In recent years, more and more karateka are re-evaluating the purpose of their kata practice. Although we still have a long way to go, it seems that many karateka are no longer content to practice their kata simply for their aesthetic value. We are beginning to see the return to a situation where kata is practised for a knowledge of the extremely effective techniques & principles upon which they are based. But simply having knowledge of these "hidden" methods is of little use if we don't take things a step further and actually develop the ability to apply that knowledge. It is here that I believe the art is still falling short. It seems that many people are simply content to know what various kata movements are for. As I've said in the past, I know what an aeroplane is for, but that doesn't mean I have the skills needed to fly one! Knowing the purpose of the various movements is important, but it is only part of the overall picture. If we wish to be able to actually utilise the techniques of the kata in combat, then we have to practice their use in combat! (All extremely obvious when you think about it.) Once we have learnt to apply the techniques on a compliant training partner we need to progress our training to include practice against opponents who resist our every action, because that is what we will be facing in reality! Applying techniques on a compliant practice partner is a world apart from applying them on an opponent who will fight tooth and nail to prevent you from doing so! We need to ensure that we use kata techniques in our sparring practice.
Of course, most dojos include "kumite" on their curriculum, but the most commonly practised form of kumite is based upon the rules of modern-day competition, not the principles of the kata. You must understand that the sparring of today is not the same sparring that was practised in the past. In his 1926 book, "Ryukyu Karate Kempo" Choki Motobu (who was one of Okinawa's most feared fighters) wrote, "Kumite is an actual fight using many basic styles of kata to grapple with the opponent" (Masters Publications 1995).
From Motobu's statement we can deduce that: A, the katas and old style kumite included grappling (modern-day karate sparring rarely does). B, kumite was based upon the techniques recorded within the katas. Another statement that supports the notion that kumite should be Kata-based is that of Gichin Funakoshi (Karate-do Kyohan), "Sparring does not exist apart from the kata but for the practice of the kata." Again, the fact that kata and kumite are not separate is stressed, as is the notion that kumite is all about improving your understanding of kata. Still not convinced? Chojin Miyagi (founder of Goju-Ryu) wrote in his "Karate-do Gaisetsu" (translated into English in "Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts" by Patrick McCarthy), "Through sparring practice one may identify the practical meaning of kata." Again the link between kata, kumite, and effective combat skills is emphasised. It is clearly apparent that the masters of the past intended for our kumite to be based upon the methods associated with the katas (not competition rules).
It is important that you understand the key differences between sporting kumite & Kata-based kumite. Kata-based kumite will allow the participants to continue fighting regardless of the combative range in which they find themselves. Sporting kumite always begins outside kicking range and does not allow grabbing, close-range fighting or groundwork. Sporting kumite only allows a limited number of techniques. Kata-based kumite will include strikes, throws, locks, chokes, ground techniques etc. Sporting kumite is limited by the associated rules. Kata-based kumite is unlimited. The most significant difference, however, has to be one of intent. The aim of sporting kumite is to win tournaments. The aim of Kata-based kumite is to improve and enhance real combative skills (because that is the main aim of the kata). Before continuing I'd like to make it clear that I am in no way belittling modern karate competition as it requires great skill and athleticism. I'm simply trying to point out that the sparring of today is completely detached from the kata, whereas the sparring of the past was based completely upon the kata. If your aim is to win tournaments, then your sparring must be based on the rules of modern competition. If your aim is realistic fighting skills, then you should base your sparring on the techniques of the kata.
Real fights include strikes, throws, chokes, groundwork etc. And so do the katas! If you wish for your karate to be useful in a real fight then it is the techniques of the kata that need to be emphasised. In a real fight there is a strong possibility that your assailant will grab you, perhaps even wrestle you to the floor! If, in your sparring, you stop the fight and move back out every time a clinch occurs, you will fail to develop the skills needed to deal with such an eventuality. Even if you engage in a lot of bunkai practice, for which you are to be applauded, unless you've practised those techniques "live" you will find it almost impossible to utilise those methods in a real situation. There is simply no other way to develop the required skills. In order to make a technique work you'll need timing, sensitivity, quick reactions etc. and the only thing that can develop those skills is? You've guessed it … Live Kata-based sparring!
There are some that would say that you couldn't use kata techniques in sparring because they are far too dangerous. Whilst there is some truth in this, I feel that many of those individuals are probably overestimating their skills. If they engaged in Kata-based sparring they might find that they are not the "deadly" fighter they first thought! Secondly, there are ways in which even the most dangerous techniques can be practised safely whilst still allowing the required skills to be developed. As an example, seizing the groin can be replaced with grabbing the inside of the gi trouser leg. This will enable the attacker to develop the skills needed to apply the technique, and it will help the defender to learn to defend against such attacks (for more details see the "Karate's Grappling Methods" book & tapes, or the forthcoming "Bunkai-Jutsu" Book).
Another benefit of Kata-based sparring is that it gives you the opportunity to test your interpretations of the kata in a realistic environment. If you think you have discovered an application for a movement, give it a go! If it works well, then you've discovered a great application. If not, then it's back to the drawing board! A good application should not only fit the kata; it should also be relatively easy to apply in a live situation. Many of the kata applications I've seen are far too elaborate to work in reality. Whilst the extremely skilled may be able to apply awkward little wrist locks - or hit exact points - during an all out fight, I have never been able to. Hence I try to avoid such interpretations of the kata.
Kata-based sparring will help to develop free expression of the kata's principles. By practising the application of the katas' techniques and principles on a live opponent, you will develop the ability to express those principles in a way that is appropriate for the given situation at any moment. Kata-based sparring also helps with individual expression. Whilst I may prefer certain techniques and principles, you - as a unique individual - may very well prefer others. Kata-based sparring will develop both free & individual expression and will help you avoid that "classical rut" where we traditional karateka are often accused of residing.
Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that you read this article then go straight to the dojo and engage in all out combat! You need to consider your skill level, physical condition, the exact type of kumite, protective equipment, suitable mats, knowledgeable training partners, qualified supervision etc. if your Kata-based sparring is to be safe and beneficial. There are many different ways in which you can organise your sparring dependent upon your skill level and what attribute you wish to work on. All the students at my club practice some type of Kata-based sparring - which they all really enjoy! It is simply a matter of structuring the sparring so that it is exiting, enjoyable & beneficial. Chapter 14 of the KGM book, and the forthcoming 'Bunkai-Jutsu' book will give you some ideas, and you can see some live sparring on the second KGM video. But please remember - safety first! I have to say that when properly organised Kata-based sparring can be every bit as safe as competition sparring (and in my opinion much more fun!).
Taking the techniques of the kata into your sparring is a must. If you do not engage in Kata-based kumite you will be unable to apply the techniques & principles of the kata in live situations. Simply practising the katas & their bunkai - although vital - will do little to improve combative skills on their own. Like many endeavours, it is vital to have a solid grasp of the theory, but it is also important to put the theory into practice! It is imperative that you practice the techniques and concepts of the kata in a fashion that is as close as possible to actual combat.