Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Unpacking A Koryu Kata

At a recent Muso Shinden Ryu Keikokai, I presented a brief explanation on what I had learned from, primarily, Ishido Sensei but also from other prominent teachers as well in terms of what is actually in a kata.
Most of us I’m sure are familiar with the meaning of kata () meaning shape or form of something. As Jock pointed out at the Keikokai, there is a lot more content within the learning of koryu than just the easily visible and physical shape of the form. Given that we all have a limited amount of time available to learn and practice budo, the habit of “collecting” koryu kata is in direct opposition to the ability of being able to develop “depth of knowledge” of any kata. While we shouldn’t spend the rest of our lives learning how to bow to the shomen, the learning of all aspects of a kata is what makes a study of budo interesting and worthwhile rather than just a rehearsal of choreography.
I have heard Ishido Sensei explain how kata can fit into certain categories, how it can be parsed into components and separated into variances. Furthermore the performance of a kata should change as the exponent develops themselves. In this way, while the koryu might be described on the surface as a set of choreographed movements, it becomes something of a living and growing organism that gets born when it is learned and develops and then dies with the exponent.
Anyway, away from contemplating ones navel, being someone who relies on visuals and patterns to describe and remember abstract stuff, I built my own appreciation for a kata on a set of views and components of each kata. It goes something like this (in fact it goes exactly like this).

  • 1. Kihon waza  基本技

The kata is originally described and taught by its kihon, its basic form. This describes roughly what the techniques are, what is the scenario, what the enemies are doing and where they are. It is what one sees when one reads a book on the style and sees the kata, what one learns in the first few months of studying a new kata. It is, unfortunately, what one can mistake for being the important thing to learn. It is of course the basic architecture and is of paramount importance to learn correctly and preserve. One shouldn’t think though that because they have learned the choreography that one has mastered the kata. It is the framework for further study and discovery, some via ones teacher, some through solo training and research.

  •  2. Teigi  定義

The route to explaining this becomes a bit mixed up here so please bear with me. In terms of deconstructing the kata, Teigi and Gainen should be explained in parallel. However in terms of the order in which one learns and discovers the depths of the kata, teigi is probably learned first followed by Oyo and then Gainen.
Anyway, teigi means “definition” and in this context it is the fine detail, like the geometry or techniques and postures which go on to give finer and finer information concerning the kata. It is important to understand the teigi as these give vital information about how to deliver the kihon waza “correctly” and thus preserve the koryu accurately. An example of this might be (and this example was used at the Ishido Cup in 2018) how one defines hasso kamae, i.e.
·        Tsuba one fist away from the mouth
·        Kensen elevated to approximately 45°
·        Hasuji inclined forwards
·        Left hand at the centre of the body
·        Body slightly turned
·        Etc. 

  •      3. Oyo  応用 

Oyo means application, to put the kata into practical usage. For exponents this means three things:
·        Through a volume of training, certain parts of the kata become very fluid and natural. This leads to edges and corners becoming rounded off both in terms of physical movement and timing. While the overall shape of the kihon is still there and visible, this is how the form should look when put into action.
·        That certain parts of the kata may actually be omitted or changed. The kata looks almost the same as the kihon but the parts which were originally included to explicitly train the body are now made so subtle that the kata may look different.
·        That this may form another version of the kata (a kaewaza) meant to show how the basic technique leads to a more fluid and flexible version.

  •     4. Gainen  概念

At some point in the training, the exponent begins to learn that individual techniques within, or the kata as a whole, is composed of one of more practical concepts or ideas. These are different to teigi in that they rarely have definitive qualities like dimensions or strict physical criteria. Instead they have uses. The example that Ishido Sensei gave was, how would one define Ukenagashi. Looking at its presence in Seitei and in Muso Shinden Ryu for example, it is used in a typical flowing way with the sword declined to allow the opponent’s sword  slide off the defending sword. However, the kensen may be elevated to make Ukenagashi or even flat. It doesn’t have teigi (definition), it exists only as a concept. In ZNKR iaido for example, it is used as a style of making furikaburi in the most efficient way possible.
On examination, a kata may be trying to instill a gainen to the student or it may make use of concepts to construct the kata.

  • 5. Kotsu 

Kotsu is the Chinese reading of the Japanese word for “bone”. In this context, kotsu means knack, skill, secret or know-how. In my opinion, it is the slightly concealed kernel at the core of every kata which one has to search for and master in order to really “know” the kata. I believe personally that a kata may have one or several such kotsu but essentially they are the key skills that one is aiming to develop through learning, researching and training the kata. From Ishido Sensei’s explanations it seems fairly clear that the kotsu can be divided into two main categories (which aren’t so strikingly different from each other):

  • Jokyo – situation, how to deal with one particular scenario

  • Toho – methodology or swordsmanship, how to use the sword in a certain way

So what’s the point of all this then? I should here point out that this parsing of the kata into different aspects does not reflect the importance or priority of one aspect over another. The kihon is not more or less important that the kotsu. Without one or the other the kata makes no sense and has no practical usage or method of learning.

  •  6. Kaewaza  変え技

Ultimately it is possible to make enough changes to the Teigi that the architecture of the form is slightly different and takes the shape of “kaewaza” 変え技 or alternative form. The gainen within and the main kotsu may be the same, it is the outside form which is likely to be different.

As a close, I should point out that these aren't strict definitions or meanings. The order in which they are taught or learned may vary kata-to-kata, ryuha-to-ryuha, teacher-to-teacher, student-to-student. The importance, I believe, is that one shouldn't be satisfied with the learning of a kata until all of these aspects are assimilated. One need only then go onto master the various aspects until....one dies. Then let's hope one has written enough blog posts to accurately pass on this knowledge to the next generation.



  1. Brilliant, i have found a few Kotsu's and im always looking for more.
    etc etc