There are more than 75 styles of Karate, each with its own rules and traditions that make it unique. If you want to master your chosen style, regardless of which you choose, there will be a set of basic kata you must learn.
One of the four most prominent styles of Karate is Shotokan, which originated in Okinawa’s Shuri region. There are 27 Shotokan Karate kata that you’ll learn as you progress through the different belt levels or achieve a higher “kyu”—Japanese for “class.”
Below, I’ll explain more about these basic kata, and I’ll even share a few of my tips on improving your exercises.
What Are the Basic Kata?
Before we look at each of the individual Shotokan Karate kata, it’s important to know that not all dojos teach them in the same order. The initial six, including Taikyoku Shodan and the five Heian kata, are almost always taught first. However, your sensei may teach the remaining 20 in their own unique order.
Taikyoku Shodan (First Cause, First Level)
Taikyoku Shodan, also known as the Kihon kata (which means “basic form”), is for absolute beginners. It’s an extremely simple kata that serves as an introduction to Shotokan.
It only contains two techniques: the lower block and lunge punch, also known as gedan barai and oi tsuki, respectively. Developed by Sensei Gichin Funakoshi, it’s so simple that many modern dojos completely omit it from training.
The Heian Kata (Peaceful Way)
The five Heian kata are typically the first set that new karateka learn. Their usual order are:
- Heian Shodan (Peaceful way, first level): 21 moves.
- Heian Nidan (Peaceful way, second level): 26 moves.
- Heian Sandan (Peaceful way, third level): 20 moves.
- Heian Yondan (Peaceful way, fourth level): 27 moves.
- Heian Godan (Peaceful way, fifth level): 23 moves.
The Heian set is attributed to sensei Ankō Itosu, who thought that younger karateka needed easier Shotokan Karate kata to introduce them to the martial art. These forms will help you build a strong foundation before moving to harder kata.
While learning these, you will learn basic but extremely important stances, strikes, kicks, and blocks. Heian Godan also contains a particularly challenging set of moves, including a jump where karateka can easily lose their balance.
In the current grading syllabus, you need to perform Shodan to earn your yellow belt (8th kyu). You’ll continue to rise through the ranks as you master the Heian kata, eventually earning your purple belt (4th kyu) by performing Heian Godan flawlessly.
The Tekki Kata (Iron Horse)
The three Tekki kata started out as a single, long kata called Naihanchi. Eventually, they were broken down into three individual forms to make them easier to learn. Before the addition of the Heian set, it was considered the easiest to master, and new karateka would learn it first. Their usual order are:
- Tekki Shodan (Iron horse, first level): 23 moves.
- Tekki Nidan (Iron horse, second level): 24 moves.
- Tekki Sandan (Iron horse, third level): 26 moves.
These kata are performed almost entirely in the horse-riding stance or kiba-dachi. To master them, you’ll need to perfect the low, wide-footed position. You’ll need to perform Tekki Shodan to earn your first brown belt (3rd kyu). When you attempt to grade for your second or first brown belt, 2nd kyu and 1st kyu respectively, Tekki Nidan or Sandan may be one of the kata you’re asked to perform.
Interestingly, Sensei Gichin Funakoshi considered the Tekki kata the most important set within the Shotokan syllabus. The sensei spent three years practicing each of these forms, determined to perfect them. You should follow the sensei’s example and invest the time so you can master these Shotokan Karate kata.
The Bassai Kata (Penetrate the Fortress)
Bassai Dai, one of the two Bassai Shotokan Karate kata, is thought to date back hundreds of years, possibly tracing its origins to the Leopard and Lion Kung Fu forms. The form was passed down through generations until sensei Ankō Itosu taught it to sensei Funakoshi, who eventually developed the versions we study today. The two kata are:
- Bassai Dai (Penetrate the fortress, major): 42 moves.
- Bassai Sho (Penetrate the fortress, minor): 27 moves.
The Bassai kata were designed to represent two elements of the same attack. The Bassai Dai form represents the act of fighting your way into a fortress, and Bassai Sho is symbolic of breaking your back out.
Your sensei may choose Bassai Dai as one of your grading kata, up until your 3rd degree black belt (sandan).
The Kanku Kata (To View the Sky, or Looking Into the Sky)
The Kanku kata contain several fast punches, blocks, and kicks, making for an excellent workout. However, they are not the easiest kata to master. The two kata are:
- Kanku Dai (To view the sky, major): 65 moves.
- Kanku Sho (To view the sky, minor): 48 moves.
To legendary sensei Funakoshi, Kanku Dai was one of the most crucial kata to master. According to him, it included every essential element of Karate, and he often used it in demonstrations. It’s likely that the other form, Kanku Sho, was developed by his teacher, Ankō Itosu.
Kanku Dai is the second-longest Shotokan Karate kata you can learn, and you’ll likely spend several hours trying to master its many moves, including a few tricky jumps and spins. Perfecting the kata is critical since you may be requested to perform it until your sandan black belt grading.
Kanku Sho contains several powerful kicks and punches, but it also has a few techniques that can make it slightly harder to master. However, it’ll feel extremely rewarding when you’re finally able to execute the Kanku Sho kata without making a mistake!
Enpi (Flight of the Swallow)
This kata may be referred to as either Enpi or Empi, so your sensei might use either one of those translations. As the name implies, the kata movements are meant to mimic the motions of a swallow, sweeping low and high. The clearest examples of that are the upper rising punch (age zuki) and the knee attack (hisa geri).
The motions in the kata alternate between fast and forceful and slow but powerful. However, fast or slow, the entire kata is meant to be performed with a certain grace. Interestingly, the rising punch was thought to be based on the sword technique of a highly acclaimed samurai, who compared the movement to the flight and grace of a swallow.
Today, Enpi is one of the Shotokan Karate kata taught to brown belts. It may also be one of your grading kata up to 3rd Dan. It contains a total of 37 moves.
Jion (Named for the Temple, Jion-Ji)
The Jion kata’s roots stretch back to the Jion Temple, where accomplished martial Buddhist monks lived. The opening movements of the kata and several of the motions and stances still seem similar to those used in Kung Fu styles.
Jion contains 47 moves, and it’s the second-longest Shotokan karate kata you’ll learn while you’re a brown belt. However, it’s important to master it since it may be one of your grading kata through to 3rd Dan.
Gankaku (Crane on a Rock)
Gankaku has one of the most interesting histories of the Shotokan Karate kata. As the story goes, it was used by a Kung Fu master called Chinto—for whom the kata was originally named—to fight karate master Matsumura to a draw. The two martial arts became friends, and the kata was adopted into Shotokan, eventually renamed Gankaku by sensei Funakoshi, who wanted to remove the original name’s connotation to war.
As the name implies, you’ll need to perfect your grace and balance while mastering this kata. You’ll need to pivot on a single foot, use the crane stance (tsuru-dachi), and execute forward spins.
I’ve seen karateka accidentally kick their feet out from under them while practicing Gankaku. You’ll need to practice your balance extensively, particularly since you’ll use it for grading, through 3rd Dan.
Hangetsu (Half Moon)
The name, Hangetsu, means “half moon,” describing the movement of your hands and feet during the opening and closing steps of the kata. There are 41 movements in total, and students 2nd kyu and above will learn and use it in grading.
The motions are semi-circular and almost fluid, and for a good reason. Hangetsu is an internal, breathing kata; essentially, you need to focus on your inner force, or ki, while practicing. Most of the kata is slow and deliberate, with a few fast kicks and punches in between.
In short, Hangetsu is more like meditation in motion. When practicing bunkai for this Shotokan Karate kata, you’ll notice how effective the movements can be in close combat, particularly in breaking your opponent’s balance.
Jitte (Ten Hands)
Jitte is a powerful, almost heavy Shotokan Karate kata. According to popular theory, karateka need to master Jitte to show they can fight off ten armed opponents. However, the primary goal of Jitte is to teach you to defend against weapons, particularly the Bo staff.
Not only does the kata have extremely complex movements, such as the various hip motions, but even the slow movements need to be executed with vigor and determination. This kata is very demanding, and you’ll need to perform each stance, kick, punch, or block with absolute confidence, showcasing your raw yet controlled power.
Even though there are only 24 moves, Jitte requires a lot of practice to master. It’s not just about the physical movements but the mental fortuity and the attitude of the karateka.
Chinte (Incredible Hands)
Chinte earned its name. The kata uses several unique and rare hand techniques that don’t appear in any other kata. These include the vertical punch (tate-zuki), the middle one-knuckle-fist falling strike (nakadaka-ippon-ken uchiotoshi), and the two-finger spear-hand movements (nihon-nukite).
The Chinte kata may appear simple at first glance, but performing the techniques with the required grace can be extremely difficult. In fact, female karateka seem to favor this Shotokan Karate kata over others during tournaments.
Practicing this kata can help teach you to be fluid, letting your energy ebb and flow between grace and force as required. It has 32 deceptively difficult steps and isn’t one of the kata you’ll encounter on your grading journey, not until you already have your Yondan black belt.
Sochin (Preserve Peace)
Imagine you want to instill awe and fear into your enemies, overwhelming them with the sheer power of your presence alone—that’s what Sochin is all about. It’s not the flashiest of kata, but when performed correctly, Sochin can showcase how bold, imposing, and commanding you can be. The powerful techniques have to be executed with the utmost confidence.
Sochin is a popular kata for training and strengthening a karateka’s legs; most strikes and blocks are performed in the immovable stance, or fudo-dachi. The Shotokan Karate kata has 41 movements, but mastering the steps won’t be your biggest challenge. To master this kata, you must instill awe in your audience and sensei with your spiritual strength and presence alone.
Meikyo (Mirror of the Soul)
Although Meikyo doesn’t have many complex techniques, it’s still considered one of the most highly advanced kata. The form contains 33 steps and contains many basic and intermediate techniques. In fact, it’s considered a “humble” kata, with its goal being to refine those moves to absolute perfection.
When you perform Meikyo, you’re meant to focus on yourself—hence the name, mirror of the soul. I find it easy to get lost in Meikyo, inwardly finding ways to improve both physically and mentally as a karateka. While practicing this Shotokan Karate kata, reflect on yourself and each move you make.
Ji’in (Named for a Saint)
Ji’in is thought to share its origins with the same Buddhist temple that originally developed Jitte and Jion; contains 38 motions. It has several unusual features, with one of the most notable being the final motion—pulling in the left leg to finish in the starting position rather than the right leg.
The kata doesn’t have many new techniques compared to others, and it’s considered a very basic, no-frills form. Although rarely practiced, it’s still an important kata to learn, if only to understand the versatility of its unorthodox use of techniques.
Gojushiho Kata (54 Steps)
The Gojushiho kata is thought to be sensei Matsumura’s best and final additions to what would become modern-day Shotokan karate. Despite the name referring to 54 steps, the kata contain several additional movements and techniques. The two kata are:
- Gojushiho Dai (54 steps, major): 67 moves.
- Gojushiho Sho (54 steps, minor): 65 moves.
Gojushiho Dai is the more complex of the two kata and the longest in the Shotokan Karate kata syllabus. It contains several poking strikes that seem to indicate the focus was to do significant damage to an opponent’s vital areas. It’s also the only kata to use the eagle hand (washide).
Gojushiho Sho is considered a real masterpiece. While slightly easier to perform than Gojushiho Dai, you need to be able to keep your balance through the complex motions while being the embodiment of grace, elegance, and resolve. In this kata, the focus is on the 4-fingered vertical spear-hand, or shihon-tate-nukite.
For both these kata, you’ll want to work on your balance and the precision of your strikes if you want to really master them.
Nijushiho (24 Steps)
Nijushiho is believed to originate from the Chinese Dragon fighting style and contains 24 moves. It’s one of the more popular advanced Shotokan Karate kata, using techniques and motions that feel unusual and mystical, flowing from one movement to another. Even though it does have a few sharp, powerful points, each one is almost immediately tempered by a slower, more fluid motion.
If you practice bunkai, you’ll quickly learn that Nijushiho seems designed for close combat in confined spaces. You’ll be using elbow strikes and double-hand attacks. In fact, there are only two long-range attacks, although the kicks may originally have been knee strikes.
Wankan (Crown of a King)
Wankan is the only form that begins with a diagonal motion and is one of the lesser practiced Shotokan Karate kata.
It’s not the most unusual or difficult kata, although you may have some trouble executing move 13 flawlessly. That’s because it’s a turn from the standard zenkutsu-dachi stance into the cat stance, or neko-ashi-dachi. The motion must be fluid, but it’s a notorious tripping hazard, particularly while performing the required tiger-mouth scoping block and tiger-mouth press (koko-sukui-uke / koko-osae).
Interestingly, there’s a theory that Wankan is incomplete and that sensei Funakoshi died before he could complete it. Still, if your goal is to master all Shotokan Karate kata, Wankan is one form you’ll need to conquer.
Unsu (Hands of a Cloud)
The name of this kata is interpreted to mean that your hands need to be like clouds, capable of changing from soft and fluid to lethal instantly. It’s the embodiment of the storm, the techniques symbolizing elements of nature like wind and lightning.
Unsu is one of the most advanced, if not the most advanced, Shotokan Karate kata that you can learn. It’s also magnificent, demanding speed, agility, and unmatched, raw, almost explosive power.
The complexity comes from the quick changes in timing, transitions between techniques, and attacks that require perfect cooperation between all parts of your body. There are 48 movements and uses several advanced hand techniques. Additionally, the kicks are used in unconventional and interesting ways, making Unsu extremely different from other kata. You even perform two kicks while lying down!
Finally, Unsu contains a spectacular spinning jump that, when mastered, makes it an unbeatable kata to perform at tournaments. Expect to fall a lot while practicing Unsu. Even so, the bragging rights will be worth it.
What’s the Point of Doing Kata?
Kata has a long history that goes back to the 14th century when Okinawa pledged its allegiance to the Chinese emperor. Soon, a huge influx of Chinese culture and tradition began to influence the Okinawan people, including their martial arts style. That formed the foundation of what would become known as Karate kata.
Historically, kata was used by masters to pass the knowledge of their martial arts style to their students. The practice continued through generations as different styles formed and new masters refined each style to what they considered the point of perfection. In a way, kata was the easiest way to pass practical combat techniques from teacher to student.
Today, Shotokan Karate kata helps karateka learn the fundamental principles of the style, including footwork, stances, punches, kicks, holds, blocks, and more. Each time you repeat a kata, your muscles learn the movements and, with enough repetition, every motion will eventually feel natural. It can take thousands of repetitions to truly master a kata.
Remember that kata is not an imaginary fight, nor is it designed to be applied in a fight as is. Instead, kata teaches you different movements and techniques that you could use in a real-world combat situation. To learn how you can use these individual motions when fighting, it’s critical to practice Bunkai.
In essence, the point of doing kata is to learn and memorize every technique until you can apply them practically, regardless of the situation. If you want to achieve true mastery of the style, practice your Shotokan Karate kata repeatedly every day.
Tips To Help Improve Your Kata
We all know that practice makes perfect. That said, there are a few interesting ways you mix up your routine that can help improve your kata. Here are four of my favorite ways to practice and improve my kata.
The first, and one of my favorite techniques, is to slow down the movements. When I was training, my Sensei would often have us hold each position in the kata for three to five—often physically and mentally agonizing—seconds before slowly moving on to the next.
You can increase your focus on each position and how it feels by slowing down. It also makes it impossible to use your momentum to “cheat” through some of the harder body movements.
If you want to refine your focus even more, practice your kata while blindfolded. Be forewarned, you may just topple over a few times, particularly if you’re new to karate. However, cutting off your visual sense will raise your awareness of your body and how each movement affects your muscles and breathing. It’s exhausting but highly rewarding!
If you want to turn your Shotokan Karate kata into a full workout, add weights to your wrists and ankles. If you don’t have weights, but have access to a pool, use the water’s resistance to simulate weights. Doing so makes for a very stimulating, if exhausting, full-body workout. More importantly, try to execute each movement perfectly despite the resistance—you’ll be surprised at the results.
Finally, as I mentioned earlier, practice Bunkai. The term literally means “analysis” or “disassembly.” In essence, it’s the practical application of kata. Team up with a friend and practice how you would use each move in a fight. Not only does that help you practice the kata itself, but it also gives you a deeper understanding of each move’s purpose.
Kata are an integral part of karate. They teach mental and physical discipline and allow you to build strength and muscle memory as you practice. Whether you’re still a newbie trying to master the Heian kata or an experienced master, including Shotokan Karate kata in your exercise regime is critical to building your strength and maintaining skill.
Don’t forget to keep practicing and use my tips to get a little more out of each kata practice. Stay disciplined and, if you haven’t already, you might just earn the rank of Dan yourself one day soon!