Why do katas come in threes?

Buses, as we all know, have an uncanny tendency to come in threes, which is a trait they seem to share with kata. It is difficult to practice karate for any length of time without noticing that katas have sequences of techniques that come in threes. This is such a salient feature of the Heian katas that even a novice karateka will not fail to spot it. However, when sensei recently asked me why I thought katas had repetitions of three, I couldn’t offer him, nor myself, a convincing explanation.

Three buses

Iain Abernethy suggests a plausible explanation, the gist of which is: it is important to practice both sides, but since most people are right handed it is more important to practice the right-hand side. Hence we have the pattern for right-left-right in many katas.

Iain Abernethy

The problem with this explanation is that there is a group of katas that clearly defy the convention. Whilst all three Tekki katas practice both side, they don’t show any preference to either one. Each and every combination is practiced once on one side and once of the other. And the problem isn’t confined just to the Tekki katas. Even within the Heian katas, and in fact most other katas, there are combinations that are only repeated once on either side. For example, in Heian Yondan, the combination kakiwake uke, mae geri, nihon zuki is performed once on the left and then once on the right. Clearly, if it were imperative to practice the right-hand side twice as much we would expect to see this principle applied more uniformly.

Kakiwake uke

Another possible explanation is that repetition is simply a useful learning aid. Again, plausible, but in my view not convincing. Firstly, the very purpose of kata is to facilitate repetition simply by performing the same kata over and over again in pursuit of perfection. Instead of repeating certain sequences, the whole kata could be repeated. Yes, one could argue that within a kata there may be combinations that either warrant or require more repetition, however, the reality is that those sequences that appear in threes tend not to be the most intricate or climatic. Quite contrarily, combinations punctuated by kiai, possibly an indication of their effectiveness, only ever appear once in most katas (again the Tekki katas defy convention with their perfect symmetry). Logic dictates that it is those combination that one would expect to require more practice.

Practice makes perfect

Then why do katas come in threes?

Let’s take a closer look at katas. As I’ve mentioned, some combinations appear once, some twice (usually once on either side) and others of course thrice, but is there some kind of logic behind it?

Fascinating!

I’ll start with the easy bit – combinations that appear twice. This is where I think Iain Abernathy is absolutely correct: katas encourage us to practice combinations on both sides and no other katas do it more conspicuously than the Tekki katas.

Two of each

There is also another prominent kata feature that appears twice. Karateka will have also noticed that all katas have two kiais (except Wankan). The two kiais lead me nicely to the next point which is sequences that appear only once, because those sequences that feature a kiai usually appear only once in a most katas. The reason in my view is that it would be impractical bordering on the annoying to kiai more often, let alone repeatedly. A kiai marks a climax point of the kata and using it more liberally would simply dilute its significance and effect.

When in doubt, kiai!

So finally we come to sequences that are repeated thrice. If we examine at those sequences even more closely we can distinguish between two kinds. Short sequences, comprising of single or double techniques, which are repeated three times in immediate succession – and – longer sequences that are repeated first twice and then a third time, with the third repetition often appearing later in the kata and/or with a slight variation.

Examples for the first kind are indeed the three age uke in Heian Shodan or the three teisho uchi in Jion. Those sequences are often performed to a tempo of 1,1-2. An example for the second kind is the combination from Kanku Dai: jodan shuto uchi, mae geri. The latter is also a good example for when the third repetition appears later in the kata and with a slight variation. The first two are followed by  manji uke, gedan nukite, whereas the last repetition is followed by uraken uchi, uchi uke, nihon zuki. Another interesting feature of this kind of repetition is that it is sometimes performed solely on one side (as in thae Kanku katas), which also somewhat contradicts Iain Abernethy’s theory.

The three graces

But what does all this mean? Why repetitions of three?

In my view, the answer is simply aesthetics.

Repetitions of three of the first kind are usually performed going up or down from the starting point (as in Jion) and give the kata embusen roughly the same width and depth and equal proportions mean harmony.

Beyond that, the number three has cultural significance in many societies including the Chinese and the Japanese. From three course meals to three piece suits, from trilogies to triptychs and from the three graces to the trinity – the number three seems to be everywhere including the world of karate. Do I need to mention kihon-kata-kumite?

Kanji 3

In story-telling, repetitions of three are used for emphasis and dramatic effect. The three ghosts of Christmas, the three little piggies, the three witches, the three bears, the three musketeers and on and on the list goes. The greatest story of all, the bible, is replete with examples from the three wise men to the three acts of denial.

Likewise in rhetoric, repetitions of three are a common device. A fine example is Martin Luther King’s famous speech “I have a dream” which ends:

Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

This example echos nicely the element of repetitions in kata whereas the final repetition “we are free at last” is separates from the first two by the words “thank god almighty”. This is similar to kata motifs that appear three times, with the last coming separate from the first two. One example is Empi with the combination: gedan barai, age zuki, otoshi zuki, ushiro gedan barai.

MLK

Does it make sense that what governs the shape of katas is simply aesthetics and not some kind of staragem or practical reason? Of course! Because aesthetic does not mean less practical. We like our homes, cars, phones, meals and pretty much everything to be aesthetic and in many cases aesthetics trump practicality. For kata, as a medium for teaching and practicing, it is important to be aesthetic because if we enjoy what we do we are more likely to do it. If katas were tedious or impossibly intricate, karate would have never become so popular. Having patterns that resonate with our cultural background regardless of who we are means that katas are almost immediately likable. Indeed, it is simply inconceivable that katas would not exhibit those traits that are so ubiquitous in human culture such as symmetry and repetitions of three.

So simply put, katas have repetitions of three because they could not have been created any other way.

And one afterthought – the Tekki katas may not have any sequences of three in them, but there are three of them.

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