“Yah” – “Toh” – Thoughts on Kata
By Ron Fox
“Yah” – “Toh”. Bokken whistling through the air. It’s kata practice time.
Step back in time with me, a couple of generations or so. Izui-sensei and Matsumoto-sensei, two instructors that for years were pillars of kendo in the Midwest U.S. They were sensei at Chicago kendo dojo, then located at the Buddhist Temple of Chicago.
“When I tested for shodan“, Izui-sensei once told me, “we used shinken for kata and in ippon-me when the shidachi finished their cut some of the uchidachi’s hair had to …” Izui-sensei made a motion in front of his face as if bits of cut hair were falling in front of his face.
“Yah” – “Toh”. Shinken whistling through the air. Testing time and tiny bits of hair have fallen down to the dojo floor. What is the essence of kata and why do we practice it?
I’m in Japan watching a testing many, many years ago.
“Yah” – “Toh”. Bokken whistling through the air, sandan candidates surreptitiously looking at the pairs on their left and right to see they’re doing it right. To them kata was something to get through in order obtain a piece of paper that told the world, and them, that they were sandan. I’m at MSU Sunday practice. “Yah” – “Toh”. Bokken slice tentatively through the air. Sunday is bokuto-kihon and kata practice and the current crop of new students is feeling their way through both sets of forms. I wonder what is going through their minds and hearts? Are they looking ahead to testing? Are they wondering what else is hidden in the kata? Do they look for direct applications of the kata to their shinai kendo?
I’m at the Kitamoto foreigner camp (the old 10-day version).
“Yah” – kuuulak “Toh”. Bokken whistle through the air met by kodachi performing the uke-nagashi of the first two kodachi kata, or perhaps the suriage-suri-otoshi of the third (kuulack – slide).
Inoue Yoshihiko-sensei looks on. He stops us and tells us about these three kata. The kata that capture the essense of katsushiken and satsushinken:
In ippon-me – the uchidachi attacks and without giving the uchidachi any chance the shidachi strikes him down.
In nihon-me, the uchidachi tries to bring his sword up, but the shidachi suppresses with the feeling of “No!” Uchidachi has a chance to give up the fight with nobody getting killed. Uchidachi persists and the shidachi strikes him down.
In sanbon–me, uchidachi strikes but the suriage and suri–otoshi – that’s again done with a feeling of “No!” – giving the uchidachi a chance to give up the fight without being killed.
Uchidachi recovers balance and tries again to kill the shidachi with doh but this time, shidachi entangles and locks up the uchidachi so that not only does the cut fail, the uchidachi is not able to mount another attack. The shidachi has used his sword to save the uchidachi’s life. That’s the point of these three kata.
The more I practice kata the more I return to the back section of Inoue-sensei’s book. The front – yes I can use that to understand the procedure of the kata. The procedure, by itself, is empty. The procedure and essence bring the kata to life.
A strike to my men by a shinai, in and of itself is similarly empty. My opponent’s spirit, the way in which they created the chance. Their dreams, aspirations hopes and ambitions, the total natural action, captured in that strike. That brings the cut to life.
“Yah” – “Toh”. Nakamura-sensei and my shinken whistle through the air. The one opportunity I had to practice kata with him in Toronto, I feel, for the first time, the seriousness of shinken shobu. Of the life and death outcome bundled up in an encounter between two swordsmen, crystal clear in the exchange of ippon-me. I feel that special ‘loud silence’ that speaks in the zanshin that continues after the waza of the kata. I resolved then that my goal will be to bring that to each strike in kihon-uchi, in kakari–geiko, in ji-geiko and in shiai.
Back to the present; and MSU and “Yah” – “Toh”, bokken wobble through the air. I hope the people wielding those bokken will one day start to understand what’s underneath and permeating the procedure. The essence.