Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Evaluating the Usefulness of Kata Study

  I find viewing the many interpretations being made of “kata motion” (for the most part)... boring. Not because they are often simplistic, or even elaborate, but because they haven't (really) committed any real thought towards the motions significance. I believe that there are multiple interpretations for most of the kata motions. I also don't believe that any represent (only) a singular interpretation.

  The majority of interpretations that I see being presented are either overly simplistic or so impractical, that they warrant no serious attention. The question I ask myself (when examining a techniques possible connection to a kata motion), is whether that motion would of been “worth” it's inclusion into the creation of a mnemonic intended for posterity. In some cases I've been able to say 'yes' it would have been, but the majority of the time (for those "examples" I've seen), the answer is a resounding “No”.

  The Pinan kata (or Heian for the Japanese crowd) were created by Itosu for use in the Okinawan school system (which is where he was an teacher). The reasoning for their implementation, was that he felt that the “traditional” kata were too difficult (complicated?) and/or required too much time to learn (correctly) for school age children (he was trained with the mentality that “proper” study/practice of the kata, required 3-10 years). He utilized pieces of several of the traditional kata to form the 5 Pinan kata, which could be learned over a much shorter time period.

  Though not necessarily representing all of the important motions, they represented the majority of the “general” principles. As with any of the Okinawan kata (popularly utilized) numerous motions are repeated in many (if not most) of them. Oyata felt that the 12 included within his (public) system was sufficient for the majority of students (he also had two additional/family kata that were taught to him by his instructors as well, these are reserved for his Yudansha students).

  The versions of the traditional kata that he chose, contained what were the closest to what he understood to be the correctly performed motions. As his own study continued, he further modified those kata until he felt the kata motions would be more easily recognized for the techniques/applications that they were intended to represent. Though the “popular” method of their performance was initially used (for beginning students) he later modified those as well (for his students).

  Oyata taught that every kata motion represented numerous applications/techniques (individually) but that those motions most often needed to be used in conjunction with other kata motion(s) (whether from that kata, or one of the others). Those motions were rarely sequenced with or necessarily even contained within the same kata. This was what the average student would often spend their time studying.

  The definition of Bunkai, is “analysis;dismantling:parsing”. The word is commonly used to describe the interpretation of the kata motion(s). Most often, what's seen are interpretations that imply that the kata motions are “strung together” groups of techniques, and that their use/application is (always?) done in the order and sequence that they are done within the kata. “I” happen to favor the belief that the kata motions (only) represent pieces of multiple (and often different) kata/applications, depending on where one starts/stops their consideration of the motions.

  Taika taught that the kata motions should be treated like the letters of an alphabet (and combined to make words (techniques). I happen to agree with that assessment. It makes greater sense that a mnemonic (for future reference) would be assembled in this manner. Though possibly confusing (to those not familiar with the motions), it would aid the individuals in concealing those motions/techniques from adversaries.

  In today's world, the ability to physically defend one's self is not (as) necessary as it was at the time of these motions inceptions. Modern society has created the social environments that restrict the occurrence (and attitude) that foster the acceptance of violent behavior. Though still occurring, these situations are (proportionally) far fewer/rare than at the time of their creation. Despite (numerous) warnings of rising crime, the level of violent criminal acts have been steadily dropping for the past 20+ years.

  The more commonly encountered “physical confrontation” is (more often) the result of a perceived act of disrespect (somebody's “ego” got bruised). The “intent” of an assailant is rarely to take the life of the victim. The required “skills” (by the average practitioner) are simply to protect one's self from receiving injury, and to prevent an assailant from continuing their assault.

  These “skills” would (should) include the ability to restrain an assailant who attempts to continue their aggressive behavior. In particular circumstances, that “may” include causing severe damage/injury to an assailant (though more often, simple restraint is sufficient in this objective). With civil litigation being at the level it is, accomplishing this should entail as little physical damage (to the assailant) as possible (which was the precept of Oyata's instruction).

  This is (obviously) more difficult than (simply) inflicting physical damage to an assailant. The (moral?) legal predicament is that the (initial) defender can/will be cited with (numerous) penalties (whether monetary or through incarceration) if/when they exceed their legal allowance of defensive actions.

  At least in the U.S., the (currently advertised) “sales pitch” for the study of a martial art, focus on inflicting as much (excessive) damage/injury to an assailant as possible. This is unnecessary, misleading and terribly misogynistic (only appealing to the “male” aggressive tendency).

  As an instructor I find this to be very concerning. It (IMO) disregards the “type” of person who actually would need (and is often seeking) the type of defensive training that is being offered. Oyata's system was designed to be utilized by any student (regardless of gender, or physical size).

  The motions within the various kata do not emphasize “physical prowess/superiority". The included motions illustrate the efficient use of the limbs and user's body in the application of the instructed techniques. Though (easily) able to be escalated, their initial application provides instruction for a level of submission that is sufficient for the majority of defensive needs.

  Those individual's who (emphasize) interpret the kata motions as being continuous “striking” applications, are disregarding the less violent (yet more applicable/useful) applications of those same motions. The type of student who is drawn to that manor of “defense”, is rarely the type of student that (actually) “needs” the training being offered. They tend to be young, physically fit and athletically inclined (more resembling the average assailant, rather than the average victim).

  This “appeal” is reinforced by/through the practice of “sparring” (IMO). This is a subject that creates a large amount of debate, and argument. It's also the reason hat Oyata quit having anything to do with it. It reinforced everything that his life protection system taught to avoid (if not reject). It is a “sport” (not a defensive training method). It appeals to the “male” dominance mentality (“might makes right”). It's also a very “simplistic” attitude (hence, it's appeal). Unfortunately(fortunately?), the majority of people are not physically “strong”, nor were they when these techniques were developed. If one were to accept the idea that one's ability to compete in a “sparring” match, was a practical means to determine their ability to defend themselves, then when the (original) “masters” became too old/physically unable to participate in that activity, they should have been dismissed as being (then) “inept”.  
 The facts dismiss this assertion. Though Oyata was a (very) “physically” fit individual (despite his age), I never saw him use that physical ability to accomplish any of his technique application. He emphasized that physical strength was NOT a factor in the application of his techniques.

  We (fortunately) have several students who are physically (very) strong. We regularly perform the instructed techniques upon them (obviously, under controlled circumstances to prevent injury). We have (yet) to have those techniques fail to perform the expected results. We additionally have smaller, weaker students (as well as females), who are also able to utilize those same techniques upon them as well.

  The practice of “sparring” will develop unrealistic beliefs and practices. If we were to “make” our 105# female student “spar” with one of our 210# male students, they (the females) would (inevitably) lose (that match). I would defy anyone to present a similar (size/gender) match-up that would provide different results. Even “if” they could, it would be an incredibly “rare” occurrence. The “point” being, that “sparring” in no way equates to the more commonly encountered confrontation that a student will be involved with (male or female).

  Our (main) point of argument being, that a physical confrontation is nothing similar/like a “sparring” match. They are more often a “building” situation that develops from various (discernible) factors. Recognition of those factors are paramount to one's ability to defend against an ensuing physical confrontation.

  What has all of that got to do with kata?...everything. Kata motion is intended to provide responses to physical attempts of aggression. If/when they are interpreted to (only?) imply a motions use in a “sparring” (sort of) situation, they are (IMO) useless speculation. When those motions are applied to to a sparring situation, they no longer serve a practical function for training (and are considered to be “invalid” bunkai/interpretations, again, IMO).

  Oyata taught us that the performance of kata taught numerous things, many of which are seemingly dismissed by the majority of students. This would include (much to my chagrin) the practice of weapons (kata). The included motions (of weapon manipulation) often demonstrated “open-hand” application methods. These motions are more easily conveyed via the practice of (manipulating) those weapons.

  Weapons kata serve little (if any, depending upon the particular weapon) “practical” application (of the individual weapon) and are rarely “usable” (as it is most commonly “illegal” to have that weapon in one's possession if/when they find themselves in a situation that they could actually utilize it). None the less, I am familiar with numerous weapon's kata, and I do encourage our students to learn/study the weapons kata that are taught. Though often dismissed, the included “hand” motions are readily adaptable for use in (various) technique applications (and provide a reference for students when those motions are applied/utilized in their open-hand training).

  Though I disagree with the majority of the kata “interpretations” that are presented (on the internet/U-Tube, etc.), I still view them. They may be ridiculous, or only (IMO) be an attempt to elevate the person's ego, but they might provide a view-point that I may have “missed” (in our own research of the kata motions). Those that are (only) “striking” orientated, I commonly find to be boring, and without useful merit. They commonly depend upon one's physical prowess for their use.

  When we consider a techniques (useful) application, we factor in the ability of our smallest student (and their ability to perform the same motion) using it upon our largest/strongest student. If/when the motion is impractical for that student to perform the motion, it's considered to be impractical for instruction. It “may” be useful for an individual, but would (hardly) be something that someone would include in a “training” mnemonic (such as a “kata”) for future students.