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Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture
Appreciating the depth of kata

"Even after many years, kata practice is never finished, for there is always something new to be learned about executing a movement." – Shoshin Nagamine

This is one of the things I love about kata. To me if is like a great book or TV show: you enjoy it so much that you’re disappointed when it ends. The great thing about kata of course is that is never ends. There is always a new insight into the application, or the nature of the motion, of the breathing, or the structure of the body, etc. I feel kata has so much to depth that is can be an endless source of insight.

Modern practise tends to have people feeling they have “finished” with a kata the instant that they have used it to pass a grading exam. Plenty of those who are in to bunkai also fall into this trap when they have got the application to workable standard i.e. “I know what the move is for. I can make it work. The kata therefore has nothing left to teach me.”

We need to aspire to perfection, and part of that is working out what perfection is. We can get so much from kata that is a great shame it becomes something superficial such as: a way to pass gradings, a collection of martial “tricks”, a form of exercise, a way to win trophies, and so on.

I think the failure to appreciate the depth of kata is largely because it is taught in a superficial manner. However, it may well also be that students want to be taught in a superficial way? The dojo that teaches in-depth may lose students to the dojo that teaches superficially i.e. “I learnt that kata ages ago, and it only took me three months. You’ve been working that kata for how long?! Are you on some special slow learners program or something?”

How do you ensure the depth of kata is appreciated and given value? How do you ensure students enjoy exploring the depth of kata? Thoughts?

All the best,


Jason Lester
Jason Lester's picture

Hi Iain, great post and couldnt agree more.

This is why the Masters of the old only knew 3 to 5 Kata at the most, they knew how much were involved.

The problem with the western society is that we feel the need for awards and unless we are not learning say a new Kata after a few months one may feel they are not moving forward and progressing.

Having 3 Kata in any style i see as plenty, however, how many would be happy doing just 3 and what about coloured belts and progression? well this all depends on why an individual studys Karate, is it for the nice belts in which these mean nothing unless one can uphold that grade and really understands the Kata in depth that they passed.

Do individauls study Karate for the knowledge of all the Kata's? if so why? does that individual really know all the indepth Bunkai to them all, of course not its impossible for a single Kata can take a life time to study.

People seem to forget that there were no belts, gradings or tornaments at one time in Okinwawa, the masters of old studied very few Kata for self-protection.

Real fights are fast, brutal and over in seconds, so why would one want to know lots of Kata or even long Kata's? Fights do not last as long as a Kata, however one must understand why the Kata is so long. For the first few movments of a Kata should finish the attacker there and then, if not then you have back up moves to finish the job.

So really 3 short Kata like say Jiin, Chinte and Saifa would be suitable, as for progression this would be Bunkai drills every 3 to 4 moves instead of learning a new Kata.

This way the depth of the Kata is really appreciated and value given, students still get to enjoy gradings and the progression stage as well as keeping the passion of Kata & Bunkai burning.

However, this is easier said than done, one must convince students that this is a more vital training aid and more realistic way of training.

Kind regards,


Black Tiger
Black Tiger's picture

Agreed the less kata the better but what reasons for the choices of Ji’in, Saifa and Chinte Kata? Ohtsuka Sensei always stressed that all Kata lead to Chinto Kata (not too sure on the correct quote but you get my reasoning) so why these instead of say my choice below that (Thanks to Wikipedia).

But Ji'in is part of a 3 kata series (Ji'in Jitte and Jion)

Jion kata group

From Wikipedia,

Ji'in, Jion, and Jutte form a group of kata used in Shotokan, Shorin-ryu (Seiyo Kai), and other karate styles, beginning with the same characteristic kamae of the left hand covering the right, which apparently has roots in ancient Chinese boxing. Their origin is thought to be from the Tomari-te school, however Hirokazu Kanazawa speculates that the Jion kata were devised in the Jionji, the Jion temple, where martial arts were famously practiced. From there, Kanazawa believes the Jion kata were spread into the Tomari region….

Saifa - Saifa means "smash and tear". Saifa has its origins in China, and was brought to Okinawa by Higashionna. It contains quick whipping motions, hammerfists, and back fist strikes; it particularly emphasizes moving off-line from an opponent's main force, while simultaneously closing distance and exploding through them. This is usually the first advanced Goju Ryu kata the students learn in most goju kaiha, after gekisai dai ichi and gekisai dai ni……

Chinte (Japanese: "Rare Hand" or "Unusual Hand") is a kata practiced in Shotokan and Shorin-Ryu (Seiyo Kai) karate. It is a very old kata originating from China. Its mixture of standard movements and rarely seen techniques, vestiges of ancient forms, give this kata a special appeal. Particularly dynamic, with its alternating strong and slow passages, Chinte is unique also in the presence of a number of circular techniques, despite the preference in Shotokan karate for linear movements. It is a kata of close-distance self-defense techniques. The somewhat peculiar closing movements allude to the absorption of the power of the waves by the sand, which is a symbol of the return to tranquility after the violent storm ….

My Choice from what I see as completing a style with only 3 kata would be:

Chinto (In Shotokan, Gankaku) is an advanced kata practiced in many styles of Karate. According to legend, it is named after a Chinese sailor, sometimes referred to as Annan, whose ship crashed on the Okinawan coast. To survive, Chinto stole from the crops of the local people. Matsumura Sokon, a Karate master and chief bodyguard to the Okinawan king, was sent to defeat Chinto. In the ensuing fight, however, Matsumura found himself equally matched by the stranger, and consequently sought to learn his techniques.

It is known that the kata Chinto was well-known to the early Tomari-te and Shuri-te schools of Karate. Matsumura Sokon was an early practitioner of the Shuri-te style. When Gichin Funakoshi brought Karate to Japan, he renamed Chinto (meaning approximately "fighter to the east") to Gankaku (meaning "crane on a rock"), possibly to avoid anti-Chinese sentiment of the time. He also modified the actual pattern of movement, or embusen, to a more linear layout, similar to the other Shotokan kata.

Passai (Bassai) is the Japanese name of a group of kata practiced in different styles of martial arts, including karate and various Korean martial arts (Taekwondo, Tang Soo Do, Soo Bahk Do). There are several variations of these kata, including Passai sho (minor) and Passai dai (major) . In karate, the kata are known as Passai in Okinawan styles and Bassai in Japanese styles. In Korean, the kata has several names: Bassahee, Bal Se, Pal Che, Palsek, Bal Sae, Ba Sa Hee, and Bal Sak. The kata focus on the idea of changing disadvantage into advantage by strong and courageous response, switching blocks and differing degrees of power. The feeling of kata should be precise, with fast execution of technique and attention given to appropriate balance between speed and power. The Passai kata are usually classed as intermediate kata.

Gojushiho (lit. 54 steps) is a kata practiced in karate. In some styles of karate, there are two versions of this kata - Gojushiho Sho and Gojushiho Dai. An advantage of the two versions of the kata is to better master the difficult techniques presented therein, but not without facing some confusion, for many sequences are the same and others only slightly different. The embusen of both Gojushiho Sho and Gojushiho Dai are nearly identical. Gojushiho Sho begins straight off with a wide variety of advanced techniques and, as such, is highly recommended for study. Gojushiho Dai consists of many advanced open-handed techniques and attacks to the collar-bone.

Jason Lester
Jason Lester's picture

Hi Ken,

i was using Jiin, Chinte, Saifa as examples because they are short Kata, one could simply study Pinan Shodan, Pinan Nidan and Pinan Sandan, again as examples and they are short Kata but also have all one needs to defend themselves.

Even if one studied Pinan Shodan / Heain Nidan in depth for 5 years this Kata alone has all the self-defence techniques one needs to defend themselves. However, this all depends how one approaches the study of Kata and Bunkai.

When in doubt about how many Kata one should know or learn, simply remember this quote from Karate Do Kyohan:

Karate is properly applied only in those rare situations in which one really must either down another or be downed by him. This situation is experienced possibly once in a life time by an ordinary person, and therefore there may be an occasion to use Karate techniques only once or not at all.

Kind regards,


Gavin J Poffley
Gavin J Poffley's picture

Reading through the above comments got me thinking. We have some very long kata (gojushiho, suparinpe, kushanku etc) and some much shorter ones (naihanchi, saifa, the pinans etc) as well as those in between. One could think of many reasons for the differeng length, e.g:

- Some kata just contain more material than others (probably not too controversial but does that mean they are not as well designed. If they represent a whole system as Motobu implied then is that system less comprehensive?)

- The information in some kata is more condensed than in others (naihanchi springs to mind here!)

-  Some kata focus on a particular aspect of combat (e.g. naihanchi for clinching, pinan sandan or seiyunchin for grappling, gekisai for striking etc) while others are more holistic and thus need to be longer (e.g. kushanku)  

- Some kata have been artificially lengthened or shortened over time (e.g. the first half of Suparinpe where everything is repeated in 4 directions)

As most kata were designed by different individuals at different times it is not really surprising that the length and structure would vary quite a bit, even if they were all part of the same broad tradition. One would imagine that the teachers who practiced and taught the longest, most in depth forms would only really have one or two kata, while other teachers might know more shorter ones.

Jason Lester
Jason Lester's picture

Hi Gavin, great reply.

Im a firm believer that all Kata have the above, however,  to discover and explore all the above, one must study a single Kata for many, many years.

I love all Kata and do not have a favourite, the Pinan / Heian Kata are classed as basic Kata for beginners but as we know there is a lot more to them and worthy of deep study.  they have everything one needs to defend themselves.

Take a look below and what would be right or wrong with the following?

Pinan Shodan / Heian Nidan (5 years study) 1st Dan

Pinan Nidan / Heian Shodan (2 years study) 2nd Dan

Pinan Sandan / Heian Sandan (3 years study) 3rd Dan

Pinan Yondan / Heian Yondan (4 years study) 4th Dan

Pinan Godan / Heian Godan (5 years study) 5th Dan

If one was studying Karate for self-defence the above would be an ideal training syllabus and i cant see anything wrong with having the Pinan's for Dan grade Kata's.

What do others think?

Kind regards,


stephen's picture

Hi all,

 Just catching up with this conversation so I might be running a little behind...

Three kata.. . using the wado canon (because that's all I know) then it would have to be naihanchi, seishan, chinto.

Naihanchi for training posture and power generation; seishan progresses naihanchi further, includes rooting and softening, changes in tempo and direction; chinto - yes, for me the *the* kata, a complete system. So we have two "fundamental" kata and a key kata. One lifetime for each :-)

Take a look at the kodo ryu guys, they only have three empty handed forms  - sanchin, tensho, naihanchi (although their  naihanchi is an amalgamation of the three split kata). They also have a couple of weapn forms.

My kids' class is somewhat chaotic to the point where kata becomes difficult with them, so the three kata I teach kids are sanchin, tensho and naihanchi. The kids love the "five animals" aspect of the tensho that we do :-D (The rest of our kids' training is exercise, pad work and pairs work).

Regarding the pinans.... yes they are a distinct possibility, but you could also argue "why not just kushanku and chinto".  However... there are movements in the pinan forms that don't appear anywhere else.

I regard the "temple forms" as being somewhat  akin to super-pinans, although I don't teach them any more.

Mr P
Mr P's picture

If I was sticking to three in depth katas to study in shotokan I would definatly have bassai dai, kanku dai and hangetsu. Solid katas with broad range of techniques.

Jason Lester
Jason Lester's picture

How many of us would really be happy just studying 3 Kata?

Hand on heart knowing how important and how much is involved with Kata i would be more than happy todo so, however, knowing a total of 18 Kata picking just 3 out of the 18 wouldnt be easy.

Like many the Kata's have been drilled into me and cannot forget them so easily, i can go months without doing a Particular Kata and still go through it with ease.

I teach full time and have a structured syllabus like most schools so students advance etc, however, i feel sometimes i am misleading my students by doing the whole grading thing. this is simply because gradings really dont mean anything, its important to have a progression system but this can be done with a student say wearing a white belt for 5 years and doing a single Kata for that time.

I feel when Karate went to Japan and the so called grading structure was introduced it was a recipe for disaster, although it spead worldwide look at how watered down Karate has become and although it is still proberly the worlds number 1 Martial Art or most popular the very true meaning of Karate has been lost.

It all seems tobe about making money, fame, glory, who's the highest grade and competitions. if the Masters of old were alive today would they also be cashing in on the popualrity of Karate or would they be happy doing what they did, simply teaching Karate as a Martial Art, having very few students and having there wooden hut as a Dojo in their garden?

Knowing many Kata is great if you have devoted your life to Karate and study and train every day, even then one could argue the point of knowing many Kata. And what of students of Karate who train once a week for an hour, obtaining a Black belt over 4 to 5 years and knowing 12 Kata. Does the grade obtained really mean anything??

Yes ive rambled on a bit here and no offence ment but surely i am not the only one who feels the same???

Kind regards,


stephen's picture

Yes, if you know a fair number of kata, say at least a dozen, you can spend your entire life being obsessed with kata taxonomy, and it would drive you crazy. Not really a good thing when you consider karate is also for health and is considered "moving zen"!

The blunt answer is, "you do style XYZ, shut up and get on with it". I guess in forums like this there are a fair number mavericks and  off-beat characters laugh who for whatever reason walked away from the mainstream organisations and political and stylistic limitations. Therefore people are free to teach and train as they please, so this question over how many kata to study must come up quite often.

Back to the original topic, is it possible to know a greater number of kata and still have depth? If we separate ourselves from the number of kata and instead consider the depth of karate as a whole, then yes you can can train in "Karate" all your life and in great depth whether you have three or three dozen kata. Kata is kata, and is only part of a bigger picture.

I would suggest that to have a syllabys with only a very few kata is going to mean the teacher must have a *lot* of knowledge to pass on. Big kata lists help fill the time between gradings rather nicely and makes up for a lack of in-depth knowledge.

And another idea... if we go back to doing just a few kata in depth, do we have to restructure  classes, as in reduce number of grades, change the requirements for grades, or go the whole hog and get rid of belts... and  uniforms (although I do suggest wearing *something* to prevent awkwardness). Is it that the modern structure of karate needs to have a greater number of kata?

Is there anyone here who either practices or teaches, say 8 or fewer kata? It would be interesting to share experiences.

Jason Lester
Jason Lester's picture

Hi Stephen,

i think your right about the modern structure and the need for the great number in Kata.

I know a total of 18 Kata but only teach 8 Kata up to 1st Dan, this is more than enough and works well, having a few Kata one does not have to restructure the class so to speak or reduce the number of grades.

As i mentioned above with few Kata one could replace Bunkai drills which is far more important and valuable than having a large number of Kata.

I agree with what you say about the depth of Karate, this all depends on the instructor and their experience however. it is possible to have a selection of Kata and still have depth.

lets look at reality and the human body for a second: when a real fight breaks out the human body will instantly go back to it natural fighing instincts, FISTS flying, KNEE STRIKES  and COVERING the HEAD if we are loseing and taking a beating. we are all born with that natural fighting instinct and no matter how mush training we have had it will always take over.

How many of us for example have used open handed techniques in an all out fight?

I would recommend studying Kata closely linked to those natural fighting instincts, if we think about it the Pinan / Heian Kata are most suitable.

I think one should start with the Pinan / Heian Kata and finish with them, after all these 5 Kata are indeed advanced Kata depending on how they are approached.

Michael Hough
Michael Hough's picture

stephen wrote:

And another idea... if we go back to doing just a few kata in depth, do we have to restructure  classes, as in reduce number of grades, change the requirements for grades, or go the whole hog and get rid of belts... and  uniforms (although I do suggest wearing *something* to prevent awkwardness). Is it that the modern structure of karate needs to have a greater number of kata?

Is there anyone here who either practices or teaches, say 8 or fewer kata? It would be interesting to share experiences.

I only have a couple informal students right now, so I can't tell you how well the following method is going to work, but here's what I've decided to do for the club I'm starting:

I am not going to key kata to rank. We will all be working on the same kata for an extended period of time. I simply have a different set of expectations for beginners/intermediate/advanced students in terms of quality of movement and depth of understanding. For instance, a beginner should be able to perform the kata more or less properly, and demonstrate the primary applications for the moves. An advanced student should have a much more refined kata, and in application practice, should be able to flow back and forth in the kata, demonstrating primary and secondary applications, combinations, alternate strategies, etc.

Theoretically, I could do this with Naihanchi and Kushanku (which, at present, are the only kata I've investigated to depth) and call it good. But I'll probably add the Pinans and Passai, just so that my black belts know more or less the same things everybody else does. To do this I've got a lot of work to do, though. I've been working on Naihanchi pretty seriously for over a year and it just keeps getting deeper. If it were just about me, I could probably stick with just this one for quite a while. I'm not quite up to my own "black belt" standards just yet.

clouviere's picture

I could not imagine a successfull commercial dojo surviving on only teaching 3 kata.  Or requring a single kata being studied, exclusively for 3 years as we are told the custom was in Okinawa.  But, a non-commercial dojo, private students, or the other custom of teaching in public one way and teaching in private another, would be quite achievable.

My personal journey has taken me from a rather standard JKA influenced Shotokan club in public to a rather private Chibana Sensei Shorin-ryu lineage.  Publicly I support the Shotokan model, we learn a plethora of kata.  With very little depth.  And yes, I know quite a large number of kata.  And at this state new kata sequences are easy to learn.  So, in affect, learning the 15th Shotokan kata just takes a little time and memorization.  No, I am not suggesting that I "know" the kata's true teachings and meanings and depth.  But nor am I required to for public "kata" success.

In private, I have not so much as ran any other in the last 8 months other than Naihanchi, Itosu no Seisan or Itosu no Passai, all from the Chibana lineage.  All of my study and work has been from those versions of the kata.

I am privately only concerned with those three kata.  And do not expect myself to even put an ounce of thought into another kata for the next couple of years.  And when I teach at the Shotokan Dojo I belong to...I teach from what I have worked on privately.  I link the techniques and principals back to what we are doing in Shotokan.  Yes, at times that means taking on a entirely new subject, but most of the time, there is a coorelation that is not being utilized.  A technique from Itosu no Passai has a cousin in Bassai Dai, though that cousin has lost its way in my opinion, it doesn't make it any less valueable, and with a little intervention is useable.  And the students can quicly put it to use, doing so without much arm twisting.

Once, during class that I was teaching, I ended the class with a conversation about kata.  About exactly what Iain brings up.  Depth.  Value.  And I pointed to a picture of Funakoshi Sensei on the wall and told the class that from what we understand, his first kata was Naihanchi Shodan, our Tekki, and that he worked on that kata for 3 years before moving on to the next in the series, ultimately spending 10 years on all 3.  Their eyes got wide.  Adults and older teenagers balked at the idea of spending so much time on one kata, much less 10 years on 3.

But over time a couple have expressed, privately, that they have lately really put more effort into one of the kata they are learning.  A couple of our young purple belts have expressed the desire to truthly learn one kata.

So I guess to answer the original question:  My thought is, for you guys that have schools, with light bills, and insurance bills, etc.  Perhaps it can be done, but you'll need to find those students with maturity, honor and a desire to learn real karate.  And just like Chibana and Kyan Senseis, perhaps you'll have to teach them privately and focus on the core 3 kata that you feel best produces fighters.

If I had to pick right now, I would probably choose Naihanchi (the complete system), Itosu no Seisan and Kusanku Dai.  But I might change that once I have spent time on the Chibana lineage Chinto.  We'll see.

I will close this very long post with this, I feel that there is hope.  I think that although it will take time, there is a hunger, even in the heart of the American Shotokan world, for true karate.  I see it every Tuesday and Thursday.  Sure, it's only a couple students, but really, what more would we expect.  Even the vaunted Gracie's have depth, teaching primarily self-defense until blue belt, then getting into the meat of their system.  Acknowledging that most students will not have what it takes nor the desire to really dig into their system, and will likely leave their study.  They recognize people are people and that true martial artist are not the same as those that think they want to be.  Perhaps we can take a page from them, and from Chibana and Kyan Sensei's, do the best we can, show people a hint of the life protection arts we have, and when a student does show themselves mature, trustworthy, honest and desirable, then we open the world we have found to them.  One kata at a time.


Mark B
Mark B's picture

This is a great subject and some excellent points have been raised.

One thing I do think we need to clarify is what is meant by studying a kata. The usual view seems to be if you spend a long time on one form, find an application for each element of the form, then maybe a second then a third then this is deep study, and compared to the vast majority of karate scools out there it could be considered so.

I consider kata study to be a physical thing, so finding a nice application is one thing, but until that idea for an application has been tested as honestly as safely possible then really it is just an idea. I have been studying Naihanchi for at least four years, on occasions I have come up with an application that seemed sound ,and was, against a passive opponent. Only when tested in a more realistic fashion did the application prove less effective. The study really needs to incorporate that level of honesty. I have done this with Naihanchi and feel comfortable with my ability to apply the techniques and lessons the kata shares, but the job isn't done because the practice never ends.

Then we get the question how many kata, which kata.

In my opinion one will do. I chose Naihanchi and it gives me all I need for civilian self protection allied to awareness, avoidance, de-escalation, pre-emption. The reason I say this is because kata only becomes relevant if the self protection steps fail, ie. the range reduces from conversation range to close to extreme close quarters.

The kata you choose is up to you, any one is a complete system in itself.

I am currently studying Jion, for interest, because I run open sessions and to expand my students breadth of knowledge but for pure combative reasons Naihanchi is my choice. In my study of Jion I have at least fourteen applications to the end of the second 45degree double soto uke-maegeri-threepunch sequence. There is enough info in just that short sequence of movements to deal with most realistic eventualities. With that in mind, and my assertion of physical practice to a high standard I struggle to see how I could study, practice and drill three kata to that depth.

I've studied Wanshu/Enpi, the same with Passai/Bassai Dai to a decent level, two or three applications for the entire forms, I run these as open sessions but I haven't drilled them to the same level as Naihanchi. I will do the same with Seishan, Chinto and Niseishi. Its my job to share these ideas with my students.

This brings me to the subject of what People want. It does seem to be the case that if your training is narrow and deep, hard and honest then student numbers are low. My syllabus has only five kyu grades before first dan, so they don't come around that often. Naihanchi kata is done on every grading up to Nidan and ONLY Naihanchi Bunkai Oyho is practiced under grading conditions, so my students get many years improving their kata and practicing applications both passive and applied.True my class numbers are small but the practice is intense and the level high.

I do teach the kata Passai, Seishan and Chinto up to Nidan. Sandan introduces Jion and Yodan Wanshu and Niseishi- but in training I only throw applications for those kata as ''treats'', a change of scene, that is the pure fun and enjoyment element of training.

All the best


stephen's picture

"What people want"... now there's  a question! I struggle to find students, and when I get them  I struggle to get consistency (especially in the junior class where it is all about managing parents, not kids!)

Perhaps it's just me!

Or perhaps karate has become a victim of public perception which in my experience is trapped in the 70s. Gyms, fitness-based kickboxing, MMA, etc are the current trends and karate with its white jimjams looks quaint and old fashioned. 

But not all karate is the same. I walked away from what you might call "mainstream" karate. It has been quite a journey bringing in practices from other arts which IMHO perhaps used to be part of karate (see the thread on FMA!)

I think it is possible to learn a variety of kata and establish a base of good workable basic applications on a surface level, whilst developing the necessary underlying skills and techniques for further study before moving on to more in-depth training. Training shouldn't be limited to learning the kata and "doing" applications, but also studying the underlying engine of what makes them work. Once you have that you can really begin to motor!

Bunkai shouldn't just be about "what does this do", but also "how does it work?" I think that opens a whole new world of exploration and that is where we get into depths.

Interesting question.... if you learn a number of kata then explore one or two in greater depth , does that give you immediate benefits of further knowledge in the kata which you don't spend too much time with?

Jason Lester
Jason Lester's picture

Hi Stephen,

i think you have hit the nail on the head there, i do indeed believe it does give immediate benefits for the soul reason once the light bulb has been switched on, in terms of finally understanding how a Kata / Bunkai works, the stage is set and makes the other Kata so much easier to explore and train with.

Hi Mark, lol, yes, what do people want???

most people who just want fitness go to the Gym, however, isnt it interesting how those who want just self-defence will go to a reality based system like Krav Maga etc, these individuals wont even look at Karate or step foot near a Karate Dojo. and this is simply because of how Karate is put accross, a sport, punching and kicking and competitions etc.

Now what does it say when when these reality systems are pretty much jammed full of students and Karate Dojo's have very few students???

Its important to find out what a new potential student wants from the outset and make sure you give it to them, even if it means opening another class just for self-defence and Bunkai etc. Not everyone wants to do the whole part of Karate regarding the Kata's, people sometime's just want to learn self-defence, a point not tobe forgotten.