When considering the combative nature of kata and how it fits into the civilian self-defence model of old-style karate (whatever 'old-style' may be, we'll leave for another blog post!), we have to first start with some simplistic truths. Once these are understood and appreciated, it is not too difficult to see how the movements of kata fit well into that model.
The first aspect to consider is that from a practical standpoint, there are really only two states when applying 'self-protection' against a threat to our safety. We are either 'escaping' from the threat, or we are 'engaging' that threat in such a way so that we may facilitate escape at the earliest appropriate opportunity. This is in stark contrast to consensual violence, where physical confrontation is actively sought out and time spent in that confrontation is often purposefully drawn out.
In terms of engagement ranges, there are again, really only two to be concerned with. You're either engaging the threat 'unattached' or engaging them 'attached'. These can of course be both pre-emptive and reactive, but the key contrast is the physical attachment. Your enemy may attach to you, you may attach to your enemy or both. Although crossovers exist, these two states require different combative tactics and it is obvious that being unattached will naturally facilitate an escape much easier than if already attached.
So based on the above, the list of priorities for the context of civilian self-protection may look something like this:
Obviously, greater risks to safety tend to occur when attached. These include the inability to escape, the environment being use against you, multiple enemies, unseen weapons etc. So unless the enemy has a projectile weapon or there's a specific requirement to remain attached, then we can say that the sooner we are able to detach, the better.
So based on this theory...where may kata fit in the self-defence model?
Well, the answer to this is quite simple and when the kata is explored with the context of civilian protection in mind, both its function and many of the associated old-school karate principles begin to make more sense. The problem is that for styles that have chosen to emphasise their training toward a more consensual context, the connections between kata and kumite become less obvious. And in trying to hammer home a square peg into a round hole, the resulting interpretation often turns out unrealistic. Kata were simply never designed with these contemporary goals in mind.
It should be clear across the global karate fraternity that combat for sport and combat for self-defence, although sharing some valuable crossovers, are not the same. They have different goals, different rules of engagement and as such, different strategies. You can liken this to activities such as figure-skating and speed-skating. You could argue that these are both skating and that they share a few similarities, but their individual objectives (one emphasising function and the other emphasising aesthetics) make their application and therefore their resultant form or expression, worlds apart. One is no better or worse than the other - merely different. They only fall apart if applied outside of their intended context.
So how can we find evidence in kata for its intended context?
Well, the common features found across koryu karate kata, plus the fundamental structural and dynamic principles on which their choreography are based (kihon), actually tell us a great deal about their contextual intention. If you look across kata for their connections, rather than their individual differences, you'll begin to find some interesting patterns that clearly reveal karate as a systematic and layered method of self-defence.
Quite simply...Kata primarily represent close-range attached engagement tactics for self-defence. They generally cover combative scenarios whereby primary unattached strategies to deal with the threat have either failed or are unavailable. In other words...redundancies against a degrading situation.
Let's look at a few of the fundamental characteristics found in kata and old-style karate that help to support this...
Meotode (coupled hands):
The mutual use of both limbs is critical for attached combative strategies, yet not really that important for when unattached. If unattached and there's no specific requirement to attach, then it's much better to escape via hit and run tactics. As soon as you become attached though, both hands then need to be put to active use...and fast!
Hikite (pulling hand):
The basic application of hikite 'to pull' can only be employed upon seizing hold of something and as such, it is reserved for attached strategies. Active guards or fighting stances do not appear in kata because these are only beneficial at longer unattached ranges. Once you get inside of arms-length and connected, the non-striking limb should instead be used to control, clear strike paths and gain essential tactile information to make up for the lack of visual reaction time available. This provides a far greater level of protection at close-range than holding up an unattached defensive guard.
Of course, hikite and its role in the wider application of meotode is far more comprehensive than superficial pulls, pushes and manipulations. We need to consider the actions that occur when we connect and integrate both side of our body either with or without an external point of connection. Think of a bird's wings, pedalling a bicycle, swinging a baseball bat, throwing a ball, swivelling on a chair, turning a stiff valve handle etc. But it's evident that the dynamic interplay between left and right becomes important when attached.
Tactically bearing your bodyweight on an enemy, sticking to them in order to add pressure and dominance or being able to resist/absorb their pressure against you are very valuable skills for when attached. However they obviously becomes redundant when unattached. Although elements of muchimi may be practiced in a solo fashion, it may only be practically applied via a connected interface.
Just as a side note...Have you noticed that techniques are rarely retracted in classical kata? However for longer-range striking, the consistent retracting and re-cycling of attacks is a primary feature? This is also a clear indication that (1) attached strategies are emphasised in kata and that (2) much of what 'contemporary analysis' labels as strikes, are very often not.
Chinkuchi (structural integrity):
When unattached, the need for structural integrity via the integrated and optimal use of muscles, tendons and ligaments that support the skeletal frame only really applies once a strike has physically connected...and even that may be under dispute given that a relaxed limb with no apparent structure can transfer a tremendous amount of energy. An unattached strike spends most of its time in mid-air and with no resistance. However, once limbs have attached, your structural integrity has a far greater role to play. This is why the two key aspects of structural integrity (optimal frames and transitions between those frames) are embedded within kata choreography and associated kihon (fundamental movement) practice.
Jimen Ni Kakato (heels on the ground):
A common feature across classical karate kata is that the heels of the feet are kept on the ground, with gliding steps (tenshin) close to the floor. This again assumes a degree of attachment, hence the requirement to stay grounded and stable. In contrast, unattached striking and movement methods promote the heels being lifted off the ground and more agile footwork. Contrasting a contemporary gyakuzuki (reverse thrust), which sees the rear heel lifted and a passive guard hand, to the same technique from numerous kata, which incorporates a planted heel and hikite towards the hip is a great example of unattached vs attached tactics.
Of course, postures and transitions do exist within classical kata that see a heel lift from the ground, such as neko-ashi-dachi (cat foot stance), uki-ashi-dachi (floating foot stance) or kosa-dachi (cross stance) etc. The features of these particular stances and movements, plus their potential applications with respect to attached tactics really helps to emphasise the functional trade off between stability and mobility, plus how the body may be 'split' to employ elements of both.
Zenshin Suru (advancing/pressing forward):
Another key aspect of kata is that the majority of movements involve pressing forward and creating consistent forward pressure. Kata enbusen is generally made up of advancement, changing angle (45/90/180/170 degrees etc.) and then advancing some more. It is not often that we see consistent backward motion nor indeed retreating positional changes, which are often employed in unattached combative methods, especially the back and forth interplays of a consensual or competitive nature.
Marumi (spherical dynamics):
Generally speaking, post-war karate tend to lean towards linear movements and dynamics based on theory that the quickest way from A to B is a straight line. This makes perfect sense for unattached strategies that demand speed enough to overcome the visual reaction times associated with distances greater than arms-length.
Attached strategies however need to worry less about visual reaction and are more concerned with spherical dynamics that aim to create functional power at close-range (they don't have the distance component to their advantage) and, that are not so easily countered when in contact, since circles possess an ever-changing angle that is more difficult to resist directly. Where kata may have been modified in more modern times to suit a changing contextual goal toward long-range unattached dynamics, we need to consider that this may well be in contrast to the application of the attached combative tactics they could have originally aimed to express.
Kakie / Kakidi / Kakedameshi (connected hands):
The Kakie or kakidi position is often used as a framework and starting point for old-style karate kumite, as opposed to the more common unattached sparring exchanges seen in styles derived heavily from post-war mainland Japanese influence. This, coupled with numerous historic quotes and images from past masters suggesting that kata and kumite are intrinsically connected, would again indicate the emphasis on close-range attached combative tactics within these classical forms.
Another observation to mention here is that kata contains no obvious ducking, bobs and weaves, slips or fast-changing footwork that you'd normally see in proven systems of primarily unattached combat systems, such as boxing for example. A boxer will naturally attach (clinch) to get out of trouble when under fire at close-range. Likewise, a karate-ka trying to apply kata unattached is at a similar disadvantage. Again...square pegs and round holes!
Here's a recent YouTube snippet from one of my dojo classes where we isolated and explored the function of gedan-barai (low-level sweep), which of course features in many kata and is one of what we consider to be our six fundamental pathways of karate...
Although this is a prescribed drill designed to emphasise and link together multiple applications for a single technique through fluid repetition, you can hopefully see many of the features listed above being employed via attachment. Features that have been taken directly from lessons within the classical forms.
In summary, I believe that to find most practical value in the movements of karate kata, it's important to understand that they primarily deal with the problems associated with becoming attached. Although crossovers on pre-emption and unattached tactics may also be derived, they are predominantly reactive in nature and are designed to provide a support system should the primary elements of your self-protection game plan fail.
Three Simple Rules
When starting out, I always teach my students that the first rule of being able to explore and unlock the combative nature of kata is to take any movement and simply close the distance to an attached range. As soon as you do this, you move to a platform by which the movements of the kata have been naturally designed to operate in.
The second rule is then to remove any form of karate-based attacks and replace them with common acts of civilian violence. Karate kata is not designed to deal with a consensual engagement from another karate-ka.
The third rule is to consider how those acts of violence would realistically take place. For instance, in what sort of scenario could you be faced with that would cause the need to counter a throat grab, hook punch or tackle? How would these come about? What would have to go wrong?
There's more of course, but just by following just these three rules alone, you not only start to bring alive the movements of the kata in a more practical sense, but you also begin to see how the choreography and principles contain within fit within a more holistic personal safety methodology.
The Kata Sandwich
Once these three rules are in place, I then teach my students how to make a kata sandwich! The filling of the sandwich is the kata application itself. One slice of bread is the precursor to the application being necessary (i.e. how you have become attached) and the other slice of bread is the means of escape that the kata application has offered by the advantage it creates.
Let's take a single example from the above video for an application of Gedan-Barai, whereby I am able to use the technique in order to strip a wrist grab. This will represent my filling. So for the first slice of bread, I need to consider how my wrist may have been seized in the first place. For instance, I may already be stuck in a clinch and attempting to attack my enemy's groin, or I may be trying to escape and my opponent is trying to stop me. This first slice of bread attempts to provide a more realistic scenario as to why I'm in the situation that the kata is providing a potential answer to. For the other slice of bread I need to consider what I need to do once that grip has been stripped. So I may decide to strike, push away and flee, or the situation may require me to fell or retrain the opponent.
Once I have my two slices of bread, it is simply a case of putting the sandwich together so that the kata application itself has sufficient context. The kata sandwich method essentially embeds a story by which one can practice using the kata in a more realistic fashion. Remember, the kata won't necessarily provide the reason, nor indeed a means of escape...it's up to us to put the application-based lesson from the kata to combative use.
One final thought to consider.....
All top-level sports players and athletes that emphasise a form driven by function have the same contextual goals in mind and also employ the same tool to try and meet those goals (i.e. the human body). The result is that we see optimum ways of hitting a ball, deadlifting a weight, throwing a javelin, firing an arrow and potting a snooker ball. Most high-level athletes make use of the same techniques, tactics and strategies. Because they have been honed and are proven to work well. If something works better, then they'll happily drop what they did before and embrace the new way. Tennis is still tennis, shot-put is still shot-put and bowling is still bowling, no matter how those disciplines may evolve.
The transmission of karate and the adaptation of kata that has caused numerous visual changes to occur across the styles is also a product of similar evolution. Evolution that has always be determined by individual contextual goals. If we all had the same contextual goals, then we'd all have a very similar (if not identical looking) style...
...but of course...we don't.
Thanks for taking the time to read - I hope you found it valuable,
Interested in exploring karate with me in more depth?
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