Judo Oyaji on Kata

August 1, 2017

How could I resist a direct shout-out?

I liked your Kata section.  You did a good job of pointing out kata as a learning training tool, and identifying very basic kata, such as uchikomi or other drills (I am sure a lot of people don’t realize that).  I would say that the biggest difference between these and the “formal’ kata such as nage no kata is the amount of information they contain. 

That is, in uchikomi or other drills you are generally practicing a very simple kuzushi (especially in terms of static uchikomi) and the tskuri.  You are drilling it into your body and brain so it can be done in an instant. That is the strength of kata, to drive those movements down to the subconscious level so they just more or less emerge when you call upon them rather than having to think through them step by step.  Every throw you learned went from doing it A-B-C to an integrated whole.  This is the process of kata.

The more complicated “formal” kata contain many more layers of information.  Kata is interesting in that it is not only a training method, but a way of storing information.  That is why there is such strict adherence to the way it is done.  As you learn more, you actually come to see more in the kata.  Nage no kata not only contains information on the mechanics of the throw, but also distance and timing and provides examples of recognition and response to generalized situations.  After practicing nage no kata for a while at a pretty intensive level I found myself doing uki otoshi in randori.  It was not the three steps and throw, but rather as they came in for a hip technique, I drew back- causing them to become over extended and off balance, and then did uki otoshi.  My brain was able to generalize the situation, i.e. that uke was coming towards me (how different is that than being pushed across the mat) and apply the training I had.  The situation presented in kata may seem somewhat odd or stilted, certainly nothing you are very likely to see in randori or shiai (at least in an obvious way), but they are not meant to provide responses to exact situations, rather they present a generalized situation and response from with you can build to responses to other similar situations (Though I have thrown people in tournaments with uchimata straight out of nage no kata).

Historically (before 1860), Japanese martial arts were pretty much just kata and fighting.  This is much like modern military training.  You do a whole series of “immediate action drills” over and over so you can respond instantly in combat.  You instantly respond to an ambush, or you can put a machine gun into firing order while you are literally crapping your pants because there are bullets flying at your head.  You might think stereotypical responses to situations is a risk, however you also need to consider the need instant response.  I have also found your brain is surprisingly capable of taking the basic information and applying it to a similar situation effectively.

With the advent of relative peace in the Edo period (after 1600), there was less actual warfare (though still plenty of violence on a personal level) so the ultimate test of techniques was less frequently encountered.  Some (though not all) arts were considered to have lost their way, with no actual combat, the intent of their training was lost and they became empty dances. In times of frequent conflict quality control was swift and usually lethal.

  In response to this, some arts developed limited forms of free practice (in fact this is where Kano sensei got his idea for randori).  However, though it would seem an advantage for training, to be able to do free practice without killing each other you have to limit the techniques or the degree to which they can be applied (i.e. pull your punches).  In a real combat art this can have bad effects, you may learn to take risks that in randori only result in getting smacked with a wooden sword, that would get you killed in a real fight.  Most of the techniques were intended to be lethal so they could not be practiced full on (not more than once per uke anyway), so it was either pull you punches or modify the technique.

Kano sensei’s solution to this was very interesting.  He made the three central pillars of Judo training kata, randori, and shiai.  Kata served to teach the form, the basic shape and principle of the techniques, randori provided an opportunity to practice them in a spontaneous manner, to literally “seize from chaos” the opportunity to apply techniques.  Shiai was to be the test, have you learned the techniques well enough to apply them in an unplanned, stressful situation.  Shiai was originally intended to be a teaching tool, however it was easily adapted to competition.  To make this system possible, Kano sensei sacrificed some of the combat effectiveness of the techniques he chose for Judo, but then again fighting was no longer the main point.

The “formality” of kata seems to bug a lot of people.  One of the reasons that people really got this idea has to do with the concept of embu.  An embu is a demonstration that typically is done for the gods and anscestors, but the rest of us get to watch too.  Since kata was how the schools trained, that was what they demonstrated (there were even fake kata to hide the secrets of the school from the public).  Judo kind of carried on with that idea.  As the emphasis on competition increased, the amount of kata people saw declined, especially in the U.S. where it was rarely taught anyway, so people go the idea that kata was for show.

Everything in kata has a purpose.  The bows at the beginning are intended to make you concentrate and pay attention to detail, as well as learn to observe and respond to the movements of your opponent.  The knee scoots in katame no kata are exercise for the hips (try doing it for 4 hours and see what you feel like) plus there are important principles of how to move around on the mat.  The specific distances are intended to teach distances and timing (number of steps is more important than actual measurement). In some kata you change distance to put yourself outside of immediate risk of attack when changing positions.  There are many lessons contained in all of it.  That being said, the bows at the beginning and end could be done in a more abbreviated fashion, but how much time does that really save? 

Kata competition, you have expressed some of the same misgivings that I have had about it.  I have competed (and won medals) at the nationals and was on the team that went to the World Kata Championships in 2014 and 2015.  As I understand it, kata competition was more or less invented in the United States by Keiko Fukuda sensei.  Her intent was to increase the number of people practicing kata and increase its popularity.  International competition really took off after 2008 (?) when the first world championships was held.

How do you judge a kata?  That is a very good question, basically it comes from the same way a teacher evaluates a student’s kata.  Did the techniques work?  Was there intent?  What errors are present?  In teaching and describing kata there are a number of landmarks that help define the shape of the kata, such as “uke steps forward pushing tori back”.  These landmarks were identified as places were points could be deducted for errors.  There are also more qualitative evaluations, was there really kuzushi, was it a real attack, did uke jump, etc.  In the IJF system that the US is currently adopting, you start out with a score of 10 for each technique, then points are deducted for minor, medium or major errors. Then the whole number points is totaled at the end to give a score.  The severity of the error is supposed to reflect how much it affects the riai (central principle) of the kata.  In some ways it is like evaluating a throw in shiai in the old scoring system-Ippon =force, speed, control, on the back, Wazaari= missing one component, Yuko missing 2, Koka missing 3 .  You mentioned diving competitions, it is actually somewhat similar to that or figure skating, at least in principle.

One of the major problems of using competition to help popularize kata is that it fails to pull kata back into the mainstream of kata training.  It remains the province of specialists, perhaps there are more specialists, but is still something “those kata guys” do.  Not “real Judo”.  Competitions can also cause damage to kata.  To maximize their scores people focus on hitting the specific points of evaluation, forgetting about the point of kata.  You can see plenty of basically empty kata, no intent, getting high scores.  This is a failure of both teaching and training.  Maintaining the intent of the kata, not “I raise my hand above my head at about a 45 degree angle” rather “I am going to smash him”. 

The primary reason I compete in kata tournaments is because it is exciting and fun.  That was the main reason that I do shiai as well (though not very frequently these days).  It also has a positive training benefit of adding some pressure to kata practice. 

If you want to see what a kata tournament looks like I have made a couple of short videos of tournaments I attended



One of the inherent difficulties with kata is that it sucks for a quite a while before you really start to enjoy and make new discoveries from kata training.  Kata requires repetition.  If you never get beyond the point where you are struggling to remember what is coming next you are unlikely to having any big insights regarding kata.  So basically you just have to do it.

Another frequent failure in kata teaching is to worry about too many details too soon.  This leads to nitpicking where a student cannot do anything without being corrected.  It is a very frustrating experience.  A teacher should start with broad terms, allow the student to grasp them, then tackle another layer. One of my teachers refers to it as “peeling the onion”.

You mentioned Don Draeger in your podcast, I suggest you get his book “Judo the formal techniques”


It is the best treatment of nage no kata and katame no kata in English, and also contains a lot of things about the general practice and principle of kata. You mentioned and interest in katame no kata, this would be a good place to start.

Your history section was interesting.  Just a note, though he didn’t seem to have a problem with challenge matches, Kano sensei did not tolerate prize fighting.  One of the primary reasons was that this was viewed as low class, and he was trying to present a positive image for Judo.  Of course the chance to make a little money was quite tempting for many Judoka and some were expelled for prize fighting.  It is possible that Mitsuo Maeda was kind of laying low in Brazil during the period he taught the Gracies because he was on Kano sensei’s shit-list for doing some exhibitions and prize fights. 


Judo Oyaji