All Martial Artist Utilize Kata

by Brett Denison, Head instructor Mizukan Dojo

One of the most heated and controversial topics in the martial arts community has to do with the practicality, effectiveness, and validity of Kata practice. Kata is a Japanese word meaning, “form,” “pattern,” “model,” or “mold” (Kodansha’s Furigana Japanese Dictionary, 1999).  Note that there are exceptions to all of the comments and statements that follow.  I offering a theory, or point of view in regards to the above-mentioned debate, and am not trying to generalize or categorize all systems or practitioners.  There are many modern (gendai) systems that utilize Kata, and there are many modern systems that are based on combat experience (whether in times of war, or in street altercations).

In karate terms, a kata is a prescribed sequence of techniques against imaginary opponents. These techniques include blocks, punches, strikes, smashes, throws, joint manipulations, and kicks executed from a variety of different stances. Kata provides a means for students to practice individually while being exposed to numerous combinations of basic, intermediate, and advanced techniques. It is in the kata that the vast majority of karate techniques are stored. 

“The kata of Jujutsu are performed with a partner as opposed to the Karate kata, which as stated previously, are practiced alone. Because the kata is practiced with a partner, the waza (techniques) have to be “adjusted” if you will. In combat, no two situations are the same; therefore, it is a safe bet that your technique, to be effective, would change somewhat in each encounter with an opponent. Hence, the techniques (kata) cannot be performed exactly the same each time, especially, with a different uke (attacker) and/or tori (defender)” (Fink). 

Practicing Jujutsu kata is no different than practicing self-defense. You would not attempt a hip throw if you were too close and your opponent was leaning backward or Osoto-gari if you were too far and could not reach his leg.  Instead, you would adjust your steps forward or back, while maintaining proper ma-ai (combative distance). This is perfected in kata when practiced correctly. 

In traditional systems, kata are the vehicle used to present, teach, and preserve the waza (techniques), genri (principles), and heiho (strategies) of the art.  Traditionalists hold strong to the usefulness and combative effectiveness of kata training, while many modern martial arts practitioners state that kata are useless because they lack dynamics necessary to learn to truly defend yourself, so they really on sparring or randori to feel the gap. 

My question is how do these modern practitioners learn to spar; in what format do they learn the techniques that they deploy in free sparring?  They learn them through Kata—though they do not call them Kata, and probably do not even realize that what they are doing are in fact the same or very similar to some of the Kata of many traditional systems.   

In these modern systems, they practice attack and counter attack movements, they learn throws and takedowns by going through a simplified attack.  Situational attacks that might present themselves in a sparring match or in a street attack are practiced repetitively.  These are all very similar to the way traditional Kata are presented and utilized. 

The argument I am trying to make is that unless you only learn spontaneously during actual sparring (which would cause many problems, not the least of which would be possible injury, etc), then you are probably doing some Kata-like drills or exercises to learn foundation skills and techniques, that you later apply in free sparring or randori. 

In traditional kata some movements are very complex or involve multiple techniques against multiple attackers, but other s are relatively simple, focusing a single attack-defense combination.  These represent the omote or surface level of the kata.  Most traditional kata also have an ura, or back/hidden elements, which represent the deeper more subtle facets and includes the bunkai and oyo. These are the analysis of the kata and the applications of the kata. The analysis involves a variety of things. It involves studying the yoten, the key points of the techniques; what makes them work in each case. It involves studying the henka, the variants of the attacks and defenses so you have a wider range of knowledge than you’re limited to within the omote. It also has to do with knowing the defenses and the counters; the fusegi and the kaeshi waza. 

These ura components are only possible because of the history and maturity of the kata, most modern practitioner that utilize kata-like drills or exercises only have the surface level meanings (omote), that’s because most of these practitioners have never experienced true combat, and are assuming the drills and exercises they practice will be effective. 

“If you change the omote, the ura would have to change with it, or it wouldn’t fit any more. The question is, how do you change the kata? Are you considering the attack to be different? Because then if it’s a different attack, you would expect a different defense. If the attack is the same, then why would you change the defense? I think that doesn’t always make sense. There have been some subtle changes in kata over the years that seem to be more related to someone, like a judge, being able to watch a technique and being able to tell easily whether or not certain aspects were done correctly” (Cunningham).



         Cunningham, S., (1998).  The Dynamic Nature of Kata.

Fink, D. (2000). The Essence of Kata. New York Seibukan.


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