Hawaii Karate Seinenkai

The following article appeared in Appeared in Classical Fighting Arts, Issue 8, 2006 (an edited version), and Patrick McCarthy's Uchinadi: An Informal Journal for the Progressive Traditionalist, 3rd Quarter 2005. Copyright © Charles C. Goodin. All rights reserved.


The Why of Bunkai: A Guide For Beginners

By Charles C. Goodin

After a few years of training, most Karate student will "know" several kata. Of course, there is a world of difference between being able to merely perform the movements of the kata and truly understanding them. Bunkai literally means to "separate" or "break down" ("bun") and "understand" ("kai"). Kata bunkai means to break down the movements of the kata and study their practical applications.

Is bunkai really necessary? If one studies Karate simply to get in shape or perform kata in tournaments, bunkai may seem like a waste of time. What counts is looking good (as defined by the rules of the competition), particularly to the judges and the crowd.

By the same token, bunkai is not really necessary for students interested solely in kumite (sparring). Why? Because only the most basic applications are permitted in kumite. I once read a booklet for a tournament held here in Hawaii. It listed techniques not permitted in the kumite competition -- things like pulling hair, poking eyes, twisting joints, choking, throwing, kicking the groin, etc. They were all the best techniques!

Kumite with rules limits the fight. Kata without bunkai has no fight at all. And if one can only kick, punch and block, Karate offers very little advantage. A larger and stronger person can probably kick, punch and block harder, even with no martial arts training. Only through a proper study of bunkai can kata actually be used for self-defense.

So what if you never learned bunkai? Don't feel bad, you're not alone.

Before 1900, Karate was taught in private, usually to only one, two or a handful of students. Even great teachers like Anko Itosu had relatively few students. These were "private" students who often trained with a teacher for life. Such students, after learning the movements and sequence of kata, also learned the meanings. The term "bunkai" might not have been used. The study of applications was an essential part of the process of learning kata. An emphasis on "bunkai" as a distinct subject only became necessary when the study of applications was watered down or eliminated altogether.

When Karate was taught in public, first in the public schools in Okinawa and later in colleges and schools on mainland Japan, teachers suddenly had to deal with large groups. Instead of training with a teacher for life, students trained for only a few years, or even only a single term. In such a short time, teachers could only teach the most basic form of Karate. And without personally knowing each student (and his family) for many years, a teacher might be reluctant to teach certain dangerous applications of techniques.

It should not be surprising that private students (those who trained at the teacher's house or even at the family tomb) and public students (those who generally trained at schools) would be taught differently. Now take this forward a few generations. Soon, whole generations of students would learn Karate without studying applications -- and then they would become the teachers!

It is not possible to describe actual kata applications in this article, nor would it be proper to do so - the print medium means that I don't know you personally and can't vouch for your character. Plus, I only know what I know at my stage of training. But here are some general ideas about bunkai that might be helpful to beginners.

Lost in Translation. Kata are sequences of techniques, presumably ones the creator (or modifiers) of the kata had found to be particularly effective. Today we know the names of the kata and the names of each technique and stance present in the kata. Fukyugata Ichi (created by Matsubayashi-Ryu founder Shoshin Nagamine in 1940), for example, begins with a left downward block (gedan barai or gedan uke) in a left zenkutsu dachi, followed by a right middle punch (chudan tsuki) in a right shizentai dachi. See: The 1940 Karate-Do Special Committee: The Fukyugata "Promotional" Kata. Can you visualize this?

That was a trick! Once the movements of a kata are identified as specific techniques, the meanings become fixed. A "block" has a certain meaning, as does a "punch." A stance has a certain configuration and weight distribution. A dynamic process is reduced to a series of still photographs.

We assume that techniques and movements have always had names. The teachers of old were much less likely to verbalize or write down such things. They would demonstrate techniques and say "like this." The student would follow and generally not ask any questions. If the student asked for clarification, the teacher would often reply, "I already said, like this." The teacher was unlikely to elaborate verbally.

Words became particularly necessary when books about Karate started to be written in the 1920s. Each technique had to be named to accompany the proper picture or photograph. Often names were just descriptive or made up. If the teacher showed a punch to the face, the author (in his language) might have used the term "face punch." Or he might have used "upper level punch" or "rising punch." But the odds are that his teacher used no term at all (except "like this.")

But wait a minute. Suppose instead of merely punching, the teacher actually poked the attacker in the eyes, closed his fingers, and followed through with a punch. Should this be written down? Perhaps the author of the book would leave out the eye poke because it was not quite suitable for the general readership (we can't have children going around poking eyes). Such a gruesome technique might offend the publisher (who probably thought that Kendo was a more noble art). Karate teachers had to overcome widespread prejudice against and misinformation about their art during this time period. Besides, this aspect of the technique could be practiced by the teacher's advanced students who didn't really need a book anyway.

Editorial choices aside, the very act of naming techniques presents a very real danger of limiting them in terms of performance and applications. My sensei, Katsuhiko Shinzato, is a professor of linguistics in Okinawa. Although fluent in both Japanese and English, and an established expert in linguistics, he resists any requests to label techniques or body dynamics processes. "In order for the body to move freely," he says, "the mind must not be fixed."

Once you name a technique, you limit it -- you limit its performance and potential applications.

Concealed Meanings. This follows from the above. Think back to the eye poke/face punch. Privately the teacher might show this. In public, he might only show the punch, and then it might be to the chest (so as not to look too brutal). His close students would understand what he did, but the public would come away with a shallow meaning.

How the teacher performed the kata often depended on who was watching. This is not mere speculation. Many movements in kata -- the ones we have today -- are the watered down, public versions. Take the Pinan kata, for example. These kata were specifically designed or altered from earlier kata for public consumption. The same is true of Fukyugata Ichi. Even older kata were sanitized. Open hand techniques were replaced with punches. Toe kicks were replaced with kicks using the ball of the foot.

Assume for a moment that I am correct. If we inherited watered down kata, what kind of bunkai will we practice? A punch to the chest or face may not be as effective as a simple poke to the eyes. We will consider how to handle this later in this article.

A Punch is a Block: A Block is a Punch. You have probably heard this saying. A punch can also be a block. A block can also be a punch (or a strike). This is true in a basic mechanical sense. If someone punches toward your face, you can block it by punching toward his or her face. Your punch will intercept the attacker's arm, thus blocking it.

Each Movement Has Many Meanings. In a larger sense, a punch can be much more than a block. The same is true of a block. Almost any technique can be used in a variety of ways. Rick Clark wrote a book entitled "75 Down Blocks: Refining Karate Technique" (Tuttle Publishing, 2003). If a simple down block can have at least 75 meanings, how many meanings can be found in a kata consisting of many different techniques?

One Inch, Five Meanings. My first teacher of Karate (Kenpo Karate) was Florentino S. Pancipanci. He also taught Tai Chi and Gung Fu (as well as Escrima, which I did not learn). He used to say that for each inch of movement in a kata, there were at least 5 meanings. That's right -- I said each inch. And he would demonstrate this.

Grappling. Here is where it gets really interesting. When the movements of kata were made public, the first thing to go was the grappling element. This seems to be particularly true in Shorin-Ryu based systems. Goju-Ryu evolved later and grappling seems to have not been suppressed in the kata.

However, in many systems, joint manipulation and grappling techniques were either eliminated or changed into blocks. Thus, a block might not only also be a punch -- it might also be a joint lock or throw. In fact, for many Karate teachers, these are the more likely applications. But if you execute a block with the body dynamics for a block, it might not work properly as a throw. Blocks work by stopping or redirecting an attack. Throws involve a completely different process of intercepting and redirecting the attacker's momentum. You have to know what you are doing (blocking or throwing) in order to do it properly.

When Kentsu Yabu came to Hawaii he was asked what the difference was between Karate (which then meant "China Hand") and Ju Jutsu. His reply was remarkable. Think about Ju Jutsu for a moment. Its curriculum is vast. Yabu answered that Ju Jutsu was only 10% of Karate. This was more than an idle boast. We know today that pre-public school system Karate had a comprehensive grappling element, often called Tegumi or Tuite.

In other words, an old school Karateka could punch like a boxer, throw like a Judoka and manipulate joints like a Ju Jutsu expert. If you ask me, the closest art to Karate is old style Aikido. If Yabu Sensei was right, a Karate expert should know just about every Aikido technique.

Do you? More importantly in the context of this article, when you analyze the movements of a kata, do you recognize the Aikido, Judo and Ju Jutsu-like elements?

It All Counts. Many of us have studied other martial arts. After many years or decades of Karate practice, the similarity of techniques from other arts becomes apparent. We start to see how a certain movement in a kata might be like a certain Judo throw, how another might be like an Aikido joint lock, etc.

I use the word "like" because it is important to keep in mind that the rules governing or shaping other arts might not apply to Karate. Judo has become a sport. Judo throws are designed not to injure. Karate throws would be useless if the attacker could simply get up and resume the attack.

One of the Karate seniors here in Hawaii demonstrated a takedown on me. Without warning he seized the muscle on the left side of my neck and with his other hand grabbed my right ear. With a little twist I was writhing in pain and ready to go in any direction he pleased. I don't think this would be allowed in Judo and I don't remember such a technique in Aikido. But it certainly worked!

"Dirty" Techniques. My good friend Professor Feliciano "Kimo" Ferreira teaches Kempo. He often talks about "dirty" techniques. I don't feel comfortable describing them here and I am wincing just thinking about it. OK, I'll describe just part of one. The end of this particular technique involves ramming the attacker into a wall (or other hard object) and raking his face against it as you take him down to the ground, where you proceed to "stomp the cockaroach juice out of him." I'm not kidding and most of the techniques he describes are far worse than this.

I studied Kenpo Karate in high school and taught it while in college. Many seniors of "traditional" Karate styles in Hawaii also had their start in Kenpo (for example, Bobby Lowe, Paul Yamaguchi, Masaichi Oshiro, Tommy Morita, Jimmy Miyaji, Kenneth Funakoshi, and former Chief of Police Lee Donohue). I often say that if you want to learn the bunkai of traditional Karate kata, observe Kenpo applications. My friend, Professor Ferreira, is a virtual walking bunkai encyclopedia.

Kenpo is a great art and is interesting because it is not kata based. While kata are taught in Kenpo today, the earliest classes here in Hawaii, starting with Masayoshi James Mitose and following with Thomas Young and William Chow, were technique based. The only kata originally taught was Naihanchi Shodan (sometimes referred to as the "Monkey Dance", perhaps referring to Choki Motobu).

Like the early Ju Jutsu classes taught by Danzan-Ryu founder Henry Seishiro Okazaki, Kenpo students would learn sets of defenses against certain attacks: ten arts against a grab, ten arts against a punch, ten arts against a club, ten arts against a knife, and so on. A fair amount of cross training took place between Mitose's and Okazaki's students. Kenpo movements were classified by the attack. When someone grabbed you, you knew what to do because you practiced a certain Grab Art thousands of times.

The same is not true of ordinary kata based Karate. You will not know what to do, more importantly, you body will not know what to do instinctively, unless you break down and break out the movements into something you can practice with a partner. This gets us back to the originators of the kata. They included techniques that worked for them. You will have to practice techniques so that they will work for you. Bunkai cannot be a mere mental process of identifying applications. Mind bunkai won't work in the real world.

Yakusoku Kumite. You might be wondering how yakusoku (promise or prearranged) kumite fits into this analysis. The answer depends on your system. Some schools practice yakusoku kumite forms that are little more than simple blocking drills. Such yakusoku kumite approximates only the most basic level of bunkai.

I practiced a form of Shorin-Ryu with 18 kata and only 7 formal yakusoku kumite forms. These yakusoku kumite forms were more for demonstrations than kata analysis. With 18 kata, the number of potential two man sets or pairing off drills that bunkai analysis could reveal is virtually unlimited. Thus, a handful of yakusoku kumite, while helpful, is not the same thing as bunkai.

One of the earliest sets of yakusoku kumite-type forms are the Motobu Choki Juni Hon Kumite. These are twelve patterns developed by Choki Motobu and still taught by his son, Chosei Motobu, and others. They appear in Choki Motobu's two books, Okinawa Kenpo Toudi Jutsu Kumite-Hen, published on May 5, 1926 by Ryukyu Karate-Do Shihan Kai, and Watashi no Karate Jutsu (My Karate Art), published in 1932.

The Motobu sets are interesting because they are based on older kata such as Naihanchi and Passai, as opposed to the modern Pinan, and because they reflect Motobu's expertise as a fighter. If the 12 sets are practiced on the right and left sides and with different attacks, they form an excellent reference source for use in bunkai analysis. A video entitled The Karate of Choki Motobu featuring Chosei Motobu's explanation of the Naihanchi Shodan and Nidan kata and the Motobu Choki Juni Hon Kumite forms is available at Tsunami Video. See: dragon-tsunami.org/Tsunami/Pages/motoburev.htm. Chosei Motobu has also appeared in titles produced in Japan.

Finding Bunkai. Naturally, the first place to start is your teacher and seniors. Assuming that you are the teacher or are on your own, where should you look? I mentioned Kenpo above. We can learn a lot from Kenpo and other arts.

Many fine teachers have produced videos or DVDs showing various bunkai. I will mention just four who I have personally found to be very interesting (in alphabetical order): Feliciano Ferreira, Morio Higaonna, Patrick McCarthy, and Yang Jwing-Ming./1 I mention them because their tapes are filled with applications and/or drills. You may know of many others. Also, each of the above teachers is from an art that differ from mine. I practice the Kishaba Juku form of Shorin-Ryu. It is eye opening to see applications from Kempo (Ferreira), Goju-Ryu (Higaonna), Koryu Uchinadi (McCarthy), and Chinese arts (Jwing-Ming). I always say that if someone can do something better than me, I want to learn it or at least understand it in case it is used against me. You can't counter what you don't know.

Bunkai Analysis and Construction. Here are some guidelines I use when applying a bunkai analysis to the kata I practice:

When you study bunkai, you will see applications everywhere. Just ask my children. I am always asking them to punch or grab me so that I can try out an application that just materialized in my mind. I am confident that I am not alone in having had many dreams about bunkai. One thing I have had to avoid is thinking about bunkai while driving.

Why Bunkai? I hope that you've enjoyed this introductory article. You've read almost 5,000 words. Just imagine if you didn't know what any of them meant. Kata without bunkai are like words without meaning. Bunkai transforms kata practice and opens a window to a fascinating world. I hope you will enjoy reading your kata!

/1 Each of these fine teachers has a website where their books and videos can be ordered.

If you are lucky, you might even find used copies on Ebay.com.


Contact Charles C. Goodin


Copyright © Charles C. Goodin. All rights reserved.

Hawaii Karate Seinenkai