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Kata and its meaning. Part one.

Warning! It is essential to consider katas from two distinct perspectives, namely "martial karate," focused on the traditional aspect and effectiveness in self-defense, and "sport karate," aimed at competition and athletic performance. Although these two approaches differ significantly, they should not be seen as antagonistic but rather as complementary. In this article, we will mainly focus on the budo aspect of karate, exploring its martial and traditional dimension. A forthcoming article will dedicate itself to exploring kata from its sportive aspect, highlighting the skills and qualities developed in this perspective.

The logo of the International Karate Federation, adorning the right sleeve of the gi with a wave inspired by the Saiha kata, symbolizes overcoming obstacles through patience, determination, and perseverance (the spirit of Osu or Osu no seishin). This image reflects the deep values of karate, especially in the practice of katas. These sequences of movements are not merely physical; each technique, like a wave, strengthens both spirit and body. I use the metaphor of the ocean in this text inspired by the logo of our federation, IFK, which is precisely inspired by a kata.

Navigating the world of karate and its ancestral techniques, such as katas, can be likened to discovering an ancient river that has changed its course over time. Initially, this river flowed clearly and directly, fed by the knowledge and experience of the masters who inhabited it. Its waters were composed of practical exercises, precise movements, before pouring into the ocean of solo and collective practice, symbolized by the various katas. Today, through the search for bunkai, it seems we have reversed this course, approaching the river from its mouth rather than its source.

Meaning of "bunkai"

The word "bunkai" means "analysis," "dissection," or "decomposition" in Japanese. In the context of karate, it refers to the analysis and practical application of movements contained in a kata, allowing for an understanding of how these movements can be used in real combat or self-defense situations. Bunkai is thus an essential method for grasping the deep significance and effectiveness of karate techniques beyond their formal execution.

Somatique compilation of what was already practiced

The practice of bunkai is the art of interpreting and applying the movements of the kata in real combat situations, allowing for an understanding of the function and effectiveness of each technique. Originally, katas served as "somatique documents," a mnemonic aid for karatekas, enabling them to remember mastered techniques from practical exercises performed in pairs. However, during the transition of karate from Okinawa to Japan, the concept of bunkai, as well as the practice of katas, underwent significant transformation. The founding masters had conceived the kata as a synthesis of martial learning, integrating complex techniques such as throwing techniques, arm locks, strangulations, and grabs that were neglected in favor of an art focused on strikes. Moreover, katas were modified for a more appealing aesthetic, often at the expense of their original effectiveness.

The kata, as practiced in the modern context, seems to have evolved well beyond its initial intention. Historically, it was a compilation of techniques to be mastered after acquiring a certain proficiency in these exercises in training.

The kata was a set of movements that were tested and trained. The kata came AFTER learning the exercises! Today, we are doing katas completely backward, learning a model, then trying to decipher what the movements are.

The kata is a method of knowledge transmission, a way to preserve and share the crucial movements and techniques of karate. These codified sequences allowed practitioners to repeat and refine their skills solo while retaining the essence of real confrontations.

Yet, in our quest for mastery and perhaps for convenience, we started with the kata, which is somewhat putting the cart before the horse. We attempt to decipher movements and meanings without having the necessary foundation that comes from direct and interactive training. This approach can sometimes obscure the initial purpose of the kata, turning a learning tool into a mere demonstration of athleticism or technique, without truly deepening its true essence.

The founding masters clearly indicated that the kata should be the synthesis of broader learning, a representation of the knowledge of combat techniques, including throws and grabs. However, without a thorough understanding of these elements, the kata loses part of its practical application and relevance. It becomes more an exercise in muscle memory than a living, breathing practice, rooted in the reality of combat.

Many modern practitioners find new meanings and techniques in katas, but without having understood and mastered the principles of movements that allow them to apply them in real time. Although this testifies to the richness of the kata, it is crucial to remember that without a solid foundation in fundamental skills, these "discoveries" may remain superficial. Often, for a technique to work well, one must know certain details, as it is often these small differences that make all the difference.

To conclude this first part, the kata, in its form and essence, is a rich and complex river. To navigate its waters, it is essential to go back to the source, to learn and master basic techniques before venturing into the meanders of its currents. This approach ensures that the kata remains a valuable tool in karate training, a practice rooted in tradition but still relevant for contemporary challenges. Like the river that always finds its way to the ocean, practitioners who follow this path discover the depth and power of the kata, beyond mere memorization of movements.

Gaëtan Sauvé, practitioner of Kyokushin Karate since 1971

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