Friday, April 24, 2009

Only about 7 weeks overdue. Instead of considering the parts of kata, I've been trying to apply timing, spacing, commitment and other bits of it to life. It's amazing how how much negotiations can be just like a kata. Waiting for them to commit, or to leave a space for me to enter. It's strangely like doing kata. But with negotiations, I'm not supposed to destroy anyone. We're supposed to come to an agreement that all can live with. Not having a clearly defined ending makes it more difficult, but that's not bad. Application always seems to be more difficult than practice. That's why we practice.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Timing and spacing in kata

Kata practice is usually thought of as restricted because you know what's going to happen. In good practice, you do know the movement of the kata. What you don't know is the timing, the distance, the speed, or the power your partner will be using. Traditionally, kata practice is done with a beginner doing the winning role, and a senior practitioner taking the losing role. It's the senior's job to control the timing, speed, distances and power.
It's one thing to know what the next attack is going to be. It's another to act at the right moment, move the appropriate distance, and do it fast enough and with without moving too much or too little. The first kata in the Kendo No Kata is simple, but teaches all of these lessons. The kata is nothing more than opponents approach each other, one attacks, the other avoids the attack, then counter attacks. That's all that's required to learn though. There are several critical lessons in this kata.

The first lesson is distance. What is the distance of engagement? This is fundamental. At what point is someone close enough to be a true threat? If he's too far away to be a true threat, you don't need to act. It's a threat without teeth. How close is too close? It's different for every person, based on reach, step length, what weapon they're using and other factors. Without this one, you'll never get to the technique.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The important parts of a kata

There are lots of kata around, from the kata of karate and iaido, to the very formal and seemingly fossilized two-man kata of koryu kenjutsu and jujutsu to the fairly loose kata of standard aikido practice (and yeah, most aikido practice is definitely kata). But what are the most important elements of kata.

It the techniques that everyone sees and focuses one. In karate, the kata are mainly about how to strike and block. In iai they are all about learning to draw quickly and with control. In koryu arts they are about learning the techniques for destoying your opponent. Or are they?

To me, the essence of kata are in how they deal with spacing, timing and the rhythm of the attack. The techniques are pretty much incidental to the primary lessons of the kata.

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?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What's important in a kata?

I'm thinking a lot about what goes into a kata? What elements should a kata teach? What are the most fundamental parts of a kata? Every kata contains techniques. Should the kata teach the most fundamental form of a technique, or a more advanced form? What is it that makes really good kata?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Randori and Kata

This is in response to a very thoughtful and excellent post by Kevin Levitt on his blog at

I have to respectfully disagree about the necessity of randori type activity in training. People in Japan have been arguing about this for at least 400 years, but the randori folks have never achieved a noticeable advantage over the kata only folks. The kata only folks demonstrated the effectiveness of their training methodology throughout the Tokugawa era from 1600 to 1868, holding their own in challenges, fights and duels. I believe the key is that the kata system must not focus on techniques, but on higher skills such as recognizing openings, preparing feints, and dealing with surprises.

I've done both randori focused training, and kata focused for a while now. What I discovered is that my effectiveness in randori increases most dramatically when I don't do randori, but instead make kata training the center of practice. This isn't technique training, but well developed situational training where my partner controls the speed and timing of the action. To do the kata effectively, I have to learn multiple lessons about reading my partner's body set, timing, and spacing as she changes timing, spacing and speed I have to deal with.

I am always amazed at how quickly I can apply these lessons to effect in randori situations.

Randori practice on the other hand is intense and fun, the main thing I take away from most randori training is knowledge of what I'm doing that already works, and what kata need more practice. I can practice kata for a long time without doing randori. When I go back to the randori, I inevitably find myself much more effective. On the other hand, when I spend too much time doing randori, I find that my randori skills don't improve, and often they deteriorate. The chaos of randori doesn't leave enough room to focus on skill development and the desire to win can actually defeat the learning and improvement process as you shift back to relying on raw strength and speed to overcome opponents when your technique is insufficient.

Randori is fun, and it validates who has learned their lessons well, but I really don't think it is a good teaching tool. It is a great way for people to test what they have learned and find out where they need to practice.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Budo and the unflinching gaze

In most Japanese classical budo, the vast majority of training is done with a partner, and in the modern budo there is generally some form of randori . Training with another person with whom you have to demonstrate the effectiveness of your technique forces you to be honest aobut your technique. Unless your training partner takes a dive for you, you have to be honest about how well you are doing a technique and what needs work.

When using a live blade in iaido, it's difficult to find sensible people who are willing to act as training partners. You have to train solo. Solo training means you don't have independent input on your technique. The most difficult thing about iaido training is that you have to look at yourself and decide if you're doing things correctly. I don't know about anyone else, but I have a nearly limitless ability to convince myself my technique is great. Without the check of a partner, I can tell myself all sorts of stories about how fine what I'm doing is. Good iaido demands that you look at yourself without flinching. I have to think about what I'm doing very carefully so I can't let little self-deceits slip in.

I have led myself down some disasterous dead ends, even when people whose opinion I should know enough to listen too have told me how wrong I was. Even looking at myself on video didn't help much. My river of training started flowing backwards for a couple of years while I listened to the lovely lies I was telling myself. It was only when I started to look at myself without consideration of how good or bad I was did I begin to fix things. I had to stop telling myself that this or that works better for me, and only ask "How close is what I am doing to ideal iaido?" When I started doing that and looking at my iai without flinching I started making progress again.

Looking at myself like this has been really hard on my ego. As much as I try to convince myself critizism from others isn't quite right, it really hits hard when it is coming from own mouth.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Kiyama Sensei called

Kiyama Sensei called me early one morning last week. I'd sent him a letter about some training, and a link to pictures of a seminar I had taught. He emphatically told me to just teach folks the shoden set and drill them on that. The pictures included lots and lots and lots of pics of folks doing tameshigiri, even though that had been a little bit tacked on at the end of the day. From the ratio of tameshigiri pics to everything else, I can see how he thought we did mostly cutting that weekend. It's funny, to an American, I'd try to justify what I taught and what we did. To Sensei, I just said "Thank you for the instruction on teaching" and started thinking about reasons why he is right. I've learned to approach things differently with my teachers in Japan, in ways I have trouble applying to my relationships with Americans, even when I really want to.

Oh, for the tameshigir, I just told him it was an aikido dojo and they wanted to do tameshigiri for their aikido. Now I need to send him another letter with some training questions and other things that have come to mind since the last letter. The problem is that I write Japanese so slowly, and I'm embarrassed by my poor Japanese. It communicates, but it's not pretty.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

What's important

Martial arts, by themselves, are worthless. Any conflict art can only gains particular value by what it protects and preserves. The really wonderful thing is that most often, the skills can protect and preserve without ever being applied in a physical manner. That they are present is sometimes enough. Even when they are brought to bear, arts of conflict can be applied in ways that are not physical. Being able to apply physical conflict skills to other realms doesn't seem like a huge leap to me, but for many people who practice various forms of budo, it seems like a huge leap.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Budo and "The Way"

In every system of budo in Japan, there is one, and only one, correct way of doing things. This seems arrogant, but it's not. A large subtext of Japanese culture is the simple idea that there is a best way to do something. That's not controversial. Clearly, for any activity, there is a best way to do it. To get there though, you have to decide what that way is. In each system of budo, in fact, in pretty much any group in Japan, there is an accepted best way to do things. This "best way" can be different for every group that does something similar. That's not the point. The point is that if you don't have an ideal to try and achieve, you can't advance. By having a "best way" each group, each budo, each ryu, each tea ceremony group, each flower arranging group, has an ideal they are trying to approach. With an ideal method and technique in place, they can work to polish and improve their own technique. The potential pitfall is to blind yourself to the possibility that someone else's ideal may actually better than yours for accomplishing you goal. The balance is to have an ideal and work to improve yourself so you get closer and closer to that goal, without becoming so attached to the ideal that you feel threatened by anyone who does it differently, and begin to attack or belittle them. If you do that, you betray the goal above your ideal, which is to become as good as possible. If you discover a flaw in your goal, the true Way is to improve and refine your goal, and then continue refining yourself. Sadly, most of the people I encounter are too busy proving that their way is the best, the one true way, and they never look at how much finer they could become by being open to refining their ideal technique as much as they are to refining their personal technique.