Kata, literally "form", is a Japanese word describing detailed choreographed patterns of movements practiced either solo or in pairs. Kata are used in many traditional Japanese arts such as theater forms like kabuki and schools of tea ceremony, but are most commonly known for the presence in the martial arts. Kata are used by most traditional Japanese and Okinawan martial arts, such as aikido, iaido, judo, jujutsu, kenjutsu, kendo and karate. Other arts such as t'ai chi ch'uan and taekwondo feature the same kind of training, but use the respective Chinese and Korean words instead.
In Japanese martial arts practice, kata is often seen as an essential partner to randori training with one complementing the other. However, the actual type and frequency of kata versus randori training varies from art to art. In iaido, solo kata using the Japanese sword (katana) comprises almost all of the training. Whereas in judo, kata training is de-emphasized and usually only prepared for dan grading. In kenjutsu, paired kata at the beginners level can appear to be stilted. At higher levels serious injury is prevented only by a high sensitivity of both participants to important concepts being taught and trained for. These include timing and distance, with the kata practiced at high speed. This adjustability of kata training is found in other Japanese arts with roles of attacker and defender often interchanging within the sequence.
Many martial arts use kata for public demonstrations and in competitions, awarding points for such aspects of technique as style, balance, timing, and verisimilitude (appearance of being real).
The most popular image associated with kata is that of a karate practitioner performing a series of punches and kicks in the air. The kata are executed as a specified series of approximately 20 to 70 moves, generally with stepping and turning, while attempting to maintain perfect form. There are perhaps 100 kata across the various forms of karate, each with many minor variations. The number of moves in a kata may be referred to in the name of the kata, e.g., Gojushiho, which means "54 steps". The number of moves may also have links with Buddhist spirituality. The number 108 is significant in Buddhism, and kata with 54, 36, or 27 moves (divisors of 108) are common. The practitioner is generally counselled to visualize the enemy attacks, and his or her responses, as actually occurring, and karateka are often told to "read" a kata, to explain the imagined events. The study of the meaning of the movements is referred to as the bunkai, meaning analysis, of the kata.