“Are there Kata in Aikido?” by Nick Lowry

“Just forget your self a little and turn loose and let the undifferentiated aiki flow through you, and see what happens.”

http://www.aikidojournal.com/blog/media/lowry.jpgAre there any such things as kata in aikido? Of course there are – it’s a silly question, but if you take it that aikido is the invention of M. Ueshiba, then originally, surprisingly, No.

Nor were there names of waza. That just knocked me over when I first learned of it. Ueshiba didn’t call kotegaeshi, kotegaeshi he just called it aikido. He didn’t call iriminage, irirminage, just aikido. No names at all – Just undifferentiated aiki. The flow of the moment did this, so he did that, and there you have it, just AIKIDO, expressing itself through him in a multitude of ways. He didn’t teach techniques, he just taught aikido.

There were just actions and reactions — the expression of what he did from the general principles he embodied. Whatever he did–whatever stuff happened was aikido. No organizing structures, no teaching devices like kihon, katas or the like. Everything was Henka; everything was just variations on the general themes. And he made that work—and work well – he was the top of the heap, ultimate martial artist of his time and place. And he was tested—tested like no one else I’ve learned of since— shinken shobu–tested with live steel and if the legends are right, bullets too. Bullets may be a bit far, there might be some smoke and mirrors showmanship here, but nonetheless it is pretty well known that he took on all comers, judo, kendo, sumo you name it—he was unrivaled by all accounts, both armed and unarmed.

Names of techniques and katas and such came later. Much later. Had to be introduced by a whole other crowd. Gave students and teachers something to hang on to conceptually. Made for a simpler (and paradoxically in some ways more complex) learning experience. Of course some of that structure probably harkens back to the aiki predecessor, Daito Ryu—but I have to think that there is a substantive difference here. If Ueshiba was just teaching Daito Ryu, then why go to the trouble to found his own thing? There is certainly lots of Daito Ryu stuff in his work but I would argue that he wasn’t just reinterpreting Daito ryu curriculum. His was a unique new expression in martial arts that had unique aims and purposes. Once we’re in AIKIDO, we’re just not in Kansas anymore– it just ain’t old Takeda’s world at all. Ueshiba’s expression was something new, creative and inspiring—and originally undifferentiated.

That’s still a shocker to someone who has inherited a very systematized, rationalized, kata-oriented approach to aikido– it bakes my noodle, in a good way–I find it fascinating to consider AIKI from this completely different angle; and incidentally, from here to notice that the Rational approach sort of marginalizes the Founder even as it extols his genius. His undifferentiated aiki becomes somehow “less than” our better thought out new fangled systematized ideas— in some ways he is either held up as a god-like figure, whom none can replicate (not good for research purposes–replicable results matter) or he is diminshed/dismissed as an anachronistic spiritual mystic of some sort; while we are modern and better educated, logical , and consequently better equipped to teach the Founder’s art …
Oh really?

Are we really more efficient teachers than Ueshiba? Yea, right. Like he really had trouble teaching guys like Tomiki or Mochizuki or Shioda, come again? Our rationalist fantasy of superiority just allows us permission to deviate from the course.

Still, this reflex away from the mysterious and mystical toward the system of education is natural, evolutionary perhaps. We don’t all have to become spiritually endowed in order to realize benefits from aikido training, but I think what may get lost in such a move (the move toward making the mystery intelligible and known) is a sort of reification, ossifying the fluid concepts of AIKI into “known entities” and then promptly getting stuck on them. There is a beautiful fluidity and power in the undifferentiated and maybe in time we approach it in toshu randori if we’re lucky. But even then it does require that we let go of our knowing and understanding and more pointedly learn to operate out of that part of ourselves that remains undifferentiated too. The old zen proverb says, “to study the way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self…” It’s not too scary. Just forget your self a little and turn loose and let the undifferentiated aiki flow through you, and see what happens.

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  1. Kata are learning tools for us lesser mortals. Bless Saito sensei for having the humility to simply teach THEM rather than show off his personal skills.

  2. Gawad Adham says:

    Its funny I should read this article to day, I learnt aikido through Kata, Saito sensei,s teaching metod is a blessing I agree with Mr Warren on this, what is taught in Iwama is clearly defined, and easy to understand, and as I started to teach easy to impart.
    That said, I just returned from a seminar with Endo shihan, which was very educational and informative, some of the people I was with found it difficult to follow as he never really repeated any specific technique in the same way, it was more according to what the Uke gave him that he responded too, I must confess that I could see all the solid basics in his technique, but what was diffrerent was his relaxed flow, and I think that this is ultimatly what Aikido should look like
    Idont know if Im making a point, just that one should lead to another, and the danger of kata is that one can become enslaved to it ….

  3. Michael Cimino-Hurt says:

    The Buddha achieved understanding beneath the boddhi tree, but he had to use the structure of the “Four Noble Truths” and the “Eightfold Path” in order for others to make sense of what he had understood. Same with Jesus, who codified his understandings through parables and “The Sermon on the Mount”. I seems to me that profound epiphanies (such as Ueshiba Sensei’s), must be encoded into a system that can be accessed and replicated or it is unlikely to be passed on effectively. I agree with the previous poster that one can become obsessed with replicating the surface reality without understanding the underlying principles. Miyamoto Musashi stressed “Know one thing to know many things.” He was talking about understanding the principles.

  4. O’Sensei studied kata when he started training in martial arts. Right? This is just history repeating itself.

  5. Bidouleroux says:

    If you’d asked O-sensei if there were “kata” in Aikido, he’d have probably said no. Then if you’d ask him to teach Aikido to a child, *bam* you’d see “kata” reappear. If you’d then ask O-sensei why he showed the child “kata” and not Aikido, he’d probably tell you it’s because the child can’t do Aikido (yet). The implied thing here would be that O-sensei probably thought, with his pre-war mentality, that every able bodied person of age could “steal” his technique if only one tried hard enough to be “at one with the universe”. Hence he didn’t have to “teach” anything. Of course that’s a bunch of bullcrap, but that’s what happens when you wander off in religious abstractions, universals, absolutes, etc.

    The way I see it is this. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, true. But the whole is not some mystical thing that somehow transforms or is added to the parts. It’s simply the links between the parts and their possible interactions, the “information” that is added by the structure formed when the parts coalesce into a whole. To give an image of a whole, think about a prime number: it is only divisible by itself and by one (a “whole”). But that doesn’t mean that prime numbers are magic or that they are somehow “better” than other numbers. You can easily add numbers to get any prime number and you can subtract from a prime number and lose the primality. So, if Aikido is much like a prime number, then there is an infinite number of Aikido. This would agree with much of what O-sensei said. Now, it may be that Aikido is another kind of unusual number, but in any case these can invariably be found to be in infinite number. To continue with the prime numbers analogy, the problem then is not to show that Aikido has kata or not (or whatever else denomination you give to a martial technique), but to prove that YOU can factor “Aikido” from this or that “kata”, “technique”, “movement”, “principle”, “whatchamacallit”, etc. What you can’t say, following the analogy, is that you do Aikido because of your “uni-ty” to the “uni-verse”: “one” is not a factor of prime numbers! (though I guess that, conversely, you could indeed say that by doing Aikido you are “one” with the universe in some limited sense). In any case, the whole of a system of techniques is obviously much more information than the conscious part of our brain can handle at once, but by linking all the specialized parts into a coherent system of responses, something like an “art” can very well be born.

    Now is “Aikido” something only O-sensei, with his “genius”, did? Not at all, if you consider “Aikido” as being primarily “aiki” with an ethical twist of “do”. “Aiki” itself is an old concept (maybe not the word itself though) and any martial artist worth his salt had to master it to survive in combat more than once. Any art (read “collection of technique”) that wants to win against an opponent in a better position (the enemy is stronger, is armed, is on top of a hill, etc.) will need to use the opponent’s force against him. As juujutsu were practiced mainly as a last resort, it comes to reason that most of them if not all were guided by the principle of “aiki” or “yawara” as it was more commonly called; “yawara” referring to the suppleness of a tree branch – a living thing – and not to the laxness of a piece of string. A very important distinction indeed.

    The tricky part then, is to teach this “aiki”. Takeda Sokaku and Ueshiba Morihei had a different approach to the way they displayed their “techniques” or art, but the basics were the same: techniques are shown at speed and the students must “steal” them somehow. This is a very elitist way of teaching, since only a fraction will have the necessary skills to both observe the movements correctly and then implement them skillfully. And then only a fraction of those that “got it” will further be able to develop true “aiki”, especially in the modern world where practice time is limited and opportunities for hands-on experience are next to non-existent. The only remedy is a more scientific approach not only to the techniques, but also to their integration – much like how we can “learn how to learn” to use our limited time more efficiently when studying. The other way would be to practice more, but that may not be sufficient for some (in olden times, these students would be thrown out of the ryu or even not accepted in the first place) and may prove impractical for most.

    I think here that the Iwama system developed by Saito-sensei is a step in the right direction, as it integrates not only hand-to-hand and hand-to-weapon techniques, but also weapon-to-weapon. By handling weapons correctly the importance of ma-ai is made more evident, especially concerning the risks of injuries and the timing of strikes. The only thing I would emphasize more is that “the kata is the technique”, meaning that the way you practice the kata is the way you will execute the technique. The more precision in the kata, the easier it will be to break free from its restraints because you will have assimilated the technique much more rapidly than if you change the execution/timing/resistance/etc. every time. By changing what seem like minute details, you really are simply telling your body to learn another, slightly different, “kata”, a slightly different way of moving your body, that will compete with all the other slightly different patterns of movement when comes a real attack. Instead of climbing directly to the mountaintop, it’s like spiraling your way around, trying to chart all sides of the mountain instead of simply doing so once you can see down all around from the peak. From there you can also look further away at other mountains and thus “steal” from other masters, which is a nice privilege O-sensei liked to exercise often it seems.

  6. Angel says:

    That is why the wrist locking techniques are called by numbers in traditional Aikido rather than name; Ikkyo, Sankyo, …

    • Richard says:

      Maybe I have misunderstood what you meant to say, so please forgive me if that is the case. Anyway, I think you are saying that Ikkyo, Sankyo, etc are traditional technique names. However, In Japanese Ikkyo, Nikyo, Sankyo is a way of counting…just numbering. They are not traditional names.

    • Kamal says:

      I would say so… it’s a simplification of technical names. Daitoryu has a specific name for a technique and specific name as well for a variation of that technique

      In modern Aikido, technical names have been simplified. The examples you stated above were part of them.. ikkyo (first lesson) or ikkajo (first control)… kotegaeshi, shihonage, aiki otoshi, and so on…

      The technical names in Aikido are straight forward and boring actually, there’s no air of mystery to it… and probably like a dozen technique that used to have their own names in Daitoryu were described by a single definition in Aikido

  7. Kamal says:


    Though I do agree with what you wrote, I would still convey the techniques of Aikido to my juniors through the use of kata for the very simple reason, it is a different time and age…

    Kata is a good way of explaining techniques, especially when the person doesn’t deal with physical attacks on a daily basis. Kata explains things like, “you do this technique because of the following circumstances, but don’t have any illusion that this is what you will see in real life”

    By the way, Kata is not just solo kata, but paired kata as well, or more… but this is common knowledge already…

    For those who don’t go into fights/battles everyday, like me, we may have a skewed perception of what is actually out there, so we need someone to explain what to expect. If things get blurred for people like me, it could actually get me killed. So definition is definitely important for me, why things are the way they are, appreciation of how the art came to be, understanding that people live and die going into battles…

    I too seek enlightenment, but I don’t make light of the task before me. By understanding the past, I could appreciate the present, and grow for the future…

    Osensei’s students were warriors before they became his students… these concepts are not foreign to them… the teaching methods will be different between each student depending on their skill levels and their needs. This is very subjective and not uniformed, but sometimes this is a method of conveyance that is used…

    As for spirituality, this is an integral part to Japanese Budo for many reasons… other than culture, these soldiers saw battle, death, and destruction every time. And these battles were gritty and bloody… you feel blades puncturing your opponent… bludgeoning your opponent to death… battlefield drenched in blood, body parts… excrement and urine released when a person die… I would go crazy trying to make sense all these death and destruction… I would like to know if there is a meaning in all of this… a higher cause… even something higher than the Sun Emperor…

    It is not Bujutsu then Budo… Bujutsu is the necessary skill that I need to have when I go into battle… Budo is what makes me stay sane…

    Anyway… I’m rambling as if this was my own blog page…

  8. Right on Lowry Sensei! Kata is a tool and a medium.

    What is interesting, is what is contained within the kata, what is encrypted within it.

    Ask a tadpole at what point it became a frog and it will be unable to tell you. Move that forward a few million years on the evolutionary scale to the point where you have a rational scientist asking ‘at what point did I become a human being’, and you will get the same answer.

    DNA might be a good answer
    But what is DNA? – Kata
    What do DNA and kata have in common?
    Immense creative power and capacity for endless variation
    Attachment to kata:
    “Action is accomplished with full insight into all the principles, lightly throwing those principles off and letting none remain in the mind.”
    and again:
    “In the martial arts it is a sickness if you do not leave the mind of the martial arts behind.”
    Yagyu Munenori
    “Learn and forget, learn and forget.”
    Morihei Ueshiba

  9. Henry Ellis says:

    Mr Lowry,

    I found the first part of your article most interesting as it is sounded so much like the Aikido intoduced to the UK in 1955 by Kenshiro Abbe Sensei – There were Katas, but only from Suwariwaza. There were no names or numbers for any techniques, Abbe Sensei would always say ” necessary this technique or necessary that technique”.

    Henry Ellis
    Co-author `Positive Aikido`.

  10. According to Mochizuki Sensei, Takeda Sensei taught only kata to Ueshiba Sensei. His students were never present.

    After receiving his lessons, Ueshiba Sensei would gather his students and brought life into those techniques through “jiyu randori” (free-style practice).

    All what he taught was “robuse” (a practical version of ikkyo), “tehodoki” (hand releases) and suwariwaza. Everything else was happening “on the spur of the moment”!

    Most of the deshi were also already skilled budo students and spent a great amount of time doing solo training — very rare nowadays.

    Ueshiba Sensei was against teaching kata since he knew well the Japanese mentality (not very different from ours) and the danger that students would get stuck within their comfort zone.

    But not teaching kata (or basics) is like letting children do their own ways under the pretense that they are too young to understand and appreciate the values of education and culture.

    We ordinary human beings have to find our own ways through a combination of basic (kihon) and free-style practice. Very talented individuals may not have to go through that process.

    In my teaching career of 35 years, out of about 10,000 students taught, I have seen only one individual who could learn a technique and use it immediately and effectively in a free-style situation…

    There is no perfect way, no final answer. All suggestions are welcome.

    Patrick Augé

  11. I think the teaching methodology of today’s martial arts schools are far and away superior to “old school” methods romanticized by students of virtually every art. I’m not saying contemporary exponents are more proficient, I’m saying teaching methods are better. If you are a young man living in a dojo, training 8-10 hours a day, essentially indenturing yourself to a teacher, you will probably learn by any teaching style, but if you train 3-5 hours per week, as most people do today, it helps to have a more precise, structured way to approach technique. And teaching technique evolves as the practitioner gains skill. In the old days, the sensei took on few disciples. If you got injured or maimed or frustrated or whatever, you left. The ones that remained learned, but I don’t think that’s a feasible model for today. In fact, I think romanticizing “old school” methods, especially without the cultural and social infrastructure to support them, is adolescent fantasy.

  12. John says:

    O Sensei’s nomenclature is fascinating to study – or the lack there of. When I tried to find an old definition of Omote and Ura, for example, I found a pile of stories of rotten politics instead. Shomenate seems to appear in every system of Aikido – but not by name! Tomiki was harshly judged by his contemporaries, is this why I never hear the name of this technique (or any name) outside of a Tomiki Dojo? Names change or vanish when we dismiss certain teachers, or teachers want to distinguish themselves from their competition. Daito Ryu does have a very structured teaching method with definite names of techniques, as do other arts that O Sensei studied. For him to demonstrate variations on traditional techniques but insist there was no name seems disingenuous, but an important lesson.

    Continuous spontaneous creation of technique means kata must not even be in your thoughts. If one is thinking about kotegaeshi, they will try to do kotegaeshi no matter how inappropriate it might be for the attack, and that is not Aiki. Think of joining with an attack, and a technique can spontaneously appear.

    But, the process of creation means there are tools and techniques that must be learned prior to creation. Give someone a brush and paint but don’t tell them about different types of paint, different brushes, how to mix colors, techniques to give shapes, how to prepare a surface – don’t expect the Sistine Chapel. Don’t know how to solder metal or cut glass, don’t make a stained glass window. Creation requires much more than the mere freedom to create.

    For me, kata is the learning of artistic tools. My teacher would often make us learn two kata that were exactly opposite in one or multiple variables. In a seminar, after a point, he would say, “Yudansha, do what you will.” And we were expected to then explore the full implications of the exercise as we would be expected to know these contrasting variables then.

  13. Nga Pham says:

    Dear Sensei,

    When I was in Vietnam my teacher explained to me that kata is not just a sequence of motions but also a chess game. The current movement is presented but all the escaping gates are closed except one and that where the next movement is presented next. The application (or bunka) is depending on your opponents or how we go from point A to point B. So when we performed a movement he expected us to perform in a such way that body, force, alignment in order for the next movement happens as planned. If we look at ikkyo against the shoulder graph (at basic level) we execute the atemi (e.g., uppercut) such that our uke has only one reaction so that the striking hand can go back to his grasping hand. Therefore every technique in Aikido is kata by itself.

    Note that I am only a third kyu holder in Aikido Iwama Style.
    Thanks for the article and comments.

    Have a Happy Fourth.

    Nga Pham

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