Martial arts have a great deal of terminology describing their techniques, methods, and concepts. Typically, this terminology is in the language native to the region the art came from. Karate, although Okinawan in origin, has adopted the Japanese language as Uchinaguchi (the language of Okinawa) was phased out of regular use in the Ryukyu Islands. This means that karateka all over the world, regardless of their native tongue, make use of quite a bit of Japanese in their training. This typically works out just fine, but sometimes things can get lost in translation. I will admit that I am not a linguist, and I do not speak or read Japanese, but I try to pick up what I can as it applies to my karate training.
One of the most commonly mistranslated and misunderstood words in the karate lexicon is “uke.” Just about anyone who has trained in traditional karate for more than a few weeks should recognize that word. Despite the familiarity of the word, most karateka will erroneously say that “uke” means “block.” This is something that has been deeply ingrained in karate culture–so much so, that even people who know what the word actually means will still say “block” when speaking about it in English. The word “uke” is actually a shortened form of the word “ukeru,” which means “to receive.” This is a much more nuanced term when you apply it to a fighting technique, because you can receive an attack in many more ways than simply blocking it. That nuance is likely why the literal translation of “uke” never gained popularity. A lot of people (particularly Western people) prefer terminology that is specific and precise, rather than vague and nebulous.
Another word that is fairly common is “bunkai.” Not all karateka have heard this term, but I would say that most have, and the number is growing. Most often, it is translated as “application,” or “the meaning of movements,” and is used as a label for the fighting techniques found in kata. This is slowly becoming more and more popular, but it is being misused. “Bunkai” is actually a verb, and it means “to take apart and analyze,” or put more simply, “analysis.” In the context of kata, this describes the actual physical and mental processes involved in breaking down the kata into smaller pieces and analyzing how the movements should be done, and what they might be used for. Much like the word “uke,” this misuse of the word “bunkai” is very popular, even among people who know what the word actually means. So much so, in fact, that you are almost required to misuse it in order for people to know what you are talking about.
A less-common word, which is related to “bunkai” and also often misused, is “oyo.” Typically, it is used to refer to personal variations to the fighting techniques found in kata. This likely stems from people being shown very basic applications, which they believe to be the “standard applications” for the kata, and then being shown more practical applications, which they are told are “oyo.” In reality, this word means “practical application,” or “to put to use.” What most people call “bunkai”–the fighting techniques found in kata–is actually “oyo.” Sometimes, you will see both words combined (“oyo bunkai”) to describe the specific process of breaking down the kata to figure out the practical applications of the movements.
When someone makes personal changes to a kata or its applications, you could call it “henka.” This word literally means “change” or “variation.” Some people like to use it only in reference to applications of kata, but it can also apply to the movements of kata, themselves. For example, the Naihanchi footwork exercises I recently wrote about would be considered “henka,” as they are variations on the normal way the kata is practiced. Similarly, if you change a hand formation in kata or in application, that would also be “henka.”
All of these terms can be confusing, especially for those of us who do not speak or read Japanese. Since Japanese words are written with combinations of symbols that represent entire words, by themselves, there can be a lot of depth to them. Since we don’t understand them, and usually write them in a Romanized (using Roman/Latin letters) form, we often miss out on this depth and can easily misinterpret the meaning of the words we use. Even if you never learn the language, it is important to try to understand it as best you can in order to further your understanding of the art. This also extends to Uchinaguchi, as there are many concepts in karate that have Uchinaguchi words that do not quite translate into Japanese very well. In the end, we can only do so much, but I urge you to do your best to use karate terminology as correctly as possible. If enough karateka do this, we may be able to slowly correct some of the mistakes in understanding that have plagued modern karate.