Should kata start and finish in the same spot?

This topic came up among a group of brown belts recently. I was of the opinion that Taigyoku Shodan (our first kata) doesn’t finish in the same spot. I was told that all the Shotokan kata start and end in the same spot (which was presumed to apply to Taigyoku Shodan as a simplification of Heian Shodan).

Intrigued to know if I was mistaken, I set out to map the kata steps, and I attempted an embusen line drawing[1].

GKR’s Taigyoku Shodan and Taigyoku Nidan start and end in different spots, if you keep a consistent zenkutsu dachi throughout[2].

In any kara-te kata, your beginning and ending positions must be identical. At the end of the kata, if you have not returned to where you started, it either means you made an error with your steps or that your step-length was not exact. Kara-te uses not only the hands, but also stability of the hips, so you must practice paying attention to the length of your steps as well as the positions of your feet.

Gichin Funakoshi, Karate-Do Kyohan

Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan karate-do, said the above in his master text (translated by Tsutomu Ohshima). Funakoshi was one of the men to introduce karate to mainland Japan from Okinawa, and according to Iain Abernethy this is the first of his writings to mention this “rule” (so maybe it was a later developed idea?).

For this reason, Shotokan and closely-related styles are likely to have their kata start and end in the same spot, but must all kata do this?

Some kata can and do finish on the same spot when executed “correctly”, but I don’t think all should. I suspect there are many kata, old and new, from other styles that don’t.

I mapped GKR’s form of Seiunchin and it seems to finish about two shoulder-widths to the right of the starting point, and upon searching for some Gojo-ryu kata, Saifa doesn’t seem to finish on the same spot either. Thinking more about these two kata, I realised that there are a number of lunging steps for which a specific length usually isn’t given (as far as I know). They are usually somewhere between one and two shoulder-widths (wide or long) and the step is made with intent, the dimensions are not as important.

There are multiple reasons that one might want a kata to end in the place it started, including aesthetics, limitation of space, a way to judge the consistency of your stances, but I think to decide whether this rule can be broken, we should ask, what is the purpose of kata?

What is the purpose of kata?

Shihan Anthony Ryan says it is both self-defence and an art form.

As an art, it could be desirable to have that perfect balance of moves that results in ending in the starting point. However, as an art, the karate-ka adds their own strengths and expression to the kata, which may result in something mathematically imperfect, but aesthetically pleasing.

Kata is a form in which to pass on tested methods of self-defence through generations of masters and students. Often the meaning of the moves is not immediately clear to the practitioner and Patrick McCarthy says that this was intentional, particularly when introducing karate to the Japanese school system. In this process the intention of kata shifted from self-defence to exercise, and the meanings behind the moves (bunkai) were not taught. Also moves were removed or obfuscated that were thought to be too dangerous to teach children.

From that small part of history, we can conclude that kata, and the entire practice of karate, evolves over time as different practitioners and sensei develop their understanding of the moves, the bunkai, and the body mechanics[3]. Even the requirements and biases of society and culture change and may affect the way karate is taught and practiced.

In many cases karate-ka have modified their modern practice of a kata, according to what they learn from historical study. In a sense they evolve their kata forward, with throwbacks to the wisdom of former masters.

So, no! Kata don’t have to start and end in the same spot[4], but it is practical if it’s close!

Footnotes

  1. I’m not sure if my embusen line is correct. Do the lines go with the left or right foot, or the middle of the body? And if the middle of the body, how do you compensate for stepping sideways out of heiko dachi? Unless you move both feet, or into a stance that has no width, your center will shift, but traditional embusen drawings don’t depict that. Looking at photos in Funakoshi’s Kyohan, his stances seem a lot narrower than ours, so this may account for the ability to stay on one line in the way he taught kata.
  2. Apparently the Taigyoku kata were formulated by Funakoshi, so I’m not sure why ours doesn’t start and end in the same place. Perhaps because our stances are wider than Funakoshi’s (my observation from photos in the Kyohan), or we take a step back somewhere that he stepped forward. His versions of the kata are not in the Kyohan, so I’m not sure where exactly to check that.
  3. Side-note on Funakoshi and body mechanics, check out how he said to form a fist in the image below. The index finger knuckle is kept straight to make the front 4 knuckles flat. I’ve never seen this before! Might be helpful for some, but doesn’t seem to make a difference on my hands.
Funakoshi’s directions for making a fist, from the Karate-do Kyohan
  1. Unless you desire to perform a Shotokan kata exactly as Funakoshi wrote it down!

Published by Kristen S.

Kristen (kristarella) is a Happiness Engineer for Automattic (WordPress.com), karate-ka 🥋, musician 🎸, artist 👩🏻‍🎨, craftist 🧶, and lego enthusiast 🧱

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