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The Theory & Application of Traditional Kata
"An Art with a Thousand Faces"
by Patrick McCarthy

KataWhat is graceful and flowing yet dynamic on the outside, but methodical, simplistic and brutal on the inside? If you said kata[1], you’re not only correct, you obviously know something about karate that has seemingly gone unnoticed by an entire generation of more impressionable but less informed learner. Too often judged by its appearance, and sometimes even likened to a book, what is seen on the surface is never what’s contained within[2] the kata.


Once a closely guarded, secretive practice
[3], kata is the very reason karate, as an art, has been preserved and passed down to this day. Its heritage can be traced back to the Chinese progenitors of quanfa[4]. Sadly, the unique formula once used to help deliver the contextual intentions culminated in kata was lost in the wake of the modernization of Karate, which obscured the original defensive application principles. I contend that the original intention set forth by the pioneers was to have learners study the HAPV (this misunderstood analytical process is what is known as bunkai-jutsu) so that they could understand how tactical strategies and application practices (oyo-jutsu) were developed and employed. Using safe learning circumstances (usually a dojo environment), HAPV were systematically recreated and tactical strategies methodically re-enacted in two-person drills. Such efforts were repeated with gradual or exponential degrees of intensity depending entirely on the individual aptitude of each learner until a functional spontaneity unfolded and one developed the ability to effectively use the application principles irrespective of the HAPV.

 

It was through this embryonic process, and the development of “the dojo”, that professional teachers discovered the need to ritualize the solo re-enactment of these defensive practices into individual composites as the basis of their curriculum. Intended as mnemonic devices, solo composites helped innovators assemble and remember the myriad of tactical strategies they developed.  


Originally, solo composites were never developed to impart the actual lesson but rather to culminate what had already been taught. In addition to solidifying their curricula, I deduced that by bringing multiple composites together into individual templates pioneers could also improve physical, mental, and holistic conditioning, hence strengthening the overall learning process. This phenomenon cradled the birth of what the Chinese quanfa/kenpo call Hsing (or kata, in Japanese). Many of the oldest kata handed down in traditional Okinawan karate (Ryukyu Kenpo — the quanfa practices of Okinawa’s old Ryukyu Kingdom) trace their roots to this phenomenon.


As a researcher, I don’t reject the tenets of karate, but I do disagree with its modern interpretation of kata. In an effort to resolve the ambiguity that shrouds the history and technical theories of kata, I sincerely hope you find the analysis that lies before you compelling.

Habitual Acts of Physical Violence/HAPV: 
Through years of research and study I established a theory that early pioneers developed functional self-defense practices built on the knowledge they gleaned from empirical experience. Considering this pragmatic hypothesis helps resolve the frustrating ambiguity shrouding its pre-history. More importantly, however, such analyses also lay the groundwork for why identifying & cataloguing the habitual acts of physical violence (HAPV) into separate (& ultimately combined) learning modalities is paramount to the understanding how the entire learning process evolved.  

Two-Person Drills:
I believe that when a learner comprehends the brutal mentality commonly associated with unwarranted physical violence, the only practical way through which functional defensive response capabilities (against the classical 36 habitual acts of physical violence) could ever be learned and mastered (by the average person), was through recreating each act of physical violence in a controlled environment. Subsequently, I deduced that through trial & error, in a controlled environment with an experienced mentor, and reducing the actual risk of serious injury, learners were afforded the opportunity of testing and exploring which defensive principles were most effective for their body type and personalities. Moreover, my two-person drill theory accommodates the possibility of how each learner could progress exponentially until the process achieved its outcome; To established enough functional spontaneity that any HAPV, or combinations thereof, could be effectively negotiated. 

Rituals: 
The final results of my lengthy research into the origins and evolution of kata revealed a remarkably simple theory, one that is continually gaining wider acceptance in our extremely critical and highly inflexible international karate community. I concluded that when the attacker was removed from the two-person practice, what remained was a solo re-enactment of its defensive application. To establish more improved teaching methodologies, while maintaining ironclad rituals of secrecy, I further deduced that innovative pioneers went on to ritualize the plethora of solo defensive application practices into unique individual templates, each identified with its own special name (i.e. crane on a rock, guardian closes the gate, double dragons going out to sea, etc.). As even the most rudimentary analysis of classical kata reveals a configuration of composite technique, therefore, I naturally concluded that the early pioneers of our tradition ingeniously brought their solo templates together into unique mnemonic mechanisms (Hsing/Kata) not only to remember important lessons but also to nurture holistic concepts.


Based on this hypothesis, I don’t believe that kata when learned by itself was ever meant to impart self-defense instruction, but rather, to culminate the important lessons already learned and to promote those requisite physical attributes any functional delivery system necessitates. Naturally, this belief does not preclude the holistic benefits obviously associated with practicing kata by oneself, but only to provide a pragmatic defensive explanation where one previously did not exist.  


Finally, concerning the myriad of styles & kata, I believe that variations on common themes and separate lineages unfolded over many generations due largely to individual preferences, personal understanding, varying interpretations and political power struggles. During such times, names became changed to reflect lineage and templates were reconfigured or reinterpreted. Recognizing the importance of this theory not only widens our understanding of its pre-history, it deepens our perspective and appreciation of the art. 

Physics & Biomechanics: 
The knowledge and application of common physics are an integral element of effective defensive application. Because of its unique anatomical structures, especially where the limbs and neck are concerned, common levers can and are easily applied with the knowledge of fundamental physics. In order to transfer energy effectively to any given anatomical structure, during a defensive confrontation, it becomes necessary to understand how to move the body correctly. The supporting study of biomechanics affords the karateka the most efficient way of effectively transferring of both low intensity & higher velocity kinetic force for the expressed purpose of impeding motor performance; the dispassionate outcome of self-defense. 

Functional Anatomy & Physiology: 
Recognizing what value biomechanics and physics play in karate, it’s not much of a stretch to conclude why learning how the human body is constructed and understanding its basic functions can enhance one’s overall application of the art. Understanding anatomical structures and functions reveal specific vulnerabilities and provide learners with valuable insights into physical exploitation. Through my research, I arrived at five issues central to how the application process was imparted in old-school learning: 

  • Anatomical location (The precise area to be attacked)
  • Tool for energy transfer (Fist, foot, elbow, knee, etc.)
  • Angle (The angle of energy transfer; i.e. 45°, 90° etc.) 
  • Direction (The direction of energy transfer; i.e. back to front, perpendicular to location, etc.)
  • Intensity of energy transfer (How much force required during energy transfer)

Hojo Undo: 
Supplementary training alternatives are a creative expression of necessity and individual insights in order to support the network of any functional delivery system. Classical examples are, 1.Makiwara 2. Stone weights etc. 

Anthropology: 
With a terribly ambiguous pre-history,
the roots of this convoluted tradition are buried in a graveyard of indelible myth and compelling legend linked to Zen Buddhism and the Shaolin Monastery. Actually, the roots of karate lie in several kinds of Fujian quanfa, which haphazardly found their way to Okinawa during the later part of its old Ryukyu Kingdom. Collected, studied and finally modernized, during the turn of the 20th century, for the purpose of being introduced as an adjunct to physical education in Okinawa’s school system, karate-jutsu was transformed by Japanese Budo-culture after being introduced to the mainland. While socio-cultural & historical anthropology is not exactly at the forefront of most instructors’ teaching fortes, it should not be precluded from one's independent studies. Through such studies learners are better able to discover and understand how custom, language, cultural landscape, inflexible social ideology & spiritual conviction shaped the evolution, theories & ethos of Karatedo.

Moral Philosophy: 
One mistake the modern karateka often makes, when trying to grasp conceptual origins, classical application theories and moral philosophy of karatedo, is to depend too much on contemporary assumptions. Knowledge taken for granted these days was originally locked in an ironclad ritual of secrecy known only by a select minority who had passed the arduous test of time. For the same reason one would never entrust a loaded weapon to immoral hands, so too did the early pioneers of this tradition believe that embracing a body of moral philosophy to govern the ethical behavior of those who mastered its brutal secrets superseded learning to fight.   

Spiritualism:  
Realizing that the source of human weakness lay within, early innovators, many of them spiritual recluses, realized that man’s ultimate journey had to be inward, not outward. Discovering the source of human weakness also revealed the inner location in which man’s battles should be first fought & won before the outer circumstances of their daily lives could ever be improved. Transmitting this truth through their defensive discipline the pursuit of emancipation and harmony became a journey more highly desired that the physical vehicle used to achieve it.    

The Whole: 
In spite of the many opinions we hold to be true, karatedo continues on as a method of self-protection, a disciplined life-style, a unique form of physical fitness, a competitive sport and a commercial industry. By identifying its individual parts, and studying the principles on which they rest, we are better able to resolve the ambiguity that shrouds what Karatedo is and what is not.

 

One of the most fascinating things about delving into the history and evolution of this wonderful tradition is just how much one can learn about the culture, philosophy and people who shaped its practice. In doing so, a message of more important proportions unfolds. What could possibly improve our overall understanding of karate more than walking in the footsteps of those people most responsible for pioneering it? By studying the anthropology of this tradition it becomes evident that many of the early pioneers established a symbiosis with karate so that their lives became as much a product of the art as was the art a product of their lives. With learning the art comes a responsibility to keep this knowledge alive, a responsibility that extends beyond karate and into society as a whole. Karate conditions the body, cultivates the mind and nurtures the spirit.

Conclusion: 
The original intention set forth by the pioneers of our tradition was to have learners study the habitual acts of physical violence (HAPV) so that they could understand how tactical strategies and application practices (oyo-jutsu) were developed and employed; this misunderstood analytical process is what is known as bunkai-jutsu. The modern practice of studying the kata in order to discover functional applications is called "reverse engineering." Using safe learning circumstances (a dojo environment), HAPV were systematically recreated in two-person drills where tactical strategies were methodically reenacted. Such practices were repeated with gradual or exponential degrees of intensity depending entirely on the individual aptitude of each learner until a functional spontaneity unfolded and one developed the ability to effectively use the application principles irrespective of the HAPV. It was through this embryonic process that early pioneers first discovered the need to ritualize the solo reenactment of these defensive practices into individual composites. Intended as mnemonic mechanisms, solo composites helped innovators assemble and remember the myriad of tactical strategies they developed. Originally, solo composites were never developed to impart the actual lesson but rather to culminate what had already been taught. In addition to solidifying their curricula, pioneers reasoned that by bringing multiple composites together into individual templates they could also improve physical, mental, and holistic conditioning, hence strengthening the overall learning process. This phenomenon cradled the birth of what the Chinese quanfa/kenpo call Hsing (i.e. kata, in Japanese). Many of the oldest kata handed down in traditional Okinawan karate (Ryukyu Kenpo; i.e. the quanfa practices of Okinawa’s old Ryukyu Kingdom) trace their roots to this phenomenon. 

[1] Hsing (Mandarin Chinese pronunciation) is its quanfa equivalent. 
[2]
The innermost meanings of kata represent unique defensive application principles against varying acts of physical violence, which are not obvious to the untrained eye. Often referred to as kakushi (secrets), understanding how to use kata requires a functional understanding of its contextual basis. 
[3]
Until the turn of the 20th century, kata had, for the most part, been a “behind-closed-doors" secret practice in Okinawa. 
[4]
Quanfa is the Mandarin Chinese pronunciation of two separate ideograms "Quan" and "fa."

 

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