments in discussing particular applications of kata are years (bordering on a lifetime) in the making. It doesn’t satisfy the American urge for instant gratification.

Why spend years practicing a kata when you can jump into a brand new ex-Navy Seal/CIA/Mossad/Special Forces/MMA champion “system” that teaches you all of the same stuff in five minutes? (That’s part of the marketing shtick, by the way.)

The cold and simple answer is that “you don’t”. But…

Remember how we said that kata are already a distillation of techniques that help deal with certain self defense situations? And remember how we also said those techniques were honed in some pretty scary conditions over 400 years?

Well, you can study 400 years of very painfully learned lessons, or you can go for slick marketing.

The difference in kata is that you can do it anywhere and teach your body its language of self defense. Just make sure that those who you learn the kata from can go beyond the funky foot placement and waving hands. They need to know what those things are intended to do.

That is why we’re here. We don’t feel the need to tear down what others are doing in order to add to our own understanding of self defense and martial arts. But we do have a great deal of myths and distractions to dispel about karate in general and kata in particular.

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).

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