Kata Technique Drift

By Erik Hofmeister

If you watch old videos of kata that we know in Yoshukai, or kata from related arts like Chito-Ryu, you’ll notice some differences.  How did they get there? Is there a reason for these differences, or are they just random? I don’t know for sure, but there are three likely possibilities.

The change is due to deliberate decisions made by higher-ups, like Soke.  There are some specific instances of this. When the WYKKO was formed, our upper block changed from using the lateral part of the arm (ulna) to using the anterior part of the arm (ulna and radius).  Several counts changed in forms, as did some of the placements of the kiai. All of these changes were made by Soke to bring our kata more in line with how they were done in Japan. Soke was also always continuing to learn and improve his karate.  As he had realizations and deeper understandings developed, the movement was changed to be more effective.

The change is due to mis-remembering by higher-ups.  Humans have a problem with memory. Our recollection is subject to so many biases and faults, it’s amazing we can retain anything accurately.  It’s not only high ranks, but, since they often have the responsibility for passing on information, if one high rank remembers something incorrectly, it is more likely to be propagated throughout the students and dojo.  This is compounded by the problem that we have a high degree of confidence in and belief that our memories are true. When confronted with contradictions to our memories, we tend to believe our own memories. This can make correction of misremembered techniques difficult.  I had taught the uraken in Niseishi as having an angle to it for years. Master Culbreth corrected this recently and, looking at videos that were made more than 10 years ago, the uraken was indeed the way Master Culbreth said it should be. How in the world had I misremembered this technique for so long and not had it corrected?  The illusion of memory is powerful, and we need to always be aware of it.

The change is due to mis-learned techniques.  Anyone who has ever taught anything knows that sometimes the student doesn’t learn what you had intended.  I have read answers by some students on an exam and thought, “Where in the world did you get that idea?” The same happens in martial arts- you may intend to teach the technique a certain way, but it isn’t learned that way.  This student then teaches it incorrectly to someone else, and so on.

In general, relying on people to learn and remember perfectly is unwise.  People are fallible. This is why movies and pictures are so critical to preventing kata technique drift.  Deliberate changes by the higher-ups are important, as their understanding and mastery of the art develops.  Accidental changes, though, can lead to frustrated students and conflict among higher-ups.