18 March, 2012

Karate, Kata and its Interpretation

I have been reading and thinking again about what constitutes Karate, Kata and a Martial art versus an art for self defense.  I have touched on many of these previously, but here are some thoughts:

  1. Martial Arts versus Self Protection Arts
  2. Dissection of an art into three parts: techniques, tactics, strategies
  3. Where does the above leave karate?
For the first item, there is a distinction that many draw, rightly so, between koryu and gendai.  Here we are talking about martial arts whose intent was to be used on the battlefield, and self protection arts whose intent was to give a person a chance to make it home after a violent encounter.  Koryu, in general, have their roots, if not their entire syllabus, targeted toward and coming from battlefield experience.  Fighting in formation or singly against a defined enemy using the weapons of the day.  Gendai became more philosophical with a different goal, with many of the modern ones aimed at self perfection and some level of sufficiency with martial techniques.  The end goal of a martial art like Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu was to produce a soldier who will live through a battle.  The end goal of a modern martial art like jujutsu was to have effective self defense for civilians who just want to survive (hopefully only) a single violent encounter.

The second item concerns the components pieces of an art: the overarching theme or strategy for all aspects of the school, the tactics used in individual applications of that strategy, and finally the techniques by which those tactics are carried out.  Koryu arts had the goal of getting around armour and that effected the targets they would attack and the techniques used with certain weapons to achieve that.  A given encounter might rely on a tactic of feigned slow response in order to make an opening which could then be taken advantage of, to reach a given target with a given weapon in a given manner.  There is also en emphasis on using terrain to your advantage - quite important when waging war on an incline.  Gendai arts generally have a much more open set of targets and techniques are designed to be used in an urban environment.  Flat sidewalks, floors, roads, rooms and modern clothing without armouring and without the use of default or battlefield weapons.  Couple that with a need to avoid litagation and you have a very different strategy or goal.

Finally, what does this mean to karate?  I don't know yet - my own thoughts are still forming on this.  But I begin to ask myself a few questions:

  1. Does it matter if karate is not a battlefield art?
  2. What do I want out of my martial training?
  3. What is the strategy of karate?  This is tied to the tactics that will need to be used and the techniques (all of which pay a vital role in interpreting kata!)
That last one is quite key - how can I interpret the kata I study (both Goju and Shaolin) without an idea of the perspective from which they come?  Chinese arts, on the whole, seem to come from a history of rebellion and combination of personal self defense with large scale warfare.  But where does that leave karate, arguably a derivative and further reinterpretation of quan fa?

I end up with more questions every time I think about this.  Perspective is difficult to reach alone, but perhaps all the more rewarding because of it.  I begin to get a sense of how the original masters of martial ways must have felt with their own training - where do I go from here?  What skills do I want to acquire? How can those skills be tied into a cohesive whole with what I know?  What changes need to happen to facilitate this?  I believe the answer to many of these questions were answered many times as teachers created their own styles or variations on existing styles.


  1. You ask a lot of good questions. I don't have any answers for you, but it seems that #2 that you enumerated above, "What do I want out of my martial training?" is the key to the rest of them.

    1. Thank you, Rick, for your comment. I hope that I can ask the right questions to lead me onwards.