Since 1976

September 2016

The History of KATA

I taught a kata class for AKATO black belts in August. This is from the handout we passed out to attendees.

The recording of information through physical movement is rooted in ancient history. Even today, certain cultures use “dance” to tell stories and pass on their history to the next generation. And no doubt hunters and fighters would pass on their most successful techniques to those who were less experienced. This is probably how the first fighting “kata” were created.

The Japanese word kata means “shape” or “form.” The kanji for kata the Japanese character is composed characters that literally mean “to cut a shape into the earth (soil).” Imagine cutting a shape into the soil, ie a “pattern” and then pouring plaster into that shape and you get a finished sculpture when you pull it out. In Western parlance we might call it a “form” or “pattern” that someone uses to design a piece of clothing or to mold a sculpture.

Anko Itosu (1831–1915) has been called by some the “father” of modern karate. He was one of the earliest Okinawan karate masters and he is noted for modifying the kata he learned from his teacher, Sokon Matsumura, who had brought back patterns of fighting moves that he was taught during his Chaun Fa studies in China.

Right after the turn of the 20th century he lobbied for karate to be introduced into the public schools in Okinawa. He therefore simplified some of the kata, changing open hand techniques to closed fists, arm breaks into blocks, and placing more emphasis on the physical performance. Some criticised Itosu for “watering down” karate but he probably never imagined his “children’s karate” would become the standard for modern karate practice.

In fact, he is quoted as saying, “The individual must decide whether your kata is for health or for its practical use.”

Gichin Funakoshi (also often called the “father” of modern karate because he introduced and popularized the art in Japan) was a student of Itosu’s. When he was granted permission to teach in Japan the martial arts hierarchy insisted on standarization (which led to the use of the “gi” and the “kyu-dan” ranking system—both borrowed from Judo). It also led to a further simplification of kata as Funakoshi, like Itosu, was focused on taking karate to a younger generation.

Ultimately the introduction of competition further served to place more emphasis on the “look” of kata performance. That has become more obvious as karate came to the West.

So today a karate (or tae kwon do) kata is a sequence of blocks, kicks and punches from one or more stances, involving specific movements and stances. The balance between offensive and defensive techniques and the direction and flow of movement give each kata its distinctive character.

In a traditional sense, all fighting techniques rely on similar movement, that is a particular physical movement can be applied with varying results depending on the application. This is the idea of “bunkai” or the breaking down of a movement to its real-world effect. Kata also embodies the idea of “ren-ma,” or “always polishing” —with diligent practice, the moves of the kata become further refined and perfected. The attention to detail that is necessary to perfect a kata cultivates self discipline.