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Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture
Motobu and Two Kinds of Kata Evolution?

Hi All,

A while ago I created a kata based on my interpretation of the 12 drills Choki Motobu presents in his book, Okinawan Kenpo Karate-Jutsu. I gave the kata the title of Senipo (“12-steps” to reflect the 12 drills the kata contains). The kata was originally created for my own solo practise, but I have taught it to others, and this has seen some “rename” the kata, Juniho (Japanese for “12-steps”).

For me, it was very educational to take some traditional drills and create a kata out of them. It was a kind of “living archaeology” and give insights into the creation process of the traditional kata. It was also interesting to see how the friends I shared the kata with personalised and tweaked it to make it theirs. I can see differing “styles” being created and the kata being influenced by the prior training of its practitioners. Seeing “history repeat” in front of my eyes was a fun and educational experience.

In my app there is a full set of videos breaking down the 12 drills and Seinipo. Subscribers can find them here:

Main Menu > Misc Techniques and Drills > Motobu Drills > Seinipo.

The video below shows me walking through the kata:

This project has recently had an exciting new element introduced to it through the work of my good friend James Freeman. James and his students set about creating a kata also based on Motobu’s 12 drills. James and co made a deliberate point of never looking at my kata. It was created entirely independently of my Seinipo. This means I now have two differing kinds of kata to compare with my own:

1) I have kata that have evolved from prior kata (my friend’s versions of Seinipo).

2) I also have kata that evolved from common drills (the kata that James created).

With James’s permission, here is his kata:


We can clearly see the same information being conveyed, and many commonalities in the overall structure … but we can also see significant differences (albeit ultimately inconsequential ones). Unsurprisingly, my friends’ versions of my kata are much closer to my kata than James’s kata is.  Nevertheless, all of those kata have a common origin in Motobu’s 12 drills.

It’s long been a working hypothesis of mine that the two kinds of kata outlined above also exist within the traditional kata.

We have many variants in kata. Some kata have evolved from a common earlier version, and we would expect those kata to be very similar i.e. the various versions of Naihanchi/Tekki, Kushanku/Kanku-Dai, Pinan/Heian, etc. It is also possible that other kata have evolved, not from a common kata, but a common set of drills or a common system. These kata share an origin, and frequently a name due to the common source system, but the way the methods have been “kata-ised” by differing people sees greater variation. Kata that could possibly fall into this category would be the Rohai family i.e. Matsumora Rohai, Meikyo, Itosu Rohai 1-3. We see commonality and recognisable key features – same opening motions, methods involving being on one leg, concluding knife-hands with jump/spin, etc – but markedly different structures. My own analysis of the Rohai family would also suggest common combative methods, even if expressed a little differently. So, maybe the Rohai katas don’t evolve from a common older Rohai kata, but from the Rohai (“Crane Sign”) system i.e. more than one student of the system made a kata to encapsulate it?

The ability to compare James’s kata with my own would seem to support the hypothesis that kata based on common drills would possess greater variation than kata that evolved from common kata. Conclusive proof is lost to history, but this “experiment” would show that it is at least plausible and could be an explanation for why some variations are very different (on the surface) despite having a common source i.e. they evolved from common drills and a common methodology; not a common kata.

All the best,


Axel's picture

This is brilliant and inspiring!

I think about the story of "the old master at the end of his life who wants to teach his personal kata to a close friend". Why should the kata not be forgotten, why seemed it important to the master to transfer his personal insights in fighting to another person? How would he teach, maybe just in a couple of hours, the form and the idea of the kata to this person?

It is supposed Shotokan's Sochin found its way from Okinawa to Japan in such a way. Funakoshi Yoshitaka being the person passing on the "message". I guess, if the story is true, Yoshitaka would have habe been taught not just the form, but even more so the principles of the kata. Inevitably on his way back to Japan he would sometimes struggle to remember correctly the techniques, would have exchanged some techniques, maybe changed stances, whatsoever, and what he came with in Japan was something different from the original form. But (presumably) still teaching the same principles of the kata the old master taught him.