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Martial Arts: Kata and Applicatins


By David A. Hall

As pre-arranged combative forms, kata played a significant role in the training of the classical Japanese warrior. The earliest kata we are familiar with began to appear during the late-Kamakura to early-Muromachi period although we know little about them except a few of their names. Kata, in fact, are still being created today.

However, in the classical martial traditions (koryu) these combative forms varied greatly among the myriad traditions and, in an historical and hoplological perspective, not all kata were equal. Generally speaking there were at least three categories of kata developed in the classical systems: 1) those forms which were designed by warriors who, having survived battle and/or personal duel, encoded their successful strategies as pre-arranged combative scenarios--they were often seen as divinely inspired by a particular deity; 2) those forms which were created by warriors, most without battle experience, in the peaceful years of the Tokugawa Shogunate or later; and 3) those forms which were extrapolated from earlier forms in order to teach basic and intermediate combative technique or to cover variations in earlier combative scenarios.

In the case of this first category, some warriors--martial geniuses--were able, in the midst of battle or at locations of spiritual power, to intuit and create highly effective strategies and tactics for combat. The strategies (heihō) were not simply techniques in the sense of manipulating a weapon. They were methods requiring psycho-physical perfection; a supreme synergy of body, breath, and mind in a unified whole. This synergy would empower the warrior with the ability to defeat an enemy with what might often appear to an observer as the simplest of movements. While we may analyze these strategies through our own cognitive abilities, they were not designed constructions arrived at through normal cognition. They were, instead, intuited in the heat of battle or as the culmination of exhaustive, protracted religious austerities. Also, these strategies were neither applied through normal, cognitive consciousness, nor were they taught through normal intellectual-pedagogical means. A master teacher passed them on to a disciple in a way that required the student to use intuition under stressful conditions; in several martial traditions this was accomplished in front of altars indicating a line of direct transmission from the divine.

In addition, these subtle strategies were not "taught" in an intellectual sense. Learning them required the disciple to use intuition based on years of experience and training. This teaching approach becomes clear when viewed in light of current studies in psychology. According to current research into intuition, people possess that special ability precisely because they have mastered a relatively narrow field of endeavor. Evidently the thousands of hours of effort the warrior devoted to training would have provided him with a large body of experience/knowledge which actually created a change in the way he thought and reasoned. He thus attained the ability to deal with larger "chunks" of internalized knowledge. The aim of this method was to give the trainee the ability to make intuitive leaps in the midst of combat instead of taking a plodding, analytical approach to dealing with a dangerous enemy. In addition to cultivating intuition, training in these scenarios was aimed at developing a variety of other combative capabilities. (See Guide article on bu no ri.)

Finally, and probably due to the influence of Buddhism--especially Rinzai Zen--many of these early, classical kata were constructed, both in name and pedagogy, in the form of riddles. The Zen kōan was a teaching method popular in Rinzai Zen and its intent was to force the student to intuit an answer under stressful situations. Some warriors, such as Kamiizumi Ise-no-Kami, took phrases directly from collections of Zen koan and applied them as names of kata.

The second type of kata--those created by samurai, some as headmasters of older schools, others as founders of new schools--were intended to have the same purpose as earlier forms. However, with the evolution of the warrior's art and capabilities during the years of Tokugawa peace, these forms often lack the depth and vigor of their Sengoku period predecessors.

The third type of kata as noted above often had no pretention of being battlefield inspired. They are a mixed bag, many limited to the repetitive teaching of specific techniques, and, during the mid- to late-Tokugawa period, were often aimed at success in sportive, competitive matches with other schools (taryujiai). This process is still in play today.

Many classical ryu which have come down to us today contain kata of all three types.


This article first appeared on and is posted with permission of
David Hall, the author and The article is an a excerpt  for Hall's forthcoming book on Classical Japanese Combative Culture.

Further readings in English:

Draeger, Donn F. (1973a). Classical Bujutsu: The Martial arts and ways of Japan (Vol. 1). Tokyo: Weatherhill.

______. (1973b). Classical Budo: The Martial arts and ways of Japan (Vol. 2). Tokyo: Weatherhill.

______. (1974a). Modern Bujutsu and Budo: The Martial arts and ways of Japan (Vol. 3). Tokyo: Weatherhill.

Hall, David A. (1990). Marishiten: Buddhism and the Warrior Goddess, Dissertation presented to the University of California, Berkeley, 1990. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, pp. 344-353

______. (1997). "Marishiten: Buddhist Influences on Combative Behavior." In Koryu Bujutsu: Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan. Edited by Diane Skoss. Koryu Books, pp. 87-119.

Hayes, Richard. (1984a). "Paleolithic Adaptive traits and the Fighting Man." Hoplos. 4, no. 2 (June 1984): 9-11.

______. (1984b). "Conceptual Tools for the Hoplologist: The IAT/MAT Continued." Hoplos. 4, no. 3 (December 1984): 2-4.

______. (1985). "Conceptual Tools for the Hoplologist: The IAT/MAT Continued." Hoplos. 4, no. 4 (August 1985): 23-24.

______.(1986). "Conceptual Tools for the Hoplologist: The IAT/MAT Continued." Hoplos. 5, no. 1 & 2. (Spring 1986): 31-34.

______. (1987a): "Hoplology Theoretics, An Overview: Part 1 - The IAT/MAT." Hoplos: The Journal of the International Hoplology Society. 5, nos. 3 & 4 (Spring 1987): 24-26.

______. (1987b): "Hoplology Theoretics, An Overview: Part 2 - The Innate/Manifest Volitional Trait." HIS Newsletter (December 1987): 2-3.

______. (1988a): "Hoplology Theoretics, An Overview: Part 3 - The Innate/Manifest Cognitive/Intuitive Trait." Hoplos: The Journal of the International Hoplology Society. 6, nos. 1 & 2 (Winter 1988): 25-26.

______. (1988b): "Hoplology Theoretics, An Overview: Part 4 - The Innate/Manifest Imperturbable-mind/Steadfast-mind Trait." Hoplos: The Journal of the International Hoplology Society. 6, nos. 3 (Fall 1988): 7-12.

______. (1989): "Hoplology Theoretics, An Overview: Part 5 - The Innate/Manifest Omnipoise Trait." Hoplos: The Journal of the International Hoplology Society. 6, nos. 4 (Winter 1989): 29-31.

______. (1992). "Hoplology Theoretics, an Overview: Innate/Manifest Force/Yield Trait and Innate/Manifest Synchronous Trait. Part 7." Hoplos 7, no. 2 (Winter 1992): 27-29.

______. (1994). "Hoplology Theoretics, an Overview: Transcendent Synergy of the Manifest Adaptive Traits. Part 8 (and) Practical Application. Part 9." Hoplos: The Journal of the International Hoplology Society. 7, no. 3 (Winter 1994): 20-27.

Leggett, Trevor. (1985). Warrior Koans: Early Zen in Japan. Arkana. Routledge and Kegan Paul, Inc.

Rosenbaum, Michael. (2005). Kata and the Transmission of Knowledge: In Traditional Martial Arts. YMAA Publication Center.

Copyright ©2008 David A. Hall. All rights reserved.

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About The Author:

David A. Hall earned an M.A. in Asian Studies from the University of Hawaii in 1977 and a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies/Military History from the University of California, Berkeley in 1990. He began training in martial arts in 1965 in the US and later on Okinawa as a student of karate and later aikido. In 1975 he began training under Donn F. Draeger in Shindo Muso Ryu in Hawai. Moving to Japan in 1977, he continued studying Shindo Muso Ryu at the Rembukan Dojo under Shimizu Takaji, and joined the Kashima Shinden Jiki Shinkage Ryu under Namiki Yasushi, the 18th headmaster, in 1978. He also he began formally training in Yagyu Shinkage Ryu heiho in 1985, under 21st headmaster Yagyu Nobuharu. David continues to train and teach Shindo Muso Ryu, Jiki Shinkage Ryu, and Yagyu Shinkage Ryu under the auspices of the Hobyokai/Hobyokan in Rockville, MD.

In addition to his academic and martial studies, David was ordained as a priest of the Japanese Buddhist Tendai School in 1978 and completed a rigorous training program under Professor Masao Ichishima at the Tamon-in temple. He later integrated this training in his academic research at U.C. Berkeley where he produced a dissertation entitled Marishiten: Buddhism and the Warrior Goddess in 1990 (a version of which appeared in the collection Koryu Bujutsu), currently under revision for popular press publication.

After the death of Donn F. Draeger in 1982, David collaborated for ten years with Hunter Armstrong in running the International Hoplology Society. From 1983 to 1993 he also co-edited Hoplos: Journal of the International Hoplology Society. David is currently a professor at Montgomery College in Maryland where he is also Director of CyberWATCH--a National Science Foundation supported center dealing with Information Assurance and Security.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

kata, Koryu kata, kata in the classical Japanese martial arts

Read more articles by David A. Hall

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