“Traditional Kata”…what is it?

A few days ago I just arrived back home from training in Okinawa for two weeks. The Okinawan’s are preparing for a major tournament they are hosting in August of this year. It was often a topic of discussion at both our Hombu dojo in the Shorinkan as well as other dojo I visited. One of the topics of discussion was what constitutes at “traditional” or “dentou” Karate Kata. Recently I posted a link on my Facebook page with the video directory that the Okinawan World Tournament committee put together on accepted Kata from the three primary styles recognized in Okinawa which are Shorin Ryu, Goju Ryu and Uechi Ryu Karate. They classified the Kata based on the lineage of each into three different categories: Shuri-Te, Naha-Te and Tomari-Te.

When I made my Facebook post I mentioned that many of the people who perform “traditional” kata here in the states will not score well if they were to attempt to run what they do here at the tournament in Okinawa. Evidently this ruffled a few people’s feathers as I began getting some very rude and arrogant emails about what I had said. It is important to note that I stated it wasn’t because they are not good at what they perform but rather because what is perceived as “traditional” kata at tournaments here in the states is actually far from it according to my research and trips I have taken to train in Okinawa.

I knew fairly well that some people would get upset with what I stated but it is a fact that many people have modified or spiced up their Kata to win tournaments. Like them, I am also guilty of such a thing but I do know the difference and do not run Kata that way in my dojo or when I train in Okinawa. Kata training is very serious to Okinawan Karate people as it is part of their heritage and legacy so it is important to perform correctly and without any modifications to the Kata according to one’s Ryu, or style, they study. So that leads to what makes a Kata traditional…

Well, in my personal opinion and based on asking questions in Okinawa from people like Minoru Nakazato Hanshi (shown in the featured photo for this post) who is the chairman of the rules committee for Shuri-Te and Tomari-Te Kata at the event I compiled some of the main points that will define it.

  1. It has no modifications, no changes in tempo. It will be ran just as the count in the dojo is done. Many people have a tendency to put techniques together when performing in tournaments but, according to the rules for this event in Okinawa, doing so will score lower as shows improper demonstration of the principles of the Kata.
  2. As Minoru Nakazato Hanshi stated “there is to be no decoration in the Kata”. This means the loud screaming Ki-ya, or doing multiple ones, plus being flashy is not part of traditional Kata training. Anyone who has been to Okinawa knows this as there are seldom no more than two or three Ki-ya in Kata at max and it is definitely never a loud scream. By decoration he is also referring to over stated stances, not natural movement or adding in emotions / facial expressions to the Kata. A prime example of what not to do with a traditional Kata can be found here:  https://www.facebook.com/dumbass.martial.arts/videos/171194037031699/
  3. The Kata will need to be one of the defined Kata as performed in the catalog they have compiled. The Okinawan tournament bureau went to great lengths to catalog several versions of different Kata from each lineage. You can view them broken down by Naha- Te and Shuri/Tomari-Te here:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4CUvmlV2HCJHy-vhIBLKWg/playlists

Basically that gives one an idea of what is considered “traditional” Kata in Okinawa. While this is probably going to upset some of the “traditional” Karate people out there, it is important to note that they are only considering Okinawan Karate Kata, not Japanese. Of interesting note the topic of Funakoshi and Shotokan Karate came up in discussion while I was in Okinawa and a very valid reason why Funakoshi changed everything was pointed out. Since Funakoshi moved to Japan to spread Karate he never bothered to return to train more and be taught properly. He modified everything as his own interpretation and thus it became to be know no longer as Okinawan Karate but Japanese. Since Funakoshi never came back to his teacher, nor had other teachers, he had no direction in how to keep it proper, keep Karate correct thus it resulted in what became known as Shotokan. That is not to say that Funakoshi was not important in spreading the art of Karate, as he most definitely was, but he no longer taught “Dentou” or proper Karate according to many Okinawans. This is one of the reasons that Shotokan Kata are not part of the catalog of Kata offered.

Another reason why Shotokan Kata are not catalog has to do with there being a true, real and distinct difference between Japanese Karate and Okinawan Karate. While I was in Okinawa I spoke to a few others about all the political attempts that the JKA has made to keep Okinawan Karate from the limelight…and it doesn’t seem like it will ever end. The Okinawan’s take great pride in their Karate, and they definitely hail it as different from Japanese Karate…and for good reason. The Japanese Karate Association (JKA) doesn’t like this and wants complete control over everything (typical socialist dictatorship attitude) yet the Okinawan Karate society is fighting back. It will be interesting to see where this goes over the next few years with the inclusion of Karate in the Olympics.

On a side note there are some other points to consider when defining a traditional Kata. These are items that my research has led me to include when deciphering the wide array of what is passed off as traditional Kata across the USA these days. These items are based on discussion, research and my own personal experience training in camps, competing and training in Okinawa:

  1. The Kata should not be changed from the lineage of the system. Since Shorin Ryu, Goju Ryu and Uechi Ryu are all relatively young arts and the people who developed them are known then the Kata must be as it was first taught. Chibana Chosin Sensei developed Shorin Ryu. Chojun Miyagi developed Goju Ryu. Kanbun Uechi developed Uechi Ryu. While they have all had several of their students go off and develop sub systems of their styles most of the authentic ones have kept the Kata intact as it was taught by these system founders. It is important to note that some Kata were not included in the substyles or others were substituted due to preference of the substyle founder. That being said, particularly for Shorin Ryu, to quote Chibana Sensei “Do not ever change the Kata”.
  2. The Kata should have combat depth to the techniques. Most people refer to this as Bunkai but we are not talking about the very cool “sport” bunkai seen in WKF style Kata events but rather Bunkai that can be modified and made applicable in real situations. Most authentic Karate Kata from Okinawa has this type of principle to it.

On the topic of changing the Kata I would like to quote Minoru Nakazato Hanshi from our conversation in the dojo this year. Nakazato Hanshi stated “No change the Kata. If you change the Kata then you are no longer practicing that Kata. You are practicing something new. No need to change Kata…if you do then it is not Dentou (traditional).”.

So the argument will persist on what people in the USA refer to as traditional Kata versus what is seen, cataloged, categorized and taught in Okinawa as such. Over the years I have traveled to Okinawa I have heard many a Sensei there state that people who came to the USA who only learned a few years of Karate and never returned did not teach it properly and changed it. They have said many times that if you do not get supervision in Okinawa from a qualified Sensei of your Ryu then you will not teach Kata properly and therefor it is no longer Okinawan Dentou Karate. On that note I will agree because I can see a lot of modifications at tournaments, seminars and other things I have done when it comes to Kata. While it is true that one’s Karate should become their own, the Kata doesn’t belong to them and it should be passed on properly. For that a person needs to study with one Sensei, and for many years (a lifetime) to make sure it is passed on correctly.

All the above topics are sure to upset some people and that is fine because, at one point, I was one of them too. I thought what I was doing was traditional Kata…then I traveled to Okinawa, I opened my mind, I watched, I listened, I trained, I practiced and I was reviewed to make sure I was teaching correctly. After that I have new found appreciation for Okinawan Karate Kata and a strong desire to pass it on properly as per the system of Shorin Ryu I teach. In the dojo there will be no modifications, no changes…it will be done as it is done in Okinawa. There is no reason to change the Kata…

As always train hard, learn well and ever forward.

Steven Franz, Shihan Rokudan
Shorin Ryu Shorinkan


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