Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Use of Kata Technique - Section I

What is the potential usage of kata technique? This is what I have discovered so far.

Back in Scranton in 1989 I would run every morning at 5am and then continue with kata practice. A frequent question I would ask myself is “How does kata technique work?” The way Isshinryu had been passed to me just involved kata performance and not technique usage. This was not different from many of the instructors I met in those years in many different systems. I started to theorize what a technique should consist of as an underlying principle.

Later that year I began my friendship and study of Chinese arts with Ernest Rothrock and he would feed me questions about the use of karate which further stimulated my thinking. Shortly I also began training with Tristan Sutrisno and discovered his family arts of Shotokan, Aikido, Tjimande and Kobudo also had a very specific sort of ‘bunikai’ for all the dan kata studies (somewhat akin to Demura Fumio’s ‘Kakushite’ principle). In time I would take their technique studies and in turn use their principles to begin my analysis of Isshinryu’s kata usage.

By 1990 I prepared an hour video on the usage of Seisan Kata technique focusing on the underlying principles I had discovered. Five years later I met Sherman Harrill and discovered him doing the same with a 40 year lead time on my efforts. I felt like a kid in a candy shop with what ended up being 800 application studies to Isshinryu’s kata in the short time I trained with him. For the most part his sharing caused me to focus on my own analysis as much as his teachings. Unfortunately he passed away but I’ve been fortunate to meet with one of his senior students, John Kerker, and his own teachings, especially on some of the underlying principles of Harrill Sensei’s efforts, continue to direct my own studies.

Today after 30 years looking just at the opening of Seisan kata’s application potential I’m not sure how many answers there are. On Thanksgiving Day, trying to find a way to express this I had two new lines of usage pop into my thoughts. Always there but focusing for 30 years on a different line of usage, so hidden in plain site.

This is not a right answer analysis. One application for a technique that drops an opponent is not less an answer than 100 applications. This is an inquiry into the full potential of a movement.

I only concern myself with the Bushi No Te Isshinryu version of Seisan Kata. Other versions of Seisan (Isshinryu or otherwise) or kata with similar technique may or may not fit all of this analysis. I do suggest much of this material may work for other practices.

Here is a video of my son performing our Seisan kata.


Note we cross the hands as part of the first block. We only use crescent stepping with the form. Versions of Seisan with different techniques require a different application analysis. In all the kata is being used to step in block parry and strike.

You have to start somewhere I a standardized attack, to learn how to fit into the range of openings that attack presents. Then I change the attack to study the full range of potential. I define the technique for one series of defensive potential. But the movement of the kata can be defineways for its use. Full study encompasses the entire range of possible movements.

The study of kata application works to define the difference between:

Application potential – the study of a movement’s full range of potential

Application effectiveness – the study of the movement against all possible attacks

Application realization – the combination of the physical, mental and spiritual skills required to make the technique work.

Note: Frequently we see a response to application potential studies as being unworkable in real fights. They are just technique studies, but the focus of application effectiveness is to be that any portion (or fractal)of the technique could end the confrontation, not just the complete technique.

If I was going to define the full range of potential applications I see for Seisan’s opening I would probably need more than 100 pages to do this. No one would read that. What I will do is follow this with a description of some of the Principles and Force Multipliers that can come to play in the application study. They are not exclusive to this section of Seisan but are some of the tools used to understand all application potential. I will then conclude with a selection of Seisan Opening Application studies.

One force multiplier I firmly believe in is the Makiwara, but except for a few years long ago, it is not part of my program. Each program addresses specific students needs and my program is not an exception to that. Yet having trained with Sherman Harrill and John Kerker I have no doubt on it’s effectiveness. In contrast many of the other range of principles and force multipliers provide other answers that work too.

It is the combination of principles and force multipliers that begin to dictate the range of potential applications for a movement.

The following list contains many of my standard tool box for application potential. It is not everything I use. The same for the last section of this analysis. I will show some of my application potential for Seisan’s opening section, and it will not be all that I use.

Kata is the key, the place to develop better technique, stronger power and speed. Many of the applications cannot be fully applied with a partner because of the certainty of injury, yet in kata we can work a technique in fullness. My approach first demands extremely good performance of kata to have strong enough technique to learn to apply. In fact this study is based on my sho-dan application focus training to understand how underlying principles point to the application, that is then magnified with ongoing study.

While these notes are primarily for my direct students, if anyone takes the time to review them and work out their practice, they are welcome for any assistance they provide for your own practice.

So what is the key, why development of the physical aspect of a technique, development of the mental knowledge of how a technique may be used, but most importantly development of the spiritual aspect of a technique, so whatever technique you use you believe in it so strongly it works for you, including mistakes which in the end are still techniques too.


Translation by Joe Swift (12/20/98) on bunkai to Pinan Nidan in Mabuni Kenwa and Nakasone Genwa’s 1938 book ‘Karatedo Nyumon’ pages 138 to 140.

Kata and Directions:

The meaning of the directions in kata is not well understood, and frequently mistakes are made in the interpretation of kata movements. In extreme cases, it is sometimes heard that ‘this kata moves in 8 directions so it is designed to fight 8 opponents’ or some such nonsense. I would like to specifically address this issue now. Looking at the embusen for Pinan Nidan, one can see that karate kata move in all directions, forward and back, left and right. When interpreting kata, one must not get too caught up in those directions. For example, do not fall into the trap of thinking that just because a kata begins to the left that the opponent is always attacking from the left. There are two ways to look at this.

(1) The kata is defending against an attack from the left.

(2) Angle to the left against a frontal attack.

At first glance, both of these look alright. However, looking at only number (1), the meaning of the kata becomes narrow, and the kata, which in reality must be applied freely, in any situation, becomes awfully meager in its application.

Looking at an actual example, the 5 Pinan kata all start to the left, and then repeat the same series of techniques to the right. Looking at interpretation (1), the opponent must always attack form the left, and while fighting that opponent, another opponent comes from behind so the defender turns to fight that opponent. This type of interpretation is highly unreasonable.

Looking at interpretation number (2) however, the 5 Pinan kata show us that against an attack from the front, we can evade either left or right to put ourselves in the most advantageous position to defend ourselves.

Source acknowledgement:

Jing Do – Chinese Short Range Striking my expression of techniques from Ernest Rothrock

Multiple Striking/Layered Striking my expression of techniques from Tristan Sutrisno

Makiwara and other principles my expression of studies from Sherman Harill and John Kerker

Replacement Stepping my expression of a principle shared by Rich Kordel of Kashiba Juku many years ago

Charles MurrayThe first 20 years your art is your instructor’s. After 20 years your art is yours.

Sherman HarrillIt’s what we have in common that is most important!

Anonymous Man fall down, go Boom!

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