Why There’s (Still) No “Secret” Moves in Karate Kata & Why You Should Care Now

People claim they can see the face of Jesus Christ in a three-cheese pizza.

Are they crazy? I think so.

People claim they can see the face of Virgin Mary in a toasted cheese sandwich.

Are they nuts? Most likely.

People claim they can make out the word “Allah” in a piece of meat.

Are they wacko? Yes indeed.

And then, of course, people claim they can see hidden, invicible or “secret” techniques in the traditional kata of Karate.

Are they insane, deranged and confused?

Yes, yes and yes.

Because there is no such thing as “secret” techniques in a kata.

Can you see Jesus? Well, neither can I...

Now, before we go any further, let me clarify that I’ve been saying this for years. There is no such thing as “hidden” movements in kata. It’s a total myth that just makes no sense. Oh, did I mention it’s stupid too? Yet, people still keep asking me about these reportedly “hidden” movements, techniques or meanings in a kata (as related to the bunkai [application] of the kata) that for some reason have been “disguised” by some clever old Chinese ninja master in a quest for keeping the “deadly techniques” of said kata from ending up in “wrong hands”.

Bull.

Crap.

That’s what I call it.

You see, this phenomenon is neither new nor rare; Human beings all over the world have been “seeing” things which do not exist (except in their imagination) for as long as mankind has been able to see. In fact, there is even a fancy scientific term for it, namely ‘apophenia‘: “the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data”.

Taste it.

Apophenia…

According to almighty sensei Wikipedia, the term apophenia was first coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad, a German neurologist and psychiatrist with important contributions to neuropsychology and psychopathology, who defined it as the “unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness”, but it has come to represent the human tendency to seek patterns in random nature in general, as with gambling, paranormal phenomena, religion, and even attempts at scientific observation.

And yes, even kata.

Because we are so darn bad at understanding the meaning of most kata.

Which is exactly why questionable “grandmasters” all over the world keep adding these “hidden” techniques to their sacred teachings.

Can you see Mary? Actually, I can!

Which, of course, comes as no surprise. See, when people don’t understand something, they need to come up with an explanation in order to appear important and knowledgeable to their peers. That’s a given. However, the smaller your ego is, the quicker you will be to admit that you, in fact, have no frickin’ clue about the practical meaning of a certain move in a certain kata. But most people are not blessed with such a petite ego (especially not when it comes to venerated “grandmasters”) and thus need to come up with all kinds of elaborate excuses as to where, why and how they are seeing these “secret” techniques in kata.

When you tell me you are working on finding secret, hidden or invicible techniques in a kata, you’re telling me you’re working on seeing Jesus Christ in a three-cheese pizza.

And that’s when any sane person would call a doctor.

But no, no, no… nowadays it seems to be perfectly normal to look for secret/lost techniques and bunkai in kata – which says a lot about how we have gone wrong in the development of practical Karate as we progress towards a more physically fitness oriented type of modern Karate where the original dirty, raw, Okinawan self-defense Karate techniques need to be somehow “found” by people.

Ninja please…

Allow me to let you in on a secret:

  • There are no hidden moves in kata,
  • there’s just parts you understand…
  • and parts you don’t understand.

So, if you ever feel the need to sprinkle a pinch of fairy dust over your bunkai (to *magically* add a couple of extra techniques in order to make the sequence more practical), you are taking the easy way out. You are, in my eyes, cheating.

Can you see the word "Allah"? Neither can, I. But I don't read Arabic.

I think my old sensei in Okinawa, Sakumoto Tsuguo (hanshi 9th dan Ryuei-ryu), perhaps said it best when he once told us:

“The more you need to change Karate, the less you understand.”

Which isn’t to say you can never change things. Definitely not. People change all the time.

I mean, the only thing constant is change, right?

Right.

So here’s what I think: People need to learn the difference between spontaneous adaptation and permanent change.

Because, although the bunkai of a kata are supposed to work 9 times out of 10, there will always be that one awkward opponent who reacts like nobody else does. That one opponent to whom the laws of physics seem to have taken a brief vacation on a sunny beach in Las Palmas – as you gradually fail in each kick, punch, throw and joint lock you keep applying from the kata.

That’s when you adapt.

Please don’t get me wrong here. You don’t make up some story about how an old monk on a snowy mountain taught you this “secret move” in the kata. Instead, you analyze the self-defense situation at hand in a split second and perhaps adjust your front kick to a knee strike instead (if your opponent has gotten too close), or perhaps you aid your wrist lock with a swift shin kick (if your opponent keeps resisting), or perhaps you throw in a vicious head butt before you go for the prescribed takedown (if your opponent has too stable posture and balance).

Whatever you need to do to win, you do.

As long as the outcome remains the same.

The thing is, a kata is made up of combinations of techniques that are supposed to work in a perfect world. If we do this, our opponent reacts like this. You we do that, our opponent reacts like that. All good. But here’s the kicker: We don’t live in a perfect world. Oh no. We live in a place where nasty oil gets spilled into the ocean, polar ice melts faster than you can say “ice cream cone” and awesome gorillas are about to be extinct.

Sometimes, things don’t go as planned.

So when shit hits the fan, we need to adapt.

But the original intent, form and meaning remains.

Because that’s still what works 9 times out of 10. Bottom line.

To end this article, allow me to gracefully quote the founder of Shotokan Karate, sensei Funakizzle, who had something rather intelligent to say about this exact topic (in his famous 20 Precepts of Karate):

Practicing a kata is one thing, engaging in a real fight is another.

Learn to adapt.

And one day you’ll come to realize that it’s not Virgin Mary in your cheese toast – it’s just a piece of cheese that in this very moment appears to resemble the general shape of your understanding of Mary’s face.

That’s it.

20 Comments

  • Kyle
    I like the part where you say 9 out of 10, and the part of the quote 'engaging in a real fight is another'A lot of the Bunkai from kata never actually meet these 2 realities. Thats is they don't work 9 out of 10 times, and you'd be lucky if they worked in a real fight.I've never known people in a real fight to participate in a compliant way for you to do what ever.nice commentary.cheers Kyle
    • Budo Spirit
      You obviously haven't had to many brawls then. Any repetitive practice of techniques, let along a true understanding of them and their application is a real advantage in my EXPERIENCE
  • Frik
    Jesse-san, my Sensei always say to me: There are no secret techniques in karate, only untrained ones.
  • Kevin
    I'm gonna cash in my stupid question of the day card...I have always felt it "weird" and "odd" when I heard people saying that the "secret and deadly" moves in the kata were hidden and that sometimes the sequence was in reverse order than you would apply it.But, is this different than the idea that a series of movements from kata have multiple applications to discover? That is what I have been taught is the "hidden" applications, that there is more than one interpretation to the moves and why also you shouldn't change the kata to reflect that one application. They aren't secret as in needed a code to know how to reverse the order or a missing strike that suddenly turns the move into the deadly, just things you don't know yet.
  • Rui Paulo Sanguinheira Diogo
    I think I've got to strongly disagree this time in various points, Jesse-san. First of all you are comparing products of pure coincidence (It's not Jesus on the pizza! I see John Lennon!) with man-made sequences of motion which served a purpose. This is *not* a valid comparison. So searching a meaning in kata which had a meaning is not about apophenia (The meaning that is in a pizza is that you should eat it and not that there is a random pattern that might look like a face for the human brain, just because the human brain works that way).That not all "found" so-called applications in kata are valid or do make sense should be clear – and I agree with this one. But you must admit that in fact many applications are "hidden": "Hidden" means invisible for the eye, and a joint lock or throw is invisible in a kata. Simply because there is no partner. This way no one can see how and where it is applied. This has to be explained by a teacher as Anko Itosu expressed in his 10 precepts: "Practice each of the techniques of karate repeatedly, the use of which is passed by word of mouth."As for "secrecy" in the meaning of "intentionally keeping something hidden": No, there is no secrecy. What is a "secret" in one martial art is certainly open knowledge in some other. But it's undeniable that knowledge was lost in the karate history. Mostly unintentionally in the modification of the teaching methodology in order to being able to train masses of students. But things like that happened even earlier. Just to quote Chojun Miyagi: "There are so many things in karate which do not make sense and there are a lot of things I cannot understand."This strongly indicates that knowledge hasn't been fully passed on. And be it only the knowledge that you've got to adapt and – which is even more important – *how* to do that (regarding the principles in the kata). Instead people started making things up to fill the gap and I blame this as being the reason why karate applications are often a ridiculous, inconsistent mess.Greetings Rui
    • Rui, nice reply. I enjoyed reading what you have to say. Where does that Miyagi quote come from? I found a new/hidden bunkai in Saifa many years ago. My teacher told me I had not found anything. He said you can't find something that isn't lost, so I was kidding myself because it was alawys there if you looked hard enough. This admonishment has influenced my studies ever since. It was the most profound thing I ever learned about karate/kata. Regards, Graeme
      • Rui Paulo Sanguinheira Diogo
        You are right. The "techniques" or better: the movements were always there – so they didn't get lost. But the knowledge about them did. The quote is from Genkai Nakaima's article "Memories of my teacher, Chojun Miyagi" from 1978. Actually the full quote is even more explicit on lost knowledge because that passage starts with: "Studying karate nowadays is like walking in the dark without a lantern. We have to grope our way in the dark."You can read the entire article here:http://yamada-san.blogspot.com/2008/01/memories-of-my-teacher-chojun-miyagi.htmlIt's worth reading it because it gives some good insight what karate was. And what it meant to practice karate.
  • "See, when people don’t understand something, they need to come up with an explanation in order to appear important and knowledgeable to their peers." That's very well said! Also I second that bunkai boils down on movements you understand. On the rest I mostly agree with Rui. As much as I love your usual articles, I find this one weak. Jumping around in kata, blocking two kicks with manji-uke, or Luca Valdesi -this is what apophenia is about. ... Also, I see Darth Vader in the pizza.
    • Rui Paulo Sanguinheira Diogo
      Darth Vader is a bad-ass ninja from outer space – and like all evil ninjas he never smiles. Ask Jesse! So this can't be Darth Vader! ;) I agree with you that every application comes down to movements you understand – or better: movements you know. If you understand the movement, the principle(s) behind it and why it works then you certainly have a good application. If you don't then you'll take the next best thing you know. Just to have an explanation as Jesse wrote. So if all you know is hard-blocking, striking and high-kicking, and in addition, stay dogmatic about it because someone that didn't know any better either told you so ("In our style we don't do that!") then chances are that you come up with your manji-uke-double-kick-hard-block instead of a couple of variations of grappling-takedowns which were even depicted in "Karate-Do Kyohan" and are common in other martial arts.
  • Te'o
    I like what everyone has said in this particular post. As I get older and train longer things, certain things, become clearer. I teach high school, and the thing that I strive for is to find the most effective way to make the content accessible to the student so they have a deeper, enduring understanding of that and apply it in the real world. This applies to my karate instruction. I continue to use the basics and show the foundation of the content. We then scaffold the teaching/learning from the traditional, to the practical, and finally to the tactical. The content stays the same, but the manner(technique) in which it is taught allows the student access. The key is to not create what Jesse called a "logjam", too many secret techniques or techniques period. My personal warm up are spent on kihon and pinan kata, mastering the content that is basic. Then adapt, improvise, and overcome in a real world situation. Train hard and keep an open mind, open heart, and a smile on your face. Alofas!!
  • Dan
    That's not Jesus's mom on that pizza. It's Marilyn Monroe! Haha, seriously, now. I think there are slight chances of existing "hidden" moves in kata. After all, their applications were passed mouth-to-mouth since their very existence. Not to mention the slight changes that the masters of old have made since their creation. In other words, hundreds of years may have taken to obscurity certain applications while nobody was looking.What I do agree is that no white-haired-bak-mei-legendful-master-of-awesome hid the techniques to keep them from the wrong hands. If keep 'em they wanted, not put 'em on a kata they would, hmm?
  • Erik
    We must be getting close to the secrets. You're saying exactly what an "old Chinese Ninja master" would say. We're on to you! You are using a common tactic by calling us "crazy". We are obviously about to crack the karate code and thus all of the hidden death strikes. You are clever to try and divert us from the true path.On the other hand, good essay and I liked the response posts. I've been wondering the differences between "hidden" and "unlearned" lately as I approach my black belt. Keep up the good work.
  • elC
    The guy on the first toasted thing isn't Jesus, it's Che Guevara! :p
  • Szilard
    I have also seen the same apophenia argument against evolution, claiming there is no pattern, only god's will.As you wrote earlier, kata is also a mnemonic for moves, so based on your blog one could make the argument, that every single "move" suggested by a kata is secret.
  • Daniel Gould
    Am I the only one who sees Inigo Montoya in the "Mary" picture? :P
    • Rui Paulo Sanguinheira Diogo
      It's definitely Marlene Dietrich! ;) http://www1.historisches-centrum.de/ausstellung/marlene/mar01.jpg
  • in supporthttp://www.dklsltd.com/shotokankarateunion_sku_news/shotokankarateunionpage1.htmlregards rachael
  • Rachael Reiko Murakami
    Just addressing typo errors in the above postinghttp://www.dklsltd.com/shotokankarateunion_sku_news/img/shotokankarateunionpage1.htmltake care Rachael Reiko Murakami ?? ????? ??
  • Whoever made the pizza is probably laughing his head off now.
  • Odee
    I've always viewed Kata as structured shadow boxing. When you tear it apart with Bunkai you're pulling potential combinations out of a movement guide, practicing techniques rarely covered during basics.Boxing doesn’t need the structure because of the limited, easily learned and easily remembered number of techniques while styles like Karate contain strikes, throws, standing and grounded submission holds and in order to get them practiced they just blended their equivalents of technique and shadow boxing time together.Kata followed by Bunkai to get a combination idea, trial it on a bag, trial it in sparring then decide if more training can make it work for you or not.

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