Kata & Kata – There Can Only Be One

Practising Karate it is unavoidable that one must use the Japanese language to some extent.

Rei, Hajime, Yoi, Yame… the list goes on.

We all use it.

Because it’s practical and it sets us apart from other, more modern, martial arts.

But what about writing Japanese?

Shouldn’t we be able to write some too?

I sometimes teach people to write their own names. That’s pretty simple, since the characters for foreign names (katakana) are fairly easy to remember.

Here’s my name, as an example:

Fairly easy, right?

I don’t really think you need to be able to write anything else in Japanese. Or, okay, maybe you at least should be able to recognize the word “KARATE”:

The kanji for “empty hand” – Karate

Other than that, being able to write Japanese is not something the average Karate-ka really needs to focus on.

However, exploring the Japanese way of writing things that relate to Karate might help us to better understand the art we’re practising. So, continuing on the kata theme from my last post, I though we could have a look at how the actual word ‘KATA’ is written in Japanese.

Try this: Pick up a Japanese kanji dictionary, and write ‘kata’. Or just use one on the internet.

You will get around 16 hits.

In other words, there are 16 different Japanese characters (kanji) that are pronounced ‘kata’.

I actually put them together for you right here:

Quite cool huh?

So, do all of these mean shape or pattern? Can we use any of the above when we speak of the kata of Karate?

No, of course not.

These kanji are only pronounced ‘kata’. That doesn’t mean they all mean the same thing.

Look at these for example:

I tried to be pedagogical here, as you can see, choosing four random kanji and their meanings:

The pink one means “to mix, or blend“. The green one means “shoulder”. The blue one means “lagoon”, and the purple one means “scythe or sickle” (yes, also pronounced kama, for you Kobudo geeks).

So clearly we can’t use any of these for our Karate kata.

Which one is it we should use then?

Well, here’s the catch. There are actually two ones!

Yup. See for yourself:

Throughout the history of Karate, these two kanji (displayed in red above) have traditionally always been used for the term ‘kata’.

Some Karate masters used one, while some simply used the other.

Probably just to confuse us foreigners.


Looking at the major Japanese Karate sites and magazines today, there seems to be one prevailing choice.

This one:This character for kata is used basically everywhere!

(It’s the uppermost of the two red ones.)

Buy a Japanese karate book, and this is the kanji they use. Look at the result from any Japanese tournament (for example at the Japanese Karate Federation’s website), and this is the kanji they always use. Read an article in any Japanese Karate magazine, and this is the kanji they use.

The other character for kata seems to have been abandoned all alone somewhere in the dark dungeons of Sport Karate…

Nobody seems to use the other kanji for kata anymore:

Except me.

Yup, you read right.

Modern Karate magazines, books, organizations and teachers can use the first kanji how much they want to, but not me.

“Wow, you must have a great reason for that, right?”

Well, yes, I do.

There is a great reason. And better yet, it’s evil too.

You see, to me kata is more than a mere form, mold or pattern. It is not an empty vessel. Because that is exactly what the first kanji means.

The kanji that everybody today uses.

Let’s look at it again. As you probably know, different parts of the kanji have different meanings.

This is the the popular kanji, again. With an explanation of its parts:

The kanji consists of two parts. The left part, meaning ‘shape’, and the right part, meaning ‘water’.

Together they convey the message of something designed to hold water, like a vessel.

An outer form.

To me, that’s something dead.

That’s not kata.

So what’s the meaning of the parts of the second kanji then? The one I prefer.

Let’s see:

That’s more like it.

The kanji for ‘punishment’... above ‘ground’.

That’s kata to me.

Not just an old container, as the first kanji suggests.

Not a mere holder.

But a never-ending dishing out of punishment, both to yourself and your enemies, done in a routine on ground, which when put together ultimately gives the whole kanji the meaning of “pattern, style or form” as my dictionary kindly tells me.

I don’t know about you, but I feel punished after every kata I do.

Mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally…

Even socially.

You may, or may not, be interested in writing or even talking Japanese. But understanding the mindset and the ‘cultural landscape’ of it is crucial when dealing with Karate.

You see, there is kata…

And then there is kata.

Which one do you practise?


  • Igor
    Your katakana has a smiley face in it ::) Could shape + water represent shape of water, and the shape of water (so to speak) is flow (bui)?
  • Tibz
    Shape+Water reminds me of some quote attributed to Bruce Lee : "Be like water". To me, shape+water rather makes me think of a flow of water too. It begins as a tiny stream, then gets bigger with time to become a decent river, and eventually reaching the "water perfection", if you will,that is the sea or the ocean. Shape seems more like the bed of the river, something that guides more than limits, with its quiet moments and stormy ones, and something that holds what is basically the source of life (or life itself if we want to be poetic/extreme). I would say I am closer to the first kanji, although I understand where you're coming from by feeling closer to the second. I do feel "punished" after Katas, but I don't really like the word punishment as it has a connotation of expiation and fault; then again it's only one meaning of this writing and maybe a nuance could suit me better. I think the philosophy you have regarding what a kata or kanji means really depends on the one practising it anyway, and maybe even their mood... It is interesting to see how others live their katas.
    • Tibz, I guess you could philosophically see it like that also. Very poetic! However, when the kanji was created (loooong ago), I think they originally made the kanji 'form' by thinking about some everyday object, like a thing "holding water", rather than the bed of a river. Everybody needs something (cup etc.) to hold their drink, right? Seems more spontaneous if you are about to make up a kanji for 'form', at least for me. But of course, you never know! :) The whole idea for this post came when I attended a lecture in Okinawa held by Nakazato Joen (b. 1922) who was supposed to give an introduction of his style (Shorinji-ryu): He started the lecture by showing a newspaper article that he had ripped out the same morning. The article was about the upcoming Okinawa Karatedo World Tournament, and something was bothering him in the article. Guess what? The journalist had used the 'water+shape' kanji throughout the article, when describing kata, and this was a "big mistake", according to Nakazato. That was "not Karate" to him. If a "Karate man" had written the article, the other kanji would have been used, because that was "real Karate" Nakazato said. I guess he isn't a fan of Bruce Lee... :)
      • Justin
        Karate is kihon (basics), kata (forms), and kumite (application in mock battle or attacks). I've always viewed kata as a vessel into which I pour myself, my kihon, so that they begin to take the form of the kata and train my mind and body to move in the proper ways. Like water taking the shape of its vessel, my mind and body take the shape of the kata after much practice and repetition. Only then am I ready to apply what my mind and body have been trained to do in kumite. So in this sense, I like the first kanji rendering more than the second.
  • Budoka
    I find all of this quite interesting. I'm sure to learn a lot by hanging out with you gentlemen. Thanks for creating this site Jesse.
  • Budoka
    Jesse .... I viewed on of your videos of Kokosei Taikai performing a version of Chinto at a 2009 traditional tournament. Can you tell me which style was the competitor. Ive not seen that version before. Its very elegant.
  • Dru
    @Budoka The Chinto performed I believe is either from Matsubayashi Shorin-Ryu or from the Seibukan Shorin-Ryu dojo. I know both styles perform the Kyan based Chinto which you see in that video. Just not sure where that particular competitor is from.
  • Carina Mackellar
    cool thanks for writing this
  • Batman
    Thanks for breaking down the characters, found it a lot easier to remember them
  • AC
    Jesse, you're brilliant, and I often find much to reflect upon when reading your site (fairly new reader here; I only found your site AFTER my eyes were opened enough to have even looked for it). I imagine you are older than me and have been at this longer, but there is one idea I must disagree with in this article. "That’s not kata." When I read this, I see that you are saying that "something to hold water" is "an outer form" is "something dead," and that's what kata is not. I agree that kata is not something dead, but this approach, I feel, is not conditional enough. Here, if A = B = C, then A = C. You have used the transitive property of equality (http://www.mathwords.com/t/transitive_property.htm), albeit perhaps unconsciously, which I generally applaud. But, from that URL: "One must be cautious, however, when attempting to develop arguments using the transitive property in other settings." It is my opinion that (my reading of that kanji as) "something to shape water" doesn't necessarily mean all of that, and therefore, in this case, we have more possible values for A that are not equal to B and thus C. I think that, though it may be possible that the water/shape kanji was used ignorantly or mistakenly at some point and then it caught on and became what is commonly used, when you look at how you yourself have come up with a very good reason to use the ground/punishment kanji, found your own personal and special meaning for it, it should lead you to imagine that perhaps someone found special meaning in the water/shape kanji, too. Someone responding to this blog mentioned "be like water." I propose another explanation. Water is formless. When you put it in a container, you impose a form. Kata is a teaching tool. In kata, everything can be found, with special in-depth body mechanics in San Chin, for instance, and tactics in other kata. What kata can do, then, with the water/shape interpretation, is: It imposes form on the formless. Combat is unpredictable, for one. Also, developed martial artists are said to not use technique, to not plan, only to act, or react -- they are formless, they are water; that's the eventual goal, but how does one teach a student to do that? Put it in a form. Train it to be water. Kata is the vessel. And you know what? I wouldn't have even thought of it if I hadn't read your driving school lessons about karate article. So thank you.
  • Another great article, I am actually starting to enjoy your relaxed style of writing more and more. It makes it easy to wade through your endless collection of articles. I particularly enjoyed this article as I am currently studying Japanese and am using karate articles and mythology to help me along. These are things I am already interested so when I learn related Japanese it is reinforced by my existing knowledge and by my desire for continued growth of knowledge. "What?" you say, I am sure not Jesse sensei but maybe some of the readers, hopefully not ones teaching Karate. What I am going on about is learning theory. Check wiki for a taste then get down to some serious study, if you consider your self a teacher of any sort. Any ways I went on a little rant there. I guess I need to hurry up and start my own blog. What I really wanted to say was though "punishment above ground" sounds badass and heck I think I will use it when talking about Kata from now on, the other one also seams pretty cool to me. Especially if you think in the way of a canteen, that water holding form that you are likely to die with out if ever stuck in a desert.
  • gianna
    The right part of the kanji ??is not water, but it is called sanzukuri or kekazari (hair ornament)
  • Hey Jesse-san. Another great article. I'm really enjoying your point of view when it comes to karate and Japan. Really interesting. Now for this article. Excellent. For me, I can see how kata can be both. For example, when I'm shown a kata for the first time or from a different Sensei, I feel it (or I feel I am) more like a container being filled with the water of their knowledge. As I practice the kata and get better at it and start to make it my own, I start to feel it as punishment (that I may cause on an opponent) as I move over the ground. I like to try break down the kata in my head and look at each technique from as many different points of view and in as many different ways that I can employ them that I can think of. then, when I teach somebody a kata, it becomes like a container for water again. So for me, I feel, it flows from one to another and back again. Like it's always in a state of change as I grow with it. Thanks again for another great article!
  • Simon
    In chinese kung fu they use the shape/water character for form. In mandarin they say xing.
  • Hi Jesse, Perhaps I can help because I'm a native-speaker of Japanese. The first kata character (shape/water) is the one other budo (Japanese martial arts) disciplines such as kendo, kyudo, iaido, etc. traditionally use. However, karate has always used the second kata character (punishment/ground) for some reason. Both characters are pronounced the same, but the former carries the nuance of "flow" and the latter "casting mold." The timing of karate brought to the Japanese mainland might have caused the difference because kendo/kyudo/iaido etc. were developed during the samurai era, but there was no samurai any more when Funakoshi Sensei arrived in Tokyo (although Funakoshi himself came from a samurai family) and the Western-style military mentarily and discipline were taking over the Japanese society back then. So, in my opinion, the first kata character represents the samurai's training and their ways of life, while the second represents the military solders' training and their strict (opressive) regiments. So, about 30 years ago, I recommended the Japan Karate Federation (JKF) to change their use of kata character. Several years later, they implemented my suggestion on this. Hope this tidbit info helps.
    • Anna
      Thank you so much for this explanation.
  • Anna
    Water Vessel for me too. This is a Universal symbol of receptiveness. In Western symbolsim 'cup' can also mean ''punishment'' btw as in ''take this cup awy from me'', It can be interreted as Holy Grail of all things too, part of the meaning of it is 'sacrifice' as of time and energy one can sacrifice today for something better tomorrow - well that's our daily practice. 'Empty cup' is a symbol in Zen - the famous story of the tea and the cup. Whether one's body is the Vessel for the Holy Spirit in the West of the Vessel of energy in the East the two resonate very well with one becoming a ''water container''. One can talk for hours of deeper symbolism of it. So there is hope that while we create a 'water shape' by practice it is filled with something bigger as we progress and grow.
  • Love it . I'm with you on this one, the second one :). Such a jungle with the language barrier. It's fascinating and entertaining how much overthinking we tend to put on these meanings while we try to translate them. Old master simply says to the student 'pick up that litter' and we will turn the meaning of it into an ancient wisdom and a secret code that will, if understood, release unfathomed powers capable of lifting a planet ? And just imagine the depth of mystery if he used an unusual character or just mispelled it?

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