Karate kata: History, role in martial arts, rules and scoring

Kata, in Japanese, means 'forms' and has an important place in the history of karate as well as various other martial arts.

Kihon, kata and kumite are the three pillars of karate. While kihon is the basic or fundamentals of martial arts moves, kumite involves sparring against an opponent or a partner using various martial arts techniques.

But a proper definition of kata, is, perhaps, slightly more nuanced and complicated than the other two. Here, we try to break it down and to make it simpler to understand.

What does kata mean in karate

Kata, in Japanese, means ‘form’.

Practice of ‘kata’ or the correct forms and postures constitute an integral part of a lot of martial arts training, especially ones originating from Okinawa, Japan. Martial arts disciplines like karate, judo, iaido, kenpo are prime examples.

However, kata isn’t only restricted to martial arts. Traditional Japanese art forms like kabuki (Japanese theatre) and chado (Japanese tea ceremonies) also have elements of kata practice associated with them.

Origins of kata in martial arts and integration into karate

Despite being a huge part of Japanese martial arts and culture, kata originally draws its roots from China. In ancient times, masters or practitioners of Chinese Kung Fu found it difficult to illustrate the techniques, both offensive and defensive, through words or paintings.

So instead, they developed the ‘forms’ or kata, highly-detailed movements consisting of dozens of micro-sequences, including, punches, kicks, blocks, footwork and breathing techniques, aimed to carefully archive their martial arts techniques and to pass it on to future generations.

Late in the 14th century, when the Ming dynasty sent several Chinese families from the Fujian province to settle in Japan’s Ryukyu, present-day Okinawa, they brought kata with them to Japan.

Kata was an important component in the exchange of cultures amongst the locals and the immigrant Chinese families.

In what was an amalgamation of the Chinese martial arts forms, particularly Fujian Kung Fu, acquired through kata and the pre-existing local Ryukyuan hand-to-hand fighting technique over many years, a new martial arts style called Te or Tode was formed, which would later come to be known as karate.

Kata continued to be the chief form of knowledge transfer in karate and till the 1930s, it was the only way traditional masters taught the martial arts discipline.

Kata in Karate or the Karate Kata

From the scope of karate, kata is the full repository of innumerable karate moves and techniques in their truest form, meant to be practised as they are. While some are used in kumite bouts, not all are or can be.

For Kumite bouts, certain kata moves are taken and adapted to suit a non-lethal sparring match, but in practice of kata which is mostly done solo, every movement needs to be by the book.

“Kata is like a library of karate moves and techniques. You may or may not use them in Kumite due to their complexity and fatal nature. Kata is the heritage of karate and one is not supposed to change in the original composition,” Somnath Palchowdhury, a Japan Karate Association accredited instructor, told the Olympic Channel.

“But in Kumite, you are free to use the techniques learnt in kata and experiment new moves. You are free to use any variation of techniques within the rules.”

Why is kata important in karate

Traditional karate practitioners believe mastery of kata is essential for a karateka.

It helps fine tune a karateka’s body mechanics, including muscle memory, needed to execute martial arts techniques properly.

Knowledge of kata is also essential to understand how to generate power from hips and core as opposed to the legs and arms – an important lesson for a karateka.

In addition, kata also helps in mastering proper breathing techniques required to be a successful karateka and keeping the mind focused on a singular objective.

Karate kata rules and scoring system

While in essence practice of kata is the means to preserve and safeguard the traditional techniques and styles of karate in their original form and ultimately to pass them on, it has also found its way into competitive sports.

Karate kata is performed on an 8x8 metre non-slip mat with the competitors, who are seeded ahead of the event, to wear a white karategi.

A kata competition can be either a team - of three - or an individual bout and the number of participants will determine the number of groups to be established for the elimination rounds.

At regular karate kata competitions, participants perform in pairs and are given a blue or red belt. After the two perform their kata moves, five judges use the flag system (blue or red flag) to choose their winner.

Competitors are not allowed to use the same kata twice in the same round, even in a tie-breaker.

“Kata is not a dance or theatrical performance,” say the rules as established by the World Karate Federation (WKF). “It must adhere to the traditional values and principles. 

“It must be realistic in fighting terms and display concentration, power, and potential impact in its techniques. It must demonstrate strength, power, and speed — as well as grace, rhythm, and balance.”

The competitors are judged 70 per cent for the technical performance and 30 per cent for athletic display. The contestant who gets more flags in their favour is decided as the winner.

Even though there are numerous forms of kata in existence, 102 katas are approved by the World Karate Federation and are performed at WKF-recognized events.

“Proper attitude, strength and accuracy of your techniques, understanding and knowledge of kata, these are the basic aspects participants are judged on,” Palchowdhury explained.

“Proper attitude means when a player comes into to the playing area his spirit, eye contact, posture and his state of mind are very important.”

Kata at the Olympics

With karate poised to make its debut at the Olympics in Tokyo, along with kumite, kata is also set to feature as one of the medal events.

At the Games, participants can choose to perform any of the WKF-approved 102 karate katas and a panel of seven judges will use a point system to evaluate the performances.

Participants will be judged on seven technical points - stances, techniques, transitional movements, timing, correct breathing, focus and conformance – and thee athletic points - strength, speed and balance.

With the world's top karatekas set to take part in the Tokyo Games, the centuries-old form is set for its bow.

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