“Inductive” versus “Deductive” Learning in Karate-jutsu

In the old days of Okinawan karate-jutsu a disciple’s achievement of a milestone was not displayed and performance levels were not recognizable for outsiders. There were neither official ranks/belts nor specific training uniforms used in Okinawa. Historic photographs show students wearing whatever clothes were at hand, and kata was assigned individually to students per a sensei’s judgement. 

Only White, Brown, and Black Belts in the 1920s 

After introducing karate-jutsu to mainland Japan, Funakoshi Gichin Sensei adopted the belt- and rank-system from Japanese judo in 1924 to document levels of proficiency in his Japanese karatedo style, which was later named Shotokan by his students. This early belt/rank system had initially two general levels, white and black, soon later three general performance levels up to mastery, displayed as white, brown, and black belts, before it was changed a decade later in Europe into an even more diversified Kyu-system of ten ranks with differently colored belts. 

The three-level structure of the early belt-system was helpful for many educational purposes and was adopted by the mid-1960s in all martial arts disciplines, including Okinawan karate-jutsu as (a) white belts (initially two, later three grades; these were lower level Kyu ranks); (b) brown belts (three grades; these were higher level Kyu ranks); (c) black belts (ten grades; these were Dan ranks used in the same way as today).

The inherent three-level concept―or curriculum if you will― proved itself reasonable and useful for all kinds of personal- and/or skills-development and therefore has parallels in various areas. Examples beyond trade education may be the three levels in academia, e.g., elementary-middle-high schools and associate’s-bachelor’s-master’s degrees; the three main military ranks of private, non-commissioned officer, officer; the three core levels in management (upper, middle, lower), etc. 

Each and every qualification level had to be, and still has to be, thoroughly and completely acquired and perfected for some years to develop the according foundation at that level. It is like building a rock-solid stairway; if the levels/steps are not sufficiently developed and undergird, the whole thing collapses as soon as weight is put on it―which means in karate-jutsu, as soon as an opponent is met in free-fighting or in combat.

Studying “Deeply” or Studying “Broadly”?

During this learning process it is as important to study one concept “deeply” as it is to study several concepts “broadly.” However, it is a common fact―and mistake―that someone, who supposes his/her knowledge being insufficient, chooses to study “broadly,” i.e. to study another related subject, instead of deeper penetrating the subject at hand. An example would be that martial artists, assuming that their art is not sufficient enough to succeed in a fight, start to study other styles, instead of proceeding to deeper penetrate and thereby to discover hidden bunkai in their initial style. We find a comparable mistake in form-only karatedo, where students assume they “know” kata as soon as they remember a pattern and execute the moves fluently, and then go on to train another kata.

Penetrating a subject deeper, called inductive learning, creates experts, it creates someone who knows everything about a specific subject there possibly is to know. This leads to advanced levels of insight and understanding―in contrast to learning broadly, i.e., deductive learning, which creates a generalist, someone who knows something about many subjects. The perfect combination would of course be an optimal synthesis of general and specialized capabilities.

Inductive (left) vs. Deductive (right) Learning of Kata


Penetrating further into one subject discovers new meanings and allows to close in on the inherent core components of the subject. The example of driving a car may illustrate this thought. Let’s say that one driver learns how to drive, but knows nothing about the impact that technology, physics, biological or psychological factors have on ones driving. Another driver penetrates driving skills deeper by, for instance, learning how an engine, a transmission and a brake work, by learning about the impact of temperature, lubrication and speed on a car’s performance, by learning about human perception, related reaction time, and so on and so forth. It goes without saying that there will be a substantial difference between these two drivers’ skills and that there will be significantly different ways of driving their car, of steering, accelerating, and of hitting the brakes. The more our driver understands about background and underlying factors impacting how a car needs to be handled in various circumstances, the more this insight will consciously and sub-consciously form his/her way to drive and the more advanced his/her driving skills will be. To penetrate the subject even deeper, our driver now studies how to control spinning cars and how to maximize traction on wet or frozen surfaces. Thus, hidden concepts to control challenging or dangerous situations become now accessible.

When we apply these thoughts to the inductive and deductive ways to study kata, their different outcomes are illustrated in the introductory graph. 

Inductive Learning in Traditional Karate-jutsu

Inductive learning was reflected in the old days of Okinawan karate-jutsu by the fact that legendary masters were experts in just a few kata they practiced, and that their students worked on one single kata for years. Related to this approach, though a real comparison of todays practice to the old ways is not possible, some styles have a closed curriculum-based kata system with a limited number of kata, which are each studied for a long(er) time. Others have an open, non-curriculum based kata system and students learn dozens of kata without ever experiencing the deeper meaning of inherent kataconcepts.

As an example for curriculum-related closed kata systems, Funakoshi Gichin Sensei introduced 19 kata into his Shotokan karatedo with the argument that it is not necessary to study indiscriminately large numbers of them since the purpose of learning kata is not just for the sake of learning them but “for tempering and disciplining of oneself”. His understanding of the disarmed purpose to learn kata in Japanized karatedo, namely to “temper and discipline oneself”, of course represents just a fraction of, and differs greatly from, the genuine intentions of self-defense and the protection of one’s life in Okinawan karate-jutsu. In the latter self-control is a mean to the end of success in combat, and not a goal in itself. 

In this sense, the Okinawan Shorin Ryu karate-jutsu systems teach (beyond some basic-technique-drill-forms) between fifteen kata in Chibana Choshin/Nakazato Shugoso Sensei’s Kobayashi Ryu (the style I practice); eighteen kata in Nagamine Shoshin Sensei’s Matsubayashi Ryu and in Kyan Chotoku Sensei’s/Shimabukuro Zenryo Sensei’s Seibukan; and twenty-three kata in Shimabukuro Eizo Sensei’s Shobayashi RyuContrasting the old ways, however, in many styles one single kata is today no longer practiced for years before moving to another one, and promotion to the next higher katahappens relatively fast, supposedly sometimes too fast. 

There are exceptions though, even in the USA: Hanshi Doug Perry, 10th Dan Shorin Ryu, Okinawa Shorinryu Karatedo Kobudo Kensankai, told us at a training camp I attended that his son, Jason Scott Perry, now Kyoshi 8th Dan Shorin Ryu, Okinawa Shorinryu Karatedo Kobudo Kensankai, practiced exclusively Naihanchi Ichidan for 2 years before he moved him to the next kata; an assignment Sensei Jason himself did not recall specifically when I contacted him for verification. He texted me: “I had been doing karate at some level since I was very little and more regular dojo training since I was probably 6 or 7 with Bill Hayes [i.e. Hanshi William Hayes, 9th Dan Shobayashi Ryu, Shobayashi Kan] and my dad. What I do recall is less kata and more basic drilling. Pretty mundane stuff but a lot of foundational work.” His statement confirms the superiority of the above-mentioned old ways of inductive karate-jutsu training by diving deeper into specific moves, a way which may be neglected today. In Sensei Jason’s words “basic mechanics involved in creating speed and power in a balanced way.” 

Only deepening and honing skills at every level for years, not just for months, develops the fundamentally needed persistence and resilience to succeed on the path to sustainable martial arts competence beyond all kippers and curtains. 

The above is an excerpt from Analysis of Genuine Karate 2: Social-Cultural Development, Commercialization, and Loss of Knowledge by Hermann Bayer, PhD, Publication Date July 2023, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594399244