Kata and Kata

If a Japanese ryūha‘s innermost core and doctrine can be found in its ryūgi 流義 – and the body of knowledge that defines it – so can its knowledge be found in kata, the oldest and most central method for teaching traditional martial arts.

Few parts of Japanese martial arts have become so misunderstood as kata. It is described among other things as ritualized combat, exercises in aesthetic movements and methods to sharpen basic skills such as balance and coordination, form of meditation in motion, or training like shadow boxing.

Already in its origin, the concept of kata confusing, because there are two different kanji of it, but today’s Japanese people consider to be synonyms for each other.

Kacem Zoughari demonstrating the kata "Seon" from Kukishinden-ryu.
Kacem Zoughari demonstrating the kata “Seon” from Kukishinden-ryu.

Kata with the kanji “型” denotes a form of type mold, something that is clearly represents its external form. The character contains the radical 土 representing earth or clay, i.e. anything stable and immovable. The other two characters, (tairaka; 开) is of two plants that are the same length, and a blade (katana; 刀) can be interpreted as “grooming”, ie something that is cropped to form a shape.

Kata (型) is also used as a name for the choreography in kabuki theater. Many plays are transferred from one generation to another through formal transfer of a performing art with scientific precision. Every step, every glance is anti-realistic choreographed and consists of exaggerated movements and studied rhythm.

The other way to write kata is “形” which has three feathery strokes (sen, kami; 彡) to indicate something that is more fluid, easy and natural in form. It can also be interpreted as “realistic”.
Both of these characters are translated into shape and pattern, but which can also be interpreted as “exercise”.

Kata within Kukishin-Ryū is often likened to “kō-mon-sen” (Gate-beating brick; 敲門磚).  “Sen” is a stone placed in front of a front gate so that visitors can use it to knock.When the door opens so place the stone where it was before, for the benefit of the next visitor.
With the allegory describes the painting that you should not take the “stone” in with you, ie. not to bring kata when you have received and understood the combat arts. Kata is only for those who have not yet “arrived”.
Now it is easy to conclude that the kata [型] is bad and kata [形] is good, but there are other aspects of this knowledge transfer.

Kata can exist to teach a specific lesson relevant to the instant application in reality and/or to teach a concept that is more general.
Therefore, both kata forms are of utmost importance.
The meaning of our kata can be derived from its name, from the feeling that kata is meant to convey. These two can be identical, but may also be different.

Sources:

Ruha, Pertti. Kata 型 och Kata 形. (June 11th, 2013), Translated and edited by Luke crocker (June 5th, 2015).

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