The Karate River: Coping With Change

Lately I’ve been thinking about this whole “kata” issue.

More correctly, changes.

I’ve written about this before, and I don’t like repeating myself, so I’ll try to do it from another angle today, okay? We’ll see how it goes.

I’d like to think of kata, and Karate in whole, as a river.

A river flows differently in different places, right? Starting from the top of a mountain (source/sensei/creator/founder), it gradually flows downwards (lineage), passing creeks, caves, stones and turns (influences/students), sometimes going fast, sometimes slowing down (time/intensity/exposure), until it spreads out and joins the rest of the ocean.

To an onlooker, the river looks different depending on where she is standing.

The environment changes constantly throughout the river’s path. Nature isn’t constant, but it’s still the same river, isn’t it? We don’t give the river a new name every two steps we walk along it, do we? At least I don’t.

That the river constantly changes and adapts to its surroundings is nothing special to us.

But when Karate styles do the same, we totally flip out.

And for those who think this comparison isn’t justified, just think about the irony in using the word “-ryu”. You know, Shito-ryu, Goju-ryu, Uechi-ryu, Shorin-ryu, Wado-ryu, Shotokan-ryu etc… The word “-ryu” actually means flow (as in a stream or river) in Japanese.

However, we usually translate it as “style”.

That’s what initially made me make the comparison.

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

– Heraclitus (c.535 BC – 475 BC)

The mountain river roils in upwellings, leaps in splashy peaks, curls calmly in deep eddies… always having different appearances. But it’s still the same mountain river, correct?

And we all have our different favorite places in it.

If we want to fish; we choose a specific place without too much vegetation, since that suits fishing. If we want to chillax; we choose a place where there’s a nice tree with a shadow under, and preferably a lemonade stand nearby. If we want to swim; we choose a deep spot where we can jump in safely, with hot specimen of the opposite sex nearby.

But it’s still the same river.

We just conform ourselves to its different shapes depending on what our goals happen to be for the moment. And if our goals can not be met, we might actually even change the shape of the river in itself (think agriculture, watermills, fish farming etc…)

The depths of this analogy are astonishing when you start to seriously think about it.

So, let’s welcome Karate into the picture.

And let’s have a look at the topography of the river.

Your onion, allow me to present the court and jury with some compelling evidence before I close the case:

Evidence #1: No lights.

Remember when I wrote about those ninja-bunkai to Kusanku/Kanku/Koshokun, where you crouch down to supposedly hide from blood-thirsty samurai warriors hunting you in the night?

Well, there are other moves that are made for fighting in the night.

In Okinawa these techniques are referred to as “saguidi“, or “kurashin”.

Just consider this: If you are to attack your arch enemy, you would hardly do it in the middle of the day, would you? Nope, you would wait in some bush until it’s late in the night, when the chances of your hideous deed being discovered are slim. That is, unless you live in a city where, due to light pollution, it’s basically daylight all the time.

No dark spots.

Except in some parks.

However, this was not the case when these original kata, containing fight-in-the-dark techniques, were created. At that time, and even now, Okinawa (China/Japan too) was very dark in the evening. And I mean really dark, like black. A cell phone has never been as comforting.

So, naturally, since most people chose to jump you in the dark, certain techniques had to be developed to cope with these situations.

But… today we rarely consider this “darkness factor” when we search for the “original” bunkai of certain techniques. Actually, take a time out from reading this, and put all the lights out in your room.

Do it.


And imagine an opponent nearby. Now quickly check you stance, posture, feet and arm positioning, trying to understand why it is the way it is – and you have come a long way to unlocking certain…


Evidence #2: No floors.

Remember when I wrote about a virtual Karate/Kobudo tour in Shikinaen park?

Well, at one point my guide pointed out that it’s sometimes dangerous to train outside since there are stones on the ground (and you might injure yourself).

However, in “ye olde days“, everyone trained outside. That was the norm. Flat, polished, wooden floors with air conditioning and showers were unheard of.

And if it happened to be raining, well… tough luck.

In China they still prefer to train martial arts outside (you’ve probably seen clips of people doing Tai Chi in parks), never having been influenced by the Japanese budo ideals of the sacred dojo.

The same used to hold true for Karate.

And the interesting thing to note here, of course, is that suriashi/yoriashi and other sliding motions with the feet are never used when training for self-defense (= Karate) outside, since the ground is uneven, stony, slippery or something else drastically opposite of a dojo floor.

Stomping motions, stepping motions with the heel first (and such) is preferred, as evident from old-style Karate/Kobudo.

Evidence #3: No pants.

The other day I was reminded of a story where a Japanese sensei had learnt an old-style kata from his Okinawan friend and all of a sudden changed a technique in the middle of the kata!

When confronted by his Okinawan friend, (“Why are you changing the stuff I teach you?”), the Japanese sensei had replied that the technique in question must clearly be a mistake (it was a testicle grab/pull motion) since it would never work in Japan “…because people in the old days wore fundoshi”.


If you don’t happen to know, “fundoshi” is the traditional Japanese undergarment for adult males, made from a length of cotton. Before World War II, the fundoshi was the main form of underwear for Japanese adult males, but nowadays the fundoshi is mainly used as festival (“matsuri”) clothing.

So, this Japanese sensei changed the kata because he thought “it must be wrong! you can’t grab and pull somebody’s cojones when they’re wearing fundoshi!”.

However, what this gentleman failed to comprehend was that people never wore fundoshi in Okinawa.

I mean, if you were a thug in rural, ancient Okinawa, what would you rather spend your hard-earned stolen money on: fancy-pantsy underwear or a knuckle duster?


So, yet again the environment has changed.

[End of evidence.]

Okay, to wrap it up, what am I trying to say? Well, to be honest I almost forgot it myself there for a while, but I think I remember now:

The kata of Karate are not made for today.

They are not even made for yesterday.

Our traditional kata were made for another age; when it was really dark outside, when people wore/didn’t wear strange clothes, when people trained outside in the dirt, when people spoke another language (uchinaaguchi), when people were even attacked differently (ask a Chinese person to hit you, and he will raise an open hand. Ask an American to hit you, and he will raise a closed hand) etc. etc. etc.

It’s another place in the river of Karate.

And if we try to apply the methods from one part of the river to another part, we might end up with a result that is less optimal than if we were to think for ourselves and develop our own method suited for our current place in the river.

You feel what I’m saying, dawg?

Yes, I know what you’re thinking now (not those thoughts, focus now!):

“Should we… (dare I say it) change kata?!”

Well, I’d like to think that the human anatomy works the same today as it did a thousand years ago *checking* 2 arms, 2 legs, 1 head… everything seems okay!


The thing is, as I’ve tried to prove, that even though the human anatomy remains largely unchanged; our environment, social setting and – more importantly – our opportunities for using these to our advantage in a phyical confrontation (context) have definitely changed.

Scooping up a slab of concrete (the pavement) with an eiku, anyone?

(Okay, that was a bad example).

So what to do about it?

Just trash everything and restart? Burn the gi and start MMA? Retreat to the mountains to meditate on why we started on this crazy journey in the first place?

Well… (wait for it…) …I think it’s actually totally okay to change a kata to cope with today’s environment. Yes, I said it. There it is. Out in the open.

But… (here’s the catch)

Only if you know the meaning of the movement you intend to change, and are confident that your change is for the better (depending on what your desired outcome is, of course). And, seriously, how many people actually know the real application of a kata movement?

Isn’t it all just more or less (qualified) speculation?

To me, Karate is about more than that. It is about preserving, developing and spreading a culture. The Ryukyuan (mind you, not Japanese) one, to be exact. The “preserving” part consists not of being stubborn, saying “this is how we’ve always done it, there is no other way!”, but in acknowledging and understanding that yes, some moves are intended for another time and age, but we still do them as an exotic, cultural exercise.

Because it’s fun.

‘Nuff said.

And if that’s not your piece of cake, well, then clearly we are interpreting the river of Karate in different ways.

Which is totally okay!

Because that’s what makes it fun.


  • Kanbei
    Hi, Jesse san! In order to know your point of view about an interesting question, I beg you to answer this one: you have said karate is like a river and, of course, it can be viewed from different points of view; well, what do you think about McCarthy´s point of view: HAPV theory, his interpretation of kata and his study about body mechanics in okinawan martial arts? I remember you wrote about the topic several times. In fact, I remember some interesting words about HAPV theory and the famous "blinding flash of the obvious", but I´d like to know more of your thoughts and reflections. Do you remember a funny article about groundwork in Karate? All of us knew who was the sensei you were talking about... Please, tell us... Greetings from Spain! I noticed you like to quote philosophers and follow a philosophical way of thinking... I´m a philosophy teacher myself, here in spanish high school. Thank you very much! There´s someone yet interested in philosophy! I can´t believe it!
    • Kanbei-san! Well, what can I say? I love the man; his extensive historical work, enlightening ideas and pioneering framework/system. Hadn't it been for him there would have been a very different Jesse, I think! But... in the end we are different people dipping our toes into the river. Let's end it here, okay! ;)
    • Michael Wheatt
      Yes sir thank you good points or as a great man said appliable adaptability (change with change) that man was Bruce Lee .
  • Te'o
    Jesse...I don't know about all the philosophy stuff, but as a Spanish teacher in Califas...I really enjoy your use of Mexican slang - "cojones", YES!!!!! Where in your travels did you pick that up? You are truly one "vato loco chavalito"!!! And all I can say is...."Mano, ay te watcho!" And remember, the next time you step into da dojo..."hay que tirar unos chingazos con ganas!"
    • As we all know, the real secret of Karate is getting the "chicas calientes" ;)
  • James Magwojo
    Hi Jesse, Nice of you to make us think, thats always good,I note you kind of put Karate & Kata on the smae level when you are making your point, are you basically saying you cant distinguish one without the other? And another quick question if your in the mood for answering, i remember your interpretation of the kusanku move and was wondering, which in which kata are there moves could you clearly state as being intended as a night fighting move, as i have never looked at it in that light (so to speak) but i am not sure where to look. :-)
    • "are you basically saying you cant distinguish one without the other?" - Yes. Then, of course, what is kata if not bunkai? That is, if we just for a moment try to see past physical, mental, and holistic conditioning, which is what kata is all about to "normal" people - not including you and me ;) "in which kata are there moves could you clearly state as being intended as a night fighting move?" As far as I remember, the last kakete/kurite movements of Passai (Tomari/Matsumura) are often referred to as saguri (searching) -te (hands), often accompanied by the front foot moving in a circular fashion, your stylistic version may vary. The same has been said about Kusanku and Rohai (Tomari), where you lean forward in the beginning, to have better balance when feeling for an opponent. That's the ones I come up with at the top of my head... Honestly, I haven't really looked that deeply into this aspect (yet)! ;)
  • To stay in the metaphor: sometimes a branch of the river loses its contact to the main stream and becomes a stinky, moldy pool of mud. "And, seriously, how many people actually know the real application of a kata movement?" I think that's one very important point. How CAN people actually know any real application of a kata movement? What people in Germany usually declare as "Traditional Karate" developed somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, under the paradigm of competition and western concepts of body-mechanics. Of course kata was changing accordingly. So what is usually taught in Europe is a canonical set of kata, which have been modified to adjust it to the Japanese, modified to adjust it to competition, modified to adjust it to "Westeners". How do you want to get real application out of a kata that has been modified during the dawn of martial arts flicks? You know what I mean? When your not travelling to Okinawa, having the luck of learning kata that are so original, that their lines of reception can actually be traced, your kata are like quotes of Heraklitus: fragments of something lost. It's like archaeology.
    • lionel
      How sad. You're probably right about karate in Europe.... but not about the "unknowableness" of bunkai. You might try a different martial art, or find a better sensei.
      • Leo
        Haha. YOU obviously don't know what I mean. See: kata is not a fixed composition that preserves itself over generations out of its divine nature. Just look at the versions of Naihanchi/Tekki; kata changes. Stances are altered, movements are shortcut, hands are opened or closed etc. My point wasn't that bunkai would be impossible to recreate, but it's original thoughts are difficult to retrace. Especially when knowledge about pre-Japanese versions isn't given. I'm seeing kata as explanatory of bunkai, "drawing" bunkai out of kata is an act of reconstruction in my opinion. \\ Example: Manji-uke is definitely not meant as a simultaneous deflection of a kick to the groin and a strike to head (from a complete opposite direction). I can imagine it is some sort of throw, I can try out and maybe I find something what works. Bunkai redone! But if it was thought to work like this or not or if a complete different principle lies behind the movement I'm interpreting as "throwing movement", how should I know. Fact is I can't verify this, if I don't even know how the movement was done by the time the kata was defined. That's what I'm talking about. Options would be to compare to different contemporary traditions, or to develop some sort of "kata discussion" analogous to textual criticism (that's a scientific approach of literature). McCarthy is a pioneer of the last, if I remember correctly and don't mix up names again, but I think there still has much to be done.
        • Dimitris
          Me and Igor had a relative discussion recently here: the last posts. let me add my twqo cents. Since Karate nowadays is not used in order to fight but in order to exercise (how many of you had real street fights?) your body or in order to do sport is inevitable to loose/forget the original meaning. However...if you know the reason behind every is far more easy to adapt it to today's needs. Changing is very important in order to have a real martial art. Otherwise...Karate will become just another meaningless Martial-Art fossil, a collection of meaningless moves, just some moves to pump your cardio. Following the tradition is good. Taking advantage of the tradition and progress based on the existing knowledge is the best thing to do. If you insist on should exchange your car for a horse-cab.
          • Very well put. Change is important, yes. But so is coming to terms with change. I find it very important to cultivate an awareness for change, for me this means dividing original and construction. And I find historical contextualization important (that's why I love this blog so much). To acheive this you better don't dwell in traditions, clear thing, but you have to be aware of them and be able to seperate. If there are no clear lines of reception, seperation is difficult. That's my point for stating one can hardly know the reason behind most movements -if you don't create it ad hoc (which would be my second point: kata was not made to be subsequently filled with meaning, but to illustrate a practical [nonscriptual] tradition, which due to the lack of accessible and genuine tradition/wisdom can usually only be reconstructed). Apart from that I totally argree with you.
        • lionel
          Sorry if you took offense at my comment. None intended. From your example and distinction between Okinawa and Japan, I am going to guess you've been practicing that style (or derivative) that had the bunkai deliberately removed and obscured (by kata changes). As to your archaeology metaphor. Unfortunately, in such process, what many conjecture (as evidenced on YouTube) is.... well... so far removed from the reasonable that it's sad. IMO, better that they had not shared it. Peace.
  • I think you and my Shihan would get on like a house on fire :) That's pretty much his way of thinking, which is one of the reasons I like to learn from him so much. Great article, as always. xMx
  • Ketsugoka
    Fancy-shmancy underwear?? Fundoshi are just a strip of cotton cloth, period. They weren't silk (silk fundoshi just fall off) and they weren't complicated. People in Okinawa did wear fundoshi or some variants of them to practice karate or kobudo, because poor folks did not want to damage what little clothing they had in hot, sweaty workouts. They'd wear gi pants at times (underwear for cooler weather), but not always.

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