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The Essence of Kata

By Anastasia Dmitrieva

People often ask, “What is Kata?” The typical answer is “form.” A more detailed (however brief) answer by some is “a set of prearranged moves designed in a set pattern, fighting several opponents in different directions.” Both of these answers are correct, however, not complete. Although many people know the definition, very few understand the purpose or essence of kata. I will attempt to summarize the core or essential qualities as best that I can.


You must first understand that there are kata in all martial arts, not just Karate. Judo, Jujutsu, Aikido, Kendo (Iai), etc., all have kata, some with a partner and some without.


We must also understand the purpose of kata. Kata is a "method of training" in a particular martial art. It is one element of many that lead to an end result. It in itself is not the end result. It consists of selected waza (techniques) of the ryu. To put it candidly, the purpose of a martial (military) art is to fight. In order to fight (and win) we need to utilize effective techniques that will work in combat. When the martial arts were used on the battlefield, this meant life or death to the warrior.


This can be the case today as well. In short, the ultimate aim or result of practicing kata is to become skilled in effective techniques that would save our life if need be. To that end, kata is selected (not all) waza, which is performed in a set sequence, and in the case of karate, a set pattern, to help train martial art students to defend themselves.


Karate kata (for the most part) are performed alone. Therefore we “fight” imaginary opponents. Our “opponent” in kata is the same height and size as the person performing the kata. Hence, your opponents groin is the height of yours as is his (or her) head, solar plexus, ribs, etc. When we strike to a particular target, it is on line with the corresponding target on our own body.

Conversely, when we practice ippon kumite or self defense with a partner our strikes will be “adjusted” accordingly in order to strike the target as well as maintain the proper distance, by moving closer or stepping back. This training is essential to be able to utilize our techniques effectively in a real confrontation.


Another essential element of training is kata bunkai. Just as with all other training with a partner, bunkai to be effective must be practiced as mentioned above, as it relates to adjusting correct distance, etc.


To practice bunkai correctly, we must first understand what one-person kata is, more specifically, what karate kata is. Some people believe that it is a fight from beginning to end, fighting many people in several directions. When we try to analyze the kata in this manner, we find ourselves choreographing a fight scene as though we were making a movie, or if we think rationally, we see that it just doesn't make sense. How many people are we fighting? Did one person get back up or is it a different person attacking? These are some of the questions that come to mind.


If we think of kata as one fight from beginning to end we will never receive the full benefit that it has to offer. And more importantly, if we practice the bunkai in the order or set pattern of the kata, without making the necessary adjustments in our stance, strikes etc., we will be practicing incorrect waza, which would be ineffective in combat. To practice bunkai in this fashion precludes its very benefit. At this juncture, a proverb comes to mind that I'm sure we all have heard, "Practice makes perfect." I dare to say that this is not entirely correct. I elect to add one word to this; "Correct practice makes perfect."


Think of kata as a book consisting of several short stories. Each set of techniques opens a new chapter of techniques. To effectively practice bunkai, we need to "extract" the techniques from the set pattern of the kata and practice with a partner until we become skilled to the point that the technique would be effective in combat. We will then move on to the many variations of that technique, improving on them as well. Practicing bunkai in this manner will uncover a challenging and fulfilling training experience that you never realized existed within our kata.

In summary, kata is a method of training in a particular martial art, consisting of prearranged selected techniques of the ryu, performed in a set sequence, to assist one in accomplishing the ultimate goal of any martial art. That goal is, to defend oneself in an “effective” manner against an armed or unarmed adversary as well as multiple opponents. Practicing it in such a way that the waza would not work or be effective, defeats the very purpose of kata.

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