This question plagues me almost daily, especially as I go back and forth between teaching at Red Dragon Karate and teaching my personal students in private because the answers are very different.
When I’m working with RDK students, the explanation we give is ‘a kata is an imaginary fight between two or more opponents.’ When I’m teaching students outside of the school, the answer is that katas are mnemonic devices used to teach (and to remember) a series of martial arts movements and to practice them. Ok, so I generally ramble on quite a bit beyond that, but I’m trying to keep things short (ish) here.
So, which answer is correct?
Well — and I’m probably going to get a lot of flack from both sides for my answer – Both are.
A lot of modern karate in general, and the American forms in specific, are sport or tournament focused forms. Their katas are taught to be flashy when performed at tournaments. Sure, they have a base that comes from the traditional forms, but they’ve moved over to the sport side of things. Their katas aren’t meant to teach or remember attacks or defenses — they aren’t, for the most part, taught that way and aren’t meant to be.
Katas in traditional karate are a different animal all together. They’re used in conjunction with bunkai (the practical application) and kumite (sparring) to teach martial arts. You learn how to perform a series of moves, learn what they mean/how they work, and then actively use them in controlled combat. Kata gives instructors a way to pass those combat forms along to students, and it gives students a way to remember and practivc them on their own.
The correct answer for ‘what is kata’ all depends upong the intent of the user. Are you practicing a sport/tournament form or are you practicing a practical/combat-oriented form?
That takes us to another question I am often asked: What is kata to me?
In my own philosophy and based on my own training/experience, kata is the foundation for karate. It is the first step on the path to knowledge — an important step for sure, but only the first. To actually master any kata you need to explore it beyond just being able to replicate the moves your instructor taught you. Learning the movements, tempo, and intensity are the beginning. From there you have to explore what those moves mean and, once you have, be able to make use of those movements in combat.
Kenwa Mabuni (founder of the Shito-Ryu style of Karate, and kata-master) wrote, “It is impossible to create two-person drills containing all of the techniques and their variations. However, if one practices kata correctly, it will serve as a foundation for performing any of the large number of variations that may be needed.”
In my head, kata without bunkai and kumite is incomplete. I feel like this is where a lot of modern karate schools fail. They focus too greatly on the shiny surface of kata without allowing their students to take the plunge and enjoy the full depths of karate. The icing of kata may be tasty, but don’t stop there because you’ll miss some of the yummiest cake around if you do!
(A personal aside: One of my biggest person pet peeves is talking to a black belt who doesn’t realize that the directions of a traditional kata have more to do with a karateka’s relative orientation to an opponent and very little (or nothing) at all to do with turning to face multiple attackers. That’s right, guys. the kata is showing you how to move to use the forms at different angles versus a single opponent. If you don’t believe me, trying positioning two attackers for the opening spin of Taikyoku Shodan (what we call Tioga 1) and seeing how ridiculous the turn from oizuki to gedan barai is)
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