Trying to understand Bunkai

Discussion in 'Karate' started by GaryWado, Apr 20, 2011.

  1. GaryWado

    GaryWado Tired

    The good/bad argument has been done to death so I am keen not to go there, but a recent thread on another forum has made me wonder about “Bunkai” and how it used within certain styles - particularly Shotokan.

    As most of you guys know, as a Wadoka, the practice of bunkai (as I understand it and granted my understanding is limited) doesn’t really feature in my training however we do use what many instructors refer to as Kaisetsu to allow the student to visualise/realise what they are doing against an opponent – but it is exactly as it is done within the kata.

    I have read many times that Kaisetsu and bunkai mean the same thing – and they probably do when it comes down to it, but are Shotokan practitioners actively encouraged to seek out bunkai as part of the educational process?

    If so, that’s the difference, we don’t “diverge” from the kata so much – or at least not in solo kata form.

    And how far does that experimenting go? I know you have to take a lot of ideas with a pinch of salt (particularly when it comes down the perceiving something as a throw for example), but I do wonder whether it all comes down to a different way of allowing the practitioner to realise/internalise the movements they are doing (and thus get better at them in solo form) rather than creating something that has “immediate” stand alone combative logic.

    Sorry if it seems like an odd question but as I say, the recent thread I have read really makes me raise my eyebrows and - quite frankly makes me wonder if people actually wish they were doing jujutsu or judo rather than karate?

    Last edited: Apr 20, 2011
  2. John Titchen

    John Titchen Still Learning Supporter

    Hi Gary

    I would say that up until recently bunkai for Kata has not been taught in the majority of Shotokan associations. On the rare occasion where (generally western) students dared ask what a move means they were referred to the applications of movements as per standard basic kumite practise - a range and a form of attack that bore no relation to the premise of Karate alluded to by Itosu.

    Hope that helps

  3. Kuma

    Kuma Lurking about

    Bunkai is a tricky subject no matter where you're bringing it up. I vaguely recall kaisetsu being roughly translated as "commentary" <?> and is supposed to be different but I honestly don't know why. I do know that bunkai is an individual pursuit and it is a matter of seeing what is offered from the kata, constantly experimenting with it, and adapting it to your own unique fighting style.

    Just from my dabbling in bunkai in both class and amongst friends, you can have some very different interpretations from a pretty simple movement and everyone will have their own spin on it that suits themselves best. I've always thought of bunkai and have been taught that bunkai is the physical application; the realization/internalization comes from practicing the solo form.

    As far the jujutsu/judo - It's pretty hard to deny that karate does have its fair share of throws, sweeps, and locks. Definitely not as refined as say Judo, but from the tegumi influence as well as well-known karateka demonstrating and sharing their knowledge of it hidden within, it's tough to ignore.
  4. John Titchen

    John Titchen Still Learning Supporter

    Can you post a link to the thread in question? My experience of Shotokan is that it originally had a considerable throwing/unbalancing controlling arsenal that was practiced (see Funakoshi's first edition Karate Do Kyohan). This was gradually downplayed, as was Judo's striking, not least to draw clear lines and a lack of competition between the two.
  5. GaryWado

    GaryWado Tired

    Hi John,

    Came accross the discussion re Kanku sho on this site:

    You say that "originally" Shotokan had plenty of throws/kuzushi etc in its practice.

    I suppose what I am asking is whether you feel that the modern "JKA" style shoto has the same linkage?

  6. John Titchen

    John Titchen Still Learning Supporter


    The core of a TMA is its Kata. The Kata contain the throws etc. The exhortation from Funakoshi was that it was up to students to study diligently and practise these (and gain proficiency) themselves.

    Whether the JKA (or any other Shotokan) organisation practise those movements in their kumite or Kihon is for me irrelevant. So long as they practise the Kata in which those techniques are either in plain view (to someone proficient in them) or alluded to, the linkage is there.

    Personally I regard Karateka who do not study the Kata bunkai in depth to be missing the key to their real art.

    Edit: That is not however to say that their training is without value, merely that they are not necessarily training what they think they are training.

    Of course not all TMA have kata. It depends on the tradition concerned and the technology involved. If in the 19th C they had had our protective equipment and our video/photography equipment, and our extensive literacy - would Karateka still have used Kata as a means of transmitting knowledge? I'm not convinced (which is why I don't teach Kata in my system). There is also a cultural element to the pedagogy. It is noticeable that the very effective and old martial art of boxing has drills, but no kata per se.
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2011
  7. bassai

    bassai onwards and upwards ! Moderator Supporter

    If i could just jump in , Modern "JKA" Shotokan ,is more influenced by Yoshitaka Funakoshi and Mr Nakayama , rather than pre war Shotokan imo.
    I've heard loads of justifications for this "watering down" (for want of a better phrase) , mainly focusing on a desire to show Shotokan more as a sport in the post war era , showing it to be less war like.
    As to your original question bunkai is something that seems to have gained in popularity over the last 10 years , with every teacher trying to show more clever bunkai.
  8. GaryWado

    GaryWado Tired

    Hi Mark,

    That's certainly something that I have noticed - and it has crept accross to Wado also.

    Can you gain proficiency in something like nage-waza yourself? I would say to get good at throws and joint locks and holds etc., you practice exactly that but you'd need to be trained in it.

  9. John Titchen

    John Titchen Still Learning Supporter

    I agree. That's why Funakoshi encouraged readers to train in and practice throwing and grappling diligently. It may also be why he encouraged people like Egami to train in Aikido.

    Ultimately for the Kata to be of additional value (to the kihon and kumite) you have to practise the bunkai.
  10. John Titchen

    John Titchen Still Learning Supporter

    Hi Mark

    What do you mean by 'clever'?
  11. GaryWado

    GaryWado Tired

    I suppose thats my point John,

    For kata to have value, you have to practice bunkai, but in order to correctly apply the outputs of said kata/bunkai training, you should study other arts like Aikido!?

  12. John Titchen

    John Titchen Still Learning Supporter

    If you come from the generation of Karateka who have not been taught the techniques by other Karateka, yes. If you have been trained by someone who has that knowledge, less yes. :) Training in Aiki is good for you. :)
  13. GaryWado

    GaryWado Tired

    Or you could train in Wado-ryu where these techniques are part of our syllabus - but then we don't do Bunkai.


    [edit]Correction, I should say "more" of these techniques.
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2011
  14. John Titchen

    John Titchen Still Learning Supporter

    So there's little point in your practising the solo Kata. :) :evil:

    Edit: But do you practise the tyechniques against other Karate techniques (in a match format), or attacks by ruffians?
  15. Moosey

    Moosey invariably, a moose Supporter

    I think I'm one the relatively few people on here who doesn't especially value the kata-bunkai partnership as a training method. As someone who practices pretty "vanilla" JKA-style shotokan, most of the useful things I've learned in karate have come through the training method of kihon leading to kihon kumite leading to jiyu kumite.

    That's not to say that I haven't found the bunkai-centric sessions I've done with people like JWT or Mike Flannagan useful or educational, but in my regular training I've not been impressed with much of the bunkai I've learned, despite the fact that my instructors have all been fantastic karateka. It's simply not considered that important and I think, unless you do make it the core of your training philosophy, it's disposable.
  16. John Titchen

    John Titchen Still Learning Supporter

    By contrast I've found little of use (for the practical hands on stuff I wanted to do) from the Kihon and kumite and the most applicable stuff I've used from the bunkai and the Kata that drilled the basics of those movements.
  17. GaryWado

    GaryWado Tired

    Wado-ryu is Karate. Solo kata is vital to our educational process.

    I could bang on for ages as to why, but most would not give two hoots.

  18. Wastelander

    Wastelander Valued Member

    To me, kata are a blueprint for what the art contains--they help you put it all together and remember it--and bunkai helps you expand that blueprint into a 3D rendering, so to speak. The kata, on its surface, is a bare-bones method of building muscle memory and training kihon, but beneath the surface you have a very complex set of applications for the techniques you are practicing.

    In regards to the judo/jujutsu thing, I think that jwt is entirely correct in that the original grappling/throwing applications that are in karate kata have largely been phased out by many styles/instructors, but if you train a grappling art in addition to your karate then you will see those applications much more readily than someone without grappling training. It isn't that those applications weren't there before you started grappling, you just didn't recognize them for what they were and your instructor probably didn't, either.

    So, to sum it up, I love bunkai and I advocate cross-training :)
  19. GaryWado

    GaryWado Tired

    So would you have been better off starting with say Aikido or Jujutsu?

  20. Wastelander

    Wastelander Valued Member

    I don't think it matters what you start in. I started in Karate and Judo came second, so I had been building my kihon to be very strong and my kihon bunkai was also strong, the Judo just unlocked more of my art. If I had started in Judo first and gone to Karate then my grappling kihon would have been strong and I would have seen the grappling concepts of bunkai sooner, but I might have had a harder time adjusting to the striking/blocking kihon of Karate. The order in which you learn is, in my opinion, entirely up to you.

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