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Kata, in Japanese, means ‘forms’ and has an important place in the history of karate as well as various other martial arts.

Kihon, kata and kumite are the three pillars of karate. While kihon is the basic or fundamentals of martial arts moves, kumite involves sparring against an opponent or a partner using various martial arts techniques.

But a proper definition of kata, is, perhaps, slightly more nuanced and complicated than the other two. Here, we try to break it down and to make it simpler to understand.

What does kata mean in karate

Kata, in Japanese, means ‘form’.

Practice of ‘kata’ or the correct forms and postures constitute an integral part of a lot of martial arts training, especially ones originating from Okinawa, Japan. Martial arts disciplines like karate, judo, iaido, kenpo are prime examples.

Origins of kata in martial arts and integration into karate

Despite being a huge part of Japanese martial arts and culture, kata originally draws its roots from China. In ancient times, masters or practitioners of Chinese Kung Fu found it difficult to illustrate the techniques, both offensive and defensive, through words or paintings.

So instead, they developed the ‘forms’ or kata, highly-detailed movements consisting of dozens of micro-sequences, including, punches, kicks, blocks, footwork and breathing techniques, aimed to carefully archive their martial arts techniques and to pass it on to future generations.

Late in the 14th century, when the Ming dynasty sent several Chinese families from the Fujian province to settle in Japan’s Ryukyu, present-day Okinawa, they brought kata with them to Japan.

Kata was an important component in the exchange of cultures amongst the locals and the immigrant Chinese families.

In what was an amalgamation of the Chinese martial arts forms, particularly Fujian Kung Fu, acquired through kata and the pre-existing local Ryukyuan hand-to-hand fighting technique over many years, a new martial arts style called Te or Tode was formed, which would later come to be known as karate.

Kata continued to be the chief form of knowledge transfer in karate and till the 1930s, it was the only way traditional masters taught the martial arts discipline.

Kata in karate or the Karate Kata

From the scope of karate, kata is the full repository of innumerable karate moves and techniques in their truest form, meant to be practised as they are. While some are used in kumite bouts, not all are or can be.

For Kumite bouts, certain kata moves are taken and adapted to suit a non-lethal sparring match, but in practice of kata which is mostly done solo, every movement needs to be by the book.

Why is kata important in karate

Traditional karate practitioners believe mastery of kata is essential for a karateka.

It helps fine tune a karateka’s body mechanics, including muscle memory, needed to execute martial arts techniques properly.

Knowledge of kata is also essential to understand how to generate power from hips and core as opposed to the legs and arms – an important lesson for a karateka.

In addition, kata also helps in mastering proper breathing techniques required to be a successful karateka and keeping the mind focused on a singular objective.

Karate kata rules and scoring system

While in essence practice of kata is the means to preserve and safeguard the traditional techniques and styles of karate in their original form and ultimately to pass them on, it has also found its way into competitive sports.

In a kumite match, two athletes will face each other armed with gloves and foot protection. Over three minutes, athletes will aim to score points using kicks, punches, strikes, throws and sweeps. Athletes are divided into weight classes, in both the men and women’s divisions.

Competitors send tsuki, or punches, and geri, or kicks, with explosive force at the prescribed regions of their opponent’s body. Attacks with good form, power and control earn between one and three points.

A competitor wins by amassing eight points more than their opponent within the duration of the bout or by gaining more points than their opponent in the allotted time (three minutes). In the event of a tie, the competitor who scored the first point is the winner. In the case of a scoreless bout, the winner will be declared by the decision of the judges.

Kata serves as the solo representation of Karate’s self-defence strung together into a performance routine usually lasting two to three minutes. Competitors are judged on several technical and physical criteria including; speed, strength, breathing, balance and rhythm.  A point-based system was adopted in January 2019 to replace the flag system (limited to national competitions) whereby the scores awarded by three of the seven judges are added then applied to a separate calculation formula to determine the winner.

Karate made its first appearance at the Summer 2020 Olympics in Tokyo featuring Kumite and Kata.

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