I have often mentioned the kata (形/型/方) the models on which the Japanese have organized and patterned their lives and which they follow automatically because, due to continuing exposure, the kata have replaced what we would call their “nature”. As is obvious to everyone (the Japanese themselves included) the consequences of a connection to form that deep can’t all be positive; most of the “maladies” attributed to the particular people spring from exactly this incontestable fixation to the “right way” of doing things. And among the things I have seen in Japan, perhaps the one illustrating more vividly the negative aspect of the emphasis on kata is kyudo (弓道), the martial art/combative sport of traditional archery utilizing a two-meter asymmetrical bow, the art some people call “Zen archery”.
Having seen tens of kyudo matches of all levels, from neighborhood high-school competitions to All-Japan tournaments where participants are teachers with many years of practice on their back and many dan grades under their belts, I am always impressed by the precision in the execution of the elaborate kata dictating how each five-archers team enters the shooting range, by how coordinated they are, by how noiselessly and naturally they pass from the preparation to the shooting phase, by how effortlessly they nook the arrow, draw the bow above their head and bring it to their face’s height to take aim, by how painlessly they let the string go, by their apathy during the arrow’s flight towards the target. From the moment the archers make their first step in the range until the moment their back disappears in the “backstage area”, the whole thing is a study in concentration and emphasis to detail.
In missing too! I won’t be exaggerating if I said that 95% of the shots end up somewhere between a few inches to over a foot away from the target and this has nothing to do with the individual archer’s level (to the extent I can infer that from their age and from their ease in executing the kata called “hassetsu”/八節or “eight steps”, teachers and students alike are equally spectacularly inaccurate). And even though the 14.4 inches that make up the diameter of the target and the 83.2 feet separating it from the archer would suffice to explain their miss, I strongly believe that the basic problem lies elsewhere: with time, the increasing emphasis on “do” (道), that is the perfection of self through the art has raised the kata to a primary value and has diminished functionality; in other words, what matters is not hitting the target but how good the process is performed. And even though I understand that fixating on accuracy can be a trap, fixating on everything but accuracy seems equally unbalanced.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.