I recently watched a video clip of Morio Higaonna Sensei demonstrating Suparinpei Kata to a group of students at his Dojo in Makishi, Okinawa. Strangely, watching the clip reminded me of a conversation that I had with Senaha Sensei a few years ago regarding different interpretations of Kata. I found Sensei’s thoughts to be both intriguing and informative so I thought that I would share them with you here. Senaha Sensei explained to me that there were varying reasons why we often see differences in Kata. Even though theoretically the Meibukan, Jundokan, Shobukan etc, all do the Goju Ryu Kata from the same basis or mould, as in being passed down through the teachings of Miyagi Chojun Sensei. Often there are slight differences to be seen, these of which are either down to individualism, or the reasons to be mentioned below. I will be explaining things regarding Kata from a Goju Ryu perspective, as it’s easier, but this is all consistent with any style/Ryu and visa verse.

1, After many years of training, teaching and experimentation, a Sensei will often feel that a few adjustments may be needed to a particular technique or Kata move, be this for efficiency or effectiveness reasons. Sensei mentioned that his teacher, as in Meitoku Yagi Sensei, made changes in a handful of places within the Goju Ryu Kata that he taught. Of which Senaha Sensei just like his Sensei, highlights these changes with honesty to his students, together with the reasoning behind thus. Like in the Gekki San Day Kata for example, within the Meibukan and Ryusyokai, the first punches have been changed to Chudan level. There are though no thoughts of making out that this was the original way as taught by Chojun Miyagi. On the contrary in fact, the thinking here is for development, improvements and progression. 

2, As some of the Okinawan Sensei get/got older in years, they cannot always practice or demonstrate some of the techniques within Kata in quite the same way as they did when they were younger. So, there is often a need to adapt things to suit. This is now being seen also within more modern styles like Shotokan, whereby many older teachers are unable to perform some of the more flamboyant moves seen within the Kata, like the 360’ jump in Unsu for example. Within the Kata of Goju Ryu this can be seen in a few places. Saifa: The two kicks were well known to be previously done following jumps, not static as we often do now. Sanseryu/Suparinpei: The double jumping kick, hiza and maegeri is often seen these days as two static kicks without the leap. Kururunfa: Towards the end where the zenkutsu dachi is low, the body bends forwards, and the hand scoops from the floor/ankle. This is now often done more upright with a less low stance, with the scooping or pulling being more at knee level. There are of course a few other places where this can be seen, but I’m sure you get the point.

3, Karate Ka from other systems or styles often incorporate the Kata of Okinawa or in this case Goju Ryu within their own training regime, which of course is understandable and fine. What often happens though, is that, just as competition-based Karate Ka make changes to Kata to fit the competitive environment and make things more aesthetically pleasing, (flat form, swiftness, straight hands, changed timing, etc.) Other style Karate Ka can also make stylistic changes even if this is not intentional.  In his work Budo Masters by Michael Clarke, Eichi Miyazato Sensei says the following words on this very subject: Other styles… “They use the Kata but this is not Goju Ryu. You see if you use the movements differently from how they were intended, then you are doing something else.” And talking of Mabuni Sensei he says “He put his own feelings and meanings into his Karate. That’s ok to do, but it meant that the feelings for the Kata have changed from the ones handed down to him.”

4, Another valid reason for change or differences, and one that is probably at the forefront these days. Is when a Karate Ka has received little or no quality guidance in the teachings of a Kata. And to the trained eye or Sensei, the understanding of the subject Kata is seen as poor. Remember, watching video clips of Kata or attending the odd seminar or two is certainly not going to give you an in-depth deep understanding of any Kata really, all just becomes an external asthetic appearance. As Karate students we never learn Kata by this method whilst Kyu grades, so one should not be going down this path as a Dan grade. Most of the Kata within any style studied take years of practice, endurance and endless discoveries to really get the feelings inherent that the creator intended. You just can’t beat either the clock or quality guidance, no matter how much you try…

Going back to the video clip mentioned earlier. Whilst demonstrating the Kata Suparinpei Higaonna Sensei missed out the rotating on one leg 360’ crescent kick move, for reasons as mentioned above in number two. Not because it is a way for others to now follow.