The Politics of Paired Kata Part 1.

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Sugasawa Sensei & Tim Shaw, Holland

In this two-part blog post I want to suggest different ways of looking at our paired kata; whether that is kihon gumite, kumite gata, ura no kumite or ohyo gata.

Decades ago, a well-known western martial artist and writer had a chance to observe Otsuka Hironori, the original grandmaster first hand. The writer was from a different martial arts background not a Wado stylist. He wrote at the time that the ‘real’ kata of Wado Ryu were the paired kata. To my mind, either he was being deliberately provocative or he only assumed everyone would look at the context of kata exclusively in solo performance and neglected to draw connections between Wado solo kata and Wado paired kata.

To him the paired kata were clearer and more accessible. It is understandable in a way; particularly when you see what solo kata is currently evolving into, through the athleticism and drama of Olympic sports karate kata.

I am fairly sure that regular readers of this blog don’t need to be reminded of the root origin of the Wado paired kata [1]. These were never intended to be just sets of shallow two-man drills; they were meant to be understood and practiced as repositories of knowledge, containing layers of information in various forms.

It is these very same forms I want to speculate on in this two-part post.

Why did I refer to it as ‘The Politics of Paired Kata’?

When I am teaching paired kata I often explain what’s going on by referring to, “the politics of kihon gumite (or kumite gata etc)”. However, for the sake of simplicity ‘kihon gumite’ is one of the most convenient examples because it often contains the more complex but overt examples of ebb and flow and interchange that will perhaps support my argument.

Bear with me on this. Put simply; it is said that whenever you get two people in a room, politics is always playing out. For anyone with a keen eye its manifestation is obvious and subtle at the same time. Formal greetings, posture, position, proximity, eye contact and possibly small-talk which may lead on to serious discussion or even disagreement are all there to be observed.

There are rules at play, it’s all ‘political’ (with a small ‘p’). Add to that social niceties, protocols and good manners; everyone plays by the rules, you have to, because these same rules oil the wheels of society. Some might say that rules constrain us, tie our hands, and maybe they can become overly stifling – for example Japanese social rules are much more regimented than western European ones are.

The expectation is that all parties agree to follow the rules.

Rules are important.
As an example:

Imagine you are going to teach someone to play chess. They ask you what the objective of the game is? Your reply, “Simple… Your job is to take my king”. To which they then reach across the table and snatch your king off the board, hold it aloft and say, “I win!” By doing such a thing they achieve the logical objective (initially outlined by you) but the complex rules of the game in its entirety facilitate an opening up of amazing mental gymnastics and seemingly endless possibilities. So it is with paired kata.

In kihon gumite you have tightly prescribed roles with attached responsibilities. That is really your starting point. You know the rules – now live up to them and doors will open…or not.

What can go wrong.

Here are two examples of the rules falling apart in Wado paired kata; one more dramatic than the other, but in their own way quite revealing.

The first one is on a grading somewhere in the East Midlands around 1976.

Two girls were taking a kyu grading in front of Suzuki Sensei. Everything went really well until it came time for the paired kata; Suzuki Sensei’s three step kata, sanbon gumite.

One of the girls (the attacker) thought the punch should have been to jodan, but the defender, for reasons known only to her, blocked low; the result was that she took a full contact punch in the face. There was a lot of blood. The girl who delivered the punch was mortified that she had inflicted such damage, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry”, she spluttered, clearly distressed and powerless to do anything about it.

Suzuki Sensei sat at the table initially impassive, and then he stood up and railed at the girl for apologising! “Why are you apologising?” “it’s not your fault; it’s her fault!” he yelled, gesticulating at the girl with the bleeding mouth and nose.

Eventually, the club instructor stepped in and cleared the situation up.

It’s clear, if you operate outside of the agreed rules (deliberately or accidentally) all the wheels will come off.

The second example is not so catastrophic but it didn’t make it any less significant and, in this case, annoying.

For this one, I can guess that all of us have come across it – and, for that to be true, many of us will automatically have been the perpetrators of this particular crime… (but will never own up to it).

The crime is, being guilty of delivering a lousy attack.

The first time I came across this in paired kata was during the practice of Suzuki-ha sanbon keri uke (usually the last kick). Uke, knowing his kick was going to be swept aside, would stupidly and obligingly aim off target and swing it across himself! Deliberately off-line, meaningless, counter-productive… pointless; a parody. Nobody gains anything.

There are so many forms of this criminal disregard for protocol.

A friend of mine, a very able senior Dan grade (from one of the other organisations) told me how he came across a variation of this on a major course.

During the practice of kihon gumite with another Dan grade, (who really should have known better), he had to face an attack that in reality would have never made the distance. Instead of just going through the motions and obligingly allowing this pantomime to play out, my friend just stayed where he was, and as the attack fell short, he said, “What are you doing?” It is not really a polite response, but I would challenge anyone in the same situation to have behaved differently.

All of these are examples of the contract being broken.

I will discuss ‘the contract’ and other aspects in part 2.

[1] Because of Otsuka Sensei’s background in traditional Japanese Budo (he began his Jujutsu training under the age of eight and continued all the way through his twenties) he understood the long-established teaching method of paired kata, both armed and unarmed. He knew that as a vehicle for transmission this methodology had considerable value, particularly if the intention was to impart layers of established strategy, technique and wisdom. The kata were codified reflections of refined wisdom and the purest form of Principle (Ri) and not intended to be pure embodiments of refined, spontaneous active and living ‘Ri’. As such they were classified as ‘Ji’. (reflections, exemplars, models to reveal how ‘Ri’ manifests itself).

Featured image; Tim Shaw with Sugasawa Sensei explaining kihon gumite in 2017.

Tim Shaw

One thought on “The Politics of Paired Kata Part 1.

    David said:
    06/06/2021 at 4:30 pm

    A very insightful blog. Back in the day at Marvic house we were always told to go for the target because the defender will not benefit from a meanless attack.

    Liked by 1 person

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