I recently had a conversation with a fellow martial artist known as Hard_Karate_Stylist. he was a bit uncertain as to the value and effectiveness of kata. He had heard varying opinions from multiple trustworthy sources about kata’s usefulness in the realm of combatives. Some believed that kata had value in the form of physical fitness but were devoid of real-life practicality. Others thought of kata as dances that served only to obfuscate the realities of fighting.
I provided HKS with a response that I thought covered the core ideas as to how and why kata is still a vibrant and viable practice. I personally consider kata to be a vital part of learning the Life Protection Arts as originally passed down by the Okinawans, and that kata are a highly valuable piece of a bigger puzzle. Kata provide insights unique to other training methods, but shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. To read my full respond, click here and scroll down to the comments section.
After that convo I got to thinking – I’ve certainly talked a lot, but in any good show&tell there has to be some show. Therefore, this post serves as a follow up for how kata can lead to free expression of technique, combining all of the best qualities of karate in a way unmatched throughout training history. I will do so in the context of one of karate’s oldest and most widespread kata: Naihanchi.
The Story of Naihanchi Kata
To simply jump into the physical form of Naihanchi is not good enough. We need to understand its roots and the context upon which it was built.
Naihanchi is the name of a kata that appears in many karate systems, and goes by multiple names. The most widely accepted is Naihanchi or Nai Hanchi, which is the Japanese pronunciation. It can also be called Naifanchi, Naifanchin, or Naifanchen (the Okinawan pronunciation). It has also become known as Tekki, a change produced by Funakoshi Gichin when bringing the kata from Okinawa to Japan.
The form traces its roots back to Bushi Sokon Matsumura. Matsumura was a renowned martial artist and served as bodyguard/retainer for three Okinawan Kings. In his younger days he learned from Okinawan masters such as Tode Sakugawa, but was also exposed to many Chinese envoys and warriors throughout his travels for the king. It is believed that he learned Naihanchi from a Chinese influence, either on Okinawa or while abroad, and then infused it with his own Te.
Matsumura had multiple famous students, but the two most prominent were Yasatsune “Anko” Itosu and Yasatsune “Anko” Azato. Azato and Itosu were among the greatest karateka of their time and are heavily responsible for the transmission of Shuri-te, later known as Shorin Ryu. Azato and Itosu produced many famous students of their own, including Funakoshi Gichin (Shotokan), Chomo Hanashiro (Shorin Ryu), Kentsu Yabu (Shorin Ryu), Chotoku Kyan (Shobayashi), Choki Motobu (Motobu Ryu), among others. The kata Naihanchi was passed through many of these capable hands to modern day students.
The Action of Naihanchi
As I mentioned in my response to HKS, karate (at its best) is an effective blend of strikes, tuite, kyusho, and throws utilizing kuzushi (off-balancing). But how can we take something as seemingly stale as the Naihanchi kata and make it dynamically effective in all those ways?
I’d like to hand things over to my video self at this time and let him explore this question. You’ll notice early on in the video that I use an opponent directly in front of me. I do that to bust some of the myths that are tightly ingrained with the proliferation of this kata. As opposed to some of the romantic stories that seem to float around, Naihanchi was never intended for use when a practitioner’s back was up against a castle wall. Nor was it intended for self defense on a boat or between rice patty fields. As you’ll see, the simple embusen of Naihanchi that goes side-to-side can be used effectively in three dimensions against an opponent who in all statistical probability will be approaching you head-on.
Remember – this kata is not considered a cornerstone of karate because its only for people attacking you from the side or on a boat; it can be a complete means of life protection. Watch as I explore the kata and then demonstrate how Naihanchi techniques might look when used in an unstructured environment.
After viewing that you may be thinking ‘Matt you cheated, there was barely anything resembling naihanchi in there’. Not so – the naihanchi elements existed as moments in time expressed extemporaneously. Some were strung together in recognizable ways, others not. The ideas of the kata mingled freely with other concepts and techniques that proved valuable at the time.
Here are just a few tactile examples of Naihanchi making an appearance:
On the attack thrown at 2:32, I show how a Naihanchi style punch can be used for percussive striking (to the ribs), or for choking as it hooks up around Ericsan’s neck.
At 4:59 I show how you can strike low and high in quick succession, just like in Naihanchi Sandan.
Throughout the combative exercise I demonstrate how the deep kiba-dachi or naihanchi-dachi can be used when needed for moments of enhanced stability or strength. I also use it from a sidelong perspective when trying to defend some of Ericsan’s attacks in order to minimize the targets available to him. In that sense some of Naihanchi’s bunkai from the sides becomes applicable, but only if you understand that the intent is to move through and passed that.
At 5:05 I show how the blocking methods of Naihanchi can roll directly into joint locks and then can be followed up by a finishing percussive strike.
At 5:10 I utilize some of the deflection+elbow techniques that make appearances in both Naihanchi Shodan and Nidan.
At 5:16 you can see how techniques, even when well practiced, can devolve into grappling and in-close jockeying for position. Luckily I managed to get behind Ericsan in that instance and could have utilized some of Naihanchi’s leg checking to take him down (but that’s the catch with live drills, they don’t allow for everything to be just right).
At 5:23 I utilize cycling as demonstrated earlier in the video to avoid getting struck and keep Ericsan’s momentum reeling. I also use the kosa-dachi type of stance in order to create smaller circles of rotation, which ultimately allows me to off-balance and throw him.
If we were to slow our bunkai training down and really analyze the kata, we could develop much more sophisticated series of attacks and defenses. That mental exploration is valuable, but we also need to understand how Naihanchi approaches HDAST (height, distance, angle, stance, timing) in a live environment, which speaks to the heart of how the kata operates.
Of course it is important to remember that what I did in the video is just a brief attempt by a rather raw karateka to show Naihanchi technique. I made no particular conscious decisions during that exercise (as that negates the positive gains of mushin), and trusted my body’s responses. Some of it was ok, some of it could stand to be improved. But that just means I need a bunch more training (hooray!)
The Need For Sparring and Other Drills
The kata and drills shown in the video have many benefits. They allow you to hone techniques that have been proven effective over many generations. They also give you the freedom to cycle through some of the most effective aspects of not just karate, but combat in general (small joint locks, momentum flowing, vital target striking, etc). Unfortunately, no matter how much kata or controlled freestyle drills you do, you’ll never really learn how to transmit power.
Power transfer can only be developed through years of striking practice. The Okinawans would use Makiwara training and eventually padded sparring to help students learn how to make their blows punishing.
You may have noticed that sparring rarely looks like kata. In sparring there is a lot of distance and timing play, and people generally rely on a certain barrage of classic strategies like jab-cross combos, feinting, and high-low kick series while following a bunch of strict rules (like no techniques toward the eyes). Sparring is quite limiting in that way, but also allows you to hit for real without permanently damaging your opponent. As such it is a highly necessary and valuable companion to kata training.
Mixed in with sparring and kata are the other kinds of training that traditional stylists tend to do, like Yakusoku kumite, basics, movement drills, etc etc. When understood properly and used for their intended purpose in conjunction with the other pieces, they are all valuable assets to a martial artist’s training regiment as he/she tries to prepare for the realities of combat.
Why Not Just Do Full Contact?
Traditional training can seem a bit overwhelming, and even muddled. As Bruce Lee said, a “classical mess”. Why not just bag all the nonsense and fight full contact with as few rules as possible, much like the very early UFC? Certainly that would supply all the realism and dynamics traditional drills supply.
It’s true – full contact fighting would be a more direct path. Despite what Hocus Pocus Chi Masters and “deadly vital point, no touch knockout experts” try to sell, simply knowing how to hurt someone is not the same as being able to do it against live, aggressive opponents.
The problem with full contact, real fighting is longevity and practicality.
Karate and other traditional arts can be practiced well into a person’s twilight years. It’s not uncommon to see 80-90 year old exponents getting up and doing kata. In fact, when done right, traditional training can improve and elongate the quality of a person’s life. The same simply cannot be said for full contact fighting. A remarkably high percentage of full contact fighters suffer from serious health problems in their late middle ages and on. Some even suffer brain damage (especially in the realm of boxing).
Furthermore, full contact fighting is not possible for many children, women, and men who have imperfect physiques. Just as an example, my previous post was about grandmothers in Kenya who have started self defense programs. Technically speaking they would become better fighters if they subjected themselves to full contact fighting…but that’s hardly a good idea. Instead they can rely on bag work and traditional methods to improve.
When exploring your training, it is important to recognize and accept the weaknesses and strengths of each training method.
- Sparring provides contact, but lacks the deeper aspects of karate.
- Kata teaches strength of body, mind, and spirit in addition to a full system of advanced techniques…but also involves hitting a lot of air. Simply understanding the details of kata is not enough to make a complete martial artist. Freestyle kumite drills can bridge that gap if both students have enough control.
- Prearranged Yakusoku drills can provide conditioning and repetition, but run the risk of teaching students the bad habits of waiting for attacks and relying on knowing what will happen next.
Assess, explore, and continue to train as best you can. Each piece hints at a bigger picture.