6 Reasons for Changes in Kata

Being here in Okinawa gives you a whole new perspective on kata.

For example, I have been taught four different versions of Shuji no Kon Sho (the first bo kata), from teachers who all claim to teach the original version.

Now correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t there supposed to be one original version?!

Why are there so many variations on one kata? I’m not joking when I say that if you learn kata X in one dojo, and then cross the street to the next dojo, they will tell you half of the movements are wrong. I even have to remember three types of gedan barai (low block)!

One for each dojo!

It’s quite amusing at times…

So, when, how, and why did kata(s) change, and who (is the bastard that) changed them?

Well, I don’t know the answers to these questions, but at least I know some theories to why the kata may have changed.

I give you 6 theories to why kata may have been changed, with a short comment to every reason. But please don’t stare at the comments, try to think for yourself also… it’s more fun that way.

Kata may change if…

1. The person didn’t train enough to learn it correctly.

This is maybe the most common reason to changes in kata. Someone learnt a kata, thought he/she had mastered it, and moved on. But he/she didn’t train enough to learn everything correctly, resulting in him/her teaching it incorrectly to the next generation.

2. The person didn’t understand the underlying nature/principles of the system, and changed things to compensate.

Of course this also stems from lack of training, which leads to a lack of understanding. And if you don’t understand the underlying nature of the system – the whole picture – it’s tempting to change, because then you will not feel “confused” anymore.

3. The person considered a different attack and modified the kata to meet that attack.

This is just ridiculous (aren’t all of these reasons?). Somebody thinks he/she knows the original bunkai (application) of a technique, and decides it’s unpractical. So he/she changes to something more practical, resulting in a change in the kata.

4. The person developed a new underlying philosophy and modified the forms to coincide with it.

Somebody wants to improve the strength of his/her students. So they make the stances deeper and longer, let’s streeeetch the whole body. Or maybe somebody wants to stress the sport side of Karate, so they change all front kicks to high side kicks, and make the movements bigger, and start to add noisy breath to every technique. It might actually happen. Or has it already happened…? (no styles mentioned).

If the underlying philosophy (the aim) of Karate changes, then of course the movements have to change.

5. The person was trying to change things just to place their stamp on future followers.

“You are all mine! Psssssffft (the sound of a hot glowing mark being burnt on the student’s skin)”. Somebody decided to completely ignore everything and just change to movements in the kata to place his/her stamp on the kata.

Sure, why not?

6. Depending on the person’s natural talent/handicap, variations of the form might have been done to meet their needs (physically/emotionally).

This I know has happened in the past. Without mentioning names, a certain famous Kobudo instructor had his leg damaged once, and couldn’t do all stances properly. So, he had basically two choices: Alter the kata (to be able to train properly) or don’t train.

The result can be seen today.

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So, there you have it. Six reasons to why kata may have changed. Now, is change good or bad? That can be, and has been, debated.

Do you know somebody who changed something? Does he/she fit in to any of the categories above?

Or… do you fit in to any of the categories above?!

If so, get out of my website!

12 Comments

  • Andrey,Interesting and inspiring.Arigatou gozaimashita/Jesse
  • Oliver
    I have to say: older doesn't necesserily have to mean better. So if a later generation wants to "improve" the kata by changing some technique, why is that wrong?If a kata reches another master who's been training another style, he has his own views on bunkai and self-defence and changes something in the kata that makes more sense to him, and maybe also to a lot of other people, then I don't see anything wrong with that.Also many techniques in modern karate styles have been made easier, more straight and simple for the competition system. In my point of view you can't compare traditional karate with modern competition karate. As I see it, these days competition kata is only about "looking good". And of course many of the techniques has lost it's purpose but since its only a koreography, it shouldn't be wrong if people change one technique to a similiar but more easy technique -when it's about who does the best looking kata, and not the most effective kata.The judges don't judge by the bunkai, but by the perfomance.Just some of my thoughts on the subject. Keep up the good work!/Oliver
  • John
    I agree with the last comment. Katas change for a number of reasons. Some good, some bad, and some for no reason at all. Ever play a game of "Telephone"?Besides, so what if you have to learn different downward blocks from each teacher? You leave the dojo and go home and choose which one is your favorite, or maybe decide they all have value in different ways.Then again, maybe you shouldn't be working with so many different teachers at the same time. Usually people work with one, THEN, move on to another.There is no truth in Kata. The truth comes from the practice.
  • @John & OliverI agree with you both, BUT the point I was making about change was that since you can't possibly know the original meaning/purpose/intent of a technique, how can you improve it?To improve it requires you to know what it is to begin with, and that knowledge has ben lost in the "sands of time" I think.For example, I think this low sidekick (gedan yoko geri) in the kata is silly, so I change it to a front kick (chudan mae geri). But, what I didn't know was that the original meaning wasn't a kic, but a sweep (o-soto gari).So, what I think is an improvement... isn't. Now the bunkai is "destroyed", in the sense that it doesn't work anymore. But I don't know that, since I think the bunkai is something else, apparently. Or maybe I didn't care about bunkai at all.That was what I meant.And competition, yes, it shouldn't be mixed with "real" Karate. I changed a ton of stuff in competition kata too.So I should actually get outta my own website... what a paradox =)
    • Jesse, your concern stems from the fact that you think the creator of the Kata knows better than the person modifying it. However, that's not always so. Many students can surpass their masters, and actually have more experience in real fights, or understand more about the human body. I believe those people can be qualified to make slight modifications, additions and deletions to a Kata. Add to this the "game of telephone" phenomenon mentioned in another comment.... And you have a modified Kata. I believe this happens in kobudo more than in regular Kata, as regular Kata have settled well within each karate style. Karate, like language, cooking and other disciplines, is bound to always evolve. Thoughts? Btw, love your karate nerd website and videos.
  • Found this web site randomly while googling for "Karate Blog". If you are the Jesse I think you are, and the facts match, I studied with your father for about eight years in my youth.It's interesting to read your thoughts on Karate, and cool to read that you kept at it.As for doing kata - if you don't know the purpose of a technique, you can't improve on it, but that would mean that doing the technique is totally useless, except for aesthetic purposes. So the solution would become to either do what I interpret you doing - i.e. change the technique to something that works as a subset of the kata, or stop doing the kata at all.Just for honest disclosure - I chose the second.A good blog, if you have time and interest to read, is tommypkarate.blogspot.com - he has a lot of thoughts about kata, application, bunkai and how karate fits into modern martial arts.Peace out
  • lionel
    "...isn’t there supposed to be one original version?" Within a ryu, I suppose. Other than that, I'd say "no."... for the same sort of reason that a number differs from a numeral.I think few, if any, ancient (pre 1900) kata could be said to have singular authorship. Instead, kata evolved... through people, over time, and across waters. Generally, I think, there is no moment that a kata is "created perfectly" and we could take that version as a paradigm.Yes many kata have DEvolved. Darwin would agree: for every successful mutation there have been countless failures. The process is fine--the "problem" is that we have no means to select against "backward progress," except in ourselves (and those with whom we share)."...you can’t possibly know the original meaning/purpose/intent of a technique/" I can't hear the music that was in Mozart's head either, but I know when the neighbor's kid keeps borking the same bit. (And, IMHO, the gedan uke [to which I think you refer] is seriously borked by many.) Doesn't a martial artist want to seek the higher function or deeper "meaning/purpose/intent?" Some people instead choose mimesis or showmanship, both arts, I'll admit, but at some compromise to the martial, which how this all started.We can evaluate the movements of a kata (or simple waza) in terms of the ideals we would approach. (Yes, fine, our basket of ideals may differ.) Using such evaluation, an experienced practitioner should have opinions, good and bad. How well does such-and-such move follow the ideals? What might be better? It is called Martial ART because of this process, because every time we practice we strive to improve, to perfect, to approach the sublime... even when that may be beyond what we were given.
    • An interesting comment!But I can't see how there has never been an original version. Surely the first version is the original, even if it changes a minute later?If there was no original, then there can be no second, third etc... and thus kata doesn't exist?! :OHow deep... :)
      • Szilard
        You answered this question in one of your posts. There might have been a series of moves practiced in different ways, and then a Chinese dude visiting Okinawa passed to the interested locals what his Grandpa showed him. So the Okinawan "Grandpa's kata" is not the original. It is just a particular presentation of lots of different versions of concatenated combinations of useful or interesting moves. Maybe it wasn't even meant to be a kata. Maybe it was meant to be free form, and a snapshot of this free form is what came to be known as that particular kata. So a wide variety of free forms would be the original in this case not a kata. "There is no kata." Where did I hear this before...
  • Szilard
    Kata is the main tool to teach what karate is about. Sas István and Tótisz András wrote a really good book about their travel to Japan. As the guests of JKF their task was to visit the big dojos and make interviews with the old senseis. Among other things they asked some of them about the changes in katas. The best answer they got was that there are ancient buildings made of wood in Japan. Of course wood rots, and so every year some parts have to be replaced. Still it is the same building. Over time what we are, how we understand things changes, even fighting can change, so to teach karate the kata needs subtle changes. These changes can of course add up. Let meg give you an other example from my personal life. My profession is mathematics. If you learn lets say differential geometry these days and compare your lecture notes to older textbooks, you will see gradual changes there too. The wording of theorems, the proofs the concept changed a lot over the last 80 years. Still differential geometry is the the same thing, we teach basically the very same thing in the introductory classes maybe for the last 100 years. Even if it is the same thing if you are not a master of the topic you will not recognize even the main theorems. Good long term memory is not a strong side of humans. Of course katas change. It would be a better question to ask: who can change katas, who can make new katas, and who can make the changes "official". If you have ever worked out in any "American Karate" dojos you could find lots of changes and lots of new, homebrew katas. In some coutnries kyokushinkai dojos require the students to make their own kata and present it when acquiring blue, brown and black belt. An other example: As far as I know Chojun Miyagi made Tensho by modifying the Chinese kata Rokkishu. Why would you send a guy like him away from your web site?
  • Leo
    By translation the wording of the Christian Bibles has been scrambled over and over again. But this isn't the reason why so many read it wrong.On the other hand, people like Luther left hundreds of pages out of their translation to alter the lore (in Luther's case to make it favourable to authorities).
  • Felix
    I know this is an old post but I want to add another theory that could play a role: Teachers showed different variations of a kata and their students erroneously thought the variant *they* learned is the only true one.In this forum someone tried to do a comparative analysis of Kushanku versions: http://www.fightingarts.com/forums/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showflat&Number=372251For example Shuto Uke looks very different in each style. Some relevant quotes:>>> Finally comes a lesson from Sensei Iha, the senior student of Miyahira, one of the 3 senior students of Chibana. He has taught that Itosu taught his students differently... on purpose. The theory is that by teaching them slightly different concepts, there would be competition in the future and that would be good for karate.I speculate a variant of this theory. It is my contention (based on no evidence other than karate kata are practiced today with great variability) that this variation is not something new, but possibly quite old. Perhaps some of the old masters recognized that variations in movements enabled different uses, and there may have been some desire to preserve some of these capabilities by preserving the variation that provided the foundation for the useful application. With this speculation in mind, it is not at all surprising to me that Itosu might choose to preserve the many useful applications inherent in movement variation, by passing down different versions of movements to his students.Please note above that I do recognize this is pure speculation and not only is there absolutely no historical information to support this speculation, there never can be a historical basis for this. <<>> I like to quote Patrick McCarthy's translation of Itosu's 6th (I believe) lesson of tote. It goes something like this."Handed down by word of mouth, karate is a myriad of movements and corresponding meanings. Resolve to independently explore the context of the movements based on torite (theory of usage) and the practical applications will be more easily understood."That says it is up to us to interpret. <<<Different but related problem:It bugs me that different sensei teach techniques differently with *reasons* such as these: "Don't pull your knee straight up when doing Mawashi Geri - that's *wrong* because it's weak!" or "Don't start your Mawashi Geri with your knee to the side - that's *wrong* because it's slow!". Can't we just agree that different variants are suited for different circumstances?! Of course that doesn't mean that there aren't variants that are just bad anyway.

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