Sunday, January 18, 2009

Musings about Kata

Kata invoke some strong feelings. Many competition oriented martial artists consider kata training a waste of time. Many koryu bugei folks think competitors miss all the important lessons, and Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of aikido, proclaimed there are no kata in aikido.

What are "kata" that they generate such strong feelings and statements? They are just pre-arranged movement patterns. In budo, they are pre-arranged patterns for movement for dealing with conflict. In Japanese arts, with the exception of iaido, they are always paired practice. Since iai deals with handling a live blade, it would be tough to keep finding new partners after every mistake, this makes a certain sense. But what is being studied in these kata, and why kata instead of free sparring. After all, kata was the dominate teaching methodology for budo in Japan until the 1900s. And what was it about kata that made it strong enough to be successful against styles that emphasize randori (sparring) and in live matches for hundreds of years. It's still the dominate training method for most koryu bugei.

Kata must have something, because extremely successful systems like Yagyu Shinkage Ryu kenjutsu are all about kata. Yagyu Shinkage Ryu consists of 22 kata, through which the whole of the kenjutsu system is taught. What's going on here that an entire school of sword fighting can be boiled down to 22 forms?


Anonymous said...

I'm not making this analogy to be flippant:
Many years ago I had a hospice patient who was an incredibly cultured and intellectual elderly German lady. We had many long conversations over the (sadly too short) months we knew each other. At some point she talked about having had many lovers very early in her life, and the sense of ennui that resulted because "there's just so many waysa couple of parts can fit with another few parts."
There are also just so many ways the human body moves, especially given limitations of holding a weapon and using good body mechanics and efficient movement. A comprehensive series of kata ought to be able to train one in all the ways to move suitable to those parameters.
My two cents.

Chuck said...

I would conject that Ueshiba sensei put forth an art that was pretty much ALL kata, focusing on the repetition of some very simple movements apllied in several planes.

You are exposed to certain aspects of those movements depending on your kyu, but always there is an emphasis on the basics (circle, triangle, square), regardless of which class you attend.

The more difficult movements are simply stacked applications of the basic memes, whose difficulty lie in understanding the physical transitions of one movement aspect to the next under the context of applied, external force.


Of course, under further scrutiny, Ueshiba was probably right, since the goal of Aikido is to blend, and there are an infinite number of ways energy can come in to the body, it would be impossible to create a kata for all movement. Which is probably why he stuck to the three basic movements.

That being said...The body is designed to move only in a few specific planes, as soon as you understand them (contextualized by your specific art), the rest is practice so that each movement becomes muscle memory and not mnemonic recall. Kata or no kata, you need the movement in context understanding to be good at an art.

YMMV, some rstrictions may apply.

Budo Bum said...

Hi Janet,

The only problem with your comments is that they preempt my next post where I get to the very point you are making. I'm trying to find an interesting and engaging way to lead minds to that very idea.

You're just too darn perceptive for my good.

Budo Bum said...

Hi Chuck,

Like Janet, you have gone and stolen one of my next posts. I would argue that Aikido is nothing but kata practice. Unfortunately they kata are frequently not very well taught and practiced even more poorly, mainly because there are so many of them that no one spends enough time on any one kata to really polish it. I would also argue that the sheer size of the aikido syllabus actually works to prevent anyone from really learning aikido. Students are so busy, for such a long time, trying to learn all the different kata that they don't have enough time to learn any of them really well. I believe that students are more likely to reach an epiphany of understanding by focusing on a smaller set of kata than on the seemingly infinite kata set that is presented to them now.

Chuck said...


No argument at all. I personally believe that it's a lifestyle choice to do Aikido. I totally believe that O Sensei expected the 'true' practitioners to do it until the light came on for as long as it took. He understood the basic movements on a spiritual level, which made the rest of the syllabus a continuing effort as he contemplated the 'what ifs' of encounter.

This is _one_ of the reasons that you see fragmentation of the different 'styles' in Aikido as new sensei looked for ways to create Kata to help explain the movements in a framework that many other students would already understand.

You might be intersted in listening/watching some talks by Tony Blauer[1][2][3] on Flinch and SPEAR, as he has broken down combatives pretty well.

[1] - Why Startle Flinch?
[2] - SPEAR is a Bridge to Your Next Move
[3] - List of Combatives, many by Tony