A Case for Kata: Should Kata Names be Capitalized?
During the editing process of my book Karate Science: Dynamic Movement, I had a really interesting discussion with my editor. It was about kata and in particular whether or not we should capitalize their names.
Kata is defined as series of movements that are linked together to encapsulate a particular theme or style of fighting. It could be argued that they truly define the practice of karate. The analogy I often use is if kihon or fundamentals are like the words of a language, then kata are the sentences. They help us to understand what words go where. For example, Shotokan karate is defined by 26 kata. Some were invented around the turn of the century, while others are manifestations of kata formed hundreds to thousands of years ago. Normally a practitioner will be taught the first few in a specific order, then once they achieve a certain ranking (normally above black belt or shodan) then they (often with the help of their instructor) pick two to work on. One that enhances their strengths and another that works on their weaknesses.
So should kata names be capitalized? In an English language sense in order to be capitalized, they must fulfill the definition of a proper noun. Proper nouns hold a special place in the English language and are often overused. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a proper noun is “a noun that designates a particular being or thing, does not take a limiting modifier, and is usually capitalized in English —called also the proper name.” When talking with my editor, this meant that they had to be named after a person, place, or singular thing in order to capitalize. This really made me take pause. Are the bulk of karate books that capitalize kata names wrong? Was something I had taken for granted for so long just incorrect? Apparently so…
While the auspicates of my editor was something really important and he is a very, very smart human being who smokes me in EVERYTHING regarding the English language, emotionally, I really wanted kata names to be capitalized in the book. Kata are just special, they are the heart of karate. So why should kata names be capitalized?
1) Kata are Creations
Creations like songs, books, choreography’s are all proper nouns, for example: “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “Swan Lake”, “The Nutcracker”, “Stairway to Heaven” are all capitalized. Kata are creations by masters from the past who took individual components in a particular medium (i.e. words, melodies, positions, or movement), to create a unique sequence or thing. These fall under the definition of a proper noun.
The specific word “kata” or the techniques that make them up are not proper nouns but the kata themselves that are creations by real people (similar to an author of a book, or choreography), and are specific. Therefore kata names should be capitalized.
2) Translations can be goofy
Translations, especially from foreign languages, can make no sense, for example, the Wang (family name) or Xiu Ying (Elegant and Brave). If we use a translation her name should be capitalized to Elegant and Brave. Or Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotȟake, the name translates to Sitting Bull, we would never ever not capitalize it.
Kata names are the same, they represent specific creative works, things by real people and even though the Japanese name of “Hangetsu” translates to something goofy like “Half Moon” it is still a specific and proper name referring to a specific creation.
3) Some kata describe specific events or places
Many kata have changed names over their lifetime, for example, Empi “flying swallow” was initially called “Wanshu” or “excellent wrist” and was created by Wang, a Chinese diplomat. Either way, it is a creation of a specific thing encapsulating his fighting system and therefore a proper noun.
Another kata such as Kankau dai or “to look at the sky” was initially called Kusanku after the Chinese Diplomat. Therefore this is a specific creation “Kanaku dai” as defined above, and was named after a specific person.
Jion is named after a temple thought to be in China. The kata Jutte and Jiin are potentially derivatives of it. Therefore all are proper nouns because they name specific creations, and are named after a specific place.
However this does not hold for all kata names and so would suggest that while it is proper to capitalize some kata that happens to be named after a specific person or place, a kata like Nijushiho nijushiho should not be (yea… that just looks wrong).
4) Kata are not just groups of movements
Kata is far more than groups of movements tied together. They have “feelings”, “tastes”, “rhythm” that are associated with them and their practice. When I was studying other martial arts, sometimes I found that kata could be just groups of movements that were required to pass a rank test. However, in Shotokan and most other forms of karate, they are different. They represent full and complete fighting systems that are as unique in feel and emotion, as any choreography, book, or created work. It takes a significant amount of practice to understand this (following principals of Shu Ha Ri). For example, in my own training, I select one kata and practice it very intensely and carefully for years (my current tokui or favorite kata for at least the last 10 years has been Nijushiho), the movements help me develop smooth flowing movement, like waves on a beach. All of my karate has been influenced by that kata. For the six previous years, I worked on Empi, which develops quick sharp movement. Therefore, due to working with these two unique kata, my personal karate has been influenced heavily by them. Therefore my karate can be described as part Empi like and part Nijushiho like. That is someone who has fast sharp movements coupled with flowing movement and smooth transitions. This is above and beyond the techniques that make up the kata but are really emergent of the specific allegorical tools that the masters wanted us to learn from them. Therefore since they can stir up emotions, feeling, and are specific entities they are proper nouns.
Therefore, with these facts in mind, I believe while all kata are not proper nouns in the strictest sense of the word, they are central and critical to our understanding of karate. They are so much more than just mere movements that have been handed down to us, but rather can be a defining factor in how we individualize our karate. Isn’t that worth a mere capital letter?