By Kevin Pereira, 6th Dan, Renshi
Kata what is it? Is it a dance? Is it for a show? Is it for children? Kata is practiced by millions around the world and some don’t even realize it!
Let’s take a deeper look into this huge part of the martial arts firstly as an Okinawan bujutsu practitioner I will try and shed some insight into the word and it’s true meaning.
To translate it simply as a form is insanely incorrect for example here is the kanji for Kata 型 this Kanji is comprised of 3 separate Kanji.
These are the three pieces of this puzzle
刀 + 土 + 形
The first Kanji 刀 is Ka which means sword or scalpel.The middle character 土 is Chi which means the ground. The base or third Kanji 形 is pronounced as kata which by itself means form or shape but this isn’t the Kanji used to mean Kata.
Sound and words can have multiple kanji associated with them which makes translation hard for those who aren’t native speakers or have teachers who speak and write the language fluently.
So the combination of all 3 characters which makes the actual Kanji used for kata 型 essentially means to cut a pattern into the ground.
Why would we cut a pattern into the ground? Simple!, to forge a concept into our bodies to etch a strategy for combat! Some Okinawans would say kata was the essence of your style. Your Ugoki (method of movement) was all set in your kata which defined your style.
Back then people didn’t learn basics like let’s do Keri and uke waza (kicking and receiving techniques) then learn kata. They learned kata first then with bunkai 分解 the disassembly, dismantling, and analysis of the kata they refined their movements.
So by today’s standards, they worked backward. The better question is where did some of these kata they were learning come from?
In Naha for example many of the young men served in the Chinese military. This was due to their Chinese lineage as most were descendants of the 36 families so many had obligation to serve.
One of the most widely practiced kata was born from drills taught at the Beijing military academy. Sadly most are unaware of its origins but practice and teach some version of kata Seuichin
刺引戦 Which means Pull into Battle. aka Seiyonchin Mandarin: 随運勁 Fujian: 青鷹戦 was developed by Sakiyama Kitoku after serving 10 years in the Beijing military academy he pieced together some of his favorite morning drills practiced at the academy to pass on these battle strategies to others.
Another example of where the Okinawan people got material from is the sapposhi they were government representatives of the Emperor of China, and they would travel with their bodyguards and military representatives of the Chinese empire. These military attaches and bodyguards were the individuals responsible for teaching kata and empty hand tactics to the Okinawan Pechin class.
The Pechin were a privileged class in the Okinawan infrastructure, but NOT SAMURAI. They had nothing to do with SAMURAI at all a completely different thing and culture under the Ryukyu Kingdom.
There are even documented records as far back as 1762 in regards to a boat traveling from the Ryukyu’s to the Satsuma shipwrecked and drifted near Oshima Island This event was recorded by the scribe Tobe Yoshihiro and became known as the Oshima Hikki.
During this event, a demonstration was witnessed where a man named Kusanku (as stated in the Oshima Hikki), it is unclear if he practiced a form of Chinese wrestling or Quanfa (Kenpo) was witnessed performing a demonstration where his students tried overpower him. His demonstration left such a mark that people asked to learn Kata from him. They were all in owe of his incredible power and skill.
Now how do 1762 and a demonstration relate to 2021? Some of the examples I mentioned dispel the fairy tales of, out of shape monks using kata like a form of jazzercise or Taebo.
Kata has been recorded and documented as a method of passing on a combative strategy to groups of people. In training camps lines of soldiers would work kata in a synchronized fashion to build not just combative skill but cultivate the spirit of brotherhood sweat together, bleed together and die together…
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