Karate is kata, kata is karate

Discussion in 'General Martial Arts Talk' started by Bill Mattocks, Sep 17, 2019.

  1. Bill Mattocks

    Bill Mattocks Sr. Grandmaster

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    I am starting this thread because I was asked to defend my assertion that karate and kata are inseparable. I hope that this will at least be informative, even if you don't agree with my thesis.

    I'm not trying to convince or convert anyone, nor do I think anyone else is necessarily wrong. I speak only for myself and my limited understanding of the art I study.

    I'll try to distill it down. It's been done to death but here it is again.

    Karate is kata and kata is karate, in my opinion.

    Why?

    Let's start with karate itself. The very word means 'empty hand'. Yes, I'm aware that it once meant 'China hand,' but we accept that it means empty handed self-defense arts at this time.

    However, I'm used to the term 'karatedo'. The word karate is simply shorthand for karatedo. Do is a word in Japanese that refers to a 'way' as in a way of life. Not simply a style, or school, like a ryu.

    In Japan, many things are do. Calligraphy, flower arranging, tea making, and so on. Karate is one among many kinds of do.

    Not everyone who studies karate thinks of it that way. I get it. Like many things, it can be what people want and need it to be. You don't how to know how internal combustion engines work to drive a car. But some people do know how they work, and some care how they work, and that's no more wrong than people who just want to start it up and drive to work.

    So consider me a student who studies karatedo, and considers it a way, a lifestyle, a way of life, a lifelong pursuit.

    To me, kata encodes karate. Everything that my particular style is, is found in the kata. All kihon, all bunkai, everything necessary to know, is found within the framework of the kata itself.

    Most who study any traditional form of karate are familiar with the notion of application, also known as bunkai. It's the 'why' of kata. Often very obvious. Why am I doing an upper body block? Someone is punching me in the head, that's why. And if all I cared about what self-defense, that would be plenty. There's a lot to learn, as most know, about body mechanics and how to correctly perform that block such that the incoming power is absorbed and redistributed and channeled and so on. How one can avoid having one's block collapse under the power of the incoming strike. Yes, that's all in the kata, and it's important and good.

    But there is so much more. And many know this already. Advanced bunkai shows that a block isn't always a block, but could be a strike. That a move in a kata might serve a myriad of purposes. Some more difficult to implement than others. Some we try and try and struggle with, trying to make them work. Sometimes we just can't quite absorb it, sometimes our instructors can't quite demonstrate it, and so on. So there are limits; to ourselves, in our training, etc.

    To me, though, kata goes well beyond even that. It's a moving, living, study of self-defense applications, but it also includes breathing, balance, stance, and power training. Transitions. Speed. Where and when to look. What to notice.

    Kata gives one space and permission to experiment, to develop applications, which may seem 'new' to the karateka, but are usually not new at all; just newly rediscovered. This is where people start talking about 'secret' methods and 'hidden' training and all that malarkey. It's not hidden, it's just not visible to the karateka who is not sufficiently experienced enough to see them, or to the student who simply does not care to explore what it has to offer.

    Of course one can take the basic bunkai of any kata or form and teach just that application, divorced from the kata. It works, it's legitimate training. But it leaves so much behind. As I've said before, if self-defense is the goal (and many argue that self-defense is all martial arts is or should be), one can become proficient in the basic moves that will serve them well in that area fairly quickly. And as I've also said, there's nothing wrong with that, if that's what one wants.

    I can fight, sure. I can defend myself, or at least I fancy that I can. But I quite honestly don't care about any of that any more. I practice kata because it talks to me. It relaxes me. It enlightens me. I find new things in it constantly, none of them new or undiscovered of course, but new to me, and I deeply enjoy the exploration.

    People come into the dojo from time to time and say they don't want belts or to wear a gi or to bow to anyone, they just want to learn to fight. Cool. There's a boxing gym in town, from that I hear, the instructor's top-notch. And I'm sure it's great training for fighting. Go there, do that. I'm not trying to put anyone down - boxing is great. So are the myriad of other styles. Find the one that works for you, that gives you what you need. Do it and feel great about it. All good.

    But my karate is karatedo. It's a way of life. Kata is living, breathing, neverending exploration of a universe of language, all framed in the way of informed violence, but at the same time, not about violence at all. Do you think people spend a lifetime arranging flowers or printing characters because they wanted to accomplish something obvious and simple? I can order a bouquet from FTD if that's what I want. I can print fancy characters with a computer and laser printer, right? Clearly, it's about more than that.

    "Well, I can't understand why anyone would want to, I don't see the point." Right. I get it. I don't see it either, or I guess I'd be arranging flowers or drawing characters on rice paper with a brush. But they get it, clearly. Don't think it valueless because you don't see the value yourself, is what I'm trying to say.

    I hear criticism of various types of kata, or moves within kata, all the time. Often from people with some training, usually from those who moved on and didn't spend much time with it. "Oh, that's an unrealistic move, you can't make that work. You'd never do a low block like that. It's not practical." And so on. Well, I get that. If I hadn't spent the last decade plus working on my kata, I might think the same thing. I can state that in my opinion, such statements are uninformed and nonsensical, but you can't argue someone out of their opinions if they haven't put in the work it takes to actually 'get it'. And trust me, there's an awful lot I don't know, and mysteries which I have not solved. I have a lifetime to keep picking at it; I might eventually get a little better.

    I also run into experienced karateka who are skilled at their art and highly regarded in their community, and they practice kata I have difficulty understanding. When I ask them what a given move is for, they don't know. They do it because they were taught to do it. They do it well, I guess. Smooth and clean and with power, but what's it for? If they can't tell me because I don't understand their application, maybe it's me. But if they can't tell me because they just don't know, I wonder what it is they think they're doing practicing it.

    Kata is alive. It's packed full of information and it's ready to teach those who are willing to learn the language it speaks.

    That, to me, is the hear and soul of karate. The essence. Do kata. Think deeply and consciously about it. Examine yourself and try to learn the language it speaks.
     
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  2. skribs

    skribs Senior Master

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    To be clear - I wasn't asking you to defend it. I just wanted you to explain it. I wanted you to give more than 3 words, to explain what it meant, so that I could understand what it is you were trying to tell me.

    I wasn't telling you that you were wrong. I wasn't asking you to prove it. I wasn't asking you to write a dissertation on it. I was asking for a sentence or two, something more than three words, so that I would know what you were even talking about.

    Maybe this scene can explain it better:
     
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  3. Bill Mattocks

    Bill Mattocks Sr. Grandmaster

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    So did I explain it sufficiently?
     
  4. skribs

    skribs Senior Master

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    I'm gonna start off by saying I train TKD, which borrows a lot of the techniques from Karate kata, but gets them out of order and isn't always quite the same.

    I hear this not so much about the kata in TKD, but more about 1-punch drills and self defense skills. Same thing for Hapkido. People bash techniques for not working (because they don't know how to make them work), bash videos for not using resistance (when resistance isn't necessary for the demonstration), or who have oddly specific criteria of what determines if a technique is battle-tested or not.

    I really struggled with this in Taekwondo. As I said above, a lot of our poomsae are just rearranged kata, especially in the more traditional poomsae. A lot of the techniques are obfuscated by:
    • Changing of the kata to be more kid-friendly
    • Loss of translation from the kata to the poomsae
    • Techniques done for aesthetics over application
    I used to really struggle with how certain techniques apply, and there are a lot of moves that I may use similar in a real fight, but wouldn't do the way they're done in the poomsae. I've done a ton of threads on these in the TKD section and a few in the Karate section, and come to the conclusion that the way they're done in the poomsae isn't practical. However, I've found some applications that are kind of close. I still struggle with whether this is valuable or not. One way I look at it is if you want to teach someone red and blue, you can teach both red and blue, or you can teach only purple. Purple may not mean anything in the context, but it kind of teaches the moves.

    Our practical application training, and our TKD sparring training, both do things different than the poomsae. Application training has more circular footwork, and a lot of yin-yang motions you don't see in the poomsae. Sparring uses so many kicks that aren't in the poomsae, either. I understand that TKD is different than Karate in a lot of ways, to include the way our forms are arranged and trained, as well as the sparring rules we follow, so my experience is probably different from yours.

    I work backwards, too. A lot of the moves in our application, I try and find a spot in our poomsae where it fits, and it just doesn't. We don't train bunkai, and I don't think it's common to in TKD, especially KKW schools. If you took our curriculum and only used one of the three parts (poomsae, sparring, self defense), I honestly don't think much would be lost in any of them. If I took 4 students, and trained one of them only poomsae for 2 classes/week, one only application for 2 classes/week, and one only sparring for 2 classes/week, and then the 4th guy I gave 6 classes/week (2 in each), then the 4th guy would be roughly as competent in each discipline as the other 3, because I don't personally see a lot of crossover in the skillsets.

    Now, I don't hate the poomsae. I've found it's what I'm best at out of the three, and I've seen other benefits than the direct fighting application. But it can be very hard to find it sometimes, especially the more complicated the poomsae gets.

    This is what I was asking for in the other thread. Something that makes sense to someone outside of your head, what it is you are talking about.
     
  5. skribs

    skribs Senior Master

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    Technically yes. But there are options between buzz-word and book to explain what you mean. I don't get why you couldn't have just said this in the other thread:
    "To me, kata encodes karate. Everything that my particular style is, is found in the kata. All kihon, all bunkai, everything necessary to know, is found within the framework of the kata itself."
     
  6. Bill Mattocks

    Bill Mattocks Sr. Grandmaster

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    "Can you explain?"

    "No, that's too much."
     
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  7. dvcochran

    dvcochran Senior Master

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    I think Bill went out of his way to give you a very elegant, accurate answer. It is not something that can, nor should be watered down into a one sentence answer.
    I felt there are things missing in your summation of poomsae. You are high enough in rank to be seeking out the "why" and not just the "how" in forms.
    The simplest and more modern answer is The Karate Kid. He was doing movements that he did not understand until he was shown "why". While the application is not always direct, there is purpose in every poomsae, sometimes in the aggregate of combined movements.
    Don't let impatience prevent you from fleshing this out.
     
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  8. skribs

    skribs Senior Master

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    Pretty much.

    I asked for an explanation, you told me "no". You made it seem like it wasn't worth your time. You actually spent more time arguing with me about whether or not it was worth explaining, than it would have taken to write that sentence. You also spent just as much time being a Debbie Downer about how people will just argue with you and disagree with you.

    Then you posted this. Which was significantly longer, and a lot more in-depth than what I was asking for. It was a good read and I appreciated it. But I'm merely pointing out that it's not what I was asking for. If your goal was to answer my question, you did a lot of work that you didn't have to do. I'm letting you know that next time someone says "can you explain what you mean", you don't need to argue with them for a page and then give a dissertation in another thread. You can simply answer the question.

    You apparently don't understand why I was saying that. It wasn't that I disliked the amount of information. It's that in the other thread, he was making it seem like one sentence was too difficult for him to answer. If his response in the other thread was "I don't think I can give a satisfactory answer here, why don't I open up another thread?" I'd have left it alone. But since his response was to snark at me for not knowing what he meant by "Karate is Kata" (or vice versa), I was trying to point out he could have accomplished this goal a lot easier. I don't want him to feel like I made him write all this, when all I wanted was to know what he meant by that quote.

    As to your response to what I've said about poomsae, are you kidding me? I've spent the last several years searching for those answers every way I can. I've been asking questions everywhere martial arts are discussed, I've been reading articles and watching videos to find what I can. I keep coming to the same conclusion. The techniques are altered for aesthetic reasons, and the direct application of the exact movements used in the poomsae are not combat-ready moves.

    You bring up Daniel in The Karate Kid. What did he do when Mr. Miyagi taught him the application by saying "sand the floor"? He got down and tried to do the exact motion, but he was wrong. He had to stand up and do the technique. This happened with the first couple of moves. He did exactly what he was taught first, and it wasn't correct. He then was taught the application, which had a variance from the chore in order to be applicable to a real fight. Sand the floor was done standing up; paint the house was done staccato instead of smooth. It's the same thing with the Taekwondo poomsae. Techniques aren't combined together (at least not strung together like boxing), kicks are virtually non-existent (outside of front kicks and rear-leg side kicks), and a lot of the 2-hand moves will be done much different in an actual situation.

    I feel that the more you have to stretch a technique from the form into a real application, the less integrity the form has. Just like the more hoops you have to jump through for a joke to work, the less funny a joke is, or the more you have to explain how an analogy works, the worse the analogy is. If I do a straight punch in a form and tell you the application is to do a spinning kick, you'd think it was ludicrous. Everyone is going to have a line in the sand where you can say one technique translates into another. I have a very high bar for that line in the sand. I feel that high bar exists because of my rank and experience, where I see the details separating one technique from another as useful and pertinent information.

    And, even as I seek these answers out, it's not part of the TKD curriculum. Bunkai is not commonly practiced, and if I do so it's an elective on my own, and not part of the structure of the curriculum. I don't feel TKD does a good job of translating the forms to application. I say this because the videos I've seen of Karate bunkai and Taekwondo application are night-and-day. There's a reason I made some of my posts on the Karate forum instead of the TKD forum. People talk about what arts excel at or lack at, Karate excels at Bunkai, and Taekwondo lacks at it.
     
  9. dvcochran

    dvcochran Senior Master

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    You are answering the question you are searching for. Much of modern, Kukki TKD is very flawed. If this is the type of TKD Dojang you are at you will always be missing part of the equation. You can ask question and search the web until you are blue in the face and will never find the answers. There is much more depth to TKD than what you find at most Kukki schools, most TKD schools in general. Too many have prostituted themselves out to the sport.
    This is said by a person who has been in TKD for 37 plus years and whole-heartedly pursued the Olympic dream.
    We are, and are not a Kukki school. We are because we teach the Taeguek and Yudanja Poomsae. We spar by Olympic rule set. We are not because we teach Bunkai (Boonhae), self defense, ground work, 3 other form sets, punches and bag work much like boxers, and we get a depth of philosophy and history that has to be experienced.

    I get the sense that you have been chasing rank and missing out on the best part(s) of MA.
     
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  10. skribs

    skribs Senior Master

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    My school is similar to yours. We have KKW ranks and teach the Yudanja poomsae (and recently the Taegeuk) and do WT sparring. But we also teach more traditional forms and different techniques.

    My problem is finding the direct application of the poomsae. I have no problem finding the direct application in the other 75% of our training.
     
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  11. KenpoMaster805

    KenpoMaster805 Purple Belt

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    Well kata is part of karate 1st you learn the basic then the technique then the forms kata is an exercise that we used in a imaginary opponent if you do kata with an opponent its called bunkai to tradition karate
     
  12. Mitlov

    Mitlov Blue Belt

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    I respect people for whom kata is the primary purpose of karate training. Karate can be different things to different people, and that is absolutely one legitimate approach to the practice. And it sounds like the original poster finds this approach rewarding and of great value in his life. More power to him, and he should never feel the need to apologize for that.

    Where I disagree is the implication that this is the only true meaning of karate, or that people who approach karate differently are missing the point. I've trained at one dojo which at the end of the day was all about kata in the sort of way you describe, and ultimately it wasn't the approach to karate I personally found most fulfilling.

    The idea that all of karate is contained within its kata is one approach to karate, but certainly not true of all forms of karate. Sport karate and knockdown karate spring to mind first and foremost, where kumite is the predominant focus of the kihon-kata-kumite trinity. Kata is a part of the training, but not the overarching umbrella that everything else is based off of, and not considered an encyclopedia of everything that's part of the style. This is a different approach to karate. Not right or wrong, just different. Personally, I prefer the kumite-centric approach over the kata-centric approach; but I also do not believe that my way is the only way. There's room for both Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do in the same town, right? ;)

    Take running. Some people sprint, some people run marathons, some people run on trails, some people run on tracks. There's no one "true" approach to the hobby/passion of running. It can be different things for different people while still falling under the umbrella of "running."
     
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  13. skribs

    skribs Senior Master

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    Can you clarify for me, what kihon and kumite are? I'm assuming this is techniques and sparring, but we all know what happens when we make assumptions.
     
  14. Mitlov

    Mitlov Blue Belt

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    Oops, sorry.

    Kata = forms
    Kihon = basic strikes, blocks, and stances
    Kumite = sparring
     
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  15. isshinryuronin

    isshinryuronin Green Belt

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    Kata is karate - true. Karate is kata - true now, but not 200 years ago. The original combat techniques of what is now known as karate predate kata. So, in the past, karate existed without kata. These combat techniques were developed by military men in China and Okinawa. As such, life or death depended on their efficacy. A goodly number of the Okinawan masters were bodyguards to the royalty, contracted security personnel or police. Karate was not just an art for them - it was a professional survival skill. Katas were devised to help remember and practice these highly effective, often crippling or deadly techniques.

    When the katas were watered down for the public schools and mass consumption, they were disconnected from original karate for 99% of the practitioners (The 1% being Okinawan personal students of the masters). Many moves in kata lost their relevance to fighting and kata simply became a way to practice basic moves, form and balance, etc.

    Through recent rediscovery of karate's roots and reinterpretation of the katas in line with the original (more lethal, pure combat) intent of the techniques, kihon, kumite and kata are now getting back into alignment with each other: Kata = karate, karate = kata can now be proudly accepted by those who are "woke" (never thought I'd use that stupid word) to the oyo and "learn the language" as Mr. Mattocks asserted in the opening thread.
     
  16. _Simon_

    _Simon_ Master of Arts

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    Enjoyed your post very much @Bill Mattocks, I'm also very fond of kata, and appreciate that you mention it develops things other than just surface level self defense sequences (like balance, coordination, transitions etc).

    I too, love practicing it for the pure joy of discovery and for meditative reasons too.

    I feel like doing kata now.....
     
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  17. gpseymour

    gpseymour MT Moderator Staff Member

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    That all makes great sense, Bill. Here's my question: cannot all of that be true of a Karate system that doesn't use kata? Can't they have exactly the same range of technique, breathing, balance, exploration, and learning? Can't they have the same lifestyle approach to the art?

    I've come to like kata over the last few years (never had much opinion on it in the past), so I'm not suggesting it is a bad thing. I think it works quite well for a lot of people. I just don't think it defines what is and is not Karate. The result, to me, is what defines that.

    Now, some of that depends on how we define terms, and that might be all the difference you and I have on this issue. I'll take it away from Karate to avoid any personal ties to an approach. If someone told me they taught Judo with wrestling takedowns that aren't allowed in the sport (and, thus, aren't part of the formal Judo curriculum), I'd still consider it all Judo. If someone taught Tae Kwon Do using the original Shotokan kata, either of the more recent TKD kata sets, or no kata at all, I'd still consider it TKD. But if we defined "Judo" as "the formal set of techniques from the Kodokan, plus their applications and defenses", then the first person is teaching Judo and some other stuff. If we defined TKD as "the Korean art derived largely from Karate and taught using kata", then when the kata are removed it's no longer TKD. So it may be just semantics.
     
  18. Dirty Dog

    Dirty Dog MT Senior Moderator Staff Member

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    You'd be better off to call it Tang Soo Do, since that's what it would be...
     
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  19. gpseymour

    gpseymour MT Moderator Staff Member

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    So, would that be the defining difference between TSD and TKD? I've never known what it was (though I did get a chance to sit in at a friends' TSD dojo a few times back in the 90's).
     
  20. skribs

    skribs Senior Master

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    To me, it would seem disingenuous for someone who has never trained TSD, but has trained TKD and Karate, to call themselves TSD. I mean, I've taken 3 years each of wrestling and hapkido, should I open my own BJJ school?
     

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