Book Review: Five Years, One Kata

As part of my own martial arts journey, I have started to amass a small library of martial arts books and literature. Several of these books are from the founders of modern karate styles like Mabuni Kenwa and Motobu Choki. Last week, I decided to add a more modern tome to the collection: “Five Years, One Kata: Putting Kata Back at the Heart of Karate”.

Bill Burgar, at the time of print a 6th-dan in Shotokan, undertook an experiment unique to modern karate practitioners… (spoiler alert: it is in the title!) In his book, he shares his journey of discovery of mining the kata Gojushiho for techniques, self defense principles, and tactics. Less important than the specific techniques that recorded from Gojushiho and developed into a specific fighting syllabus is the process he developed to do it.

I have not read other reviews of this book even though it is more than 20 years old. Suffice it to say, however, that it is probably still highly controversial to “traditional” karate purists because Burgar makes some pretty radical claims and suggestions… and he’s not necessarily wrong.

What’s in the book?

If you ever wondered how an engineer might write a book about kata, then look no further! Burgar chews through and condenses an incredible amount of resources and source material to answer a basic and fundamental question: “how do I know the things I am doing in kata are actually worth my time to train?”

Interestingly, as a result of beginning this blog, and right before picking up this book, I started thinking of kata in terms of mnemonic devices for the body. That is exactly how Burgar approaches kata. (More on this later)

In the first section, Burgar lays out some principles that he says should guide exploration of kata. One of the key point is that the karateka should understanding how a “typical” fight (or as he terms it, Habitual Acts of Violence) might actually start and then using those scenarios to guide the exploration of kata technique application (oyo).

He goes dispels many of the same karate myths… of multiple attackers who faint at the sight of the awesome kata performing karateka.

He goes dispels many of the same karate myths that we started discussing here (the very first post, in fact) of multiple attackers who faint at the sight of the awesome kata performing karateka. But rather than just simply deride the myth as I have, Burgar take the time to explain how those myths form terrible habits, and how those habit can get someone injured or even killed.

So what to do, you ask? Burgar has an entire section dedicated to the analysis (bunkai) of techniques within a specific kata, detailed rating criteria, and guiding principles through which to examine those techniques.

In the second section, he applies the principles that he lays out in Section 1 to Gojushiho in great detail (complete with lots of photos) and contrasts his modifications to those of the stylized version he learned in Shotokan. Over half of the real estate in the book is dedicated to sharing these lessons that he learned over five years of painstaking study of the kata.

In wrapping up his book in the third section, Burgar give a few ideas as to how a karateka may approach his or her detailed analysis of kata in order to mine the gold buried within…. and this is where the controversy probably starts.

Burgar makes the bold statement that studying “someone else’s” kata is a complete waste of time. If he had to do it over again, he would not have studied Gojushiho in the detail that he did. Instead, he says that karateka should create their own personal kata as their unique self-defense syllabus… and let other people figure out their own kata.


Whether you eventually agree with Burgar’s final conclusions or not, his detailed framework for studying, disassembling and reassembling existing kata into a complete fighting system is highly impactful.

In fact, it is clear that, twenty years later, many of the principles that Burgar laid out have gained popularity among and are the driving force behind some of the more well known martial arts researchers (like Iain Abernathy and Jesse Enkamp). My own conclusion of kata being a mnemonic device is probably a result of his research being distilled through and retransmitted through various sources that have shaped my own thinking.

I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about abandoning “old” kata altogether in favor of developing an “iKata”. I think there is a time and a place for the kata established the fundamentals of the martial arts that we strive to learn and perfect. But… I think that it is okay to question the thinking that has been transmitted to us through the giant game of telephone to expose holes, weaknesses and deficiencies of the old knowledge that may no longer fit our circumstances. Maybe I do not need to know how to disarm samurai… but maybe, there are ways to encode defenses against someone threatening me with a pistol into instinct and good habits…

There are few great artists that just started creating masterpieces. Many of them went to art class and learned how to recreate the classics in their own way. Maybe, this is the balance between throwing out all of the old classics, and never changing.

Thank you for reading. Until next time.

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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