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Kata - Could its Origins be Exclusively Japanese?

Blog Article/Post Caveat (Read First Please: Click the Link)

It came to my mind recently while studying about kata that it is possible that kata is an exclusively Japanese model adopted by the Okinawans. There is a term used to describe a cultural norm of the Japanese called, “Shi-kata.”

As can be explained by defining and translating the term it appears that the Japanese created a non-verbal method of doing - Everything - by the formation of specific kata patterns that ended up making the Japanese masters of creation of products be they philosophical or physical such as their detailed expert work in the creation of the, “Katana sword.” 

There was a concerted effort by the Okinawan martial arts professionals, i.e., Okinawans like Funakoshi Sensei, etc., who went to the lengths necessary in gaining Japanese approval and acceptance. 

Once I began to study what is available of the social belief system as shi-kata along with the historical information of Okinawa as to martial arts I began to consider that it is possible that the kata Okinawan karate uses today is merely the adopted forms of Japanese shi-kata. I also considered the strong need and effort to institutionalize martial arts such as Okinawa’s karate in the educational systems. These systems created for the young through education in the schools needed a, “Standardized Way,” to achieve goals for all toward a more budo way especially since WWII was just over the horizon - so to speak.

It could be the start of how Okinawan Ti or Te became the kata driven practice it became in the early 1900’s. After all, the influences of the kata driven social system of Japan would have its influences on the Okinawans, much like that of the Chinese influences through the trade industry, view and practice of their unique martial art of karate. I also attribute this educational effort for karate because of its demonstrations in Japan thus impressing many of the leading Japanese martial artists of that period of time. 

As far as I know, to date, references to kata as an intricate part of the practice of karate is not mentioned. Even karate itself until the late 1800’s and early 1900’s was not prominently mentioned from a historical documented way. 

It means, so far to my perception, that it is possible that kata practice was not a dominate feature of Okinawa Ti or Te in the very early years and may of consisted of various technique based practices according to the expertise and experiences of the teachers. Even some of the earlier historically based stories it is told that some of the kata are actually creations of the more modern Sensei who learned from their teachers those techniques and thereby created kata based on those various techniques to fit the more modern standardized model of an almost strict kata-based model of learning karate especially since kumite as we know of it today didn’t actually begin until maybe the 1940’s or 50’s - speculatively speaking. 

If by some far off chance my theory were to be true then that would put a whole new and different spin on the arguments many flame about electronically as to the validity and importance of kata practice. 

Regardless of its origins, either modern or ancient or even shikata, the kata if taught, learned, practiced and understood as to its actual role in teaching martial arts still holds a valid position and role in martial arts training, practice and applications. Most misunderstanding tend to come from ignorance of what kata are and how they are used to teach, etc. Many have the misinterpretation that they are groups of dynamic bunkai or techniques when in reality they are merely a tool to teach physiokinetics (in short fundamental principles like structure, alignments, breathing, balance and so forth …). They are a tool to teach students rather than the modern thought of subject oriented teaching, etc.

Bibliography (Click the link)

Oh, as to shi-kata, here ya go:

Shikata [仕方]

The characters/ideograms mean "way; method; means; resource; course." The first character means, "attend; doing; official; serve," the second character means, "direction; person; alternative." 

The character, romanization word, was found through the original book of reference, the Shin Gi Tai, by Mike Clarke where a reference was made as to karate kata being of greater importance over the system of Te vs. the current belief that kata is a part of Te. Clarke Sensei's reference material led me to the book on Kata or "Shikata." 

In that study material we find references to "kanji." I will try to bring a bit of interest to this by some data that led me to believe that kata drives Japan, and I believe now Okinawan, Karate - shikata.

Shikata is often referred to simply as "kata" for brevity so I will do the same in this and any followup postings. But I want to begin with references to "kanji" to continue this particular post because kanji seems from my studies so far to be the reason for kata. 

Some historical influences to kata begin with Shintoism, the way of the Gods. Then of importance is Buddhism, Confucianism, the ideographic writing system, and other cultural influences from China. All this led to a "highly controlled behavior" model that would express subservience and respect toward superior beings. There are then presented various other factors that led to kata in Japan that should be fully understood so "read the book."

This post tho wants to speak to what the author presented as the "mother of kata." Kanji, what was called by the Japanese as "Chinese Letters."  Korean scribes transcribed Japanese language into Kanji. The writing of kanji involved other principles but in a nutshell it resulted in a particular form of training to lean how to read and write the complicated characters where the strokes to create kanji became kata-ized, i.e. the conjoining strokes were taught is very specific order and there were no deviations allowed. It was referred to as "way of writing" or "Kaki-kata."

The mental concentration and mechanical aspects of writing in kanji required memorization and that is done by repetitive practice over time. It involved thousands of kanji characters which were more of a translation of concepts communicated by sounds vs. simply utilization of what we use, i.e. A, B, C's which also became a very personalized experience with strong mental or psychological aspects. 

The mental concentration was governed by specificity in a kata like manner. The learning process for kanji resulted in a high degree of the sense of group harmony of form and style which imbued a deep sense of aesthetics. An art form or way of writing. It also, much like we profess to achieve in karate kata practice, provided a means to increase a person's patience and to persevere in all they do to an extreme.

The requirement to practice and learn kanji became the "way" to shape Japanese physically, intellectually and emotionally further binding them to the group mentality through this kata of the kanji writing. This became a core aspect along with others to create their group style culture. 

Every person in Japan were now required to follow this kanji-kata to create these characters in a manner that became an art form which is known today as "Sho-Do or Way of the Brush." We call it calligraphy. 

Writing kanji also denoted one as being of great character and worth. Thus was born shikata or kata. It is not much of a stretch even for non-Japanized persons practicing the Asian traditional martial arts to see that this led to the kata within the art from the kata-mization of the art itself. As you read the book on its many subjects which are all governed by their individual kata you begin to get a fundamental understanding beyond our limited view of what we perceived, until now, as karate kata.

I may have it right or maybe wrong but you can begin to see why understanding of the kanji that describe the sounds as some more conceptual meaning could lead to greater understanding of our practice and training.

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