Friday, August 26, 2005

Yes, too many kata, but...

This is something I've been thinking about for a while. This post was prompted by a conversation I have been having with someone via pm from

We all recognize that we tend to learn a whole lot of kata, much more than the "old masters" did. At the same time, I can't help but feel a logical disconnect by the statement that the "old masters" really only knew very few kata.

I will use an example, Bushi Matsumura. Yes, perhaps I am padding my case by adding the genius founder of Shorin Ryu karate, but I can't feel that he is the only one to have learned so many kata.

1. He is known to have taught many kata.

2. On empty hand alone, he taught Seisan, Chinto, Kusanku, Passai, Gojushiho, Naihanchi shodan, Naihanchi Nidan, the various Channan kata (which Itosu modified into Pinan kata), male and female Hakutsuru, and Chinshu. That's at least 12 kata. This doesn't include kata he either did not teach (ones he made or learned in China or from local te traditions) or did not gain mass popularity. Nor does it include variations of those kata he himself knew or taught to his students or the various drills and exercises not included as "formal kata". That is still a sizeable number.

3. As far as weapons go, it is more difficult to ascertain which weapons kata he knew. It is known that he personally devised at least a sai, bo, and eku kata which bear his name. This implies he knew at least one kata for each of these weapons from other sources. A student of Sakugawa (or lineage, as there is debate over that), he had to have known at least Sakugawa no Kun. As a royal bodyguard he was skilled in the jo, the fan, and as many sources point to, Jigen Ryu swordsmanship. This means at the barest minimum, he knew 9 weapons kata. Because the bo, sai and sword are recognized as entire systems in and of themselves, I strongly believe he knew multiple kata for each of these, which pushes the number 9 to a much higher amount. In addition, the use of nunchaku was also known among Bushi of the period (albeit in a different form than we see common nowadays). But if we accept the number 9, which I think logic strongly argues against, we still have a sizeable amount of kata.

4. So we have by the strictest definitions of logic, Bushi Matsumura knew 21 kata, although common sense leads to the hypothesis he knew far, far more.

5. Yes, some styles like Uechi Ryu started with a very small number (3). Most of these are "younger" styles in the sense that while they come from a rich tradition in China, their current form is a relatively new one, hence there is little of the evolutionary build-up of kata. Even now there are 8 official empty hand kata in Uechi Ryu. This isn't to bash Uechi Ryu or styles with a small amount of kata, certainly not. I recognize the existence of those greats such as Motobu Choki who knew a limited number of kata yet were excellent fighters.

6. The establishment of standard curriculum kata is more of a modern concept of karate, as is the style system. Ironically, it was meant to preserve the older ways against encroachment by sport karate or other watering down effects. However, this requires people to learn a specific number of kata and any optional learning (which was freely done in the old days) is frowned upon by some as it takes attention away from the established set.

7. My thoughts are still mixed on this. On one hand, keeping a core set of kata and principles ensures the original framework is there (balanced by the fact that every generation reinterprets the kata to varying degrees with varying degrees of modification). On the other hand, there is a loss of personal modification of the kata which is the reason why we have so many version of the same old kata to begin with. Certainly every good karateka worth his or her salt has their version of the kata and the standard curriculum version. But it is often only the standard curriculum version that is passed down. Therefore an important burden is placed upon each instructor to maintain the difference in instruction and determining the delicate balance between doctrine and innovation. It is helpful to discuss these differences candidly with students who have matured in their martial arts to understand them (I think my current and past instructors have always done a great job in this). In the end, all karate is individual and nothing can change that.

8. In the end it all boils down to principles rather than techniques, anyway. A variety of kata is great for introducing awareness of different techniques which enhance improvisation and adaptibility to a broad range of circumstances. But the most important thing is the principles underlying those techniques so even if you know a lot of kata, you can avoid being bogged down by having too much techniques to study by focusing on the principles instead.

And by the way, if any of you know for certain there are kata Bushi Matsumura knew that I did not include (I didn't feel like doing too much intensive research on this and tried to err on the side of confirmation rather than conjecture), if you would be so kind, please leave me a comment informing me which kata it is. Or if you feel I'm totally off the mark, let me know too (I say as if there are a lot of people that read this).


Anonymous said...

A little late in my commenting, but I just came across this during a search on the subject "too many kata." ;)

In my opinion the only way we can return to the (hypothetical) good ol' days in karate is to abolish the kyu/dan grading system, as my own teacher, Takao Nakaya (a student of Chozo Nakama > Chosin Chibana), and Morio Higaonna have suggested. However, I notice that neither of them has actually done so. ;)

I understand that students expect grades, and without students there is no income, and I mean no disrespect by this. Money is a fact of life for even the best of teachers. (However, again, in the hypothetical good ol' days, very few teachers made their living solely from teaching karate.)

The way it's worked since WWII, there is too much time invested in a certain teacher's system, and the grades associated with it, for most people to truly feel free to explore.

Modern martial arts is the only field I am aware of where you are rewarded for limiting yourself to one teacher. In any other field, it would be ludicrous.

My suggestion: Have white belts, black belts (e.g., after 4 years), and teacher certificates (e.g., after 8 years). That's it. Want to study with a different teacher for a while? Fine.

Chozo Nakama learned Wansu from Chokuto Kyan, and Jion and Gojushiho from Chomo Hanashiro after a couple of years, and to the best of my knowledge, Chibana-sensei didn't punish him for that, evne though it wasn't in the official Pinan-Naifanchi-Kusanku-Passai-Chinto curriculum.

Just my two yen.

Bujutsu Blogger said...

Thanks for your comments.

Just a few things to add from my perspective...

My teacher doesn't use belts or any ranking whatsoever, which he says not only helps his students, but helped him in his teaching. I for one was more than willing to get rid of my rank. I have long railed against the deficiencies of a ranking system and it is so refreshing to be free from any of it, even if I didn't care about my black belt before. Even if you are just "going through the motions" in regards to rank because of your organization, you are still having to go through the motions.

As far as learning from multiple teachers, I'm not too against it, in theory. The thing is, you are citing a student learning from masters in their fields. Nowadays, the pickings are rather slim... I am willing to learn things from many other people, but I have yet to find someone better than my current instructor, and I have seen many instructors. I've found that the best approach for me is to learn "from" others, but not to get too carried away about learning "under" too many teachers. I will write more about this later, but I have very much shifted to the camp of learning fewer kata.

As a little known side note, Chibana Sensei knew and taught Gojushiho, Wansu, and Jion. He just did not have them included as the "core" kata in the curriculum.

Anonymous said...

>My teacher doesn't use belts or any ranking whatsoever, which he says not only helps his students, but helped him in his teaching.

That's fantastic, and encouraging.

>Chibana Sensei knew and taught Gojushiho, Wansu, and Jion. He just did not have them included as the "core" kata in the curriculum.

I didn't know that. Makes sense, though. I read somewhere that Shuguro Nakazato sensei learned Gojushiho from someone other than Chibana, but that may have been inaccurate.

>As far as learning from multiple teachers, I'm not too against it, in theory. The thing is, you are citing a student learning from masters in their fields. Nowadays, the pickings are rather slim...

Yes, I agree. I had the benefit of being introduced to budo in California, where there are several great Japanese teachers (first aikido, then karatedo).

One of the catches I've noticed is that so many karatedo teachers have grown their kata curriculum so far beyond what their core teachers/organizations taught that it's hard to know, as an outsider, which kata they really know well, i.e. they have 30+ karate kata, 15+ kobudo kata, and 20+ kumite forms, so the student spends most of his time just trying to remember all the moves, instead of practicing bunkai with partners, striking makiwara/sandbags, and other important aspects of training.