Friday, March 29, 2013


Kenji Ushiro uses a word that I have yet to hear any really notable martial artist use.  The word is verification.  He uses it often and precisely.  Kata is practice.  What it teaches must be verified in bunkai and kumite.

I raise this issue because I was watching a very precise and technically marvelous kata presentation by the Japanese female champion, Rika Usami:

To which I commented in the comments section below:

Her kata is sharp and decisive. But it seems that a lot of people forget that the point of the kata is the bunkai. Her kata is validated only when she can do what she has practiced so often against a person trying to strike her. It seems a strange thing to try to judge a kata without judging whether it actually enables her to be effective. That's point of practicing it.

A user, Ivan Carvalho, made this response:

your argumet is fail because in a competition you don't have do see the bunkai. they know the kata she is doing. she not create new one. and is individual she must be avaliaded by the kata himself not for the bunkai. sorry for my english

Ivan, don't worry.  I'm sure I speak your first language worse than you speak english.  And beyond that, he's right.  My argument is flawed.  The purpose of Ms. Usami's kata is not to verify what she knows.  It is to show the technical brilliance necessary under a specific set of guidelines in order to win at a kata competition.  Ivan rightly points out that no one expects her to demonstrate the bunkai and beyond that the bunkai are known - she isn't trying to educate anyone.

I suppose that I take issue with the premise of kata competition itself.  The premise is that if Ms. Usami's kata follows the evaluative criteria of the judges better than another competitors then her kata is "better" and she should win.  But what does "better" mean in this case?  Does it mean that she should be better able to defend herself?  Attack someone?  Would she be able to defeat her fellow competitors if they were to attack her?

It should be clear that though she may demonstrate magnificent body control alone, that doesn't automatically mean that it will translate protecting her against true attack.  I also think it should be clear (though obviously it is not) that the translation part is the most important thing of all.  That translating your individual practice into functional technique against an attacker is the point of practicing alone.

Too much of karate today is this broken, dissassembled practice where everything is disconnected and addressed in separate boxes.  Kata has nothing to do with kumite, kihon nothing to do with bunkai.  Goshin has nothing to do with sport, Wado has nothing to do with Shito, etc.  Instead there must be reassembly, unity.  The parts must be unified.  Kata should tie together with bunkai.  They must verify one another and show that you are making progress.

Instead, kata competition today is a lot like bodybuilding competitions.  Bodybuilders look very strong.  But it is all appearance.  If they were really strong, they would be able to compete in strongman competitions, actually lifting weights rather than appearing to be able to lift weights.  They would lift weights as they struck their poses. If they were really functional, then the finest athletes in the world would look like bodybuilders.  But neither is true.  Kata is not meant to be merely the appearance of having control or focus.  It is supposed to be practice of control and focus that gives you control and focus for when it is not practice.  But to praise a kata "performance" without determining whether it actually allows one to perform when it counts - how is that different from marveling at the size of a muscle without finding out how much it can lift?


  1. Great question Kamil. And you show your courage by asking this question because these types of discussions really get the hacks up of the traditionalists and the sporting enthusiasts!

    For myself I stand with the old masters when they say that performing kata without understanding practical bunkai amounts to a "worthless flapping of limbs."

    Now that being said I am of course biased by my own point of view. I study and teach karate purely from the stand point of self defense and character development. In my 20s I lived in the outskirts of Seattle in a little section called White Center...otherwise known as 'Rat City' to the locals. There was a 3rd degree instructor for the Washington Karate Association who also lived there. She practiced competitions and was very decorated with trophies, ribbons, etc. She was raped and murdered while jogging in the evening not to far from her dojo. Now obviously I don't know how her assault took place, and I realize that anyone can be overcome in the right circumstances...but I do know she put very little emphasis on understanding bunkai and the ability to apply what she knew outside of a tournament setting (obviously I knew her).

  2. I agree with your point of view on this, Kamil--it actually goes hand-in-hand with my complaint about putting karate into the Olympics. Empty kata can be exercise, and the demonstration of empty kata can be impressive from the perspective of body control and muscle memory, but without bunkai it is useless.

  3. Hello Noah,

    Thanks for the comment. No doubt Olympic karate should not be more of the same. I actually fear that Olympic karate will be even worse - a combination of kata as "figure skating" (flashy routines and subjective evaluation) and tae kwon do (point fighting).

    Have you joined the google community "Karate"? They have some nice people in there, and some good discussions going on (I should know, I'm a moderator!).