The Iaido Journal  Sept 2007
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Review: Kata and the Transmission of Knowledge in Traditional Martial Arts

Kata and the Transmission of Knowledge in Traditional Martial Arts
by Michael Rosenbaum. 198 pages.
Paperback, 6" x 9". Boston: YMAA Publications.

Available from:
YMAA Publications Center
4354 Washington Street
Boston, MA 02131

review copyright © 2007 Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D., all rights reserved

In considering Michael Rosenbaum's Kata and the Transmission of Knowledge in the Traditional Martial Arts, one thing is certain: the author has read a lot of books. The bibliography is extensive in quantity, if not always quality: we find standard works of Western philosophy, history, poetry and literature, along with some better and more dubious scholarship on the martial arts and Asian philosophy. A couple of pretty good military history authors are also sprinkled in.

If the author had in fact delivered a text that lived up to the promise of the title, we might have had something worthwhile: perhaps an analysis of the history, development, and meaning, of say, Okinawan karate kata, with which the author seems to be familiar. Instead, we have a hazy, romanticized and better-done-elsewhere history of armed combat, featuring Greeks, Romans, Europeans, and sometimes Asians. What all of these cultures, spread across the world and different time periods have in common, the author assures us, is that they learned their battle skills through the practice of kata. Unfortunately, Rosenbaum provides scant evidence to support this idea. He does not even offer a firm definition for kata (as opposed, for example, to repetitive drilling), in order to ground his discussion. As for how kata practice could be applied in all times and places, we are simply told that combative activities were similar regardless of when or where they took place, or what tactics, strategies or weapons were employed.

We are treated to this free-roaming historical assessment, all the while enduring grammar and syntax errors throughout the text. There are many instances where the reader's patience is tried by the substitute of a spell-checker for an editor. One memorable example: "…the foundation on which much of the ancient Greeks [sic!] spirituality rested was [sic!]three tenants [sic!] - strength, beauty and health…" (p. 169-70). In addition to subject-verb disagreement, and leaving out the possessive apostrophe in the word Greeks; strength, beauty and health are tenets, not tenants. A real copy editor would have clarified the text for a better read (the verity of the statement is another matter altogether).

The author finally leads us to a discussion of kata and its significance in the last two chapters, meaning that one has to wade through over 140 pages of oft-repeated, romanticized and inaccurate martial arts and armed combat history to get there. However, the long-awaited discussion is essentially reprised from any number of other (and mostly better-written) sources. In the last chapter the author laments the demise of personal combat due to the introduction of firearms in the mid-16th century, after which martial arts kata disintegrated into the woeful state we find today. Contemporary kata practice, the author states, is more geared to scant knowledge of a large number of kata practiced for competition or health and self-improvement rather than in-depth study needed for settling life-or-death disputes. In the way many combat video gamers and "best warrior I can be" types argue, he suggests armed combat took place in some romantic place and time where gentlemen lived by a warrior ethos of bravery and honor that has been forever lost now that we can mow down opposing armies with lethal firepower instead. Never mind that a more realistic look at premodern military history reveals an extreme level of smaller scale but no less horrible violence, much of it perpetrated by the valiant men-at-arms that the author holds in such high regard.

Without explaining how to get there, Rosenbaum states that the way to recoup the lost value of kata is to revive a life-and-death sensibility in its practice. Rather than being a long infomercial for Ultimate Fighting, however, Rosenbaum ends Kata and the Transmission of Knowledge by suggesting that recovering this combative sensibility will result in our ability to fight "our greatest battles…waged inside us…where we will confront the most formidable enemy of all, ourselves" (p. 187). In other words, the current practice of martial arts kata for health and self-improvement should be replaced by serious practice of martial arts kata for…health and self-improvement.

And now for a lamentation of my own: while I realize it is futile to expect accurate titling of books (we are unlikely to find "A Romantic Portrayal of the History of Armed Combat"), most would-be martial arts authors who are not trained researchers should stick with the old saw about writing about what you know. The great many martial-arts-as-personal-narrative books are infinitely better than a vague and misleading attempt at analysis of a fundamental element of training with no clear thesis or structured argument. Engaging and working with a copy editor would not hurt, either.

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TIN Sept 2007