Don’t do what the old masters did, but seek what they sought

Someone once asked me what I thought of “standardized kata.”

In many martial arts organizations there is a desire to define a standard form of the exercises to make it easier to judge students’ performances of those exercises as either right or wrong.

Jigoro_Kano_and_Kyuzo_Mifune_(restoration)Here are some of my thoughts on standardization of exercises in the martial arts.

  • Standardization of kata is the first step in the complete collapse of a martial art. When you do a kata with the goal of looking like some standard form, then the kata is emptied of value and worthless as a learning tool.  Codified kata is concrete, and concrete is friable.
  • The degree to which you are able to standardize a certain form of a kata and stigmatize variations is the degree to which you stifle the potential for surprising excellence to arise.  If you remove variation, you remove the potential for something new and great to surprise you.
  • None of the old masters of judo and aikido and karate became great by working solely on standardized kata.  The guys that came up with the kata that we standardized and do now – those guys made up their own kata!  Ueshiba modified Daito and it became aikido (and it does have kata no matter what you Aikikai folks say).  Kano twisted Kito and Tenjin-Shinyo until it became nagenokata, katamenokata, junokata, etc…  Tomiki (et al) invented Goshinjutsu, Mifune invented the Nage counter-kata.  Hirano invented Nanatsu no kata. Funakoshi invented Tennokata and Taikyoku.  Ohba came up with several of the Koryu no kata.   The old dead guys guys got to be so great that they surprised and inspired the rest of us – and they did it by doing their own thing (in addition to doing the standard things their teachers told them to.)
  • We are advised in an anonymous quote, “Don’t do the things the old masters did – but seek the things that they sought.”



Adapted from previously published article on Mokuren Dojo Blog