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Shallow Kata -- Deep Kata

This is a follow up to my last post, Shodan Kata? In that post I wrote:

"In particular, I feel that Kusanku, Chinto, Gojushiho, and even Passai and Wanshu should be reserved for more advanced students..., maybe even Wankan."
A reader asked what "Wankan" meant. Looking back, I realize that the use of the term was a little ambiguous. "Wankan" is a kata practiced in our system. It is fairly common in Shorin-Ryu schools, and is also known as "Okan". It is a Tomari-Te kata (at least it is they way that we practice it).

Now the follow up.

In my experience, if a student learns many kata too quickly, it will be almost impossible for him to ever learn the kata properly and in depth. If you start shallow, it stays shallow. It is possible for a student to move to the depths of the kata, but this takes a great deal of introspection and effort. Also, there will be many errors to correct.

But if a student learns fewer kata and learns them in greater depth, then he will probably go on to learn all kata properly and in depth. And if you think about it, many of the movements in one kata are common to others. So if a student learns one kata in depth, he will be learning movements that will also be present in other kata. When the time comes to learn those kata, he will already know the common movements... already know them in depth.

But a student with a shallow understanding will rush on to other kata. The mistakes of his first shallow kata will be repeated in the later kata. The first kata will be shallow and the others will be too. Shallowness will infect the kata.

The idea is not to learn many kata -- there is no benefit to this -- the idea is to learn to move properly and defend yourself. Kata are not like trophies or medals. They have no value unless you understand them well.

In some schools, kata are the basis for rank. Some schools will have different training days and times for certain kata, or level of kata. So to train in a certain class, the student will have to learn all the earlier kata that are a prerequisite for the more advanced training. I can understand this approach, but I do not follow it. One kata is as good as the next (except for Naihanchi Shodan which is like a cornerstone upon which all other kata are built in our system).

In some schools, more advanced kata are given a higher degree of difficulty in kata competition. There is thus an incentive to learn these more advanced kata. I do not follow this approach either. All kata are difficult and all kata are easy. There are no degrees of difficulty. Is Chinto harder than Fukyugata Ichi? I have heard some senior instructors say that Fukyugata Ichi is more difficult because there is no room to hide -- a seemingly simple kata is actually harder to do well. Any mistakes will be obvious.

I have written this before -- and it is true (to me). If a student is very good at the Naihanchi kata, then all subsequent kata will have a Naihanchi flavor. They will look very strong. But if a student has a weak Naihanchi, the subsequent kata will be similarly weak. The Pinan kata should look like Naihanchi, not the other way around. I am mentioning this because some instructors treat Naihanchi as a very basic kata (with a very low degree of difficulty).

If you can do Naihanchi well, that is enough. The remaining kata are basically just to entertain you.

Back to my original post. In my school, shodan are not expected to know 18 kata. How many should they know? It depends on what I feel (and my second son feels, since he is the dojo cho). We do not have specific requirements.

This brings up another issue. In some schools, students are expected to know specific kata for each rank (dan and kyu). In these schools, you will sometimes find students who say, "I know Pinan Sandan now so am I a green belt?"

I feel that it is important not to tie kata to specific ranks. Instread, it is important to tie kata to specific skill sets, specific body mechanics, specific applications, etc.

Of course, I have a small dojo and do not teach commercially. I have the luxery of trying to craft "custom" students. I could not teach the same way with 500 or 5,000 students -- there simply would not be enough time.

In any event, I recommend that kata not be rushed -- it is far better to learn a few kata deeply rather than many kata shallowly. If you know a few kata deeply, you can easily learn many kata. But if you only know kata shallowly, no matter how many kata you learn, it will not help -- actually it will only make things worse.


Charles C. Goodin