Note! This article consists of two parts: First I break the crazy news that the standardized shitei kata are finally going to disappear from the WKF Karate tournament scene, and then in the second part I reveal an exclusive translation of a never-before-seen exchange of two cool historical letters between one of the most influential Karate masters of Okinawa and the Japan Karate Federation. Read the first part if you’re interested in Sport Karate, the second part if you’re interested in the cultural history of Karate, and both parts if you’re a Karate Nerd™.
Here we go:
1: The Shitei Kata Are Finally Removed
Here’s a challenge:
Imagine for a sec that you were one of the brave Karate pioneers who set sail from Okinawa during the beginning of the 20th century with the grand vision of spreading your beloved native martial art to the rest of the world.
That’s exactly what eight remarkable Karate teachers (Gima Shinken, Motobu Choki, Funakoshi Gichin, Chitose Tsuyoshi, Miyagi Chojun, Mabuni Kenwa, Uechi Kambun and Toyama Kanken) did, during the years between 1921 and 1933, as they travelled from Okinawa to mainland Japan to promote Karate.
As history tells us; after these guys arrived in Japan, in 1933, the Dai Nippon Butokukai (Japanese Martial Arts Federation) forced them to change Karate in several ways; like wearing the gi/obi, adopting the grading (dan/kyu) system, changing the name to Karate-do, systematizing terms and titles, as well as establish a rule-bound competitive format through which to test one’s technique and fighting spirit (later divided into kata and kumite) which eventually led to the creation of modern Karate. This is basic history which I presume you all know.
Naturally, then, every aspect of this modern Karate had to gradually develop even more to further standardize and globalize Karate; resulting in many big federations and associations being formed here and there.
One of those was the JKF – Japan Karate Federation – the official #1 governing body of Karate in Japan.
Ever heard of it?
The JKF has always been, and still is, the most influential factor when it comes to deciding how, why, when and where Karate is to be enjoyed by the Japanese people (and to some extent the rest of the world).
And one of proudest inventions of the JKF is the “shitei” kata.
(Repeat after me: “shee-tay”)
The shitei kata, which literally translates to ‘specified form’, denotes a certain, specified, standard kata that every contestant in an officially sanctioned WKF/JKF tournament – no matter where in the world – needs to perform in the opening round(s) to qualify for the rest of the tournament. Obviously, these kata need to be performed in a pre-described way, and don’t really allow for any significant personal variation in technique, rhythm, stances, tempo and so on.
Here’s an example of multiple-times world champion Luca Valdesi from Italy performing the shitei kata Kanku Dai:
The shitei kata are divided into four sets, based on the four major styles of Japanese Karate:
- Seienchin & Bassai Dai (Shito-ryu)
- Jion & Kanku Dai (Shotokan)
- Saifa & Seipai (Goju-ryu)
- Seishan & Chinto (Wado-ryu)
Now, what happens if you don’t practise any of these four styles? What if you’ve never heard of these kata before? What if you haven’t even seen them?!
Does that mean you… can’t compete?
At least not in any big (official) tournament sanctioned by the WKF, JKF or other related federations.
So naturally then, the shitei kata have always been a major pain in the ass for most regular people – not to mention judges, coaches and trainers who need to constantly memorize the intricacies of these standardized kata.
I mean, sure, you could theoretically just buy the shitei kata books or DVDs, or go to expensive seminars or judges courses, but should that really be necessary just to test your kata skills in a simple Karate tournament?
Well, up until now it was.
But here’s the kicker:
THE SHITEI KATA ARE GONE.
Although the JKF tried desperately to hold on to their precious mandatory kata (like by introducing eight more shitei kata exclusively in Japan, collectively referred to as “Shitei Kata Dai Ni”), as of January 2013 the shitei kata are officially removed from the new WKF kata rules and will hopefully never resurface again on this earth.
Let me repeat that:
The shitei kata are GONE.
Meaning; you are now finally free to artistically express your own individual Karate – as long as you adhere to your dojo’s interpretation of the correct traditional kata of Karate.
To me, this is one step closer to bridging the gap between martial and art.
This year’s WKF World Karate Championships, held in Paris, November 2012, will be the last one where the standardized shitei kata are required by the competitors.
After that it’s 100% tokui (free choice) kata for everyone, every round.
As far as I know, this hasn’t been publicized anywhere before. But it’s happening.
I urge you to send this article now to anyone you know that competes/judges/follows Sport Karate to break these awesome news.
Because, truth be told, this opens up a whole new world for kata competition.
2: Historical Bonus Material: The Okinawan Karate Federation Openly Criticizes JKF’s Shitei Kata
Now, over to something more interesting (still related to the soon-to-be-gone shitei kata) for you history buffs out there:
When my German friend Andreas Quast visited his late sensei, soke Nagamine Takayoshi (1945-2012) at his house and dojo in Kumoji in Naha, Okinawa, on a sunny day in 2011, he received a very special document as a gift (with the caveat that he had to translate it for the rest of the world). The document was a copy of a 1982 letter written by Takayoshi’s father, the legendary Karate master Nagamine Shoshin (who at the time was the president of the Okinawa Karate Federation), to Takaki Fusajiro of the JKF – along with another letter with Mr. Takaki’s reply from January 1983 to Nagamine sensei.
The contents of these exclusive letters reveal that there was a dispute over the selection of the original shitei kata already at that time… a feeling that has lingered on till this day, as the rest of the Karate world gradually moves away from its traditional Okinawan roots.
See for yourself:
Nagamine Shoshin’s Letter to the JKF about the Shitei Kata
To: Zen Nihon Karate-do Renmei (= JKF), Takagi Fusajiro, Managing Director.
From: Okinawa-ken Karate-do Renmei (Okinawa Karate Federation), Nagamine Shoshin, President.
Date: November 1st, 1982
“Regarding the shitei kata (designated kata) of Karate-do at the National Athletic Meet.
At the 36th National Athletic Meet held in Shiga Prefecture last year (1981), the JKF for the first time carried out competition in the kata of Karate-do. For this purpose a total of 8 kata were designated as shitei kata by the JKF; namely Bassai Dai, Chinto, Kanku Dai and Jion from the Shuri-te system, and Seishan, Seinchin, Seipai and Saifa from the Naha-te system.
At this year’s National Athletic Meet, however, we received a great shock.
These appointed shitei kata were not only borrowed from us, but were also in a completely miserable condition!
We, the members of the Okinawa Karate Federation, are unable to be satisfied with this decision and are having difficulties in understanding the situation. Thus, we now offer a full report of our opinion. Candidly discussed among the board of directors of the Okinawa Karate Federation, we hereby sincerely request your organization’s careful handling and consideration for improving this matter, with no preconceived notions.
Okinawa is the birthplace of Karate. Therefore we, the Okinawan people, are proud of, and responsible for, maintaining the pure traditional kata and handing them down as such to our posterity. However, we are aware of the present trend in which Karate has been regarded as a kind of sport for competition to some extent, and we are not reluctant in supporting this contemporary demand. We also want to clarify that we are not assuming an air of importance because of our long tradition, or the fact that Okinawa was the cradle of Karate. Our only wish is that your organization, the JKF, should pay more attention in selecting a reasonable method in the transition of Karate from a martial art to a sporting event.
Going back in history, we can look at the the Dai Nippon Butokukai [Japanese Martial Arts Federation] which was established in 1895 in order to modify the ancient Japanese martial arts into the modern-day Budo sports of Judo and Kendo, respectively. Not longer limiting their practise and subsequent mastering to the samurai class, these lethal techniques were made accessible to regular people. Ever since these days, the traditional Japanese martial arts became one of the three pillars of national education (moral education, intellectual training and physical education) in Japan.
Along with this development, refined kata of modern Judo and Kendo were born in 1906 and 1911 respectively, paving the way for further development in this new era.
However, the completion of these kata for Judo and Kendo required a time of 14-15 years. After long debate and occasionally tumultuous discussion among some 40 or 50 great masters representing the different Koryu Bujutsu (antique martial styles) of Japan who took part in the planning and extracting their piled up wisdom, these ultimate forms were finally devised. The details of which were decided by public opinion in a fair and democratic setting.
But, although already thirty-odd years have passed since the adoption of Karate sparring for competition (kumite), several revisions of the rules for Karate have come and gone. Still to this day no unified rules have been established and/or sanctioned by all! Moreover, for the competition of kata, the wisdom of the many masters of Okinawa has not been sought after (similar to Judo or Kendo), but rather it has been decided upon these borrowed shitei kata – which really is a flaw in the JKF’s authority, isn’t it?
They say, “better late than never”, so we once more earnestly beg the JKF to look back on the historical facts, drawing a parallel to the modernization of the ancient styles of Jujutsu and Kenjutsu into today’s Judo and Kendo. In the same manner, rather than to keep acknowledging the various offensive and defensive techniques of sport kumite only, we hope you can restore the fundamental kata of Okinawa too, so that Karate enthusiasts from all over the world, without exception and under equal conditions, may willingly participate in the nonpartisan and impartial kata competition.
To recapitulate our request to the JKF: We earnestly advise that you not only use the names of kata originating in Okinawa, but also the physical kata themselves as currently practiced in Okinawa, for future Karate competitions throughout Japan. By giving effect to the above mentioned ideas, we are confident that the interchange of ancient Okinawan kata with the new mainland kata of JKF will be realized, resulting in the “development of new ideas based on study of the past” [here Nagamine sensei uses the famous proverb "On-Ko-Chi-Shin"], the fruition of perfectly blending old and new techniques of Japanese Karate.”
Adviser: Uehara Seikichi
Adviser: Higa Yuchoku
Adviser: Takamine Choboku
Vice-president: Miyahira Katsuya
Vice-president: Arakaki Seiki
Vice-president: Iraha Choketsu
Chairman of the board: Miyazato Ei’ichi
Board member: Nagamine Tadayoshi
Board member: Higa Seikichi
Board member: Akamine Eisuke
Board member: Shimabukuro Zenpo
Board member: Uehara Ko
Board member: Shimabukuro Eizo
Board member: Shiroma Seihan
Board member: Kise Fusei
Board member: Bise Joman
Board member: Shimabukuro Kichiro
Board member: Irei Takeshi
Board member: Sakumoto Tsuguo
Board member: Inamine Seijin
Board member: Kaneshi Eiko
Awesome letter. You can almost literally touch the feelings behind the writing. And the signatures read like a Who’s Who of Okinawan Karate.
Powerful stuff indeed.
Now, here’s what the Japan Karate Federation answered:
JKF’s Reply to the Okinawa Karate Federation, January 1983
To: Nagamine Shoshin, President of the Okinawa-ken Karate-do Renmei (Okinawa Karate Federation).
From: Fusajiro Takaki, General Manager, Central Technical Division of the Japan Karate Federation.
Date: January 10th, 1983
“Re: Your opinion on the designation of shitei kata.
The standing committee meeting of the Central Technical Division of the JKF was held on December 11th to discuss the matters presented in your November 1st letter of opinion. The following is the official answer of the organization:
Concerning the existing designated shitei kata, they are the product of hard work among the members of JKF and adopted not only for the domestic events such as the National Athletic Meet, but also for international meets.
JKF is not of the opinion that the present methods are the best ones, and we are considering that your views might be adopted in future tournaments. However, in promoting National Athletic Meets as one way of competition, we are determined to continue to use the present kata, while maintaining the kumite as it is practised today.
Therefore, we intend to have a discussion with you in the future for a satisfactory solution of the problem.”
Imagine being on the board of the Okinawa Karate Federation, getting this “reply” two months after the first letter.
I would be pissed off!
Nagamine sensei’s own comment to the above reply, when asked in 1991, was that “the letter said that the JKF will have a discussion for a satisfactory solution of the matter, but nine years have already passed. Ever since that reply, not a word has been heard. This discredits the authority of the JKF, who is responsible for the unification of the global Karate kata. Again I repeat the phrase “better late than never”. I am still looking forward to a quick correction on the part of the JKF.”
Well, correction is here.
Because the shitei kata are soon gone.
For better or worse?
Time will tell.
And that’s all I had to share with you guys today.
Hope you enjoyed it.