Kata are mechanical and rigid. They teach petrified patterns and leave the person vulnerable if their partner does something different from the prescribed techniques. People who learn kata don’t learn how to adjust spontaneously to new and different attacks. They become rigid in their responses and thus are easily beaten by anyone who is familiar with their preprogrammed responses and can use them as a trap. Kata don’t teach you how to deal with anything other than the exact form of the kata.
People in Japan have been making charges against kata training since at least the 1700s, and probably longer than that. These are the basic accusations made against kata practice. Then there are these stories.
Kim Taylor recently reminded me a of story that I heard many years ago. As the story goes, two lines of an koryu art met at a big embu and decided to get together and train a little. Even though the lines had not trained together in something like 200 years and they had developed different interpretations of the kata, it didn’t take long at all for them to start doing the kata fast and hard.
Another friend recently recounted an instance when training with a senior partner who seemed to forget the kata, so he just went on with what seemed appropriate. My friend just adjusted to the new attacks and continued on. After a few spontaneous attacks and responses the senior found his footing in the kata and they wrapped things up.
So what’s up? If kata practice is so rigid and promotes all the bad habits that it is charged with, why has it survived so long, and how could people adapt to scenarios like those above? Maybe, just maybe, the people criticizing kata practice don’t do it very well, and really don’t how to use kata as a training tool. In particular, practitioners of modern sports styles that emphasize sparring and grappling competitions don’t seem to understand what a kata is or how to use it.
The first thing to realize is that nearly all kata in Japanese systems (as opposed to Okinawan systems, which have an entirely different history) are paired practice. The primary exception to this is iai kata for drawing and handling a live sword. The problem there is that accidents from mistakes tend to be so severe it is difficult to recruit new training partners. Pretty much everything else, including practice with stand-in swords for kenjutsu, is practiced in pairs, with an attacker and responder.
Kata critics get one basic fact correct. That fact is that kata are prescribed patterns of attack and response. From this basic starting point, they then proceed down a path that has little resemblance to what happens during actual kata practice. Critics of kata assume that because the basics of the kata, which attack(s) and which response(s) are prescribed, that everything else in the kata is also prescribed. They assume that because one part is clearly defined, that all parts of the kata are clearly defined, and that is where they get it all wrong.
Kata are not rigid constructions where every movement is written in stone. The first thing that is open to variation is the timing. Uchi, the striker or attacker, is by traditional convention, the senior. This is because uchi controls the timing of each major attack against shitachi, the person learning the weapon or empty hand skills. There is no set timing for the attacks. Uchi doesn’t have to do the attacks all in the same timing and rhythm. If you happen to watch a relatively junior student doing the shitachi role, then uchi’s attacks are likely to be clearly visible and easy to see coming. On top of that, the rhythm and timing of the attacks will be very straightforward. This is because the person is learning the basics of attack and response.
Once a student is past that basic level, which doesn’t take long at all, things quickly get complicated and interesting. The first thing uchi can do play with the timing. Just because uchi is within range for an attack doesn’t mean they have to immediately attack. They can stand there and wait as long as they want, forcing shitachi to really watch for the attack, maintaining focus and awareness the whole time. If uchi notices shitachi’s focus slipping, that’s the moment to attack for maximum learning. Or uchi can do something to draw shitachi into acting before uchi is committed to an attack, leaving shitachi wide open for uchi (I’ve had several uncomfortable meetings with wooden swords and other weapons because I fell for these sorts of things). These are prime teaching experiences.
The attack and response of the kata are prescribed. Nothing says that uchi can’t adjust when she attacks, or what movement she does before attacking. Learning to only respond to a real attack is a significant lesson, and one that students learn in kata practice. If shitachii is drawn into responding before she’s attacked, that’s something you have to learn. It takes a while to really learn to read someone’s movement and intent, but that’s one of the things you learn in good kata practice.
Uchi can also mess with the rhythm. As you get comfortable with the kata, there is a tendency for people to fall into a consistent rhythm. One of uchi’s responsibilities is to change up the rhythm of the attacks so shitachi stays alert and doesn’t fall into the habit of thinking that the attack will always be at one speed and one timing. It’s amazing how slipping a half or whole second pause into a kata can transform the rhythm, upend shitachi’s grasp of the kata and self-control, and cause shitachi to make a grave mistake that leaves them wide open to an attack from uchi.
Which leads to another misconception. Just because a kata’s attacks and response are prescribed, that doesn’t preclude uchi from stepping in to demonstrate a mistake shitachi has made or a juicy opening they have left. Uchi isn’t going to bash shitachi in the head (I hope), but uchi is likely to gently attack through the inviting gap shitachi has left. How else would shitachi learn to not make a particular mistake? I know I’ve moved only to discover a weapon tip an inch from my nose because as shitachi I didn’t control uchi properly, leaving a nice hole in my defense that my partner was more than happy to demonstrate for me.
There is a core technique in Shinto Muso Ryu called hiko otoshi uchi. It involves striking your partner’s sword so it is swept down, around and behind them, pulling them slightly off balance for an instant. At least, that’s what happens if you do it right. I can’t count the number of times I have done hiki otoshi uchi expecting to flow into the opening left by the missing sword, only to find the sword had somehow gotten to a spot where it was about to run up my nose! There is nothing in kata practice that says your partner has to let you get away with weak technique. If your partner is allowing you to use weak technique, he is doing it wrong. Kata is the perfect place to find out you are doing something wrong.
In addition, kata practice is perfect for the endless “what if” questions students ask. If a student asks “What if I do this?” or “what if uchi is stronger/bigger/dumber/etc?” kata provides a great, controlled environment for students to explore these options. Of course, if they ask about something completely different, it’s always reasonable to say “We’re working on this kata right now. What you’re asking is completely different. We’ll get to a kata that deals with that another time.”
There are lots of moments in the kata of the systems I study where it’s quite reasonable to wonder why uchi or shitachi doesn’t do something different. I’ve asked these questions, and usually Sensei doesn’t bother explaining. He just says “Ok, do it.” We do the kata with my variation, and I discover a sword in my ribs, a fist in my nose, the floor smacking me between the shoulder blades or some other equally unpleasant result. Then Sensei will go on to show me what he did. Later, I usually grab a fellow student and we play with it until we can make Sensei’s response work for us too.
Koryu bugei kata are a framework for learning that people have been working with, tweaking and testing for hundreds of years. They can certainly stand the pressure of students pushing and pulling on them to see if they are sturdy. If students have questions, they should be playing with and testing the kata. They will find the answers. I know I’ve seen my teachers play with kata and technique when someone asks a really interesting question.
Then of course there is the recurring problem of beginners mixing kata and doing something other than what is in the kata. Seniors don’t seem to have any problem adjusting to these impromptu changes to the kata. It happens quite frequently. It even happens that senior people will do something other than the kata from time to time, and if their partner can’t respond, they may get hurt.
The most amusing complaint about kata from many people is that they are an old-fashioned, out-of-day training method. Yet the same people will talk endlessly about their great training drills. What’s funny about modern sports stylists criticizing kata training is that the bulk of their training is kata style training, they just don’t realize it because they call it by different names. Guess what the word for “training drill” is in Japanese? “Kata.” Look at the “kata” in these training drill videos. Or in this one below:
Those nice, controlled practice of a prescribed attack against a specific defense are kata. Depending on the skill of the people involved, the practice will be faster or slower. Just like in martial arts kata. People in modern martial arts are constantly refining their training drills to improve their training. Koryu martial artists have been refining their kata for centuries. It’s no surprise they’ve got them down to a solid set.
Kata are teaching and learning tools. There is room in them for playing with speed, timing, distance, and even different responses. If all you do is numbly repeat a set pattern at the same speed, rhythm and intensity, you aren’t doing kata training.