You might have heard the phrase “kata is karate and karate is kata” before and wondered what does that actually mean? Where is the connection between kata and self-defense? What is the purpose of kata in karate?

I haven’t learned karate for that long and have been wondering about this exact question since the very beginning but only recently have I begun to connect the dots and start to understand the purpose of kata in karate.

In this post, I will share with you my understanding of the role of kata in karate and hope it helps you in some way in your karate journey.

In essence, the purpose of kata is to teach you a set of unarmed combat techniques.

Whether kata can help you become a better fighter or not depends entirely on how often and how well you practice these techniques.

If you actually understand the meanings of those techniques in the kata and practice them thousands of times until those techniques become an integral part of you and you are able to use them instinctively in an actual fight, then kata will definitely make you a better fighter.

If you, however, merely go through the motions, fail to understand their meanings, or don’t practice them often enough, then kata can help improve your fitness but not much else.

The remainder of the post covers the following:

  • What is kata?
  • Why kata was created?
  • What is the purpose of kata?
  • How can kata practice helps you become a better fighter?
  • Why do kata seem to be so detached from self-defense these days?
  • Can you still become a good fighter without practicing kata?

What is kata?

Kata means “form” in Japanese.

In karate, kata refers to a specific pattern of defensive and offensive techniques.

Each karate kata can be viewed as a volume of combat techniques which was created by martial arts masters to teach, preserve, and pass down martial knowledge through generations.

Why kata was created?

Kata was created for a number of practical as well as historical reasons.

Practical reasons

As mentioned above, each kata can be viewed as a volume of combat techniques.

Karate masters either learned from others or created kata themselves and used kata to teach those combat techniques to their students (all original karate kata either originated from Chinese kungfu or was created by Okinawan masters).

One can certainly teach those techniques individually or teach various combinations of a few techniques independently.

However, by organizing those techniques into a meaningful pattern comprised of a variety of techniques dealing with different situations, it has been said that each kata is a complete fighting system in its own right.

In addition, by organizing combat techniques into kata, it is easier to memorize, teach, preserve and pass on martial knowledge to future generations.

Historical reasons

In the early days, karate used to be practiced in secrecy amongst Pechin families in Okinawa and passed on from generation to generation within those families.

To maintain secrecy, written records were certainly not a good idea. In addition, drawings and written explanations would have been considered to be not as an effective way of teaching as physical demonstrations and personal instructions.

There was also a period of time when weapons and martial arts practice were banned in Okinawa but kata could still be practiced in secrecy or in public in the form of dance because dancing was not forbidden. Kata to the untrained eyes indeed looks like a dance.

As you can see, for a very long period of time, karate only existed in kata and that’s why it has been repeatedly said that karate is kata and kata is karate.

It should be known that secret principles of Goju Ryu exist in the Kata.

Kata are not simply an exhibition of forms. They are a concrete manifestation of techniques that can be transformed at any time to any form. It is in the kata that the essence of karate has assumed a definite form.

We should always remember that the kata are a crystalization of the essence of karate and that we should always begin afresh and train hard. It is only through the training of kata that you will reach “gokui“, the essential teaching.

Chojun Miyagi as told by Morio Higaonna

What is the purpose of kata?

As mentioned above, the purpose of kata is to teach you a set of combat techniques.

Whether kata can help you become a good fighter or not depends entirely on how often and how well you practice these techniques.

If you practice a kata over and over again so that the techniques in the kata become an integral part of you, you will be able to apply them in different circumstances in a natural and unconscious manner without thinking or planning when facing an opponent.

But this will only happen when you practice a kata for a long period of time and really know the kata, i.e. understanding the meaning of each technique in the kata, performing the techniques correctly and generating sufficient power with those techniques.

If you merely learn the pattern and techniques of the kata and go through the motions without mentally engaging or martial intent during your practice, then kata would be of little help with your self-defense ability.

How can kata practice help you become a better fighter?

In my opinion, there are four ways that practicing kata diligently can help you become a better fighter:

  • Kata practice can help you fight unconsciously
  • Kata practice can help improve the power and effectiveness of your techniques in actual combats
  • Kata practice can help with body conditioning
  • Kata practice can help you achieve the mushin state of the mind in actual combats.

1. Kata practice can help you fight unconsciously

If you have learned to drive before, you will remember how, in the beginning, you thought that driving was a very complex activity and you had to be totally focused during your driving practice.

You needed to figure out what the road signs meant, where your hands needed to be on the steering wheel while turning, how you needed to slow down and turn the indicator on when approaching a corner, or to assess if there was a safe gap to enter a freeway, etc.

In the beginning, it would have been quite a mental exercise to learn to drive for everyone. But it always gets better as time goes by.

After a year of regular driving, you would know all the road rules, what the road signs mean and all the common maneuvers and you would be very confident and comfortable driving.

After 5 to 10 years of regular driving, you don’t need to think about it anymore, driving by then will have become second nature, like walking, running, tying your shoelaces or speaking your mother tongue. You can drive almost unconsciously with very little mental effort involved.

The same applies to practicing kata and learning how to fight.

If you practice a kata for say 10-15 minutes every day for three to five years with clear intention and always visualize yourself fighting an invisible opponent with every move, the fighting techniques in the kata will become a part of your bodyness and you will be able to use them at an unconscious level in a real fight.

A real fight is fluid and unpredictable and your opponent’s ability or fighting style is usually unknown.

There is no time for planning or strategizing and you will need to be in the moment and react instantaneously to whatever the opponent throws at you, or be like water, as Bruce Lee once said.

In such situations, you will have to rely on what your body has already known through years of dedicated training and let your body do the fighting.

Your body senses the opponent’s imminent moves or sees the opponent’s moves and it immediately acts accordingly without thought or delay.

Practicing a kata repeatedly, really understanding its techniques and visualizing fighting an invisible opponent can help you achieve that unconscious level of fighting.

However, if you practice a kata infrequently, don’t really understand the meanings of the techniques in the kata, or merely go through the motion like a fitness exercise, you can practice a kata for 20 years but those years of practice will amount to very little when you face a real opponent in an actual fight.

Like driving, you can be driving for 20 years and are considered an experienced driver. But if you disobey traffic rules and form bad driving habits from the beginning, after years of driving, you will still be a bad driver.

In short, kata practice can help you fight unconsciously and become a better fighter if you put in sufficient practice and really know the kata. Practicing many kata and knowing them only superficially is of little use.

Mas Oyama advocated practicing a kata from 3,000 to 10,000 times to “learn a kata totally” and said that “it is better to know at least one form exceptionally well rather than 10 forms only moderately well“.

Gichin Funakoshi was of a similar view that “about three years were required to learn a single kata, and it was usual that even an expert of considerable skill would only know three or at the most five kata… a superficial understanding of many kata was of little use“.

2. Kata practice helps improve the power of your techniques in actual combats

Diligent kata practice not only can help you fight unconsciously but also help you develop the power of your techniques in actual combats.

In an actual fight where your very life may depend upon its outcome, you need to have not only good timing but also need to deliver your techniques with power. One punch, one kill is the goal.

If you consistently practice all techniques in a kata with martial intent and full power, this will eventually translate into a real fight.

As Iain Abernethy pointed out, during kumite practice, your safety and that of your partner are a top priority.

Hence, you will usually need to keep an appropriate distance, you won’t be able to punch your partner with full force, you won’t be able to throw your partner at 100 percent, etc. Although Kyokushin and some traditional styles do allow full-contact sparring, there are still restrictions in place to keep it safe for everyone.

In short, while partner drills are extremely helpful, they have their limitations and kata practice can help address such limitations.

In individual kata practice, you can always punch an invisible opponent with 100 percent power, gouge his eyes out or smash his knees and nobody gets hurt.

In addition, if you don’t have a lot of opportunities to partner-drill, solo kata practice can also be extremely helpful, especially when you practice with visualization and full power. It can’t replace sparring but it can be a great supplementary practice when sparring is not possible.

3. Kata practice helps with body conditioning

Even if you are a very good fighter, you are likely to get hit at some stage and developing an ability to withstand heavy hits and keep going will give you an advantage.

Kata like Sanchin and Tensho can greatly help with body conditioning.

In these katas, all muscles are tensed throughout while techniques are performed in coordination with breathing. It requires total mental concentration and coordination of the mind and body.

If you perform these katas correctly, your correct stance and total muscle tension will result in such a solid and strong structure that you can take heavy blows without getting hurt.

Your instructor would perform shime testing while you perform the kata to check if you have the correct posture, tension, and concentration by hitting different areas of your body.

Practicing Sanchin and Tensho will help you build and maintain muscle mass as well as condition your body. In a fight, muscle tension at the right time will turn you into a solid chunk of rock and allow you to take hits without getting hurt.

The total concentration required during these katas also helps you with achieving the mushin state of mind discussed further below.

In the old time, students were required to practice Sanchin for several years before being taught other katas.

In all traditional karate styles today, Sanchin and Tensho are still considered the most important kata in karate and students are told to practice them at least a few times each day. Chojun Miyagi even said that Sanchin kata should be practiced 30 times a day.

4. Kata practice helps you achieve mushin state in actual combat

Let’s go back to the driving analogy once more.

Even if you have been driving for many years and it has become your second nature, if you are not present while driving and your mind is occupied by some problems at work, family issues at home, or if you are upset, angry or depressed for whatever reasons, you may not be able to deal well with unexpected road hazards in a timely manner.

Similarly, even if you have mastered a wide range of self-defense techniques and they have become second nature to you, but you are unable to stay in the here and now of a fight, your reaction time will be reduced.

In martial arts and other aspects of life, it is desirable to achieve a state of mind without mind called mushin no shin or mushin for short. It is similar to the state of flow or being in the zone in the English language.

Mushin refers to a state of mind where one is free from thoughts and emotions and therefore open to everything.

In this state, because you are free from ambition, ego, anger, hate, or fear and there are only you and your opponent in front of you, you are able to deal with the opponent and the present situation intuitively.

In this free state of mind, your body is also set free. It then is able to express what it has been trained to do: to fight instinctively.

Another analogy to this state of mind is the water in a pond. If the mud at the bottom of the pond is disturbed and the water is cloudy, there is not much you can see. But if the water is calm and clear, you can see through everything very well.

Practicing kata regularly can help you achieve this mushin state.

When you practice kata, try to let go of all your daily problems, emotions, thoughts or planning, there is only you fighting an invisible opponent in your imagination.

If you manage to stay in this mushin state every time you practice kata or even when you carry out mundane tasks in your daily life, when you need to face a real opponent, you will be able to fight at the best of your ability.

Why do kata seem to be so detached from self-defense these days?

I can think of two reasons why people are confused about the purpose of kata and kata seems to be so detached from self-defense these days:

  • Karate training today is often divided into kihon, kata and kumite and the connection between them may be not explained clearly to karateka
  • People don’t practice kata enough or don’t practice them properly.

Karate training is divided into kihon, kata and kumite and the connection between them is not well explained

In the old days, if you want to learn karate, all you learn is kata and their applications.

But today’s karate training is very different.

A typical karate training session usually comprises warm-up exercises, kihon training, kata practice and then kumite.

In kihon training, you’ll usually do basic techniques like blocks, punches, kicks, a few combinations and sometimes there may be moving basics where you will perform technique combos while moving in different stances.

In kata practice, you’ll either review kata in your previous grading or practice the kata of your current grade or learn a new kata. You may also go through the bunkai of the kata and practice those with a partner.

In kumite, depending on the karate style you practice, you may have full contact sparring or sport karate style sparring.

When people spar, they usually resort to their favorite punch and kick combinations or the most practical combinations they learn and think can them win in tournament matches. There seems to be no trace of kata techniques in their sparring drills.

Have a look at a sport-karate match below. Can you spot any karate techniques that you’ve learned in the dojo?

Therefore, it’s understandable that people don’t see the connection between kata and kumite and self-defense.

Some instructors may not see the connection between kata and self-defense themselves and are not able to explain it to their students.

Mas Oyama’s explanation of the connection between kata and self-defense is probably one of the best out there.

think of karate as a language: the basic techniques can be thought of as the letters of the alphabet; the kata will be the equivalent of words and sentences; the kumite will be analogous to conversations.

Mas Oyama

Until you’ve mastered the basic self-defense techniques and know your kata really well, you won’t be able to have a natural “conversation”, i.e. applying karate techniques in kata in a real fight.

People don’t practice kata often enough or don’t practice them correctly

Some people may understand the purpose of kata but they either don’t have the patience to practice a single kata for a few years until they really know the kata.

It’s boring to practice a kata over and over again.

It’s a lot more fun to learn a new kata every few months.

It’s also quicker to learn a few practical combos and apply them to sparring rather than learning a kata which contains many techniques that seem impractical to them.

As a result, they may see kata as something they need to do to pass a grading rather than something that is beneficial to them in becoming better fighters.

Some people, on the other hand, could spend a lot of time practicing kata but they don’t practice them in the correct way.

If they are going through a kata like a robot and are not mentally engaged and visualizing, when they are in a real fight, those techniques won’t come out autonomously. And so, their years of kata practice is of little practical use.

In karate, the most important thing is kata.

Into the kata of karate are woven every manner of attack and defense technique. Therefore, kata must be practiced properly, with a good understanding of their bunkai meaning.

There may be those who neglect the practice of kata, thinking that it is sufficient to just practice pre-arranged kumite that has been created based on their understanding of the kata, but that will never lead to true advancement.

The reason why is that the ways of thrusting and blocking – that is to say, the techniques of attack and defense – have innumerable variations. To create kumite containing all of the techniques in each and every one of their variations is impossible.

Kenwa Mabuni

Can you still become a good fighter without practicing kata?

I think you definitely can still become a good fighter without practicing kata. Some great martial arts don’t have kata or pre-arranged forms at all.

If you don’t enjoy practicing kata, choose a few combinations of techniques that you like and suit your body type and fighting style. These could be taken from kata bunkai, something you are taught or something you figure out yourself.

Practice them over and over again and test them out with as many training partners as you can.

Once you’ve mastered them and make them become part of your fighting repertoire, add new combos and repeat the process.

This way, you will be spending your valuable training time on things that are most relevant and beneficial to your ability as a fighter.

All roads lead to Rome.

We are also living in a very different era from the one that Okinawan karate masters lived in.

Many of us can’t spend a few hours every day practicing kata and karate in general and we need to spend the little time we have wisely.

Kata definitely has the potential to help us become better fighters, but it’s not the only way.


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