Thursday, 2 November 2017

Assume Nothing!

"The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct."
                                                                                   William of Ockham 

So much is assumed in Karate especially when it comes to the subject of kata and their function, this makes even suggesting an alternative nearly impossible regardless of how much evidence is presented. Here are a few assumptions that I encourage everyone to challenge and examine how it affects perspectives and approaches to kata.

1. All kata are for unarmed self defence/fighting.
Where did this assumption come from? one function and one context for all of the antique forms and systems? What about other contexts such as battlefield, policing, body guarding, theatre and stage, spiritual/religious movements and of course salesmen making money!. What about other functions such as weapons (battlefield and also tools for policing and body guarding), control and restrain methods, spiritual practice and embodied performances, stage choreography and artistic pieces including martial dances. The assumption that all kata are representations of the same thing is a very narrow lens to examine forms with.

2. All kata are of the highest quality.
Why assume that the techniques in the kata are of any use? they may not be great representations and solutions to combative problems. Some may have been created by individuals that had never had a real fight not unlike many of the teachers creating endless applications for the forms today. There were just as many wannabees, frauds and scam artists around in Ming dynasty China as there are today. Some kata once understood may not be the ultimate answer to all combative problems as perhaps hoped for. Some techniques may simply have been made up to make a quick buck.

3. Kata have been transmitted seamlessly through an impeccable lineage of noble honest masters.
Alongside the assumptions regarding the content and quality of kata is the assumption that they have been passed on perfectly through an untainted lineage. This also assumes that the individuals that make up the lineage were all great students, practised hard and learnt everything that they needed to know then became the next master in a succession and sought out worthy students to transmit the kata and teachings on to. There are endless possibilities that can corrupt a teaching, such as how students learn and what they ultimately do with the material. Some will make changes or completely reinvent what they have learnt, add other things, alter the function and context, not pass on everything, have varying motives to study in the first place, some will not have understood fully or correctly, mistakes get made over time, changes due to lack of relevant experience and fantasies, dishonesty and so on. It is also worth considering the great shifts in culture, society and politics in China and how that may have effected the practise of martial arts and its transmission. The list could go on and on!!

4. All kata explanations and interpretations are equally valid.
This is one of the biggest assumptions currently fashionable especially with teachers who are dependent on this type of belief to keep the seminars full and the cash coming in. Who decided that anyone could make up whatever they like when interpreting a kata? (and then sell it!!!) It seems reasonable that there was an original intended function to the various antique kata regardless of whether it is knowable or not today. It also seems reasonable that if the original function is not known that the focus of effort on a form should be to try to know and understand the intended function. If for example the original function of a form was for using a pair of sai or a bo then what possible use could that form and those techniques have for escaping a head lock, reacting to a straight stepping punch or a wrist grab? 

By challenging the many modern assumptions made about kata a deeper appreciation and insight can be had for the diverse functions, contexts and possibilities recorded over time in the antique forms.

"Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off once in a while, or the light won't come in."                                                                                                                                                          Isaac Asimov

Monday, 25 September 2017

Lost And Found

Research into European Martial arts has a huge amount of support from within its community and rightly so, the work being done and the fascinating results are being fed back into modern practises which in turn are revitalising arts that for a long time have been preserved only in books. Some treatises are quite obscure in their descriptions and demand real work is put in to decode the meaning and extract the techniques. This is not an easy process and requires time, effort and patience.

Karate researchers have an advantage in that the source materials for Karate are not recorded in books they are recorded in movement, the kata! The various martial arts forms collected and preserved in Okinawan Karate also demand the same time, effort and patience to unlock the original function as the European martial arts manuals do.

The prevailing attitude amongst many kata 'specialists' is that it is not possible to know the original functions of the kata. Does this belief extend to those trying to understand antique martial arts from books and treatises? Clearly not as many embrace the Bubishi as containing knowledge and skills that can be extracted and applied. So Martial arts can be worked out from books but not from movements?

The belief that the original functions are lost is false and just as many great European martial arts are coming back to life thanks to the serious research and effort being made, so too are the martial arts preserved in the antique kata. With a huge body of work and research from various groups like the Kodoryu group whose sole purpose for over 30 years has been to unlock the original functions of the forms inherited from China. The evidence is overwhelming and just waiting to be tried, tested and critiqued!

Friday, 22 September 2017

Kata's Richer Heritage

Beyond the endless defences against an oi-tsuki, poorly thrown hook punches and headlocks sold today in various combinations and flow drills it may surprise some that the antique forms have a far richer heritage to offer those willing to dig a little deeper. The kata inherited from China have come from many different sources and were developed for different purposes at different times. The function of a form can be defined by the correct usage of the techniques within the appropriate context. This means that kata were developed specifically for application in various contexts such as warfare, body-guarding, policing and civil control, theatrical performances, religious practices and so on.

From this understanding it should then be obvious that not all kata will be practical or applicable to self defence and street fighting as is commonly taught today. For example a form(s) developed originally for using a pair of Sai (Sanchin, Seisan and Sanseriu) within the context of policing (civil control/arrest) will have almost no use in developing unarmed skills for use in the context of street fighting/self defence.

The different contexts and martial requirements have inspired a great variety of skills, strategies and practices to be recorded in the different kata that are highly specific in function. The specificity of the functions means that they do not translate well and cross over to other uses. It is also important to bear in mind that while some kata will be complete in their function others will only be fragments of methods/systems.

The attitude that the original functions of kata have been lost forever is common and effectively closes the door on the fascinating practises, problems and solutions recorded in the antique forms. This belief about kata seems to be quite unique to Karate and we do not find it in European Martial arts research. Many excellent researchers are currently bringing back to life medieval European martial arts preserved in books and manuals with fascinating results. It is just within Karate it seems that there is a very precious attitude towards who can know what and who is allowed to talk about it.

Monday, 11 September 2017

If You Don't Know What You Are Doing, What Are You Doing?

When practising a solo kata knowing the function of the form, ideally what was intended for the movements in the first place is key to knowing how the techniques should be performed. Not all kata have the same function and so the execution of the forms will vary according to their specific functions. The more experience acquired in using the techniques the closer the solo kata can potentially be to reality and it is in this experience of applying the content of the form in increasingly challenging ways that will inform how to train when without a training partner.

Contra to popular belief practising a solo kata will not significantly improve the ability to use the techniques against another person, a solo form can only ever be a representation of the experience of the movements and how they have previously been applied. The way to develop the solo practise is by actually using the techniques with another person in ways that are constantly evolving and challenging to the practitioner, this all important experience then becomes the driving force behind the solo movements. So if you don't know what you are doing, then what are you doing?

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Just Another thought!

It is a commonly held belief in the Karate world that the original functions of the antique forms (kata inherited from China) are lost and we can't possibly know what they were intended for when they were created. However if a statement is made about kata such as "kata are for self defence" then that would be a statement about the function of the form. The hypocrisy of saying the true functions can't be known but this is the function seems to be lost on many of the bunkai 'experts' (or salesmen?). If the original functions are really lost does that mean that all the applications, flow drills and bunkai are all made up?

Just another thought!

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

The Principle Excuse

What is the principle excuse? it is the commonly taught idea that kata primarily teach principles and that the sequence and technical content are there simply to express these principles instead of a specific underlying function. An example of this would be saying that Naihanchi is about developing posture, rooting, generating power, mindfulness or any other number of self evident 'principles' that really do not need kata as a medium to be effectively practised. In fact a form like Naihanchi may be a hindrance in developing these qualities if the purpose of the practitioner is to become say a better fighter due to its very limited technical content and range of movements. 

So what makes more sense as an approach to studying kata?

1. Kata were synthesised to catalogue techniques with a specific function in mind and context for usage. Example - Naihanchi records grappling techniques to be used in the context of civil arrest.


2. Kata were created to record principles (that are usually self evident and do not require recording in a form!) within a group of unrelated techniques in no significant order. Example - Naihanchi is for developing posture, power generation, chi, rooting, mindfulness etc.

Function dictates form? or abstract principles dictate form?

Monday, 31 July 2017

Just a Thought!

It is worth checking from time to time the huge assumption that all of the antique kata were created by great masters of their day and that each form contains a great reservoir of combative experience. A wide range of forms have made their way to Okinawa from China from many different sources quite a few of which are unknown. Perhaps not all kata were born equal and produced by experienced experts, perhaps money making opportunities were seen from local amateurs of the day who had no practical experience but were great salesmen!(not unlike many so called masters today). This is also reflected today in the endless applications, flow drills and bunkai exercises that are clearly made up by the instructors and sold on.

Some forms are undoubtedly combative masterpieces, but are all kata?

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The Secret of Wing Chun - Part III (Last One I Promise!)

Wing Chun has millions of followers worldwide, with huge support from the film industry it has achieved a cult like status. Wing Chun techniques translate beautifully to the big screen and after seeing Donnie Yen dispatch opponent after opponent its hard to not let the imagination run wild and think what if?!!!
Well complex choreography is not reality when it comes to violence and no one needs to look far to see how badly Wing Chun fighters have performed in no holds barred and mixed martial arts contests. The video above is just one example of many available. The usual excuses almost always follow any criticisms of Wing Chun, such and such a fighter wasn't a real Wing Chun expert, he wasn't able to use the dangerous advanced techniques, my master would have...... and Wing Chun is just for the street where there are no rules.

Well hats off to anyone who steps up to fight in MMA to test themselves, their ability and their practice instead of citing lineage, rank, anecdotes about the good old days when training was really hardcore and so on!

Fighters aside what does this say about the technical content of Wing Chun and most importantly the forms that are the core of the system?

Is this an effective way of preparing someone for the chaos of real violence? (note: the example is for demonstrating the first form practiced in Wing Chun and is not a comment on or critique of Yip Chun).

If the forms were not intended for unarmed combat could the original function have been for something more pragmatic? it was! Armed combat!

Nathan Johnson (demonstrating in video) has spent the last decade unraveling the original function of the mysterious Wing Chun forms (Note: Nathan has practiced and taught Wing Chun and Karate for over 40 years). Over the course of the next year Nathan will be gradually publishing his findings and will be available for seminars for those wanting to explore in depth the roots and origins of Wing Chun.

For more information please email

Thursday, 18 May 2017