Kata – Two Meanings – Model or Shape

Kyudo as Kata

Kata are a Distillation

Kata are traditional keystones of all martial arts study. Passed from generation to generation, these movements teach the rich history and concepts behind the martial art you study. Kata are the skeleton upon which we hang everything else. They are a distillation of successful combat concepts and techniques.

Too often today, the priority of martial artists is the number of Kata they can do. This superficial skimming of sequence is truly sad. Studying Kata in depth opens you to a world of exciting and inexhaustible study. The number you know is not important; understanding the depth of each is.

Also observed in martial arts today is the separation of Kata from combat. Some feel Kata is unimportant and, therefore, practice only a few fighting techniques almost exclusively, not even bothering to look at what they can learn from them. And yes, they may become good fighters, but they will only attain the skill level that coincides with their physical ability. I will still put money on the person who studies Kata in relation to combat. His progression in skill may be a little slower than the other, but when his knowledge matures, he will be a strong fighter. His ability will coincide not with just his physical skill, but with his knowledge as well. Being a Budoka is impossible without intelligence.

You can look at Kata in several ways including their history and geographical influence, as well as their symbolic, cultural, and practical meanings. Kata evolved over periods measured in centuries. People who succeeded in the realm of combat added their understanding to each generation. Martial art traditions would not have survived to the present day if there were not some important lessons to be passed on.

The Model and the Shape

Kata - two different KanjiThere are two ways to write the word Kata in Japanese and each one is important in its study.

The first implies a model or Mold (see figure). Part of the character uses the radical for “earth”— something that is fixed. If we consider a drinking cup, using a mold when making a cup allows us to consistently form each cup the same way, the same size, weight, shape, thickness, and contours. This Mold is given to you as a beginner. Kata are standardized movement series exposing you to its movements while teaching basic concepts of your martial art. The beginner in the Doing (Gyo) stage of training learns this standard model of movement and techniques. He copies and practices with little thought as to the reasons behind the movements, because he is striving to learn the sequence and perform them correctly.

As you mature in your understanding of Kata, they start to take on a different form. The standard mold is transformed into a flexible shape.  Like our example of the drinking cup, we can appreciate that there are many different kinds of cups. Large, small, delicate tea cups, plastic cups, ceramic cups, glass cups, wooden cups, stainless steel cups, green cups, red cups—the variety is seemingly endless, but they all have the basic principles of a cup. They all hold liquid and usually stand stable on a flat surface. The second way of writing Kata uses the water radical and emphasizes something more flexible and fluid. Cups come in all shapes and sizes, but there is something “cuppiness” about all cups. The Shape still adheres to principles of being a cup.

Graduating from the Mold concept, you now explore the Shape concept or pattern of the cup. This is the Disciplined Training (Shugyo) stage of training. You now see how movements are related, and why they are performed the way they are. Exploring the depth of the Kata, you see new insights into the stances, movements, transitions, and engagement postures (Kamae). You study the applications of techniques (Bunkai), reverse techniques (Gyaku Waza), Variation (Henka), throws (Nage), and even the hidden techniques (Kakushi Waza). You see Duality (Kyo-Jitsu) in each movement and develop  coordination of Energy (Ki) within the body (Kiai) and how to express it to the Opponent (Aiki). The Kata becomes an integral part of you. Now you are studying Kata in the sense of the second character shown.

Returning to Simple

Finally, you return to the simple movement of the original Kata as it was given to you, but now that simple movement has forever been transformed. Although it looks like a simple movement there is now depth and freedom to your Kata like a wide river. There are many kinds of rivers, some are deep, some shallow, some flow fast, some flow slow, some are cold, some warm, some straight, some meandering. They all have something in common, however: they are all rivers and yet they are all different. Kata using the second character is like this.

Both ways of looking at Kata are important. The first gives the solid foundation of transmitting information to new generations of beginners. The second adds depth to the concepts found buried with. A good teacher knows this and teaches Kata using either way based on the student’s understanding and experience.

There are other concepts to be gleaned from Kata to help you become not only stronger in technique, but stronger in many aspects of our lives.


Excerpted from:  Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles

by Richard Rowell

Exploring Kata Horizons: Tools to Change Your Perspective

Kata - Ways to Study

You study Kata diligently, for years, and just when you feel we are getting a handle on it, your Sensei shows you one little thing that gives you that slap in the forehead feeling. “Why didn’t I see that?” Suddenly your understanding of the Kata expands into a whole new world of possibility. Your perspective changes as if you climbed to the top of a tower and abruptly the horizon is much further away than before. You can see new vista’s that were not apparent from the bottom of the tower.

We can learn two important lessons from the horizon analogy:

1. The horizon is a point we cannot see beyond, but hints that there is something beyond its limits.

2. What limits our ability to see is that the horizon is always relative to view. If you are in a hole, your horizon is going to be close. You might want to change perspective and climb a hill.

You can sit at the bottom of the hill and listen to Kata - Kasushi - hidden techniquessomeone else describe what they see, or you can walk up yourself. Nothing compares to the feeling when you discover a principle or Hidden Technique (Kakushi Waza) through your own effort—when your Sensei smiles as you both recognize that you have ‘glimpsed the Ox.’

My Sensei always stressed that you had to look at Kata in more than one dimension. He showed me that there were many dimensions to Kata. So the first thing to remember about Kata is that one dimensional minds have a hard time comprehending that there may be more than one dimension.

There are many types of horizons.

Some Common Dimensions of Kata

Sequence – The obvious first dimension. When you Kata - expanding horizonslearn a Kata realize that you are receiving only a small portion of the Kata by learning its sequence—your first horizon. For the beginner, just understanding sequence is the challenge.

Bilateral Symmetry – Using both sides of the body equally. To develop bilateral ability. Many Kata only show one side or exhibit a decided “handedness.” Don’t fall into the trap of limiting your technique to one side, or your strong side. Expand your horizon. In the military, I learned to shoot my rifle on both my strong side and weak side, so I could adapt to circumstances and use cover effectively. Loading a magazine with your weak hand and reloading a gun with only one hand are modern expressions of Kata. What if you were injured? Kata is no different, being able to adapt to circumstance during a throw is a sign of a well-balanced budoka.

Obvious Technique – The obvious movements such as a block, punch, kick, etc. You can spend a lot of training time getting this right. Depending on your horizon, this can be the extent of your understanding. But is there something beyond your horizon that may add to these techniques?

Timing – What kind of timing can be used with each technique or group to techniques in your Kata?

Analysis (Bunkai) – This is the systematic exploration of the application of the movements in the Kata.

Variation (Henka) – This expansion in horizon is related to considering how you might vary the outcome of a technique. Some examples might be Compression (putting two techiques together, e.g. where a punch also becomes a block), Expansion (creating two techniques from one movement. e.g. I remember my Sensei showing me one movement that became three blocks instead of one. ), varying direction, severity of technique, consideration against multiple opponents. These are just a few ways that variation can be looked at.

Reverse Techniques (Gyaku Waza) – For every technique in your Kata is there a counter or several? It would be wise to understand these in case the techniques are applied to you.

Transitions – between movements can hold Throws (Nage), Finishing Techniques (Todome) and many beautiful Shifting (Sabaki) movements to avoid your opponent’s strength.

These are only a few ways that you can elevate you perspective and gain new horizons with your Kata.

Tools to Gain Meaning

There are a number of tools at your disposal to expand your horizons as you research your Kata:
Interpretation – Narrow or broad. Interpreting Kata is largely based on how the Kata was transmitted from teacher to student, experience, and inference of movement and technique from other sources of information. Don’t let your horizon be too narrow. “This is the way I learned it and there is no other way.” We have all done this, and many can stay stuck with this limited horizon.

Inference – is a hugely important aspect of martial arts. “Ichi o Kiite, Ju o Shiru”—hear one but understand ten. Inference means to arrive at a conclusion by reasoning from evidence. There are two main methods of inference—inductive and deductive reasoning.

Inductive Reasoning – works from observation toward generalizations and theories, and is called a “bottom-up” approach.  Inductive reason starts from specific observations, looks for patterns and regularities, and formulates a hypothesis that is developed into a general theory or conclusion. In other words, we observe a number of specific instances and from them infer a general principle or law. Inductive reasoning tends to be open-ended and exploratory, especially during the observation phase.

A concrete example of inductive processes could be looking at a specific Engagement Posture (Kamae) and noting certain features that could be used in other postures, or how it could be used in a different context. Another would be learning to use your hips in a punch and then using the same approach to other techniques. At the small scale of an Engagement Posture or Punch, you develop principles or theories that aggregate into more encompassing principles and these continue to aggregate. In the case of Jigoro Kano’s principle of maximum efficient use of mind and body, his principle is the culmination of an inductive approach in which many technical observations led him to infer this single principle that encompassed Judo. The principle of Duality (Kyo-Jitsu) is also inferred using inductive reasoning.

Deduction – works from the more general to the more specific—sometimes called a “top-down” approach. For example, we might see and understand the basic idea of a punch from a technical point of view, but we may be able to deduce greater efficiency by testing a specific hypothesis we make, e.g. will my punch be stronger if I keep my elbow in, or if I use my hips in a slightly different manner? You can then test this hypothesis in training and determine for yourself whether it is true or not.

Independent Research – If you rely on someone else to provide the information about a movement, you will never get a complete picture. You can certainly learn from them, but you need to integrate understanding with application, and then induce your own principles that satisfy your level of experience. A single Kata may have evolved through different styles and teachers, and may appear very different from what you have been taught. Looking at the differences can lead you to new bunkai, but also give you a feeling for why movements diverged, or create new questions worth exploring.

Paradigm Evaluation – Re-evaluating your paradigms is always useful when studying Kata. As an example, when I first learned a Kata as a less experienced Budoka, I thought that offensive movements were followed sequentially with defensive movements, followed by offensive movements, etc. You blocked then you punched, or vice versa.  As my experience increased, I realized offence and defence were part of a spectrum of Duality and that spectrum was one and the same thing. My understanding of offense and defense changed. A block could be used to attack and a punch could be used in defence. Suddenly my paradigm shifted from one of offence and defence to offence can be defence and defence can be offence. This led me to new discoveries in my Kata.

As a more concrete example, in one Kata I was studying there was a movement using an Upper Body Shifting (Jo Tai Sabaki). The Kata showed no outward indication of attack and I thought it was just a rotation to avoid a punch. When my Sensei showed me that the body rotation could not only evade the punch, but also break the opponent’s elbow using my shoulder, I suddenly realized that all techniques had elements of both attack and defence in them at the same time. I then correctly inferred through induction that there were many other examples of these types of techniques in my Kata that I had not seen before.

Getting into a habit of re-evaluating your understanding of a Kata, or even a single movement within one, is a good habit to fall into. If you are aware that your horizon is limited, that you are fallible in your opinions, biased in your thinking and probably weigh evidence based on personal preference; that is the first step in being open to new revelations.

Frustration – This is personally my favorite. It can include technical frustration (I can’t seem to get the movement right), to application (it doesn’t feel right or I can’t make it work against an opponent), to even understanding why a particular movement is done (that makes no sense). If you are satisfied with your first interpretation of a movement in a Kata, I would say you are missing 99 percent of what it can teach you. Frustration motivates you to dig deeper.

Outside and Inside – Omote and Ura

There are several terms used in the Japanese martial arts that describe Hidden Techniques (Kakushi Waza). Kata can be arranged by level of complexity and understanding. Some styles divide their teachings into Shoden, Chuden, and Okuden (Beginning Teaching, Middle Teaching and the Interior or Secret Teachings).

When studying Bunkai, be aware that there are the Kata - Omote Uraobvious applications of a technique, and others that take some searching to find. The Outside (Omote) surface of the Kata may look simple and seem not worth looking at in any more depth, but beware—you can be missing some of the most interesting and challenging aspects of the Kata.

Some of the seemingly simplest Kata are by far the deepest. The unobvious is far and away the largest aspect of Kata to study, not the obvious outer surface. As your sphere of knowledge about your martial art increases, penetrating into the Inside (Ura) can explode your understanding.

Many Kata have elements of animals and symbolic meanings. For example, one Kata may emulate a heron, bird, or a certain technique like a dragon tongue. As a biologist, watching herons gave me insight to the person who had a flash of inspiration watching these birds and developed the Kata Rohai. There are a number of famous stories of sudden insight. The crescent spear used in Hozoin Ryu was conceived in a flash of insight when its founder Hozoin Kakuzenbo In’ei is said to have seen the reflection of the crescent moon shining on a pond.  He imagined a spear with a cross blade (Kama Yari) would be more effective in fighting.

Symbolic meanings can represent salutation to the four cardinal directions, flying birds, clouds, thunder, lightning and the list goes on. Sometime these are literal, but many times they are used to impart a feeling or understanding to the technique. The important thing here is to gain an understanding of the symbol and use it to understand the technique, its origin, and its application.

No matter what martial art you study, the single most important thing to explore is Kata. It has been handed down from generation to generation. Both winners and losers—the people that survived combat and those that died in it—have helped develop the ideas found in Kata. Kata is the root of all the transmission from generation to generation. It is the seed or model  (See Article Kata – Looking at it two Ways) by which we can grow a great tree, apply a useful tool, or create a beautiful sculpture.

It is not important to know a great number of Kata. Learn to penetrate one or two deeply. This procedure will enable you to develop Insight (Kan) into the Kata you research. It will also give you the tools to penetrate the Inside (Ura) of others not only in your martial art, but outside it as well.

Some advocate gathering as much information about as many different martial arts as possible, by learning as many Kata as possible. I firmly believe this is a fundamentally wrong approach in the study of Budo, and results in a person with only a superficial understanding about many subjects. He is a master of nothing. By studying hard and penetrating as deeply as you can, you attain the freedom you are seeking.

Make sure you are learning real Kata and not rubbish someone has thrown together from limited horizons. Trace your Kata back to the Meijin who developed them, and understand their evolution to when it was given to you. Search for the Logic (Ronri) of the Kata. It is a tragedy wasting precious time in meaningless pursuit (Muda – See Article Without Reason, Inconsistent and a Man Without a Horse ).

Challenge your ability, understanding, and realization Kata - find meaninghorizons by changing the way you think about Kata. Changing your perspective by looking at different dimensions of Kata will never lead to boredom. Doubling the size of your horizon, means that you have four times the area to explore.

by Rick Rowell

If you would like to read more about Budo Concepts, consider purchasing Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles.


Terrain – A Tactical Analysis Of The Competition Area

Competition - tactical analysis

For the competition minded, a tactical analysis of the match areas for Karate, Judo, or Kendo can yield some interesting insights to how to deal with an opponent. The competition area is flat and usually square so there is no terrain to hide in or use for cover, but there is terrain that limits or enhances movement. If you have studied the game of Go then you will be able to appreciate corners, edges, and the center in both defence and offence.

Often in competition, you see two contestants circling each other, or one circling the other. Sometimes when the clock is ticking down, the person that is ahead in points circles to avoid combat and wastes time to win the match. The person that is behind wants to force interaction to try and catch up, but lets his opponent win at his strategy of letting time run out.


By eliminating opportunity for your opponent to circle, you can immediately and effectively limit the opponent’s freedom of movement to half the competition area (if he declines to attack) simply by shifting to cut off the circling (see figure). By shifting, you are using the edges of the competition area to support your flank and limit the opponent’s movement to that side. He is forced to circle the other way, attack or withdraw. Edges can also be effectively used to limit a strong opponent’s to attack on his preferred side (left or right).


A few more shifts and you can maneuver him into a corner. When your opponent is in a corner, he has to divide his attention between you and the match area boundary, which invites a mental Gap (Suki) that can be exploited if you chose to attack.

In a corner, two sides restrict movement. Your opponent has two options; he can either attack, or avoid. Avoidance can take two forms, 1. He can step out of the match area in which case he will get penalized, or 2. he can try to slip out one side. Using maneuver and just offering combat by shifting to block the opponent’s circling means you have degraded the opponent’s freedom of maneuver. Further degrading it into a corner now allows you anticipate a reaction—coming at you, stepping out, or in a moment of indecision your chance to attack. Depending on the opponent and his strength and weaknesses you can choose to attack or counterattack based on your preference.

Competition - tactical analysis

Using the center, edges and corners of the match area tactically.


Taking the centre of the match area can create a psychological advantage right from the start.  It also does not impede you because you are not affected by edges as much as the opponent who is forced toward them. Competition area geometry of the  at the tactical level can have great effects on the outcome of the match if you can capitalize on it—but first you must be aware of it. There are other ways to analyze the competition area tactically, I leave it up to you to discover.

Considering Terrain

One factor that we typically loose sight of in the Dojo in Tactics is the effective use of terrain. Not all combat is likely to occur in an area were there is a clear unobstructed area to maneuver, and terrain can be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on how you utilize or fail to utilize your environment.

Take these ideas outside competition and consider how your environment can create advantages and disadvantages. Edges such as a wall can limit movement but also protect your back in a scenario with several opponents. Many Kata consider confined spaces, such as using a sword in a narrow hallway.

Terrain is a major consideration in modern tactics, why should it be any different in the martial arts? There are literally countless examples of using terrain to advantage during combat. As one example, 17th century swordsman Araki Mataemon used a bamboo grove to his advantage while fighting Yamada Shiryukan who specialized in the Kusari-Gama (a sickle with a chain and weight attached). Yamada could not use the chain and weight effectively with all the bamboo stems and died at the hands of Araki. Mataemon functionally dislocated the Kusari-Gama’s advantage by luring his opponent into the bamboo. He used terrain to his advantage.

The use of terrain in combat includes, barriers limiting the opponent’s movement or protection against the opponent’s techniques. You can use terrain to hide your entire person or just part of your body etc. You may even find some of these ideas in your Kata. Karate Kata show ways of using sand, rocks, farm tools, boat oars and even turtle shells as ways to use the environment and terrain to your advantage, as well as night fighting and fighting on boats.

Application of some of these techniques include fighting along narrow pathways between rice paddies. Iaido has Kata that reflect limitations imposed by the environment, such as narrow hallways, obstacles overhead, and even friendly noncombatants. Even some Engagement Postures (Kamae) in Iaido are related to environmental constraints (e.g. Hasso no Kamae and Waki no Kamae).

Practice in different environments to get used to the variation in terrain. Not all fights will be in areas that are free from obstruction or allow freedom of movement. Think about how your martial art uses these ideas in relation to individual techniques, tactics, and a combination of both.

by Rick Rowell

Check out Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles  for more ways to improve you martial journey.

What is Budo Today?


Budo - definition and KnajiBudo, the ‘Martial Way’ or ‘Military Path’ is typically related to Japanese martial arts such as Karate-do, Judo, Kendo, and a number of others, but today the concept of Budo goes well beyond Japanese martial arts.

The term Budo is of relatively recent origin. Some even describe it as the Modern Military Way (Gendai Budo) to differentiate it from older forms of military arts (Old Form Military Arts – Koryu Bujutsu). We like to differentiate into ‘this’ or ‘that.’ There are wide paths, narrow paths, steep and rocky paths, career paths, and paths of least resistance.  Paths come in many flavours. Today Budo has evolved to encompass both old and new thinking—it is an inclusive concept.

Budo today includes the older Bujutsu—a deep, multi-dimensional, and a broad subject to study. On top of that base, Budo becomes more than the mere application of military principles on the battlefield. It is a path that has as its end goal a well-balanced and self-fulfilled person.  Studying Budo expands horizons physically, mentally, and in other disciplines such as art, music, science, philosophy and psychology; and if you want, it opens up a spiritual avenue to ponder.

Budo can apply to all martial traditions—Budo transcends one culture. Budo concepts cut across physical, mental, and spiritual boundaries.  There are many tangible aspects of Budo and yet the real heart of Budo is intangible.

The unique Japanese flavor of Budo came from systematic study of martial arts endemic to that region of the world, but many concepts derived from this path have also been discovered by other cultures and continue to be used in current military science.

Budo Has Evolved

Budo - evolutionJust like Einstein who generalized Maxwell’s equations to a higher dimension to give us a new era of physics, principles of military science have been generalized on a number of levels and have evolved to give us Budo.

Budo as we know it today evolved from something quite different. Warfare is very old. Weapons, fighting techniques and strategies that worked became codified and relied upon for both offensive and defensive roles on both micro and macro scales; rulers fought for control of empires, and the common man protected his life and property.

Budo - Bujutsu definition and KnajiBujutsu: The application of technique—first appeared out of necessity. The ability to fight and the techniques that evolved were based on the pragmatic realities of survival.  During these early eras, the military arts were studied with the sole purpose of destroying the enemy. Bujutsu is the application of military science and art to defending and attacking an opponent—Bujutsu is the pragmatic application of violence.

Power was consolidated (in Japan this happened after the battle of Sekigahara 1600 A.D.) by Tokugawa Ieyasu as Shogun who founded the peaceful Tokugawa era. This parallel can be seen in many cultures, the warrior class began to pursue interest in other aspects of military thought to fill a void and justify its own existence during peace times.

Budo - Bushido definition and kanjiBushido: The ruling Tokugawa Shoguns also needed to control the military class and gave them an outlet for their energy by educating them. This was a code of conduct expected of a warrior stressing the concept of never pausing to consider the nature, significance, or effects of a superior’s command. The concept today has been romanticized to the extent that many do not distinguish it from Budo.

Bushido was standardized, strictly adhered to, and formulated by those in authority to maintain control. Those who stressed the role of Bushido in reality espoused the role of the soldier, a blind obedience to orders, and not that of a warrior—someone who made up his own determination of whether to act or not. Bushido still is and has in the past been prone to fanaticism. During World War II, Bushido was used to create national fervor and military fanaticism that kept some Japanese hiding in jungles long after the conflict was over.

The ideals of Bushido, however, do have a place in our study of Budo. It is through Bushido’s sometimes harsh self-discipline that the realizations of Budo bear fruit. This is a seeming paradox. To gain freedom (in technique) you must enslave yourself to rigid discipline (training). Like a concert pianist, the Budoka must practice with dedication to enjoy the freedom and fluidity needed in both combat and music.

Despite its potential for misuse and fanaticism, major tenets of Bushido include what are known as the seven virtues:

• Rectitude
• Courage
• Benevolence
• Respect
• Honesty
• Honor
• Loyalty

These attributes are worthy of any Budoka. Today, Bushido alone is considered an incomplete way to achieve self-realization, but the discipline and training demanded by Bushido puts one into position to have a better understanding of Budo.

Budo: The term Do comes from Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist (Tao is the Chinese equivalent of Japanese Do [Way]) philosophies. All suggest implicitly or explicitly that the pursuit of any worthy endeavor leads to spiritual liberation.

The pursuit can be anything: dancing, garden designing, tea ceremony, swordsmanship, etc. Once something is taken up and becomes a serious undertaking, it is called Do. In the case of Budo, the serious undertaking is the study of the Military Way.

Dreager’s Classical Budo (1973), an excellent reference to the historical origins of Budo, states:

“The creation of the classical Budo was indicated by the nominal change of the ideogram for Jutsu, ‘art,’ in the word ‘Bujutsu to Do, ‘way.’  This change heralded men’s desire to cultivate an awareness of their spiritual nature through the exercise of disciplines that would bring them to a state of self-realization. It is this goal that underlies the major difference between a classical martial discipline labeled ‘Jutsu and one termed ‘Do.'”

After examining Bujutsu, Bushido and Budo, we can see that the first two are subsets of the last—Budo has evolved to include the former.

We love the technical art of Bujutsu, finding better and more efficient ways of improving our technique. We understand the dedication and commitment required to become proficient, and have to overcome our fear through the discipline of Bushido. Budo allows us to find and understand, in a deeper sense, our relationship with our path in life.  Budo is a ‘Way’ of life.

Budo Today

Today’s concept of Budo evolved in part from precursors such as Bujutsu and Bushido. Budo however, is not static, but rather dynamic, and constantly evolves. Kata change as each generation learns them. In some paths, the knowledge is enhanced, in others it is degraded. On top of all this, your understanding of Budo changes as you travel on your martial journey.

So how do you find the path that is right for you?

There are some guiding principles that can help you answer this.

Respecting the Past

Consider tradition with some respect for the hard lessons learned by actual combat. The past offers clues to your study to help you determine if you are on the right path.

Does the path you follow respect the study of solid Bujutsu?

As an example, modern sport while very important is still a sport. Too much focus on sport only narrows your path. While this may be an important aspect for you at certain times in your journey, there are other areas to study as well. Don’t get me wrong here. Sport is critical for developing many positive attributes in youth and elite athletes. My point here is are you learning combat or sparring? And what do you want to learn?

Does your Kata have depth?

Is there history in your Kata that gives you room to study. Make sure you are studying something that has not been distorted or creatively made up with no meaning. Dig into your Kata, its history, origin, geography, its variations among different styles of martial art. Assess your Kata critically.

Does the path you are following demand discipline and study?

Is your dojo a social place or a place for disciplined training? It should be both, in a balance that fosters personal improvement. If too skewed one way or another, why? What effect will this have on your personal development?

Value pragmatic and well-executed Bujutsu. Value the discipline and commitment it takes to do it well. Improve on it when possible without changing it into an esoteric art that has little real meaning.

Understanding the Present

It is easy to think of the enemy as being outside of yourself.  Today’s Budo has given you an even more worthy opponent—Yourself—and if you dig deeper you realize that there is no enemy or self, there is just what some have called Tao.

Is your path only one dimensional?

Are you locked in only technical modes of thinking? Budo has a depth and breadth that can challenge anyone at multiple levels.  Some specialize in unarmed or armed technical disciplines; others expand their study to calligraphy and the tea ceremony. Some can practice a lifetime and still feel like they haven’t penetrated very deep; others manage to pierce the very core of Budo. As you study you realize that Budo expands into other areas

To give you some perspective, there is a saying “Ken Zen Ichi Ryo,” which means “the sword and Zen are the same”—that through the study of the sword (Ken) one can achieve the same level of enlightenment as the study of Zen. This statement indicates that there are many dimensions that can be considered and explored. In this case, the link between Zen and Budo

Can you apply what you learn in different contexts?

Can you take fighting principles and apply them to other aspects of your life? Most of us live in relatively peaceful societies. Learning to apply martial concepts in different contexts makes us grow. For example, learning to apply pre-emptive, and reactive timing concepts (pre-emptive – Sen no Sen, reactive – Tai no Sen and Go no Sen) to other situations.

“A stitch in time saves nine” is really using a pre-emptive (Sen no Sen) approach to avoid a bigger tear in your clothes. This mundane example if considered carefully should give you many ways to lever this principle in many more interesting and complex ways.

Does you path make you a better person?

Are you focused only on winning by beating another person at his expense?—a zero sum game—or are you winning by creating a partner in the Dojo that can help you learn? What is winning?

Careful what you think here, you can have a tactical victory and a strategic loss at the same time. It all depends on what you set out to achieve. For example if my goal is to protect my family from an assault by two opponents, you can completely kill one (a decisive tactical victory) while letting the other assault your family (a strategic loss). Considering subjects such as what winning is can’t help but make you grow. I’ve only used the concept of winning here as an illustration.

Thinking about these things allows you to utilize these concepts in the boardroom and family life. Sometimes letting student throw you or your young son beat you at something is the surest way to create confidence and desire to learn, a strategy build on success not failure.

The Future of Budo

I have no idea what the future of Budo will be like. My own thinking is that Budo is a subset of Strategy (Heiho) and that is the avenue I am pursuing. Others will no doubt have other avenues to explore. Most importantly, I think the ideal of Budo—that of becoming a better person—involves a well rounded approach to the multiple facets of Budo, and to minimize distortions caused by focusing too tightly on single facets (i.e. Bujutsu only, or sport only, or meditation only).

Budo - Enso conceptI’ll end this article using the concept of the circle or Roundness (Enso) found in many Zen paintings. If you focus only on a few strengths (left figure shown below), when you face your opponent, he will always attempt to evade your strengths and target your weakness. If you concentrate on building on your weaknesses to become less “pointy” as in the second figure, there will be much less for the opponent to exploit.

The Zen ideal of Enso symbolizes lacking nothing and nothing in excess—when the mind is free to let the body and spirit create whatever is needed under the circumstances you find yourself in. This ideal of a “well rounded” person that exposes little for the opponent to avoid or exploit is also the ideal of Budo.

Budo takes the points of Bujutsu, Bushido, Training, Mental Status, Psychology, etc. and rounds them into an ideal that we all strive for.


Budo - rounding out your path


by Rick Rowell

Comparative Kata – Swimming in Variation

and I Don’t Want to Get Out of the Water

Kata - variation

We rely on Variation for so many things. Variety in the way musical notes are put together to make music endlessly enjoyable. We rely on diversity and variation in biological systems from genetic diversity through species diversity.  We like to eat diverse foods given the choice. Can you imagine a world where there is only one song, one species, and one kind of food?

So why do we think there is only one way to do a Kata? Time to shake Newtonian (absolute time and space) views of Kata into a more Einsteinian (Spacetime and relativity) view.

With the explosion of video resources on the web these days there is great opportunity to do a meta-analysis of Kata. So I thought I would share my exploration of one Kata that is common to a number of styles of Karate—Seisan.

Below are three videos to show various forms of this Kata – there are plenty more – fill your boots. This kata has wide geographic distribution and illustrates many forms of Seisan. I am not interested in whether “one form is better than the other.” I am interested in what they can teach me about my understanding of the Kata. The three below are a good representative number without getting too big and messy.

These visual references offer the serious student a wealth of quality information if they are diligent, particularly if they explore Variation (Henka) related to their martial art.

My observations can be found after the  the vids.

1. Seisan – Shito Ryu

2. Seisan – Goju Ryu

3. Seisan – Uechi Ryu


Comparing Kata

Kata Evolves – So Get Over it


Use it to as a Tool

to Make You Stronger

First of all, there are no wrong kata. Kata evolves and changes, follows different pathways and personalities. Kata is Variable (over both time and geography). Picking apart a kata or the person doing it because you learned it different is a sign of immaturity. Comments of this nature can just be thrown in the dustbin and chalked up to inexperience.

Kata - Variation kanji HenkaTake the Variation (Henka) you see as a way to explore the meaning in your Kata—the facets of other types of thinking and emphasis.

Variation is the Key to Being Flexible in Combat

Imagine reacting the same way to every attack. It better work the first time because your opponent is going to adapt, sometimes faster than you would believe. Variation allows you to adapt to circumstance. Combat is fluid and circumstances change. Quickly adapting to conditions and even moving into predictive approaches to identify and exploit Gaps (Suki) in combat, place you ahead of the opponent.

Variation Doesn’t Mean Bad Thinking

Even badly performed or conceived kata can be instructive. Analyzing poor biomechanics, technique and bunkai can help you improve yours. What is important is that you consider what each has to offer to make your kata more complete in both understanding and application.

If you want to find a great kernel of information, sometimes you have to go through a lot of chaff.  You need to filter the information based on your level of understanding. Learn to identify the gems, but be careful, the gems can look just like any other rock see my article on Exploring Kata Horizons. Just remember, your level of understanding changes over time—what you might think as chaff might be a hidden kernel of truth that you discover later.

Exploring History and Origins

As we can see, the Kata Seisan has a number of incarnations that can be attributed to different people and even different areas of Okinawa, and if we look further we can see Seisan’s roots in China as Okinawans went to China at different times and brought back their version of this kata.

Researching a Kata, history and origins gives you a much broader understanding of the Kata, but it’s easy to get lost in all the ambiguity, half truths and forgotten history. There are great sources of the history of these Kata available if you search for them. I’m not even going to attempt to go there in this article. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is value in this research, because it gives you confidence that the kata you study has roots and depth, and is based on considerable thinking. It can also show how your learning has deviated from others.

This is an unfortunate aspect of the martial arts journey. There are many branches of kata that have lost depth and understanding. Tracing your Kata to pivotal personalities gives you confidence that the depth is there, or that you can rediscover it. These things are dependent on your teachers and organizations.

Similarity and Differences

These different versions of Seisan are interpretations made by different groups or individuals.  Each version has emphasized particular aspects and de-emphasized or lost meaning in others. This is the essence of style (Ryu)—a way of thinking about how to solve the problems of combat. Evolution in action with selective pressures both good and bad.  Can we say that a moth is worse than a butterfly, a hawk less magnificent than an eagle?

Let’s look at a few similarities and differences in Seisan and what they can teach us. Don’t even think this is exhaustive. The following are broad brush strokes used to illustrate:

1. What I find striking in all of these examples is the use of the arms like the wings of a bird, regardless of whether the hand is open or closed. This tells me that there is possible history related to white crane styles of Chinese martial arts, and has shown me several new ways of looking at bunkai in my Kata. 

2. Both arms are used in unison—blocking and striking. This tells me that there is much consideration to Against the Initiative (Tai no Sen) timing, where one wing blocks and the other strikes (with both open and closed hands).

3. Shito and Goju Versions use a low Joint Kick (Kansetsu Geri) whereas the other two emphasize front kick or knee kick. The kicking shown in this kata is very instructive. It has shown me that I can use my knee against an opponent, a front kick and a low sidekick all as Variation (Henka). It has also shown me several different locations in my own kata where these techniques can be used that are not overtly shown, especially in the turning movements.

4. Some blocking movements can be used as strikes—Unity of Offense and Defence (Kogeki Bobi).

5. Some blocking movements are different in height (Jodan, Chudan, Gedan). For example one version uses a middle block, while another uses a low block in the same movement. So why should I be fixed with one type of block when the condition of combat dictate another?

6. Some movements in other Seisan lineages I am not as familiar with, gives me the idea that similar meanings are found in other Kata that I know like Niseishi and Sanchin—a new avenue to explore those kata.

What Can We Conclude?

Looking at the Variation in Seisan (that I have studied for more than 40 years) makes it immensely more interesting.

Variation is the key to understanding your kata more fully.

The Variation between lineages of this kata provide new avenues to explore and new perspectives to your Kata’s bunkai.

Kata, like an Engagement Posture (Kamae) is a distillation and indication of thinking. Certain individuals were pivotal in developing these kata into something more mature or evolved. My conclusion is that I want look at these individuals in more detail, because the variation in their thinking led to the differences we see in these Kata.

Is the Seisan I learned the same as that learned by Chokuto Kyan, who taught Tsuyoshi Chitose, who taught it my teachers—I doubt it.  The question should be – Is it better, richer, deeper? 

Our generation has spent more time delineating and codifying kata than evolving it. For some it’s good enough just learning the sequence of movements.  For me it’s about evolution to something richer—because Kata is fighting. Understanding the richness in Variation is why I keep studying, and training, and dropping sweat on the dojo floor.

Variation makes my Seisan richer. By inference, Variation makes all my kata richer, in fact, variation makes much of my life richer.

Thanks to the people who make these type of resources available for someone like me to swim in variation. My eyes open a little more each time I stop to look.

As a homework exercise, take any movement from your Seisan and come up with five variations. If you don’t come up with ten you aren’t looking hard enough.

“Ichi o kiite ju o shiru” – Hear one understand ten.

If you are interested in these kind of topics consider Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles.

by Rick Rowell