The Right and Right of Kata

Third Dan Research Project

By Gary Meades

The Right and Right of Kata

“The only thing that is constant, is change.”

I first heard this at a SKA seminar, not that long ago, from Sensai John Van Weenan; probably not a new saying but very true.
Karate techniques should be challenged and altered due to development of new ideas, situations and techniques. When karate first came to the Japanese mainland, there was one style, Shotokan: there are now many.

How different are each of these? A little change here a little change there, higher stances lower stances? If we were all robots, it would be easy: just follow. Of course, we are not so we question these techniques, and the tall among us adjust to suit and the short among us do the same. This is natural selection and we must agree that this is why we are here.

Nowadays, as we progress, especially to the Dan levels, we tend to be older and more mobile than they were many years ago in rural Japan. This exposes us to more Sensais- we all know what more Sensais mean; different views, ideas, interpretations, and bunkai to kata.

A good thing? A bad thing? Can be a confusing and frustrating thing! Who is wrong? Is there a right and a wrong? Or is there just different?

We start by choosing a style of karate. When we say karate, the generally accepted umbrella that that covers this, refers to Funakoshi’s introduction of his school of karate, Shotokan, to mainland Japan in 1922.

I say school as coming from an exclusive Shotokan background, this is all I have ever trained in. However, his school was a blend of styles taught to him by his two main instructors; Azato and Itotsu. These masters were great friends but practised very different styles. Azato had a more flowing, dynamic style, whereas Itotsu had a more forceful, muscular, power-based style. As we discover in the Tekki katas and Hangetsu kata.

In Funakoshi’s own words, ‘one is not better than the other, but may be better suited to different physical states. Obviously, longer-limbed, leaner and faster-types would be far better suited to Azato’s school, whereas stockier, less-flexible types would probably suit Itotsu’s style more readily.

From this, we tend to recognise older styles of Okinawan karate such as Goju-ryu for the stockier build and Shuto-ryu for the more agile physiques. Of course, this is a generalisation, Funakoshi himself was a rather demure figure and was very slight so would have probably favoured Azato’s style; the faster and nimbler. Although, he also very much trained in, and blended into Shotokan, the style of Itosu, the more power-based style.

So, in 1979, at the age of 15 I began my karate journey. I had looked at Judo and Kung-Fu, one only grappling and throwing, the other no real system, no way of knowing where you are as opposed, to the belt system in karate.

First classes, basics, Kihon of course, the building blocks. In the book, ‘Moving Zen’ it is said ‘you will sit up before you stand, stand before you walk and walk before you run’. Once again, probably not the first time it has been said, but very true.

Once a proficiency in basics was achieved, we were introduced to the first kata, Taikokyu. The first time I ever heard it called that, was when I first trained with the SKA. I had always known this kata to be called Kihon kata, basic kata. So this first kata with twenty moves but only two techniques, gedan barai and oi zuki. So, not too much to play with, or is there?

The opening technique, gedan barai, in Funakoshi’s words ‘there is no first attack in karate’. So we take that to mean that all the opening moves in kata are defensive for example, a block or parry. However, each of the other gedan barais in the kata can be interpreted as a block, a strike, a break or in the case of the two after the kiai punch, even 270 degree throw!

Also, blocks tend to be formed moving backwards or to the side as we all know, this opening block is performed with a forward step which is generally accepted as an offensive move. So, with the first and most basic kata of our system, it can be interpreted in many ways, not just the usual blocking a mae-geri and countering with an oi zuki but at least the two techniques cannot be altered, a gedan barai is very well known and performed in the same manner by everyone, as is the oi zuki.

So, to Heian Shodan, pretty much the same as Taikokyu but with some added techniques, all pretty basic. Age-ukes substituted for punches and the introduction of shuto-uke at the end. But the third move, the gedan barai after which we pull back into L-stance with a teisho-uchi, some sensais insist on a prep move of opening the right fist and pushing forward before drawing back and striking. This has obviously come about from somewhere, perhaps some bunkai application, but looking at the generally accepted top Shotokan practitioners on YouTube, I have never seen it. Then to the age-ukes, or should I say the age-uchis? The last of the three has a kiai, which is usually accepted as being a kime waza or deciding technique which would lead to a victory, but surely not on a block? So is that last rising block in fact a strike, an uchi? Or even possibly a throw?

When we teach these katas to lower grades, it is much easier to say they are all blocks, as to the on-looker they are all the same. It is only later, questioning the applications, that these questions arise.

Now to the shuto-ukes as they are usually described but they are often explained as operating in pairs as the timing of the kata would suggest; the first as a block and capture of the arm usually defending a punch. The second as a strike to the neck, very plausible.

So far so good, but we have only gone through two of the twenty eight or so of the katas in the Shotokan style! And being the first two they are the simplest.

Now things get more complicated: Heian Nidan, peaceful mind second level. First move, unlike anything so far, often described as a flinch reaction move, basically you are being attacked with a Jodan technique, and being of a Skotokan background, we usually take this to be a mawashi-geri or a tsuki. In a real life situation, it would probably be a mawashi-zuki or an old-fashioned haymaker! Someone swinging a fist towards your head, natural reaction, for example, flinch response, is to stop the head from being struck, hence both arms being raised in a defensive move.

Then to the next move, the arms swap position, more or less. I have heard this explained as punching someone in the throat who is in front of you while simultaneously punching someone else in the face over your shoulder, as they have grabbed you from behind.

Then to the third part of the opening move which is often described as a hammer fist or fore-arm strike to the opponent to the front, and a tudan empi-uchi to the rear. It all works when you position two opponents and tell them what techniques to use and whilst doing this, often small adjustments to the timing and actual technique are implemented to make it fit.

Not a great problem so far as we all tend to say to students when teaching kata that it is stylised to look neat and tidy so everyone is taught them and performs them in the same way. However, when we search for bunkai to kata, especially in the modern era of the internet and YouTube, the so often one or two applications that a single sensai may apply to the kata, is eclipsed by a large number of different instructors, all offering their own interpretations of the same sequences of moves. Sometimes, we will look at these different ideas and think it is impractical or just would not work, other times it all makes perfect sense and seems more proficient than the actual explanations we were given by our own sensai.

So when we go back to the original kata and assume it is the work of one person, did they have one set of bunkai for it or several? Or were these katas the work of several people who all had their own bunkai? We will probably never know for certain.

It is also quite possible that the way we perform katas now is not as they were originally performed. Today, in an era of mobile phones which are able to record footage and video cameras, anyone can record real events as they happen and as they are performed. Not that long ago, filming something was not nearly as easy or wide-spread. Even photography or recording something in text was a lot less prevalent. As these katas have their roots literally over 100 years ago and were closely guarded from prying eyes, they could have only been passed down by word of mouth and demonstration from sensai to student, from generation to generation. With this human interaction, who knows how many more refinements and changes occurred along the way.

So the next time you train at a different dojo or under a different sensai and you are told that a kata has a different timing or sequence of moves or perform a technique differently from you, smile to yourself as neither way is wrong, just different.