The Second Biggest Misconception of Kata Ever

By Jesse | 35 Comments

Today when I was taking a stroll I noticed this machine:

“Oh, it’s a vending machine, you’re so smart” you might think, but look a little closer and you will see that this is not your ordinary vending machine…

This one sells cigarettes.

Not refreshing drinks.

And anybody can use it. Kids can literally buy a pack of smokes on their way to kindergarten.

But they don’t.

Nobody under the age of 20 uses these machines. As a matter of fact, there are machines selling alcoholic beverages too, but nobody under the age of 20 uses those neither.

Why?

Because they are not supposed to.

And that brings me to what I really want to talk about today:

Many people (usually high-ranking westeners) who train Karate claim that there are “hidden” bunkai (applications) to certain moves in kata. They repeatedly teach ‘n preach that “this move right here is a hidden move that is supposed to be in this kata”.

I don’t believe that.

First of all, how do they know? Have these secret teachings been passed on for generations since the creation of the kata? Not likely. But let’s suppose that there actually are hidden moves in kata (in other words; that you can not see). What would the possible benefits be? Why would anybody want to hide moves?

I thought long and hard, and came up with two main reasons:

  • The “hidden moves” are too dangerous to be publicly shown.
  • The “hidden moves” are to advanced to be publicly shown.

To me, these reasons are like taken straight out of a bad Karate movie. “Young grasshopper, you are not ready to be taught the innermost secrets of this kata yet, they are to dangerous and to advanced. But continue to practice the kata anyway, and one day I will show you the secret techniques.”

I don’t believe that there are “hidden moves” in kata.

That is a myth, similar to the naive belief that Karate was developed by scared peasants in the cover of nightfall during Okinawa’s old Ryukyu Kingdom in order to overcome the cruel Satsuma Samurai occupying their island. Now, I’m not suggesting that such a thing is beyond the capabilities of peasants, but it’s simply not the case.

Saying there are “hidden moves” in kata is simply a “Karate-version” of a common technique for acquiring power and wealth: Tell people there is something they don’t understand, and then proceed by telling them you have the answer(s). That way you can manipulate them (the students), along with their wallets, as long as you give away the answers little by little. Keep them interested, but don’t show them everything. Give them hope, bits and pieces, but never the whole cake.

So that is my belief. If a person says there are “hidden moves” in a kata (let’s hope he just remembers where he hid them) he might do so because he doesn’t want his students to go and train somewhere else (taking their money with them). Because he “holds the key” to “unlocking” the secret moves of the kata they have been taught, if they switch dojo, or don’t grade regularly, they won’t learn “the secrets”. Thus, they stay loyal.

Therefore, more power and money to the sensei. More DVD’s, video tapes and books sold, more seminars, courses and gradings held. Everything is built upon “the secrets” that this sensei supposedly knows.

The reality – as I believe it to be – is that kata is a specific reference work that preserves the techniques the creator once found effective. By simply recreating the kind of violent scenarios common to the society and era where the kata was created, the creator introduced students to real-life, effective fighting techniques, memorized by the help of a geometrical routine/pattern and practiced with a partner. Nothing hidden. It’s hard to be good at something if you can’t practice it. And it’s hard to practice something that is hidden away.

But… kata bears the imprint of those who passed down the art to succeeding generations. And that is important.

“Even in the forty years that I have been practicing [Karate], the changes have been many. It would be interesting to be able to go back in time, to the point when the Kata were created, and study them.”

- Egami Shigeru

These imprints are changes, either by design or mistake. Therefore, the most original and effective combative applications have been lost in the sands of time. That might also be a reason why some people feel they need to say there are “hidden moves” in kata. They just can’t find any practical applications in the current state of the kata, so they make up some ordinary self-defence and try desperately to push it into the kata, so it “kind of” looks like it might be a “secret move” taken from the kata. That was a long sentence.

And that’s great if you want to teach effective self-defence. But don’t say it’s a “secret move” or “hidden move” from a kata, because that’s just not true.

Let me hit you with another quote:

“Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? Why does one love the night, flowers, everything around one, without trying to understand it? But in the case of a painting people have to understand.”

- Picasso

Picasso felt his paintings were being misunderstood, and I think the same applies here.

Everyone tries so hard to understand the meaning of moves in kata. “What can this move be for? What can that move be for?”. The end result is probably miles away from the true meaning. What has happened is that you have effectively dug yourself deeper and deeper into what Bruce Lee called “the classical mess”.

And we don’t want that.

I don’t even know which is sadder; the naive student who believes that they are shown some deep secrets that “only their sensei knows”, or the unscrupulous sensei salesman totally misrepresenting the original meaning of the kata.

In Japan, kids under the age of 20 don’t buy things from certain machines, because they’re not supposed to. In Karate, we shouldn’t keep feeding the myth of “hidden techniques”.

There has never been any.

So stop looking, because you are not supposed to.

About the author

is a self-titled Karate Nerd™, best-selling martial arts writer, unreasonably handsome elite athlete, autodidact, karatepreneur and carrot cake aficionado. He really thinks you should become a Karate Nerd™ too.

35 Comments

  1. Jim

    July 13, 2009 at 4:35 am

    Oh Dear ;)

    So what ARE students supposed to do then when “confronted” by “inelegant/unworkable” bunkai presented for the “current” versions of their style’s kata ?

    Jim

  2. Jesse

    July 13, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    Well, as long as it’s not labeled “super secret hidden bunkai”
    it’s no problem, right? Just train :)

    Practical or not…

    • Clif

      July 26, 2012 at 6:56 pm

      Or find a bunkai for that move that works for them. Who says there is One True Interpretation for a given move? If you can make it work consistently against an uncooperative opponent, doesn’t that make it a valid bunkai?

  3. Jim

    July 13, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    So -- you’re actively promoting the practice of non-practical bunkai just because it “fits the Form” ?

    Don’t get it :(

    Jim

  4. Jesse

    July 13, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    I just think everyone should do what makes them happy. Not trying to promote anything…

    ;)

  5. Jim

    July 13, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    “So stop looking, because you are not supposed to.”

    Kind of looks like “promoting” after a fashion ;)

    I presume that you’re nor actually advocating that students adopt a “spoon fed” approach to their study of Kata and Bunkai ?

    However from the overall content of the article I get the overall feeling that ther real problem you have is with the “Guru Salesmen” as opposed to those genuine Instructors who nare trying to “make sense” of the applications that may be workable using slightly modified “form” etc.

    Jim

  6. Jesse

    July 13, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    Oh, now I see what you mean. That could be misunderstood… hmm…

    I absolutely don’t advocate students to adopt a “spoon fed” approach, that would be horrible. What I mean is exactly your overall feeling:

    “the “Guru Salesmen” as opposed to those genuine Instructors who nare trying to “make sense” of the applications that may be workable using slightly modified “form” etc.”

    A good clarification!

    “Working in the same vineyard”

    /Jesse

  7. Disconnected

    July 13, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    Discussion on training or not training kata aside, wWhy would you train a bunkai though if you know that it isn’t practical?

    Also, as a comment to the post -- I totally agree with you. As a further thing, anyone who believes in the secret techniques is also training for failure. In a pressed scenario, muscle memory will repeat the movement you have practiced countless times, i.e. the kata, not the secret bunkai which moves your body in a different way.

  8. Jim

    July 13, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    @Disconnected -- so therefor once you have a reasonable grasp of the form -- practice the bunkai more with a resisting partner surely ?

    Jim

  9. Disconnected

    July 13, 2009 at 6:37 pm

    Jim,

    My answer would be the exact opposite -- drop the bunkai alltogether and spar, drill, spar more, drill more.. Repetitive and simple stuff using pads, proper mouth, hand, groin and shin guards and starting with very soft levels of contact and then upping it slowly.

    From where I ended up standing, Kata should be practised for self-discipline, to train breathing, timing and to preserve the beautiful tradition of Karate. It just doesn’t teach a person how to fight. And before you start flaming me, as a former practitioner with 1 Kyu in YuiShinKai karate and 1 dan in Ryu Kyu Kobujutsu, I would venture that I’ve done my fair share of Kata and know what I’m talking about.

  10. Jim

    July 13, 2009 at 6:59 pm

    @Disconnected -- no intention of flaming you at all -- after all you (like me) are only expressing your personal viewpoint regarding the validity (or otherwise) of practicing Bunkai.

    So without wishing to stray too far from the BLog Posting Topic -- I “might” make your argument about the benfit of KIhon as well (I wouldn’t though -- LOL) and argue that the best way to learn to fight is to fight more.

    However we’re not talking about “fighting” necessarily but extracting and practicing viable Self Defence techniques from Kata sequences so it’s perfectly valid to practice disengaging a wrist grab and breaking an opponets arm evn if in some situations yoyu’d simply hit the opponent extremely hard with the other arm while kneeing him in the groin……

    …I may be considered biased of course a a Shotokan Sandan who loves Kata both for it’s form and for the techniques it transfers.

    Jim

  11. Disconnected

    July 13, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    Hey dude,

    Sorry, I appear to have been vague. When you write that you would argue that the best way to fight is to fight more, that’s exactly what I meant by sparring. You may start out softer and slower, but you need to fight to learn to fight.

    However, the OP was about the secret bunkai in the movement, which I would still argue is a waste of time. You may as well skip the kata and do situational training instead -- there’s no connect, except vaguely by using the kata as a mnemonic device by using the muscle memory in performing the kata to unlock recollection of unrelated technique. :)

    Anyhoo, now back to work, which is very much like doing Pinan Nidan at every practice for ten years. It’s boring but it gets me through the day…

    • Joe

      May 20, 2011 at 9:20 pm

      If your objective is realistic fighting, then sparring, to me, is a poor and limiting substitute. Generally in sparring one doesn’t want to break bones and joints, gouge eyes, pierce skin, etc. Because if you did, then your partner would 1) be out of practice for a while, and 2) probably not practice with you again. Yet all of those things I would do if I was attacked on the street, and can be found in very visible bunkai. Of course, if your desire is to control-fight (i.e. not for your life), then sparring is completely valid as you and your partner can set the rules to fit your objectives. Will it actually train you for defense on the streets outside your local watering-hole? Probably not.

      If you want to learn self-defense, and only self-defense, then I would recommend you make sure you attend a school (not a dojo) that doesn’t wear Gis, but street clothes, and practices using realistic and modern situations with realistic and modern tools (knives, guns, beer bottles, light poles, curbs, etc).
      Here situational practice is probably very effective.’

      If you desire to study an art form, connect with history and another culture, and gain some level of physical and mental strength, stability, agility, and self-defense, then martial arts are probably for you. Depending on how you weigh those goals will determine which art. If you just want the physical and mental benefits, again, straight sparring and drilling seems like a good way to go.

      So, to me, it’s a question of what you wish to learn and making sure the stuff you’re doing will provide that education.

      Kata in Karate provides the practitioner with a device for memorizing the movements to action upon those things one shouldn’t do in sparring, thereby preparing themselves for using such movements in a life or death situation. (The effectiveness of such practice is limited by their mentality and instruction, which is what’s mentioned in OP)

      ~Tangent~
      In one of the editions of Patrick McCarthy’s translation of the Bubishi he speaks on the idea of Habitual Acts of Physical Violence (HAPV):
      “Realistic attack scenarios [that]provide a workable opportunity to recreate and study each conceivable scenario of physical violence in a safe learning environment. Analysing [bunkai-jutsu] each HAPV provided the basis of understanding their mechanics, and dynamics, their strengths and weaknesses [of the bunkai].” -Mr. McCarthy

  12. Jim

    July 13, 2009 at 7:26 pm

    @disconnected -- no probs. -- though obviously missed the “not” in my post :)

    Later Dude ;) -- hopefully some more posters will comment on this one as it’s a great topic that never gets boring and always seems to attract comment.

    Jim

  13. Buddy

    July 21, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    I agree with Jesse… katas are just references, short hand if you will, to moves that the person who created them wanted to remember. Not all kata moves have a significant meaning or purpose other than that it may be there for filler. Don’t misconstrue me, though. I enjoy doing kata and find it more for preservation of an art form than a necessity in combat.

  14. Marc G.

    August 19, 2009 at 7:55 am

    I agree that the specific movements of kata are just references to help students learn to move and use the techniques in combination; almost like an early version of a Sensei’s lesson plan for teaching his students. However, there is much meaning in the kata as a whole. But it is found more in Bunkai than anywhere else. It is true these are not “hidden meanings”, just icons to act as reference points for the Karate-ka to learn to use the art the his best advantage. That is the basis for how the kata would be used outside the dojo. Let’s not forget Karate did not originate as an art. It was designed to protect lives and end them if neccessary. I don’t think katawould have come about as a training method in that situtation if it were to “just get more dojo fees”.

  15. jack

    August 24, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    Hello again --

    I responded to a similar topic in another thread, and will just say here that Sensei Seikichi Toguchi, under whom I studied Goju-Ryu in his Okinawan dojo more than 50 years ago, taught that every movement in a kata had its application, and also taught slightly modified, less destructive forms of the techniqes to newer students, then revealed the slightly altered form, and its more deadly application, after the student had proven himself worthy of being taught such things.

    I will leave it to other posters to decide for themselves what relevance this information has to the topic at hand.

  16. Jesse

    August 25, 2009 at 12:58 am

    Jack,

    Thank you for your comments, they are interesting as they give an insight into old-style Goju-ryu.

    I believe that way (which you described) of teaching kata and its applications is the best. I do it the same way. For example, no need to confuse beginners when they don’t even know the difference, if you know what I mean. In that way, you could say the application is sort of “hidden” from them. But in reality it isn’t hidden, it’s just not shown, or rather substituted with a more “simple” version.

    I love Karate.

  17. Peter

    August 30, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    Interesting post, though I may have misinterpreted it a little.

    I am a firm believer of the theory that every single technique in kata has practical meaning/application. Even the opening “salute” (which many consider useless) in Naihanchi is related to clinch fighting. Check out this video: http://blog.iainabernethy.com/?p=274 It is in the bottom of the post and shows some nice applications for Naihanchi.

    P.S: I hope posting links in comments is okay :)

  18. Jesse

    August 30, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    Hi Peter!

    Yeah, seems like most people misunderstood this post! It’s completely my fault, and my English. I blame it on the fact that it’s my third language :)

    I actually saw that clip yesterday! It is indeed an interesting theory, and I can really see how some “salutes” can have bunkai. I did a post on that a while ago: http://www.karatebyjesse.com/?p=941

    /Jesse

  19. James

    September 29, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    Sorry to burst your alltruistic bubble on Japanese society, but the reason that kids do not buy cigarettes out of those machines is simply because they can’t. The machines require a special card that is sold only to legal adults.

    Japan has more than its share of juvenile delinquents. I should know, being a teacher here. I have had to confiscate cigarettes from junior high students caught smoking (as well as drinking alcohol).

    As for there being “secrets” in karate (or any other given art) the way I view it, is that the only true “secret” is to train harder and smarter than the next guy. The problem with most practitioners today seems to be a simple lack of understanding of the basic underlying principles that make up their respective systems. If you do not know why you are practicing a certain technique in a specific way (motion/body alignment) such as the cat stance (the rear standing leg being turned outward at least 45degrees and the hips open and back vrs the foot straight toward the oppent and the hips rotated down and forward)- then you are lacking certain basic key knowledge that should have been taught since day one of your training.

    So are there secrets? No, no secrets, just many different levels of understanding and interpretation that all stem from the original principles that should be learned and ingrained in one’s beginning stages of training.

    ….Wow, that was long winded of me. My apologies

    • TSD_Student

      November 16, 2010 at 10:37 am

      Tang Soo Do_Student (“TSD_Student”) @ The Commentor “James.”

      Absolute BEST comment TSD_Student has ever heard of or seen about learning & training the traditional martial arts. EVER!

      TSD_Student

      P.S. I was the ‘long-winded’ one @ the KBJ Post, “Karate =mc^2.”

      P.S.S. Apologies? No!, Kudos!

  20. Jesse

    September 29, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    James,

    Nooo! My bubble!

    Well, at least I learned something new! :)

  21. vic arnold

    November 14, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    If there are secrets they are hidden in plain sight but require a greater knowledge of body movement which the student applies to his bunkai as he developes. There is a code for doing this laid out in such books as HIDDEN KARATE by HIGAKI one of FUNAKOSHI's 1st students and in THE WAY OF KATA by LA KANE and KRIS WILDER.
    Effective bunkai is a personal discovery and journey and there isn't any final ultimate "this is it" or secret interpretation to any kata technique.
    A few rules for creating your own personal bunkai
    it should have the potential to end the fight immediately
    it should disallow a follow up strike by your attacker
    the off hand (the one returning to the hip)represents holding something an arm ear hair leg his clothing in order to unbalance him and enhance your strike
    the off hand is used to deflect press etc. in order to use the "block " as a strike or unbalancing technique MASTER NAKAYAMA was reknowned for using jodan uke as a hammer fist strike to the jaw ichi uke as a back fist to the face and gedan barai as a hammer fist to solar plexus lower abdomen and ribs.

  22. jaybee

    December 5, 2009 at 1:58 am

    From memory there was a period of time where the practice of karate had to be done in secret. It was sometimes disguised as a dance such as Kabuki Dance and Okinawan Court Dance. Maybe this has also given rise to the “hidden” bunkai theory. I totally agree with you with no secrets, just many different levels of understanding and interpretation"

  23. JamesD.

    December 9, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    jaybee, just to let you know, Kabuki is a Japanese art form, not Okinawan. As far as the theory of hidden or secret techniques within the Okinawan dances…well on the surface, there are some similarities of motion is some of the traditional dances, but there is no concrete evidence that points to a direct connection between the two.
    One way to view “hidden” techniques from a more historical perspective would be to take into account that many Okinawan (as well as Chinese) teachers would not teach all aspects of their system to every student. They would impart specific knowledge of one or two forms to various senior students, so if those students wished to learn the WHOLE system, they would have to learn from each other. One reason for this way of teaching was to supposedly guarantee that the students/school would stay together after the teacher passed away.
    Another reason (my personal view point) is that the sensei chose specific knowledge and/or kata for specific students according to the strengths and weaknesses of said student. After all, the teacher was trying to create the strongest students possible, and in order to do that, you, as a teacher, must take into account the fact that all people are unique individuals with different strengths and weaknesses.
    Of course, the sensei did often select uchi deishi to try and pass on everything to, but we all know that has no guarantee of success.

  24. Jack Brown

    August 26, 2010 at 9:41 am

    Great post. Not sure I agree with everything. But it was very well thought out.

  25. Jack

    August 26, 2010 at 8:05 pm

    Again, I can only go back to what my first teacher, Seikichi Toguchi, has had to say on the subject.

    Sensei Toguchi was one of the primary developers of the theory and practice of Goju Ryu, and Goju might just as easily be called Kung Fu as to be called karate, as it is a blend of Okinawan karate and southern Chinese White Crane. The two were blended together by Kanryo Higashionna, an Okinawan karate expert who lived and studied for thirty years in China, then returned to Okinawa. Higashionna taught Chojun Miyagi, and Miyagi taught Toguchi.

    Those three are giants in the history and development of Goju-Ryu karate. Miyagi and Toguchi, between them, developed a number of modern kata equal to about half of the Goju syllabus as it exists today. The other half includes a number of ancient Chinese kata which were brought to Okinawa by Higashionna and adopted, by Higashionna and his student Miyagi, into what eventually came to be Goju.

    In his second book, Toguchi talks of Miyagi’s interest in, and practice of what he termed “kaisi no genri,” or the working out of what Miyagi certainly believed to be hidden applications within the more ancient kata.

    In the book, Toguchi lists three primary rules for teasing out such hidden (or perhaps merely forgotten)applications:
    “1. Don’t be deceived by the Embusen rule.
    2. Techniques executed while advancing imply attacking techniques. Those executed while retreating imply defensive or blocking techniques.
    3. There is only one enemy and he/she is in front of you.”

    For detailed explanations of each of these rules, I refer those interested to Toguchi’s book, “Okinawn Goju-Ryu, Vol. II.”

    Readers may also wish to consult another, far more detailed and expansive book on the subject of kaisi no genri by Toshio Tamano, a student of Toguchi’s who wrote the book with Toguchi’s approval.

    I apologize for the lengthy post. I’m offering it as a way of saying that if such giants of karate as Higoshianna, Miyagi and Toguchi believed that there are hidden applications to be found in the more ancient kata, I certainly would not care to dispute them.

    • Jack

      August 26, 2010 at 8:11 pm

      Oops — I made a couple of typos; it’s “kaisai,” not “kaisi” — as in “kaisai no genri.”

    • Jesse

      August 26, 2010 at 8:13 pm

      I don’t really see how the “kaisai no genri” is anything less than common sense? It has nothing to do with people making up “secret bunkai”-excuses for teaching “hidden” flying armbars and such preposterous applications, which was what the post was about (though maybe the article is a bit unclear on this point).

      Your goju-history needs a little refreshments btw! :)

      • Jack

        August 26, 2010 at 8:19 pm

        That well may be; I don’t hold myself out as an expert.

        I purposely left out some other important figures, such as Seko Higa, in the interest of brevity, if that’s what you’re referring to.

  26. Daniel

    September 17, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    Just to add another viewpoint (more qualified than mine): Kenji Tokitsu, in a book I’ve recently read, was remembering the existence of 3 types of kata:
    1. rinto-gata (combat);
    2. hyoen-gata (presentation) ;
    3. rentan-gata (Energetic of physical reinforcement).
    He says that modern katas are often a mix of the three categories, and that we often try to make up strange apps starting from a “presentation” kata (which is not intended to hand down real combat strategies).

    Anyway, I agree when you say that the real, original, meaning is more or less lost. This makes the journey of a karateka much more thought-requiring, I guess… Maybe somehow more interesting? :)

  27. Alberto

    December 6, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    So Karate Do neither exists because once was hidden into Okinawan dances when forbidden…
    Give me a break… Pffff

  28. Shamus Mowrey

    December 1, 2012 at 12:33 am

    I liked your article. It tells it the way it should be. There are no secrets, no great hidden truths. I have been a student of Karate for the last 50 years (yes I’m an old fart). The only way you’ll ever know if your techniques will work, is in a life or death situation. In those first few seconds you will find out quickly what does or does not work. If you live or if you die. I hope none of you ever have to find yourselves in that situation. But keep practicing your Kata, your Bunkai and free sparing it serves the purpose.
    Shamus

  29. Michael P Harrison

    October 17, 2013 at 5:54 am

    This comment is not to be a heckler or to try to shoot down your comment about Kata, I have found a lot of the information on your site eye opening and informative, but in the case of Kata and Karate there are still secrets. one of the books mentioned here by another poster implicitly states that there were agreements to keep certain things secret about //Tode or Ti what was commonly known as karate jitsu , anyone who says that there are no secrets is seriously mistaken.. some of these secrets were purposely hidden and others taken to the grave by adepts of the tode styles, even Funakoshi admitted that he did not teach the same style of Karate he was taught, nor did he pass on a great deal of information even to some of his most notable seniors still alive even today in 2013 I have had a chance to ask..

    even though this does not directly relate to the subject of Kata it shows that a great deal of information was purposely hidden, or mis taught on purpose even Morihei Ueshiba stated that the secrets of his system should not be taught to non japanese let alone mudansha.
    The karate we have in the US today is not the Original Karate ( Tang Hand) not Kara-Te ( empty hand).

    the secrets to the kata and the martial art as a whole were removed and altered.. and never passed on by Master Funakoshi, but there are still families and schools that do not openly teach on okinawa that posses this information and the real and complete applications ( Bunkai and Oyo) to various kata they just never have passed it on to Westerners.. its called (((((Okuden)))))), but you already know this

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Reload Image
Enter Code*:

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>