It is said that there is a kata that teaches how to fight in the small space that one can find between the typical rice fields of Okinawa. Another one teaches how to fight when one has the sun on his back. It sounds very beautiful, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, I would first like to have a chat about how much truth might there be behind that sentence. Let me first discuss some history.
Let us talk about the situation before the modernization of karate. Such process happened after it was introduced into the school curriculum in Okinawa (which happened at the beginning of the 20th century) and its subsequent jump to Japan’s mainland. In those times the practice of this martial art was something somewhat clandestine, it wasn’t something that was done openly. This meant that in that era only a few chosen, which were usually family members of the master or members of families that were close to his, trained karate. This was already changing in Gichin Funakoshi and Kenwa Mabuni’s time, both of them studied with more than one master and that helped enrich their art. Mabuni even organised meetings in which different masters and practitioners got together and shared knowledge and information.
The Past Masters
However, before this opening of karate not all masters knew most kata. In fact a lot of them only knew one or two kata. Of course there were exceptions, such a Sokon Matsumura, one of the great historical figures in karate, who created several kata and compiled several others. He mostly lived during the 19th century, which is a relatively recent date in historical terms.
Now, if each kata has a specific function, e.g. to fight on a narrow boat or among rice fields, to fight with the sun on your back, to defend from this or that weapon, etc. then it is only common sense to assume that in order to protect themselves or the people they cared about, a karateka would have to practice and master several kata. This means to internalise and practice its applications consistently. Nowadays this seems somewhat easy, given the fact that we have access to huge amounts of information and also the fact that each style has at least a dozen kata, even those styles which are considered to have many kata. Also there are styles or schools that deal with numbers of 30 or 40 kata, sometimes including several variations of some kata.
A Logical Problem
Having said that, if we go back to those past times in which a master mainly practiced one or two kata, then we find ourselves with a logical problem. If a kata is only useful in a specific situation, and each master only knows one or two kata, then is that master unable to defend himself but in one or two specific situations? That is, our made-up master, which I am going to name Seito, who has mastered Naihanchi, will be able to handle himself with no problems if he is, as Itosu puts it, “confronted by a villain or ruffian” (Abernethy 2010) in between rice fields. However, if Seito has the bad luck of being confronted by his assailants in an open and spacious area, unlike the space between rice fields, then poor Seito will find himself unable to defend himself from his attackers.
Personally I don’t believe that there is a kata for each situation. First of all, kata are elements that have survived for a long time. Therefore for me it would difficult to understand the importance they have if the only explanation was something as shallow as “this kata is a catalogue of moves to fight someone who has a bo”. What other explanation might there be?
One kata, one complete system
Iain Abernethy has an hypothesis. Each kata is a complete fighting system. Therefore if one works with the appropiate methodology, it will be enough to defend himself against most violent situations he may encounter. However, not all kata was created equal. We may find kata, such as the Pinan/Heian series, that according to Iain has been designed to be studied and used together and not as independent systems.
It is easier to understand this if we take into account a key point, which is that the most important thing about each kata is not a technique or its specific application. Indeed, the combative principles that the application represents are most important. If I focus on the application in a specific situation, on a specific attack, then I will only be able to use it if those conditions repeat themselves. If I work on the principle or concept that is behind that applications, that will open a world of possibilities for me. The process of extracting the combative principles from the particular applications is a topic that Iain discusses in more depth in his texts (Abernethy 2004) when he talks about the 4 stages of kata practice.
Let me give you an example. I work on an application to defend myself from a punch staying at a superficial level. As a result I will only be able to defend myself against such a punch. On the other hand, I work and internalise the principles that support that application. Consequently that will allow me to use it in scenarios that do not necessarily include the punch, such as a shove or a grip attempt. Those actions, although similar at the biomechanical level, are not the same as the punch.
When I stop to think about it, it is such an excellent way of compressing and gathering the information in the most efficient way possible. As far as I am concerned that allows each kata to hold the seed of the fighting system that was developed or learnt by the creator of the kata.
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- Abernethy, I. (2004). An Introduction to Applied Karate: The Four Stage Approach, Cockermouth: NETH Publishing
- Abernethy, I. (2010). The 10 Precepts of Anko Itosu. [Artículo en Línea]. Consultado el día 26 de abril de 2018 en la World Wide Web: