Kata Technicalities

By Sensei David Johnston

(editor’s note: This article was written when Sensei Johnston was part of the AJKA)

Two years ago, when I took the position of Technical Director, I considered that the most useful thing I could do was to standardize the Kata. It was apparent that every kata, from Heian Shodan onward, showed some variation from region to region or under different instructors when within the same region. Standardizing would make it easier to judge a performance, in competition or testing, and (more importantly) would ensure that each kata maintained it’s integrity as a vehicle of technical and strategic instruction. The more I became involved with the project, however, the more like a nightmare it began to seem. And, the more I began to appreciate Nakayama’s monumental efforts in that direction. That he was not successful was due, I believe, to the size of the job (the bewildering array of diversity even within the supposedly united JKA), to the limited time at his disposal, and to the resistance he met from instructors at all levels around the world. As one senior instructor I was attached to liked to boast: “My style is my style!”. Well, and why not? Within limits, why shouldn’t there be variation?

Katas were not stamped out by machines or to be performed by machines. They were developed and transmitted by people with variable strengths and weaknesses and with variable points of view; the strategic situations they explore are similarly variable. If every detail could be rigidly standardized, katas would lose much of their historical and aesthetic richness (like computerized music compares with live performances) and they would be less useful as lessons in strategic flexibility. As for judging the main points of concern are stance, posture, rhythm, focus, concentration; all that is required of a particular technique is that it should have some respectable historical precedent and make sense in the context of the kata being performed. But as an instance, take three Japanese competitors in the same competition (The World Shoto Cup held in Philadelphia) performing the “same” kata (Gojushijo-sho); take one movement, the characteristic turn into back stance, right hand open and left hand under the right elbow; you’ll see it done three different ways. There may or may not be a slide; the right hand may be in upright knife-hand form or “Tiger’s mouth”. But, and this is what’s importance, done differently, a different situation is implied and it’s our business as students, instructors, and judges, to be clear about what this might be. Of course, there must be limits to variation. Each kata has its own character; it expresses and develops certain well-defined qualities; without limits its character would be blurred or lost. A jump-kick in Jitte would be as unnatural as a banana leaf on an elm tree; the kata would also be less convincing as an exercise in stability! Part of my job, with the new title of Technical Chairman, is to think about what techniques are acceptable in a given context and why; to debate controversial points with other senior instructors; and to communicate the results of our brain-storming to AJKA members all over the country. To this end, I plan to contribute regular articles in this news letter; I also urge member dojo’s to host seminars by visiting senior instructors, perhaps twice a year. All instructors should make whatever sacrifices might be necessary to attend the Annual National Camp. For our organization to be strong, we must communicate by all means possible: news-letters, telephones, and E-mail all help but nothing beats getting on the floor together!

Brief Biography of David Johnston

1964 Started Karate training under Hirokazu Kanazawa

1967 Britsh Team, 1st EKU Championship

1968-71 Karate instructor London School of Economics 
University of Surrey, Budo Kwai (London)

1973 Moved to USA; Assistant Instructor for 
Mnt. States Region;
Founded clubs in Vail, Aspen, & Boulder CO

1976-80 Regional Director, Completed instructors 
training under JKA

1980-88 Chief Instructor of North Shore JKA, founded 
clubs at Brandeis & Harvard Universities

1988 Moved to Calif., founded clubs at 
Univ. of Redlands, Claremont College & Pasadena JKA

1993 Technical Chairman AJKA

1995 US Team coach (kata) WSKA World Championships

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