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Zen Garden > Karate Kata Explained - Part One.

Karate Kata Explained - Part One of a Three Part Series.

Kata. What is it? For anybody who has not studied one of the classical styles of karate, taekwondo or kung fu this can be a very perplexing question. To answer the question I am going to assume that my readers have no understanding of the term “kata” at all. I know this is obviously not true. In fact, some readers will undoubtedly have an equal or even better knowledge of the subject than I do. However, I have found over the years that it is always better when explaining to begin in a very basic way and build up from there.

The word kata is of Japanese origin. There are similar words in the Chinese, Korean and other martial arts but I am going to use the word kata because that is what I am more familiar with and it will be easier for the sake of standardizing the explanation.

OK. What is a kata? A kata is a concise set of pre-arranged defensive and offensive movements performed in different directions and enacted against imaginary opponents. Many martial arts use kata as the foundation of their entire teaching structure.

The number of movements in a kata can be relatively few or may be many. Some of the smaller training kata for beginners may contain as little as ten movements. However, they can also contain more than one hundred sequential techniques. It all depends on the experience of the practitioner and his or her level of ability. Naturally, the more inexperienced the person, the more simple will be the kata. For example, the first Shotokan karate kata, called Kihon Kata (also known as Taikyoku Shodan), consists of only one stance, one block and one punch - all performed in different directions. The Goju Ryu style of karate has a similar kata called Gekisai Ichi.

At the other end of the scale, in the Shotokan style, are kata such as Unsu and Gojushiho. Unsu is Shotokan’s most senior kata. It contains approximately fifty movements. Gojushiho has two versions, each of approximately seventy movements, depending on the criteria used for counting the actual number of movements.

Goju Ryu’s most difficult katas are Suparimpai (the highest kata in the style) and Kururunfa. In fact, some technical articles which have been written on the development of Goju Ryu have suggested that these two kata were originally one. With Suparimpai running to nearly 110 movements and Kururunfa to almost seventy, it is not difficult to understand why they could have been split into two.

In all the martial arts which use kata as their base, it is not only the number of movements which make a kata difficult, it is the complexity of movements as well. There are also subtle nuances such as timing, alternating speeds, tension and relaxation, angles of execution and varying difficulties of stance to name a few.

Most kata have rather exotic translations, many of which are obscure even to experienced martial artists. Of those mentioned above, “Taikyoku Shodan” means “First Cause”, “Gojushihosho” means “The First Fifty Four Steps”, “Unsu” means “Cloud Hands”, “Gekisai Ichi” means “Break, Hit and Destroy”, “Suparimpai” means “The Final 108 Steps” and “Kururunfa” means “ Holding Your Ground.”

Some other names of kata which I find personally rather enchanting are: Sanchin ( The Three Battles of Mind, Spirit and Body), Rohai (Vision of a White Heron), Empi (Flight of the Swallow), Matsukaze (The King’s Crown), Gankaku (Crane Standing on a Rock), Sochin (The Grand Prize) and Annanko (The Light Shining From the South).

There are approximately fifty well-known karate kata currently being practiced today. Some are common between styles but some are unique to an individual style only. There are also differing methods of performing a kata of the same name between different styles. Some very rare and lesser known kata are also practiced. Then, of course, there are kata which certain modern day individuals have made up as personal kata. Many traditionalists do not favour this. However, some styles demand the construction of a kata before an individual is allowed to pass a particular rank. These are the “freestyle” clubs who borrow techniques and ideas from everywhere and anywhere.

All of the kata that I have mentioned above are long standing traditional kata which have been handed down from master to student through the ages. They have stood the test of time, some through mere decades, others through centuries.

Before the excellent recording methods that we have available today such as computers, videos and books, each individual kata could only be replicated by memory and rough drawings. This is the reason why so many discrepancies exist. As each giver of information passed it on to his next disciple, subtle variations were made either through poor instruction, misunderstanding or deliberate alteration either by the master or the student. Perhaps the master perceived that the student was not ready for the full techniques of the kata. Perhaps the student believed that he had found a better method of performing certain techniques. Who knows?

It is suffice to say that for whatever reason or reasons, most kata are not performed exactly the same between the different styles of karate. For example, Shotokan, Yoseikan and Shito Ryu karate all list the five Heian kata in their syllabus. However, all are performed slightly differently.

If these ancient kata were being devised today there would be no reason for any discrepancies to occur accidentally. Today we have thousands of instructional video tapes depicting exactly the method used in each of the kata that are used in all the various styles.

For further information on karate kata please proceed to Part Two...

Gary Simpson is a 7th Dan karate master who teaches self defense, motivation, self help and wealth building to students around the world through home study courses. You may reprint this article as you include this author credit and an active link to his web site.

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