Deciding What Bunkai Means To You

by Sensei David S. Hogsette

Most experienced karate practitioners are familiar with bunkai, but there are many different views of bunkai as there are karate styles and systems. The point of this post is not to criticize any particular view of bunkai; rather, I hope these reflections encourage us to think more deeply about what bunkai is (or can be) and how we train them in our dojos. I classify bunkai training into three large categories: kata movements, martial arts practice, and practical self-protection.

When talking to other karate practitioners about kata bunkai, the most common understanding, it seems to me, is that bunkai reflects the literal application of the movements in the kata. To be sure, this makes a lot of sense. After all, if in kihon a low block is a low block, and a reverse punch is a reverse punch, then when you do a low block in a kata, you must be blocking a kick, and if you are reverse punching in a kata, you must be executing a reverse punch. Coinciding with this literal understanding of bunkai is the notion (assumption?) that the kata represents a choreographed fight involving multiple attackers. Thus, the common practice of staging multiple attackers around the person performing the kata, each stepping in and executing a beautiful karate technique (usually a straight punch or a front kick) aimed perfectly to a standard target on the body.

I practiced kata and bunkai this way for years and years, and there are many benefits to this kind of training (timing, distance, body dynamics, positioning, using stances to shift weight and gain position, etc.). Yet, in the back of my mind, I often wondered if this is really what bunkai was all about. To be honest, I would NEVER pivot 180 degrees TOWARD someone throwing a front kick at me and then block it with a low block. Why on earth would I ever do that in a real confrontation? Why not just pivot in a guard and stand there, especially since the attacker wouldn’t reach me with his kick anyway, unless I stepped toward it. Just let him kick the air, and then I could charge in with an attack if necessary, or run away to safety.

Gradually, I realized that context is key to any training scenario. Thus, for training the literal moves of a kata, this kind of straight-forward bunkai training is very beneficial. But, in terms of practical self-defense, it is less helpful. After all, how many attackers in the street come at you with a perfect straight punch in a picture perfect forward stance?… Another type of bunkai training we often see are the really intricate, fancy, way cool applications of kata moves that, in some cases, do not really resemble the kata movements but are close enough where you could see how that applies. These bunkai often involve complex join locks, elegantly sophisticated throws, and esoterically wild moves seen in movies and exciting tournament demonstrations. I consider these types of bunkai to be in the martial arts context. That is, they are beautifully powerful expressions of combat as a martial art, which is an important element in any martial training.

There are some people who can train these complex moves to the point of perfection and applicability in a self-protection situation. But, such folks are few and far between, the true masters who train hours every day for a lifetime. Most people training in dojos today are not these kind of practitioners. When encountering a situation in the street, and when the freeze response hits and when the body is pumped full of adrenalin, which makes controlling your mind and body exponentially more difficult, these intricate and complex martial arts moves may prove nearly impossible for most people to pull off. (And they may prove fatal to oneself if a move is flubbed and the assailant’s attack succeeds.) They are incredibly fun to learn and impressive to perform in the dojo, and they have an important place in martial training. But, they may not be the most practical for self-defense.

This leads us to the third category of practical self-defense bunkai. I consider these applications to be somewhere between the literal movement bunkai and the fancy martial arts bunkai. Some may argue that practicing the literal movement bunkai is the traditional approach, and if you are following traditional karate, this is what you should be doing. Respectfully, I suggest that this notion of what is “traditional” actually is “modern” in the sense that this is what was traditionally done after karate was taken into the schools in Okinawa and Japan during the early 20th century. This is not what karate was designed for initially. The “modern” karate (from the early 20th century) is more about engaging in combat with other trained karateka, thus leading to the sport karate and practicing bunkai as if you are being attacked by another karate practitioner. Originally, karate and the kata were designed to train individuals to defend themselves against other untrained individuals. Karate was designed for civilian combat.

In this sense, the “traditional” route would be to understand kata movements as teaching us how to defend against attacks from untrained assailants. So, instead of blocking front kicks and straight punches, we are dealing with wild punches, sudden attacks, bear hugs, tackles, chokes, eye pokes, lapel grabs, wrist grabs, groin grabs, grappling situations, and so on. It makes a lot of sense, to me, to train kata bunkai from this perspective if we want to relate kata to self-defense. So, a big pivot into a low block may really be a basic throw or take down (ending up on the “low block” position). What looks like a punch to the face with the other hand “in the pocket” (which in itself makes little sense because why would the other hand be back in the pocket if you are punching someone) may actually be a head crank (one hand grabs the back of the head and pulls back “into the pocket” while the other hand grabs the chin and thrusts forward, ending up on a position that looks like a punch to the face with the other hand in the pocket). What looks like a reinforced chest block may actually be a set up for a hip throw from a grappling situation. What looks like a spear-hand to the chest (which in reality would break most people’s fingers) may actually be an open-hand compression strike to the ribs or the head (the hand in the pocket has grabbed the attacker’s arm, pulled him over, leaving his head open as a target at your chest level). This notion of bunkai makes the most sense to me.

Are these three views mutually exclusive? I don’t think so. Couldn’t we view them as a continuum in our training? Or, if for some a continuum establishes an uncomfortable hierarchy in training that they’d rather avoid (which category comes first, and does that mean the later ones are “higher” and thus “better”?…), couldn’t we view these training contexts as complementary? I leave that up to each individual karateka. In my view, I think all three contexts have important roles to play in our training.