As a professional teacher and part-time researcher I know the values of models, strategies and other heuristics when trying to make sense of the complicated world of learning. Of course academic learning is both ontological and epistemological and therefore the need for a framework to understand past and help formulate future learning is vital. Likewise, as a social scientist I can use a plethora of data collection approaches but when I start to make sense of this data I need a sense making paradigm, commonly referred to as a methodology.
It is along this line of reasoning that I offer the following in relation to the teaching and by extension learning of karate, or indeed any classical budo.
While most budo offer official teaching licenses, dig deep and you will find a pedagogy rooted in rote learning. I do not know of a ryuha/system that grants such licenses where an actual understanding of how we learn and teach is expected. Rather, it seems the assumption that you learn as you go along and then pass it along to the next generation. Given the historical and cultural milieu out of which most of modern budo emerged this is understandable. However, pedagogy has over the past 100 years undergone significant development.
Let me start with a statement by the founder of the karate ryuha I study. In an 1979 publication put out by the North American body overseeing the promulgation of Chito Ryu there, ascribed to Chitose-sensei, is the statement: 'The old masters never left us clear instructions on what the kata's meant'. While, I have been unable to verify if this statement is actually Chitose's the sentiments expressed resonate with his contemporaries such as Mabuni, Funakoshi and both Choki's.
If this utterance is true then the argument going forward must be how can we make sense of the soul (i.e. kata) of karate without an empirical framework. More importantly, I would argue, without such a framework to enable exploration, kata remains a form of physical exercise, bereft of any true self-defense principles aside form how to defend against a reverse, straight punch and a forward thrust kick. Maybe an odd lapel or wrist grab also.
In Chito Ryu it is true we have set bunkai for kata but these bunkai form a very basic explanation of what the kata means. The vast majority of the techniques in our kata are not explained thus. There is a suggestion within the official NiSeiShi bunkai that all may not be as it seems, for example there are elbow strikes where none appear in the kata.
Then we also have, what I believe has been misguidedly passed on a separate GoShinJitsu or 2 persons self-defence drills. Indeed to anyone truly delving into the meaning of Chito Ryu kata these drills offer insights into an alternative interpretation of the kata. But then it stops. That is, the data which we are left with (i.e. the kata)remain complex and unexplored suggesting perhaps something else lies within their depth. We have returned to Chitose's quandary - if the old masters did not leave us the answer then how to we 'make sense' of the kata. This was a point I reached about NiDan level and have spent the past 20+ years trying to solve. Thankfully my work as an academic offers a suggestions and it lies in using a methodology to understand the data.
Using such an approach the kata are the raw data and the methodology I use has been that developed by karate researcher and writer Patrick McCarthy, Hanshi. Using his work in translating the Bubishi and exploring other systems of self defense McCarthy developed his HAPV (Habitual Antics of Physical Violence - see https://zanshinkai.wordpress.com/2011/06/22/habitual-acts-of-physical-violence/) and suggest that it was these acts that kata originally sought to answer. The McCathy HAPV theory, which I believe is actually a "Law' in the scientific sense, accounts for the various poses, hand techniques and other items possible in kata.
Kata, as a training device for 'fighting' bears little relevance to the modern point or full contact karate tournament. However, under the McCarthy Law it doesn't have to, as it wasn't designed for that purpose. It does nonetheless account for kata that addresses a no-holds barred, rich self-defence heritage that includes many anti-social actions that was banned when it came from behind the veil of secrecy and into the Okinawan school system in 1904 or so. Spitting, twisting, strangulations, gouging, head-buts etc were all removed from the modern karate curriculum at this time, as it purpose underwent radical rejigging.
Furthermore, looking at kata as data in need of a methodology, encourages deeper growth both in understanding and passing on the learning that is karate, Kobudo or social science. It liberates the practitioner while also holding them to account. It moves ryuha on from their potential stagnation and adoration of an individual into a richer experience and level of respect for what is ultimately the human condition.
Okinawan and Japanese Budo
James M. Hatch
International Educator who happens to be passionate about Chito Ryu Karate. Born in Ireland, educated in Canada, matured in Japan