In this second part I will attempt push further beyond the boundaries of the standard workings of the paired kata in Wado karate. I am not expecting everyone to agree with me but please bear with me.
In Japanese Budo what I am calling ‘the contract’ is really important. You are measured and judged by your ability to assiduously, almost pedantically, stick to ‘the contract’.
This manifests itself beautifully, almost poetically, when it comes down to working with bladed weapons. One mistake, one ill-considered move or lack of intent and things get messy really quickly.
Consider the Tanto Dori (knife defence) paired kata of Wado Ryu. Uke has the blade, knows his role and not only sticks to the script but also delivers the blade as powerfully and accurately as he is able. Tori knows this and as a result his focus becomes hyper-acute; it has to be. He can’t move early (a clear betrayal of the contract) and to move late is potentially fatal. There is only one option; get it right!
How we got away with that in the late 20th century is a source of amazement to me – today, ‘health and safety’ would have been all over it!
But it has to be remembered that the paired kata are teaching tools. Yes, they are formalised, but as such they are the embodiment of wisdom refined over generations. I know that some may wag a judgemental finger and say, ‘but that’s not real, that’s not what would really happen!’ and of course they would be completely and spectacularly missing the point.
To return to the theme of kihon gumite – if you look across the ten canonical kihon gumite and try to see them through the lens of a protracted sequential dialogue, then the wisdom and cleverness of them just leaps out at you.
Sequentially, they open up a series of overlapping conundrums and a shed-load of ‘what ifs’. I won’t go into them individually, but they offer themselves up like a puzzle box, where positives mesh with negatives in time and space. This is the ‘politics of paired kata’.
Looking at the paired kata as conversations between two protagonists; as we know, conversations come in many forms; not all of them are meaningful or even useful. Some conversations are clear in their intentions; others mask duplicity and deceit.
There are conversations (if indeed they can be called that) where one party harangues another; spouting their pet theories, looking for validation, shooting down any dissent, seeing the other party as an antagonist, not listening to counter arguments, etc. The kihon gumite version of this is where either party disregard the other; just doing their thing. It’s an empty experience for both sides, a total waste of time and energy.
High level conversations.
And then there are high quality conversations; ones where nobody is trying to score points, where opinions are speculations and not carved in stone and both parties have a common cause and listen respectfully. These are truly exploratory exchanges; all parties involved on the cusp of their knowledge, open-minded, aware and unafraid to venture into the unknown, while maintaining the solid foundations of a mindset which is matched to the task.
Within paired kata like the kihon gumite, both protagonists approach the engagement (conversation) respectfully and almost with an air of reverence. Their focus is complete and directed at all aspects of the unfolding sequence of events. They know there is a script but they don’t allow themselves to become totally straightjacketed by it. There is nuance and a battle going on inside the battle, observing keenly the micro-gestures; (whether they are aware of it or not), very much like meaningful and positive verbal exchanges.
Different styles of conversations – successful, or not so successful?
It is said that conversations are generally more successful when conducted between peers and rarely so when directed from the middle or bottom of a hierarchy upwards, as in, an under-manager upwards towards a senior manager or boss. It can be tricky because of the hierarchical positions; the underling has to approach his boss with great care for fear of stepping over the line, or seeming to criticise or undermine decisions or ideas.
But the same situation in paired kata can have a useful dynamic; because; if the junior is open and receptive, they can gain so much from working with a senior grade. Direct physical communication relating to issues like body feel, timing and cause and effect, these aspects almost bypass the intellectual and go right to the heart of the matter; tapping into that weird level of consciousness that exists as what Ushiro Kenji calls the ‘Body Brain’.
There may be more to this than we think.
The politics of paired kata could possibly have more complexity than appears at first sight.
The general understanding is that these kata are seen as sets of prescribed techniques that are linear and ruled by cause and effect, i.e. ‘In response to this attack, my response is…’. This generally fits in with how the physical world operates, or rather how we prefer it to operate; in a very predictable way, it’s comfortable for us. As an example; if someone climbs a high stepladder and drops a golf ball they can pretty much tell you to the millimetre where the ball will impact on the floor. Try the same thing with a piece of paper and, although you know it will eventually hit the floor, you can’t be sure exactly where. In a way, it is comparable to dealing with someone’s direct physical aggression, a random attack; you really don’t know how it’s going to play out. Here we can see the weakness of being bound by linear thinking.
Cause and effect; action and reaction follow a very comfortable pattern of Newtonian physics. For some schools of karate and certainly the so-called ‘Reality based Self-defence’ this is all that is needed, and the simpler the better.
But if you dig deeper, it all goes a bit Schrödinger’s Cat.
There are some tantalising conundrums in the paired kata that lean towards the same kinds of qualities and contradictions found in quantum physics and become a challenge to the Newtonian model .
Examples of contradictions in Wado:
In the Wado paired kata these puzzles are sometimes presented to us overtly.
The second grandmaster would tease us by talking about ‘Wado mathematics’, he would say, “It works like this; in Wado it is 1 + 1 = 1”. How can that be so? Once you see it, it all makes sense, and it sets the bar really high if you want to work it at the physical level.
Another wonderful contradiction is that Tori and Uke are separate, but one. This is very ‘quantum’, the contradiction to the Newtonian form of action and reaction; in the quantum world action and reaction are one and the same, you are not waiting for things to happen, you are not waiting for feedback, you ARE the feedback, you are making your own reality. What happens between Tori and Uke is also an embodiment of a mutual resonance; there is a harmonic interplay which dissolves the convenience of thinking of these roles as separate entities.
Added to that is that the ‘attacker’ and ‘defender’ can be both at the same time! The river flows on and reality changes – like Heraclitus says, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”.
This does away with the idea that Uke is a mere stooge, operating with dumb passivity; a punchbag for Tori to work his magic on.
This is why in Wado the oft-used platitude of ‘Karate Ni Sente Nashi’ (‘there is no first attack in karate’) becomes meaningless to us. It has uses and meaning to the Okinawan branches of karate, but in Wado it is a retrograde method. Japanese Budo has a more refined approach to cognitive reality, completely at odds with the morally ‘safe’ perspective of Okinawan pragmatism. The Okinawan moral standpoint is secure and (for them) unquestionable, but for me it is philosophically unadventurous.
The root of these contradictions is not unique to Wado. Many examples can be found in the older Japanese Budo.
Koryu practitioner and author Ellis Amdur describes the contradictions found within the Itto Ryu school of swordsmanship; specifically, the technique Kiriotoshi (dropping cut) “in which two swords cut along exactly the same path…”.
Amdur makes no bones about it, “Kiriotoshi accomplishes the seemingly impossible – apparently defying Newtonian physics. At the moment of impact, with two objects – swords – occupying the same space. One ‘passes through’ the other. This is the product of one individual who is striking with a sword meeting another who ‘is’ a sword. Literally, the sword and body are one entity.” .
It is sad that some of the most valuable aspects of paired kata get lost in the weeds. In this case the ‘weeds’ are the positional minutiae; where this foot goes, or that hand goes – all of which are important of course, but it is a mistake to think that this is all there is to it. If your objective is doing it faster, harder and stronger, and making great shapes, then eventually you would meet your ceiling, as many do. And to assuage their deep-seated and largely subconscious worries that maybe that is all there is to it, they might feel inclined to just pile on more paired kata and kid themselves that this is progress – when all along all that’s needed is adherence to core sets of principles. It is these same sets of principles that become the fertile ground from which an unlimited range of technical options spring. Get them right and it becomes truly effortless (or so I am told).
Working with principles is like jazz musicians riffing on a theme and exploring each appropriate path of musical possibilities, always in step, even as new options unfold, beyond thought, beyond artifice; the music is almost a power outside of them.
I am tempted to appropriate a quote from the great jazz trumpet genius Miles Davis and apply it to options thrown up within paired kata; that is, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong”.
For me, the spirit of that quote works well with the politics of paired kata.
 I lay no claim to being an expert in the field of physics; please don’t bombard me with harsh and incomprehensible brickbats. I am only an amateur.
 Ellis Amdur, ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ 2000 edition.
Featured image; Tim Shaw and Martijn Schelen working on Tanto Dori.