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Kata in the Martial Arts

Mark W. Swarthout

Shido Kan Kanji

When we first walk into a martial arts school, most of us were pretty, well, how should I say it, dumb, or perhaps ignorant. We didn’t know a lot about our bodies, we didn’t know how to move it, how it reacts, how strong it is and how fragile it is. We are faced with a teacher who, over a period of years, has learned much about the human body and the various abilities and limitations it has. This teacher is challenged to find a way to impart what they know to you in a manner that your mind and body can handle. The goal is to find a way to transfer the knowledge of the teacher to the student.

The simplest thing to do is say, “Do what I do!” or perhaps “Follow me as best you can.” Repetition, doing the same movements over and over, strengthens the muscles and bones involved. And it builds a muscle memory. Memories of movements that your body will do without having to think about it, an automatic reaction.

Over the decades and centuries, certain patterns have been developed that help those learning the martial arts to focus their strength and thoughts and help them to learn about their bodies. Learning these basic patterns is the first step in most styles of the martial arts. You learn the basic pattern and while you are learning you may be told what the various movements represent.

These patterns are called kata. This is a Japanese term meaning mold, model, style, shape, or form. The kanji character used is a combination of three characters, meaning shape, cut, and ground. Literally a shape that cuts the ground. The historical basis of many of these kata help provide the sense of tradition and history of the styles. And it is the differences in the kata between the styles that helps us to see the similarities and the differences.

Eventually you learn the kata and can reproduce it consistently without thinking about every little movement. Once you can do the gross movement, then your instructor starts refining your movements. Your body can do much of the movement automatically while you concentrate on getting the correct arm placement, or pulling the elbow in, or whatever the particular piece is that you need to improve.

Many of the kata used in the martial arts today have their roots in ancient movements that were recorded and practiced for centuries. Some are relatively recent, created and modified to meet the modern environment. The history, the names and the patterns have significance, some of which has been lost in history. But the similarity of some of these patterns show a common heritage, regardless of the name they are using.

New students are started with very basic drills, one or two step combinations that help one learn to separate the steps and the arm movements, developing strength and focus. The movement, the turning and the kicks help develop balance and orientation. Isshinryu has the ten basic exercises. Shorin Ryu has the Kihon kata. The Korean styles start with Hyung kata.

The chart linked to below is provided to give a listing of the more common kata currently in the karate world. It includes just a little about the relationships between styles and a bit about their history. While the history is never a certainty, what is provided can give you a sense of the age and origins of some of the same moves that martial artists are practicing today.

Note: In Japanese, a plural is not formed by the addition of an S at the end. Whether you are talking about multiple or single forms, it is kata.

Okinawa
Japan
Korea
Origin Style
Origin Place
Meaning
Anan          
Annanko          
Aoinagi          
Arakaki-Seisan          
Channan          
Chinsu          
  Chinte       Incredible hands
Chinto Gankaku     Okinawa Crane on a rock
  Empi       Flying Swallow
Gekisai          
Hakatsuru
Hakaku
         
Hakucho          
Heiko          
Ipairinpe
Suparinpei
Peichurin
         
Jiin     Tomari Te Okinawa Named for Saint Jiin
Jion     Tomari Te Okinawa Named for Jion Temple
Juroku          
Jitte
Jutte
    Tomari Te Okinawa Ten Hands
Kihon    Geicho Hyung     Basic
Kosokun
Kushanku
kanku-sho
Kosokun, Kanku Dai   Shuri Te Okinawa View the Sky
  Shiho Kosokun   Shito-Ryu Japan  
Kururunfa          
Matsukase          
Matsumora-Rohai          
Meikyo         Mirror of the soul
Myojo          
Naihanchi Tekki   Shuri Te Okinawa Iron Horse
Nipaipo          
Niseishi Nijushiho       24 steps
Okinawa
Japan
Korea
Origin Style
Origin Place
Meaning
Ohan          
Pachu          
Paiku          
Paipuren          
Oyadomari Passai Bassai Dai Bassai Shuri Te Okinawa  
Ishimine Passai     Shuri Te Okinawa To penetrate a fortress
Passai Sho Bassai Sho   Shuri Te Okinawa  
Matsumura Passai     Shuri Te Okinawa  
Tomari Passai     Shuri Te Okinawa  
Koryu Passai     Shuri Te Okinawa  
Pinan Heian Pyong an Shuri Te Okinawa Peaceful Way
Rohai          
Saifa          
Sanchin          
Sanseiryu          
Seienchin          
Seipai          
Seishan Hangetsu   Shuri Te Okinawa Half Moon
Shimpa          
Shisochin          
  Sochin       Preserve Peace
Taikyoku          
Tensho          
Unsu Unshu, Unsu       Hands of a cloud
Useishi Gojushiho Sho   Tomari Te Okinawa  
Wando          
Wankan     Japan Crown of a king
Wanshu Enpi   Tomari Te Okinawa  
Gojushiho Gojushiho Dai       54 Steps
  Ten-no-Kata   Shotokan Japan  
    Pyongan Dan     Intermediate Motion
Okinawa
Japan
Korea
Origin Style
Origin Place
Meaning

Any corrections or additions, please contact me!

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A version of this article was originally published on Suite101

Copyright 2006, Marek Swarthout