Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Kata Specifications in Karate by Kenji Tokitsu Sensei

not the book translated from

Kata Specifications in Karate I (first part) by Kenji Tokitsu Sensei

As you know, for a long time Karate was practiced and transmitted only in esoteric circles. Until the end of the 19th century, people always avoided being seen when they practiced Karate. They used to train at night, in the master's garden or in solitary places, such as a lonely beach or cemetery. It was not strange for karatekas to keep their practice secret even from the members
of their own family. A master had only a very few trainees. Some even refused to take on pupils,
with the result that their art disappeared when they did.

Since this is the way that Karate was practiced, it is clear that no thought was given to others. There was a total absence of concern for spectacular technical stances. A show or performance mainly strives for visual communication with an audience, but in this system, the presence of outsiders was strictly forbidden.

Techniques were practiced to make them effective, but the effectiveness sought was very different from the image created as a result of modern-day Karate. In many cases, the vision of contemporary karatekas has been deformed by prejudices heavily influenced by films, TV series and demonstration performances such as the ones seen on "Martial Arts Night".

All of this is done for the sake of connecting with outsiders, to render effectiveness visible to them, as is the rule of show business. But the consequence is that a false view is spread of the reality of combat and its skills.

The show has its strong points, but we have to know how to distinguish between performance and martial art. To my mind, the effectiveness of Karate, and of all martial arts, is based on elements that are scarcely, if at all visible. I will develop this point later.

To better understand Karate, we could explore certain questions about it during the period when it was defined solely as a martial art. If I do so, it is not merely to delve into the past, but because I feel that in order to develop a Karate that is suited to our way of life, we must base it on what went before so that it can be carried forward.

Ancient Karate was developed and transmitted within an esoteric system, whereas modern Karate is practiced and conveyed within an open system that seeks to show it off. In the course of this development - going from one system of transmission to its opposite -, wouldn't there have been a loss of technical know-how? And if there was, what exactly was lost and how important was it?

In the ancestral system, Karate training focused on repetition of the kata. Practitioners trained with very few kata - one, two, or maybe three. A karateka's skill was judged according to the degree of integration of a kata.  His knowledge of many kata was of no importance. If someone had said, "I know twenty kata", another would have thought to himself scornfully, "That's because
you don't know any of them well. As a karateka you have no value".

Karate experts had to put a great deal of energy into a single kata, showing through it the skills they had acquired. A kata was learned and repeated from many different angles. It was not thought of as a unique, authentic form.

A kata needed to include technical variants that enabled one to respond to the multiple situations of combat. Kata had the pragmatic, very complete role of teaching and honing truly valid skills. It was a true technical support.

For example the Jion kata included a number of Age-uke and Gyaku-tsuki passages. In the normal repetition of the kata, these passages were executed, like today, in the simplest fashion, linking them with the preceding and following movements. But these passages, like all the others, also had to be worked on independently as basic techniques.

In doing so, instead of practicing them as in the kata, moving forward in a straight line and without any break in rhythm, a karateka would execute them in different ways. For example, the Age-uke block would be practiced with subtle oblique shifts of the body in order to be able to respond to an
adversary's attack from different angles.

Clearly, there are many ways of changing the angle of the body. This is why, in the kata, these multiple shifts are expressly omitted and only the gestural skeleton is shown. It is as though only a central path were traced out, whereas in reality there are many possible paths: to the right, left, on an angle, turning, etc.

For true technical training, you obviously have to study all these possibilities because this is the only way for technique to become thoroughly operational - i.e., capable of varying according to the situation.

A kata was important for a trainee because it enabled him to learn these hidden technical variants. A single gesture contained within itself dozens of variations. To know a kata meant learning and mastering this complexity, and this is why a single kata was sufficient.

It was not by practicing in a single fixed way that the trainee found a kata interesting. As a student improved and progressed, the master would open his eyes to underlying techniques. He might say, "In the kata, the forms executed are at their most condensed and simplified. You must now execute each one of the passages in different ways. You have to find the subtlety with which to
alter the angle of your body. That's the essential thing for combat. But you don't need to experience it in executing the kata. The kata is a bone, which you flesh out with knowledge. Nourish your flesh well, without showing it to others."

This way of learning a kata was only possible within a system of personal transmission which, however, could involve more than one student. It became impossible in an institutionalized system which accords official status to only one form of execution.

In this regard, I like to quote T. NAKANO, one of my karateka friends: "Human beings are strange. Many tend to feel anxious, unsure and insecure when faced with a veritable treasure that will open the doors to freedom and innumerable possibilities. On the other hand, they feel safe and secure with poverty and mediocrity, simply because they have the garland of "official"
authority, which releases them from the need to think about other possibilities.

There is a little of this in the strength of the organisations. They represent an authority based on assigning value to a single form of each kata, to training models, to rules, to ranks. In the old system of Karate, none of these allures existed, simply because they were not necessary for martial arts. Today what is required by sports, but not by martial art, is what dominates in
the world of the latter. Isn't this a sad state of affairs?"

When someone says, "The kata are important, essential even for Karate", the statement is based on the ancestral system, whether the speaker knows it or not. In other times, the kata were regarded with respect according to their content. But as we have seen, the "ancestral" kata of today are not the same in practice as in teaching. A kata cannot have as many meanings in the modern system of Karate where each style or school refers to a fixed model regarded as the only legitimate one. To see this you only need to examine the kata that you practice.

Karate developed within a system of communication that was closed to the public. Today, dominated as we are by the show system, how can we fully access that knowledge? Surmounting such a problem is not easy. Just revise the kata that you know and try to apply their passages to see the totality of the kata.

Are you able to explain the meaning and purpose of each technical move in a satisfactory manner? Don't you perform the technical moves simply because that's how you've been taught? If you can't fully feel the meaning and purpose of a technique, I think that it will serve for very little as a combat technique.

In any case, when I felt stuck about twenty years ago, I asked myself all these questions. I felt overwhelmed by a sensation of emptiness and wondered,  "What have I been doing until now? How, in the modern system, can I access all the riches developed in a closed system?" With these questions in mind, I began my search into the history of Karate.

Kenji Tokitsu

Kata Specifications in Karate I (second part) by Kenji Tokitsu Sensei

The three categories of kata:

One of the problems in practicing the kata comes from the ambiguity of their meaning. In order to delve further into the subject, we should distinguish three types of kata, which are generally confused with each other, namely the rintô-gata (combat kata), hyôen-gata (demonstration or performance kata) and rentan-gata (energy or strength building kata).

The rintô-gata are the original kata. In other times they formed the contents of what was taught in esoteric transmission. The other two categories were developed to facilitate access to the original kata. That is, they were developed to enable the trainee to attain the skill necessary for executing the rintô-gata. Almost all the kata that we know today belong to these last two categories, while the rintô-gata have practically been forgotten, and form part of the ancestral modes of esoteric transmission.

You can say that you know the kata whose bunkai (analysis or application) is clear, but this is not the quality that determines the rintô-gata. Let me explain this further.

The Sanchin kata, for example, is a typical rentan-gata like the Naihanchi (Tekki) or Sesan (Hangetsu) kata. However, most kata include, in varying proportions, elements of hyôen-gata and rentan-gata. Under this classification, the rentan-gata, which are the energy kata in the broadest sense of the term, include a number of formalised Qi Gong exercises.

Combat techniques are characterised by their complex mobility. The hyôen-gata present the movements in simplified, partial form, accentuating the standard positions to make them more accessible, thus frequently giving them a ceremonial appearance. This appearance is accentuated in the kata that are executed in performances. They are the ones that we see most frequently in  Karate tournaments and matches.

In modern kata, the three categories are more or less mixed, and elements of rintô-gata are found only at the bottom of these kata.

It is usually said that a kata's bunkai is done or not, but most bunkais are series of techniques well coordinated with a view to the exercises. The most real forms of combat techniques are not shown except in the rintô-gata (combat kata), which are more flexible and dynamic that the kata of the other two categories, since they arise from an effective form of combat.

Even after a new revision, most of the movements of the rentan-gata and hyôen-gata are not truly satisfactory techniques from the point of view of the timing of velocity and body position in combat. "Satisfactory techniques" is an apt expression, because we can justify any technique if our partner agrees.

Just look at how many harmful techniques flourish with the kata under the pretext of application or bunkai. The possibility of bunkai is not sufficient proof to rate as a rintô-gata. A bunkai is nothing more than an intermediate exercise prior to engaging in real combat. One who knows the bunkai well is not necessarily able to fight effectively. Just look at how the kata are practiced today.

The bunkai of the sêpai kata, for example, is very clear and each move can constitute an interesting technical repertoire, but as you well know, you do not fight according to the kata. They are sequences of gestures that are useful for executing techniques, but not rintô-gata techniques.

Because this is a true reference for combat and each technique includes possibilities for change depending on the adversary's response. I think that the following examples will help us to understand the rintô-gata and to see how they are lacking in today's Karate.

Rintô-gata : the original kata

In the years following the war, the late Master Yasugi Kuroda of the Kaïshin-Ryû school fought against four Yakuza armed with short swords. It was an aggression and Master Kuroda prevailed armed only with a fan. After this experience he said, "There was no difference between the kata that I practice every day and the combat I engaged in. The actual fight was neither pleasant nor

What Kuroda is talking about here is the rintô-gata. It wasn't a question of applying such and such a technique against such another one, but instead of something spontaneous like the teaching of its kata. Do you know this side of the kata in Karate? Personally, I do not. You can say perhaps that I, or some other master, is capable of combat executed like a kata, but then I would say we are not speaking of the same thing. To help us understand what combat is, especially with a knife or sword, let me give an example.

Master K. Kurosaki is the first karateka to have had a public match against a Thai boxer, thereby contributing to the creation of kick boxing in Japan. At the age of sixty, today he has a reputation of being a realistic fighter, which he unquestionably is, having engaged in a great number of matches with no rules. Here is what he says on combat against an armed adversary in his
video tape entitled "The Training of a Demon Fighter".

"If you are faced with an adversary armed with a knife, what should you do? The answer is easy. You should have a weapon that is longer than his. Otherwise, you'd better turn around and run. There are some people who are so ingenuous that they dare to demonstrate unarmed combat against an armed adversary, thinking that they can win as though they were the hero of a comic strip, never realising the danger entailed by the sharp blade of a knife. A blind man is not afraid of a serpent. This, at least, is what I have learned from experience."

With these two examples we can see the difference in level between the two masters. We can imagine the level of Master Y. Kuroda's art and also the existence of the technical support of sword art underlying the form of the kata in his school.

Some of these highly rigorous kata have been transmitted selectively. I can confirm this dimension of the kata after having studied the art of the sword according to this school.

But I do not encounter this dimension in the Karate kata of today. This is not, however, from lack of knowledge. If that were the case, I would count myself lucky, for the possibility would exist of learning it one day. But I do not believe in that possibility because karate has developed by giving
foremost status to the rentan-gata and hyôen-gata, which are much more accessible than the rintô-gata. The latter have been shoved to the bottom of the kata since the beginning of the twentieth century.

Let us recall again the fact that karate was an extremely selective pursuit. If it has become accessible to everyone, it is not because the doors have been opened but because major qualitative changes have been introduced in content and mode of transmission.

I think that a karateka in search of the greatest value within Karate should broaden the scope of his search to include the rintô-gata, the kata of extreme rigour which in themselves comprise the most complex method of Karate.

I repeat that it is because of the difficulty entailed by this rigour that the rentan-gata and the hyôen-gata were developed, thereby helping to popularize Karate.

How to gain access to the rintô-gata.

I can see only one way to judge whether a kata is rintô-gata, or to recreate a rintô-gata based on the reformed kata of today.

You have to study as many versions as possible of a given kata. This will enable you to make detailed comparisons of its overall technical structure.

For example the Gojûshiho kata, taught today in Shôtokan, in Shitô-Ryû and in Shorin-Ryû, has variants in each of these schools. I have compiled about ten Gojûshiho. You can enumerate the number of technical sequences comprising this kata. In a general comparison, you can break each of the sequences down into the position of the adversaries, the quality of their attacks and
strategy, while at the same time studying your own technical possibilities, the strategy that you use, the bodily and mental stance to be adopted, etc.

You can construct the combat situation based on all these assumptions and actually carry out the combat to experience this situation. The idea is to find all the possibilities and all the difficulties. A great number of the latter are going to appear. So you must devise a way for overcoming each one. You must work until all these problems are resolved in a satisfactory way for carrying out the combat in the most authentic way possible.

For each sequence, it is necessary to find the technical mode that will, at the same time, help to hone the technical skill you are using. The rintô-gata is known as a highly pragmatic method. If true effectiveness for combat is missing, a kata cannot be a rintô-gata. Otherwise, how could the karatekas of old, who had no time to waste, train as thoroughly as necessary, and why did they hide their art from everyone else? Because they had true wealth and found it in a single kata.

It is with this outlook that I am now engaged in my research on the rintô-gata.

Reconstructing the rintô-gata .

I'll take as an example for analysis the first sequence of the Gojûshiho kata. The technical objective here is to get close enough to the adversary to attack him with an ura uchi punch.
In these sequences there are two main requirements.

Advance rapidly without receiving an attack from the adversary. That is, advance rapidly keeping your guard up. You must not expose yourself to attack from your adversary. The moment you execute the ura uchi, you should not be vulnerable.

The gestural sequences of the kata should provide you with a means of properly acquiring these technical abilities. It must give you an efficient repertory of skills while at the same time teaching you a way of moving that will enable you to develop the qualities necessary for executing this technique. The movements must be realistic and instructive at the same time. It is only
under these conditions that you can internalise technique by respecting a kata.

If you examine kata you know from this perspective, you will find many detrimental movements. For example, you distance yourself from the timing of combat, you leave your face open to attack from the adversary, you stiffen your body and let your technique become rigid, instead of making them mobile. By respecting this kind of kata, you will never attain a "budô body", a body able
to execute efficient techniques, with good regulation of energy in the body's vital areas.

I have studied about ten variants of Gojûshiho. All of them have the same overall structure, but the technical details are different. Through this study, and with the help of oral transmissions, I have made a comparison and analysis to discover the technical objective of each sequence and the main requirements for executing it.

The variants of a kata correspond to different technical interpretations and also to the greater or lesser deformation of its form and strategic content over time. The value of a kata is quite different depending on the variant you are examining.

At any rate, we can say that if the Gojûshiho kata of a school enables you in this first sequence to develop and master the skill of advancing rapidly towards your adversary without exposing your vulnerable spots, then this kata is good. If not, the kata is not worth doing.

A kata is a practical tool. Its value depends on its capacity to meet the technical objective for which it was designed. Whatever the authenticity label of a kata, it must be considered faulty if it is impossible to discover the means by which it will train you and meet its original objectives.

Kenji Tokitsu

from my own translation efforts of L'Histoire Du Karate


Anonymous said...

Interesting interpretation of kata. I noted an absence of katas' true meaning, which is the esoteric aspect of kata. Each kata contains a lesson(s) which could improve the character of the karateka ,if once realized. Sensei asks how many kata have you learned, then how many kata do you know, then how many kata do you understand? Kata are not just physical, they are also mental and spiritual in the secular sense. So many Sensei just teach kata in the physical, because they themselves are unaware of the true meaning of kata. Himitsu. Hidden.

Victor Smith said...

That is one interpretation. Then there are instructors who teach many applications for each movement they taught. There is no one answer that fits every reality. For example in the system I Study I spent 50 or 60 hours training with the late Sherman Harrill. In that time he shared 800 application studies for the 8 Isshinryu kata. I know I made note of them..