Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Fluid Movement of Kata (from 2005)

Me in 1979 I am thinner today

About a year or so ago I began a search for ‘Seisan-ness’, trying to understand the underlying structure which binds the differing versions of Seisan kata together.  [Of course this applies to any of the kata, too.]

If you view the different versions propagated by Kyan’s students at one level it is difficult to understand how they all came from the same source.

On the other hand all of the divergent kata in the Seisan lineage do have a commonality that can be seen.  I can’t put words on it, but the had to be some original Seisan which triggered this process.

In Okinawa I do not believe there was a tradition of mapping the karate, or creating an eternal template The direct transmission from instructor to student the pattern.  As much of this pre 1900 was individual, there likely wasn’t a comparison process between different students to make sure they were all identical.

I suspect the process had multiple levels, such as:

1)      What were the individual student’s capabilities at the time of kata transmission.  The instructor may have been most interested in developing their individual abilities instead of  having them follow a map.
2)      Where was the instructors mind on karate at the time of the transmission.  As their own understanding of their art kept evolving, it is not impossible their transmission matched their current interests.
3)      How was the original instructor taught?  Were they taught in a fluid manner themselves. 
4)      There may have been outside influences, such as other instructors, or public demonstration which influenced these changes too.

For example in number 3 I was originally taught the Isshinryu system, in my original instructors dojo in a very fluid environment. Maybe 20 different dans would drop in on a regular basis and assist in the instruction.  Learning Seisan and Seiunchin kata, they taught many individual variations of the kata, each variation becoming a new kata so I had Seisan 1, Seisan 2, Seisan 3, or Seiunchin 1, Seiunchin 2 etc.  All under the eye of Sensei (who had taught those instructors too).

As a student we attributed this to the many tournaments we attended, and Sensei making small changes to the kata to try and assist the student win.  Now in the annals of karate, this might seem most trivial, but at the time this is how I was taught.  Woe to the kyu who forgot what an individual instructor taught them the previous week.  So we didn’t learn one version of the kata, but had to know multiple versions and execute them immediately on the spot.

Sensei never made a case for one variation over another.  Under such an environment everyone came to see a fluid possibility of kata execution, within a single school.

A number of years ago I met another practitioner, who began in Okinawa alongside Sensei, Sherman Harrill of Carson City, Iowa.  Among many other things, Sherman gives incredible clinics on the Bunkai application potential of the Isshinryu system. He can spend hours on any one movement showing dozens of applications inherent in the picture.

On first meeting him, discovering our historical link, and trying to grasp his explanations I saw in his Bunkai the kata variations I studied under my original instructor.  He only taught the kata as he studied under Shimabuku Tatsuo, but for the application potential he would become extremely fluid.

He also recounted (as had Sensei) that Shimabuku Sensei would teach different American students different variations of the same kata.  I began to see that Sensei wasn’t simply jazzing up his kata for competition, but choosing among the differing variations he originally saw.

This tends to bear back to the record I’ve read concerning Kyan Chotoku himself doing the same. 

In this sense Kyan began Shimabuku who began Lewis who begat Smith, all of whom received a more fluid version of what kata contained.

I believe this has some bearing on the discussion of fluid kata.  Now I cannot answer where this came from originally.  But, I believe we can see a clear lineage of this for the past 100 years, not arising on whim in more recent times.

When I began to teach myself, I decided I would not do that to my own students, and choose one version and tried to stick to it.  So I tried to keep a standard template.

I was totally on my own, and after my ShoDan examination, the amount of Isshinryu instruction I received for the next 15 or so years could be counted as minutes on my hand.
As my knowledge and understanding changed, most especially as I understood a different application of a kata technique, many times a change would enter my own kata to reflect that understanding.  In the more advanced kata of the system, which I do not teach as frequently, when the time to instruct a new brown belt would arise, often those new changes to my own kata template would be their standard.

I came to understand this best when older students would return to visit, and become annoyed at the changes, which took place after they left the area.

Eventually I did resolve this, when I fully took my own concerns to dan studies I no longer had any reason to modify the kyu development program which was doing what I wished, and I believe we’ve become set in the kyu kata curriculum since that time.

My overall impression was the original templates of a kata, Passai, Seisan, Nihanchi, Wansu, Chinto or whatever gave enough for following karateka to work from.  In most cases their freedom for fluidity extended into individual technique execution, timing or some additional embellishments. At the same time that was most likely enough to keep their interest, instead of rewriting the initial template, they added (or subtracted) to it.

Looking at Shimabuku Tatsuo, when he did originate his own kata, it was comprised of segements of many of the major Okinawan kata themselves.  Where he did originate a new (er?) template, the pieces came from the whole, and instead he choose what he was more comfortable with, or more impressed with.

Does this gradual change in kata constitute drift? Was the drift part of the original teachings?  Unfortunately in New Hampshire I cannot answer that as I write.  I was raised to see kata as a fluid mechanism, and against that template of experience, I am not surprised to see its reflections throughout Okinawa Te.


Charles James said...

Would it better serve to look at this as rhythm, timing, efficiency, posture, centeredness, alignment, etc. rather than just fluidity?

Victor Smith said...


Thank you for your thoughts, but I was reffering to the way kata varied over time in the transmission of the Okinawan arts.

These notes are to save my reflections for my students.

I appreciate you have spurred a thought, on the use of fulidity in kata as another weapcn.. Thank You,

Unknown said...

Victor, great article about kata drift! I was searching for something about kata and came across your blog article.

Yeah, I've always thought about this topic especially within my own system. Personally I think it is just a natural progression of things. Things always change due to unique external influences of the era, place and instructor/teacher. However when things changed too much over a long period of time, then I guess we will have a totally new system. Like I saw somewhere: "Change is the only constant."

For the longest time, I was separated from my sensei and when I hooked back up with him, I found I did some of the kata differently. A lot of it was due to change creep caused by me training a lot on my own. Some were due to standardization with the system. Now that I'm more actively teaching again, I've decided to conform the organization standard as it is just easier for my students if they were to train in other dojos within the organization. However it is not easier for me since any little change on something I've done for decades becomes hard to do.

Thank you for your perspective!

Unknown said...

Looks like my comment (one before) came up as posted by Unknown. Strange ... I had signed in with my Google id.

Anyway just to let you know that I had posted about your blog article in the Google+ community "Martial Arts Forums" - see

As a moderator of this forum, I would like to invite you to join as your blogs would be of interest to the members of this G+ community. If you're interested, please check

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