25. Hataraki…ad-libbing in kata training

Sometimes things just don’t go as you planned it. Or, as the Scottish poet Robert Burns would say, “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley (often go astray).”

In my last blog, I stressed the importance of repetitious training in order to be “natural.” Kata training is really glorified repetitive drill training (well, it’s more than that, but mainly it’s drilling) that is supposed to embed movements and reactions into your body and mind so that you don’t need to spend precious amounts of time cogitating over whether or not to block, say, a sword stroke at your head or scream like a little girl and just die. Hopefully, through such training, you won’t curl up and die should the actual time arise.

On the other hand, you may have trained incessantly for a specific action, but when the time comes, the situation is not quite right and your technique needs to be altered in order for it to work. For martial artists who have a component of training with a resistive partner (as in “sparring”), “catch as catch can” action-reaction is nearly second nature. No partner is going to let you apply that choke hold perfectly without resistance in judo mat work, for instance. So you improvise. For kata-based training, however, developing this ability to improvise is a bit more problematic, but still important nevertheless. Not everyone is going to come at you with a perfect forward-leaning stance so you can throw him magnificently in a kote-gaeshi, for example.  In a self-defense situation, you may have to improvise a lot to get that throw to work.

Although in kata geiko (“forms” training) it’s best to try to perfect the kata as is, unless the practitioner is aware of the possibility of your partner “breaking” the form and going at you in a different way, you’re just going through the motions. You don’t have the right frame of mind of being focused on executing the right counter to the right attack. That’s why solo kata exercises are great for developing your own stance, balance and timing, but it’s a good idea to also include partner-based training or some form of free exchange. For kata based systems, going overboard with “free exchange” might taint the style with too much emphasis on sports budo. But sans that, working in kata with different partners who have different heights, weights, timing and attack patterns are a decent way to develop the ability to adjust one’s form.

Thus, if you look at the few solo-type kata styles, such as iaido, karatedo or even a Chinese art like Tai Chi Ch’uan, the solo exercises are always augmented in some way with partner-based training. You never know what a partner will think of doing, even in a regulated exercise. Your distancing, angles of counter and attacks will change according to one’s partners.

The ability to improvise is not absent in traditional Japanese budo. It’s there, but most beginners don’t know about it because the emphasis in the beginning is on getting the form right. Later, when the “form” is inherent in your moves, you should be able to “break” the form yet still move within the framework of what you learned in the style.

Let me explain by drawing on a term and examples from a different art, the Way of Tea, or chanoyu. Japanese tea ceremony is concerned with seemingly infinite minutiae of details of movements and timing. Many of my tea teachers hammer me incessantly in practice if my arms are just one degree to high or too low when I’m holding the tea whisk. Each temae, or form of tea, has to follow very rigid steps, rules and movements. Yet, when you host an actual tea event, a chakai or chaji, any number of things can go wrong, throwing your performance off kilter. What do you do? You can’t very well tell the guest, “Oh, well, this room is not the right size for the amount of steps I’m supposed to take to get to the kettle, so I’m cancelling the ceremony.”

No. You improvise. You take smaller or larger steps, or you add or subtract the amount of steps you take. The hot water in the kettle may not be hot enough for the tea when you start your temae, so you slow down your preparation to let the water heat up before you scoop the tea and add the hot water. In tea, this is called hataraki, a word from the Japanese verb for “work.” Literally, you “work” the problem out. You improvise.

It’s assumed that by the time you’re capable of putting on a chakai, you have had enough experience in practice and in assisting at other people’s chakai to learn how to improvise, or do hataraki, when things don’t go as planned. In kata training, the same attitude holds true. You should have enough training to eventually improvise should the moment call for it.

Be careful, however, how you try to improvise in kata training. There’s a good way and a really, really bad way. A bad way is to use it as a kind of one-upmanship, to show how you can tag your partner who is trying to learn a kata properly when you don’t follow the kata form yourself.  Sometimes that will work and you can feel superior to your partner. Sometimes it can backfire very, very badly.

One of my acquaintances once told me of a time when a training partner had come at him during a complex kata and deliberately swung his bokken (wooden sword) at his head at the wrong time, in the wrong way. The bokken was coming fast and furious. My friend, who had decades of training, reacted by instinct. His jo (short staff) went up from a low position where it should have been to block the expected low strike, it whipped the bokken away and the tip came down square on the partner’s head, literally right between the eyes. Bam. The partner went down like a ton of bricks, on his rear end, nearly unconscious.

A better way, perhaps, would have been if his partner had said, look, let’s take apart this kata at half-speed. I’m going to “break” the kata at some points and react in a different way that might still make sense, tactically, and let’s see if we can figure out alternative defenses and attacks? Let’s work on this together.

Such an investigation might have led to insights as to why the kata was set up the way it is.

In solo kata like in karatedo, you might take apart a form, say such as Annanko, and say, okay, sensei’s bunkai here is that it’s a turn and block against a punch from someone attacking to your rear. But what if the guy in front of you holds your arm? What if it’s not a punch but a kick? How would I improvise as I am turning? …And then you work it out at half speed first, trying to see what works, what won’t.  Stick to the theory of the kata but change your reaction. So for example, if you turn and use a chuudan uke, maybe you turn the same way but try a gedan barai uke. Does the theory of turning and blocking still work? Can you improvise with what you know about body turning, balance and deflection blocks?

The fact that not all opponents will react the same way impelled many kata-based systems to add what are called henka, or variations, to their basic kata. That also explains, at least in my own jujutsu school, why we have so many kata. Actually, we have a limited set of body movements; it’s just that over the centuries, the system developed variations and variations of variations of the same defense if the attack came at a different angle, position or distance.

In one kata, for example, an attacker strikes and you deflect the punch, lock his elbow in an arm lock, and then step to his front, leading him to his front and throwing him forward so he takes a forward roll. But what if he doesn’t want to do a forward roll? In a kata right after this one, instead of throwing your partner, you feel his resistance to the role and instead step in and sweep his front foot so he falls flat on his face. And there’s yet another kata with the same initial movements, but this time the attacker, upon being forced down, fights against the throw and tries to stand back up, arm bar or not. So then there’s a leg sweep throwing the person on his back. One initial attack, one reaction, but depending on how the attacker reacts to the first application of the lock, three different scenarios.

By having a skillful partner who can react properly as “uke,” you can train in these three forms and develop a sense of “feel” as to what would work under such scenarios in reality. These examples help to build in hataraki in martial arts that are primarily forms based.

And one of the best ways, as my teacher told me, to develop this sense of improvisation in a kata-based system is to occasionally do embu. For those who aren’t aware of this term, embu is a kind of “demonstration.” But it’s more than just showing up at kid’s day at the local shopping mall to demonstrate your karate school’s children’s class. Koryu embu are serious stuff back in Japan. When different koryu ryuha (schools) get together, there’s a feeling of camaraderie, but there’s also an underlying sense of competition. You don’t want to look like cow poo compared to the other schools. So you do your best.

As one koryu practitioner told me before she went up to perform her naginata embu, “I’m off to battle.” I thought she was joking. But no, her kata didn’t look like it was just going through the motions. It looked like if her partner didn’t get out of the way, he would be in a serious amount of hurt, even though the naginata was wood and not sharpened steel.

Her kata looked magnificent. At the end of the kata, she bowed to her partner stoically, they walked off the embujo (performance area), and then very quietly she said, “Dang it, he went thataway instead of thisaway, and he nearly took off my head. So I had to block that cut and whack him in the shins to make him realize his mistake.”

So the kata done in an embu is intense. My sensei encouraged me to choose quality embu to participate in, now and then, because “one embu is like 10,000 regular practices.”

Or, as another person said of his first embu, “Holy shit, he came at me like it was shinken shobu (a duel with live blades) so I thought, okay, I’m going to give as good as I get.”

Thus, another reason why serious embu is good for training is because so many things can just go totally wrong but you can’t just stop in the middle of a kata. If you’re used to working on a smooth hardwood floor in the dojo, doing kata swinging solid wooden swords on an uneven, grassy and rock-strewn field can really test your concentration and balance. There’s bound to be mistakes, slipped feet, and missed targeting. So you get good at improvising. You do some hataraki.

At one embu, I complimented a student of a sword art. I had never seen that particular kata of that school, I said, but it looked really good.

“Yeah, well you’d never seen it before because we don’t have it!” he said. “My sensei was totally out to lunch. We started off in a kata and then he just lost his sense of where we were. Maybe it was too hot and his brains were fried. He came at me with something when we should have ended it! So I blocked it and looked at his face, and his eyes told me he was on autopilot. He came at me again with a strike and I blocked it again, and we went on and on until I finally whacked him HARD on the wrist. That kind of woke him up and we just stopped, finally.”

While he said it was a weird experience, it was also telling in that the student was trained enough to quickly improvise and block all the cuts directed his way. He was doing hataraki, without stopping the kata and bawling, “No! You got it wrong!”  You can’t do that in an embu, and you can’t do it in a battle.

14 thoughts on “25. Hataraki…ad-libbing in kata training

  1. I would think another advantage to embu is a greater experience of performance stress. That coupled with “what happens, happens” is good training.

    In modern firearms training you have your basic kata: weapons presentation, basic mechanics, manipulations of the firearm, then manipulations of the firearm when things go wrong, etc. This is often done “dry fire,” with no ammunition, and the best shooters in the world -combat or competition – consistently do these practices dry fire throughout their careers.

    Then you add live fire, with targets. Things can go wrong because you aren’t exactly sure WHAT is going to happen necessarily, you learn to read your sights as to why you missed the mark you were aiming at, you run dry and reload, or you have a malfunction that you have to fix based on the malfunction that you are presented with….then you work against the clock or against another shooter next to you for time….adding performance stress. Differences in the range, in courses of fire, etc. make it so you have to hataraki.

    Finally you move to decision makers vs. a partner – he plays the “bad guy” and gives you the “looks” or “tells” for drawing a gun, or for presenting a wallet or cell phone so you make the no-shoot decision. Or he presents a gun so that you make the shoot decision AND you can check your hits with marking cartridges like Simunition; but any of those previous problems can happen, a miss, a malfunction, and in proper training you simply work that problem out and get back in the fight;

    And finally, the partner becomes an opponent and instead of giving you the looks, he is trying to beat you to the punch, and win the gunfight, with all the factors involved.

    Clearly now the stress level is much higher because what happens, happens and you work through it.

    Just a note on commonality. I like your chado example: this stuff applies beyond fighting technique to tactical applications across the board.

  2. And another thing:

    This kind of training is being confirmed by modern practitioners with combat experience and by science:

    Train so that you master or “overlearn” the basics, as you won’t have time or focus to think through both the problem you are dealing with and the basic technical/mechanics problems under time-compressed life and death events.

    You cannot pay attention to the basics at the same time you are attentionally tasked with handling a threat situation: you have to have automatic skills (mushin) in the former to be creative/adaptive i.e. to harmonize (ai) with your environment.

    Kata only training IS a problem if it is only ever rote “you do this, I do that” and never brought to the point that the kata is broken. Or that realistic stressors are never introduced so that trunking decisions and tactics are used in adapting to a change in environment.

    The whole idea of the training is to master basics to that the trunking becomes adaptive to differences and technically seamless, and therefore the practitioner can better attend to the overall situation.

    1. Again, Kit, you have presented really interesting notes from the POV of modern tactical and weapons-based training systems that I could never offer. Thanks!!! –While a good deal of koryu weapons and unarmed training is not meant (really) to primarily produce sheer fighting skills, especially for the beginner, it is important to stress (as I do with my students) that the end goal is to have at least minimum physical skills, health, coordination as well as conceptual understanding (distance, timing, psychological effects) of the art that might minimally offer some idea of self-defense.

      Still, the koryu did arise out of a warrior class that experienced similar situations facing law enforcement and military personnel. What the systems codified in their forms and oral teachings, albeit dealing with different weaponry, are many times quite similar to recent developments in modern training. I’m really struck by the similarities.

      So while we may have different goals, the similarities being discovered in training methods are quite interesting. Beyond the physical and technical, it’s the pedagogy of training, isn’t it? That’s one reason why samurai enjoyed studying tea ceremony. It taught them more than just how to make a bowl of tea.

  3. Wayne, a really good presentation on the value of kata geiko. At least two training methods are really necessary, in my experience, for all well-trained budoka. Kata geiko that has/will become mature and deep as you’ve described and the other is real randori. I asked Phil Relnick not long ago how many judoka (non Japanese) in his experience while he was in Japan had learned to do tadashi randori. He held up both hands with fingers outstretched. I haven’t been around all of those folks, but most of them I can remember the touch of their judo. I agree. I have, though, taught lots of my students over the past forty years to randori for real. It is, as you state in your blog, necessary. Intuitive, creative decision making… on the go… is developed through mature kata geiko and randori geiko. Most get into what they think is randori but it’s just “shiai light” or it’s combative instead of a way of managed competitiveness where each person is trying to “not get caught” 100 percent and get the other person 100 percent while, at the same time, not really caring who gets caught as long as it’s a valid, clean waza that enables both participants to learn from it. Truly, everyone wins! That sort of randori is essential to developing into a master budoka.

    Keep up the flow of “stuff” Wayne… this is really a great source and flow of important budo stuff for everyone. Thanks again for your passionate “not quitting.”

  4. While this tends to curl the toes of traditional budoka, about the only place I have experienced that kind of randori has been with good traditional BJJ groups.

    It is worlds apart from Judo’s “shiai randori,” submission wrestling, or MMA.

    1. To Kit and Chuck, actually, as I was driving home last night, I thought that another blog related to this should deal with “randori” or “jiyugeiko”; how it’s often done nowadays and how I think it should be done, ideally speaking. I took apart kata training this time, so why not randori training? Chuck’s and Kit’s comments are kind of very similar to my own thoughts. As for finding that kind of training in BJJ groups, as long as you CAN find it, it’s good. I can’t say that I saw much of that or heard of that kind of training here, though, in most martial arts schools at all save for a very, very few. But more on that later…

  5. Kit, come up to the Monroe area north of Seattle and visit for a couple of days. Sat/Sun you can see/feel what I mean. We can probably get you fed too! 🙂

    BTW, our Budo News has been down for awhile and your article will be in the next issue. We have some technical problems right now with changing from print to pdf on the web site. Seems like it should be easy to fix to me but none of our experts has much time left from their real jobs being that kind of expert all day long. It’ll come though…

  6. Sure thing, thanks! I will be in touch next time I am up that way.

    Your “aiki-newaza” seminar a few years back actually reminded John Sims and I of BJJ – we actually talked about it then!

  7. Kit, Same roots… Ushijima Sensei – Larry Fukuda, Karl Geis, me, and Aaron Clark
    Ushijima Sensei, Kimura Sensei influence in BJJ, I think.

    There’s one line in Mifune Sensei’s ‘Canon of Judo’ that says that kuzushi is necessary in newaza. I’ve never seen any other works on judo that mention kuzushi in newaza or heard an other teachers other than the lineage above. I’m not saying there aren’t some; I’ve just never heard it from any others. Ernie Cates has talked about it, and certainly does it. Of course, as one of my teachers, he also influenced my newaza. The principle of ‘ju’ works standing up or laying down. Using the other person’s power is the key. Constant flowing, changing positional dominance whether on top or on the bottom is the way. It’s not a BJJ invention, for sure.

  8. Kit and Chuck, for whatever reference you might want to file this under, I suspect Mikinosuke Kawaishi also taught some “smooth” newaza concepts, esp. prewar. My college judo teacher was a product of Kawaishi and Mifune, largely, and in the 1970s, he devoted half the training time to newaza, half to standing, at a time when pure newaza was often only an afterthought in some judo schools. Sometimes for fun, he showed how he could pin even some competitive college judo players in randori simply with his forearms on their chest, like an “unbendable arm” aiki technique. I just read Feldenkrais’ “Higher Judo.” He was a student of Kawaishi’s and I saw a lot of similarities in Feldenkrais’ concepts compared to what I learned and how I learned my judo. Feldenkrais, of course, went on to develop the Feldenkrais method and helped in the development of Krav Maga.

  9. ” It’s not a BJJ invention, for sure.”

    Certainly not. They probably don’t know that, though…..: )

    Then again, its probably not a judo invention, either. I think it really lies in the expression of the principle, no matter what title you give it.

    Good BJJ does discuss/use kuzushi in newaza all the time, just referring to the opponent’s ‘base” and what you do with it/how you affect it. Tim Cartmell is an excellent instructor in these terms, teaching how kuzushi is very important in properly applying osaekomi and armlocks, and I saw the same thing from Mike Fowler in a recent seminar with him as well.

    Then there is Rickson, who is legendary for his ability to use his guard, with no hands, and prevent even highly skilled black belts from ever even settling their weight to begin to defend or attack him…

  10. Wayne, I got to spend time with Moshe Feldenkrais on four occasions, once in Paris and three times in Israel. Man, could he tell some stories! A really feisty character whom I picked up quite a bit of his basic thinking and principles. I certainly would not have ever wanted to be on his bad side. I don’t think his judo was that great, but he was a real judoka and would never quit trying to learn and spread judo.

  11. Chuck,

    Wow. I was really impressed by his attempt to scientifically explain judo techniques, putting them into a grander scheme of body movement. Must have been a great experience.

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