I read that and the phrase that came to mind is Mark Twain's famous "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."
Big difference between a flowerpot and a hand grenande.
-------------------- Blackwood, Shodan Shido Kan Shorin Ryu If you don't understand the bunkai, kata is nothing more than dancing around in your jammies. -- Lawrence A. Kane Posts: 416 | From: SE Michigan | Registered: Aug 2005
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Thats a good piece and makes sense to a point, but if Matsumura and Itosu never showed their true intentions, then no-one really can say what the proper applications were and we can only surmise that the one that seems most effective.. was the original or proper application... until a better one comes along!
One point he mentions is interesting and that is that each kata teaches a specific skill set. Ive been doing some study into ITF patterns (TKD Kata ) and seem to have drawn parallel lines to this train of thought. One pattern seems to teach specific releases (which many applications do, so it doesnt seem so special), but a later one seems to teach releases and grabs that keephold of your opponent whilst you counter things! Co-incidence maybe, but interesting non-the-less.
-------------------- --- Martials Arts are not about Fighting --- ----- They are about truth -----
I found Dr Clayton's hypotheses in Shotokan's Secrets to be interesting. I reckon this book is well worth a read by open minded martial artists who want to think more about their kata application.
However many of the conclusions were pretty long draws of the bow, and there was just a tad too much of an apparent effort to justify Shotokan's take of the world, and the interpretations of kata, and karate, that went with it.
I agree with Dr Clayton's perspective that the kata started with an original function in mind, and there followed the form of the kata. But in all human endeavours, people tend to move on and forward. In so doing, new functions are found which can be utilise the form. Some of these stand the test of time, some don't.
Sometimes, the original form is modified as the original functions are no longer required for the purpose, and the new functions take over.
A mobile phone started with one function. Some now have other functions - mobile messaging, cameras, PIM, etc. All of these new functions could easily be adapted into the form with minimal change. Over time, the original function becomes just one job of the device. Perhaps even a secondary one.
Human nature is to adapt and progress. If an original kata application is good, but an even better one is found for the movement, then why not? Or if an application that better suits a particular user group emerges, why not indeed? Like teaching lethal kata to school kids, for example.
You see the hand grenade, in most parts of modern society, has a technical and historical meaning, but (hopefully) not a practical one. But if the form can be leveraged to serve other functions, equally, are they wrong? Otherwise, why not just get rid of the hand grenade.
But if you're going to keep it for one of those other functions, you'd probably better alter the form to remove the dangers, unless their necessary for the new function.
I haven't read his book yet but found the article thought provoking. I should be able to get to the book in a week or two. While I've heard from many that the case he presents is a bit overreaching I do think that there is an optimal interpretation for each movement of every kata. That's not to say that there aren't several valid applications from each movement; clearly there are. The trick is to find the one best suited to the situation as well as to your own personal body type, fitness level, predilections, etc...
Some applications, however, are clearly as silly as using a hand grenade for a vase yet are commonly taught nevertheless. The most common examples are locks/throws without any set-up. Clearly you can't just walk up to someone and throw them without some type of disruption. I think Iain was the one who coined the phrase "blow before throw." While it can be done in sporting competitions it fails miserably on the street where the rulebook is not in play.
Here's a more complex example for those of you familiar with the introductory movements of saifa kata. It's far too complicated to shift off line, elbow strike, palmheel strike, capture the returning punch, drop your bodyweight simulaneously striking the arm/temple just to defeat a straight punch. That whole combination could work, of course, but it is far easier to press or chop block the punch with a simultanous counter or even just punch faster and inside the adversary's strike. So why all the fancy movement? My personal theory is that the sequence demonstrates a knife defense.
In that context it becomes much more realistic. You can't stay inside and expect to be safe, hence the body shift off line. The rest becomes a set of disruptive strikes ending with a disarm. It not only works in theory but I've actually pulled it off in real-life as well hence can testify that it works with adrenaline too.
The point is that if you can decipher the essential principles and context of the movement it becomes easier and more rational to figure out when/where and in what context it is best to use the technique in real life. After all, all kata were developed to codify actual fighting forms despite the fact that the most powerful applications were often intentionally hidden.
[ September 27, 2005, 02:57 PM: Message edited by: LAKane ]
Posts: 642 | From: Seattle, WA USA | Registered: Aug 2005
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Hello Lawrence. I study traditional Shorin Ryu karate in San Francisco and I wanted to drop a quick note to first say that I agree with your comments above on the disruption before throwing applications. Second, I wanted to say that I recently bought your Way of Kata book and I am totally immersed ! It's an outstanding read - thanks for sharing your experience with us. Perhaps if I get up the coast I'll drop in and say hello !
In Shorinjiryu Karate, we utilise a concept for delivery of any technique. Those who have done judo may recognise it. The concept is a 3 step approach to delivering a technique (whether it be a strike, throw, lock or other):
So even with a reverse punch, we need to consider how to setup the opponent, which may involve ashi sabaki/tai sabaki or another technique, we need to break through their defence, and deliver our intended technique.
I believe that the concept of tsukuri-kuzushi-kime can also be found in the kata, if you look for it.
BTW, I am waiting for Amazon.com to deliver your book to me. Sounds interesting.
[Sincere apologies to all in advance, this ended up being a long one, even for me; more of a book than a post, but Lawrence’s article find really struck a nerve that helped coalesce a lot of my recent thoughts regarding kata generally. While not being what I would call 'succinct', I have tried to button them up as succinctly as possible. If nothing else, writing this post was a helpful excercise that organized a lot of random thoughts; however, I am hoping at least a few brave souls can muddle through to the bitter end and would sincerely appreciate reading their opinion’s regarding the ideas expressed… this really is meant in a spirit inquiry, not as a PhD dissertation…]
Ouch! Lawrence, Clayton's article put its finger right on just about every sore spot I have regarding kata all at once, sincere thanks for a thought provoking find. IMO the issues Clayton touches on are at the root of almost all of the kata-based topics we have been discussing in this forum, and even more, they are at the heart of the question “Bunkai: Was it in there”? posted by Dave a few weeks ago.
I haven’t replied to that thread because I have been thinking a great deal about how to answer the question (both before and after his post), and I go back and forth… At some levels, I think it’s perhaps THE question about kata. The sticky part is, you can answer this question ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘maybe’, depending on your viewpoint. And answering this question is central to the emphasis one places on the value of kata in training.
It may be ironic, but, the “was it in there?” question is also central to other art forms. It lies at the heart of every attribution of present-day ‘meaning’ to a historic artwork from Frank Lloyd Wright to Picasso to Michelangelo. In my education as an architect, we were encouraged to ‘read’ or ‘find’ meaning in historical structures that may or may not have been consistent with the original artist’s intentions. I also had direct experience with critics evaluating my own work who found lots of surprise ‘meanings’ that were WAY beyond or even contradictory to what I had originally intended. This is the catch-22 dilemma of interpretation, and it should start to sound like a familiar problem to martial artists, as bunkai is a similar search for meaning in kata.
An anecdote might clarify what I am talking about. (If you read it, you will at least have a better understanding of why most architects now design disjointed antisocial mostly uninhabitable buildings… )
One day my college professor presented a lecture on the design attributes of a famous monastery, one of which was the “symbolic meaning” of a simple iron fence that enclosed a plaza in front of the building. In art-critic-like fashion he stated dramatically: “See, the step up in the plaza invites your eye in, yet the fence across the plaza forms a visual barrier telling the public, ‘STOP. This is a sacred place, you are not welcome here.’” (Ok, martial artists, quit laughing. I am not making this up, this is really what he said). On the heels of this remark, a friend of mine leaned over and whispered in my ear “Really what happened was the monks asked for a fence to keep out the #$%^&* neighbor’s dog!”
Now here’s the rub: works of art are commonly interpreted LONG AFTER the fact as having multiple layers of meaning, and (if you’re open-minded about it), it’s possible to read the building under discussion both ways: The professor looked at the building and saw a representative illustration of larger design PRINCIPLES he could translate and teach to others. However, my friend was also correct that the fence served a very practical PURPOSE, and that its original construction was probably for a lot more pragmatic reasons than my professor was ‘reading’ into it.
The professor, in turn, while not denying that the fence kept out dogs and vagrants effectively, would probably have considered this a rather elementary ‘read’ of the building. To him, the FUNCTIONAL use of the fence was a GIVEN: i.e., everyone ALREADY KNOWS that fences are for containment. But his teaching of it had a higher purpose in helping him make a point about symbolic or representational meaning in architecture. So it’s possible to consider that the fence was constructed to keep out dogs. At the same time, it’s possible to say that in communicating the larger idea of ‘architectural design principles’, the fence illustrated a symbolic barrier. It therefore took on a use IN TEACHING that was beyond what it was originally intended for IN APPLICATION. The grenade became a flower pot, of sorts.
The question is, is this a bad thing?
Which is true? At a certain level, both answers are true (and I am not trying to play philosophical or semantic word games). It can be seen that both uses accomplish their intended objectives. Which is a more ‘effective’ or ‘better’ use is subjective and contingent upon what you are trying to accomplish. Most importantly, both ‘reads’ of the fence are equally speculative.
I haven’t read his book, but Clayton’s point of view seems predicated on three key ideas: 1) the original use for kata techniques was singular, i.e. he believes each technique/ combination had a single ‘original’ application, 2) these original uses for kata techniques were known, taught, and most importantly, have somehow become lost to us, and 3) these ‘lost’ original uses can be rediscovered or known through a process of experimentation and deduction. His idea also appears founded on the notion that the purpose of kata is to convey ‘tactical’ fighting techniques, i.e. things that actually work in combat, not the underlying principles that make techniques work. Most martial artists, self included, subscribe at least partly to some or all of these ideas.
However, note that the success of Clayton’s contrast relies on the use of the grenade-objects in ENTIRELY DISSIMILAR contexts. Obviously, if you are decorating, the flower pot is a more ‘appropriate’ or effective use than decorating with live hand grenades. Likewise, if you are trying to blow up a foxhole, you probably don’t want to toss in a flower pot and yell ‘BOOM!’ Clayton touches on this when he indicates that you are supposed to consider the object as a weapon, but this robs the impact a little of contrasting the grenade and the flower pot. In fact, once it had been prettied up, Clayton’s grenade made a VERY EFFECTIVE flower pot, and if you didn’t know it was once a grenade, you might be content to use it in this fashion. Why? Because in that case you are presumably trying to decorate, not kill people with it. Conversely, you might pack a ceramic flower pot or soda can with gasoline and nails and use it as an IED. The effectiveness of the application is completely context dependent.
Returning to the analog of the fence, you might be a practical/ pragmatic/ real/ dull/ mundane kind of person who thinks fences are simply for keeping out dogs. And you might be a creative/ critical/ visionary/ esoteric / artsy-fartsy kind of person who sees fences as spatial thresholds. The fence doesn’t care, and the ideas are not mutually exclusive. In fact, most people are probably somewhere in between these extremes. It’s all about your perspective in asking the question…what are you trying to accomplish??
IMO kata must be considered as a series of levels, as Clayton correctly points out. One level is surely to look for grenades. But just as surely IMO, another level is to look for flower pots, which by definition, have uses OUTSIDE or BEYOND that for which they were originally intended. For my tastes, Clayton has it somewhat reversed: the grenade seeking is the elementary level, I believe, not the other way around: It is looking at the fence and seeing a simple containment. Like the design professor, we already KNOW that its good practice to test a lot of different applications, and then settle on one that works optimally for you. However, it’s also good practice to keep looking once you’ve found an application, because you might find a BIGGER grenade, or even change it into an effective flower pot. In fact, to me, the pinnacle of kata practice is probably to start looking for flower pots… You already KNOW technique ABC does XYZ effectively. What ELSE can you do with it? This is the level that takes one to a point (I believe) where you become focused on the underlying ‘bedrock principles’ of human motion in martial arts, and begin to gain an understanding of WHY things work, not just that they either do or don’t. (Hmmmm. I need a birthday present for my wife, today, not to blow stuff up, but all I have is this old grenade. What can I do… Hey, I know, a flower pot! Gee, that worked pretty good! I wonder what else I can turn into a flower pot? This soda bottle? This umbrella stand? Hmmm. What made that old grenade work so well? Aha! I painted it! etc.,etc.)
This may sound a bit nonsensical, but as martial artists we do it all the time. Take a simple jodan uke (high block). I use the jodan uke primarily as follows: Vs. a punch, it’s a simple block, preferably against a nerve cluster on the arm. Vs. a close grapple it’s a stun to the carotid artery that snaps the head and rattles the brain. Vs. an already softened opponent, it’s an effective takedown by moving in and applying it against the face or neck to drive an attacker backward. Vs. a wrist grab it’s a strip. Vs. a lapel grab, it’s an elbow break. Note that all of these uses change as the context of their application changes… any competent brown belt can do this. Which is the ‘original’ application? Which is ‘best’?!? Which is the grenade?!? Can you really even ask this question?
Personally, I tend to favor the carotid stun, and look for it from a lot of physical junction points because I have found it to be effective with my long arms. But even with my long arms, the stun is ineffective from a grab at long distance (i.e. a ‘stiff-arm’ grab), because the target is inaccessible. So if I only practice the carotid stun (my grenade), I have limited myself severely. Versus a punch, the simple block is effective 99%+-. Does this make IT the grenade? Should I throw the other technique away, even though it works very effectively 90% of the time? Or do I simply need to understand the limitations of its application? Does ANYTHING work 100% of the time in fighting?
I’m not saying Clayton is wholly or even mostly wrong. Where I believe he IS wrong is in his statement that a person who shows you several applications “hasn’t figured it out yet”. My sensei once showed me five applications for the opening movements of Pinan Shodan in about as many seconds. Every one was effective vs. its intended attack. Which was the grenade? That’s a matter of context. I know he could have severely damaged an opponent with any one of his applications. But is this because of the effectiveness of the technique itself, or is it a direct result of his personal effectiveness in correctly judging WHICH application to apply at the CORRECT time? At a certain level, the search for grenades can become a search for silver bullets, IMO.
However, like many, I have also seen lots of junior instructors who will dodge a valid question about application by parroting back the idea that a particular movement “can be anything”. These are the guys that you have to watch out for, IMO, but not because the idea isn’t valid, but because if they can’t show you at least ONE immediate grenade, Clayton is right: they certainly haven’t made up their own mind and are very likely to hand you a flower pot and tell you to charge screaming BOOM!. (Buyer beware.)
IMO, the grenade/ flower pot ideas are not mutually exclusive. Each can be accepted as valid WITHIN the context of their intended purpose, if one accepts that these intended purposes are entirely different. The most important question then becomes: Which idea do you subscribe to? Which notion resonates with what YOU hold to be true? This is the same path we walk as martial artists interpreting kata.
What DID Michelangelo mean when he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Why did he choose the hand of man and the hand of God as his primary subject? Was it a hopeful sentiment? (Man perpetually reaching for God). Was it meant for reassurance? (Man is crying out and God is reaching to give him a hand up). Did it indicate the divine transmission of knowledge? (God is passing the spark of life/knowledge to man). Was it just a sick joke? (Man can cry out in supplication all he likes, but God will never help him, perpetually dangling his hand just beyond reach). Was it meant to be humbling? (No matter how high or far he reaches, man will never touch Godliness). Was Michelangelo simply an inventive ceiling contractor who drank a lot? In fact, it’s possible to read ANY ONE, NONE, or ALL of these meanings into a single painting!! The truth is WE WILL NEVER KNOW his real intention, and every ‘meaning’ we attempt to layer on to his work is PURE SPECULATION on our part. Further, unless we are intent on simply reproducing his work, settling on and studying only one narrow meaning (or even one painting, for that matter) will not teach us to paint like a master ourselves. And how are we to know he didn’t have several themes in mind? Is the inherent complexity what makes it a work of genius?
So, back to kata if anyone is still reading this…
The fact of the matter is, we can never know what an original application was, or what the originator of a form intended, making ALL answers purely and equally speculative…
IMO a central problem then arises when we tempt to be absolute in our interpretations about kata. Momentarily suspending the Rooseveltian notion “Its not the critic who counts…” that most martial artists (self included) are so fond of, consider the fact that people make their entire livings interpreting the hidden ‘meaning’ contained in the artistic works of others, often quite brilliantly. Further, that there is nothing wrong with this notion, and it’s considered to be ‘normal’ practice in almost any educational setting where historic works are under consideration. The end result of this educational process, however, is that the student is expected to find their own way. We pick movies, professionals, houses, cars, clothing, spouses…everything!... based on our personal preferences, but those preferences are shaped greatly by the opinions of others. Hmmm… we seek guidance then adapt what we find to what fits US based on OUR needs, wants, preferences and beliefs. WE CHOOSE what works for us. Does this sound familiar?
Why are we martial artists so dogmatic in our approach to answering the kata question? How CAN there be only one answer? How can there have been only one ‘real’ application, one grenade?? For a group of people who study mostly cultures rooted in the very idea of Yin/Yang duality, I have observed that we are overall a group of very rigid and close-minded people. If you consider the idea of Yin /Yang as simultaneous and harmonious co-existence, co-DEPENDENCE even, (like the pedals of a bike), NOT the contradictory opposites people so often translate them to be in the West, it becomes possible to see that there cannot be simply one answer. Despite what anyone reading this may think, I am generally not a big fan of post-modern, politically correct non-opinions. However, applying the philosophy that most of us claim to apply to our art (and even live by), isn’t it possible to consider the answer to the “was it in there” question as a simultaneous “Yes…and No…”?
Assume for the moment that you answer the question as Clayton seems to have: Originally there was one move and the application or appropriate context for that movement has become lost. EVEN THOUGH multiple valid applications can be demonstrated today, there is still only one ‘right’ answer (one grenade). If you look long and hard enough, you will sift through enough applications that you will rediscover the grenades. This is one valid method of approaching kata. It is focused on finding applicable tactics, and I therefore see it as the ‘tactical kata’ approach. It is predicated on the idea that effective bunkai truly once existed, and IMO it generally results in more literal interpretations that closely follow the physical movements of the kata. I see nothing wrong with this, presuming that the applications hold up under duress.
The danger I see in the ‘tactical kata’ approach is that it can lead one (or one’s students) to a more rigid mindset where there is a ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ “Sensei says so” kind of answer. Because there is a ‘right’ answer (one grenade), once a student has been shown that answer, there is little incentive for them to look beyond it. Also IMO, going too far down the tactical path is where you start seeing multiple attacker bunkai, simultaneous opponent setups (i.e. front and rear), ‘interactive bunkai’ (he does A then waits so you can do B, THEN he does C so you can do D), fighting with your back against a wall / in a rice paddy / on a boat, etc., viewing the moon to get your bearings as you duck under King Sho’s palanquin to grab the katana you stashed there prior to setting out For Naha from Shuri Castle on a Tuesday in February, and all kinds of other nonsensical (but very literal) combinations and applications. These seem to be another form of the flowerpots Clayton is referring to, and we are duly warned to be on our guard against them.
Alternately, you might take a more representational approach to kata… kata MAY have consisted of grenades initially. But it’s also possible to use a grenade as a hand to hand object in a pinch, just like a rock. Or maybe a grenade is a poor example. What about a trench shovel? Its purpose was for digging, period. Failing that, if someone came at you in combat and you were out of ammo, you might want to pre-consider how to use it to defend yourself. (For instance, it is a fact that in WWI trench combat, the brim of the helmet was often sharpened to be of use as a weapon.) This is an example of attempting to TRANSCEND the original purpose of a tool / technique. IMO it leads one to more of a principle-centric approach to bunkai, i.e.: a grenade was originally meant to be thrown and explode causing damage, preferably to many people at one time and while allowing the thrower to stay in relative cover. Considering these purposes might lead one to ask questions like: What else can I throw? What else explodes? How else can I inflict damage at a distance? What other ways can I inflict damage to multiple persons while staying in a position of relative safety? What do I do if somebody tosses a grenade at me? This is more of a ‘strategic’ approach, to kata IMO.
This sort of free thinking is also a big step off the “official path” mentioned by Clayton, where there is not only one grenade, but a correct way to throw it. I am not saying he’s wrong about the militarism of Itosu and Matsumura, I’m not sure. But I do know that simply following an official “this is the way we do it, period” line too closely on anything is a path to calamity at worst, and at best, stifles any kind of creative thinking on the part of the follower.
The trouble with the ‘strategic kata’ approach is that it can produce a LOT of flower pots, which CANNOT be confused with grenades. I kind of take this as Clayton’s summary point: that you need to be VERY critical and selective about reviewing your bunkai to see if it really holds up under pressure.
Or, stepping away from the article entirely, you might take more of an ‘all hope is lost’ approach: Kata consists of lost grenades that we can never find again. Even if we do, we can never be sure that they will really explode. We are therefore better off spending our time training with REAL grenades instead of looking for them or trying to remanufacture them. To me, this is more the thinking of supposedly ‘no-nonsense’ and so-called ‘combative’ systems like Krav Maga, and it represents yet another valid approach. (For myself, when I look at these systems, a lot of times I see ‘informal’ katas. What I mean is there is often a set curriculum of techniques or ‘stock’ responses that one learns, which at a certain level, simply makes it two-man kata in my opinion. I know a lot of people will disagree with that, however.)
Or, you can take the ‘back to basics’ approach: kata was simply a way for beginners to practice by themselves as the pre-requisite to more advanced partner work. Period. Bunkai is a myth, the whole point of kata was in developing the body’s intimacy with unfamiliar physical movements so they could be applied later in UNRELATED fighting applications. And there are also lots of mental benefits that come from practicing kata, such as mushin, zanshin, kime, mettsuki, etc.
Or take the ‘kata is an empty shell’ approach: You can look at kata and find all the grenades and flower pots you want, but anything you find is something YOU are putting INTO the kata, NOT taking out of it, which is INSTEAD the whole point: kata is a PROCESS of personal development, not a collection of techniques. We have now arrived at almost the antithesis of the ‘tactical kata’ approach.
Or, going the final step, take the ‘katas are arcane history’ cultural preservation approach… Even the great Chojun Miyagi advocated this idea, saying in the 1930’s that new katas were needed, while the old katas should be preserved for cultural reasons (the old katas we are still practicing today, one notes).
Are any of these so-called ‘answers’ absolute? Are any of them either wholly wrong, or wholly right? Examined closely, one sees they are merely argumentative positions which we can never prove. What matters when the rubber hits the road is whether you can defend yourself effectively under attack, not the source of where you learned the movements. Personally, I think all of the above ideas are true, to a degree. Each student needs to decide how much emphasis they are going to place on each approach, and develop a training method incorporating the correct personal proportion of each. Or considering kata as a series of levels, maybe these are a sketch of the levels one progresses through, I don’t know. And I’m sure there are other approaches to kata that I haven’t listed here.
I have a good friend that has also noodled a lot on the kata question, and we share ideas frequently. His view is that kata is simply a framework, and that the techniques are representational, or maybe even irrelevant. The value of kata, he says, is in the fact that because the SAME katas are nearly universally practiced (within traditional Okinawan systems), a practitioner could take this structural template, and go to a Shuri-te master and learn effective bunkai for the way THAT TEACHER approached fighting technique, both tactically and at a level of principles. He or she could then subsequently go to an Naha-te master, and without learning an entirely new structure, but simply by adapting the framework, learn an entirely new set of principles about approaching the same or related techniques. The structure of kata is simple a vehicle to transcend structure. It provides a comnmon language. To me, this idea has a lot of merit, although again, I don’t think it’s the singularly ‘correct’ answer about kata.
As an example of his approach, take the opening ‘blocking’ movement of Naihanchi. In Shorin-ryu, we practice this with a bent elbow and palm up, calling it an ‘inverted ridge-hand block’ for discussion purposes (only one application uses it as a block). I have also seen Shotokan people practice the same motion with the arm fully extended and the hand sideways (knife or sword hand fashion). The applications resulting are different, and entirely situation dependent. Yet a student who knows Naihanchi could go from one teacher to another and learn entirely different applications without learning an entirely new form containing what amounts to principally the same techniques in a different sequence. The form is still Naihanchi/ Naifanchi / Naifanchin/ Tekki, but the devil is in the details. And it’s critical to keep in mind when evaluating this notion that most pre-WWII masters had multiple teachers.
If there was originally only one grenade, why are there so many different but related versions of kata?? (Yes there are a lot of reasons for this in terms of the perceived McDojo problem, forget that for a moment... Look at the katas of credible, established masters of traditional Okinawan systems, not the guy at the corner mini-mall.) If you look at these katas closely, you can see that they are generally very similar. It’s possible to consider that there is indeed a visible ‘framework’ of sorts that simply has different trappings attached. E.g. Nobody out there (nobody I am aware of) is doing a formal version of Naihanchi using front-stances, and no-one has gone through and changed all the Pinans to kiba-dachis, or the high blocks to low blocks, etc. So which master has the ‘original’ or ‘right’ or ‘real’ kata? Who has the one with all the grenades? This is the stuff that divides martial artists into camps. In reality, however, the answer is probably either a) NONE of them, or b) ALL of them, at least IMO.
My friend has even gone so far as to structurally alter his katas to formats that make sense to HIM, and which illustrate the principles he is trying to convey to his students. Brace yourselves… he has even folded techniques from other systems like Panantukan into Okinawan katas to eliminate technical redundancies and ease the burden on his students of learning two systems. ( ) AND this guy is a phenomenal martial artist. I know for a fact that he can show you a so-called 'grenade' for just about every one of his kata movements, which is something I have not seen a lot of martial artists be able to do. But would his approach work for, or even be tolerated by some? Don’t think so. I bet six people just went into cardiac arrest reading this paragraph… Alterations to the sacred katas?!!??? Sacrilege! Heresy! (Interestingly, my friend has also been ‘excommunicated from the church’ of a recognized Okinawan master because of his refusal to compromise his belief that its important to train with multiple teachers and in multiple systems, another notion that has apparently been ‘lost’ to the more modern 'principle' of student head counts.)
Another architecture professor I once had purported on the first day of term that he was “just as confused” as the rest of us. He organized his history class topically around several themes that architects tend to bicker over. Refreshingly, his focus was not on providing us answers to these questions, but on a serious exploration and discussion of all sides of a topic with the statement that these were the “central questions” that every student must “find their own way” on. In his opinion, there were no correct answers and no grenades, there were only correct questions. Each student was encouraged, and in fact expected to make up his or her own mind and be able to substantiate a rational basis for his or her formulation of that BELIEF, which at the end of the day was all our answers really were.
In this spirit, (and strictly IMVHO), I have concluded this post with a list of the central questions with regard to kata that I believe each martial artist must find their own way on. I realize you could write an article or book on any one of these questions (and that some out there have), and I am not really expecting that anyone will reply to all (or even any) of them. That said, I would truly be interested in hearing YOUR questions, and any ‘answers’ people out there are willing to throw into the mix. (Keep in mind that they’re all speculative!)... Isn’t this what we’re all here for anyway?
One last caveat: Any perceived sarcasm (for instance, re.: ‘the secret thing’) is meant mostly tongue-in-cheek… I feel that this is quite often an excuse martial artists use when they don’t know, or don’t want to think too hard about the facts and circumstances surrounding a particular event or idea that they have become attached to. My personal BELIEF regarding this topic is that martial arts were probably taught openly, if maybe not advertised, giving rise to all the myths of secret teachings and techniques (the same way I believe the FACT that Ryukyu was occupied gives rise to the MYTH that karate was developed by oppressed peasants. For myself, considering the cultural dynamics of Ryukyu’s historic relationship with China, this is simply improbable, as others have pointed out much more eloquently than I could ever hope to.) in addition to keeping things light, my point in doing so is simply that we should question our assumptions and that there aren’t really any answers out there except those we find for ourselves.
Finally, I would also (truly) be interested if people would cite in some detail the basis for their beliefs, i.e. why they hold certain ideas to be true. In my experience, a lot of what martial artists hold dear today appears to be derived from one of three sources: a) "my sensei told me", b) other unspecified ORAL tradition (also known to most scholars as MYTHS or LEGENDS), or c) the writings of Gichin Funakoshi. I have found that getting outside the self-referential circles of martial arts history (say into more fact-based East Asian history discussions) presents a very different picture of life on Okinawa than I was trained to believe in as a martial artist…
So... here’s hoping to generate some good further discussion on the topic of...
PRIMARY QUESTIONS ABOUT KATA 1. What is kata for? a.k.a. Why do we ‘do’ kata? To me these are the same question, and I have heard several answers…
o If you believe kata is for basic skill development, why train this way instead of any one of a number of alternate means of basics/ habituation / two man drills etc.? o If you believe kata is to transmit fighting TACTICS as Clayton seems to at least partly advocate, why are so many movements ineffectual in ‘real’ SD? Certainly, ALL of the grenades cannot have become flower pots? o Ahhhh… kata was originally taught in secret, you say, and the applications are camouflaged! If this is true, why aren’t ALL the moves disguised? (No, no, I believe you, really, that thing that LOOKS like a punch is really an ancient Okinawan break-dance move!) Why aren’t there any ‘secret’ bunkai that were transmitted along WITH the kata? Why hasn’t kata been handed down performed to music, like Capoiera which we know did evolve from martial dance? (Is it just that Okinawan’s dance like white people?) If kata is a locked up secret, where are the keys? Why aren’t there any unlocking yakusoku’s? Why are the bunkai of some masters who claim direct lineage to pre-war experts completely impractical? Why don’t two katas in a system ‘plug’ together to form a complete attack-and-counter complex? o Question: If kata is purely tactical, how can “every block be a punch”? Answer: it can’t be, blocks are blocks and punches are punches, aren’t they? If you subscribe to Clayton’s main idea that there is a “real” or “original” application, then… “There can be only one, Highlander!” (this comment is purely to identify the real MA dork’s out there. If you understood the Highlander reference, you, like me, are an off-the-meter martial arts dork). o Kata is clearly not literal / sequential, (i.e. nobody believes that four people will attack from orthogonal angles patiently one at a time), so how CAN it be tactical training? Doesn’t the very formality of kata indicate that SOME degree of ‘reading’ and interpretation is required? o If you believe kata training is tactical, why are the movements so rigid when tactical reality is such a smudgy mess? Why don’t you train like you would fight if kata is meant to be tactical training? o If you believe kata is to transmit fighting PRINCIPLES beyond the tactical level, is their very purpose TO ALLOW one to find flower pots amongst the grenades? o If you believe kata is to transmit fighting principles, what are they? If kata is a series of levels to you, what are the levels one progresses through? o Why aren’t there more obviously thematic, principle-centric katas, even for ‘basic’ or kihon levels? (i.e. kicking katas, hand strike katas, atemi-katas, etc. OR wrist-grab-defense katas, punch evasion katas, choke release katas, attacks from behind katas, ground fighting katas, etc., etc.). The closest thing I have seen to a rational thematic organization of kata is Iain’s analysis of the Pinan series. Why isn’t there a more ‘visible’ organizational structure in kata? o C’mon, “originally secret” again? I can do karate out in the wide open and it looks like I am doing the Funky Chicken to the uninitiated. Also, when I perform kata WELL, I look like I am FIGHTING, not dancing!! Given what you know of human nature, could human beings keep ANYTHING secret for THREE years, let alone more than 300 years? o Is it possible that the Okinawan’s didn’t really know that much? We live today in a more open society that allows us to see a) the need for skills at all ranges and b) to see different ideas from different martial systems and cultures. Is it possible that historically Karate simply WAS mostly block-punch-kick? Practiced enough, this could be effective against an untrained attacker, orthodox styles prove this all the time.
2. How was kata originally USED? The question here is how do you believe first generation masters used kata THEMSELVES? Did they practice it at all, or was it simply a teaching tool? Take as one example, Kusanku (Substitute Alternate Kata Name as you see fit):
o Do you believe Kusanku was developed by someone named Kusanku (as some say). Or was it developed by someone who learned moves FROM Kusanku (as others say)? I.e. was the kata Master-developed or Student-Developed? There is a WORLD of difference in this question in terms of understanding the underlying purpose of kata, IMO. o If Kusanku was a Chinese military envoy and it was HIS kata originally (following some versions of the Oshima Hikki theory), why aren’t the moves more ‘chuan fa-like’? Why don’t they make sense as an interconnected whole? Why does the kata LOOK like an Okinawan kata and not a Chinese hsing? Why would he bother teaching it to Okinawan’s, even given the Ryukyuan alliance with China? How would it come up that he even knew it in the first place if everything about karate was so kept so hush-hush? o If it was developed by a student to simply transmit the knowledge of ONE teacher, why aren’t there new kata every generation? Every master is different as night and day and has techniques that they favor or teach. Why didn’t someone develop Sakugawa no Kata, Matsumura no Kata, Itosu no Kata, Chibana no Kata, Funaksohi no Kata, etc.? Post-Itosu, (who most people credit DID develop his own), why did established 20th C masters not develop their own katas (Nagamine and Miyagi’s Fukyugata’s excluded)? Was this ‘generational’ form of practice the way it WAS originally, and for some reason we now find our katas simply ‘stuck’ in the pre 20th Century? Or following on Itosu, were past masters simply less hesitant to change existing katas to fit their needs? Why did Miyagi advocate abandoning traditional kata? o If you believe Kusanku has its origins in a LEGENDARY persona, is it possible that there may have been multiple compilers and the kata is therefore a collection of many people’s ideas? Could this explain why the movements don’t make more sense as a unit? Is the kata simply a compendium of disconnected techniques? o We know from Motobu that Matsumura and Itosu performed visually different versions of Naihanchi (unfortunately, Motobu doesn’t say whether this was in practicing by themselves or in teaching). Are we supposed to believe that Itosu was just arrogant? Or were differences in performance (resulting, we might PRESUME from differences in application), simply the understood norm, condoned or even encouraged?
3. How was kata originally TAUGHT / TRANSMITTED? The question here is: Do you believe kata provide the FOUNDATION for a student’s studies, or did kata CULMINATE a student’s studies?) This question in particular is key: if you believe the former, IMO you are a kata-is-tactical “there is a real/original/ correct application” kind of guy. If you answer that they were the culmination (like Pat McCarthy, for instance), for my money, this almost automatically places you in the “kata is representational, at least to some degree” camp. (Note that the question is not asking how YOU learned, but how you believe kata was originally transmitted.)
o Ok, if you haven’t guessed by now, personally, I don’t put a lot of stock in the ‘secret’ thing, so you can’t shout “Oooh. Oooh! I know! They were transmitted in secret!” to answer this one. I know things about my best friend that he doesn’t know that I know because his wife tells my wife, and my wife tells me. People talk and word gets ‘round. This also assumes that we’re not confined to a small town on a small island with an oppressive government that would have a vested interest in finding out what I know about my friend and who might be willing to torture it out of me. (Not that I’d talk, of course. When they started pulling out MY intestines, I’d go to my Zen ‘happy place’ as stoically as Mel Gibson in Braveheart). Seriously though, the secret theory doesn’t clearly explain why you can look at the movements from a lot of OTHER systems (Tai Chi for instance) and they don’t make sense as a visual presentation of a fighting system either. Maybe the Satsuma’s just got around and oppressed a lot of people. Personally, I just can’t get my head around the selectivity: fighting hasn’t changed in 2000 years we’re told (correctly IMO), but human nature has???? SOMEBODY woulda talked… o If you answer kata was ‘beginning of lesson’, why? o If you answer end of lesson/ culmination, why? Are you a subscriber to the idea that kata is simply a mnemonic device left-over from pre-video days as advocated by Bill Burgar? (each technique as a placeholder for one or multiple applications). IMO this is another good theory with snippets of truth. o Regardless of which way you answered this question, what makes you believe this? Is this how you teach YOUR students? Have you found this to be an effective method? Is this how you learned yourself? Have you learned effective applications using this approach? Did you learn/ Do you teach applications simultaneous to forms? How does it shape your approach to bunkai? Do you teach ‘stock’ applications or encourage students to come up with their own? Anyone out there using the end of lesson approach? I have been thinking about trying this out on my next unsuspecting whitebelt… o What impact does the cultural formality of the Japanese people have, (if any) on the way that was “correctly” transmitted from its original context? o What impact did the kyu-dan promotional system have on the way kata was taught? For instance, we now teach Kusanku as a so-called ‘advanced’ form and the Pinan’s as so-called ‘beginner’ or ‘intermediate’ forms. I have heard many people say that this is because the material is more complicated. In fact, is it possible that this is simply because the Pinan’s are physically shorter and therefore make logical sense in the beginner-to-advanced promotional sequence? The movements are theoretically no more complicated than those from Kusanku, (especially if you believe that Itosu distilled the Pinans FROM Kusanku). Isn’t it possible to contrast these forms and say that their primary difference is that Kusanku is simply longer and features a more complex embu, not that its contents are necessarily more advanced? If you believe it IS ‘advanced’ material, does the very fact that it was selected by Itosu to be broken into ‘beginner’ material make Kusanku a ‘basic’ advanced form? If the kata contained combinations originally, why don’t we see multiple recurring sequences in the Pinan’s that are identical to Kusanku? Why weren’t other forms parsed in this fashion (admittedly, some say Naihanchi was). o If you buy into the fact that the Pinan’s were developed in the early 20th century FOR CHILDREN, why were there no ‘beginner’ or ‘children’s’ kata before this? Most martial artists are quick to tell you that karate was passed “from father to son”, Mr. Miyagi like across the generations (it would almost have to be, if it were truly a ‘family secret’). I have personally taught both my sons. Let me assure those of you out there with no children: I didn’t start with Kusanku or Chinto. Were 19th C. children just that much better? (If you answer this one that they started learning as teens or adults, fine, except it kills the Pinan’s = ‘little children’ theory. Also, go try teaching a white belt Gojushiho and let me know how it turns out. Yes, I know it CAN be done, but is this what YOU would normally do? Was this why it was necessary to spend multiple years learning a form? How does a white belt do with all that fancy ‘advanced’ bunkai you’ve developed from the form?) Isn’t it likely that pre-Itosu, karate was probably taught to young men in their late teens and twenties? (Remember, they were all studying at 2:30 in the morning.) o If advanced martial artists can barely find obviously lethal movements in so-called advanced kata, HOW can we believe that disinterested school children would have been expected to have discovered them?!!!!... answer: I know but I can’t tell you, IT’S A SECRET. o Given what we KNOW of all the changes to kata that have occurred in the last 100 years, can we believe that kata was intended to be taught as anything BUT a general template to be personalized by each practitioner?
4. How do people learn / habituate MA Technique? This question is related to the former.
o If you go to a seminar, do they teach you a kata and say, “Thank-you all for coming! Come on back in four or five years for the two-man application!!” No! They automatically teach you two-man applications. Why? Because you need to see/ feel/ understand how techniques work or don’t work on another body! Even Iain (not to put words in his mouth) advocates that Kata includes partner work, as do most people with an advanced understanding of kata. Isn’t partner work the ONLY way to learn effectiveness in technique?? IMO, the idea that kata was developed so people could practice ‘death moves’ ‘full power’ is just absurd, especially when you compare it to how people train today. Lawrence’s excellent article on Makiwara training makes the point that there is a HUGE difference between striking an object and striking air. (And remember, all you conspiracy theorists, Makiwara’s would have to be removed nightly so that no one would know you were practicing your secret te.) In addition, while visualization can be a powerful thing, we all know its no substitute for actual application. How do YOU learn atemi techniques? By practicing them ON someone, however lightly, or by trying to SEE them in mid-air??! o What role does ‘conformity’ play in group training? (Think of a seminar vs. a class doing floor work… at a seminar, you can have two pairs working side by side applying THE SAME movements differently based on the physiology of the practitioners. In floor work, the sensei is showing you a ‘textbook’ method of application and you’d better follow along.) How is the conformity/consistency principle at play in a culture that depends on social conformity at its very core? How does this impact kata practice and the idea of ‘form’ (i.e. perfect model) to begin with? o What role do you believe kata plays in the habituation of technique? Should you temporarily or permanently alter the physical movements of a kata to make sense to you / fit your application? (change target levels, delivery weapons, alter movements)? What do you lose by doing this? What do you gain? Why does the gain outweigh the loss for you?
5. Should you ‘make up’ and practice your own kata? Why or why not? If so, how would you go about it? Is this plain arrogance, or a brilliant way to habituate techniques you know work?
6. How should/do you plan to pass on your martial system (if at all)? As a complete system the way you LEARNED it or as what ‘works’ for you, the way you have DEVELOPED it? Which way do you teach presently? Will you change your approach when it comes to leaving your life’s work to the ravages of time? What obligation do you have to your instructor’s legacy vs. your own very human desires to invent/create/ innovate/ leave your own legacy? How do you reconcile these thoughts back to the human originators of kata?
7. What will happen when your current master / guro / sifu dies? How do you anticipate students and instructors will react? How will the human dynamics of money and politics affect what emerges? What has happened to other organizations you have seen or been involved with? How will YOU preserve the teachings of your sensei for future generations? Will you compile a kata? Will it be of his/her ‘favorite’ techniques? Will you distill a unique list of principles and try to pick techniques that rely on or illustrate those principles? Will you organize your kata thematically? Will you break it into multiple pieces with beginner, intermediate and advanced concepts? Will you have a male/ female pair of kata that plug together seamlessly? Will you have secret bunkai that you teach only to your most trusted students for ethical purposes? Will you camouflage the movements in the form of a three-minute hip-hop dance routine taught only to your oldest child to perpetually confound future generations?
I once had the distinct pleasure of working with a much older and wiser friend who imparted the wisdom: “Ask two people, and you’re an expert… Ask more than two, and you’re just as @#$%^&-up as everybody else.” IMVHO, its ALL speculation kids, and its all personal choice, so have fun with it and TRAIN STUFF THAT WORKS FOR YOU, kata based or not, grenades to flower pots and back again…
Now…where’d I put that pin…? And why is this thing tic….
-------------------- Mike T., 4th Dan Shorin Ryu Posts: 1228 | From: West Michigan | Registered: Aug 2005
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Holy hand grenades Dr. Mike, that really was a looooonnnngg post. But you do bring up some good points . In fact many of those issues are what led me to write The Way of Kata in the first place...
As you probably already know, I believe that some applications really are much better than others as we interpret each movement of any given kata but that's only a partial answer. Kata show both a strategy and a set of tactics. You need both to decipher the optimal application(s) of any given movement. And you need to choose the proper tactical context in which to apply the application. In real life things get complicated legally, ethically, morally, and phsychologically whenever things turn to violence.
To use your head block example, I like the "carotid stun" approach too. It is consistent with the strategy of goju ryu -- close distance, imbalance, and use physiological incapacitation to defeat the enemy. It further allows my stance (e.g., sanchin dachi) to imbalance by attacking the opponent's legs while my block/strike attacks his head. If you've read the intro to my book ( http://www.westseattlekarate.com/articles/TheWayofKatapromoL.pdf ) you can see the complete write-up on this example along with some illustrations...
I've read about half of Clayton's book and am very impressed so far, particularly with the diligence of his research. I've read hundreds of martial arts books over the years yet still found much I didn't already know in the Okinawan history. His writing style is pleasant and easy to follow. The stories of the karate masters are very interesting and really bring them to life.
He also makes some excellent points around tatemae (official truth/outward story) and honne (secret truth/inward story). I haven't actually gotten into the kata interpretation stuff yet, just the history but that alone makes it well worth reading.
[ October 07, 2005, 06:11 PM: Message edited by: LAKane ]
Posts: 642 | From: Seattle, WA USA | Registered: Aug 2005
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Dear Mike T., Your friend sounds like he knows what he's talkin' about.
Be careful though. Listenin' to guys like that, you might find your self in hot water with some of your current strict traditionalist comrads. You never know, researchin'on your own, thinkin' outside the box, workin' with diffrent people & ideas, could just some day land you excommunicated with your buddy.
Then all you'd be left with is a hand full of techniques you KNOW work... and mind that refuses to be spoonfed.
Personally, I wanna know that the grenade I'm throwin' isn't a dudd.
Posts: 17 | From: Michigan | Registered: Oct 2005
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quote:...they are at the heart of the question “Bunkai: Was it in there”? ... answering this question is central to the emphasis one places on the value of kata in training.
Absolutely! I also think this is very important question. I am thinking quite a lot about it.
quote:[The fact of the matter is, we can never know what an original application was, or what the originator of a form intended, making ALL answers purely and equally speculative…
You’re right that we will never know, but question is very important and should be asked: what was the original intention of a karate master that created kata? Did they imprinted a series of their favorite techniques, or did they design the kata to teach some higher principles?
Why am I insisting. Simple, to play a devils lawyer, there are other ways of training. Why should I spend time training in an inefficient way. Say, I base my training on kata. Okay, but what if I fully misunderstood original intention of the master who created the kata. Life is short, perhaps there are other better ways of learning how to fight instead of spending considerable amount of my energy researching on ritual that is dead.
quote:…a central problem then arises when we tempt to be absolute in our interpretations about kata….
No, we do not have to be, but the question is what was the interpretation of masters that created katas. Perhaps they had different views. It is certainly an advantage being aware of masters intententions when looking at the kata. Provided this is possible. Who knows, e.g. you find a skeleton of a tyrannosaurus-rex and know nothing of paleontology, of course, you immediate response is “no way, I’ll never figure out how this animal lived, or know anything about it worth knowing, I know nothing about bones”. But through research it is possible to answer most difficult questions. We should not dismiss them because they are difficult.
quote: WE CHOOSE what works for us. Does this sound familiar?
Yes, and so did the Itosu. It would be interesting to know what he chose.
quote: But I do know that simply following an official “this is the way we do it, period” line too closely on anything is a path to calamity at worst, and at best, stifles any kind of creative thinking on the part of the follower.
I agree with you again, though still, the question is what was the official line of thinking in the case of each specific kata (I know, you’ll say that single kata can be product of many karateka)?
quote: Or, stepping away from the article entirely, you might take more of an ‘all hope is lost’ approach: Kata consists of lost grenades that we can never find again. Even if we do, we can never be sure that they will really explode. We are therefore better off spending our time training with REAL grenades instead of looking for them or trying to remanufacture them.
Exactly! This is the reason why we should ask the questions we are discussing!
quote: What matters when the rubber hits the road is whether you can defend yourself effectively under attack, not the source of where you learned the movements.
quote: And I’m sure there are other approaches to kata that I haven’t listed here.
Good point! Now, take this sentence and place it into the head of karate master 100 years ago. What did he/she think was most important?
quote: If there was originally only one grenade, why are there so many different but related versions of kata??
Very good question! Now, this is all theoretical, only if you had one grenade you needed to create a new kata if you found another grenade and wanted to put it into your own kata. This would support the idea of single grenade for each movement.
quote: So which master has the ‘original’ or ‘right’ or ‘real’ kata? Who has the one with all the grenades?
Another excellent question!
quote: This is the stuff that divides martial artists into camps. In reality, however, the answer is probably either a) NONE of them, or b) ALL of them, at least IMO.
But it could be that each of them had their own grenades, thus the need for various kata.
quote: Finally, I would also (truly) be interested if people would cite in some detail the basis for their beliefs, i.e. why they hold certain ideas to be true.
I am not 100% sure where I read this but I think that there is a statement made on the web page of Sensei Toby Threadgil (Shindo Yoshin Ryu Ju-Jitsu), that systems based on forms without prescription how to use it are dead systems.
quote:[PRIMARY QUESTIONS ABOUT KATA … 2. How was kata originally USED? The question here is how do you believe first generation masters used kata THEMSELVES?
To me this is the question I find most interesting. All other questions are asked from the view point of today’s practitioner. Only, 2. is asked from the perspective of kata creator.
Posts: 146 | From: Gothenburg, Sweden | Registered: Aug 2005
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