31. Kata and Katachi

Although in common parlace, the two terms kata and katachi are very similar, in traditional martial arts practice it is a good idea to make a difference between the two. The difference will reflect, I think, a proper attitude about the purpose and function of kata in regards to one’s personal growth in budo and in overall physical, mental and spiritual progress.

I will first admit, though, that this concept is not anything I can say is original to me. I  first heard of this concept from the retired Grand Tea Master of the Urasenke School of Tea Ceremony (chanoyu), Daisosho Genshitsu Sen. He was talking about tea, but it fits right into classical budo training as well.

Kata, as Dr. Sen (he holds an academic Ph.D.) said, and my Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary notes, means, “model, mold, matrix, impression, style, type, pattern, make, set form, usage.”

Katachi, Nelson notes, is very similar, and means, “form, shape, personal appearance.”

As Dr. Sen said, kata is not an end in itself; the goal of kata is to reach a certain katachi.  He went on to explain, and I here’s how I think it translates from chanoyu to budo practice.

In classical Japanese budo, the practice of forms, or kata, is of paramount importance.  You run through a particular “set” over and over again. Now, there are students who reach a certain level of their kata and they’re satisfied with it, and they stop progressing.  You should never be entirely happy with your kata as it is. The best students (and teachers) constantly self-criticize their kata in order to get better and better at proper timing, stance, breathing, and physical movement.

In kata training, therefore, the practitioner should never be a “robot,” running through rote forms without thinking. He should be actively engaged mentally in performing the kata the right way, and a better way, during each repitition. This is more easily the case when doing kata in paired forms, such as what you can see in judo, aikido, kendo, or koryu (classical bugei) kata. Your partner keeps you “honest” because each partner will bring a different body type, timing, and distancing to the kata that forces you to constantly adjust your own timing and movements to “fit.” This is the danger of performing solo karatedo kata. All too often, karate students will fall into the “robotic” fallback, without engaging their creativity and awareness  in each part of the kata.

It helps, in any case, to have a good model in your mind when performing kata so that you have a goal to strive towards. That’s where a good teacher is critical, because he/she must serve as the model and the conduit for what is “good” kata through actual performance, demonstration, participation as a training partner, and through critiques of one’s kata. DVDs and videos may be helpful as training aids and reminders, but they cannot take the place of such a living, breathing teacher standing right next to you and critiquing your movements.

In performing a kata the right way, you are trying to “mold” your body movements towards a particular way of doing things that is the “right” way, as opposed to what your body may THINK is the “right” way. Striving towards such “naturalness” may actually feel “unnatural” at first. It’s a real Japanese way of looking at body movement training, I think. It’s like training a miniature bonsai plant to look “natural.” There’s really nothing “natural” about forcing a pine tree into a faux wind-swept, assymmetric shape and deliberately miniaturizing its size. Yet, by human intervention, a bonsai becomes a work of art that appears to be the epitome of natural beauty.

In like manner, some students may step into the dojo with serious issues regarding posture and body movements. Maybe they’ve been slouching all their lives and suddenly they are asked to stand up straight. Maybe they duck-walk naturally and lean from side-to-side when they walk, or hunch over and waddle like a gorilla because that’s “macho” in their community.

I’ve said it before and will say it again. Budo is not for everyone. If a student cannot alter his physical state to perform towards the proper model of a kata, he will hit a ceiling and will never progress much farther than the simplest and most basic of levels.

This is markedly different from “sport” budo or “self-defense” budo in their extremes. Hey, if you’re in a mixed martial arts contest and you have the posture of Quasimodo but can knock out your opponent, nobody cares. The goal of such sports contests is not primarily character and physical development (although good teachers in those sports will probably emphasize these as well), but mainly to knock out the other guy, posture be damned. The same goes for martial arts that emphasize “self-defense.” You basically want to learn how to gouge out an attacker’s eyes, to kick butt and survive an encounter, not necessarily to work on proper spinal alignment when drawing a sword out. In some modern versions of martial arts, when you perform kata (or, as some of their exponents call it, “kadda”), you want to dazzle the audience, twirl your sword around like a cheerleading baton, and basically be as entertaining as possible.

Of course, exponents of such kinds of martial arts will demur and counter, arguing that they, too, emphasize proper form. That may be true, and in fact, proper application of techniques do make a difference in achieving peak performance in any physical endeavor, but I don’t think they come near as close to the preeminent position proper kata has in classical budo, especially the koryu, and that may very well be for both good and bad reasons, which I won’t go into right now.

Going back to koryu kata training. When you “do” a kata you are trying to make your body fit a particular “mold” of how it’s supposed to be done. That mold is your teacher, seniors and mentors’ version of the kata, augmented by your own studies about the kata’s meaning and application.

Trying to fit a “mold” is often the extent that most people aspire to or reach when training in non-sportive martial arts. Thus many critics of kata training think it just creates robotic, unnaturally stiff practitioners who really can’t “fight,” or react naturally in a self-defense situation.

There also comes a point when you can actually do a kata that is technically proficient but devoid of spirit. It’s got no heart. It’s like listening to a computer generated rendition of a classical music piece, or perhaps a violin recital by a precocious young preteen. Most of the time (up to now…who knows what the computer will be capable of in the near future?), such attempts are technically pitch perfect, but may lack the unexplainable tenor, imperfections, and minor changes brought on by a mature artist’s own life experiences, mature character and emotions, and humanity.

In such cases, practitioners of kata training, of trying to fit into a “mold,” forget that the ultimate goal of such training is not simply to keep doing kata over and over again, but to use the training to go from fitting into a mold to BECOMING a form or shape, having the right katachi, without the crutch of a mold. You should reach a point where you’re no longer forcing yourself to fit a mold. The “shape” has become internalized. It is no longer kata, it is katachi.

It’s like mold-making in sculpture. You don’t leave your piece of art in the plaster mold and call it finished. You have to take the cast sculpture out of the mold and have it stand on its own. The sculpture will then be released from the kata, or mold, and have its own shape, or katachi.

As in tea, Dr. Sen explained that however nitpicky the training of tea temae (the “kata” of tea) may be, its ultimate goal is not just to perform temae like being stuck in a rigid mold, but to use that training to create the proper “natural” form in one’s body, mind and spirit, to use “kata” to achieve proper “katachi.”

To further explain this transformation, if you train hard enough and in the right way, you don’t have to force yourself to get into “proper” posture anymore; it’s your natural posture now. You don’t have to spend as much time consciously thinking about how to form your fist and strike the centerline, driving the punch with your hip instead of your shoulder. Your body naturally assumes the proper alignment. You no longer need the crutch of a “mold” to remind you how to move your body. It’s already there, it’s already in the proper shape, it’s already an integral part of you.  As in a tea performance that looks unrehearsed and natural, but took years to perfect, your kata looks fluid and flowing. It doesn’t look robotic or disjointed anymore.

In truth, this shift to “naturalness” can, paradoxically, take years and even decades of training to attain. It involves not just a physical altering of your body, but a mental sharpening, a spiritual deepening. The mold is not just a physical mold. It is a way of thinking and a philosophy of existence that has been honed by centuries of teachers who have gone on before you, made their own mistakes and corrections, and have passed down physical molds that encapsualate a way to form a mind-body-spirit shape that is the ultimate goal of classical budo training. You have moved from kata to katachi. Or, at the very least, you know what you are really striving for.


8 thoughts on “31. Kata and Katachi

  1. Kushida Sensei said that the mind and body reflect one another. We train one to train the other.

    It is by deeply studying our kata that we learn the philosophy and principles of our martial art in the most visceral sense; in our bodies. We do this to literally embody what we study.

    “Philosophy practiced is the goal of learning.” – Thoreau

  2. Well done, Wayne! This is one of the clearest explanations I’ve seen for this subject. Another keeper for sure. When we truly develop katachi in any of the Japanese arts it shows in everything else we do. At least for those who can see…

  3. Wayne, excellent as always.

    I also believe there are other lessons in not being a “robot” and being mentally engaged through kata work. A highly decorated soldier once told me that being efective in the battlefield required “attention to minor detail”. Developing an ability to percieve minor flaws and adjustments whilst exerting ourselves in motion is an important martial skill. The person who jumps highest or kicks fastest is not always the best warrior when they get taken by surprise because they missed some minor detail about a movement in the shadows.

    1. To Chuck and Stu,

      Thanks for the feedback. It gives me a better idea of what works with my blog and what doesn’t, although from time to time I’ll just throw something up for the heck of it. When I think about it, the difference between “kata” and “katachi” is not just a solely Japanese concept. While repetition training is important, it’s what you do with the drilled-in skills that make a difference. Thus, from anecdotal stories and some recent studies of survivors of disasters and war, what seems to matter is that balance of training and self-awareness (besides plain old dumb luck). Was it “All Quiet on the Western Front,” or some other war classic where the old sargeant is the one who survives all the battles while a lot younger, stronger recruits die because he has more basic smarts that comes from experience?

  4. What is wrong with Chinese martial arts, in my experience Japanese martial arts tend to be Rigid and no room for flexibility whereas Chinese martial arts like Wing Chun adapt to you

    1. Ryan,

      I hope you take my reply in the vein of being a teachable moment in your martial arts training and your education as a reader.

      First of all, I went through that blog once again and found no part where I criticized Chinese martial arts. So your argument seems like you’re attacking a straw man. I can be accused of a lot of things but having a blanket judgement of all Chinese martial arts as inferior is certainly not one of them. Read the post carefully, without your blinders on, please.

      Second, I wrote: “In kata training, therefore, the practitioner should never be a “robot,” running through rote forms without thinking.” So I’m not implicitly disagreeing with you on your general observation, but I do argue that it’s not supposed to be like that. The “robotic” nature of many kata performances come from an inadequate understanding of the kata. I’ve observed one Okinawan karate class and an aikido friend and I both remarked that their practice looked like “aikido with striking” or “jujutsu with striking.” Very smooth and fluid.

      I think, therefore, that you haven’t seen enough classical koryu arts up close and for real. Even the modern stuff has some fluidity. Think of the Kodokan Judo’s “Ju No Kata.” It approaches tai chi in terms of fluid, smooth, unbroken freedom of movement. Or aikido in its entirety. Or, the aforementioned very old-school Okinawan style of karate. As for koryu, basically throw a stone at a koryu embu in Japan and hit a koryu, nearly any koryu, and you will see that their style has real fluidity as well as structure. Can’t afford to go to Japan? Well, try YouTube, which is a dismal second choice, but you do find some stuff there that’s worth watching:


      Too “stiff”? Well, figure that the forms using metal swords are using shinken, real, “live” blades, two-and-a-half feet of razor sharp steel. You have to follow traditional form because if you start to make up shit like you’re some kurroddee guy making stuff up and throwing your sword in the air and catching it, etc., you are going to lose digits, not to speak perhaps of self-amputating your own limbs. Following forms keeps you safe.

      Lastly, I’m not sure Wing Chun was a good example for you in comparing “flexibility.” Tai Chi Ch’uan, Pa Kau, Hsing-I, Chi Kung, maybe. Not Wing Chun. From what I’ve seen of the PKR-approved Wing Chun and the Hong Kong variety, it’s pretty stiff compared to the internal Chinese arts, and somewhat limited in terms of “adaptability.” Certainly, it’s an incredibly effective fighting form at about arm’s length. Closer on the ground, or from kicking space or weapon’s space, not so much. I’ve “played” with a friend who’s a Wing Chun stylist and we both acknowledged that problem when we went at each other. So note my other blog about “finding the other three corners.” I think that’s why the late Bruce Lee expanded his own repertoire. And I also note that in an NPR interview, Lee’s daughter noted that he encouraged his own kids to take up Japanese judo first, so they have a foundation of grappling, freedom of movement, tumbling and groundwork, which would eventually lead to a well-rounded martial arts background, if they so chose. He wasn’t hung up on “Chinese” or “Japanese” arts. Even the head of the Wu Style Tai Chi, Eddie Wu, told me he had excellent memories of doing judo as a kid, because he couldn’t stand tai chi when he was young. He said he used to run away when his parents wanted him to practice, so they put him in a judo class. He said it turned out that judo was “tai chi with throws” to him, and he loved it. And that eventually led him back to tai chi.

      Lastly, I do not criticize Chinese martial arts by omission. This blog just happens to be about koryu, not Chinese martial arts. It’s not my area of expertise. I will say, though, that I have done several years’ worth of tai chi ch’uan, first Yang and then Wu style, and a touch of Pa Kua and Chi Kung. I can’t say enough superlatives about them. In return, you really should try some authentic koryu. Donn F. Draeger used to encourage his mentees to add some kind of Chinese art to their curriculum, because they would learn things that would enlighten their own Japanese martial arts training. I concur with his opinion, if a person had enough time and energy to do so. And I would encourage a Chinese stylist to do likewise, given the time. Aikido or judo, in particular, have been reinforcements for what I learned in tai chi and Pa Kua.


  5. Good answer Wayne. When Meik Skoss saw my aiki practice in Tokyo, he said, “Your aikido is very Chinese.” I took that as a compliment and a testament to my training with Mr.Li in Danang. His Hsing yi was a great addition to my early training in judo, ju jutsu, and karate. Jiyushinkai qualities are a product of that mix for sure.

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