Bunkai (lit. “take apart, analyze”), in the context of karate, is the practice of breaking down kata and working on developing applications for their movements, but sometimes it can be hard for karateka to figure out how to apply kata movements on their own. This is compounded by the fact that many instructors still only teach basic “block-punch-kick” applications for the kata they practice. These days, there are many resources for learning practical fighting applications to kata movements, in the form of articles, books, seminars, and videos. This is especially beneficial to karateka who are not being taught oyo (applications) in their training, but want to learn how to use the techniques in the kata they are learning. Hopefully, exposure to this information also helps those karateka develop their own approach to karate, and breaking down their kata into applications that work for them. Unfortunately, not everyone will naturally and smoothly make this transition. It helps to have guidelines to follow when looking at kata, if you haven’t already been taught applications for them.
If you are lucky enough to have an instructor who teaches practical fighting applications, then you may wonder why you would need to know how to break down kata. This tends to come up, especially, with people who fall into the “proper bunkai” camp, but it isn’t exclusive to people who feel that they have learned the only correct applications for their kata. Personally, I have a number of reasons for placing importance on the understanding of the actual bunkai process. There is much that can be learned through your own personal experimentation, even if you are following guidelines. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also fun and interesting, which is important when you are engaging in the lifelong practice of an art. Imagine if you were taught that a movement in kata is a specific technique, but that technique doesn’t suit your body type, or aggravates an injury. Would you just accept that this kata movement is useless to you, because you can’t use the “correct” application? Some would say so, but the principle of Shu-Ha-Ri (Obey-Digress-Separate) would suggest that you should find a way to make it useful to you, at least at some point in your journey. If you do want to find another way to apply that movement–and alternatives most certainly exist, regardless of whatever the original intent of the kata was–then you will need some sort of guidelines for developing an application that is both effective, and fits the kata.
There are a number of sources to draw from when looking at how to analyze a kata. From historical materials, we can find an array of guidelines from different masters. Some of them made direct commentary on breaking down the applications of kata. For example, Mabuni Kenwa, the founder of Shito-Ryu, is quoted as saying “The meaning of the directions in kata is not well understood, and frequently mistakes are made in the interpretation of kata movements. In extreme cases, it is sometimes heard that “this kata moves in 8 directions so it is designed for fighting 8 opponents” or some such nonsense.” Other masters, such as Motobu Choki, made comments that were more general in nature, such as suggesting that one should block attacks at their source, or strike to the face first and foremost, which can be applied to the analysis of kata. Perhaps the most famous, and concise, list of bunkai guidelines was first mentioned in essays by Miyagi Chojun Sensei, the founder of Goju-Ryu. More people became aware of them after they were published (only partially, it should be noted) by Toguchi Seikichi Sensei in his books on Goju-Ryu karate, where he called these guidelines “kaisai no genri”–a title he said came from Miyagi Chojun Sensei, which roughly means “principles for developing solutions.” Toguchi also said that he was told to keep these guidelines secret, but as karate became more popular, he decided to make them public, saying “I regret that the public has lost confidence in traditional Okinawan karate and may not understand the true value of karate kata.” These guidelines are divided into two sections, the first of which are called “shuyo san gensoku,” or “three main principles”:
- Don’t be deceived by the shape (enbusen) of the kata.
- The kata enbusen is designed to allow the kata to be performed within a small space. The shape of the enbusen has no bearing on the meaning of the techniques in the kata.
- Techniques executed while advancing are offensive. Those executed while retreating are defensive.
- There is only one opponent and he is in front of you.
- Turning to face a new direction while performing the kata does not mean you are turning to face a new opponent.
On their own, these guidelines can be a bit confusing, particularly because they almost seem to be in conflict with each other. The first principle says that the enbusen (performance lines) of the kata has no bearing on the meaning of the techniques, but the next two principles go on to point out how the enbusen does, in fact, provide guidance in regard to the meaning of the techniques. If we look at it a little more closely, however, Toguchi is saying that the “shape of the enbusen”–meaning that the “shape” and the “enbusen” are not the same thing–has no bearing on the meaning. To me, this means that the shape the kata makes, over all, does not carry meaning with it, which is something that has been suggested by others.
The idea that the kata draws a symbol on the ground that tells you the meaning of the kata is mystical and alluring, but Toguchi seems to be saying that this is not what was intended when the kata was developed. Instead, the lines drawn by the kata are merely the result of performing the techniques in the smallest amount of space possible. The second and third principles are quite straight forward, once this confusion has been cleared up, and are very simple baselines for karateka to consider when breaking down kata. It should be noted, however, that these are not “rules,” and are not intended to apply at all times, in all situations and kata. There will certainly be times where an advancing move is defensive, or a retreating move is offensive, or where you do turn to face a new opponent. They are simply guidelines to ensure that students have considered kata in the simplest way possible, before moving onto more advanced study. In addition to the above principles, Toguchi listed nine others that he called “hosoku joko,” or “supporting/supplemental rules”:
- Every movement in kata is significant and is to be used in application.
- There are no “salutation”, religious or empty movements in kata. All movements in the kata have meaning.
- A closed pulling hand returning to chamber usually has some part of the opponent in it.
- When pulling a hand to the chamber position, particularly if it is closed, it should be considered to have some part of the opponent in its grip. e.g. an arm, wrist or even head.
- Utilize the shortest distance to your opponent.
- The kata will typically attack the opponent with the closest part of your body.
- If you control an opponent’s head you control the opponent.
- Kata techniques often target kyusho (vital or weak points of the body), many of the most important of these are in the head. e.g. eyes or throat.
- There are no blocks.
- Uke are not blocks, they are “defenses,” however in kata they may not even represent defenses, but simply be the movements of the limbs required to execute a more complex technique like a throw.
- Angles in kata are very important.
- The angle to which you turn represents the angle which you must take relative to the opponent for the technique to work. It does not represent turning to face a new opponent.
- Touching your own body in kata indicates that you are touching part of your opponent.
- In the absence of a partner to practice with, where the kata touches your own body, you would be touching or holding part of the opponent’s body.
- Don’t attack hard parts of your opponent with hard parts of your body.
- The kata typically strikes hard parts of the opponent with soft parts of your body and soft parts with hard parts of your body.
- There are no pauses in the application.
- The rhythm of the performance of kata has no bearing on the performance of the techniques extracted from it.
While these are listed as “rules,” I personally tend to view them as additional–albeit more specific–guidelines, rather than hard and fast requirements for bunkai. In fighting, you are not always going to be the one dictating the action, and so some fighting applications may not fit all of these guidelines. Overall, these items are fairly straight forward, for the most part, but a few of them can be a bit difficult to understand without examples. In particular, numbers 4, 5, and 7 tend to come up frequently when karateka are discussing kaisai no genri, and the components that confuse them about it. Rule 4 states that if you control the opponent’s head, you control the opponent, which makes perfect sense from a grappling perspective. Just look at the Muay Thai plum (clinch) and how effectively some fighters are at moving their opponent’s around by their head. The subtext of this rule, however, makes note of kyusho, which most people associate with the striking of “pressure points,” making the rule a bit more confusing by blending a seemingly grappling-oriented suggestion with a seemingly striking-oriented one. It is important to remember that karate is both a striking and grappling art, and I believe that this rule reflects that. Striking someone in the eyes can move their head as effectively as grabbing and twisting it, and yanking on a person’s ear is just as much “kyusho” as striking the temple. These principles are not mutually exclusive in karate, and so this rule incorporates both.
Rule 5, which states that uke-waza (receiving techniques) are not “blocks,” can be a bit difficult for people to grasp, as most have been incorrectly translating the word “uke” from the beginning. Since the word “uke” comes from the word “ukeru,” meaning “to receive,” we can assume that uke-waza are more nuanced than simple blocks. Toguchi uses the term “defenses” to suggest this nuanced essence, as well. He also makes it quite clear that uke-waza are much more than simply for blocking an opponent’s attack, by stating that they are not only “defenses,” but that the arm motions are the same as those used to execute more complex fighting techniques. The Naihanchi kata are excellent examples of this, as the majority of the techniques in the kata are classified as uke-waza. In this animated GIF, you can see my Sensei, Richard Poage, demonstrating an armbar application for Naihanchi, which uses the motions of morote-uke (double receiver/”block”) to deflect an attack, strike the body, control the limb, and apply a joint lock. This is how something that appears to be a simple “block” can actually be showing you the movements of a much more complex technique, and it is definitely something that must be thoroughly considered when breaking down kata.
The 7th rule is one that may seem strange, because the idea that touching your body in kata would indicate touching your opponent, or applying a technique to that part of your opponent, means that some kata movements are being performed to tell you that something is happening, rather than showing you how to do it. While each approach has its place, anyone who has taken classes on writing or directing can confirm that there are definitely problems with telling versus showing. When it comes to kata, the biggest issue with telling you what is happening is that it isn’t obvious! There are very simple examples, of course, such as having your hikite (pulling hand) touching the side of your body. Some are a bit more subtle, such as techniques where you seemingly strike yourself, such as the nami-gaeshi (returning wave) foot sweep motions in Naihanchi, in which many styles touch their foot to the inside of their other leg, just above the knee. One of the most common applications for this movement is using it as a suki-geri (shovel kick) to that exact area, as it is vulnerable to both pain (as it is a nerve-rich area) and damage (as it is near the knee joint). Other examples are even less obvious, such as the sasae-uke (supported receiver/”block”) movements found in kata like Naihanchi Nidan, Passai, Enpi, Seiyunchin, and more, which can be indicating joint locks, among other applications.
Of course, these guidelines will not apply to every technique in kata, and they are not the only things to consider when it comes to bunkai. As Toguchi’s seventh rule suggests, some things in kata are implied, rather than being explicitly shown, and this is something that should be explored. Some good examples of implied techniques can be seen in the stances used in kata, such as neko-ashi-dachi (cat foot stance). The most common uses that I have heard described for this stance are that it is for pulling back, either to pull your opponent or to give yourself space to block, or that it is for preparing to spring forward, as all of your weight is gathered over your back leg. Those are fine ways to look at neko-ashi-dachi, but what if it could be more useful? The simple fact that the stance takes your weight off of your lead leg is the key, in this instance, because it implies that your lead leg could then be picked up off the ground in order to perform a technique. This happens naturally if you try to kick, knee strike, or sweep your opponent with your front leg–you will automatically sink back to your rear leg, taking the weight off of your lead leg in order to perform the technique. For this reason, you can look at every instance of neko-ashi-dachi in kata as implying that you could, if you so chose, execute a kick, knee strike, or sweep in conjunction with whatever hand motions are being done. A more complex example of the stances in kata implying techniques can be seen with kosa-dachi (cross stance). The inclusion of this type of “implied application” could be seen as ways to hide “secret techniques” in kata, but more than likely, it was simply a matter of the techniques being optional, or making the kata difficult to perform if included explicitly.
In addition to these more general guidelines, it is possible to find some style-specific principles for kata applications. KishimotoDi, for example, has three primary principles that its techniques should incorporate. The first of these is “issun hasureru,” which means “avoid by a sun“–a “sun” being roughly an inch. This means that all of the techniques of the system are meant to be done in close proximity to the opponent, because if you were to avoid the opponent’s attack by a larger span of distance, you would not be able to use them. The second principle is “kobo ittai,” which means “simultaneous attack and defense.” From the KishimotoDi perspective, this is a matter of efficiency as much as it is making the techniques work. If you defend against an attack, and then attack, you’ve given the opponent an opportunity to react to your defense–whether they do or not is up to them. The third principle is “taigi ichi,” which means “body and technique as one.” This is can be seen more as a method of power generation, but it also serves to support the second principle by reducing the time during which the opponent might be able to react. If your technique happens at the same time as your body moves, then you are moving efficiently, and hopefully not giving your opponent as much of an opening to stop your technique.
Beyond the technical aspects of bunkai, there are issues of practicality to consider. The study of mechanics, and how movements of one body can be used to affect another body, is beneficial and interesting, but for the purposes of kata bunkai, we should be focusing on finding applications that can realistically be applied to an attacker. An excellent resource for any karateka looking to develop practical fighting skills in their karate training is the book, The Way of Kata, by Lawrence Kane and Kris Wilder. One of the interesting components of this book is their kata application checklist, which considers both Toguchi’s kaisai no genri guidelines, and a set of guidelines meant to ensure practicality and realism. These guidelines, which they label as “principles,” are as follows:
- More than one proper interpretation exists
- Every technique should be able to immediately end the fight
- Strike to disrupt; disrupt to strike
- Nerve strikes are “extra credit”
- Work with the adrenaline rush, not against it
- Techniques must work at full speed and power
- Application must work on an “unwilling” partner
- Understand why it works
- Deception is not real
- If you are not there, you cannot get hit
- Cross the T to escape
- Stances aren’t just for kata
- Don’t forget to breathe
- Use both hands
- A lock or hold is not a primary fighting technique
Included with these princples are Toguchi’s kaisai no genri guidelines, and two “other considerations,” which are that an application may or may not be consistent with the strategy of the karate style, and may or may not be built upon natural physiological reactions. These are largely self explanatory, but in the book, Kane and Wilder go into great detail on their principles, and provide many examples to get karateka thinking. This list may seem to be straight forward, common sense material to some, but many karateka have never had to consider these components of bunkai, before. If you practice karate, and want to ensure that you are working practical fighting applications for your kata, this book is a “must have.” Of course, this is a very long list of things to consider for bunkai, and one should not expect every application to meet every guideline. The key is to develop applications that meet most of them–particularly any that you feel are especially important, personally–rather than trying to find perfect matches to the list.
The final suggestion I will make, in regards to bunkai, is that you should consider positioning, points of contact, and direction of movement before worrying about what attack you are defending against. When looking at kata from a self defense perspective, it is easy to get hung up on trying to figure out what realistic attack you might be dealing with, particularly since so many karateka are used to training against long range, kihon-style lunge punches. This can lead to some people putting blinders on, and missing potential applications because they have decided that they are defending against a certain attack, for which other applications may not make sense. Instead, I prefer to work in reverse, starting with the final result of the application I am looking at. Have I struck, thrown, or locked the opponent? Have I done some combination of the three? Can they continue to attack in some way from this position? Etc. From there, I want to look at how my stance and angle, shown by the kata, allow me to perform this application. Have I moved off-line? Am I on the “inside” or the “outside” of the attacker? Is my stance able to be used offensively? Etc. At that point, I take stock of my points of contact with my opponent. Am I controlling any of the opponent’s limbs, or their head? Are my hips in contact with the opponent’s body? Are my legs touching them? Etc. This all allows me to look at how I could have ended up in the position that I am in, by considering why types of motions could result in the application being looked at. Did I have to push or pull something? Would this be easier to apply against someone pushing, pulling, or moving in a circular manner? Could this be done against someone who is attempting to prevent movement? Etc. Once you have considered these types of things, you will be left with details that allow you to narrow down the possible attacks that you could be dealing with.
There are a number of resources that can provide karateka with lists of common attacks that happen in real-life self defense situations, which can be referred to easily once you have those details. The lists that most karateka may be familiar with is Patrick McCarthy Sensei’s HAPV Theory (Habitual Acts of Physical Violence), and Jeff Nash Sensei’s HAOV (Habitual Acts of Violence), both of which were compiled by researching law enforcement records to determine what types of attacks were most commonly used to victimize people in a variety of situations and locations. To get an idea for what these types of attacks look like, YouTube can be an excellent source for videos of attacks captured on security and cell phone cameras. It should be noted that mutually agreed-upon “fights” are different than “attacks,” but both can provide valuable insight into real life violence.
While these guidelines are not universal, and do not apply 100% of the time, they are very useful for those interested in developing their karate into something effective for self defense. It is also important to remember that these are not the only ways to look at bunkai, and karateka should feel free to experiment and explore in their training. Armed with these guidelines, and a collection of examples of kata applications, most should be able to delve deeply into their study of kata. In conjunction with skill-building drills, platform drills, and pressure testing, this approach to karate is both practical and engaging. Learning applications from your instructor, or in seminars with other instructors, is a great way to build your repertoire and get a better feel for different bunkai guidelines and technique concepts but, at some point, karateka should work to develop their own personal approach to karate.