Feature Article - 4th Quarter, 1997


By IKKF President C. Bruce Heilman

The most common translation of the word "kata" is "form". Kata to the unknowing, may appear to be nothing more than a dance, but in reality it can give one deep insight into the whole personality of the Art of Karate.

Kata is the essence of the art of Karate. Without kata, Karate ceases to be an art form, resulting in a physical activity not too far removed from street fighting. The purpose of kata is the development of balance, coordination, timing, effective combination and utilization of techniques and correct mental attitudes. Katas include all of the various hand and foot techniques and body shifting found in the art. Before the relatively recent development of Kumite (sparring), these formal exercises were the major form of Karate practice. Most of the formal exercises were created by the early Karate Masters who wove into them the various techniques of attack and defense. All katas are based on imagined combat situations involving four or more opponents. They provide the basis from which present day Karate techniques developed and are still the textbook of the Art.

Katas embody all of the important general principles of body movements for kumite and self-defense. Each kata is a technical index from which answers to specific questions and situational problems can be drawn. Although in major sequences, many movements are self-explanatory on a basic level, there are also numerous minor sequences in which no apparent purpose seems to be accomplished. These sequences provide the basic foundation from which almost all combinations of hand and foot techniques dealing with hypothetical attacks can be utilized.

Kata represents an almost impossible level of skill to achieve in actual combat. Through practical experience in more realistic fighting situations, the student can begin to see that kata movements are the purified, streamlined motions of perfect execution. As pre-arranged sequences of defensive and offensive techniques against imaginary opponents, katas offer the student valuable training in coordinated and balanced movements from angle to angle, stance to stance and technique to technique. No set of kata movements per se, will be likely used in actual combat, because an opponent rarely, if ever, moves exactly as you would like him/her to do. The ability however to adjust quickly to changing situations in a manner which affords you the best possible foundation for dealing with one or more opponents, can be developed thorough repeated practice of kata.

This statement can be misleading at first glance, as there is no way you can prepare yourself adequately for kumite or self-defense just by practicing kata. Kata is a supplement to actual practice of kumite and self-defense techniques. Katas do however help you gain insight into why things are done in certain ways (as explained by your Sensei and shown through the katas bunkai), but they can not do the job themselves.

Within the general classification of kata, there are many different types of forms as practiced by the different styles of Karate. Thus Korean forms are not exactly the same as Okinawan forms, nor are these two the same as Japanese forms, nor are any of these the same as the Chinese or Indonesian forma. The difference lies in the fact that "there is more than one path to the top of the mountain". Just as two doctors might perform the same operation with differing procedures and achieve the same results, katas of all styles have the same common goals of developing control, grace of movement, implementation of correct technique, power, speed, balance, endurance, flexibility, and overall coordination of movement. While these elements are easily seen on the surface, closer examination of kata reveals the following breakdown of information as shown below.



o Proper technique execution
o Overall coordination
o Correct posture
o Speed and strength control
o Consistent balance
o Timing (rhythm)


o Hip rotation
o Line of force / line of attack
o Shoulder rotation
o Locked rear leg
o Weight distribution
o Unit lean
o Arm extension / retraction
o Unit pull-back


o Kicking leg preparation
o Kick extension / retraction
o Hip rotation / projection
o Line of force / line of attack
o Complimentary arm / shoulder movements
o Weight distribution
o Support leg flexibility / stability
o Striking surface


o Moving the target
o Positive / negative hip / shoulder rotation
o Clearing blocks
o Preparatory positions
o Positive / negative weight distribution
o Adherence to body defensive zone lines
o Movement Aspects:
- angle of attack
- angle of block
- angle of deflection


o Introspective: relaxed flow between tension and relaxed states of muscular action
o Concentration: conscious stimulation and control of all previous kata components


o Ibuki breathing
o Nogare breathing (I & II)


o Waza (offensive / defensive techniques
o Minor sequences
o Major sequences
o Self-defense applications
o Sparring applications

Many years of kata practice and study can be devoted to kata before things start to "click" in the students mind. Development of insight and understanding is a maturation process, and eludes even many black belts. Do not expect everything to always fit into a logical groove and place, because when dealing with such a tremendous amount of information as we find in a particular traditional karate system, all the pieces of the puzzle do not always easily fit together. Thus the real need exists for each and every black belt to always remain first and foremost a "student" of the art and to have a Sensei to learn from and receive guidance.

In many instances, it is difficult to determine the exact purpose of a technique or set of techniques. This is true especially when they are out of context (out of the particular kata sequence). Certain information must be realized and considered before any insight toward the interpretation of the kata movements can be gained:

o What kind of weapon or blocking surface?
o What is the intended function of the technique?
o Are any modifications of standard technique involved?
o What are the contingent possible applications?
o What is the alignment of the technique?
o What is the preparation position?
o What is the trajectory?
o What principles of Maximum Effective Striking Force are employed?
o What principles of Defection are employed?
o what principles of Maximum Effective Kicking Force are employed?

Until the student can address all of the questions logically and properly, do not attempt any hasty interpretations of the kata movement. Basic level interpretations will be given to the student by their Sensei, and in time more meaningful secondary and third level modifications will be discussed. It is important that the student progress though each level of interpretation (bunkai) to gain a more complete picture of the art they practice.

Bunkai & Bunkai Levels:

Bunkai is defined as the interpretation of the various kata moves. It is only through the study of kata bunkai that the student begins to truly appreciate the value of kata and the techniques, concepts and principles it encompasses. Typically, bunkai can be divided into three levels, from basic to advanced.

First level bunkai are the obvious explanations for the techniques. At this level, blocks ARE blocks and punches ARE punches. It is important that each system of the art have a common basic level of bunkai for the instructors to utilize. This basic bunkai level is established by the System Master. The basic bunkai level provides the student with a visual reference so necessary (i.e.: visualization) in any physical activity.

The recognition of this basic level of bunkai would appear on the surface to be in conflict with what seems to be a currently "in vogue" premise today that there are NO blocks in karate. This premise, in the authors opinion, is just an over simplification of the fact that higher level applications exist, but totally ignores the value and important role basic level bunkai plays in the students learning process. Realistically, in order to be able to effectively execute upper level bunkai techniques, one need to have a strong foundation - i.e.: sound basics. Also from a purely sociological point of view, most of our modern day students are not faced with life threatening situations on a daily basis. They are however faced with a lot of "social annoyance" problems which necessitate a more reserved (or flexible) response to the provocation short of techniques of destruction. Thus it is strongly felt to eliminate the study of blocks and their value leaves the student and teacher in a week legal position for most of the situations most likely to be encountered in our day to day social interactions.

Secondary bunkai levels get into the situations where blocks are not blocks and punches are not punches. At this level, the importance of correct technique preparation takes on its most significance, as most secondary techniques make extensive use of the preparation positions for blocking or evasion prior to application of joint control, locking or breaking techniques. In addition a lot of takedown or throwing techniques become evident at this time. We also see a lot of balance control or disruption techniques start to surface out of what was previously perceived as just a block or punch technique.

At the third bunkai level, we get into the application of nerve point control and disabling techniques. Traditionally however, third level bunkai is not taught until the student has reached the Yudansha or in some cases Instructor level (4th Dan or higher), and has exhibited the correct discipline and attitudes. A key component to making third level bunkai applications effective is the use of body movement (tai subaki) for removal of target and angle attacks, as it is typically the "non-moving" body part that becomes the initial target rather than the opponent's punch. Thus the basic concepts of hip / shoulder rotation, two foot movement, weight dropping combined with a knowledge of the various target points and attack angles are the keys to explore this important and valuable part of our traditional arts.

One final point which should not be overlooked by the student is that at the upper levels of bunkai one should not let the specific sequence of the kata moves restrict your investigation of the various implementation options. It must be remembered that kata is still a DRILL, abet a high level one. As such, in any drill there exist compromises which may restrict its actual effectiveness in order to further other issues. One item in particular is the direction of movement in our katas. It must be kept in mind that the most important consideration is not necessarily the direction of movement as shown in the kata (generally forward), but rather that at a particular point, movement is necessary. Thus in many cases while the kata may move forward, it is necessary to investigate the implications and options opened up by a rearward or angular movement. Typically this is the area where many of the throwing, takedown and joint locking techniques come into play.

As one should see by now, there is a lot more to the practice of kata in traditional systems of the martial arts than first meets the eye. Kata is indeed a dynamic and important component of the art and is truly the essence of karate. Its study / mastery can take a lifetime of dedication under the guidance of a knowledgeable, authentic Sensei. As a final comment, it was once said that .."it is not the kata that makes the student, but the student who makes the kata". In other words, no matter whether the student is working on a simple or more advanced form, they should put 110% effort into its perfection for even the simplest forms are impossible to completely master. Traditional karate-do is truly a way of life, and kata is the vehicle we use to travel this road.

* * * *

The viewpoints and techniques expressed herein come from the teachings of Hanshi Heilman and the Okinawa Kenpo Karate-Kobudo system. Mr. Heilman's primary teacher Hanshi Seikichi Odo, a practitioner of the arts since age 13 (now 76), was one of the first of the Okinawan masters to formally incorporate a complete system of weapons into a traditional karate system. The "Odo Lineage Kobudo" continues the teachings of some of the top current and past kobudo practitioners including: Kakazu, Matayoshi, Toma, Meazato, Kinjo, Kyan, Kuniyoshi and Sakiyama.

Hanshi Heilman, through his International Karate Kobudo Federation (IKKF) is dedicated to the propagation of traditional Karate and Kobudo in order that the old ways will not be lost to the future generations of students. This article is just another step in the process of getting the history, techniques and principles of the "old ways" out to the serious martial arts public.

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