A Brief History of Kata

A Kata or, as some call them, 'Form', is a series of sequences of blocks, punches, strikes and kicks which to the outsider, the untrained eye, looks a bit like a dance. History has recorded these dance-like forms in various cultures. In fact there are references dating way back to the Egyptians and Greeks, performing dances that emulated fighting. The most up-to-date version of this is in Brazilian Capoeira, a mixture of gymnastic dance and martial art. Formal fighting dances were also seen in Okinawa, exactly when they came about is not recorded, but history gives us an insight to as to their origin.


Okinawa had a very good relationship with China and as its trade blossomed so did a mixture of culture. This can be traced back to circa 1377, when the King of Okinawa formed an allegiance with the Chinese Emperor. The migration between the Okinawans and the Chinese was the cause of a cultural exchange between these two countries. This included the teachings of the fighting systems of the Chinese. Thus 'Chinese hand' (Karate) had a large influence in the development of Okinawa Tōde, the Okinawan fighting system which was also merged with fighting systems from the towns of Shuri and Naha which were well known trading centres. giving rise to Shuri-te and Naha-te.


An imposed ban on the use and ownership of weapons generated a greater interest in unarmed fighting systems. In the 1600’s the Japanese ordered the Satsuma clan to invade Okinawa. This they did and imposed various demands upon the Okinawans, one of which was to prohibit weapons and the practise of their fighting arts.


This resulted in the Okinawans training in secret, behind closed doors, and only with family a few trusted students. During this time, their empty hand developed and they practiced the use of fighting with tools and wooden farming implements. Thus their Kata and its application (bunkai) became secretive. Deadly techniques were hidden in the Kata movements which were only understood by a select few. The practise was now underground so hidden from the Japanese oppressors of that time. They practised in small groups, or one on one with their master, and this was how the Ryu (school) was personalised and passed down. There were no written records or books on Kata making it difficult therefore to trace the origin.


In the middle of the 18th century three key individuals emerged. These were Shinjo Choken, one of the first known exponents of Shuri-te, along with Kanga Sakugawa and Chatan Yara, who travelled to China to study Chinese martial arts. Both men had studied under a Chinese envoy named Kwang Shang Fu, better known as Kushanku who himself had studied martial arts with the Shaolin monks. Eventually Sakugawa would create a Kata and call it Kushanku in honour of his master Kwang Shang Fu. This kata was in due course to have its name changed by Funakoshi Gichin to Kankudai which means looking skyward. It was these individuals that gave rise to the birth of Karate as we know it today, through their teachings and their students. Originally known as Chinese hand but later renamed again by Funakoshi to mean empty hand due to politics, yet now more aptly named. Many of the Kata were formalised by Sakugawa and his student Sōkon Matsumura.


At the turn of the 20th Century Anko Itosu was instrumental in getting the empty hand fighting art into Okinawan schools making the art available to children. It is during this time we see a change in how Kata was taught. Much of the deadly applications were made safe. In fact Itosu was responsible for the creation of the Pinan Kata, taken from the older advanced Kata of Kushanku (Kankudai). A version of these kata are trained at in Shotokan called Heians. Pinan means peaceful and safe whereas Heian is taken to mean peaceful mind. (There were two periods known as Heian 1 and 2, in Japanese history, when they were at peace, having no wars or conflicts.)


What Itosu did was to modify the Kata that was taught to him by his master Matsumura. Although these modifications made the Kata easy to remember and “safe” for children to study, it had a drastic impact by starting to make the fighting art better known. Itosu Anko is credited for many changes to Shotokan kata and indeed for devising many of them too. One of his students was Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan from whom the style takes its name. In 1922, Funakoshi enhanced the popularity of Karate by demonstrating his art in front of the Emperor of Japan. He spent the rest of his life in Japan teaching his system until his death in 1957 rarely going back home to Okinawa.


Before the early 20th Century there were no written records of Kata. All of what we know today started with this knowledge being transferred from master to student. It was the Kata that was the 'book' in which the student had to study and apply. Because of this and the history, a lot of this knowledge has been lost. However, today we can see a diversity of books and DVDs on the subject. It is our responsibility to make sure that the essence and spirit of Kata lives on in its understanding through Bunkai practice. This then will prepare us to become a much better and a true practitioner of Budo. According to the teachings of Kancho Kanazawa 50% of our practice must be kata related. It is through continual practice of kata that one learns how one’s style or ryu works in reality. There are thirty Shotokan kata, too many for one lifetime; find a couple of favourites and make them your life’s work to understand them, know them, and attempt to master them.


Enjoy practicing your kata! The more you do the more you will learn. The more you will understand and the more you will enjoy your chosen art form.