Embusen – The Demonstration Line(s)
An embu (sometimes written enbu) is a “demonstration”. Sen means “line(s)”. Embusen, therefore, refers to the line(s) that is(are) followed during a demonstration of movements, such as in kata.
When we perform kata in a test or tournament, as well as during regular class training, most of us invariably step (or try to step) in the same direction each time we perform each particular movement. Why is this? While it may, for example, make sense to concentrate on stepping forward during most attacking techniques, many of the stepping patterns do not seem to make much sense at all, when we consider the intended self-defense application.
For example, in the first move of Heian Shodan, why would we step forward (actually, turning to the left and then stepping forward), and not back, if the intended application is as a block? Why do we not step back on all the blocks? One possible answer is that these simply look like blocks, but are actually strikes or grappling techniques (see March 1999 article for more on this subject). While this may make some sense, it would also make sense to be able to perform the technique, no matter what the intended application, to various directions, stepping forward, back or to the side(s).
“Expect the unexpected.” If someone practices only one method of execution for a technique or combination, how would that person expect to be able to apply the technique or combination in other than the ideal situation (as performed in the kata)? To be able to perform a technique or movement to various directions should increase the chances of being able to use the technique or movement in a more spontaneous encounter.
Returning to the starting mark
Some instructors/examiners/judges make a big deal about kata performance finishing at the same spot as starting. While some may claim this is extreme perfectionism, I would say it is far from it. In fact, to make it back to exactly the same spot as one started the kata actually requires imperfection.
Let me explain. If one performs all the basic stances and steps/shifts between these stances according to standard Shotokan form (see stance articles for more detail), one rarely ends at the starting mark in kata. I have reviewed all 27 kata in the current JKA curriculum in this manner and have found that the majority should finish at least one foot from the starting mark, if all the component parts are performed according to proper basic criteria.
So why such emphasis on returning to the starting mark in kata? While I cannot say definitively, I believe the original idea of encouraging performers to work towards returning to the starting mark was primarily an effort to create a minimum standard. The JKA is famous (notorious?) for creating and enforcing standards. I doubt the original idea was to deduct points anytime one finished only a minimal distance from the starting mark. If this was the idea, I believe the point was overdone. Many today seem to think that this is the way to judge kata, deducting points indiscriminately based on how far from the starting mark one finishes a kata (for example: 1/10 point for every 6″ from the mark).
For example, when I am judging a performance of the kata Heian Yondan in a JKA-style tournament, I would favor the performer (all else being equal) who finished exactly on the starting mark over the one who ended ten feet behind it. I would, however, favor the one who finished two feet behind the mark over the one who finished exactly on it. If all the stances and movements are performed according to JKA standards, someone doing Heian Yondan should finish about two feet behind where he started.
While there is something to be said for striving toward a goal, finishing kata at the starting point is an artificial goal. As long as its impracticality and distortion of basic form is understood, I see no problem with this kind of kata performance being a variation practiced. But it should be understood that this is a deviation from the basic form upon which JKA-style Shotokan is based.
Demonstrating, in contrast to realistic practice
Much of how we normally practice kata is somewhat artificial. Kata tempo, stepping direction/type, application and other factors have been artificially standardized to ensure a minimum level of performance.
To make kata practice more realistic, we should be doing all the moves at full speed, using smaller blocking movements and less “ballistic” attacks, among other things. Actually, to make kata performance even more realistic, we should be practicing with multiple partners at full speed and power, without holding back. Obviously, this could involve unnecessary injury and an inefficient use of time for those not performing the kata. Furthermore “realistic” practice is not everyone’s purpose for training.
To perform kata according to the standards set by organizations such as the JKA and its affiliates is not without its worth. The parameters according to which we set our performance standards assure a level of minimum ability of members of the organization. All the students moving the same way makes the instructor’s job more efficient. But to limit our performance to those parameters only is a way of limiting our study. After a certain level of experience is attained, variations from the standard formats should be explored. But only after a reasonably thorough understanding of the standard methods has been attained.
I regularly encourage the practice of non-standard kata performance in my classes. Whether practicing kata for self-defense, physical fitness or as an art form, varying stepping directions and stepping/shifting patterns makes sense.
In the end, the embusen is simply the “demonstration line.” Adherence to kata performance standards is largely a formality and a way to ensure minimum standards are met.
Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published May 2001)