Karate Kata

Kata is an integral part of karate and is a training exercise used to improve many aspects of the martial art including technique, speed, timing and control over one’s body, as well as being a great aid to strengthening all the major muscle groups. They range from basic and intermediate kata designed to aid the karateka’s transition from beginner to black belt, to the more advanced kata listed here, which can often challenge even the most dedicated and experienced karateka.

The History of Jitte

According to Masatoshi Nakayama in his book, Best Karate, Volume 7, the name Jitte (Ten Hands) implies that one must have the strength of ten men. However an alternative theory on the meaning of the name is that it comes from the raised fists hand position from within the kata, which can be said to look similar to a type of Sai known as a Jitte that was used by the police force on Okinawa during the 19th century.

Jitte may have its roots in China which is suggested by the starting position of the left hand covering the right fist, a posture often utilised in kung fu though it could have been invented on Okinawa and just influenced by what are now seen as its sister kata, Jion and Ji’in.

It was taught as a part of the Tomari-te syllabus and has elements of Gyaku-te grappling techniques. Its main function however is to teach the karateka to defend against weapons, especially the Bo Staff, while helping to develop pliable bones and muscles.

The History of Wankan

The name is believed by some to be taken from the first three moves of the kata which can be said to resemble a crown when viewed head on, with the first two moves forming the two side diadems and the third move creating the centre piece of the crown. However many karate scholars argue that this is just a coincidence as Okinawan kings did not wear metal crowns like the ones worn by the monarchs of Europe.

Some karate styles practice a kata with the same name but completely different moves to the one in Shotokan which may suggest both are only a portion of a longer, lost original kata. Wankan, along with Ji’in, was left out of Masatoshi Nakayama’s definitive kata series Best Karate though is still taught by many Shotokan masters around the world.

The History of Gankaku

Gankaku (Crane on a Rock) is a very old kata that was previously named Chinto (Fighter/Battle to the East). According to martial arts legend, it was introduced to Okinawa by a nineteenth century Chinese sailor of the same name (though he is sometimes known as Annan) who was washed ashore off the cost after a shipwreck.

To survive, Chinto stole local crops which provoked complaints to the king who promptly sent his bodyguard, karate master Sokon Matsumura, to defeat the kung fu master. Matsumura was an early karateka from the Shuri-te style and was considered by many to be the best martial artist of his day in Okinawa but when he fought against Chinto, the two were evenly matched and the ensuing fight was drawn.

After this, they became friends and the kata Chinto and other techniques and forms from Chinese martial arts were introduced to the island. The name was later changed by Gichin Funakoshi (pictured above performing the characteristic crane-like move from the kata) but while he changed many names to make them more acceptable to the Japanese, in the case of Gankaku the name change was extra important as he wanted to remove the connotations of war suggested in the name Chinto.

The History of Meikyo

These were probably adapted by Sensei Anko Itosu who derived the moves from a much longer version of Rohai which was possibly invented by Kosaku Matsumora, suggested by the fact that it was known as Matsumora Rohai. While all three of Itosu’s Rohai kata set are still taught in some styles of karate, Meikyo is the only one on the Shotokan syllabus.

However it differs from other versions of the Rohai kata so it is believed to have been put together as a combination of all three, but when and by whom is unknown.

The History of Chinte

Chinte (Strange Hands) is one of a number of kata that Gichin Funakoshi unsuccessfully attempted to rename (to Shoin). It is thought to be a very old kata that probably has its origins in China, though it has also been suggested that it is actually derived from an Okinawan folk dance.

If this is true, some suggest that the dance symbolizes all the things a woman should know about life according to the culture of the time including child rearing and being subservient to her husband.

This is backed up by the fact that it is a form that seems to favour female karateka as the unusual style targets vulnerable areas such as the eyes where much less brute force is needed to be effective. However unlike most Shotokan kata, it consists of predominantly circular movements instead of the more common linear ones which may suggest it comes from a kung fu lineage.

The final three movements of Chinte are a series of three backward hops, apparently unique within world martial arts. What they represent is debated but they may have been introduced to get the karateka back to his or her starting/finishing mark for competition purposes as they are absent in versions of the kata practised outside of Shotokan. However, it could also be the case that they were in fact dropped by other styles precisely because interpretation of them is so problematic.

The History of the Gojushiho Kata

Gojushiho (Fifty-Four Steps) is a set of two kata (Sho/Minor and Dai/Major) that are believed to have been created by Sokon ‘Bushi’ Matsumura and are thought to have been both his best, and final addition to kata that comes from his Tomari-te system. Sensei Funakoshi attempted to rename the Gojushiho kata Hotaku (Woodpecker) but this was another instance where the name did not stick.

In Shotokan, at some point Gojushiho Sho became Gojushiho Dai and vice-versa though exactly when and why is unknown. According to one karate legend, sometime in the 1960s or 70s at the All Japan Karate Championships, a high ranking karateka of the JKA announced Gojushiho Dai then did the wrong kata.

Because he was so revered, nobody dared tell him so most shotokan karateka started reversing the name, though some, like Hirokazu Kanazawa, continued to keep them in the original order.

However this story is unlikely to be true as whoever the mystery competitor was, at least some of his opponents would have been just as highly ranked. Therefore, they would have expected to be treated fairly in such a major competition, so would not have stood for such a blatant disregard for competition rules meaning the reason for the switch in names remains a mystery.

The History of Sochin

Sochin (Tranquil Force/Strong Calm/Immovable) is believed to be particularly good for developing the internal energy known as Ki (Chi in Chinese). It may have its origins in Dragon style kung fu, later coming through the Naha-te school in Okinawa where it was taught by the nineteenth century Okinawan karate master Seisho Arakaki.

It is thought that it was then passed down to Higaonna Kanryo, another famous teacher from the Naha-te school, who in turn taught the kata to Kenwa Mabuni, the founder of Shito-Ryu karate. Gichin Funakoshi’s son Yoshitaka, an innovator in the development of Shotokan karate in his own right, spent some time learning kata from Mabuni’s son Kenzo, and as a result the Shotokan syllabus gained not only Sochin, but also Nijushiho and Unsu.

In his book, Karate Kata Zenshu, Hirokazu Kanazawa claims that Sochin gets its name from the extensive use of the stance Sochin Dachi. However it has been suggested that the stance, originally called Fudo, was renamed Sochin at some point in reference to the kata. The later seems more likely as it is thought that after learning Sochin, Yoshitaka made several changes in the late 1930s which probably included the heavy usage of Sochin dachi, a stance he is known to have heavily favoured.

This was another kata that kept its old name despite Funakoshi attempting to rename it Hakko, possibly as a result of the connection between the kata and the stance.

The History of Nijushiho

Nijushiho (Twenty-Four Steps) was previously known by the Okinawan name Niseishi (which also means Twenty-Four Steps) but was changed by sensei Funakoshi for the Shotokan style. The origins of the kata are unknown though some scholars believe that like Sochin, it originally comes from the Chinese Dragon style of fighting.

Others believe the kata was created by Seisho Arakaki, though the prevalent theory is that he learned and developed it rather than being its original source. Arakaki taught Niseishi to Higaonna Kanryo, who passed the knowledge on to Kenwa Mabuni. He taught it to his son Kenzo who in turn taught it to Yoshitaka Funakoshi, son of Gichin.

The History of Unsu

Unsu (Hands in the Clouds) is considered by many as the hardest of all the Shotokan kata and according to sensei Masatoshi Nakayama, anyone trying to master Unsu before first mastering the Heian kata, Kanku-Dai, Empi and Jion will look like “a scarecrow trying to dance”.

Like Sochin and Nijushiho, it is thought to come from Dragon style kung fu and then later through the Naha-te school of Okinawan karate, though its exact origins are unknown. Interestingly, some believe that Unsu is a kata steeped in symbolism with the moves representing a thunder storm.

The first move, so the theory goes, represents a squall line on the horizon and in the next sequence of techniques the circles on the ground drawn by the feet along with the finger strikes represents dust devils gathering as lightning strikes the ground.

The next combinations involving rapid strikes in all directions can be seen as symbolic of winds blowing in all directions and the jumping, spinning back kick towards the end of Unsu, one of the hardest moves to master in any Shotokan kata, (pictured below) can be seen as a powerful tornado.

Generally speaking, the slow movements that are followed by explosive ones throughout the kata can be seen as a calm in the storm before it ferociously blows up again destroying anything that gets in its path.