“Dear Kata Critic…”

There are some pretty fun words and phrases out there.

For example, in German they have the horribly long word ‘handschuhschneeballwerfer’, which means somebody who wears gloves to throw snow balls. It is used in general to mean a coward.

And in Tierra del Fuego they have ‘mamihlapinatapai’. It means ‘two people looking at each other, each hoping the other will do what both desire but neither is willing to do’. That’s a pretty useful word, actually!

And in Spanish, ‘esposas‘ means handcuffs. But it also means wife!

Though I’ve never used any of the words above, there is one phrase in French that I’ve been “feeling” lately. It’s known as ‘l’esprit d’escalier’, or the spirit of the staircase. This phrase is used to describe the precise moment a person comes up with a clever retort to an embarrassing insult… but it’s too late.

You know what I mean. Somebody throws a one-liner at you and you don’t know what to reply, until later. But by then it’s too late, since the whole situation is already over.

To me, this has been happening recently.

Especially in the dojo.

And always with somebody training Thai Boxing, MMA, Kickboxing or basically anything that isn’t Karate.

And for some reason, it’s always about kata.

Kata, kata, kata.

“Nice dance, too bad it doesn’t work in the street!” they might say, just before they smack their shinbone into some pads, grunting loudly. Sometimes they might even go “Your karate dance is pretty cool, but it doesn’t teach you how to win against a kickboxer like me (or any other style they think is cool)!”. Then they do five very loud sit-ups and go buy an energy drink.

And you know what? I’m getting pretty annoyed at these remarks.

But the problem is, I never have a clever retort!

So that’s why I’m formulating one right now.

In this post.

This is my answer to all MMA/Thai- or Kickboxers who don’t understand this whole kata thing.

Here we go:

Dear Kata Critic,

To begin with, yes, I agree with you. My karate dance is pretty cool. And no, you’re right, it won’t help me in “the street” against a trained fighter like you.

It won’t help me against anything, actually.

However, the information contained in it will definitely help me. Against a kickboxer, thaiboxer, brawler, drunkard or anything else I might have the misfortune to encounter.

Because, you see, kata by itself doesn’t teach me anything. Actually, nothing teaches anything “by itself” – it all requires “someone” to impart or interpret it. When you see me doing my “Karate dance”, I am merely repeating a solo reenactment of concepts that I have already trained and learned a long time ago, with a partner.

What you train is a sport.

A Martial Sport, even.

What I train is a Martial Art – and that’s something you need to consider.

Look, to make it more understandable for you, here are some techniques that are forbidden in MMA (which seems to be considered the toughest of the Martial Sports):

  • Headbutting
  • Eye gouging
  • Hair pulling
  • Biting
  • Downward Elbow Strikes
  • Fish-hooking
  • Attacking the groin
  • Strikes to the back of the head and spinal area
  • Strikes to, or grabs of the trachea
  • Small joint manipulation (fingers/toes)
  • Kneeing an opponent in the head while he is on the ground
  • Stomping on a downed opponent

You call the above techniques Fouls.

I call them Karate.

What I do is: I train to defend against these techniques. But you never do, because you don’t expect them.

What you train is not designed to defend you against a steroid pumped freak who attacks you in a dark alley at 3 AM, trying to smash your head against the wall.

What I train is.

However, I see what you mean when you try to be funny on my behalf. Truthfully, it looks kind of silly to me too when most people do their “Karate dances”. Because the way people today teach, practise and understand kata is based on modern assumptions about Karate and kata that have almost no connection to what they were originally meant to be.

That would be like me trying to sing a song in Chinese without even knowing the language.

Just plain wrong.

Add that to an excessive focus upon misunderstood rituals and etiquette and you’re looking at a tradition that in some places has been reduced to re-enactment status, not unlike the ritualised practices of Medieval re-enactors.

Now, let me teach you a great word:


Maybe you’ve heard of it?

As a matter of fact, all of your fighting skills were delivered through templates.

Your coach/trainer (what we in Karate call a ‘sensei’) taught you a set of skills with which to address specific scenarios. These skills were imparted to you via templates – how to break fall, how to throw somebody, how to escape or counter a technique, how to set up an opponent or avoid a set up, how to jab, use a right hand, do a joint-lock, work your left hook, how to check a kick, how to slam someone to the ground, how to use combinations, how to use your knees/elbows and so on. As you can imagine, the list is very long.

You show the learner how something is done [that’s a template] and they repeat it [the template] until the skill is learned.

That’s how you were taught, and that’s how you teach.

This is then followed by more advanced templates – how the skill is honed, how to make one stronger, faster, more flexible, etc. in order to be the best you can be.

Coincidentally, the Japanese word for template happens to be “kata”.

And that’s what you’re looking at, when I’m training.

But don’t get me wrong – these kata, or “Karate dances” that you see me doing are not some kind of shadow boxing, which you might be familiar with.

There is a big difference.

Shadow boxing is free, kata is not.

I am repeating a cluster of prescribed battle-proven techniques over and over again, to make them my second nature. Of course, ideally I would want a whole line of training partners standing in front of me, ready to assist me in my training (as opponents), but I don’t have that privilege.

That’s why I’m doing this alone.

And while we’re at it, consider these three points, that the study of kata and it’s meaning (which to me actually is Karate) gives me:

  1. Improves health (the holistic aim)
  2. Builds moral character (the social aim)
  3. Helps the defeat of human weakness (the philosophic aim)

Put them together, and they all work towards the same goal, which is to ultimately establish inner peace and tranquility.

Now, this might sound like a load of esoteric mumbojumbo to you, since all you probably want to do is “Have fun and kick some ass man!”, but to me it all makes perfect sense.

I practise a non-lethal civil fighting art that was designed for self protection (but is today also used for much ‘higher’ purposes as described above), not military conflict or competitive fighting.

Hence, Karate was never developed to be lethal, or used on the battlefield or in the arena. The fact that it can be lethal, and may have been used on the battlefield or arena is a completely different issue.

That’s why I will never “step into the cage” with you.

Because that’s not what I do…

I do Karate.

And your Martial Sport is not my Martial Art – so please stop mixing them together.

Just let me practise my kata in peace.




  • Dru
    Bravo, Jesse. I must commend you on a very articulate and well thought out argument. I honestly cut it and paste into a Word file for future reference next time someone calls me a 'kata fag' (a term commonly used in Sport Karate circles here in North America). It's disheartening that many of our fellow martial artists do not understand our ritual patterns and set sequences, many of those which are rich in history and meaning. You are absolutely right that we practice Martial ARTS, which just happens to have fighting in it. Your average MMA juicehead can't see that the movements we do are subject to alot of 'out of the box' contextual and theoretical application and interpretation but I guess some of them aren't intelligent enough to see that.
  • mario p. dacanay,fsc
    I am Mario P. Dacanay,FSC adviser of the Okinawa Shorin-Ryu Karate Do-Shidokan (Philippines) -Hanshi Katsuya Miyarahira lineage.I have been practicing karate for 42 years. In response, I would like to share a Zen Story entitled "Teaching the Ultimate." In early times in Japan, a bamboo-and-paper lantern were used with candles inside.A blind man, visiting a friend one night, was offered a lantern to carry home with him. "I do not need a lantern," he said."Darkness or light is all the same to me." "I know you do not need a lantern to find your way," his friend replied, but if you don't have one, someone else may run into you. So you must take it."The blind man started off with the lantern and before he had walked very far someone ran squarely into him."Look out where you are going!"he exclaimed to the stranger. "Can't you see this lantern?"Your candle has burned out, brother." replied the stranger.The lesson is:IT IS DIFFICULT FOR A CLOSED MIND/BLIND PERSON TO UNDERSTAND!Keep up the good work Jesse and more power to you!
    • mario p. dacanay,fsc
      I am sorry for inadvertently misspelled Miyahira.
  • Andi Quast
    I wonder if I was allowed to take my wooden sole Italian shoes into some no-rules barred cage...
  • KataMasta
    Good article that makes some pertinent points, including in the readers' comments... The thing is, the people making these comments are not the one's who want to learn and probably won't stand around to listen to an explanation! The truth is, in it's modernization and commercialization, part of our art has been lost... We practice karate as a stand-up fighting style, keeping a comfortable striking distance from the opponent, breaking the distance, striking and renewing the distance. While we do talk about, and even practice (to a degree) takedowns, grappling, holds and locks, etc, it is merely as an afterthought. Does that mean that the founders and teachers of our various karate styles didn't know how to fight on the ground like even the best mma experts today? I don't think so! And they weren't limited by the "rules" that eliminate almost all of the techniques inherent to karate (which is why so few karate practitioners make an impact in the mma arena). In fact, I'd like to believe that they were as well conditioned on the ground as we try to be on our feet - after all, they were fighting for their lives and for honor! My answer to the kata critics is that their style of fighting goes straight to the ground like a dog or a rat, which is fine if that's what you want... I train for ikken isatsu (one strike, one down) If the mma fighter executes his technique perfectly, and I execute mine perfectly, I'll win - because my technique assures me he'll never get close enough to me to execute his technique (in fact, my technique it not intended to subdue him as a grappling hold is, but it is intended to make sure the opponent doesn't get up...)
  • Batman
    A great answer to a stupid problem, but the only people who will care are the ones who agree to start with, I fear. I used to dislike kata but it eventually dawned on me after a few years that it's not just a dance of meaningless movements. Sometimes the only way to understand that is to dive in and see what you can discover for yourself.
  • Man, i'm speechless, you're putting words on my mouth. This is what all those MMA enthusiasts doesn't understand, they are less prepared for the street than (what they think) we are. What kata masta says it's true, we train for the ikken hisatsu, they train for the lockdown, for a technique that give them advantage and, weird enough, points on the judges eyes (weird because they laugh about the point sistem on competitive karate, wich i don't like either). When i get to see those "no hold barrels", "real", "mumbojumbo-godlike-allmighty" "fights" on the UFC, i snooze, they are repetitive hugging, not a real fight, they just hugh each other; Ryan Summer of LICD comics put it on his comics, and i laughed for hours. On the street you're not going to be attacked by one person, sometimes there's a minimum of 2 thughs, so, huggin one thugh's leg, renders you useless to fight with the other one; Kata teach you to do it, if you're clever enough to find that "secret meaning" (i've just read that post of yours). Too bad that on this modern times, kata just become a dance, something to win tournaments, not to learn karate properly, but it's up to us to keep the tradition alive. P.S. forgive if my english isn't up to the par, i haven't practiced it for a long time, i'm getting rusty
  • Vincent
    I do not study karate, I study traditional Japanese jujustu and frankly the same problem exists there as well. I often hear Brazilian Jiu-jistu guys talk about how the Gracies created this art. They never seem to figure out that BJJ is an offshoot of traditional JJJ and it is a watered down version of it at that. I love watching MMA, but I see that lost of the guys who 'play' it have no clue about the histories of the arts that make up the sport. They also push the self-defense aspect of BJJ for example without understanding that real fights are often messy, not the nicely packaged three-rounds in a cage. There is a big difference between fighting for a belt and fighting for your life
  • Vincent
    i meant most not 'lost'
  • Well said, my friend. Well said.
  • If you're still looking for a comeback, I came across the following not too long ago, and it works pretty well :) 'Muay Thai fighter makes arrogant comment about kata not being street effective' You reply with 'You suggesting that I fight on the street with a kata is like me suggesting your pre-fight ritual dance is what you intend to do once you get into the cage/ring/whatever' :) Shuts most up :)
  • Ismael
    I love this post! I am keeping a copy of it at my dojo just in case I get another so called MMA practitioner that knows better then this poor karateka.
  • Manuel
    your response is very good and well articulated, as Dru says, but I think it's too long, it surely is useful for us "karate nerds", to our -intimate, to be in peace with ourselves knowing we are right, and they are wrong, but THEY, they need a fast and smart retort just to make them shut their mouths, for this purpose I find Alex Kirri's phrase exrtemely useful. =) keep up the good work Jesse, I really enjoy it!
  • Boban Alempijevic
    Whoa. Sooo keeping a copy of thisone.I have never heard any bad comments about Karate or Kata though so far, and I know personally a Finnish MMA champion. Like anything and everything in this world it all comes down to who you meet.There aremartial Sports people that use there head as well and understand the differences between "sport" and "art", but then again, there are a lot of people out there not thinking before openin there mouths. I am happy that I do not train sports version of Shotokankarat, even though my club is putting its main point on it, but the more traditional side of Karate. It gives you a lot to think after the training, especially when you are finally realising how much damage you have done to people as young when beeing in teenager fights, wondering why the dude went down in one hit and skipping for breath. A "real" fight or a Brawl as I like to call it is so more dirty with no rules what so ever compared to Martial Sports competitions. Karate teaches us how to defend, and yeah, I think kata Looks cooooool too, I even enjoy Kata practice, so much I train at home as well. One day I hope to reach close to the spirit and speed of Michel Milon. That day I will smile, especially if someone says it looks like I am doing a dance :D
    • Your right MMA martial athletes, most of them, will not understand the meaning of forms,not just karate but all martial forms from all martial arts also like you I'm lucky I don't study the sport version of shotokan karate though I do study it.
      • Lance Hobbs
        you realize the vast vast majority of these MMA athletes you refer to arent former florists or librarians before becoming top level pro fighters, ,. they literally grew up with a whole bunch of traditional martial arts including jujitsu, wrestling, TKD , Karate, boxing etc This fantasy that people who have graded black in your martial art long ago then gone on to become world renown top level professional martial artist...dont understand martial arts ...is pure fantasy in itself
  • Gerry
    While I admire the heart & soul MMA fighters put into their sport, and don't doubt at all that a well trained MMA fighter is superior to the average karateka who pursues karate for sport or exercise, I firmly believe a karateka who trains with intensity and with the purpose of wreaking self-defensive havok on an opponent has the advantage. If an MMA sport fighter makes fun of your kata you can pick a sequence and explain how it's used for ripping out someones testicles, or breaking their neck, or whatever... Ask them if they practice such techniques and explain calmly how you train regularly for self defensive purposes using such techniques.
  • Ralph
    You said "I am repeating a cluster of prescribed battle-proven techniques over and over again, to make them my second nature" Can you name which battles and which kata movements were involved in those battles. If you are going to point to something as "battle proven" you better point to what in which battle and when! Ous Ralph
  • Ian
    (Sorry for resurrecting another old post ... I just discovered this site a few days ago and am making my way through the "back issues".) Nice post, but unfortunately something that well thought out, lucid and articulate would be lost on (and far, far too long for) someone who both fundamentally lacks an understanding of what kata "is", and who also is immature enough to make such a comment to begin with. Depending on how charitable you are feeling, I suggest responding either: (a) inviting him to become an ad hoc kata bunkai partner, or (b) "well, it's still more effective on the "street" than those burpies you were doing earlier, but I doubt either of us intend to fight off an attacker with training exercises." (Okay, "b" is kind of like that muay thai comment above; I'm just making it more "generic" for all the kata-bashers.)
  • Edrich
    That or you could say :” I’m guessing you’re the type of guy who uses a hammer to turn a screw?”
  • Lance Hobbs
    Headbutting Eye gouging Hair pulling Biting Downward Elbow Strikes Fish-hooking Attacking the groin Strikes to the back of the head and spinal area Strikes to, or grabs of the trachea Small joint manipulation (fingers/toes) Kneeing an opponent in the head while he is on the ground Stomping on a downed opponent This reads like a list of techniques that ARE ALSO FOULS IN KARATE, and ARENT TRAINED IN THE DOJO EITHER! I haven't ever been present in any dojo in my whole life and ever personally witnessed any eye gouge training or biting training for example. Ever once, Even in hardcore old school jujutsu environments. IT ONLY GETS TALKED AND BASICALLY BRAGGED AND FANTASIZED ABOUT, no better than aiikido guys. Also you dont need to worry about whitty remarks and comebacks if you genuinely think that kata type stuff can beat actual muay thai fighters..that what the mat is FOR... forget smart comebacks and one liners , show them some of that "shattering force" OUS!? *cough cough*

Leave a comment