The Challenges of Kata Transmission Through the Ages: Which is the Correct Version?

While fresh, after a deep dive into Okinawan karate history, due to sequestration during the Covid-19 pandemic (in 2020 btw which will validate a point I will underscore momentarily) and predicated on more than 40 years of both academic and experiential exploration and personal experience with the essence of karate-do which in my opinion is kata, like many of us committed practitioners trying to discern which is the “correct” way to perform a kata, which “version” is closest to the original, what was the real “lesson” the creator was trying to convey, what is the real “value” of the kata for today and other existential questions about the real reason one trains, and what one really needs to learn or teach, here are some reflections on the challenges inherent in this undertaking.

I hope this will be of service to some of you.

 The Limitations of the Oral Tradition:

First and foremost, we have the inherent difficulties and limitations of oral history.

Our art predates the written word, which means in many cases we are reliant on oral transmission.

Through human history, we have gone through at least three eras of storytelling; oral traditions, the broadcast era, & the digit-oral era which we are in now.

In the oral era of storytelling, it was the survival of the fittest stories that prevailed. It had to be a good story and it required a good story teller just to survive with no and subsequently incomplete written records. Over time stories get embellished (mythos) and facts get mis-remembered.

 The Destruction of Most Historical Documents Particularly Martial Arts Records:

Second, during world war II one of the biggest transgressions, beyond the horrendous loss of human life occurred when the allied forces bombed the holy hell out of many of Okinawa’s most revered establishments that held most of the written records, literally severing not just limbs and heads, but our knowledge connection to the vast storehouse of information, history and tradition that did exist, leaving only documentation and records that might reside in the homes, and dojo in the community. This left a-proportional data as some well-heeled and academically oriented, or just plain lucky systems might have more to draw from than others.

 Sensei Richard Kim in the preface of The Weaponless Warriors states, “in studying the history of karate, one is frustrated every inch of the way by conflicting testimony and a general sparsity of information…a task of Sisyphean proportions. Each of the conflicting statements, probably has some validity, and it therefore becomes impossible to erect a skeletal system that is supported by dates and events, as most histories are presented.”

Regardless of this bitter truth, some brave scholar warriors took on this Herculean task and have provided strong jumping off points for continued exploration, analysis and synthesis, yet even they are cognizant of errors of omission and commission given the very nature of the work and the limits to accurate research methodology and content. You see these errors self-corrected in subsequent editions of their own work or critiqued by scholars that follow. This is normal and part of the evolution of knowledge in human societies but…

 It gets more complicated.

 Here are additional factors that can get even the most determined practitioner and researcher to want to tear their hair out.

 False Attribution:

Some kata were created by one master, in deference to and celebration of another. For example Sensei James Miyaji developed the bo kata Kim no Kon in honor of Sensei Kim, but if you didn’t know that and it wasn’t properly documented over time, you might see Kim no kon and infer it was created by Sensei Kim.

Another example are all the kata brought over from China by the legendary Higashionna of Naha te fame. While he indeed brought them over AND certainly “Okinawanized” them such as converting the White crane open hand into the Okinawan closed fist for example, he didn’t actually create the originals but modified them for local uptake and arguably innovated with the changes to be reflective of current thinking and practice.

 Made v Taught Timelines:

When we learn of a kata and read about the era in which that creator lived, we have no way of knowing when it was created, v. when it was taught unless this is explicitly documented.  

 Variations Even in the Same Kata by the Same Creator:

Sensei Funakoshi, considered the “founder of modern day karate” left Okinawa in his 50’s for Japan and while he clearly knew many more kata (50+) only took 15, some say 16 (we can’t even agree on how many kata he took with him) to Japan.

The names and themes were modified to appeal to the Japanese sentiment and in a comparison of earlier Okinawan v. later Japanese versions of the same kata by the same instructor (Funakoshi Sensei) you see stark differences in the very same form- example Pinan/Heian.

 Another example: Chintō (鎮東) (In Shotokan, Gankaku (岩鶴)) is an advanced kata practiced in many styles of karate. … When Gichin Funakoshi brought karate to Japan, he renamed Chintō (meaning approximately “fighter to the east”) to Gankaku (meaning “crane on a rock”), possibly to avoid anti-Chinese sentiment of the time.- wikipedia

Was this done as innovation and enhancement, as his knowledge and experience lead to new insights, or was this done to be more on par with Yamato-damashi budo sentiments and aesthetics?

 Certain Eastern themes such as cloud hands, can be found across the diaspora from Tai Chi to Okinawan Te to Japanese Karate Do.

Here variations on the theme in different systems and by different instructors and sometimes by the same instructor on the same kata ex: Unsu can also cloud our judgement (sorry I couldn’t resist the pun)

 Paradigm Shifts in Learning & Understanding:

Occasionally there are not just incremental but transformational shifts in understanding that turn the whole world on its head.

What if some of these also change what one learned and practiced until something new was revealed that necessitated a fundamental shift?

Where do we account for this in the living, breathing art and artists ability to change and grow?

Heliocentrism and Geocentrism are consummate examples in this regard. (Heliocentrism is the astronomical model in which the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun at the center of the Solar System. Historically, heliocentrism was opposed to geocentrism, which placed the Earth at the center. The notion that the Earth revolves around the Sun had been proposed as early as the 3rd century BC by Aristarchus of Samos, but at least in the medieval world, Aristarchus’s heliocentrism attracted little attention.)

 Transmission, Translation, Transposition & Transcription- Errors Or Evolution?

Finally humans teaching humans and modifying techniques without compromising the underlying principles; based on student predilections, or accommodations or even stylistic differences that might make it work for a 6ft strapping youth but work differently for a 4ft aging bloke confound the situation further.

Look at the number of Patsai (Bassai) kata versions one finds based on the ryu/ha (style), instructor.

Over the short history that I have been training, I have seen two students in the same dojo, learning the same kata at the same time going off and a few years later when you see their students perform the same kata there are sometimes not just stylistic variations but frankly gross errors in comparison to the original that they learned.

Sometimes the teacher that might be exploring the theme/subject matter/principles will teach different versions to different people based on what they feel is best at that time for that student. When that gets codified as the correct version, as Saint Augustine famously stated, “the trouble has started”

You don’t have to be a modern biologist to understand the challenges with transcription errors, and we see ample examples of these in karate kata transmission. Some just plain old garden variety mistakes. Other genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

 So what do we do?
Give up on the quest for the holy grail, the fountain of youth, the original version of that particular form that makes your soul sing?

 Asking Better Questions:

In the final analysis, perhaps we can gain a richer understanding, if we ask a better question.

Remember this is an art not a science. It is designed for our soul to soar not our ego to roar.

We can go deeper, if we train to proper conduct (discipline as the path to freedom) and follow the right practice/way (do).

 So don’t lose your hunger should your quest be to validate the exactness of moves. Keep digging!

Meanwhile, as this is a living, breathing art founded in timeless, universal principles of a wisdom tradition, might a better question be about the potency of the container and its ability to evoke and unearth a rich experience from the inside for our collective growth and betterment?

 Here the sine qua non of teachers that have been able to both navigate the morass of data as well as unearth and enliven the spirit of the do/tao was and remains Sensei Castilonia, in my lived experience!

I dedicate this writing to his profoundness of knowledge and spirit. His art of inspiration lives on…

 Humbly submitted, Memorial Day 2020 (May 25, 2020)



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