Changes in karate and its kata

An interesting post over on The Critical Corner blog about Unorthodox Karate

In this post, the author (zenhg) discusses the taboo of orthodox karate that prevents changing things – changing the kata, adding or subtracting kata from a syllabus, etc.  In zenhg’s mind, most orthodox karate styles have a brick wall against anyone changing anything, once the style has been created by its founder.  I am sure that this mindset is prevalent in many styles, and where thats true, I couldn’t agree more with zenhg’s comments

First of all, something that is not allowed to grow is already dead, and something that needs so much protection must be extremely fragile, toppling down like a house of cards with the slightest gust of wind; such is the price of over-rigidity.

I am a believer that one of the most important traditions in karate is that of cross-training.  If you research back only 2–3 generations ago, its pretty clear that the world of karate in Okinawa was pretty small, and most of the “style founders” trained with several instructors, going beyond the boundaries of what today we call styles.  They would absorb kata from various teachers and synthesise them together into their own system.

They would also adapt the various kata to suit their own systems – why else would we have multiple versions of Kusanku, Bassai, Seisan, Naihanchin and others?

The tradition of evolution seemed to stop for many styles in Japan, where karate and its kata became somewhat rigidised.  The Japanese precept of “deru kugi wa utareru” (the protruding nail shall be hammered down) seems to have been realised in karate’s transition to the mainland.

So I am a believer that karate and its kata change over time.  But an important point is that there are seem pretty important threshholds that should apply, IMHO, before someone has the right to change something. They should know a system inside out, fully understanding the ins and outs of its teachings before changing something.  Or they should evolve beyond to form their own new system, with a new name, that will stand its own test of time.

And importantly, anyone who moves down this path shouldn’t be surprised or feel slighted when one day one of their own students does the same thing.

Change is an important tradition in karate.  Evolution must continue to act to ensure that karate is relevant, and not just a cultural relic.

I’d love to hear your opinions on this topic of change in karate.

The Critical Corner II: Critical Light: Unorthodox Karate?.

5 thoughts on “Changes in karate and its kata

  1. Thank you very much for reading and commenting on my post. I couldn’t agree more with everything you said. A person is not really qualified to change anything or even formulate a new art unless they understand the fundamentals of the art as a whole.

    Change and evolution should happen naturally, not forcefully, it should take a long period of time through diligent study and hard work.
    I look at each Kata as a system unto itself, so a person needs to know those systems inside and out, then they need to decide where THEY want to go with it, what aspects do they want to stress based on their understanding and what works for them?

    Ultimately they will blend well in live-fire situations and Randori if the person does, indeed, posess such understanding and utilizes their insights to suit their strengths.
    You have to have a starting point, however, I think this is a good reason for standardization, you use it as a spring board from which to gain insight, then you go from there.

    Again, excellent post! Nice to come across a like-minded individual.

  2. I agree whole-heartedly that styles must adapt and change over time, and that kata may be reviewed and changed as well. My instructor (an 8th degree and one of the Chief Instructors of the style) has recently had us make a change to the way we perform a specific technique in Naihanchi Shodan and another technique in Seienchin because he determined that the original techniques of the kata were not able to be practically applied in the same way that they were performed. Likewise, we continue to include new methods of moving, defending, and disarming in our training as we learn new methods. If a style remains exactly the same since its creation, it will stagnate and it’s inflexibility will most certainly be its downfall, in my opinion. Very good post, sir!

  3. I would agree entirely that traditions need to be judiciously, not slavishly, followed. Here’s my question: in the last decade in the martial arts, we’ve seen some big trends with growth in MMA, XMA, & Muy Thai to name a few. What do you think is coming over the next ten years?

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