Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Are there rules for deciphering kata?

I got a letter the other day from someone who seems to be a sincere and dedicated practitioner of traditional Goju-ryu. I'm quoting this not at all to attack this individual or point of view, but only to respond to the question in a bit more detail.

Here's what he said:

"...if there are universal rules to deciphering Okinawan kata (an assumption that you may not agree with), might exploring bunkai in kata sequences you are not familiar with have the potential to provide insight into deciphering applications from the forms that are in your system?"

I take this to be a rhetorical question, because the person who asked it has spent time doing just that, attempting to decipher kata through the lens of another system. Does it help? Certainly any number of things might jar us out of our comfort zone, a sort of state where the "blinders" of tradition or lineage keep us from "looking outside the box" or "coloring outside the lines." There are many karate practitioners who believe wholeheartedly in the value of cross-training. And I can't deny the potential benefits. I learned a lot about Goju-ryu by training with Sifu Liu, the Feeding Crane master. Heck, I learned a lot about Goju-ryu from training Yang style T'ai Chi. But I didn't learn anything applicable to Goju kata and/or bunkai by studying Tae Kwon Do or Shotokan karate, or watching Wado-ryu karate or Hapkido. And what I did learn from Feeding Crane and T'ai Chi Chuan was a way of moving, weight shifting, relaxation, and power generation that only peripherally helped in deciphering Goju-ryu kata and bunkai.

Stepping back to attack in
Seiunchin kata.
Actually the person who wrote to me pointed out exactly the problem; i.e., the assumption that there are universal rules to deciphering Okinawan kata, that they are the same for all styles. And he was right about how I look at this; I'm not at all sure that the assumption is true. I'm not sure Shorin or Uechi kata conform to the same rules one would use to decipher Goju kata. I'm skeptical because, for example, Toguchi sensei himself (the founder of Shorei-kan Goju-ryu) gets one of these "rules" wrong when it's applied to Goju-ryu, the system that he himself taught. In his second book, Toguchi sensei states three rules for deciphering kata bunkai. One of these "rules" (and I'm paraphrasing) is that stepping forward in kata implies an attack or offensive technique, while stepping back implies a block or defensive technique. But many of the techniques in the Goju classical kata contradict this. It would, on the face of it, seem so simple and obvious and, perhaps, logical--so much so that it would seem to be one of those "universal rules" that would cross style lines. But "rules" (though guidelines might be a better term) come from within the katas themselves; they are not superimposed from outside. That is, it all depends on the structure of the kata, to some extent. There are many ways to structure a kata--repeating techniques on both sides or doing single techniques, only tacking the ending techniques of a sequence onto the last technique, etc. I've mentioned many of these structures in earlier posts. But all katas, even within the Goju-ryu "system," are not structured the same. It's quite doubtful that a single individual put the katas together--they're too dissimilar in structure. For example, some begin with three disconnected techniques, like Shisochin and Seisan, and some don't, like Seipai or Kururunfa. So if the keys or guidelines to deciphering kata really depend on understanding the structures of the different katas, and the structures differ even within a single system like Goju-ryu, then how can a random sampling of techniques from another system altogether help one in "deciphering applications from the forms that are in your [own] system"? The answer for me is that in most cases they can't, unless on the off chance they suggest a different way of looking, a different perspective if you will. And similarly, someone from outside a particular system would have an equally difficult time adequately explaining the techniques of a system that they were unfamiliar with, regardless of whether the techniques looked familiar since the structures would certainly be different.

But supposing, for the sake of argument, that there were "universal rules to deciphering Okinawan kata." Are they written down somewhere for all karate-ka to read? Maybe only senior practitioners or teachers all know them. Except if that's the case, going back to an earlier point, how could Toguchi sensei get one of them wrong or at least proffer a rule that is not universally born out in the Goju classical kata? What kind of "rule" is that? At least you can't call it a universal rule. And if there are universal rules, then why doesn't everyone's bunkai look the same? And if Toguchi sensei meant that these rules apply most of the time and we are only nit-picking a few isolated instances, then why would he have created the two-person sets for the Gekisai kata that contradict so many of the principles of movement and rules for deciphering kata shown in the classical subjects of Goju-ryu (There's a distinction here, of course, between "rules" or principles of movement--like keeping the elbow down and using koshi--and "rules" or principles of deciphering kata in order to discover bunkai.)

Shakespeare's garden.
Rules, rules, rules. There are rules, but they have to be discovered, because they grow organically from within; they can't really be imposed from the outside, and that's what so many people seem to do when they analyze kata. Did anyone ever know the rules? (There's the 64,000 dollar question!) Is there a cultural aspect to the practice of karate that somehow gets in the way? (I often wonder.) Think of the difference between an English garden and a Japanese garden. Walk through an English garden, one from the Elizabethan era perhaps, and you'll see a wonderfully disordered array of flowers and herbs and bushes in no recognizable pattern, lacking symmetry, and seeming to have all of the cacophonous ebullience that one would find in nature itself. Take a stroll through a Japanese garden, on the other hand, and everything is so beautiful and orderly. If you look closely enough, only then do you notice the wires wrapped carefully around a branch to make it bend in a way that will be pleasing to the human eye. Branches are clipped, weeds are plucked, and buds are snipped off. Then there's ikebana. And chado, the tea ceremony. The beauty of form itself. The question is, when considering kata and bunkai: Has the content been somehow sacrificed in order to serve the form? What influence does culture have on how we look at things?

Whether this is an apt analogy or not, one should bear in mind that any true analysis of kata techniques should begin with an understanding of the structure of the kata--how the techniques go together in this particular kata--not a piece-meal explanation of what each technique appears to be doing. You can't do this if you don't know the kata or the system. This slicing and dicing of techniques--what so many people do when they attempt to practice bunkai--is like eating up the individual ingredients off the chopping block before the chef gets a chance to mix them all together into a wonderfully savory feast! You're eating all the same things, and yet it's not the same.

Poached eggs anyone?


  1. Thank you for the extensive follow-up post to my original comment. You've given me lots to ponder. I actually think that my viewpoint may be closer to yours than it seemed from my original post. I'm certainly learning a lot from our discussion, and hopefully I can make it out to MA to train with you at some point.

    All the best,


    1. Thanks, Eric. I hope you didn't mind me using that to provoke a little discussion. There doesn't seem to be much thought-provoking stuff being put out there recently. Yes, I do actually think our views are not that far apart. I would enjoy doing some training and sharing with you. And I also enjoy any sort of correspondence that provides food for thought. All the best, Giles

  2. I didn't mind at all. In fact, I quite enjoyed reading the follow-up post. And I'll do my best to help provide the occasional food for thought.

    All the best,