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Non-aikidoka are often confused when I talk about kata in aikido — “You mean like what they do in karate?” Even most aikidoka are aware of kata only as a term referring to form as opposed to application, or in reference to Saito Sensei’s solo or paired weapons training sequences. Morihei Ueshiba apparently did not approve of the kata training method, believing that “static” prearrangement of techniques interfered with the direct, spontaneous transmission of techniques from the gods. Thus, in most styles of aikido, kata as a set of prearranged techniques is not used as the primary training method. Kenji Tomiki, like his master Jigoro Kano before him, felt that kata was a valuable teaching tool and incorporated it into his system. Today, most Tomiki practitioners could tell you that a kata is a set of techniques practiced with a partner for teaching the basic principles of various aspects of Tomiki aikido.
In fact, the Japanese term kata encompasses all of the above… and more. Donn Draeger defines kata as “prearranged form” and goes on to explain in his Classical Bujutsu (p. 56) that “kata became… the central training method for all bujutsu… [because] it is the only way by which the action that characterizes the bujutsu can be practiced without the practitioners being wounded or killed.” Obviously, during the Sengoku Jidai (Age of Warring States), the warrior had ample opportunity to experience direct spontaneous technique on the battlefield, and preferred to concentrate his training time on perfecting the skills that would provide the base from which such techniques could arise when needed. This was done through innumerable repetitions of kata, practiced with one partner as “doer” (shidachi) and the other as “receiver” (uchidachi).
Warriors were evidently willing to risk their lives based on this type of training, perhaps because many of the kata techniques and sequences were believed to be the divinely inspired creation of the founder of the ryu. In any event, kata contained the knowledge and experience acquired by successes on the battlefield, either of an individual martial genius or as an accumulation of the experiences of many. Each technique (also, confusingly to the Westerner, sometimes referred to as kata) in a kata sequence represents a specific situational study—a particular maai, kamae, attack pattern, or weapon—and the sets were organized in various ways to emphasize particular lessons, usually of increasing complexity. Using these reasonably safe, predetermined sequences, warriors were able to train at the edge to develop the reflexes, intuition and courage to survive in battle.
Kata was considered an essential component of the spiritual “forge” of training, which became increasingly important as the classical traditions evolved into peacetime ways. “Kata are filled, as it were, with physical koan, or conundrums, situations that evoke technical crises” (Draeger, Classical Budo, p. 52). In order to solve these puzzles a process of intuitive learning-through-action must occur, and this investigative process gradually reveals the technical and spiritual truths essential to mastery.