Quantity or Quality?
copyright © 2008 Kim Taylor, all rights reserved
I've got a buddy who just started wondering, not for the first time,
what his desire to learn yet another obscure koryu really meant. Is it
because he keeps meeting folks who say "have you learned this-or-that
set yet" while he's still banging away at a more basic level?
Yeah, that's probably
what it is. Who wants to be told they don't know something? Who wants
to feel that they may be missing some esoteric tidbit that will
suddenly make it all clear?
Is knowing more and more dance steps the way to do that? At some point
in everyone's koryu career they confuse the number of kata they have
memorized with the knowledge they have. The more schools, the more
kata, the more esoteric facts the better. And of course all the better
to be able to say "hey I know a kata you don't so I must know more than
You grow out of it.
Bragging Rights vs Getting it Right
Well OK some people never grow out of it, they're the same people who
never listen to their sensei when he says you can't chase two rabbits
at the same time, or that it's better to understand one kata than to
dance through 5.
But aside from the basic confusion of quantity over quality, what else
does this desire to learn more and more tell us? Mostly, humans like
secrets. That's part of the "I know something you don't" mentality and
it always makes us feel a bit more special if we know some fact someone
else doesn't. The problem with secrets and with rare and special kata
is that we don't dare let them out. If you show someone your secret
kata they will steal it.
Concentrating vs Collecting
Of course I can always claim some specially deep knowledge of that now
not so secret kata which runs deeper than what you saw, but in order to
get that special deep knowledge I'd better be concentrating on that and
a very few others and not spending all my time memorizing more dance
Let's face it, if you know 100 kata and you're not 80 years old, you
know them at a pretty superficial level. The fact that you have to
lower your hips in this school, rotate them square and higher in that
one, and slide sideways in the third will pretty much guarantee that
you're doing more thinking than doing. Your knowledge will remain at
the surface where anyone with a bit of body-control can be at your
level in a very short period of time. They can mimic the movements as
well as you can.
Hey, I said we all go through this phase and I meant it, I once knew
enough different iai kata to be able to demonstrate one after another
for a couple of hours without repeating anything. It didn't take me
more than 2-3 years to figure out that having 6 different ways to
perform what was essentially the same kata was a bit silly. It's not 6
different schools and 6 different kata, it's the same kata done 6
If you can do it one way, you can do it 5 others with very little
effort. Best to concentrate on one way and understand it from the
inside out, then just do the other ways when you need to do them. For
example, let's take a very simple iaido kata, you draw and cut
horizontally, then cut vertically, shake the blood off and finally put
the sword away. From that one explanation I can probably remember 12
"different" kata. Now add draw and cut at an angle and you've got
another 12 or 14 kata. It gets silly, eventually you start to realize
there's a lot fewer ways to swing a sword at someone than you thought.
Oh but this kata is only taught to menkyo kaiden...
Never having been given such a thing, I can't say for sure but really,
do you think there's some secret new fundamental movement in that kata
that lifts your practice to the menkyo level? Perhaps a more likely
explanation is that it's a symbol, maybe you also get a secret decoder
ring and a whispered mantra as well. There are certainly schools out
there that teach different sets of kata at different levels of rank and
you get a new rank with each new set of kata learned. What if I know
all those kata, can I give myself that rank? What would that mean?
No, leave the surface knowledge to the dilettantes and get on with the
long slow process of wearing into your bones those few kata at the core
of your school. The next time someone says to you "hey do you know this
set yet?" Ask to see the first kata you both learned, the one you do
each and every class, the one sensei keeps going on about ad nauseum,
and take a look.
Well, does the fellow know more than you?
The Revenge of the Short Timers
I've occasionally heard complaints from students who have gone to Japan
and spent many years there that other students come over for a short
visit and get taught dozens of kata beyond what the long-term students
are getting taught. "I've been here for 2 years and sensei has only
taught me the first 5 kata but this guy is here for a week and he gets
taught up to number 24".
Let me tell you a secret. I sometimes get asked to teach folks who do a
different martial art some sword. They aren't going to be long term
students, they're just curious and want a little taste. What I do is
let them choose to either "really learn one kata" or to "learn a whole
set". Almost inevitably they choose a whole set because they want to
see the range of stuff in the school. I'm happy with that because
teaching a bunch of dance moves is very easy, teaching a single simple
kata for two hours is very difficult. The students are happy because
they "get a lot".
They get very little in fact, they won't remember a tenth of what I
taught them, and even though they know all the moves of all the kata by
the end of the practice, they will have a hard time remembering even
one of them in a week. Regardless, everyone is happy which is really a
much better outcome than trying to make someone else's students my own.
On the rare occasion I get told "one kata please" I know I'm in a
So, far from being neglected and abused by your sensei, you're getting
taught in a much more respectful and careful manner when he holds you
to a couple of kata.
Let's look at it from yet another way. All those who only know a couple
of kata but have been practicing them for years, when sensei finally
does teach you that next level of kata what does he do? Does he simply
rip right through them all? Can you keep up? Do you remember them? A
couple of sessions like that, a book or video to remind you of the
specific dance moves and you're there. But you're there with the
understanding and body-knowledge of all those years of kihon.
If sensei has ever slipped you a video of himself doing the advanced
kata, but has never actually taken the time to teach you in class, what
do you suppose he's saying to you? "Look at me, see how clever I am
because I know all these kata you don't?" or "Here's how you do them, I
trust you not to abuse this chance, go learn them and in the meantime
I'll keep your kihon straight". Some day in the future he'll show you
one of those advanced kata, what you've done with that tape will
determine if he gets a smile or a pained look on his face.
Where it's Parked
You might think by this article that I never teach anything more than a
couple of kata. That's not exactly true because I'm not that good as an
instructor. There are certain concepts and principles that I've learned
over the years which I need to pass along to my students, but those
concepts are associated in my head with certain kata and even certain
schools. If we don't go over that kata for a couple of years, I don't
remember to show that concept. Because I'm not as good as I should be
we have to go back to where I parked that idea in order to pass it
It ain't the kata, it's what's parked in it, and that's why there are
more than one kata in a school, but that doesn't mean you'll learn
what's in a kata by learning what it looks like. You gotta learn some
things first before other things make sense.