The Reason for Triple Techniques in Kata

By Jesse | 31 Comments

Sitting at my computer, sippin’ on a protein shake.

An e-mail pops up.

It went something like this [slightly edited]:

“Dear most handsomest Karate guy in the whole blogosphere,

I have been wondering for a long time why we do some kata techniques in sets of three (3). For example, in some kata you do three stepping blocks in a row, or sometimes three stepping punches in a row. It seems a bit unrealistic to me. A triple combination like this must surely be too long-winded and dangerous to ever work in a real confrontation. Right?

Looking forward to your reply. I love your website, truly admire your six pack abs and bought all your books. Twice.

/Anonymous”

Dear Anonymous.

First of all, may I suggest we use the term “moderately attractive” instead of “most handsomest” in all our future communication? As you know, Karate is all about being humble, and I don’t want other bloggers to feel bad about their looks.

(Also, my six pack abs are actually eight, but who’s counting?)

Now, over to your question.

This is an interesting one.

As anyone who’s ever done a basic kata will surely have recognized, there exists a sort of unspoken numerology in the way kata is set up. I’m not only talking about the literary meaning of the kata names (i.e.: Seienchin = 72, Gojushiho = 54, Seisan = 13, Suparimpei = 108, Nijushiho = 24 etc.), but also in the various kinds of physical techniques, movements and combinations present in the form.

For instance, today’s issue:

Triple techniques.

Without going too in-depth on the historical backdrop of the kata we’re practicing today (and why you’re better off banging your head against the wall rather than trying to figure out certain kata’s practical applications), there are some things you need to know when it comes to triple techniques in Karate’s kata.

What am I talking about?

Hear me out:

Predominant Side

Most people would agree that we need to practice techniques on both left and right side. Because, when we apply the movements in self-defense against a live opponent, the attack could come from any side, right?

Self-defense is chaotic, violent and it happens fast – so we need to be prepared for anything.

Right.

But! According to my government-level sources, 1 in 10 people are left handed.

So, since most of us (9 in 10) are right handed, it actually makes more sense to practice defending against a right-handed attack one extra time in our kata (for instance: right, left, right) making it three repetitions in total. In other words, we repeat some techniques an extra time based on the statistical fact that an opponent is more likely to attack us with his/her predominant side an extra time.

Makes sense?

That’s what I thought.

(By the way, why do we even have a predominant side? Can’t we just be born equally “good” on both sides? Perhaps we are? Why has evolution decided that we should be better on a certain side? And why did it choose the right side?)

“Holy” Numbers

Maybe we do some kata moves three times because the number is extra amazing?

Indeed, if you believe Asian folklore, especially Chinese, the number three is considered a true lucky number.

And that is important. Because a significant part of the original influence on Karate came from China.

But why the number three? Why not two, four, or sixty-nine?

Well, according to my secret connections in the Hong Kong underworld, if you pronounce “three” in Chinese you would say “saam”. And if you say “life” in Chinese you would say “saang”. In other words, they sound almost the same! And that’s reportedly the reason to why 3 is a luck/happiness number throughout China and many other places in Asia.

So yeah.

There’s a reason you get three pieces of sushi.

Broken Rhythm

Maybe we do techniques in sets of three because we need to practice the concept of ‘broken rhythm’?

I wouldn’t be the first to suggest so.

The idea that our kata were actually created in order to transmit certain combative “principles” or “strategies” (rather than mere physical techniques) is getting pretty big these days.

So, what is the ‘broken rhythm’ principle, then?

It’s basically this: You execute the first technique… brief pause… second technique – and quickly the third technique! So, in theory, your adversary expects the three techniques to have the same rhythm, but since you switch it up you catch your opponent off-guard with the last move.

The principle of broken rhythm is important in Karate. So that might be one reason to why we practice it in kata like this, by having sets of threes.

The ‘broken rhythm’ theory was one of Bruce Lee’s favorite tactics too.

Pretty rad.

Linking bunkai

Lastly, here’s an idea:

Maybe we do triple kata techniques in some places simply because we want to link the numerous self-defense templates (bunkai) of the kata together in a more practical way? Maybe it’s just a structural, geometrical thing, you know?

Like glue.

I mean, if kata is to be considered a mnemonic vehicle for transmitting ancient techniques and teachings, it would certainly make sense to hold that “vehicle” together in some way. You need screws and bolts in all vechicles. So, doing a technique three times maybe is just that?

A simple way to establish a geometrical configuration neccessary for the whole kata to function properly.

Maybe.

Since the original meaning of most kata movements are lost in the sands of time, we will sadly never really know for sure.

But…

What I do know is this: It all boils down to what your definition of “kata” is.

In my humble opinion; kicking, punching, striking or blocking – whether done in a triple, quadruple or single fashion – are no more kata than a knife, fork and spoon constitute dinner. I believe most kata techniques are simply aids, or tools, for understanding and imparting the principles that justify and govern a kata’s very existence.

Comprende?

In other words, your job is to eat the kata – one bite at a time.

Sure, it might be hard to digest sometimes.

But don’t worry. You’ll get there.

Just keep on chewing.

One bite at a time.

“Karate is an abyss and an enigma, grasped through deep thinking and careful understanding.” – Miyagi Chojun (founder of Goju-ryu), 1933.

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.

31 Comments

  1. Jenny

    May 2, 2013 at 12:12 am

    Am I the first to comment? Yeah! Interesting and informative, as always. And I love your sense of humor :-)

  2. ddeino

    May 2, 2013 at 1:02 am

    Hey Jesse, what do you think about this?:

    http://publicspeaker.quickanddirtytips.com/what-is-the-rule-of-three.aspx

    I heard about that in a seminar about how to prepare talks and conferences. I immediatly thought in kata… Maybe I am a karate nerd after all ;-)

  3. Jack M

    May 2, 2013 at 1:53 am

    I always thought the repetition was to indicate thr significance of the moves and principles and that three was just a convenient way of working that in, two wasn’t enough, four too much. (probably the real reason why you get three bits of sushi) three is also mathematically interesting, being prime and all that and is aesthetically pleasing. Why are Mario’s lives three? Why are there three members to a team kata? I dunno but the answer lies there methinks.

    • Madelyn

      May 3, 2013 at 3:32 pm

      Omne Perfecto Trium -- whatever comes in three’s is prefect or complete. Methinks you are on to something… :)

  4. John Pagonis

    May 2, 2013 at 1:57 am

    Nahh it is too deep for the muscular black belt I talked to yesterday, who advised me that kata should be practised at most once a week, because otherwise it is a waste of ones training time.

    Literally I wanted to explode while trying to explain about how katas were created in order for one to train alone and push one further bla bla bla…

    What do you say to people like him I don’t know. Perhaps you need to be a really high grade to convince such folk, perhaps it is worthless. Perhaps you need Jesse to write about it.

    …sorry for the rant I had to take it off my system…

  5. Mike B.

    May 2, 2013 at 3:34 am

    Jesse, you have a great website. Thank you.

    I certainly agree that the “triple techniques” within many of the kata can be thought of as isolated techniques, practiced repetitively within the kata with an emphasis on defending against the dominant (i.e., right) hand. And I love the use of broken rhythm, which can be found throughout the Okinawan systems’ kata.

    A different approach to consider is to think of the triple techniques as a singular technique, to be performed rapidly. Most of the kata’s triple techniques involve three punches or three high-blocks (which we all really know are rising forearm smashes or elbow strikes) done in forward stances. With this approach, the kata is teaching us to hit in combinations (just like we teach our students in kumite) and to keep our weight driving forward towards (or into) our opponent (ergo, the use of the forward stance).

    The beauty of bunkai is that we really don’t know who is “right.” Indeed, considering different approaches doesn’t mean the other guy’s approach is “wrong.” A different approach is just that — i.e., it is just different. And any logical approach is worthy of consideration and practice.

    Thanks again for your food for thought (and practice).

  6. sandy

    May 2, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    greetings JESSE SAN
    May i respectfully point out that KATA in Japanese is a far more complex subject matter than you allude in your explanation…and kata in MA,is only an example in action of the wider application

    KATA is a much wider and fundamental concept in Japan,and indeed is the very Key to understanding and dealing with Japanese….their very culture is based on Kata,which is the main source of both their most enviable strengths and their most debilitating weakness

    a key factor is their KATA IN LEARNING TO READ AND DRAW KANJI,which is no doubt one of the most important factors in the survival of Japan,s traditional culture
    may i recommend : Boye Lafayette de MENTE ,S book KATA….IT is an eye opener
    warmest

  7. Igors Kupcis

    May 2, 2013 at 7:22 pm

    Kata are exercises for keeping your skills sharp and stamina improved, not something special. Osu!

    • Jesse

      May 2, 2013 at 8:18 pm

      Like with everything, it is what you make it, Igors-san. As long as it makes you happy!

      • Samir

        May 9, 2013 at 5:54 pm

        I can think of many ways to answer that statement. That was a gentleman’s way. :P

  8. Josef-Peter Roemer

    May 2, 2013 at 8:09 pm

    It is typical of Americans to over think everything, or simply to just know better then the Okinawans and their Karate.

    Just do the Kata and maybe you will learn something, or get about 1/10th as good as an Okinawan who practices Karate every day. Maybe you should put away your neon or us flag Gi and try a real one.

    • Jesse

      May 2, 2013 at 8:18 pm

      That’s a pretty broad generalization, don’t you think? Like the late Shoshin Nagamine (1907-1997) once said: “Foreign karate enthusiasts are too gullible, and blindly accept whatever their teachers tell them to be gospel. We have as many fakes, phonies, and frauds right here in Okinawa as you ever thought of having in America or elsewhere.”

      • Josef-Peter Roemer

        May 2, 2013 at 8:37 pm

        I’m talking about doing Kata, has nothing to do with fake teachers both here and in Okinawa. The Kata are real regardless who is teaching them. I don’t know why you injected the Fake teacher bit.

        You missed my whole point, we are not talking about Karateka, but the Kata,

        I can tell you Shoshin Nagamine never questioned his teacher. As to why and how he is doing the Kata he just practiced the Kata as instructed to him.

        If you have ever personally spoken with an Okinawan master, who was already a master during that time in the 60′s which the majority are no longer with us, Okinawans did not question their teacher as to why they had to practice Kata or why things were done in three’s. They just practiced until they got it right.

        Judging from you photo you have been barely around the block. I hear from students all the time that they think Kata are worthless, because Americans want something right away without having to do too much. There are exceptions.

        Just look at the so called Karate today in the USA it looks like a circus, people running around in blackbelts, and all they have ever done is their own invented kata to music, Bo kata with a aluminum 1/4″ wide stick they twirl around like a baton and call it a Bo kata. Enough said.

        • Jesse

          May 2, 2013 at 9:00 pm

          Josef-Peter san, I wish you good luck with your continued journey on the path of life, happiness and prosperity. I think Karate is really good for you. Keep it up! One day you might find what you are searching for.

          • Cat

            May 2, 2013 at 11:45 pm

            Jesse, I’ve admired you silently so far, your articles are informative, entertaining and thought provoking. But with this one reply you have risen 100% in my estimation and provoked me to speak. Keep up the good work.

        • Leif Hermansson

          May 3, 2013 at 3:39 pm

          Dear mr Josef-Peter Roemer

          I agree totaly with the later part of your comments abouth kata and kobudo in USA! It is so sad to see and it have nothing to do with originally karate or kobudo from Okinawa. Let call it for free style martial sports!

  9. Ryan Parker

    May 2, 2013 at 8:58 pm

    I think many people understand (on an intuitive and very basic level) that alternating repetition can be an excellent method for dealing with resistance.

    Taira shinshi points out that this is a great explanation for why double and triple repetitions of techniques occur in kata. He explains that when you encounter resistance while doing a technique (the opponent blocks for instance) it is often possible to simply reverse the technique and do it on the opposite side.

    Doing more than two such reversals becomes somewhat impractical. This is why it is very rare to see quadruple repetitions (especially in the same direction).

    You can see him demonstrate this principle a few times in the following video (at 3:33) as well as a few other of his video clips:

    Just something to chew on…

  10. Dave Oddy

    May 2, 2013 at 9:48 pm

    Because your opponent has two hands… First technique either hits or engages one hand. Second technique either hits or engages second hand. Third technique is VERY difficult to deal with when the first two techniques turn into limb manipulation. To see this in action, google Taira Masaji Sensei. You also see this in sport -- three-technique combinations score MUCH more frequently than doubles and singles.

    Well -- that’s my opinion to add to the mix… :)

    • Ryan Parker

      May 2, 2013 at 10:36 pm

      Copy cat ;-)

      Actually, while the gist of what I said was the same, you articulated it much more clearly. Indeed, its inherent truth is quite self-evident the way you phrased it.

      • Dave Oddy

        May 2, 2013 at 10:56 pm

        Nice -- you must have hit enter first!

  11. Andreas Quast

    May 2, 2013 at 10:27 pm

    Even in Okinawa there is an ongoing discussion ever since which of the two Kanji used for Kata is the correct one. And there is the same two-sided (minimum) discussion on basically any major point related to Karate. Until today there neither had been an axplanation why they even argue, nor what’s the outcome. Sometimes things just doesn’t matter.

  12. Maria

    May 2, 2013 at 11:03 pm

    I didn’t take you for an American, Jesse san? Nor did I know “Roemer” is a traditional Okinawan surname! So we learn every day.

    • Jesse

      May 3, 2013 at 12:26 am

      I’m not American Maria-san, I’m human. And in my experience, Americans are human too. At least the ones I’ve met so far! ;)

  13. Laurence

    May 3, 2013 at 1:42 am

    It might be worth considering that kata can also be done “in place”. Here is an example of such; think of Sasan where one takes three steps forward. Now, take, the first step, which is left foot forward, now instead of taking the right foot forward for move #2, withdraw your left foot so that your right is now the forward foot. For the third step simply advance your left again.

    It may appear as nothing but what you have done has some profound implications. You can practice in this manner in any space where you can only advance one step.

    What does this mean? What are the applications? As Musashi would say “Consider this deeply”.

  14. Hank Prohm

    May 3, 2013 at 4:07 am

    Jesse, repetition in kata ALWAYS (IMNSHO) has a meaning.

    Consider the FIRST and most important of the Pinan kata, Pinan Shodan (Itosu count). There are a RECORD number of SEVEN shuto-uke in that kata, more than in ANY other kata, even more than in Kosokun Dai, the “mother of all Pinans”.

    Why would a karate genius like Itosu sensei put SO MANY shutos in one form?

    It’s just like when you are a kid and your parents and grandparents repeat the important things OVER and OVER again. What Itosu sensei was saying was: PAY ATTENTION grasshopper, this techinque is REALLY important.

    I once spent more than two hours analyzing Pinan Shodan with three of my black belt students who were also engineers. After much talk about fulcrums, moment arms, levers etc. we concluded that Itosu sensei was really serious about teaching self defense in his pre-eminent and most important kata. Folks who have come after Itosu and rearranged the numbering, putting Pinan Nidan first are doing the student a disservice.

  15. Soundstorm

    May 4, 2013 at 11:50 am

    Hey there! Not a karate fan (nothing against it. Just not for me [woo kung fu! {that rhymes!}]) I practice Wing Chun and was told by my sifu (our version of Sensei) that the we practice our “chain punches” in 3s (yeah we do it too. small world) because the it’s pretty much the best you can do against the average fighter (he’ll figure out you like punching him in the face around the second or third time) Any more than that is pretty much suicide… Or useless… Usually not suicide but just useless. Any ways… Love your articles! I find most good martial artist have a good sense of humor and I can tell that I’d never wanna fight with you :P

  16. Tom Runge

    May 27, 2013 at 3:02 am

    Hi Jesse

    There is a very simple reason why there are three techniques. and that is to do with transition. Three techniques have two transitions, one for the right side and one for the left side.

    (ok there may be others… but I believe that is the main one).

    Cheers

    Tom

    • Jesse

      May 27, 2013 at 3:13 am

      Tom-san, that is actually the exact same method I use myself for triple techniques and bunkai. ;) Thanks for chiming in!

  17. Ivo

    January 28, 2014 at 4:25 am

    According to one of my sensei, karate took some basic principles from other already developed martial arts and especially from kendo, where the exercises are repeated uneven number of times (3, 5, 7, …). Thats why we have triple techniques in kata, SANbon kumite, GOhon kumite etc. I have never trained kendo so I ain’t sure if thats 100% correct but it sounds reasonable to me.

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