The 2 Types of Karate People – Which One Are You?

This weekend I visited Berlin – the capital of Germany – for the first time.

In case you haven’t been to Berlin, let me tell you something: This city is crazy. Cuh-ray-zee! Not only is the city roughly as big as fifteen regular cities, but the contrasts between old and new, east and west, fancy and dirty etc. are simply astonishing. As I later found out, most citizens of Berlin rarely even leave their ‘own’ part of the city – it’s just too time-consuming!

Anyway, as always when you visit new places, you gotta check out the most famous sights… right?

Of course.

So, in this case, I visited…

(You guessed it!)

The Berlin Wall.

For those of you who slept during high school history class, the rise and fall of the infamous Berlin Wall is (was) basically this: On August 13, 1961, the Communist government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany) began to build a huge barbed wire/concrete ‘Antifascistischer Schutzwall’, or ‘antifascist defense wall’, between East and West Berlin – including armed guard towers, anti-vehicle trenches, a ‘death strip’ and such evil things. The official purpose of this Berlin Wall was “to keep Western fascists from entering East Germany and undermining the socialist state”, but it primarily served the objective of stemming mass defections from East to West.

To make a long story short, the Berlin Wall stood until November 9, 1989, when the head of the East German Communist Party announced that citizens of the GDR could cross the border whenever they pleased. That night, ecstatic crowds swarmed the wall and tore it down. Some crossed freely into West Berlin, while others brought hammers and picks and began to chip away at the wall itself. To this day, the Berlin Wall remains one of the most powerful and enduring European symbols of the Cold War, and the people who died for it.

With that being said, let’s now go on to the Karate connection.

(There’s always a Karate connection).

You see, as I visited the three main places of Berlin City where large chunks of the wall can still be seen for tourists, I began to think about how this whole Berlin Wall phenomenon relates to our beloved art of Karate. I mean, don’t we have this large ‘barrier’ in Karate too? A metaphorical ‘wall’ which separates the ‘east’ Karate world from the ‘west’? An obstacle that separates the ‘traditional’ Karate world from the ‘modern’ Karate world?

You bet we have.

It’s called “kata”.

Dear old kata…

See, just like Moses (dividing the Biblical Red Sea), kata seems to be our modern day Karate equivalent of a divider between two huge groups of passionate Karate practitioners:

  1. People who don’t “get” kata.
  2. People who “get” kata.

In other words, each and every Karate-ka in the entire Karate world belongs to one of these two categories – whether they realize it or not. At least in my book.

To make things clearer, allow me to explain.


1. People who don’t “get” kata.

This is the first group of people found in Karate – often mistakenly described as “modernists”; effortlessly throwing around standard phrases like “Karate should be more practical”, “that would never work on the ‘street'” or “c’mon you lazy bastard, give me fifty more push-ups!”. You know the type, they’re found in every dojo around the world.

And the funny thing is, they’ll quite willingly admit that they really don’t “get” this whole kata thingy.

In short, they simply don’t understand why you have to practise it!

(And sure, I can see why.)

These people, and I’m not denying the fact that you might actually be one of them, will only – and often reluctantly – practise their kata either when they have a grading coming up, if they have to teach it to somebody else, or if their sensei tells them to practise it. And that’s about it.

To them, kata it is nothing but a traditional way of just “warming up”, before moving on to the “real” meat and potatoes of their Karate (which ranges from sparring and self-defense to physical conditioning, kumite, pad work, ancient Karate concepts of kicking ass, etc). Still, when they perform a kata, they’ll often do it to the best of their abilities – sometimes with surprisingly quick and powerful techniques…

But they don’t really get any satisfaction from doing more than a few kata.



Because they don’t understand kata.

And they honestly don’t see the point of doing it!

The thing is, you can’t blame them – nobody likes to do stuff they don’t understand for very long! I don’t. You don’t. Your sensei doesn’t.

Heck, even Einstein didn’t.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over; expecting a different result.”

– Albert Einstein

The problem lies in the fact that nobody has ever taught these unfortunate Karate-ka just exactly what, why and how a true kata is supposed to be performed studied. Hence, to them, a kata forever remains just a ‘traditional’ bunch of punches, blocks, kicks, strikes and stances performed in ‘thin air’ with seemingly no other real purpose than to break a sweat, follow our beloved “tradition” or please a sensei/grading committee/judges. It’s okay to do a few times, sure, but more than that feels like a waste of time. It’s just not essential to their Karate!

Which is totally okay.

I personally know a lot of folks who fit into this category, and I regularely teach a lot of people in this category too. I know exactly how they feel, because each training session is a constant battle in convincing them why kata is in fact the essence and foundation of traditional Karate.

But they’re not entirely hopeless.

They’re just clueless.

And as such, I consider it the duty of people in the second category (which I’ll explain in a sec) to tirelessly break the barrier of Karate by storming the “wall” of kata as often as humanly possible – educating these unfortunate people about the true informative, physical, psychological, scientifical, historical and cultural values inherited in our kata.


So let’s check out the second category of Karate practitioners then – which I truly hope you will consider belonging to.


2. People who “get” kata.

Now, people of this second group, who “get” kata, have no magical abilities or significant skills/talents over the first group. They really don’t.

All they have is a good, solid, basic understanding of Karate (most likely built by an awesome sensei).

You see, these people, one way or other, somehow seem to”get” what this whole kata thingy is all about.

(Needless to say, they are probably the same ones who would have tore down the Berlin Wall, had it still been here today!)

People who “get” kata, who understand the purpose of it, find immense joy in using it for what it is: A mental, spiritual and physical tool, created with the main purpose of remembering and reenacting a bunch of highly effective fighting templates carried out in self-defense against would-be attackers, as codified by the masters of old. Like Shito-ryu Karate founder, the legendary Mabuni Kenwa, so precisely put it in his pioneering work Kobo Jizai Goshin-jutsu Karate Kenpo (1934):

“The Karate kata are living creatures […]. If a kata is deeply understood, and thoroughly practised, its spirit will enter the person and appear as a living creature expressed by this person. Often one can see how a kata is enjoying life. In this way, a kata is a living thing. […] The more one understands and practises a kata, the greater the benefits for body and soul will be.”

– Mabuni Kenwa

To people who belong to this group of Karate-ka, kata is considered the “complete package” – holding so many inherited lessons that the study of anything else in modern Karate (like kumite, supplementary training, warm-up etc) sometimes even takes second place! These people have somehow understood that a kata is a whole fighting system in itself, and by gradually analyzing, testing, repeating and applying the different parts of a kata one is steadily building a 360 degree Karate Nerd™ understanding of what real “kill-or-be-killed” Karate was originally all about.

That’s what these people “get”.

They get that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

So why don’t YOU “get” it too?

Sure, in a world where you can Google or Youtube dubious “five second death touch knockout” -lessons online faster than it takes to tie your Karate belt, going through the arduous task of deciphering an ancient kata seems borderline insane at times.

I fully agree.

That’s why it’s of paramount importance for you to understand that the true study of kata lies not only in digging out the bunkai (applications) of the actual moves, but in discovering and subsequently experiencing that kata ultimately offers more than the sum of its mere physical parts.

No, the masters never said it would be easy.

Just that it would be worth it.


Which category do YOU belong to?

Prove it.


  • Luis
    Anyone can do a beautiful kata. But only a few bunch of people can understand its true value, going deeper than a pretty flashy bunkai. I'm trying always to understand the kata, to feel it, and everytime I do a kata, i enjoy it, it's the time when I feel more comunicated with myself. It's just music, or something like that
  • RH Gutierrez
    Great article. One problem that I see is that many of us get stuck trying to analyze Kata without background knowledge. It seems that to get the best of Kata we have to look at injury reports, a historic content, and the philosophies and maxims of karate. Many books exist on the "Bunkai" of kata but few look at all aspects.
  • Charlie
    Great post, Jesse. I particularly like the quote from Mabuni Kenwa - he is describing Harry Potter's Patronus...brilliant. I think my inner kata animal is a bull. An overweight bull. Glad to report I am in group 2 :-) Cheers Charlie
    • Windreaver
      You mean JK Rowling's patronus was an interpretation/translation of Kenwa's kata. ;-) Big difference.
  • Donald miskel
    Well said, Jesse: I suppose I staddle the fence. I fall a bit into both catagories. I perform and teach kata regularly but I only teach and practice a few of them. I'm of the belief that it takes years to perfect a kata. I focus my study ona handfull of forms and work trying to perfect them. I'm not a beginner either. I've been involved in the martial arts for fifty five years. I teach severral traditional forms and a number of short fighting forms simular to what they teach in shorinji kempo (one of the systems that I studied).
  • Maria
    Kata is meditation. I very often don't "get" the bunkai - I struggle with the transition of two-dimensional to three-dimensional(map reading)but I know that losing myself in a kata teaches my body what it would need to do to fight effectively when it matters. And strangely I derive the same pleasure from all kata whether it is my "own" style or others.
    • Rachael Murikami
      I agree, that sounds the Way to go Maria Rachael
  • Rachael Murikami
    Well done, a nicely put summary article that reiterates the divisive sentiment that is prevalent in Martial Arts and particularly within Karate. In support of your article I offer which will go someway towards explaining why it is that some people seem to derive pleasure from the divide. Regards Rachael
    • Rui Paulo Sanguinheira Diogo
      That article is a bit harsh, I think. And it neglects that there are "traditionalists" and "traditionalists". The most "traditionalists" follow the "tradition" that came mostly after WW2. The criticism on those people isn't much unjustified... The problem is that the critics don't differ either... I think, I disagree with the article quite a lot!
  • Boban Alempijevic
    Me no read comments this time, me say few words though. When I started to train karate first time around as a young teenarger only wanting to be able to punch the lights out of the bullies in my school I looked at Kata and wondered why. Back then we went through ONE Kata for each level(read belt or as I rather talk about it, as KYU). Slowly repeating and repeating in every single class. Back then we where enough people in my old senseis Dojo so we could train beltwise. Now a days that is not completaly possible. I live in Finland now a days, not any longer in Sweden. I train for a great sensei that loves Karate more then anything else. He teaches us the whole package, not just parts, he even shows us the differeneces between some of the "styles" since he himself have trained as young at least one other style. He also shows a lot of real fight applications as well. Then comes the Kata part, now a days brown belters perform Kata that are supposed to be taught to 5th Dan and upwords. What does this mean, well... what I see it simply means one thing to be honest, todays kids are not taught the value of kata the proper way. Kihon, kumite, Pad sparring and so on, where did the love for kata dissapear? I have fought against learnign kata above my kyu, above my level for so long, and I will never stop it. For me there is only one way, repetition untill I not only can do the Kata blindfolded but untill I get to the point I can start seing part of that kata in other katas, in other martial arts such as kung fu, untill I can start feeling it in my bones and simply play around with it, try it out and how it can be used in different situtation.... find the bunkai piece by piece untill I simply use it whenever its neceserry. That is what Kata is all about for me. Jesse... Kata is a fighting system all in its own, thank you, explained Kata exactly how I see at it even though I never thought of it that way before.
    • Rui Paulo Sanguinheira Diogo
      Hey Boban! I also don't think that particular kata are supposed to be taught to [put some high rank in here]. I guess that's part of the misconception of the karate taught by people who don't get kata. People suddenly believe that kata were made for certain "ranks", that there are low level kata and more "advanced" kata and rush through them, getting another, higher rank. But what did they understand from it? Mostly nothing or not much. They think that more complicated means more advanced, but they keep doing the same stuff after six years they already did after six months. So nothing advanced, besides they have learned a vast amount of different movements in their hunt for "belts". This is the problem of the cult-like organisations, I guess, because one generation that hasn't understood kata teaches the next generation to become like them. There can't be progress. I think that's sad. Regarding this aspect it would be better to reduce the amount of different kata that should be taught. You don't need much kata if you understand one or two, then you might understand all – or at least it'll become easier. Instead the real principles and techniques should be taught. The problem is, that there are more instructors out there who haven't understood kata than the amount of poeple who have. I think this number is increasing. But there are many people who are opposed and keep ignoring different approaches to kata, even denying that there is more in it and shutting out new knowledge – openly opposing the attitude of the old masters! The bigger the organisation, the more of those people you'll find. There seems to be a great fear in losing reputation and prestige, I'd say. That's the most plausible explanation. On the other hand if you don't teach the great amount of kata, they will be lost someday...
  • Richard
    A couple of fellow students at the club I am part of attended a Seminar by Iain Abernethy in the UK. I have watched his first DVD which analyses bunkai for heian 1-5 and intend to go to a seminar myself. I think he has more to say about the practical application of kata than anyone I have seen. He usually has some free sampler video available on his website if you want to get an idea. My understanding is that for his approach, the practise of kata really means the study of bunkai and involves huge amounts of partner work with a fairly uncooperative partner (i.e. not what you find of youtube when you search for shotokan bunkai). Jesse, would be interested to see if Iain Abernethy's work is consistent with your view of what kata is all about?
    • Richard-san: Indeed, sensei Abernethy's ideas largely fall in line with my own research of kata and its meaning/application... although we do seem to differ slightly in some of the historical theories, strategical concepts and, above all, physical execution ;)
  • I am definitely in group 2. Part of the trouble for those that don't "get" kata is that they have only paid lip service to the fundamentals behind the stylized movements. As I have been taught, one begins by learning the kata in the style shown and practicing it that way until the detailed fundamentals become apparent. Once you can feel these fundamentals, the "style" of your kata can and will change as you align it more with your unique body type. However, the kata is the same, it just looks different. Breaking down each move, position, etc. to it's most base components allows you to rebuild them in a manner free of style and useful in fighting.
  • I am definitely in Group 2. I have found that studying different martial arts helps to my interpretation of kata/tuls/poomse/forms/whatever you call them in your system, along with dabbling in Kyoshu Jitsu. Katas can speak to the subconscious, making new ideas come up like a flower.
  • Rui Paulo Sanguinheira Diogo
    Hahaha! I was writing an email to someone about the exact same topic and you rush in with another excellent article giving me an Einstein quote to express what I actually wanted to tell! I don't know if I am type 2. If it's about your mind exploding after you have endlessly researched the possibilities of application of a certain kata sequence in various versions without being happy with it and then you suddenly recognizing a general principle in it which makes your imagination going boooooooom!, giving you a dozen of variations, which can be transfered to various other techniques, situations, giving you insight in how things work, why they work, how you can make them work regardless what comes along and stuff like that, to silently giving you a warm feeling in your belly – then I guess yes. :)
  • Dennis
    I have a background in traditional shotokan, with lots of emphasis on kata. Most of that emphasis was for kata performance in tournaments, but a good amount on bunkai. I have come to terms with the usefulness of kata practice for tournaments, but I can't figure out what I saw the other day. I recently visited a dojo in which they 'practiced' kata, but practiced self-defense moves completely unrelated to the kata they had just done. Their idea of practicing a kata was to just do it a couple of times without even a comment as to what each move was for, nor corrections from the sensei. I walked away wondering why they would even practice a kata if there was no connection to anything. They weren't even perfecting it for performance. This was pure and simple empty moves devoid of any purpose.
  • Antonis
    I would place myself in group 2 as well, but I have to point out some things. The article seems a bit "black and white" and I will make myself clear right away. It demonstrates the pompous, karate "modernists" the way they are (more or less); but truth always lies somewhere in the middle... :-) I find the article quite "soft" when it comes to the criticism of karate traditionalists. Modern karatekas, a.k.a. the guys who don t "get" the katas, are indeed these guys who so strongly rely on their physical abilities and the strength of their punch, or the ones who claim themselves to practice "real" and "practical" karate. I am wondering, who gave them the opportunity to support these opinions? My assumption is because traditionalists have gone so soft that gave them serious reasons to question traditional karate' s applicability. So, I put this question straight: If you had to choose between a teenager with strong fists and kicks, capable of fighting five or six or ten 2-minutes knock down rounds in a raw and a teenager who is more of a kata dancer, who knows twenty katas without mastering them in depth, without having thrown a single punch on a makiwara, and is only capable of earning points with deep zenkutsu-dachi kizami tsukis, who would you call a better fighter? Western people are not so tolerant and want to learn new things and get promoted fast without mastering karate in terms of katas, bunkai, kyosho, kitai, sanchin principles (breathing, moving, stance, body conditioning). And, as we know these are not all... In parallel with all the above student works with pre-organized kumite (like yakushoku kumite) and Jiu Kumite as well. Master Ryukoh Tomoyosse once said "There is a big difference between knowing a kata and mastering a kata". Many great Masters in Okinawa are known for practicing and mastering only one kata or two. In my humble opinion the biggest problem that the modernization and systimization of Karate has caused, is that it easy for a traditional karateka to loose his path, misunderstand the reason of karate as a martial/ self-deffence art and end up incapable of standing a real-life fight against an opponent who really wants to hurt him. I strongly believe, though, that a hard working karateka with a good traditional background can participate in a sparring of any rules or handle successfully a dangerous real-life situation (even without having to use his punches or nukites :-) ). Even so, we (the traditional guys) should admit that the modernists have their reason to believe what they believe and it is mostly our responsibility.
  • Opsensei
    Hello: Real karate : Kokoro, Kihon, Kata & Kumite, if you have a good kihon, you Will understand Kata, so your kumite skill will improved, sport karate or modern karate is just a short life time, instead traditional karate it will be with you for the rest of your life
  • juan manuel
    there is a Shoshin Nagamine picture where he es meditating beside a kakemono who says ¨ken shin ichi nyo¨ or karate and zen as one. If we train quuepin that in mind we could end all bullshit about kata, bunkai, and mma idiots sayng ¨ karate is useless, only works come to the octagon and strougle to death with another neanthertal¨ Ken zen ichi nyo. that´s all, so simple as that.
  • Rikuto
    I will confess to being one who didn't "get" kata, but it's not for lack of trying or willingness to understand; it's simply because I never had anyone explain it to me. I think I'm starting to understand now, though. And I'm going to try and put forth effort in learning them and trying to understand them more deeply.
  • Mushinkan
    I'm actually neither, but that's another story that I only tell in person… HA!
  • Leonardo Andres
    I personally do kata without knowing what's the purpose of it before in my highschool years. But when I was starting in college I abandoned karate for awhile and looked around on the other martial art styles. Then I'm starting learning Wing Chun in one of those days. After that I realized something, if Wing Chun is for smaller and quicker movements it is the same in Shorin ryu style of Karate based on its kata. Then I search allot about differnt katas in different styles of Karate. Know I know the importance of kata in Karate. I realized that the movements of karate kata has a deeper meaning. In my dojo, many of us have a little idea about the importance of kata in practicing Karate. We are more concentrating on winning tournaments and often neglect the traditional side of Karate,
    • Leonardo Andres
      Even now and that's why my heart breaks. I have some bad feeling about my sensei before because he didn't teach us the main purpose of kata inside our dojo. The realistic self-defense or some elements of a real traditional karate as supposed to be. Why Jesse-san why ?! Please I really want your reply :)
  • There are those here that have written about fighting. Karate is not about fighting! Each and every Kata, contains many individual or linked moves, that will allow one to defend against attack and constrain, main or kill the attacker. You don't teach juniors, Kyu grades, those kinds of skills. Learning the bunkai and then making their instantaneous application second nature, will take at least five years for the best of us. Getting a good Sensei that knows the bunkai is easier said than done. Iain Abernethy is the best start I could recommend to anybody. But he is not alone.
  • Very good article ,and comments . Iv trained for over fifty years,traveling the world, Never a natural ,which I think makes me a good teacher. I don't profess to be great at kata or know all the bunkai,but.... During this terrible time Iv practiced various kata both weapons and karate ones,every day. What I can say,hand on heart is Iv felt a noticeable improvement in every aspect of my martia arts,why I don't know,but my students have commented on my sharpness ,as I have not used theirs. This is not meant to blow my own trumpet,just passing on a tip as you do,
  • When I was a 13 year old green belt back in the very early 70’s. I sparred 2 people at the same time in class. Both were just a little older than me. I did a pinnan I form kata exactly. Even if they weren’t punching I was blocking anyway. Long story short, I won! Funny thing about it was that they both knew the same kata. God Bless you all. Don

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