The KATA Of Kodogu
   by Robert E. Haynes (03/1998)

The kanji KATA would seem to be, from the dictionary definition, a rather straightforward term, with little ambiguity. It is defined as; a model, a mold, a matrix, cast or die. But, as is so often the case with any Japanese term, this is only the beginning of its true full meaning. Donald Ritchie, in his A LATERAL VIEW essays on contemporary JAPAN, The Japan Times, Ltd. 1987; writes on page 135, "a way of thinking which is seen in all aspects of Japanese civilization and so thoroughly imbues that culture. We have no name for this manner of thought - at the most, if we have a word it is pejorative: stereotyped thinking, cliched thought etc. The same process in Japan is considered much more respectable and is, indeed, vital. Its qualities are found in the noun kata which the dictionary defines as a model, a mold, a matrix, or a pattern, a cut, a form.

Anything at all, an action, a word, a thought, is soon broken down into its basic elements. The result, the kata as it were, is then taken as emblematic of the thing it represents. In other words, reality is once removed, the signifier becomes the signified; manner becomes mannerism and reality becomes gesture. This results in an instant style. Such forms are self-sufficient; perfected, they last forever. Much can be said in defense of the kata and its products. Though it makes spontaneous, realistic, (art) impossible...."

How does this relate to the fittings of the Japanese sword? When we view any sword fitting we tend to see it though the eyes of the culture in which we were raised and live. Those who are trained in the study of fittings in Japan will have a very different view of a particular piece than will a Westerner who views the object, initially, only from his own cultural background. Almost imperceptibly his initial Western viewpoint will be altered to conform to that of the preconceived Japanese KATA held, through hundreds of years of tradition, by the students and collectors in Japan. He may not even realize that he can still have free ideas that are not completely molded, and patterned, after the accepted way of looking at a fitting, as tradition holds in Japan.

Kata goes far beyond its hold on Western thinking. Over the centuries, the artists in Japan have created their work to conform to the principal of kata. Not consciously, but from a two thousand year old tradition that has almost completely encapsulated all outside thought and influences. It is no surprise then that even today we totally conform to the principal of kata. We do not have to acquiesce to the mold of kata.

Naturally in our formative years of study our only source of ideas and information comes from the ancient tradition of kata. In the study of swords and sword fittings it is seen most saliently in the hold that all forms of kantei have in the study and judgment of the blade and its fittings. This kata, in the form of kantei has so clouded our thought processes, that we no longer can make judgments about what we see without it. This is also why we are so unsure of our own opinions and ideas that the only way we can reassure ourselves that we have any idea of what we see; that they must be codified and verified by the authority of kata, in the form of certificates, issued in Japan, by the very "experts" who are totally under the control of kata. This is a marvelously self serving, and self perpetuating process. I defy anyone to try to break this mold. If one does, he will be ostracized at worst, and more likely, ignored as some kind of eta. Any student will be unsure of his ideas and opinions, even after many years of study, but the student of the Japanese blade and fittings NEVER seems to get beyond the hold that kata has over them. Each student should look back on their years of study and try to see how they can break the mold that kata has over them and go beyond its confining matrix. We are free to have ideas and opinions that are opposed to the two thousand year old tradition of kata. In fact, the only way that new thoughts, ideas, and theories, will ever be introduced into the preconceived world of kata, is by those who are not bound by its restraints.


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