There are many differing perspectives on the value of kata in regards to the acquisition of effective goshin-jutsu (self-defense techniques), and fighting skills in general. Some preach that kata is the very heart of karate, yet others view kata as a complete waste of training time. In my opinion, for what it’s worth, both of these perspectives have merit. It completely depends on ‘what is insinuated by kata’, and more importantly, ‘how physical kata training is approached’. I will not address the academic study of kata here, because I believe this ‘must only exist to support physical training’ (either to enhance one’s own 'physical' self-workout, or improve the coaching methodology for the benefit of others).
Let’s not deceive ourselves! Is kata training essential to learn how to fight?
Let’s win some plastic trophies by looking pretty!
Unfortunately, overtime, and as a result of sports karate, kata has drifted away from being viewed as a record of lethal combative methods, for real-fighting/self-defense. Instead, it is now ‘generally considered’ as an athletic or aesthetic pursuit, which has little or no relationship to hand-to-hand combat. Regardless of how kata may be perceived in the year 2007, people, who have the wish to study bujutsu (martial art) karate, can still do so, via the kata. This is because kata provides a tangible connection, back to karate as a fighting art, as opposed to being a sport (or even being tightly defined/labeled as “karate”). It is here that we can access not only the modern ‘standard’ karate techniques, but also a huge syllabus of cavity strikes, head-butts, eye rips, ground-fighting maneuvers, chokes, joint dislocations, bone breaks, escapes, takedowns, throws, and all the other elements that make it a "complete" self-defense system.
To practice karate as a martial art, one needs to actively study the kata, as opposed to just performing them, as precise technical routines. My personal belief is that without indepth study of oyo-jutsu (application), kata practice loses all meaning. In the case of you wanting to learn karate for self-defense, and you are not working on 'partner-kata' (addressing realistic scenarios), you are completely wasting your time. And by merely practicing your kata to look nice, you are doing nothing more than sports karate, which offers no more protection than a gymnastics floor routine (that is, gymnastics offers balance, agility etc.., which is often the 'practical' justification for kata, within traditional karate circles). Not practicing street effective applications from your kata, with a partner or partners, does not suffice as as an authentic martial art.
Always keep in mind that kata is a record of fighting styles that combined to form, what is now 'labeled', as karate. So kata is in fact, the ‘original syllabus’. It is well documented, that the old masters usually only trained between one and three kata. Surely, if this was merely in the exact performance of the outward motions, they would have trained numerous formal exercises. We must also question, why was it regarded, that individual kata were ‘complete fighting systems’? Let's face it, without kata we would have no syllabus to work with. Everything that the past masters discovered, engineered, learnt, used and taught would be lost. Kata is the holistic syllabus of karate, and in order to have a system which is not grossly inadequate, for self-defense, we must 'physically research' this system.
The techniques and strategies of competition karate are undeniably inadequate for practical use, outside of the tight confines of the sporting arena. Sadly many karateka ignore the lessons of the kata, and therefore inadvertently practice karate as a partial fighting art. What alarm’s me the most, are instructors, who train and teach karate in this incomplete way, yet at the same time, boast that their dojo teaches practical self-defense. Worst still is that they practice similar bunkai (analysis), to that demonstrated in Nakayama Sensei’s ‘Best Karate’ book series. To be fair, they sometimes have more 'innovative' applications, but they are a hardly streetworthy. But I guess, that is where they can always use the 'great karate excuse'. ''I am not allowed to use my karate for fighting". Sadly, traditionalists are the often worst when it comes to realistic training, as they are too busy being pompus about Japanese affiliations, dan grades and the like. In my opinion, any karate lesson which does not include a portion of practical self-defense, is pointless. There is no need to go outside of the Shotokan syllabus here, but merely go inward, and utilise the lessons encrypted in the kata.
Do kata have any value within a self-defense training regime?
There are essentially two types of kata, solo kata, and as mentioned above, kata you perform with one or more training partners. In Shotokan karate, the majority of practitioners associate the term ‘kata’ with ‘solo kata’ training. Partner kata is now more commonly referred to as ‘partner-drills’. It’s widely accepted that these partner drills are valid training methods, for the development of practical fighting skills. But solo kata training is justifiably questioned more ruthlessly, in regards to the development of practical fighting prowess. It seems to make much more sense to practice techniques with a partner, as opposed to performing them on your own, in a seemingly dance-like routine. Insofar as martial arts training is concerned, partner drills, including sparring, are undoubtedly more effective than solo kata practice. So why bother practicing solo kata? Here are my five main defenses for solo kata training: Firstly, without solo kata, we would have no syllabus, and therefore, no access to the refined knowledge of past exponents. Secondly, solo kata is useful when we haven’t got a training partner (we can do solo kata anywhere, and at any time). Thirdly, we can perform ‘all the techniques’ in solo kata with maximum snap, even the most lethal techniques and maneuvers can be done with vigor (no need to seriously maim our training partners! You can go full-power in solo kata). Fourthly, solo kata makes self-training highly motivational (what I call 'the fun factor'). And lastly, they physically condition your body whilst rehearsing the combative principles (original syllabus) in the respective kata you are training.
Solo kata is inferior, but still extremely valuable
Essentially, if training in traditional karate for martial purposes (fighting/self-defense), solo kata practice compliments the overall training regime. Solo kata will greatly enhance your compliant and non-compliant partner drills, literally bridge the gap between kihon, kata and kumite, and certainly develop your ability to protect yourself. Nowadays solo kata is so often criticized as a being an ineffective alternative to partner drills, and in actuality, as said above, this criticism is valid. Like it or not, solo kata is an ‘inferior alternative’. However, those who make this criticism, and try to avoid solo kata training all together, are misunderstanding the role of kata within the complete training routine. It is also my belief that without solo kata training, what we practice historically loses its connection to karate. Therefore if we take this path, we cannot honestly call what we are doing 'karate'. From a pure bujutsu perspective, this of course is completely irrelevant.
By this article I am not suggesting that karateka should neglect their kihon in favour of application, as the two must co-exist. As commonsense dictates, without solid kihon, and the ongoing development of ones kihon-waza, nothing is possible. Refining ones basic actions is literally endless, unless you have come straight out of Plato's 'World of the Forms' into the material world. Experienced karateka must not be stagnant by merely perfecting outward form. This ok at at low kyu level, but once people get to senior kyu levels, they should have ample skills for personal protection. I'd like to conclude, by saying that the kata of JKA style Shotokan-ryu, that is, its applications, make it a complete martial art. Study and more importantly, physical practice of oyo-jutsu will fill the wide gaps found in the standard Shotokan syllabus.