Me once upon a time in 1984.
How Many Kata Are Enough?
The question has been raised, “So, what about the folks who claim to know 50, 60 and even up to 100 forms? Even for the die-hard kata aficionados, I see no need to try and learn so many forms and I believe it is a waste of precious time to do so. Especially when there are other important aspects of training that demand attention.”
Which of course raises the point, one person’s honey is another person’s poison.
Some systems use kata (or forms), some don’t. As far as I see it nobody is so definitive in their reason either side that the opposing point of view really listens. Likewise I see that individuals who use Kata in their training who are successful and there are those who don’t use kata at all who are likewise successful.
Styles of arts do follow trends, and what is trendy today may be outmoded thinking to the commonality in 20 years, from a point of view. But your guess is as good as mine what those trends will be. And there will always be those who don’t pay attention to the common herd either.
So, what I propose is a discussion, solely on how many Kata are enough? If you disbelieve Kata’s worth, that is entirely a different discussion and feel free to start that thread yourself.
By discussing Kata I’m specifically referring to the Okinawan and Japanese arts derived from Okinawan arts. Or even the Chinese (and other) arts which may have or did (depending on your point of view) influenced the development of the Okinawan arts. I consider the Japanese systems which developed an equal partner, for the original instructors were Okinawan’s, too.
From my vantage point, most of the Traditional to Modern systems (1900-1960 or so) were developed from individuals who trained with a number of instructors. On occasion they kept to one instructors teachings, other times they incorporated all of all of their instructors teachings, or some of the same.
These range in systems such as Ueichi-Ryu which traditionally had three forms (with 5 additional forms developed in the modern era), Shorin systems with differing numbers of forms, Goju’s development of 8 empty hand kata, Isshinryu’s 8 empty hand kata, up to Shotokan’s original 15 or eventual +25, and Shito Ryu’s development of at least 50 kata.
In addition there are those karate systems which have included kobudo in their training syllabus, expanding the number of kata involved.
This is a very high level analysis on the issue. Reference to works like John Sells ‘Unante’, among other works can provide more accurate details. E-Budo members Like Harry Cook are literally experts in the development of Shotokan and may choose to offer greater insight into their development.
But it is safe to say there was no clear consensus as to what the ‘right’ answer of how many kata, should be.
And even when there was an answer, such as Funakoshi Ginchin’s offering of 15 kata in his “Karate-Do Koyhan”, he was still involved in his systems further development of additional forms, too.
In the traditional groups, if you were/are/or will be a student, it rarely is a question of choice. You do what your instructor tells you. Or you don’t.
From what I’ve read, students moved between instructors on Okinawa, similar to today. There were likely many reasons, but disagreement with the course curriculum is as likely a reason as many others.
With so much diversity at Karate’s source of development, how many are enough is likely a very old discussion, and each individual who became an instructor made their own peace with that issue.
It is safe to say the number of forms doesn’t make a systems worth. But it is also safe to say the number of forms doesn’t detract from a systems capabilities either.
Kata served many different needs. A textbook of technique (where there were no textbooks), a tool to increase a students capabilities, and an efficient means of developing fighting skills.
But consider many may have studied more than their system contained. Likewise individuals such as Mabuni, trying his best to incorporate the entire Okinawan experience in his system, found an answer from changing ideas an modifying kata to instead creating his own kata with those ideas he developed.
Or consider that Taira Shinken may have known over 200 weapons forms, as well as created many of his own. Nobody claims that he passed along his entire knowledge, but he did create several strong lines of students in Okinawa and Japan from what he did teach.
Other instructors with fewer forms had reputations of changing their forms as time passed. And if the form has many different versions, a case can be made that each is a different kata, regardless of the shared root.
In fact Okinawa’s kata development often seems to be flowering from shared roots. Consider the 16 or so documented Okinawan Passai Kata, and other kata can make the same claims. Is each different or not?
Is the answer they were giants in those days, and we must not try to walk in their shoes?
There is no simple answer. Today information is shared where once it was held close. Instructors open their doors to outsiders, freely. Books, and video tapes also offer new information sources.
To most persuasively answer the question, it seems that those who have trained in dozens of forms may have pertinent thoughts.
Now look towards the Chinese systems. I’ve seen accounts of the forms being taught at the Shaolin Temple which were in such number that nobody could learn but a fraction of them. Many of the systems which arose from Shaolin origins, often have more than 100 forms in their curriculum. And in those traditions the forms are considerably longer than their Okinawan counterpart kata.
But China with its hundreds of martial traditions, runs the entire range from those systems with vast numbers of forms, to those with just three, or even those with none.
At the same time, the structure of those studies varies very different from those of Okinawa. For example, the student moves through forms, and doesn’t return to them. The forms containing basics aren’t practiced for life, as the basics are repeated over and over in the more advanced forms when you move to them. A very different set of circumstances than those of Okinawa where they spend a lifetime working on the same few forms. In fact in those systems it may be only those who are certified instructors know the entire system. [The source of this came from a friend in Northern Eagle Claw (Faan Tzi Ying Jow Pai) with considerable training in many other Northern styles.]
So out of whatever set of circumstances there are individuals who do know considerable number of kata or forms.
Sometimes by design, where the individual sought out such instruction. Sometimes by moving as work dictated and training in the available systems. Sometimes by friends sharing their training, in the days that Traditional Okinawan systems in the USA only did kata, and if you were training with them as a black belt, you were expected to remember whatever they shared with you. And in time the numbers accumulated.
If you can learn 50 or 100 kata, you do. And if you can’t you don’t.
Actually as many of the Okinawan kata share a similar vocabulary of technique, it’s often not as difficult as it sounds. Perhaps you learn 3different Seisan kata, 3 Kusanku Kata, 2 Chinto Kata, and so forth. Eventually you grasp their differences and only periodic practice keeps them fresh in your memory. So 30 may roll into 90 without great difficulty. In such cases one might then concentrate on the very advanced forms (complexity and length).
Likely there are schools who have 70 kata workouts, but I don’t see that as the goal of such knowledge.
There are those who are into research into the structure and nature of the Okinawan arts. For them vast kata studies offer great vistas of the different systems.
Then there are those who are Senior Instructors, and wish to create individual curricula for their advanced students. Not to teach out their knowledge, but to build as strong a system of training for that individual as possible. They understand different forms develop different energy and techniques. Then large pools of forms give them choices that not having those forms at hand doesn’t offer.
There are those who wish to develop their students core system to understand how to counter the trends of different schools of training. (Similar to football teams watching game films, or a prize fighter observing the opponents previous fights on film.) By teaching the students forms from those traditions, they can work on directly countering those systems tendencies. Which of course is just a tool for other studies.
While any finite number of kata have innumerable applications within them, likewise any finite number of kata have a finite number of techniques. Having a vast pool of other kata on tap allows you to explore other movement potential not in the core system.
Then there’s keeping things fresh for a lifetime. With a vast pool of kata, you can periodically have students (or even the instructor for that matter) throw out kata and replace them with new ones. This forces the advancing student to work harder, keep learning and aware, and keep their kata alive. Not just running through the same old kata just one more time.
And of course you may be doing so simply cause Sensei said to do so.
This is not meant to be as total defense for deep kata study. I can make just as sound a case that its not necessary and that I can find everything in Sanchin kata to take apart the rest too.
But I believe its not a matter of what is the right answer. Its just a case of what the answer is for you.
If you can you do, and you don’t need anybody else’s justification for your actions.
If you don’t, you don’t. If your practices fulfill you then fine.
If you don’t, you don’t. If your practices fulfill you then fine.
As for myself, I trained many different places, and nobody ever cared about my other studies, only about what they were teaching me.
They also made a point that ‘You have a Black Belt around your waist. If you’re wearing that, you don’t have the right to say you can’t do something.’
So good or bad, right or wrong I studied whatever I was presented.
I guess I’ve learn close to 200 kata, forms or whatever, but of course I’ve only been training 28 years. Can I run all of them? No, nor do I wish to try. But I can pull most of them up from memory if not in training, or from my notes. And use them to do all of the above.
[BTW among my senior instructors one of them runs about 60-80 forms in his traditions, another has studied multiple hundreds in the Chinese traditions, and yet another, just using the 8 Isshinryu empty hand kata does thousands of applications from those eight forms. I very strongly consider myself a very junior student to their abilities at every level.]
Do I teach them all? No. My core curricula including Isshinryu is about 40 kata, but also in addition I teach the Yang 108 Tai Chi Chaun form and am a student of the Wu Tai Chi Chaun form, for their martial benefits.
BTW, my advanced classes are much more than kata studies. Instead we focus far deeper into the application potential of kata technique and other involved two person drills in various arts.
But as I said, there are those who do, and there are those who don’t.