My opinions on the centrality of kata to authentic karate are hardly unique. Kata are the building blocks of karate and with diligent practice they can unlock the essential techniques of dento (traditional) karate.
So, of the hundred or so traditional kata from across Okinawa and Japan, which do I practice? Well, as an instructor, I do an awful lot of Taikyoku and Heian repetition. The three Taikyoku kata are the invention of our grandmaster, Funakoshi Gichin, and date to the 1930s. They teach the essentials concepts of embusen (pattern), movement and basic body dynamics. The five Heian kata are the creation of one of Funakoshi's teachers, Itosu Ankoh. They date from the second half of the nineteenth century and were designed, I think, to provide beginner and intermediate karateka a basic syllabus of techniques from which advanced students could specialize. I think it is important for advancing students (in years and experience!) to continue to practice the basics. One of my teachers, Jerry Joles Sensei, told me he felt he gauge a karateka's skills by watching him perform Taikyoku Shodan - our most basic form. Stephen Boardway Shihan of the Kishintaikan Dojo recently echoed the same sentiment to me. These two very experienced teachers of different styles of karate share the same opinion - the basics matter!
However, you cannot stop with the basics. As teachers we must keep learning if we want to stay sharp and if we want to pass on good skills to our students. So, I continue to practice my kata (I hope) diligently. When I was tested for shodan (first degree black belt) I performed more than fifteen different forms. When I was promoted to nidan (second degree black belt) with a larger, national organization I prepared all of my kata, but was only asked to perform a few. Since it's been about ten years since I last tested for rank and I'm not planning on testing in the foreseeable future what should I practice? Do I still need to practice the encyclopedic syllabus of Shotokan kata?
I think, that the answer is no. I cannot practice all of the traditional kata of Shotokan on any kind of regular basis and hope to make any progress decoding and gaining fluency in them. First, even after two decades in Shotokan I still don't know all of the standard Shotokan forms. Compared to some other traditional styles which only have eight to ten kata, there are lots of Shotokan forms, depending on the Shotokan group to which you belong you may be expected to learn anywhere between sixteen and forty kata. Second, given that the kata take a minute or so each to perform, if I practiced each of the nearly thirty or so Shotokan forms I've been shown at various times just twice every day it would take me an hour to merely run through kata, with no opportunity for reflection or improvement.
Instead I have chosen to focus on just a few forms. These are kata that I particularly like due to their aesthetic, techniques or due to the challenges they present or they are forms that seem to have applications that are particularly well-suited to the way I move and fight. In addition to the Taikyoku series and the Heian series I have spent most of my time over the past few years practicing the Tekki series (three kata) and the forms Bassai-dai and Bassai-sho. For me, right now at least, it's three Taikyoku, five Heian, three Tekki, and two Bassai forms (with some others occasionally tossed in for variety). That seems like it's enough and, honestly, perhaps it's too much. The next time I get a chance to post a lengthy blog. I'll discuss why I've elected to focus on really just these five forms in more detail.