Back in 1987, I took my yondan in Shotokan karate. For the written part, I wrote about the 3 pillars of effective karate: kihon, kata and kumite.
Shihan Masatoshi Nakayama (1913-1987), spent time in China and I have been told, he was a colleague of Tomiki Shihan discussed the forming of a national Karate association when he returned to Japan. He created the JKA and we had the JAA.
In the 1950s, in a similar way to Tomiki Shihan, Nakayama formulated a sports science approach to karate. Shotokan karate and similarly Shodokan aikido developed 3 pillars. My short dissertation for my yondan, was a discussion of the need for all three pillars for a comprehensive japanese budo, in my case at that time, karate. The three pillars are of course: Kihon: training in basic, underlying principles; Kata: studying the pure technical prearranged forms and application thereof (bunkai); and kumite: sparring, both preset (kihon) and free sparring, (jyu kumite).
In the last 20 years, after leaving the karate world, I competed at all levels in kata at aikido competitions (I started competing a bit too late to be very useful in randori!). Similarly in the last 15 years, I have judged at many a kata competition, from club level through to several internationals, here in the UK and abroad, notably in Switzerland and 4 times in Japan; Katsuura and Kyoto World Taikai and at the annual Kansai Tournament and a Shodohai taikai in Osaka.
Recently, I was working in Libya. I was invited by a local karate sensei, who helps develop the Libyan national squad, to watch a selection event for the Libyan National Squad. These players will compete with karateka from all nations. Due to the isolation of Libya during the Gadaffi era, I assumed the kata would have developed national and regional idiosyncrasies: that is not the case. They looked like Shotokan katas as performed in Japan or the UK or USA or anywhere else. Why? You can only compare like with like. Players need to demonstrate an internationally understood set of principles and techniques. So, the senseis in Libya have ensured they get the international, including Japanese input. This required travel to Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey to find Japanese and regional sensei with up to date information on karate kata skill needed to reach international standards.
Meanwhile, in the UK and around the world, though there are exceptions, our aikido kata seem to represent many a dojo instructor’s individual interpretation: there seems no local, regional or national attempt to guide akidoka towards kata that will win internationally. Surely, in a competitive sport, we should be aiming at the same interpretation and goal? To be feted in your dojo as a great kata player; then, to be knocked out in the first round of a national or international tournament must be very disconcerting for the player…and the instructor. This is a ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ moment for us all.
Of course, jyu embu (free kata) are another matter for aikidoka to develop together, but even these, demonstrated in a Tomiki/Shodokan competition, should be expressing our aikido, not a random selection of aikido from a variety of lineages (let’s do a bit of aikikai, tomiki, yoshinkan and finish with some taiho jutsu…yes, we’ve all seen this mixture). As a judge, you are looking for understanding and development of our aikido, Tomiki/Shodokan. In a Shotokan karate kata competition, I would expect an explanation of Shotokan karate, not a mish-mash of techniques cobbled together for dramatic purpose. In our competitions, I would expect to see a ‘Tomiki story’ unfold in jyu embu, with techniques clarifying the principles we develop in our kihon.
Junanahon no kata
So, to get back to the Junanahon no kata (Randori no kata): These are the 17 techniques which after kata practice, are a part of our randori (kumite). To remind us: this is kata – it is not randori nor is it bunkai (applied techniques for street-fighting). As such, it is a clear and precise explanation of basic underlying principles of our randori techniques, not a simulated fight.
So, when learning this kata, we need to consider all these principles (and more) for each of the 17:
1.mushin mugamae: a state of readiness but not already planning the technique, so ‘no mind, no posture’ for tori (creator of the technique) and uke (receiver of the technique)
2.taisabaki: accurate body positioning to be most effective
3.kuzushi: breaking uke’s posture either physically or psychologically or both
4.tsukuri: correct entering – getting the movement structure accurate to create opportunity
5.kake: executing the technique
In addition, throughout the kata, you need to consider, maai (distance), metsuke (eye contact), zanshin (continuous awareness before, during and after completion of the technique) and nagare (flow). This is not a comprehensive list of what you need but ‘aikido’ is what a judge needs to see, not just 17 techniques.
When you enter this kata event as tori or uke, you need to remember you are not fighting or even demonstrating fighting. You are explaining through all your movements that you understand everything you are doing, no wasted effort, no flourishes, just simple, clear, effective aikido. Uke is your partner, not your opponent. Uke’s role is to explain how to best receive the technique.
Then, as a judge, you can watch the explanation of the techniques and make a clear decision.
Finally, you are not just demonstrating 17 ‘techniques’, you are showing budo in action, ‘Moving Zen’ as described by CW Nichol in his eponymous ground-breaking book. It is paradoxical, saying that kata is an technical explanation but also has to be budo. That is the challenge for players, working together, showing true harmony and budo spirit, whilst demonstrating accurate, efficient aikido techniques which show the correlation with aikido randori but remain kata.
So, students and instructors, when studying your kata for competition, don’t be parochial,; look outside your dojo, see what is happening and winning internationally as well as nationally, then, if you want to be an international champion, start studying what you see; just do it better!! It can only improve your aikido overall.
Paul Bonett, 5th Dan Aikido, 4th Dan Shotokan Karate