What Is Kata?

Updated on September 3, 2019
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John is a fervent writer, gamer, and guitar lover. Former automatic-transmission repairer, current welder and hobbyist game developer.

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If you’ve ever watched Karate Kid (or any number of other martial arts movies) you will have witnessed kata—or something like it—in action. Typically accompanied by some atmospheric music, kata is typically presented in film with one person going through a series of motions, often switching from serene, flowing movements to sudden explosive strikes. Depending on the form being portrayed, it can often look more like an elaborate dance routine rather than anything related to martial arts.

But what is it?

Before we get into that, a quick side note: Kata is a method used in karate. Now, as I understand it, similar things from other martial arts (patterns in Taekwondo, forms in Kung Fu) serve largely the same purpose. However I have not studied these arts and do not feel comfortable speaking on them, so from hereon in, we’re just talking about karate.

What Is Kata

In a word, “memory”. Karate has been around for a long time, and even longer when you consider that it was born of other fighting styles that existed at the time. The important thing to note about these early days of karate is that there was no such thing as video camera, let alone DVDs or YouTube. Information could only be conveyed by text, or in person.

I can’t speak for everyone, but learning karate from a book was something of a cultural joke when I first started in the early '90s, and I’m relatively confident the original masters of karate would have deemed it an insufficient teaching medium as well.

That leaves person-to-person.

Obviously the best way to learn karate (or dancing, or tennis, or any coordinated physical activity for that matter) is through live instruction from an expert. The difficulty in the early days of karate, with very few masters and travel not being as easy as it is today, is that very few people could learn the art of karate properly. And so kata was invented.

Kata was typically created by the students of a master, rather the master themselves. This allowed the master's knowledge to live on beyond their death.
Kata was typically created by the students of a master, rather the master themselves. This allowed the master's knowledge to live on beyond their death. | Source

Kata is “record” of a fighting style. Often named for the master whose fighting style it records, it was a way of reducing an entire style down to something that could be memorised and shown to others. By this method, students could go on to teach the kata to new people, or visit other masters to learn their kata (though it was typically students of a master that created the kata, not the master themselves). And most importantly, the style of a master would not be lost upon their death.

How Does Kata Work

This, unfortunately, is where things get a bit muddy. In the early days of kata, it’s likely that the movements were accompanied by accurate explanations of what they meant. However, kata still spread by word of mouth. In the roughly two centuries that karate has been around, only roughly a quarter of that time has there been a reliable and accessible technological method of sharing information visually. This meant that kata began to differ and branch off, the original meanings of the movements became lost.

Adding to this, there was a concerted effort in the early twentieth century to make karate more palatable to a Japanese public that increasingly saw karate as too violent and uncivilised, which led to much of the more violent aspects of the art being smoothed over, and far less practical explanations for the movements being adopted.

It’s worth noting, however, that given the social climate in Japan at the time, without this “taming” of karate, it’s likely that it would not have grown in popularity as it did. So while modern western karateka (“karateka” is a person who practices karate) may resent this watering down of their art, they should acknowledge that they would probably never have heard of, let alone learnt karate had it not happened.

This has led to a kind of interpretative aspect to kata. The movements are largely preserved, and we can be confident of the authenticity of a kata by observing the similarities between the many different variations from other styles. Even through a century of bifurcation, the original kata is still recognisable.

It then falls to each karateka to study and interpret the kata in an effort to understand what the master had intended all those years ago. This, of course, leads to a lot of differences of opinion. What one karateka might see as a downward blocking motion to protect yourself from a kick, another might interpret as a hard, low strike with the fist. Differing interpretations are not necessarily incorrect, however. The determining factor is whether a particular interpretation works when used in a combat scenario.

Competitive Team Kata

Kata can be thought of like as a seed. It is small and easily transported. But only through planting it (studying the kata) can a plant (effective, practical karate) grow strong. And no two plants will be identical, but they will all work, if grown correctly.

Kata's Murky Past

The aforementioned watering down of karate coupled with the inefficiencies of transferring information in a pre-electronic era, led to some wildly impractical interpretations of kata being propagated. This, in turn, led to much doubt among other martial artists as to the effectiveness of karate as a fighting style. And not without merit.

For example, kata often contains many turns and movements facing different directions. These are intended to represent an angle of attack; coming at your opponent from the side or at an angle. Over time these directional movements were taught more literally, and a change of direction that might represent a throw, or move around to the back of an opponent, began to be taught as an unrealistic turn and block. A move that would require you to not only know you were being attacked from behind far enough in advance to turn and block, but also require that you, having gained this dubious knowledge, then turn and step into the attack, rather than away. Not a very sensible way to defend oneself.

In addition to drawing ridicule from practitioners of other fighting styles, this also had the much more severe consequence of teaching methods that were ineffective in real world use.

Decades of karateka have been taught impractical applications of kata.
Decades of karateka have been taught impractical applications of kata. | Source

Kata's Bright Future

Fortunately, more recent times have seen a surge in “practical application” among karate practitioners (as well as other martial arts), with many notable karateka spreading the methods and lessons learned from studying kata from a practical mindset.

In studying the writings and quotes of the original karate masters, we can determine that kata was never meant to teach how to fight in an organised martial arts contest, or a choreographed fight against consensual opponents who have arranged themselves neatly around you. Rather it is a system for defending oneself against non-consensual violence. It should not require the cooperation of a would-be opponent to be effective, and should above all be effective. This understanding allows for a far more practical (and often more violent) interpretation of the movements within kata.

Furthermore, karate has always been an evolving art. The widely accepted (and impractical for self defence) understanding of kata that has held sway since the mid-twentieth century came about over a century into the life of karate as an art. Indeed, the original masters encouraged their students to learn new things from other teachers. And so with this knowledge, any karateka should feel comfortable about interpreting kata in any way that works for them, regardless of what the person who created the kata originally intended.

Practical Application Expert, Iain Abernethy, Explaining Basic Kata Movements

© 2019 John Bullock

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