"Kata is the manifestation of the art of karate. It unfolds its meaning through time. Most of a kata remains untold, undecipherable at first glance, most times at the hundredth glance. It is a ritual of epiphanies and within them the fleeting secrets lie," Jorge Morales-Santo Domingo
Is learning Aikido the same as learning katas? Well, it all depends on whom you ask and how you define what is kata.
20 years ago during the early formative years of my Aikido career when you ask me this question I would not hesitate to declare that learning Aikido techniques is not the same as learning katas because I was simply verbalising what my instructors had told me. Fast forwards 20 years later to the present time when I have become a teacher and am teaching the art to students I encounter the same question raised by inquisitive students.
If you define kata narrowly as a arrangement of fixed sets of idealised martial movements and forms practiced solo by the individual then Aikido training is not the same as practicing katas. Because in the typical Aikido training format where you need two partners to practice, one acting as the attacker and the other the defender as the study of Aikido is not a solo practice then obviously the learning of Aikido can not be equated to the study of katas.
On the other hand if you define kata generally as the study of a prearranged set of idealised martial movements with a known input and a known outcome then Aikido training is the same as learning katas. In the typical Aikido training format the attacker attacks in a prescribed way and likewise the defender counters and neutralize the attack also in a prescribed way. In this respect as far as the pair is concerned there is a known and predictable element of input (the method of attack) and also a known and predictable element of outcome (the method of defence). Thus even before the start of the exercise both partners are already aware of their respective roles and how to engage each other to produce the desired outcome because every movement is already prearranged and predefined before hand.
Nowadays whenever such a question arise I will tell the student that I am teaching him the katas of the art. Inevitably the next question will be whether the katas of the idealised martial movements will work in a real life situation.
My answer will be something along these lines:
"Just as no boxer fights like he spars, does the bag or skips rope I don't expect the Aikidoka to fight in self defence as he does the katas. Although the kata is a static mold, an ideal, a form, a map from here to there it teaches you essential martial principles such as timing, centering, relaxation, anticipation, extension, evasion, movements, breathing, postures, combat distance, exploitation of openings, deceptions, etc that would get you out of harm's way in a fight. While the forms may not represent realistic combat movements the underlying martial principles that these simple forms teach you are valid for self defence applications in all situations. By looking deeply below the hood to understand the intents behind the forms you are in fact learning a valid and practical combat science."
To further drive home the point I would show the student the myriad of practical applications hidden in the simple movements of the katas and adaptive transformation and use of the simple forms in different types of combat situation. I try to help the student understand that in the end there are really no static techniques or forms to master but just movements arising naturally and spontaneously in conflict resolution. However to get to the stage where you can freely use your movements to define the techniques you have to start the journey by learning the katas.