Kata: The Heart of Karate
‘Jion’ with Mark Carroll
Much mythology surrounds the Martial Arts. Shotokan Karate is no exception to this. For all its stylisation and standardisation, the myths still follow it wherever it goes. Many people like the mysterious aspects of Martial Arts. I have to admit, to my great chagrin, that it is part of what attracted me to it in the first place. I wanted to learn seemingly magical techniques that would dispatch any attacker using only my little finger and a hard stare. I wanted to know that I could handle any situation and be able to put down a man more than twice my size if he dared to attack me. I wanted to be a superhero. Luckily, I soon learned that karate is hard graft and repetition of techniques in the hope of developing strength and power that might just be able to get me out of a sticky situation.
Aside from the magical mysticism of karate, there remains mythology about it and its kata’s origins. Despite historians’ and interested karateka’s best efforts of finding it, the whole truth remains unrecorded. The karate historian must piece together historical records from various sources and times and push through the mythology to find the truth.
Jion, for example, is purported by many instructors to mean ‘Temple’ and is named for its origin in a Shaolin temple, or something like that. The instructor says it, and the student laps it up; the student then becomes an instructor, and his students lap it up. It’s Chinese Whispers over years of training. It is claimed that Matsumura brought Jion and Jitte back from China and passed the knowledge on to Itosu. As are all the kata, Jion is just another beautiful sequence of moves that helps us to remember fighting techniques.
At the beginning of October, Sensei Mark Carroll wowed us with his interpretation of Jion. It was a three-day course, hosted by Sensei Steve Mattison and his St Ives club, full of interesting concepts and explanations of how we can perform the kata with an understanding of its practical techniques in mind. There are known habitual acts of violence and known ways they are initiated. Kata Jion has many ways of dealing with these attacks, all hidden in plain sight. Sensei Carroll has a special gift that extracts real meaning from kata. He shares this knowledge with us through kumite and street kata, which then translate so beautifully and seamlessly into dojo kata. The more I train with Sensei Carroll, the more I realise that kata is the root of everything in karate.
We first practised basics and dealt with distances. We punched urazuki, tatezuki, chokuzuki, gyakuzuki and oizuki, all in air, then with a partner so we could judge distance to target. Afterwards, we went through various attack and counter sequences in basic form, jiu-ippon form and finally in simulation mode, which should be as lifelike as possible in a dojo, i.e., shouting, swearing, anger, piling in for attack. As we worked through all of these steps over the three days, kata Jion came alive with meaning. All the moves Sensei Carroll took us through at the beginning came into play when learning each sequence of kata moves. There’s no mythology about the single-leg takedown simulated by manji-uke. There’s no mysticism surrounding the step back-cover-uraken-grab-osotogari-finishing punches simulated by the opening sequence of Jion to the first sanbonzuki. It’s all about knowledge and technique, and kata is all about passing that knowledge down through the karate generations.
‘Kata says...’ is a phrase Sensei Carroll often uses, and he is right; it’s all there in the kata, and it’s specific to the stance and movement within the kata. Take, for example, morote-uke. Standardised by JKA Shotokan, the morote-uke is performed in dojo kata with the fist in contact with the arm, but in application Sensei Carroll sees it differently depending on the stance accompanying the technique. Morote-uke in Kanku Sho and Heian Yondan are in back stance, so the technique is a close-quarters cover-punch, the stance providing a firm foundation for the technique. Heian Godan says that In Heian Godan, morote-uke cover-punch drives forward into mosubu-dachi; this can be in preparation for the throw. Heian Nidan says that morote-uke The morote-uke in Heian Nidan can be used driving forward. Jion says Morote-uke moves from backstance manji-uke to standing up and striking: maybe the single-leg pickup didn’t come off and the guy is holding you down to knee you, so whilst covering, you have to punch him in the groin and elbow/uraken your way out of your opponent’s hug. Morote-uke in Jion is not morote-uke in Heian Nidan is not morote-uke in Kanku Sho. Kata says that even though the hand positions may be standardised for dojo Kata, the application is not fixed.
Sensei Carroll likened a kata move to a holiday snapshot. A friend looking at other people’s holiday snaps sees a picture but does not appreciate the context. The person who took the photo is reminded of so much more than the superficial image. If practised in conjunction with practical application, a kata move is more than just movement, it becomes full of possibilities and different scenarios, and we each have to experience our own scenarios for this imagery to be clear in our minds. Once clear in the mind, performance of the kata allows us to relive the fighting experience vividly. For instance, if in the opening sequence of Jion, after the cover/uraken, the opponent falls away and isn’t close enough to pull off an osoto-gari, maybe you have to chase with a maegeri and punches. Sensei Carroll is quick to say that this is HIS vision of the kata, and we can all visualise what the kata says to us. He might see an uraken where I see an age-empi. We have no historical records of the original meanings of the kata moves, and even if we did, the habitual acts of violence of today on our streets may be wildly different from those found hundreds of years ago in China, Japan or wherever the Jion temple may or may not have been. Semantics are unimportant; the important thing is that we don’t just see kata as a dance sequence and that we try to find real applications. Without doing so, we will not be able to use Shotokan as a realistic fighting system. Without doing so, we will not be able to visualise the meaning of the kata, and our kata performance will always be empty and meaningless.
My husband and I, having moved away from Sensei Carroll’s area, have recently started training at a new karate club. The training is good, but they have stopped practising kata to ‘concentrate on street fighting.’ I feel they are underrating what is most truly valuable in Karate. Kata is the way of remembering, practising and passing on real fighting techniques and principles. Sometimes somebody at our new club will ask,
“Have you done judo?” Or, “I didn’t know traditional Karate Clubs did street fighting techniques...” To which it is satisfying to reply,
“Actually, it’s all from kata.” If an application could be likened to the moral of the story, then Kata is the fable behind it. Aesop could have just listed the morals to his fables, but they would not carry the same weight of understanding or memory reinforcement that they have when read at the end of the story. Kihon and kumite are both borne of kata. Fighting is borne of kata. Our new club may just list the fables’ morals, but that’s ok because we know there are interesting stories to illustrate the morals. Discover kata the Carroll way and inject meaningful soul into your karate...learn the fable as well as the moral. Practise it; love it; live it.
I leave you with a fable by Aesop...
The Stag at the Pool
A Stag overpowered by heat came to a spring to drink. Seeing his own shadow reflected in the water, he greatly admired the size and variety of his horns, but felt angry with himself for having such slender and weak feet. While he was thus contemplating himself, a Lion appeared at the pool and crouched to spring upon him. The Stag immediately took to flight, and exerting his utmost speed, as long as the plain was smooth and open kept himself easily at a safe distance from the Lion. But entering a wood he became entangled by his horns, and the Lion quickly came up to him and caught him. When too late, he thus reproached himself: “Woe is me! How I have deceived myself! These feet which would have saved me I despised, and I gloried in these antlers which have proved my destruction.”
What is most truly valuable is often underrated.