Who am I?
I have practiced Tomiki-ryu aikido as my primary art since 1988. I also practice Shindo Muso Ryu jodo seitei gata, and have also picked up some little bits of judo here and there. I have not practiced any of the koryu arts, although I understand many of them use kata as one of their primary teaching tools.
As an American who has never been to Japan, I can only appreciate the arts from the perspective and background of my own culture as informed by my limited and imperfect understanding of the Japanese culture. I honor and respect the Japanese tradition from which the arts I practice emerged, but do believe they have transcended their origin, and become arts for the entire world to practice.
I don’t speak Japanese. My teachers don’t speak Japanese. In fact, to find a native Japanese speaker in my lineage, you would have to go back four or five “generations.”
So I don’t promise that my use of terms derived from the Japanese heritage of the arts I study is the same as is used today in Japan. As the arts have been studied in America over the last sixty years or so, they have evolved to become our own as well. I am going to use the same words I use every day in practice, even though other styles or traditions may use those words differently, or use entirely different words. I hope that my meaning will be clear, nonetheless.
What is a kata? The simplest definition that I can think of is that a kata is a prescribed sequence of movements meant to teach and demonstrate the principals, movement, and techniques of a martial art.
The katas of some arts, such as the many variants of karate, are performed by a single individual. There is no partner or opponent, although the person performing the kata may imagine an opponent in their mind.
In aikido, jodo, and judo, as well as many other traditions, katas are actually performed by two people. Usually one is the designated attacker (the uke), and the other is the person who will perform the techniques of the art (the tori). To perform the kata, the uke attacks in a prescribed manner, and the tori responds in a prescribed manner. This continues until a technique of the art has occurred and the uke is “defeated.”
In this essay, when I refer to katas, I am speaking of this two-person type of kata with defined roles of uke and tori.
What is kata? This whole essay is my attempt to answer in a deeper way, and show the layers of meaning, potential, and complexity that can be found within kata.
Depending on the level at which you look, a kata can be choreography, a laboratory for learning, a crucible for finding the deepest technical principles of the art, and a way to practice with great joy.
How many techniques are in a kata?
A single prescribed set of attacks and defenses between an uke and tori can be called a kata.
Often, a group of these katas are collected together in a sequence which is also called a kata. The individual katas composing the larger kata might be ordered in a meaningful way to show a logical progression, or a set of related issues within the practice of the art.
So the word kata is somewhat ambiguous, because it can mean either a single interaction between uke and tori, or it can be a collection of those individual katas. In a kata consisting of many individual katas, sometimes we also refer to the individual katas as the techniques within the overall kata.
In context, however, the intent is usually clear.
Where do kata come from?
In some martial arts, the kata are one of the key methods of transmitting the knowledge, techniques, and movements of the art. They were invented and perfected early in the history of the art, and passed down from teacher to student. I understand many koryu arts are transmitted in exactly this manner.
In traditional Judo and Tomiki-ryu aikido, for example, there are traditional katas which form part of the core background and knowledge of the art in exactly this way. Of course, the current leaders of these arts can continue to modify and extend the katas. For example, the Goshin Jitsu Kata (self defense kata) was added to the art of Judo in the 1950’s.
Other styles of aikido do not have formal katas that are passed from teacher to student. However, in the traditional method of teaching, as part of a given class, the instructor may choose an uke and demonstrate one particular technique or sequence of movements. The class is then expected to form pairs of uke and tori, and practice the exact same technique or sequence of movements. Often, the students take turns with the roles of uke and tori. For the duration of that practice, that prescribed technique is a kata.
Uke and Tori
The two martial artists performing kata each take on one of the formal roles of the kata: uke and tori.
Tori is the person who will demonstrate the principals of the art.
For example, in an aikido kata, the tori is demonstrating and practicing
aikido. Usually, the tori is attacked by the uke, and responds with
the techniques of the art to “defeat” uke.
However, uke and tori are not enemies. They are actually cooperating to learn and demonstrate the lessons encapsulated in the kata.
This is why I use the word “defeat” only in quotation marks. Tori
has not actually beaten uke in a contest. Instead, together—in cooperation—they
have demonstrated the principles of their art in a scenario where uke is
Understanding this cooperation is essential to understanding the role of the uke. For the tori to be able to practice the art, she needs to have a reasonably skilled “opponent” to practice with and against. This is the role that uke voluntarily adopts.
Uke is the foil against which tori can practice the techniques of the art.
In class, usually the practitioners will switch between the roles of uke and tori, and practice both roles in kata.
Usually, but not always, a kata begins by uke attacking tori in a prescribed manner. Tori then responds with the first movement, counter, or technique of the art to neutralize the attack and begin to “defeat” the uke. In very short katas, this first movement may result in uke being “defeated” and the kata is completed. In longer katas, uke may continue, in a prescribed manner, to attempt to counter the movement tori just made and continue to press tori with renewed attacks. Tori will continue to respond in a prescribed manner until ukes ultimate “defeat.”
The cooperative nature of the kata is emphasized by the fact that each movement of uke and tori is always made according to the predetermined sequence of the kata. Neither uke nor tori improvises.
This is often a safety issue.
With arts that involve weapons—even wooden practice weapons—the danger of the techniques (for either uke or tori) executed in an unexpected or uncontrolled way is obvious. A weapon as simple as a jo can easily knock out teeth or break bones if it accidentally hits someone. Even in empty-handed arts, the techniques may be dangerous: if executed to their full extent, they may break bones or have other serious consequences.
On aspect of kata is that they provide a safe zone to practice the techniques of the art, because both practitioners know exactly what to expect, exactly how to defend, and exactly how to deal with the consequences of the technique. For example, in the aikido technique of kote gaeshi, the natural consequence of the technique fully executed might include breaking uke’s wrist. However, in the kata, the uke knows exactly where the danger lies, and the exact escape (taking a break fall which also relieves the lock on the wrist) necessary to avoid that danger.
The kata may continue beyond the major danger point (for example, many aikido kote gaeshi kata continue after the uke’s break fall to have tori create a pin or lock immobilizing uke on the ground).
For beginners, especially, the predictability of the kata mitigates the danger of the movements, because both martial arts know exactly what to expect, and are prepared for it.
Kata are often practiced within the constraints of ritual formality or politeness (reishiki).
For example, before beginning the kata, uke and tori may bow to each other. If they are using weapons, they may draw or present the weapons in very formalized movements.
In a long kata consisting of many techniques with different weapons, the players may move to pick up and put down weapons in very formal and traditional ways.
This formality continues to have an important purpose even outside of Japan, for the same reasons that it evolved in Japan: it promotes respect and safety.
Usually the formal rituals represent very safe and appropriate ways to handle the weapons. They also make the movements by both practitioners predictable and safe.
But even in empty handed kata, the formality, the bow between practitioners, emphasizes the cooperative nature of practicing kata. By bowing to each other, the practitioners acknowledge to each other that they are about to practice the kata, together, as cooperating partners. They agree that they are not fighting. They agree to follow the prescribed movements of the kata, and not to improvise in ways that might be dangerous to their partner.
To not follow the appropriate level of reishiki, ritual politeness, would be the equivalent of what I would have called “fighting words” as a child. In addition to being unconscionably rude, it may also lead to genuine conflict.
The first and most simple way to view kata is as a record of the choreography of the art.
The kata shows the prescribed movements the tori must take in response
to a given attack by uke. By following the prescribed movements,
beginners can learn the most basic premises of their art: where to
move, how to move, what cues to move in response to. Following the
kata also allows the beginner to learn the angles, lines, and relationships
that are inherent in their chosen art. In some arts, the katas will
also demonstrate how to create joint locks, pins, and so forth.
The fact that the katas are constant and predictable is important to beginners. As a beginner, students don’t yet have the skill to prevail against an actively resisting opponent of any significant skill or power. However, beginners still need to learn what successful technique looks and feels like, at least to a first level of approximation, as a base from which to continue their learning. The person filling the role of uke at this level of practice will always act as if tori’s movements are successful (unless they stray far from the prescribed movements of the kata). This cooperative practice allows tori to learn the relationships and movements of the art.
Later, at higher levels of practice, there will be opportunities to learn how to achieve the results of the kata against partners who will not simply “allow” tori to succeed—but every artist needs a basis on which to build. Learning and repeating kata allows the beginning student to build this basis in a controlled and predictable manner.
Kata can also be viewed as exemplars of the ideal techniques of the art performed under ideal conditions.
Each kata demonstrates one or more techniques or movements of its art in ideal circumstances. Additionally, the kata, performed correctly, show many examples of the deep principles of the art in actual operation. In this sense, katas are like a living tape recording of the correct movements of the art, transmitting knowledge from the founders of the art and inventors of the kata to the current generation of students. They show the proper movements, the proper angles, the proper hand and arm positions.
Because the kata is prescribed, it is repeatable. Students can “replay” the kata as many times as they would like, in order to understand the teaching it offers.
For example, if a Tomiki-ryu aikido student wants to learn the technique called oshi-taoshi (some other schools of aikido call this family of techniques ikkyo), he or she can practice the sixth technique within the ju nana hon kata. This kata demonstrates a canonical version of the oshi-taoshi technique. The student can practice the kata as many times as necessary to refine his or her technique.
Because each repetition is approximately the same, the student can more easily concentrate on the details of the technique itself, without worrying about incidental variation caused by varying circumstance.
Katas also reflect, record, and teach the tactics of the art. In a kata, technique or movement does not exist in theoretical isolation.
Rather, the kata is almost a “recording” of a battle. Uke attacks. Tori must defeat that attack and try to counter. Perhaps uke evades tori’s counter attack, and renews his attack on tori. This exchange of attack and counter attack continues until uke is ultimately overcome.
The fact that tori is responding to particular tactical challenges presented by uke allows tori to learn, over the course of different kata showing different tactical situations, the tactics of their art. Tori can learn what response is appropriate for the range of attacks that uke gives. Tori can learn how uke may defeat their counter attack, and how to continue in that circumstance.
In arts that include aspirations for real-world self-defense, free-style practice (randori), or even sporting tournaments, learning the tactics of the art in a controlled environment is very valuable for students of the art.
For example, in judo, during randori practice each partner is trying to execute judo technique on the other. The circumstances which arise will be unpredictable, and may be hard to repeat or analyze later. Practicing judo katas allows the judo student to recognize the openings which are necessary for the various judo techniques. When practicing randori, hopefully she will then recognize when the opening does occur. At higher levels of strategy, the kata, practiced properly, will even teach the tactics necessary to create the opening, which the student can then apply in randori or even in a tournament.
Kata also provides a laboratory and crucible in which to perfect technique under repeatable conditions.
When a scientist does an experiment, he attempts to control all of the variables that he can think of, so that the only thing that changes from run to run of the experiment is the variable whose affect he wants to measure.
For example, suppose a scientist wants to study the process of crystallization. He might decide to start by investigating the influence of temperature, although there are obviously many, many variables involved. With this basis, he might first decide to test only the crystallization of salt out of a water solution. He will make salt solutions of the exact same ratio of salt to water, in exactly the same volumes, in exactly the same container shapes, with carefully controlled purity. Then he might vary only the temperature of the solution and observe the crystallization that occurs. This controlled environment lets him repeat and focus his research on specific issues. Later, he can introduce more complexity to his research, as appropriate, by changing other variables. (Yes, scientists, this is an oversimplification of the process of experimental science, but I hope you will forgive me.)
Similarly, kata provide a repeatable and controlled environment to experiment and practice the principles and movements of their art.
In randori or shiai, things change and are unpredictable. The circumstances of the moment (such as perhaps getting a thumb caught in a uniform cuff) may have as much affect on what actually occurs as does the pure skill and technique of the students involved.
In practicing kata, things are simplified. Assuming a sufficient level of skill, the initial attack will always be the same. The initial response will always be the same. The outcome will always be the same.
This predictable, repeatable laboratory allows the students to focus on very detailed technical issues and experiment on their affect.
However, in order to reach this level of practice, the role of uke must be clearly understood.
Uke is the foil against whom tori learns her art.
At the level of choreography, which is a necessary stage we must all go through as beginners, uke cooperates, nearly unconditionally, with tori in performing the kata.
However, at higher levels of practice, tori must perfect and refine her technique. She needs to learn to do the technique correctly. Uke is the whetstone against which tori hones her skill.
This laboratory level of practice is the heart of kata, because mid-level
students, senior-level students, and event teachers will return to it again
and again, to hone their technique and their understanding of their art
to an ever finer edge.
How does the role of uke work at this level?
Uke must not allow tori to succeed arbitrarily, just because uke is supposed to be “cooperating.” Instead, uke must cooperate to allow tori to learn, and to perform the technique of the kata when and only when tori does the technique in the kata correctly.
Of course, if uke is far senior to tori, he may need to adjust his performance to the appropriate level for his partner. In this case, uke should act as if he is just barely beyond his tori’s current ability, challenging tori to grow and learn to meet the challenge while not setting an unachievable standard. After all, no matter what the art in question is, there would be no point for a student of six months’ experience to practice with a student of 10 years’ experience, and be thwarted every single time. That would not be a learning situation for either person.
Uke must be a good martial artist. There is no point for tori to learn to succeed against an unskilled uke. Uke will maintain his own good posture and structure. Uke must not attack with hyperbolic over-commitment, overbalancing himself, and allowing tori to do the technique of the kata without skill.
Until the kata is completed, or otherwise resolved, uke must continue to press his attack, in the most reasonably skillful way that he can. This may mean, that uke “reverses” and prevails against tori. (Of course, this wouldn’t be appropriate in a situation where the kata is being demonstrated formally, but in a working class where both partners are trying to learn and improve, I think it is very appropriate when done with the intent of helping tori learn).
If tori provides uke with an obvious (where “obvious” is relative to the level and skill and immediate goals of the people practicing) opening, uke should take it although it means departing from the prescribed movements of the kata. After all, this opening would not have existed if tori had not already moved incorrectly in some way. If this causes tori to be “defeated” then that is an appropriate outcome.
However, there is an additional conundrum for uke. Often, especially in katas with many movements and attacks and counter-attacks, uke as a skilled martial artist would have choices or tactical options at various points in the kata. Let’s call these moments, for lack of a better word, option moments for uke.
If in performing the kata, uke reaches an option moment, and one of the options is the prescribed movement of the kata, uke should always take the prescribed movement.
Assuming the kata is well designed, the prescribed movement for uke always is strong and viable, in the sense that it furthers uke’s intent to continue to attack tori. In fact, in most of the katas I am personally familiar with, uke’s prescribed option is usually uke’s very best option. The art may have other katas where other options by uke are also explored. However, departing from the prescribed movements of the kata when tori has not caused that departure is not appropriate. It doesn’t help tori learn the art.
Nonetheless, if tori creates an option moment for uke where uke doesn’t have a prescribed option, uke should respond in the best possible way with the goal of defeating tori (and which is consistent with safety). This allows tori to learn the tactical consequences of bad tactical choices, or of incorrect movements.
Taken to its logical conclusion, practicing kata at this level merges smoothly into the realm of randori, or free style practice. Both the uke and the tori will stay with the “script” of the kata when possible—but if something occurs which prevents the script from being appropriate any longer, they will continue based on the current situation, instead of trying to force the kata to continue when it is no longer appropriate. The kata becomes an exciting dynamic encounter between two skilled martial artists, even though the outcome is predetermined. Of course, the next time the students begin the kata, they will begin with the intent of following the prescribed kata movements.
At this level of practice, both uke and tori should also be aware that a single kata may actually include several attempted techniques by tori, each of which uke manages to escape from or counter, until some last technique finally catches uke. For example, the koryu dai san kata practiced by Tomiki-ryu aikido students actually has as many as three or four possible throws for tori within most of the individual kata.
In practicing such kata, tori may actually catch any one of these earlier techniques sufficiently well that uke simply cannot counter or recover in a reasonable way. At that point, uke should gracefully accept “defeat” by taking the fall, acknowledging the cut, or however else is appropriate in the context of the particular situation within that art. This is a true learning experience for both students, and is respectful to the deep content often found within individual kata.
At very high levels of practice, katas become a challenge or conundrum for students to solve. They represent the highest technical challenges within the art.
In this section, I am not speaking of individual techniques improvised for a single class session and practiced as kata for the moment, but of the formal kata used as the main line of transmission in systems like traditional judo, SMR Jodo seitei gata, Tomiki-ryu aikido, and others.
The katas of these systems provide a final challenge and proving ground for the high level students of these arts. Often, some movements in the kata are difficult to master, and require years of study and dedication to understand fully, especially when practiced with a challenging and skillful uke in the laboratory manner.
The surface appearance of the kata may not fully expose the subtle internal movements (and here I must resort to my own particular experience in my own arts, although I imagine most arts have similar ideas, perhaps different in technical detail) such as the subtle movements of the hips and center which create the impetus for uke to behave act on the “option moment” in the way the kata prescribes.
These subtle movements are not secret—they are inherent in the kata. They are only hidden in the sense that they are not obvious on the surface level movement which might show up in a book or video, and require a profound understanding of the principles of the art to perceive, understand, and perform.
These “hidden” ideas within kata are difficult to ascertain, and require
a very high level of skill to perform correctly.
It may be tempting for a senior level practitioner who has not yet completely understood these subtleties to decide that the kata itself is defective, and modify the surface movements of the kata to be more in line with his or her understanding of the art.
However, doing so before fully investigating the kata, possibly over the course of years, would be folly. It would be denying the validity of the teaching and art, and of the creators of the kata.
At this level, kata must be investigated very carefully, always trying to refine the student’s understanding of the principles of his or her art, in order to mine the diamonds of knowledge the kata contain for everyone. At this level, determining how the surface movements in a kata arise from the deep principals of the art is a challenge for senior students which allows the kata to continue to teach them, even after all of the more senior teachers are no longer available.
Creating this final, deep level of understanding is a crucible for the highest level students of the art. In it they can forge their deep understanding of the principles of their art.
Here, I should mention that I have not yet achieved this level of practice—I am still at the level of practicing in the kata laboratory. But I have seen my teachers struggle with this very issue, and in my own small way, tried to contribute to their research into the katas of our arts, and I look forward to my own challenge some day.
At some point, for any given kata, there comes a point when you no longer have to think about the movements of the kata as scripted. If the art involves falls or similar ukemi skills, you must also be able to take the appropriate fall as prescribed by the kata confidently and safely.
Each movement is a necessary consequence of those which have gone before,
and is as inevitable and appropriate as gravity.
When you reach this level, and can practice the kata with someone else who has reached it, kata becomes a method for joyful practice. Performing the kata stops being a prescribed event and becomes a conversation, and exploration with your partner. It is like a fight, but without the conflict and aggression. It is like riding a tiger, holding on to the ears. This level of practice is exciting, revealing, exhilarating, and exhausting—and absolutely wonderful.
Delightfully, you don’t have to have faced the final crucible for this to occur. Many kata will work at this level at high levels of laboratory type practice.
This joyful practice, where the safe constraints of the kata let the practice occur at full speed, with real intent is perhaps the most precious gift that kata have to offer.
Kata, if treated with respect and understanding, are the core of the arts that use them.
They will lead the students from the very beginning tentative choreographed steps of the art, provide a laboratory to practice and grow, provide a final crucible to challenge senior students, and provide some of the most joyful possible practice.
While there are many kinds of practice in addition to kata, understood correctly, kata are the very bones and sinew of their martial arts.
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