Bunkai Schmunkai – Part I

Bunkai, bunkai, bunkai … who gives a hoodilee-hoo about the true bunkai of a kata?

… Now that I have your attention and before I get disowned by my Sensei, clearly karateka studying traditional martials arts do and should. Now, I’m not exactly sure what a hoodilee-hoo is or what value it possesses, but I do know there is a ton of debate regarding the value of kata in one’s training and the oft associated “mysterious” and “elusive” bunkai. Today’s post will not focus on this debate (perhaps another day), but, rather will introduce some ideas about how to analyze kata in general.

But first, a few clarifications for the uninitiated. A kata, or form, involves a predefined series of movements and techniques used by many martial arts systems for solo practice/building of muscle memory as well as for the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next. Although an oversimplification, think of it like a dance routine of karate techniques.

Bunkai literally means analysis or disassembly. It is the breaking down of a kata into its component parts as a means for “discovering” the martial knowledge being transmitted. The term “oyo” actually references the application of the “uncovered” techniques. Various articles often use the term bunkai to refer to applying the “hidden” techniques. Although not technically correct, the intent is to encompass the process of analysis, and subsequent application, of the information contained within the kata. The term bunkai will be used to describe the combined process here. It will not be the first time I have not have technically correct, and certainly will not be the last.

For those thinking I have gone quotation mark mad, please consider my position that we do ourselves a disservice by talking about bunkai as some mysterious or magical concept. “Discovering,” “hidden,” “uncovered,” “mysterious,” “elusive,” etc. are all terms implying an almost paranormal quality to the martial arts which is then used by critics to debunk and dismiss kata, and karate, in general. I know I said we would not focus on the debate about kata’s usefulness, but did want to mention an explanation once given by martial arts master, Hohan Soken. In an interview with Ernest Estrada, Soken Sensei wisely pointed out:


There are many secrets in karate that people will never know and will never understand. These ideas are really not secret if you train in Okinawa under a good teacher. You will see the teacher use these so called secret techniques over and over again until they will become common knowledge to you. Others will look at it and marvel that it is an advanced or secret technique to them. That is because they do not have good teachers or their teachers have not researched their respective styles.

Don’t get me wrong. The importance or true meaning of particular parts of a kata may not be obvious. What appears to be a block may not be a block at all. Careful study, informed debate, and diligent practice under a good teacher likely will be necessary to begin to understand the concepts being conveyed by the kata’s creator. The centuries have witnessed changes to katas for various reasons: personal interpretation of the instructor, moving explicit demonstration of lethal techniques to more implied, lack of quality control over those responsible for passing along the knowledge, etc.

We may never know the original form of a kata or the original intention of its creator. Ultimately, it does not matter. (My Spidey senses are detecting an incoming visit from my Sensei’s foot to my right buttock again). I agree it would be completely amazing to learn original intent and technique directly from a kata’s “author.” My point is that heated debates amongst westerners about unprovable speculations only serve to drive people away from one of the greatest components of studying kata – the process of discovery.

To encourage your students, or fellow karateka, to really think about what is going on at any given point of a kata is a priceless gift. As a student, simply learning the movements will no doubt help you to achieve your next rank, but do you understand anything about the knowledge being shared with you. Have you considered that over 300 years ago, in some cases, a pretty amazing martial artist put something in a kata to be transmitted for generations to come. Should your response to such a gift really be a disrespectfully superficial, “yep, left turn, down block, punch … okay I’ve got it. Next kata please.”? Orrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, is a better approach after/while beginning to gain some competency in the mechanics of a kata to be pondering questions such as “why would I put my feet heel to toe here when that is generally frowned upon,” or “why do I put my fist to my arm palm up here but palm in in the kata I just learned?” It’s kind of like the difference between cramming for a test in school just to get a good grade or having learned and contemplated the material due to genuine interest making good recall simply a helpful byproduct.

Oh gosh, well there is a page and a half and I haven’t even gotten to the nitty gritty of the post yet. I think I’ll stop here so people can come prepared to ponder some suggestions of things to think about when analyzing a kata.

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