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Bunkai Thoughts

I have been thinking a little about "bunkai." Here are some random thoughts.

When I was a young student, I never heard the word "bunkai." I don't think that a Japanese or Okinawan work was used to describe what particular movements mean. Instead, the instructor would usually just say, "punch (or kick or whatever)," and demonstrate an application for the movement he was teaching you. We did not ask, "What else does it mean?"

The applications I learned when I was a young student, reflected the fact that I was a young student. I do not remember ever seeing a movement explained in great depth and scope. The applications were usually limited and straightforward, such as a block or strike. I don't remember learning, for example, 25 applications for a single movement.

As I advanced in Karate, the applications I learned also advanced. I learned applications that were appropriate for my level at that time.

I can't remember when the subject of "bunkai" became popular. But when it did, people acted like it was always taught and was an old thing. I actually think that the meaning of movements were always taught, but as I described above, the meanings were taught in a way that was appropriate to the student's level. There was no comprehensive analysis of meanings, nor was there any effort to collect many meanings. Usually, the most practical, direct and destructive meanings were emphasized. If you asked an instructor about an exotic meaning, he would usually say, "punch," and let you have it with a "practical, direct and destructive meaning."

I was recently asked by a black belt in another style of Karate, "Is there really such thing as bunkai?" I answered that there was. He then asked if there are specific meanings for every movement or if instructors just make them up. I answered that there does seem to be pretty specific core meanings taught in Okinawan Karate, but that in some styles of Karate, it seems that people, in an effort to understand the meaning of the movements in their kata, watched every self defense and martial art video they could find and borrowed meanings. For example, a Karate movement may be interpreted as a Judo throw. However, modern Judo is a sport, and the intent is not to injure your partner. In old Karate, a throw would be destructive -- the attacker would not be able to get back up. So filling in a missing meaning with a Judo throw would not really be appropriate. Similarly, it might not make much sense to fill in a missing meaning in a Shorin-Ryu kata with a meaning from a Goju-Ryu video -- because the body dynamics and way of moving could differ. The best thing would be to find out what the Shorin-Ryu meaning is because that meaning would be consistent with the body dynamics and way of moving of Shorin-Ryu. Please don't get me wrong. Goju-Ryu applications are excellent -- for Goju-Ryu movements. Sometimes it is quite a stretch to interpret a Shorin-Ryu movement with a Goju-Ryu application.

The subject of bunkai has evolved in the last 20 or so years, it seems. First, people had to learn that movements have meanings. Then the scope of the meanings grew, as did the list. When grappling was popular, grappling interpretations in bunkai became popular. When kyusho (vital point striking) was popular, kyusho interpretations in bunkai became popular. NOw it seems that karate bunkai reflect the popularity of Brazilian Ju Jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts. Whatever became popular was added to the subject of bunkai, and the impression was given that such subjects were always taught going back hundreds of years. This may be so, but I believe that the most practical, direct and destructive meanings were emphasized in the past.

In my mind, if you have a choice of a simple application, you should use it. If you can strike, that is better than grappling because it is quicker. But if you have to grapple, then you should know how to do it. I have met some Karate experts who always seem to prefer a striking interpretation -- because they are extremely good at striking. If you have a chance to strike and get away, that is probably safer than grappling and getting away because in grappling you can get tangled up with the attacker. We usually assume that there is more than one attacker and even if it seems that there is only one, we prepare for another.

I have seen bunkai where a person blocks a punch and then turns to block another attack. This is usually to follow the flow of the kata. However, it makes no sense at all to me to block one attacker and then turn to block another attacker. If you did this, the first attacker would punch you in the back of the head! In my mind, each movement must seriously injure the attacker, and it is hard to do this with a single block (executed as a block). If a kata consists of a block, a turn, and another block, this does not mean that the application must follow that format exactly. When you block the first attacker, you should also strike him so that he will be incapacitated, then you can turn to take on the second attacker. I think that many people are way too literal in interpreting kata. Karate is self defense. In what kind of self defense would you turn your back on an attacker who is still standing and can continue to attack you?

Bunkai is an interesting subject. My personal emphasis is on becoming fluent in movement and applications.


Charles C. Goodin