Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Structure of Kata: putting two and two together...or not

Final technique of the opening
sequence of Seiunchin kata.
I was thinking about structure the other day--how we put things together. I suppose in some sense structure is how we make sense of our lives, how we connect things. Writers think about structure a lot, I imagine. You have to when you tell a story. You can begin at the beginning, slowly and painstakingly making your way to the end in the order that things occur, or you can meander this way and that way, filling in details, providing explanations, making sure there are no loose ends, but by all appearances a seemingly chaotic or at least random order. Very few stories, in fact, seem to stick to a linear model. Writers are always experimenting with narrative structure. They have to, I suppose,because they already know the end of the story.

There's a sort of narrative structure to Goju-ryu kata as well. The problem is that the structures differ; not all of the katas conform to the same structure, which, of course, is a strong argument to bolster any research that would suggest that the classical subjects of Goju-ryu, though part of a system, were created by different people at different times. If Goju classical kata were created by a single individual at one period in history--as the Pinan kata are said to have been the creation of Itosu--then they would probably conform to similar patterns, like the Pinan katas. But they don't.
Thematic double open
hand technique from
Shisochin kata.

That being said, there seem to be certain rules that each of the Goju kata do conform to. For example, techniques which are shown twice in a kata are shown on both the left and right sides, but the finishing technique of the sequence is only shown once, at the end of the second repetition. Techniques that are shown three times are usually base techniques (as we see at the beginning of Sanseiru) or thematic (as they seem to be in Shisochin) or indicative of the number of bunkai sequences seen in the kata (as in the case of Seisan and Sanseiru). And techniques that are shown four times (as in the elbow/forearm techniques of Seiunchin) should be treated as two pairs of techniques (though Suparinpei seems to be a whole other kettle of fish).

The other element of structure that seems to be followed in all of the Goju classical subjects is that the turns and changes of direction in kata are not arbitrary but instead indicate the direction of attack and how one should step off the line of attack. And certainly there are others.

Yet even when these "rules" are applied, we still see differences in kata structure within the Goju system as a whole. Saifa and Seiunchin begin with actual bunkai sequences--though two of the opening sequences of Seiunchin are incomplete, the finishing technique being shown only after the third sequence, which in itself is a structural difference from Saifa. Shisochin and Sanseiru begin with basic techniques (three open hand techniques in one and three closed hand techniques in the other), not bunkai sequences per se, that share a thematic connection with the rest of their respective katas. Seisan begins with three sets of three basic openings, while Kururunfa sticks its three basic techniques after the openings that are shown on both the right and left sides. And Seipai begins with a complete bunkai sequence, sort of like Saifa, but only shown once.

Furthermore, Saifa has only four complete bunkai sequences, while Seiunchin has five. Shisochin has
Controlling or bridging
technique from
Sanseiru kata.
three--though there is some variation and repetition even then--just as Sanseiru and Seisan, whereas Seipai has five and Kururunfa, four.

The problem is that you need to understand the structure of a kata in order to understand its bunkai and not fall into the kind of piecemeal analysis that so often characterizes what we see on the Internet and frequently leads to questionable interpretations of kata technique. For example, the last technique of Saifa kata--the step, turn, and mawashi--is probably the finishing technique of the previous sequence, which is itself shown on both sides, beginning with the block, sweep, and hammerfist strike, rather than an independent technique or additional bunkai sequence of its own. Why? Because that's the way the "mawashi uke" technique appears to be used in all of the other classical subjects of Goju-ryu. Not proof, of course, that there isn't an exception, but a strong argument perhaps.

But structure can also "hide" bunkai, and often does in Goju kata, particularly when the initial or opening technique (uke) is separated from what should follow it, the controlling/bridging technique and finishing techniques. This is what we see in Sanseiru kata. Or, when the opening techniques themselves get split up--something we see in the four-direction double arm movements of Shisochin
One of the four double
arm opening moves
of Shisochin kata.
kata--effectively "hiding" how the opening techniques and directional changes are employed.

The question, of course, is why the creators of these kata put them together this way. There's no question that it has led to a great deal of confusion. Did they do it to intentionally hide techniques? Or is it just the most efficient and fluid way to execute the techniques? I've tried to reconstruct kata, stringing complete bunkai sequences together, and it often gets awkward or doesn't finish facing the original front direction. Perhaps it was to emphasize that sequences and combinations could be taken apart and put back together in different ways. Or perhaps they were interested in showing an escalating level of violence--that is, the second of a paired sequence shows a much more violent response. For example, in the final sequence of Saifa kata, the first side shows a block, sweep, hammerfist strike, and undercut, but the second side adds a punch, head-twisting neck break (mawashi), and knee kick. So was the intention to hide technique, or was this common structure the most efficacious and time-saving method of preserving technique? These are, of course, questions that are impossible to answer, but the importance of understanding the structure of kata is obvious.


  1. Excellent article, always giving something to rethink, by the way I´ve doing some research, my sensei was Seibun Uchima, he learned goju ryu from Teruo Chinen, Katsuyoshi Kanei and Meitoku Yagui (meibukan) and in 1984 Chinen opeend his own line Jundokan, I began my teachings in 82 and from there I remember a lot of subtle changes,so was really hard to lean the katas, I believe that this changes came from leaving IOGKF to the new line, rudely wirting was a lot more ju and less go, but it´s hard to explain in this context, then he began his own line Seibukan Goju Ryu,

  2. I also began learning kata from one lineage (Toguchi-Shoreikan) and then changing to another lineage (Higa-Shodokan). I've found it actually quite instructive in some ways. While many of the differences in the way the major Okinawan schools do kata are superficial, some of the differences actually seem to confirm certain bunkai or ways of looking at kata--that is, the kata movements may look very different, but the applications can be done the same. This may sound a bit confusing. I was thinking I might write about it actually and give a couple of examples.

  3. Very interesting article! It makes me wish even more that the old teachers were still around. So many questions and very few answers.

  4. I thought I gave the answers?!? Oh, no, just hints. Whew, then everything is still hidden. Thought I gave it away there for a minute. Have to be more careful. No, just kidding.

  5. It doesn't get any clearer if you ask me...

  6. Ryan Payne7:07 AM

    The other "structure" I've been thinking about is the Goju-ryu curriculum itself. It seems pretty universal that Goju-ryu students first learn Saifa, then learn Seiunchin. From there it seems to vary a lot with Suparinpei always at the top.

    Are Saifa/Seienchin somehow more straightforward in their structure and this is why they are early kata? You mention how Sanseiru and Shisochin have "hidden" techniques because the same bunkai is split up. Maybe this is a good reason not to teach those kata to students first.

    You ask "was this common structure the most efficacious and time-saving method of preserving technique?" If the answer is Yes, then my follow-up question is
    "do Saifa and Seiunchin demonstrate the clearest structure and are the easiest way to introduce students to bunkai?" If that answer is also yes, then hey, no wonder we teach them first.

    If it is no, then why do we see such standardization across Goju schools? Why don't we just start with Sanseiru, which has a lot of basic movements in it? Or Kururunfa, which is pretty short?

  7. The order of kata may be one of those unanswerable questions. However, by "hidden" I didn't mean that the bunkai sequence is necessarily intentionally hidden, only that because of the structure or how the kata is put together they are a bit harder to see. Seiunchin has a little bit of this itself with the first series of paired "elbow" techniques being separated from its finishing techniques, which are only tacked on to the second series of paired "elbows" at the end of the kata.

    From some students I've taught, they suggest that the movements of the different classical subjects seem to get more difficult, irrespective of their bunkai. I don't know. Perhaps the variations in order after Seiunchin suggest that after the first two, one is not more difficult than another. Or perhaps the variation in different schools only reflects the order in which different teachers learned them. Personally, though I do think Saifa and Seiunchin are a bit more basic or less violent (slightly?) than others, I think the order for the later katas is arbitrary, at least based on bunkai.

  8. Perhaps thats why Saifa and Seiunchin are taught first (after kihon and two gekisai)