I'm currently re-reading the book, 'The Secrets of Okinawan Karate' by Kiyoshi Arakaki and whilst I must admit I'm not that particularly fond of the title, I feel that the content within certainly inspires readers to think outside the box. One particular part caught my eye this morning, causing me to pause, nod and smile...
"Everyone thinks shuto is a technique that uses the hand like a sword or knife. As the definition implies; therefore, the technique becomes deadlocked. The scope of the term itself is too limited to encompass the essence of traditional karate's shuto-uke. Historically, this move can push the opponent; strike to the opponent's upper or middle body; strike the opponent's attacking arm, or leg; hook; parry and guard. All these possibilities are intrinsic in one technique. Modern shuto-uke's usage is completely different from traditional shuro-uke, which employed each individual part of the arm, including the back of the hand, palm of the hand, and side of the hand, as well as the entire arm itself. It is the same story for sei-ken, which should imply strike, hit, stab or nukite."
There is much debate between bunkai researchers as to whether the techniques in kata were designed for one particular application in mind, or whether the movements are more generic to offer options against a variety of scenarios. With the lack of historical information available, we may never know for sure. However, regardless of the opinion you personally subscribe to, it nevertheless pays dividends to look at the movements of karate with an open mind, so that your study does not become as Arakaki Sensei so eloquently described, 'deadlocked'.
Even if we believe that a series of movements in kata has only one combative application, then without knowing the answer for sure, we should still be open to evaluate all the possible options to find which seems to be most appropriate, based on an evidence-based combative framework in line with what we understand to be the original aims and objectives of the art. Of course, collecting numerous applications for the sake of it will never take you below the surface of karate, but a few contrasting ideas may well just help you come to a more logical conclusion, rather than placing all your eggs in one basket.
In my opinion, the classical 'application' kata found in karate were designed to record and pass on what the creator deemed as being notable and effective combative strategies. It is generally accepted that forms like Chinto, Wanshu and Kushanku were named after prominent individuals from where such valuable learning originally came from. Other forms have more descriptive names to emphasise the particular tactics or feelings to be sought such as Saifa (Smash & Tear) or Passai/Bassai (To Storm a Fortress). In other cases, significant numbers have also been attributed such as Seishan/Seisan (13 Hands), Gojushiho (54 Steps) or Shisochin (Destroy in 4 Directions).
Although it seems common sense to consider that the movements within the classical application kata themselves originally had only a single application in mind, we must also consider that these kata would not be that useful if all they served to pass on to future generations were 'a bunch of tricks'. Instead, I think we ought to view the process of bunkai as a 'window of opportunity' - to take a glimpse at what principles and strategies the creator may have been trying to express and then to use that inspiration in order to deepen your studies by drawing away from the limited confines of the kata framework. Kata is certainly not the divine truth, it is naturally limited by its aims and will only ever be as potent or as valuable as one's desire to grow.
Kihongata such as Naihanchi (Shuri) and Sanchin (Naha) are in my opinion different animals altogether from what would I've referred to above as 'application kata'. Although these forms may of course also be directly applied combatively (and very effectively so), I believe that the movements are much more generic in nature and take a very fundamental role in terms of movement, structure and dynamics, which can then be infused to enrich one's expression of the other more specialised kata within the particular style. These core forms therefore seem to provide the 'adhesive' used to help bind the art together.
Aiming to simply collect numerous techniques or applications is only a very superficial pathway in karate. We should always aim to dig below the surface in order to free the art and to allow for a more personal expression of the underlying principles. By equating to movement and body motion, rather than technique or indeed labelling, we can more objectively study kata. Thus, Arakaki Sensei's example of shuto-uke makes absolute sense. If the opponent is at optimum range then you may strike with your hand. The the range happens to close then the strike may occur with your forearm or possible even the elbow. If the opponent raises a limb as a barrier, then the attempted strike then becomes a tactile connection in order for you to pull and clear the limb for subsequent impact. The fundamental principles of the movement remain the same, whereas its application may vary according to the situation. Thus in this context, the name, shuto-uke describes the shape, feeling and intent of the movement, not necessarily the application.
This idea of being adaptable to change is really the trademark of traditional karate. In the spirit of Shu-Ha-Ri, we must first practice in accordance with a defined framework of examples in order to become skilled in the fundamentals, but then we must also progress on to expressing a more free-flowing and spontaneous approach using the underlying lessons given by the only real legacy handed down to us from the pioneering masters of our past - kata. to quote Hironori Ohtsuka...
"Martial arts should never become 'igata'. It is always 'kata'. Kata is to express, as a mirror does, it changes with every action and situation. A mirror figure changes just as its reflection does. This is essentially the 'kata' of martial arts. 'Igata' is dead - it has no life. 'Kata' is alive. It is obvious that kata must be trained and practiced sufficiently, but one must not be 'stuck' in them. One must withdraw from kata to produce forms with no limits or else it becomes useless."
I love this quote! Ohtsuka Sensei describes so eloquently how restricted we are if we fail to approach karate with an adaptable frame of mind. The idea of 'withdrawing from kata' is in my mind, significant if one is ever to grasp the essence of karate. Ultimately, one need to depart from the the structured framework that ironically provides karate with its strong identity and like a snake shedding its skin, grow into new shapes. I would like to suggest that kata is not necessarily the framework itself, but rather, the creative inspiration that caused that framework to exist in the first place!
Going back to Arakaki Sensei's book...
"99% of karate-ka do not know how Itosu simplified kata and therefore do not know how to analyse them. because they lack knowledge of the historical background, they end up with distorted kata".
Again another interesting statement that makes you think. What exactly is 'distorted kata'? If there's a change in technique but the underlying principles remain the same - is this distorted? What about the style variations that exist not only in Mainland Japan or the West, but also in the very streets of Naha - is this distorted? If Itosu did simplify and standardise kata, then does the idea of equating to motion and movement (as opposed to technique) hold even greater weight or are we even further off the mark? Does all of this even matter in terms of practicality?
If we are to agree that karate is a combative art, then there is no denying the fact that to become skilled in this field, you must, as Choki Motobu wrote, be able to "Change with the winds of adversity". This to me is common sense. So I think the that if we approach our study of kata with a similar mentality, then our findings, although accepting that they may be unproven in terms of historic accuracy, still serve a very valid purpose. Plus, the fact that we are using kata to challenge, expand and deeper our study of karate, takes us further along the path of 'Shu-Ha-Ri' and towards a more holistic and personal expression. This is in my view what makes traditional karate so special and such a pleasure to study.
To sum up...here's some final quotes from famous masters on the ideas of adaptation and change in kata...
“A kata is not fixed or immoveable. Like water, it’s ever changing and fits itself to the shape of the vessel containing it."
“Once a kata has been learned, it must be practiced repeatedly until it can be applied in an emergency, for knowledge of just the sequence of a form in Karate is useless.”
"Kata must be correct, unlimited and most of all, alive. It can never be just 'form'. It is essential to train for the 'living' form.
“A student well versed in even one technique will naturally see corresponding points in other techniques. A upper level punch, a lower punch, a front punch and a reverse punch are all essentially the same. Looking over thirty-odd kata, he should be able to see that they are essentially variations on just a handful.”
“All kata use the so-called postures (kamae). In fact, there are many kinds of postures and many kinds of kata. While learning these postures should not be totally ignored, we must be careful not to overlook that they are just forms or templates of sort; it is the function of their application which needs to be mastered.”
Thanks for taking the time to read and my best wishes,
Chris Denwood has been studying martial arts since childhood and specialises in the practical application of karate's traditional principles for civilian self-defence, personal development, life integration and discovery.