Physical Training Feb 2008
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Quantity or Quality?

copyright © 2008 Kim Taylor, all rights reserved

I've got a buddy who just started wondering, not for the first time, what his desire to learn yet another obscure koryu really meant. Is it because he keeps meeting folks who say "have you learned this-or-that set yet" while he's still banging away at a more basic level?

Yeah, that's probably what it is. Who wants to be told they don't know something? Who wants to feel that they may be missing some esoteric tidbit that will suddenly make it all clear?

Is knowing more and more dance steps the way to do that? At some point in everyone's koryu career they confuse the number of kata they have memorized with the knowledge they have. The more schools, the more kata, the more esoteric facts the better. And of course all the better to be able to say "hey I know a kata you don't so I must know more than you do".

You grow out of it.

Bragging Rights vs Getting it Right

Well OK some people never grow out of it, they're the same people who never listen to their sensei when he says you can't chase two rabbits at the same time, or that it's better to understand one kata than to dance through 5.

But aside from the basic confusion of quantity over quality, what else does this desire to learn more and more tell us? Mostly, humans like secrets. That's part of the "I know something you don't" mentality and it always makes us feel a bit more special if we know some fact someone else doesn't. The problem with secrets and with rare and special kata is that we don't dare let them out. If you show someone your secret kata they will steal it.

Concentrating vs Collecting

Of course I can always claim some specially deep knowledge of that now not so secret kata which runs deeper than what you saw, but in order to get that special deep knowledge I'd better be concentrating on that and a very few others and not spending all my time memorizing more dance steps.

Let's face it, if you know 100 kata and you're not 80 years old, you know them at a pretty superficial level. The fact that you have to lower your hips in this school, rotate them square and higher in that one, and slide sideways in the third will pretty much guarantee that you're doing more thinking than doing. Your knowledge will remain at the surface where anyone with a bit of body-control can be at your level in a very short period of time. They can mimic the movements as well as you can.

Hey, I said we all go through this phase and I meant it, I once knew enough different iai kata to be able to demonstrate one after another for a couple of hours without repeating anything. It didn't take me more than 2-3 years to figure out that having 6 different ways to perform what was essentially the same kata was a bit silly. It's not 6 different schools and 6 different kata, it's the same kata done 6 different ways.

If you can do it one way, you can do it 5 others with very little effort. Best to concentrate on one way and understand it from the inside out, then just do the other ways when you need to do them. For example, let's take a very simple iaido kata, you draw and cut horizontally, then cut vertically, shake the blood off and finally put the sword away. From that one explanation I can probably remember 12 "different" kata. Now add draw and cut at an angle and you've got another 12 or 14 kata. It gets silly, eventually you start to realize there's a lot fewer ways to swing a sword at someone than you thought.

Oh but this kata is only taught to menkyo kaiden...

Never having been given such a thing, I can't say for sure but really, do you think there's some secret new fundamental movement in that kata that lifts your practice to the menkyo level? Perhaps a more likely explanation is that it's a symbol, maybe you also get a secret decoder ring and a whispered mantra as well. There are certainly schools out there that teach different sets of kata at different levels of rank and you get a new rank with each new set of kata learned. What if I know all those kata, can I give myself that rank? What would that mean?

No, leave the surface knowledge to the dilettantes and get on with the long slow process of wearing
into your bones those few kata at the core of your school. The next time someone says to you "hey do you know this set yet?" Ask to see the first kata you both learned, the one you do each and every class, the one sensei keeps going on about ad nauseum, and take a look.

Well, does the fellow know more than you?

The Revenge of the Short Timers

I've occasionally heard complaints from students who have gone to Japan and spent many years there that other students come over for a short visit and get taught dozens of kata beyond what the long-term students are getting taught. "I've been here for 2 years and sensei has only taught me the first 5 kata but this guy is here for a week and he gets taught up to number 24".

Let me tell you a secret. I sometimes get asked to teach folks who do a different martial art some sword. They aren't going to be long term students, they're just curious and want a little taste. What I do is let them choose to either "really learn one kata" or to "learn a whole set". Almost inevitably they choose a whole set because they want to see the range of stuff in the school. I'm happy with that because teaching a bunch of dance moves is very easy, teaching a single simple kata for two hours is very difficult. The students are happy because they "get a lot".

They get very little in fact, they won't remember a tenth of what I taught them, and even though they know all the moves of all the kata by the end of the practice, they will have a hard time remembering even one of them in a week. Regardless, everyone is happy which is really a much better outcome than trying to make someone else's students my own. On the rare occasion I get told "one kata please" I know I'm in a serious dojo.

So, far from being neglected and abused by your sensei, you're getting taught in a much more respectful and careful manner when he holds you to a couple of kata.

Let's look at it from yet another way. All those who only know a couple of kata but have been practicing them for years, when sensei finally does teach you that next level of kata what does he do? Does he simply rip right through them all? Can you keep up? Do you remember them? A couple of sessions like that, a book or video to remind you of the specific dance moves and you're there. But you're there with the understanding and body-knowledge of all those years of kihon.

If sensei has ever slipped you a video of himself doing the advanced kata, but has never actually taken the time to teach you in class, what do you suppose he's saying to you? "Look at me, see how clever I am because I know all these kata you don't?" or "Here's how you do them, I trust you not to abuse this chance, go learn them and in the meantime I'll keep your kihon straight". Some day in the future he'll show you one of those advanced kata, what you've done with that tape will determine if he gets a smile or a pained look on his face.

Where it's Parked

You might think by this article that I never teach anything more than a couple of kata. That's not exactly true because I'm not that good as an instructor. There are certain concepts and principles that I've learned over the years which I need to pass along to my students, but those concepts are associated in my head with certain kata and even certain schools. If we don't go over that kata for a couple of years, I don't remember to show that concept. Because I'm not as good as I should be we have to go back to where I parked that idea in order to pass it along.

It ain't the kata, it's what's parked in it, and that's why there are more than one kata in a school, but that doesn't mean you'll learn what's in a kata by learning what it looks like. You gotta learn some things first before other things make sense.

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Physical Training Feb 2008