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michael rosenbaum
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Kata the Mnemonic

Kata the Mnemonic Tool

"Kata, as a demonstration, is but a shallow and limited usage of kata" - Donn Draeger

I was having a conversation with a well known kung-fu practitioner about our respective styles when he stated "I know over a hundred kata." Damn, I thought, one is more than enough for me.

Since the dawn of civilization humans have recorded experiences and events that impacted their lives. From Paleolithic cave paintings to instructional DVD’s information has been carried forth from one generation of knuckle draggers to the next. More importantly though, the desire to record and transmit information is a survival mechanism imbedded deep within our genetic makeup. We respond to the stimuli of our environment then record our experiences for future generations to dwell upon. Experience, record, transmit is an instinctive process we apply to everything, including fighting.

Prior to the twentieth century illiteracy was common throughout many societies. This is not to imply our forefathers were unintelligent, but that they were unable to read and write. Therefore, easily remembered mental techniques called mnemonic tools, were developed for recording and transmitting knowledge.

In literate societies prose alleviated the mnemonic demand since information was transcribed. However in oral societies, song, dance and poetry were used as mnemonic tools to record historical events and transmit information. This was because these art forms have distinctive rhythms and systematic progressions, which are easily remembered and can be transmitted from one individual to another relatively intact.

Since fighting is one of the oldest traditions practiced by humans it should come as no surprise that mnemonic tools were used by fighters to retain and transmit combative strategies. It was but one small step from dance to the development of kata. Hence the reason why kata (prearranged drills) are found in most styles of fighting.

Kata are mnemonic tools that can be practiced both solo and as two-person drills. Of the two, partner training is best because it simulates actual fighting more closely and develops combative skill faster. And, since the sum total of a fighter’s knowledge is not contained within a single kata, additional techniques such as jabs, shin kicks, hook punches, ground grappling, locks and throws can be used with those found in kata. This allows each technique to come alive and have its own character and is one reason why the early masters practiced only a handful of kata.

From day one of training students are told kata fosters a deeper understanding of karate. This is true, so long as kata does not impede skill development, which often happens when karate-ka learn multiple kata, yet have no clue about their bunkai.

In addition to being a mnemonic tool Kata is also a process that stores and transmits strategies and develops martial prowess. It is neither fixed nor static but comes alive through the fighter who with their insight, creativity and pragmatism turns the practice into a dynamic experience. However, when kata does grow static and lifeless and we have no clue to its meaning then is the time to throw it away. For it is not kata, but the knowledge contained within kata that we seek and once that knowledge has been lost then kata becomes a lifeless practice.

Michael Rosenbaum is the author of Kata and the Transmission of Knowledge in Traditional Martial Arts.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Thanks for this Michael! I'll share via Facebook & Twitter as it's a great read!

MrWintersho's picture

Dear Sir,

thank you for posting. Infact, in this modern times I speak about the kata as a zip-database, which has to be unfolded. My students then seem to know, what I mean.

All the best

with respect


miket's picture

That's a nice, short summary, Mike.

I am constantly amazed that when I am teaching, I show some movement and Identify it as an almost exact mechanical construct FROM a kata. Where I think the fallacy lies is in thinking that kata, taught WITHOUT application, will ever 'reveal' such connections.  In the end, from a technical stanpoint anyway, fighting  should be about effective and effciient APPLICATION of combative tools:  impact  tools,  balance disruptions tools, leverage tools, and what not.   These days, the 'source' of these tools matters about as much to me as whether the hammer i buy comes from Ace Hardware or Home Depot... I expect some pushback on this, but 99% of the time, its the same hammer with a different sticker.   Yes, there is a 'levels of quality' argument that can be made.  But more importantly to actually buidling something is the question of whether or not you can actually use the tool.

Funny, I have done some remodelling work using steps 'exactly the way I learned it' in person from my dad or my grandfather.  Ironically or not, I have in many cases found qualitatively 'better' information on Youtube than what I learned in person... shortcuts, tricks, considerations not thought of, etc. from more experienced people.  But I also have to acknowledge that it was probably the former learning that installed a 'basic' level of comfort in the ability to wo9rk with tools. So, I think a case can be made for both. BUt my point is, if I limited myself to the inherited 'kata' that I had learned, I would be closing my eyes to a lot of knowledge that has otherwise helped me to exceed what I would have otherwise learned.  Kata should be, IMO, just one of any/ many potential sources of understanding.

michael rosenbaum
michael rosenbaum's picture

Thanks for all the replies!  Interestingly enough both Kano and Draeger stated that a single technique could be considered kata. So that implies we're dealing with a process, not a singular thing as kata is so commonly thought to be today. Side block-punch.  That's a complete kata with I wonder how many variations you could work off of it?  Anyone care to guess?