Ryukyu Martial Arts Research 琉球武道研究

Polymorphism of Karate Kata: An Exploration / By Itzik Cohen

Polymorphism in classical art including classical karate and kata (models, forms or patterns of movements) is a natural process that we must be aware of. We may take advantage of it for personal development as well as to develop the art and adapt it to the space, time, needs and goals. At the same time, we must be careful not to overrun important accumulated knowledge which will cause distortion and a fundamental change in the direction and quality of art.

Polymorphism in classical art refers to the use of multiple forms or styles within a single work of art, showcasing a diverse range of techniques, motifs, and interpretations. This concept is particularly intriguing when applied to the classical art of various cultures.

The Roots of Polymorphism in Classical Art in general
1. Individuality: The subjective factor of understanding and perceiving the technique and personal development. Two conductors or two musicians may play the same piece when they tune to the same notes, yet there is a unique difference between them. That is also true for karate, especially during the period when karate became popular in the first half of the 20th century (in and out Okinawa), this is the period when karate underwent classification.
2. Cultural Exchange: This is a broad topic that deserves its own essay. The classical arts witnessed extensive cultural influences and interactions, leading to the assimilation and adaptation of styles and techniques, and yet developed its unique characteristics. This is evident in the way motifs from one culture appear in the art of another. For instance, the introduction of Buddhist iconography from India to East Asia influenced local art forms, leading to unique interpretations and styles in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Buddhist art. We witness that phenomenon also with karate. Cross-cultural inspiration, motifs, and fusion of Techniques. Yet we still notice the conceptual and methodological differences unique to Okinawan Karate.
3. Evolution of Techniques: Different environments and purposes have created multiple approaches and courses of action. Advancements in techniques, such as science, perspective, technology, the motivation to initiate unique styles, more personal approaches and classification in karate led to a variety of styles and forms. The subjective factor of understanding and perceiving the technique and personal development, especially during the period when karate became popular in the first half of the 20th century (in and out Okinawa), this is the period when karate underwent classification.
It is worth paying attention to the mistakes that resulted from biased or wrong assumptions that lead to errors. The perception of modern science also sometimes changes as a result of technological development and the disclosure of data that were previously unknown, or that have been proven to be wrong, such as understanding biomechanical mechanisms, or analyzing motions on a computer respectively. Although science is advancing, the researcher's or practitioner’s wrong assumptions, exclusion from the context or partial understanding, may lead to wrong conclusions and interpretation, as indeed happens in practice. I have already encountered it many times.

On Ko Chi Shin

Relation and Distinction between Martial-Combat and Fighting-Art
The relation between karate and combat can be articulated as follows: Martial arts, historically regarded as forms of military discipline, have largely transitioned to civilian practices in contemporary times. This shift has obscured their original martial context. For example, Koryu Ju-jutsu was significantly different than contemporary Ju-jutsu, starting from the aim, environment, concept, range of techniques and more. These disparities encompass not only the environmental context in which each frame evolved but also extend to foundational concepts, the breadth and nature of techniques employed, and additional aspects that demarcate them as distinct entities within the martial arts spectrum.

I expand this subject from technique perspective in the book: “Karate’s genetic code - Ryūkyū-di 琉球手 – The pragmatic facet - Perceptions of techniques over time”.
And from historical perspective in the kook: “Karate Uchina-Di 沖縄手- Okinawan Karate: An Exploration of its Origins and Evolution. History, Methodology, Culture, Philosophy, Ethics, Legacy, Official Combat Force and Civilian Discipline, Continuity and Change in Practice”.

Examining karate specifically, it emerges as an amalgamation of influences, ranging from popular sports, tradition and folk aspects to pragmatic martial techniques rooted in the military or, more specifically, in the official security apparatus of Ryukyu Kingdom. Other classical martial arts such as Chinese, Japanese, etc. share this phenomenon as well. In karate, the pivotal transition from a military to a civilian context occurred during the era of Sokon Matsumura in the 19th century. Additionally, when discussing military aspects of karate, it is imperative to acknowledge the significance of forms and techniques, a topic I have explored in prior publications.
Karate is a martial art steeped in rich tradition and history. It is renowned for its katas - choreographed patterns of movements that simulate combat scenarios. These katas, passed down through generations, are more than mere physical routines; they are embodiments of art’s philosophy and technique. Polymorphism in karate katas, wherein practitioners modify and adapt these forms, presents a compelling intersection of tradition, individual expression and even “innovation”, and I intentionally put double quotation marks, as we will understand later in the article.

Role of models in military combat
I find it appropriate to review this subject within the army frame for the sake of paralleling the aspect of combat in karate. Of course, this acceptance does not coincide, but it is still important for the general orientation on the subject.
The role of models in military combat is multifaceted and critical for effective strategy, training, and operations. Models in this context refer to representations or simulations of military scenarios, used for a variety of purposes:

1. Strategic Planning and Analysis
• War Games and Simulations: These are theoretical models that allow military strategists to simulate various combat scenarios, test strategies, and predict outcomes. They range from general to specific ones, between abstraction and expansion, theoretical model or operative one, conceptual model or realistic one. It spans a wide spectrum of models, starting with a pattern performed without partners such as kata 形 or 型 or 方, through pairs practice patterns such as Yakusoku-kumite 約束組手, Futari-geiko” 二人稽古and such, Ipon Kumita 一本組手, soft kumite and up to high-intensity kumite.
• Risk Assessment Models: Used to evaluate the potential risks and outcomes of different military actions. These models help in making informed decisions by weighing the likelihood of success against possible injuries and losses.

2. Education, Training and knowledge transfer
• Methodical Models: Designed for study, practice and in-depth understanding of combat concept, principles, movement, and body mechanics, as well as to measure effectiveness of use and effect of a certain approach, such weapon or a certain technique.
• Tactical Training Models: In military academies and training programs, models are used to teach tactics and strategy. This can include both physical models, and conceptual models that help commanders and soldiers understand complex ideas. I believe that in past Ryukyu Kingdom’s days, there is high probability that such models may existed to train and prepare the security staff to various scenarios, in both team and personal level. Nowadays, and in fact since karate became popular in the civilian environment, there is no longer a need for these types of models.

3. Operational Planning
• Terrain and Geographic Models: In the military field, detailed models of specific geographic areas help in planning operations, understanding the terrain, and strategizing troop movements. Back to karate, this aim does not exist, at least not nowadays. However, for those who are interested in karate also from a combat point of view, different ways of action in different situations in various environments must be considered and practiced. Acknowledging that the ancestor of karate was used, among other things, for various official security tasks in diverse work environments such as security missions inside and outside Shuri Castle, seaports and sensitive places in Okinawa. On diplomatic delegations, aboard trade ships as well as on demarcated trade areas in Fujian/South China.

4. Weaponry
• Weapon Systems Modeling: It is important to understand weapons capabilities, limitations, and potential impact on warfare. Nowadays the concept in karate is fighting without weapons, or for self-defence against a knife. However, some of the roots of karate developed in an environment where weapons were used. More than that, the same pioneers who developed ancient karate, developed Kobudo as well. There was no sectorial distinction as we do nowadays. To clarify, I don't mean the usage of bare hand versus a clearly superior weapon, but mainly the work environment for its many components.

5. Post-Action Analysis
• Debriefing and Reconstruction Models: After military operations, models are used to reconstruct events for analysis, learning, and improvement of future tactics. It is possible that some of the earlier kata(s), and I emphasize – earlier kata - are the result of such process.

6. Psychological and Cultural Modeling
• Behavioral Models: Understanding the psychological and cultural aspects of both enemy and friendly forces can be essential for effective military operations. Understanding the context of earlier kata within time, culture, environment, nature of tasks is essential to comprehend kata.
The skilled warrior/security guard must study the arena very well. The arena’s location and characteristics. Who am I facing, what is the enemy’s purpose? Where did they come from? What is the nature and level of risk? For example, is it a single thief in the shopping complex or a pirate raid on a ship in the middle of the sea? Is it an assassination attempt on a king or a diplomat? Is my goal to prioritize, eliminate, extract essential information and so on. All these were considered and indeed these motifs can be identified in the structure of the ancient kata such as Useishi (Uchinaguchi), that is Gojushiho.

Defining Polymorphism in Karate Kata
Polymorphism in karate katas can be understood as the adaptation of these traditional sequences to serve various purposes while retaining their fundamental essence. This concept encompasses multiple dimensions:
1. Adaptation to Practitioner's Needs: Tailoring katas to accommodate individual physical abilities, injuries, or training focuses ensures inclusivity and effectiveness in learning.
2. Pedagogical Variations: Instructors may introduce modifications in katas to highlight specific techniques or principles, aiding in the pedagogical process.
3. Expression of Mastery: Experienced karatekas often interpret katas in personalized ways, reflecting their deep understanding and internalization of the art.
4. Classic/Traditional Karate: Traditional karate as it learned and practiced in Okinawa, emphasizing both physical and mental development in unique Okinawan concept, concentration and power production, such as Chinkuchi Kaki (Chinkunchi or Kunchi) 一寸力, Ganmaku/Gamaku 岩捲 and more.
5. Karate as a popular activity: Sporting, educational and social aspects as well as basic self-defence.
6. Personal Empowerment: For the people looking to strengthen their personal confidence, their skills to withstand the pressures of the modern world and to improve their physical fitness in an activity that combines body, mind, and spirit.
7. Therapeutic field: In a variety of physical, motor, and mental areas, such as heaviness of movement, balance, coordination, posture and movement, self-image and self-confidence, ADHD as explained later in the article, and more. Sensei or therapist may find himself\herself teaching and treating the same kata, same positions and movements in different cases, but in a fundamentally different execution, while adapting to the patient.
8. Competitive Innovation: In tournaments, practitioners often infuse katas with unique stylistic elements to showcase their skill and creativity, balancing the traditional forms with personal flair.

The Balance between Tradition and Innovation
While polymorphism allows for adaptation, maintaining the core techniques and philosophies of the kata(s) is paramount. This balance ensures that the essence of the kata - its rhythm, techniques, and underlying martial principles - remains unaltered, preserving the integrity of the art form. The kata is the lighthouse. If we change it, the accumulated knowledge and direction will be lost.

Polymorphism and Learning Dynamics
The polymorphic approach to kata(s) enhances the learning experience by fostering a deeper engagement with dynamic factors in combat or with classical art. This methodology encourages practitioners to not only learn the movements but also understand and apply the underlying principles creatively, leading to a more profound and personal bond with karate. More than that, the most correct practice that proves itself to the one aimed at both classical karate and pragmatic combat approach, is the practice of the kata exactly as it is practiced originally at the hombu-dojo. Then a specific practice with an emphasis on the focused topic such as producing power, posture, transition between stances, acceleration, flow in movement and more. Then it is recommended to end the training by performing the kata again, as it was originally implemented. This is how we improve specific areas, while still maintaining the original practice as a beacon. This way we can add knowledge and continue to improve without trampling the fundamental original knowledge. Naturally, for the purposes of practical combat we must perform other exercises such as in pairs. It is outside the scope of the article, yet it deserves deep study.

An example of polymorphism that corresponds to different fields:

Teaching and practicing kata at a certain pace and manner of execution aimed at self-defence. Or to be used as a means of memorizing, practising and improving combat principles. The same kata may be practiced at a completely different pace and in a completely different way aimed at improving posture and precision in a specific technique, flow in movement or producing power. It is even more emphasized in the therapeutic dimension, such as with CP and Muscular dystrophy practitioners, ones with Tourette's syndrome and more. The exact same kata may be performed with an emphasis on attention and concentration mechanisms for ADHD practitioners, emphasizing cross actions which have been scientifically measured to activate biomechanical mechanisms in the brain related to improving attention and concentration mechanism. The success rates are high.

Polymorphism vs Changes
A clear distinction must be made between polymorphism and changes in the kata, which must be avoided. That means "multiplicity of form" and not "change of form" or "trample of form".
Often, practicing the kata is done according to certain requirements, for a specific case of a particular practitioner and for a specific purpose.
While it is possible that a private case may be generalized to a large group of practitioners and for a broad purpose, it is still a specific matter.
As soon as we change the kata because of a specific case, that is, with a narrow view, we will trample valuable knowledge accumulated over generations by experienced and skilled Sensei(s) and practitioners.
Therefore, we must avoid changing kata due to individual perception and a narrow view. Avoiding induction, that is, applying the particular to the general.

Philosophical and Cultural Implications
The adaptability of kata(s) mirrors the philosophical underpinnings of karate, emphasizing flexibility, resilience, and continuous growth. This approach reflects a broader cultural ethos within martial arts, valuing the preservation of tradition alongside the evolution of practice.

Pointing out the pragmatic historical distinction between military and civilian martial arts of our time. I prefer to call it, Martial-art and Fighting-art relatively. Martial or Military close-combat method is deferent from civilian sparing or self-defence, though there is much in common. We should not ignore the historical military environment while researching and analaysing earlier kata.
Models in every field serve the developers and operators to test, teach, optimize and carry out tasks in pursuit of minimum failures and maximum success.
Models in military combat are essential tools for planning, training, and executing operations. They provide a framework for understanding complex situations, preparing for various scenarios, and adapting to the dynamic nature of warfare. The use of models helps in minimizing risks, maximizing effectiveness, and ultimately saving lives by allowing for thorough preparation and informed decision-making.

Polymorphism in kata(s) reveals its significance in the broader context of martial arts studies. It highlights the dynamic nature of traditional practices and their capacity to adapt, evolve and remain relevant across different cultural and temporal landscapes from both historical and pragmatic perspectives.

This balance is not just a physical characteristic but conceptual, technical and a philosophical tenet.

There are two types of changes:
One stems from the need to change things to suit our environment and time. In this case, an open circle of so-called “creativity is invented”, and accumulated valuable knowledge that contains great depth, methods of action, nuances and richness is being overrun by the so called “new creative” which is usually a narrow personal interpretation.

The second comes from relatively young teachers or practitioners with a perspective that matches their age, stage, and experience. Usually when the day comes and they gain knowledge, experience, and maturity, they reach their supposed conclusions and return to what they are supposed to have taught. In this circle the knowledge is preserved, and it is the circle is closed, therefore the knowledge continues to develop and is not lost. This is what usually characterizes the old orthodox schools.

On Ko Chi Shin
From a combat view, polymorphism emphasizes the importance of adaptability, versatility, and strategic thinking. It recognizes that no single approach is universally effective in all situations, underscoring the need for a dynamic and flexible approach to strategy and tactics. And this with the caveat that one must be careful not to overrun previous knowledge but to wisely add to it.

Classical martial arts may integrate well with modern life areas such as popular activity, health and even for physical and mental therapeutic areas. It is important to make the relation between self-confidence and basic self-defence, that is, the physical and the mental. We can achieve high practical level of combat if we aim to this purpose.

To follow the Sensei is not necessarily to imitate him, but to understand the implied, the depth of knowledge and its nuances. To understand not only the explicit but also and especially the implicit.

Polymorphism, or the concept of having multiple forms, is indeed a vital aspect of classical arts, including traditional practices like classical karate and its kata. This concept acknowledges the dynamic and evolving nature of these arts. Your observation about the balance between innovation and preservation in these traditional practices is insightful. Let's delve into this concept a bit more deeply:
1. Adaptation and Evolution: Classical arts, whether in the form of visual arts, performing arts, or martial arts like karate, have naturally evolved over time. This evolution is often a response to changing social, cultural, and environmental factors. In the case of karate, techniques and kata may be adapted to suit modern contexts, ensuring the art remains relevant and practical.
2. Innovation within Tradition: While innovation is essential for the growth and development of any art form, it's equally important to respect and preserve the core principles and techniques that define it. In karate, for example, while new kata or interpretations may be developed, the fundamental techniques, postures, and philosophies should remain intact to ensure that the essence of the art is preserved.
3. The Role of Teachers and Practitioners: Instructors and long-time practitioners play a crucial role in balancing the preservation of traditional knowledge with the integration of new insights and techniques. They act as custodians of the art, ensuring that any adaptations or changes do not dilute the art's fundamental principles.
4. Documentation and Preservation: Proper documentation and preservation of classical arts are crucial. This includes not only the physical techniques but also the philosophies, histories, and cultural contexts that surround them. This helps in maintaining the integrity of the art and provides a solid foundation for future innovations.
5. Mindful Modernization: As societies evolve, there is a natural inclination to modernize traditional practices. However, this modernization should be mindful. It's important to critically assess which aspects of the art should be adapted and which should remain untouched to maintain the art's authenticity and integrity.
6. Respecting the Lineage: Understanding and respecting the lineage and history of the art form is crucial. This respect ensures that changes and adaptations are made with a deep understanding of the art's origins and core principles.
7. Balancing Universal Appeal with Cultural Specificity: While it's beneficial for classical arts to be appreciated and practiced globally, it's also essential to maintain their cultural specificity. This uniqueness gives the art its identity and depth.

In summary, polymorphism in classical arts, including classical karate and kata, is a reflection of the natural evolution and adaptation of these practices. However, this process should be approached with caution and respect for the art's origins and fundamental principles. Balancing innovation with preservation ensures that the art remains true to its roots while continuing to grow and remain relevant in a changing world.

Further reading sources:
Deep dive into karate evolution. Thorough research of history, methodology, culture, philosophy, ethics, heritage, military and civil circles.
The book Karate Uchina-Di 沖縄手 - An Exploration of its Origins and Evolution.

About the development of Okinawan Karate techniques from historical and practical aspects:
Pathways of Karate Development: From Ryūkyū -di 琉球手 & Tou-di 唐手 Via Okinawan-te 沖縄手 to Karate 空手.

Tracing the practical facet of the development of karate’s technique and way of action:
Karate’s genetic code - Ryūkyū-di 琉球手 - The pragmatic facet, Perceptions of techniques over time.

Itzik Cohen
About the author: works, operational background and research

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