The History And Origins Of Modern Day Kata

History of Karate is often traced using the history of the Kata. Today’s Kata were created by masters of old (See Kata Originators) after years of research, training and experience in hand to hand combat. The art of Karate is perpetuated by the continued practice and teaching of Kata. The Kata that we practice today has evolved through the master’s commitment to improving and refining the Kata that were taught to them.

The true meaning of and spirit of Karate are found in the Kata and only through continuous practice of the Kata will we be open to understanding them. We should NEVER change or simplify the Kata to suit our own needs as we would forever lose the true meaning and spirit of Karate-Do.

Practice should be broken down to isolate various sections of the Kata. These must be repeated over and over again, so that the movements are contained within your physical realm and become a reflex action. Kata practice will instill coordination, timing, balance, breath control and awareness. Performing Kata is excellent practice for defense against single or multiple opponent, not that the sequence of attacks will be the same as the Kata, but it gives you a sense of awareness all around you.

Kata practice is a lifetime of dedication under the guidance of a knowledgeable and authentic teacher. Always be prepared and open to watching as many people as possible practicing kata – no matter what style of Karate-do it is. If it the same kata that you practice then yours or theirs should be similar, however if you continue to find that the way you practice your version is distinctly different from the wide variety that you have watched then you should endeavor to find out if you are practicing the kata correctly or differently. Remember, that differently may not be wrong, but wrong IS wrong!

When referring to the origin of a kata the names Gojo-ryu, Shorin-ryu and Shito-ryu may be used. Naha-te developed into Gojo-ryu (the hard and soft school) which is how it is still known today whilst Shuri-te and Tomari-te merged, in the late nineteenth century, under one name Shorin-ryu (flexible pine school). It is from Shorin-ryu that Shotokan Karate, one of the most widely practiced styles today, has developed. Shito-ryu is a combination of the three ancient arts of Naha-te., Shuri-te and Tomari-te.

The same kata may be known by a number of different names (See Kata Names and Interpretations). Most will have an original Okinawan name and a corresponding Japanese name. Some may also have Chinese names.

The Japanese names were given to the kata by Sensei Funakoshi in the early 1900s for political reasons when karate was introduced to Japan. These names being more acceptable to the Japanese.

The two traditional schools of karate on Okinawa developed separately and in secret due to the oppressive practices of the Japanese who ruled there. Thus, two different methods of fighting and training were used in each. The kata of the Shorin school emphasized light flexible movements, while those of the Shorei School used strong powerful movements.

Sensei Funakoshi in his book Karate do Kyohan makes mention of this change of names :

The names of the kata have come down to us by word of mouth. Names in use in the past included Pinan, Seishan, Naifanchi, Wanshu, Chinto and the like, many of which had ambiguous meanings and have led to frequent mistakes in instruction. Since karate is a Japanese martial art, there is no apparent reason for retaining these unfamiliar and in some cases unclear names of Chinese origin simply because of earlier usage. I have therefore changed those names I considered to be unsuitable after considering the figurative nature of the old masters’ descriptions of the kata and my own study of them.

All of the katas that are named with numbers (Niseishi(24), Seisan(13), Sanshiru (36) and kata from other styles, Suparempai(108), Nipaipo(28), Seipai (18), Gojushiho (54) etc.) were practiced in China and passed to Okinawa in the 19th century and earlier. Historians debate the significance of numbers as kata names. There are several theories, the simplest being that the number was the number of movements in the kata when it was created. Others think that in ancient China, a charting system was created numbering the vital points on the human body and sets of movements were created to attack these points (see Patrick McCarthy’s “Bubishi”). As with most cultural phenomenon in China, there is a definite Buddhist influence on some kata names. In Buddhism, the number 108 has great significance, specifically referring to the 108 defilements . This is reflected with the kata as many of the kata names are factors of 108, i.e. Gojushiho (54), Sanshiru (36), Seipai (18).