© 2010 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved
In 2003, author Scott Jenkins wrote a
wonderful essay for The Iaido Journal on kata and its meaning in
martial arts (see: http://ejmas.com/tin/tinart_jenkins_0503.htm
). In a nutshell, here is the basic premise of his argument:
“What is kata? This whole essay is my attempt to answer in a
deeper way, and show the layers of meaning, potential, and complexity
that can be found within kata… Depending on the level at which you
look, a kata can be choreography, a laboratory for learning, a
crucible for finding the deepest technical principles of the art, and
a way to practice with great joy.”
He posits that kata can be viewed as
“The first and most simple way to
view kata is as a record of the choreography of
the art. The kata shows the prescribed movements the tori must take
in response to a given attack by uke. By following the prescribed
movements, beginners can learn the
most basic premises of their art: where to move, how to
move, what cues to move in response to.”
He posits that kata are like exemplars:
“Kata can also be viewed as exemplars
of the ideal
techniques of the art performed under ideal conditions… In this
sense, katas are like a living tape recording
of the correct
movements of the art, transmitting knowledge
from the founders
of the art and inventors of the kata to the current generation of
Again, I agree.
Mr. Jenkins furthermore states:
“Katas also reflect, record
, and teach
of the art. In a kata, technique or movement does not exist in
theoretical isolation… Rather, the kata is almost a “recording”
of a battle. Uke attacks. Tori must defeat that attack and try
Finally, he also states:
“Because the kata is prescribed,
it is repeatable. Students can “replay” the
kata as many times as they would like, in order to understand the
teaching it offers.”
Let’s look at the words Mr. Jenkins
- a record
- a living tape recording
- a “recording”
- the teaching
He also uses verbs like:
- to record
- to teach
- transmitting knowledge
You will see that there is a similarity
amongst all the words and verbs used. Kata is a record, a
transmission, a recording.
I want to share with everyone one of
the experiences that changed my way of thinking when I was in
graduate school. Of course, in university, whether at the
undergraduate or graduate level, there are always courses that we are
obliged to take, compulsory courses that in the belief of the
constructors of the degree program, they deem it necessary for us to
experience to broaden our knowledge.
One such course was a course
entitled EDUC 5P81:
Personal Narratives in Educational Research.
In the course, we were to explore the nature and understanding of
story from a variety of perspectives, and the use of story as a
framework and tool for teaching, learning, research, and personal and
professional development, as the course description says.
Well, the graduate students I was with
in the class all scoffed at this course. What nonsense, exploring the
nature of story! What does this have to do with real educating? Why
do we have to take this Mickey Mouse course?
It didn’t seem particularly relevant
at the time, when we were all hankering to learn about educational
theory and technique, the really important stuff. What does personal
narrative have to do with it? It also didn’t help that the
instructor was an old female who was very soft-spoken and a little
feeble in her control of the class.
By the end of the course, I did have a
begrudging bit of respect for the course and the instructor. We had
explored our personal views on various educational theories. Fine,
but we all still scoffed at what we thought was a monumental waste of
I must admit now, twelve years
later, that it was one of the most memorable courses I took. We all
thought we were so smart. Maybe she was right all along and we were
the ones who had something to learn. And what she taught and believed
in was called “The Story
“The basic premise of the Story Model is that we make meaning by
telling stories. Humans for all of recorded time have told stories.
We believe that students will come to develop meaning and
understanding by exploring their own personal stories and the stories
of others.” (p.9).
Seems pretty innocuous, doesn’t it?
No wonder we scoffed at it as young graduate students. But let’s
sit back and think about it for a while.
“We make meaning by telling stories.”
This is a powerful statement. It is
true. We do. Think Star Wars, Back to the Future, Terminator, Raiders
of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump. The list goes on
and on. Stories engage us. They teach us lessons in life. Lessons
such as “stretch out with your feelings”, “life is like a box
of chocolates”, or this one:
: This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more
people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more
person. A person, Stern. For this. I could have gotten one more
“Humans for all of recorded time have told stories.”
Now, the stories are on film. In old
times, it was in books. Before that, in scrolls. Before that, on tree
bark. And before that, on cave walls.
OK, OK, this is fine for education. But
what does this have to with teaching kata in martial arts?
Let’s think back to what Mr. Jenkins
said about kata: it is a record, a recording, a transmission. In
short, it is a story.
Kata is a story? Come now…
Well, here is what that old professor
had to say on the topic of story-telling:
“Curriculum can be approached as story-telling… In every
story, there is a skeletal framework which involves theme,
characters, setting, plot, and resolution. Of central importance is
the conflict of the story.” (p.9).
Kata as a story. Intriguing idea.
Let’s pick an example. How
about iaido? A kata like “san-pō
giri” from the seitei-gata for instance. How to teach it to a
If you try to teach it this way
“cut here, here and here”, what do you think the student will
think? Do you think he’ll remember it? Will it have any meaning to
him? Probably not. It’s too cut-and-dried. It’s like memorizing a
set of random numbers. It’s meaningless.
But what about framing the kata as
Plot. (+ conflict)
Now it has meaning. Why? Because
it has a story. Everything in the kata now makes perfect sense. Why
we walk like this. Why our hands are here. Why we draw at this
moment. Etc.. etc… It is put in a context
that we can understand and more importantly, that we can easily
Context? Yes, a context basically just
means a situation. The techniques are placed in a situation. In
essence, when encountering this type of situation (or scenario), here
is one way to deal with it.
We could just learn all the techniques
on their own, without context. Cut head, cut yokomen, cut waist, cut
wrist, stab belly, etc… Over and over again, argumentum ad nauseam.
They become like the random numbers. Meaningless.
But in a story, they come alive.
And to the story elements, we must add characters. With characters,
comes movement because in a swordfight, no one is static. With the
movement of all the actors, there must inevitably be included a
variety of tactics and a rationale
for actions and movements and techniques.
In fact, that wise old professor
“We make meaning in our lives through story. Woven throughout
our personal stories are our values and beliefs
Values, beliefs. Basically a rationale.
In old sword arts, it is what the founder thought was effective or
what he believed was the best approach to take and technique to use
given the circumstances. Even technique has a rationale. For example,
why we cut like this. Why we bring the sword up like this. Why we
choose this degree of angle on the cut. And so on. His rationale, his
belief, his values. Like Mr. Jenkins said:
“katas are like a living tape recording of the correct movements
of the art, transmitting knowledge
from the founders of the
art and inventors of the kata to the current generation of students.”
Transmitting knowledge. Like
Story-tellers. But all of them telling a story and making a critical
social commentary at the same time. Critical commentary based upon
beliefs and values, upon principles. Transmitting knowledge about
beliefs and values.
Likewise, in kata are embedded
the principles of the founder’s belief. For example, the idea of
three inches in Shinkage Ryu. Why uchi-otoshi is a core technique and
principle in the Ono-ha Itto Ryu style. The supreme importance of
agility and mobility in Katori Shinto Ryu. These are the core beliefs
and values of the founder: how he thought about the best way to fight
and how he envisioned combat. And, much more significantly, how the
founder envisioned how to
control the fight.
That’s why Shinkage Ryu fights the
way it does. That’s why Ono-ha Itto Ryu fights the way it does.
That’s why Katori Shinto Ryu fights the way it does. It’s all
about belief systems, viewpoints, philosophies, values.
And you can see them in the story
of their kata, if you are paying attention.
“Teaching from the Story Model perspective has been a growth
experience for all of us. It requires an openness of mind, a
willingness to tread unknown territory, and the continual motivation
to seek and make the interconnections that are around us. Good luck
on the journey ahead!”
Susan M. Drake
Developing an Integrated
Curriculum Using the Story Model.
That is the power of Story…
* Drake, Susan M. (1992).
Developing an Integrated
Curriculum Using the Story Model.
Toronto: The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. ISBN:
Mr. Tong has a Master’s
in Education in Curriculum Studies.