“Kata must never be changed” is a principle that many karate masters and senior instructors vehemently uphold.
However, the fact of the matter is karate kata has been changing throughout its relatively short history, and, in this post, I will argue that instead of being frowned upon, changing old kata or creating new ones should be embraced.
While we should strive to preserve the core values of traditional karate, we should not be imprisoned by its forms and we should not be afraid to discard what doesn’t work, try out new things, and keep only the practical best.
Changing old kata or creating new ones does not devalue the art of karate but should be seen as one way to keep karate alive, evolving, and relevant in today’s world.
What is kata?
Kata means “form” in Japanese.
In karate, kata refers to a specific pattern of related defensive and offensive techniques put together to reflect a particular combat strategy.
For example, Bassai Dai (meaning “to penetrate a fortress”) includes large, powerful, proactive and dynamic techniques with explosive speed and fast changes of directions.
On the other hand, Chinte (meaning “unusual hands”) is a more flowing kata that includes a wide range of hand techniques that allow one to defend oneself against powerful opponents by striking vital points and without relying on brute force.
Each karate kata can be viewed as a volume of combat techniques and, to some people, a complete fighting system, which was created by martial arts masters to teach, preserve, and pass on martial knowledge to future generations.
Why was kata created?
Most karate kata originated from Chinese Kung Fu forms.
With Kungfu being a physical art, those Chinese masters probably thought that putting together a sequence of combat techniques in a meaningful way was the best way to memorize, teach, preserve, and pass on martial knowledge from one generation to the next.
Later on, after these forms or kata were taught to Okinawan residents, kata remained the main form of teaching and spreading the art because, understandably, teaching physical arts through actual physical forms is a lot more effective than through writings, drawings, or verbal explanations.
In addition, for a significant period of time, karate was practiced in secrecy within noble families in Okinawa, written records were not kept and karate only existed in kata.
How has kata changed over time?
Despite strong objections against changing kata nowadays, kata has been changing probably since the very beginning of karate history.
Itosu Anko (1831 – 1915), considered by many as the grandfather of modern kata was likely to have modified many katas that he learned from his teachers (Matsumura, Nagahama, and Gusukuma), given the differences between the kata traced back to him and the Tomari kata practiced today.
Kenwa Mabuni (1889 – 1952) was also likely to have made changes to the kata that he learned from Itosu Anko and Kanryo Higaonna when he included them in the curriculum of the Shito Ryu style that he founded.
Gichin Funakoshi (1868 – 1957) who studied under Itosu Anko not only changed the names but also the movements of many katas included in the curriculum of the Shotokan style that he created. This was to fit in with his vision and philosophical belief.
Hironori Otsuka (1892 – 1982), the founder of Wado Ryu and a student of Gichin Funakoshi, later on also made changes to the Shotokan kata that he learned from Funakoshi, resulting in many minor variations between Wado Ryu kata and Shotokan kata as practiced today.
Reasons for variations in kata include: masters deliberately changing kata to fit their visions and philosophies; different versions being taught by the same masters to different students to suit their physiques or fighting styles; or recalling errors being passed on from one generation to the next.
Even Gichin Funakoshi observed the rapid changes in karate during his lifetime:
Time changes, the world changes, and obviously the martial arts must change too. The karate that high school students practise today is not the same karate that was practised even as recently as ten years ago. And it is a long way indeed from the karate I learned when I was a child in Okinawa.Gichin Funakoshi
So, next time, when you happen to see someone doing a kata differently from the way you were taught, it may not necessarily mean that they are doing it wrong. It may just mean that they are doing it differently and that their version has different applications or purposes (spiritual, meditation, physical fitness, practical combat, etc).
Not just kata that has changed, other aspects of karate such as methods of training (e.g. strength, conditioning, training tools, and sports psychology) and competitions have continued to evolve.
Training regimes of elite competitors today like Sandra Sanchez are very different from old-school training in the 1950s. Kumite competitions in the 1980s are also very different from competitions today while Karate Combat is a totally different animal.
Elements of other martial arts also continue to influence karate although not in the same profound way that Chinese Kung Fu once did.
Change is the only constant in life.Heraclitus
Why changing kata is perfectly fine
As you can see, karate masters seem to have liberally made changes to kata as they saw fit, there is no reason why kata should not be further altered in a rapidly changing world today.
Somewhere, some time ago, someone thought of combining a number of related martial techniques that reflects a particular combat strategy and created a kata.
That kata suited someone’s physique, had practical uses and was relevant to the historical context of the time. While many of the techniques may still have practical values today, those katas should not be treated as the gospel truths or something fixed and untouchable and all we should do is practice them over and over again.
Sure, old traditional kata can be a vast wealth of knowledge that we can spend many lifetimes learning, but that does not mean that we should be imprisoned by those forms.
I think, instead of treating it as a taboo subject amongst the karate circle, it is time to embrace changing kata as well as encourage people to create new kata.
Maybe we should even have original kata creation competitions in addition to traditional kata performance competitions.
It would be interesting to see new kata that focuses on areas like dealing with knife attacks, grappling, street fights, gun disarming, or even MMA fights.
I believe, today, the question should not be about whether we should change kata or not and it should be, instead, about whether we have people with the knowledge and understanding deep enough to create meaningful changes in those old katas.
Capable karate instructors perhaps should get back to the old tradition of altering kata to suit their students’ physiques, strengths, weaknesses, and preferences.
A teacher, a really good sensei, is never a ‘giver’ of “truth”; he is a guide, a ‘pointer’ to the truth that the student must discover for himself. A good teacher, therefore, studies each student individually and encourages the student to explore himself, both internally and externally, until, ultimately, the student is integrated with his being.Bruce Lee
Obviously, if you don’t have decades of studies and don’t really understand the meanings behind some techniques in an old kata, please don’t be tempted to fiddle with it.
But, on the other hand, there is nothing stopping you from creating your own kata in your personal study. Find a theme that interests you, make a list of techniques that you think would work, arrange them into a pattern, test them out, practice, practice, practice, and make changes that you find necessary.
I’m still a newbie and so I have never thought of changing the classical kata that has been taught to me ever.
Even with the most basic katas that I have learned and practiced for many years, I still feel that I don’t know them deeply enough so it just never occurred to me.
But in my personal practice, I have put together a group of techniques that I find beneficial for my sparring and I practice those techniques regularly. To me, this is my “personal kata” and it seems to help my training transition from being largely passive to a little more proactive.
In my view, changing or creating new kata does not mean that we devalue or do not protect traditional karate.
One could preserve traditional karate the way one preserves a mummy. But one could also preserve it like caring for the seed of an endangered tree that has been entrusted to us: by nurturing it, helping it grow, keeping it alive and evolving, and remaining ever relevant in today’s world.
And in our personal training, that would mean using karate principles and techniques as valuable materials in our own training but not imprisoning ourselves with old forms. Rather, liberating ourselves, finding our own paths, giving ourselves the permission to try out new things, keeping only what works, pushing boundaries, and forging the martial artists within ourselves.
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.Charles Darwin
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