kata - the performance


an important part of karate training is the practice of kata, or 'forms', the series of prescribed moves that the karateka performs alone. kata are formal exercises. sometimes thought of as representing a battle against an unspecified number of imaginary opponents, and containing within them a huge amount of knowledge, kata are in integral part of karate training.

the origin and development of each kata are the subject of much study, and there are many kata that are used across different styles and martial arts that undoubtedly evolved from a common ancestor. within shotokan, there are twenty-six 'recognised' kata, listed below, though many clubs practice others as well as weapons kata. the performance of kata was, initially, the sum total of karate training, with kumite drills and freestyle fighting becoming popular with the development of karate as a sport. there are many who dislike kata, dismissing it as unrealistic or simply outdated, whereas others argue that kata represent a repository of knowledge that forms the very core of the art.

kata are taught in succession, with a general progression from the heian kata up to more advanced forms as the karateka gains experience (and rank; it is common for each grading to require performance of a new kata). at higher grades, a student will often be required to demonstrate the application of the kata or certain moves from it, thus showing an understanding of the move. this practice, called bunkai, is a vital aspect of kata training though can be considered separate from kata performance (refer to point eighteen of the niju kun: "Perform kata exactly; actual combat is another matter"). having a knowledge of bunkai helps when considering stylistic differences between the same kata in different styles or even between clubs; while there may be many variations on the same kata, there may be several applications that come out of a particular move and to be constrained to thinking only of one is a limiting factor in development.

eight men in turn

it is common to see kata demonstrated as an exercise in which the exponent defends against as many as eight attackers. each of these attackers appears to wait until their specified time, and attacks only along the points of the compass. this clearly does not represent a 'real' situation, and often such demonstrations are criticised as being choreographed and, by implication, ineffective. along similar lines, it is hoped that no student ever learns a kata and feels confident thereafter that they would be able to defend themselves against a multitude of attackers. certainly demonstrations are choreographed if the defendant is limited to prescribed moves, and it is just as valid to practice kata with the view of a single, skilled opponent, evading each counterattack before striking again.

in practice, kata should be regarded as a repository of techniques that guide training, rather than a sequence of moves to be learned and deployed as rote. the key to studying kata is the ability to take each single move and understand the duality of the technique being applied as itself, a single committed move, and the way that each and every technique can be meshed with every other to form an essentially limitless number of combinations. even the simplest kata can, with a small amount of insight, be easily modified to become more challenging; obvious examples of this are to perform the kata in reverse, in mirror image (or both), or to add in or change techniques however seems fit. in short, kata are rigidly taught but are flexible in use.

gradings and competition

peformance of kata in formal settings are generally divided into shitei and tokui, the latter being a 'speciality' kata chosen by the performer (usually from a shortlist assigned to their rank) and the former being 'mandatory' kata chosen by the judge/examiner and which the performer is expected to know. in gradings, karateka are usually called upon to perform their tokui kata, and may be required to perform any or all of previously studied kata. in competitions, it is common to have the heian kata as mandatory kata for preliminary rounds, with tokui kata being reserved for final rounds. it is also known for some competitions - generally open-style competitions - to allow performance of kata that have been created by the competitor themselves, even to a musical accompaniment; this highlights the recent drift of competition kata towards theatrical performance, which is often criticised by those who feel this in contrary to martial spirit.

origins of kata

the precise origins of the individual kata practised in shotokan and in other martial arts is generally unknown; what is certain is that most have been developed and changed from whatever 'original' form they may have had, as the forms were passed on from person to person. with the creation and development of different formal 'styles', there has been a move towards the opinion that kata are absolute and that there are 'correct' and 'incorrect' ways of doing them; this seems to be a peculiarly modern stance, and is ironic in that this does not reflect the attitudes of those who created the kata in the first place.

learning kata

the number of resources available for the study of kata verges on the overwhelming, and so it is important to bear in mind that kata is not standardised across different organisations and styles. consequently, the only way to learn a kata the 'correct' way is from your instructor, since it is they who are going to be assessing you. there are innumerable ways to perform kata, and these are all represented in the books and video-sharing websites available. there is no 'correct' way, and thus no 'wrong' way, to perform kata, only what is deemed correct or acceptable within your dojo or organisation.

consequently, you should learn your kata from your instructor directly, and look at everything else as secondary sources of information. sources that are invaluable in terms of explaining applications, or inspiration, and which definitely should be utilised to further your understanding. the corollary being that if you travel to a different club where the kata is performed differently, you should attempt to perform it their way; not only is this respectful to their dojo, but it may also give you a new perspective on what the moves are and what they may be used for.

the closest that shotokan gets to reference texts are the best karate series, by masatoshi nakayama, and these excellent books form a good base for knowledge of the kata as well as fundamentals of shotokan karate as it exists today. be aware, though, that there have been technical alterations to the kata by different organisations over the intervening years, together with the modern move towards dramatic performance in kata, and so your kata will be specific to who you choose to train with.

list of recognised shotokan kata

at each grade, karateka are expected to know all previous kata

kihon kata (takiyoku shodan) - needed for 9th kyu (orange belt)
heian shodan - needed for 8th kyu (red belt)
heian nidan - needed for 7th kyu (yellow belt)
heian sandan - needed for 6th kyu (green belt)
heian yondan - needed for 5th kyu (purple belt)
heian godan - needed for 4th kyu (purple/white belt)

tekki shodan - needed for 3rd kyu (brown belt)

bassai dai - needed for 2nd kyu, 1st kyu (brown/white, brown/double white belts)

brown belt kata - choose one for 1st dan grading (black belt)

kanku dai
bassai dai

1st dan kata - choose one for 2nd dan grading

kanku sho
bassai sho
tekki nidan

2nd dan kata - choose one for 3rd dan grading

gojushiho sho

3rd dan kata - choose one for 4th dan grading

tekki sandan
gojushiho dai

videos of these kata can be found on the kata videos page