Kata, what is it?

Kata is a core feature of karate, and other traditional martial arts. Through out the years within my dojo and organization I regularly heard that kata is a textbook. The kata teaches us the techniques we need to solve the problem. The only problem is, that a textbook lays out how things specifically should be done. In an English or grammar class, the book tells you how sentences are formed, it tells you how to use your punctuation, and those rules it teaches you are always used. Same with a math textbook, it teaches you rules that will always give you the correct answer if followed.

Kata doesn’t lay out the specifics how exactly how to solve an equation, or in this case win a fight, the way math and PEMDAS (parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction) does. PEMDAS lays out the specific steps and a specific order to the problem in. With fighting you can’t apply kata the same rigid way, and if you get into a fight where doing a kata strike for strike and block for block, stance for stance is the way to win…well that’s just lucky.

For me I see kata more like a dictionary. If you hand someone a dictionary they might learn english words, but they won’t be able to speak proper english. Same with kata, if all you do is practice kata you’ll have the techniques learned, but the techniques will be nearly useless without the grammar or PEMDAS of fighting so to speak. While I acknowledge there be a perfect analogy between a reference or educational book and kata I do think a dictionary is a closer match than a textbook.

In English, one word may have several meanings. In kata one movement can be several techniques. Just like you have preset assignments to help you learn your grammar and how to properly form your sentences you have kiso kumite and kata bunkai as presets to help you understand the meaning and application of the movements in kata. A conversation is like a fight, each one will be different and will never be the same. You react to the other person using a base vocabulary. Learning more kata will increase your vocabulary just like reading the dictionary will. By learning the techniques (words) from doing kata(reading the dictionary), practicing kiso kumite and bunkai you learn the proper usage of those techniques, and engage in sparring (friendly conversation) you begin to build up how to put those techniques together on the fly to be effective, so you’ll be ready for the debate or argument (fight) you may eventually find yourself in.

Not a perfect analogy, but I do not believe a perfect analogy for kata can be found. I do think it is a slightly more accurate analogy than a textbook however. I understood the point when the textbook analogy was used while I was training, as did others, but maybe this will make more sense to people who don’t understand why karate still trains kata in the modern age, and why it’s important.