Is Kata Really Necessary?

I'll admit I thought the question kind of odd - especially coming from one of our senior instructors. Yet, on thinking more about it, I realized that the question has been made valid - and relevant - by those in our industry who have recently abandoned the practice. The implications of this for students, instructors and the very arts themselves are profound. 

Special interests have already succeeded in obliterating any expectation of standards for martial arts teachers, bankrupted the value of the Black Belt (and all ranks along with it), and in general, redefined martial study to more closely approximate glorified street-fighting than art. Now, the attack is directed upon the very essence of martial art - kata.

Joining the few who still speak out in protest of this trend, here's my two yen.


"Dogs fight; tigers fight; men do kata."

Tatsuo Shimabuku, founder of Isshin-ryu karate

In ancient times, they gave you a weapon, and put you out front, with the rest of the cannon fodder, to be marched into your first battle. If you survived, you were now a warrior. Survive often enough you became a veteran. Survive long enough, you got to hand out weapons to the newbies.

This tried and true method works just as well for developing individual combat competence: Pick the toughest looking guy in a bar. Spit in his drink. Get beat up. Repeat the process. Eventually, you can become the most dangerous guy in town. The problem is the "can" part since the attrition rate for Bronze-age soldiers and modern day street-fighters is about the same.

Today, of course, we train our military without exposing them (duh) to live fire. In China, the Shaolin monks, being very smart, also figured this out several hundred years ago. They trained to defend themselves using exercises that simulated combat techniques. Sound familiar? Did it work? Ever hear of the Boxer Rebellion? That's "Chinese boxer" - as in Kung Fu fighters. And guess where the roots of karate lie - China.

In the 18th and 19th century, Okinawa was a preferred port of call for Europeans seeking trade with Japan. As a result, it more resembled rough and tumble San Fransisco than peaceful Bali. The Okinawans were on the short end of both the height and weight stick to some pretty tough foreign customers. Forget the mythical stories of native resistance to samurai occupation. These were real people involved in often life and death struggles. Their now famous weapon of choice? Karate.  And all learned it from kata. (And if anybody mentions Choki Motobu, a famous Okinawan fighter, who didn't know any kata, tell them Nahanchiwas his favorite one. I got that from a descendant of the teacher who Motobu begged to teach it to him.)


"Kata is a teacher forever."  Sensei D. Jenkins

My teacher taught us with kata.  We learned to coordinate breathing with movement, balance, timing, endurance, flexibility, footwork, control... And that's just the physical. We learned mental focus, imagery, acuity, distancing... Emotionally, we learned to over come frustration, endure discomfort, manipulate emotions. (Oh yes, and we also went beyond doing "moves" into analysis (bunkai) and developed the combat techniques required for the street, but never to be allowed in the sport's ring.)

But there was more: We found that doing kata can alter your mood as you like. That it keeps your muscles toned. That there are as many ways to do kata as your imagination will allow. That kata grows as you do. The White Belt does the first kata; the Black Belt does the same. Each one worlds apart.


"Kata is good. I just don't know what for." 

Bill Wallace, martial arts celebrity

I heard Mr. Wallace say that when I met him back in the 70's. I mention him here because his nickname is "Superfoot." He was among the world's first "full contact" karate competitors, and went on to make a movie or two with Chuck Norris. I'm certain he is a fine gentleman, but I have to ask - do any of these accomplishments qulaify him as what most people once knew as a martial arts master. That being the case, why would some people follow him and not the real masters?

I have an answer some people are sure not to like: Because they need to.


"You can't teach what you don't know."  Me

Man, was I ever wrong! You obviously can teach what you don't know because there are about a couple of umpteen thousand instructors out there doing just that, right now.

It's not hard to find articles outlining lists of reasons why kata is worthless (at least in terms of fighting). And many of the authors get rather more heated on the subject than even I do, and are even more sarcastic (if that's possible) than I am.

The first is a matter of opinion. The second - insecurity.

Let's deal with the second, first. Do you know how to tell that someone barely knows what he's doing? He can't handle exceptions. A=B=C. Period, case closed, world without end, amen. A real expert knows that everything fits together. When faced with a contradiction, he's glad for the challenge. The other guy just gets angry. There's more, but I'm sure you get the picture.

Now, as to the first. People are entitled to their own opinions; not their own facts. (Where did Ihear that before?) Here's some facts detractors of kata don't mention:

"Kata is nothing more than a dance "  Most of them had teachers who, in spite of their own teachers efforts, couldn't be bothered learning about kata beyond the moves required for promotion. We called them "bag kickers". Few lasted long in the dojo. Many of those who didn't last went out and opened their own schools - where they taught their students the "dance" attitude.

"Kata and kumite (sparring) are two separate things."  Uh... no. People who say that know as little about kumite as they do kata. What they're referring to is what could better be called tournament kumite. It's a game of tag. It's supposed to be. Why? Because actual jiu-kumite is free-style self-defense based on techniques learned in kata. No gloves, boots, headgear, mouthpieces - or points. Just unbelievable control or trips to the hospital.

"Kata is boring, useless repetition."  This is where it really gets interesting. Because kata is a complex subject, it's difficult to teach - to adults. It's darn near impossible to teach to children - unless you know what you're doing. If you don't, you eventually look foolish. If you're charging the "Tiny Tigers" three grand a year, foolish gets expensive. Answer: Drop kata training, make a list of great excuses why, and restock the school with Hula-hoops, dodge balls and traffic cones.

If you are dealing with adults, and don't know what you're doing, teach them that MMA is for adults, karate is for kids and kickboxing is for women - apparently wanting to look good in leotards. (I know this because that's what the "bandit" sign one school put on the side of the road said. Well.. not the leotard part.)


So there it is.  Dismissing kata as an un-essential training element has less to do with the actual experience of those who understand kata, and more to do with the motivations of those who don't ever know what it is. However, on the broader issue of defining martial arts training itself - can not the exact same can be said?