Blind Tradition – How Kata is Detrimental to Martial Arts

Bruce Lee, back in the 1960s criticized what the called the classical mess of the martial arts. One of his strongest criticisms was against the practice of prearranged forms. To Lee, people who were practicing prearranged forms were following a blind tradition. Little did he realize that what he was actually denouncing was, in reality, only the children’s form of Karate and not the actual way the martial arts, particularly those of Okinawa, were intended to be taught.
The old Okinawan masters, basically speaking, agreed with Bruce Lee, in that they did not use prearranged forms in the practice of their martial arts. Prearranged Kata seems to have developed only during the early part of the twentieth century, in spite of the fact that some people date certain Kata much earlier.
Prearranged Kata were developed by Yasutsune Itosu as a method of teaching school children sometime in the early 1900s. Since Itosu was the master who introduced Karate to public education, he saw that combat Karate training was too dangerous and severe for teaching children. In many ways it was also too complicated and complex for children to learn.
Thus Itosu took the free style method of practice and created prearranged forms from them, making it easier to teach and grade the children. All a child had to do was memorize the form, and if the child could perform it, s/he was considered successful in his/her training. The Kata were good physical exercises, working all the muscles and range of joint movements, making it an excellent form of physical cultivation. However, the most important aspect, of the prearranged Kata, was that without a proper knowledge of Bunkai and Oyo, analyzation and application, the children did not really understand what they were doing, thus keeping them from being a danger to others.
Basically, children need only a knowledge of basic punches and kicks, along with a few grappling skills, which they would have gained from the Tegumi (a children’s form of Okinawan wrestling), for typical children’s self defense. The idea, was if the children grew up with an interest in Karate, they could go to an actual Dojo (school), and learn the real art, until then they were relatively safe and harmless. Yet due to Japanese influence and the leading exponent to pass Karate to the main island being Gichin Funakoshi, a school teacher who was taught academic Karate as opposed to combat Karate, this idea ended up backfiring on the Okinawans, so that ‘real’ Karate almost disappeared from the martial arts scene.
What happened, is that Gichin Funakoshi, who was asked to perform Karate for the Japanese on various occasions, gave a demonstration of academic Karate, in order to impress the officials with the educational value of the art. He showed a type of training that could be accepted in any academic setting, including college. As the Japanese martial arts organizations came to take the Okinawan art seriously, they demanded a teaching syllabus and curriculum, which was to exhibit what was accepted as the method of ‘traditional’ martial arts training. Thus under the influence of these organizations and with an emphasis of those Karate teachers trained by Yasutsune Itosu; including Gichin Funakoshi, Kenwa Mabuni, and Choki Motobu; the first Karate syllabus included the prearranged Kata developed for teaching children.
Kata truly is, and always has been, the heart of the Okinawan martial arts of Karate, Kempo, and Kobujutsu. But it must be realized that the original Kata were combat oriented and could not be restricted or limited. For Kata to teach skills which would actually work in confrontations, they needed to be spontaneous and free flowing. A static, unchanging form could not possibly teach the proficiency necessary for self defense.
Prearranged Kata tend to have very few kicks, with these being generally low, because they were designed for children and beginners. In the original free style Kata a person kicks at whatever level they are comfortable, including head high. It has been said by some that Okinawans were not good kickers and that Okinawan Karate never kicks above the waist. Yet history tells us that there were a lot of good kickers in the Okinawan martial arts, who had a full range of kicks, including head high and flying kicks. Three of the greatest kickers of Okinawa’s past are Chotoku Kyan, Zenryo Shimabuku, and Bushi Takemura. Many of the styles, which includes a large number, that teach a Hakutsuru (white crane) Kata, generally teach a full range of kicks.
There are those who try to date some Kata into the ancient past, but the use of an old master’s name for a form did not mean that the person taught a prearranged Kata, but was actually a way of honoring that master, and preserving some of the techniques taught by him, reputed to have been taught by him, or simply giving validity to those forms.. There are other Kata named after famous areas of the Ryukyu Islands, where great masters were suppose to have lived and taught, but it is unlikely that these forms date further back than Itosu, instead if there were techniques which were presumed to have originated or been well practiced in such an area, forms were created from these techniques and then named after those areas.
Some of the Kata were named after fighting principles. These include Naihanchi, Sanchin, and Passai. Naihanchi taught a person how to fight sideways, like standing ‘inside a rice paddy ridge’. Sanchin was a form that taught one how to unite the three aspect of man, physical, mental, and spiritual, hence ‘three battles’. Passai refers to the principle of ‘smashing a fortress’, with the term ‘fortress’ being used in reference to defeating a person by attacking their vital points.
These forms were originally taught free style, which explains why there are so many variations of the Kata. There are at least fifteen versions of Naihanchi and thirty of Passai. It seemed that students who were among those in the transition stage, and under the influence of Itosu and the Japanese martial arts organization, tried to make prearranged versions of the free style Kata that their master’s had taught. One example of this is the Hakutsuru Kata taught by Gokenki, a Chinese martial artist who shared his Kempo with the Okinawans. It is reported that day after day, he would perform his Hakutsuru Kata, differently each time. Each of the students, who trained with Gokenki at the Kenkyu Kai, remembered a different form. It is obvious to anyone who has trained in actual ancient Okinawan Kata, that Gokenki was teaching, Mukei, formlessness. The idea is that you learn certain techniques and principles for the type of Kata you are doing and then move spontaneously with visualization. The fact that Gokenki taught in this manner shows that originally Chinese martial arts too were taught in a free style manner.
However, since the students at the Kenkyu Kai were either students of Itosu, or influenced by him, to use the prearranged Kata in training and teaching, they did not see or understand what Gokenki was doing. Thus you can find many different versions of Gokenki’s Hakutsuru Kata.
One of the students of Chojun Miyagi, tells the story of how when being taught Sanchin, Miyagi originally had his students march up and down the Dojo floor without having a set pattern to the form. Sometimes the students would turn at the end of the floor and come back down, at other times they would simply go backwards down the floor. This shows that until Miyagi talked with Itosu and was advised by him to formulate prearranged Kata for teaching his style, the great master used free style, original Okinawan training.
Lately there has been a lot of talk about the preservation of Okinawan Kobujutsu in the modern form of Kobudo which primarily uses the prearranged Kata as the standard method of training. Yet one Okinawan master, who prefers not to be named, says that originally all Okinawan Kobujutsu training was based on free style Kata. It was Shinken Taira, a student of Kentsu Yabu who learned the prearranged Kata method from Itosu, who decided to preserve the weapon art that was becoming lost as the Okinawan martial arts were transferred to Japan.
At first he would teach weapons at the different styles’ Dojo. When in a Goju Ryu school, in the early days, he would take a Goju Ryu Kata and perform it with weapons. Then if he was at a Shorin Ryu school, he would teach the same weapon using a Shorin Ryu Kata. In the past, many weapons had been used singly, this was especially true of the Sai, Tonfa, Tanbo, and Kama. But since most Karate Kata were based on two handed symmetry, using two weapons was better for practicing the forms.
Eventually Shinken Taira began to make his own forms, which many times changed from day to day, with sometimes him doing free style Kata which were mistaken for prearranged sets. He gave the prearranged forms he created names of important people and places to honor those important to the martial arts development of the Ryukyu Islands. Shinken Taira then taught these forms to students of Goju Ryu, Shito Ryu, Shorin Ryu, and others. People then mistakenly thought that whatever name was used with the form, indicated the actual originator of the Kata, yet the forms were actually created by Taira. Since that time, others have created Kata, which have once again mistakenly been thought to have ancient origins.
The best proof of the use of the prearranged Kata method, actually beginning with Itosu, is the fact that while Sokon Matsumura allegedly created Naihanchi (which was probably the main free style principle he taught) and passed it on to Yasutsune Itosu, it must be remember that Matsumura was a Bushi (warrior) practicing the Bushite, royal martial art, that according to all sources, is formless.
Looking at Karate genealogies we see that Choyu Motobu trained under Sokon Matsumura, this was a normal Okinawan practice, where parents would teach a child the family martial art, and then send them to another master for discipline and advanced training. Choyu Motobu learned Gotente from his parents, then was further instructed by Matsumura, most assuredly in advanced Bushite. Choki Motobu, Choyu’s younger brother, learned Karate from Yasutsune Itosu. Choyu Motobu did not teach prearranged Kata, not even Naihanchi, yet Choki Motobu for many years only practiced Naihanchi which he had learned as a prearranged set from Itosu. This would seem to indicate that Itosu was the actual creator of the prearranged form of Naihanchi and give even greater credence to the idea that he was the actual originator of the concept for teaching Karate through the prearranged Kata.
While prearranged Kata were originally created for teaching children in a safe and organized manner, it has become the main method of transmitting Karate styles from one generation to the next. It is hoped that this article will end some of the feuding over which Kata is oldest and which was created by which old master, for in truth the prearranged Kata go back no further than Yasutsune Itosu. It is also hoped that interest in the truly ancient form of Okinawan Kata training will be increased, so that people will seek out practitioners of the ancient styles, particularly Motobu Ryu, the preserved style of Choyu Motobu, and the only extant Bushite in modern times, to learn true Okinawan combat Kata, which are free style.
All training is valuable. While the prearranged Kata are modern methods for developing Karate skills, it should be remembered, that both the method and the art are twentieth century innovations. They are excellent in achieving their goals of physical fitness, mental cultivation, and developing primary skills. But for those interested in the ancient combat art, that develops and maintains the highest level of defensive capability, they should seek out the other side of Okinawan martial arts, and learn from a knowledgeable instructor the proper methods of free style form, Jiyu Kata.

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