11 Useful Bunkai For The Kusanku Ninja Move

By Jesse | 38 Comments

When people don’t understand things, they often find it easier to create their own explanations rather than to actually find out the real explanation. We see this all the time, in every part of society.

To psychologists, this behaviour is known as rationalization.

If something doesn’t make sense, make it make sense.

Karate is no exception.

And kata is a great example.

Out of all the unexplainable and unusual movements you’ll find in Karate, perhaps the king of all is the crouching position we find in the kata Kusanku (Kanku/Kosokun/Kushanku etc).

I’m talking about this move:

But what is the meaning of this movement? Why on earth would anybody need to crouch down like this in a self-defense situation? We all know that the ground is the last place you’d want to be on!

It makes no sense.

And that is the exact reasoning that has led some people to come up with very interesting explanations for this move right here. With the most common (and amusing) one being:

“It’s for fighting in the night!”

Yes!

This move is apparently intended for being used when you are surrounded by ferocious samurai warriors, fighting your way through a horde of ninjas on the moonlit rice fields of Okinawa.

Don’t believe me?

A quick Google search gives me several sources that cite this exact move as being an exceptionally clever technique for fighting in the darkness of the night.

Actually, let me quickly quote some parts from one certain article, written by a man who even calls himself a “Karate historian” (!):

Kusanku kata has traditionally been called the “night fighting kata.” It is obvious that Kusanku kata does contain techniques well-adapted to fighting at night.

While the inclusion of these techniques might be purely a coincidence, I believe it is doubtful the kata is also coincidentally called the “night fighting kata.” There is the fact that many of the techniques in Kusanku are well-suited, if not specifically designed, for fighting at night. Luckily, the basics of night fighting are all included in Kusanku kata.

Kanku also includes the remnants of the most obvious night fighting technique, dropping to the ground after the crescent kick. Many consider this move, which vaguely looks like the stretched out starting position of a sprinter, to be completely useless. Obviously such individuals have limited experience fighting at night. This technique also allows one to disappear into the darkness while simultaneously locating opponents.

Even on the darkest night, the sky is lighter than the ground. By dropping low to the ground, opponents are silhouetted against the sky. Not only does this allow one to locate opponents by viewing the sky, it also effectively allows one to disappear into the darkness.

By watching the silhouette, it is possible to determine when the attack is coming.

Kusanku contains many techniques that are essential for fighting at night. While many have recently dismissed the “night fighting kata” as pure myth, the techniques themselves reveal the truth.

Okay, hold on, that’s enough Mr. Karate historian!

So, what this article basically says, is that we are dropping down to the ground in the middle of a fight, so that we can hide from our enemies (apparently they are numerous!), while locating them through searching for their silhouettes against the sky?

Like this?

"Don't move! You have ninja assassins all around you!"

And the crazy thing is, I’ve both read and heard this many times before!

Mr. Karate historian is not alone!

Now, I don’t know what you think, but I think this myth is similar to the naive belief that Karate was a system developed by peasants in the “cover of nightfall” during Okinawa’s old Ryukyu Kingdom in order to overcome the despotic Satsuma Samurai occupying their island!

Of course, no one is suggesting that such a thing is beyond the capabilities of farmers (as similar history elsewhere has been written in blood) but it’s simply not the case here!

Okinawa was in no position to offer resistance when the Satsuma samurai invaded, and their reign remained unchallenged in the Ryukyu Kingdom until the island finally fell under the jurisdiction of the Meiji government and ultimately became an independent prefecture called Okinawa-ken (Okinawa Prefecture),which remains to this day.

Still, we continue to hear myths such as “the high kicks of Shotokan’s Gankaku kata are designed for kicking a samurai in the throat, while he is sitting on his horse, through the small opening under his helmet” or “these last backward jumps from Shotokan’s Chinte is for when your hands and feet have been tied together by ninjas, and you need to jump to freedom through the rice paddy.”

I’m not making these up.

There are actually people who believe these stories!

And I have about a dozen more examples – including fighting when carrying a baby on the back (!), fighting on boats, rivers, in castle hallways and much more. What they all have in common (besides being funny) is that they effectively draw the attention away from the important fact that Karate is a pragmatic martial art designed for close quarter self defense, and instead focus on ridiculing the intelligence of every serious Karate practitioner.

See where I’m going?

So, this post is basically about showing that the “drop-down-and-hide-in-the-darkness-from-ninjas” move from Kusanku actually does have a few different practical martial applications if you just look for them!

And, acting as models, I have my loyal Karate slaves colleagues Jesper “The Ninja Hunter” and Oscar “The Samurai Executioner”:

"Sensing danger..."

Okay, enough photo editing, on with the good stuff:

Here’s 11 Useful Bunkai For The Kusanku Ninja Move (or whatever you call it).

1. Dropping Tai Otoshi

A simple throw.

Straighten the back leg to flip your opponent over, while pulling down to the ground. You can grip basically however you like, including the neck (kubi-nage).

2. Dropping Spinning Ashi Barai

A spinning low leg sweep.

You can go for one leg or both.

3. Ryo Ashi Dori

A normal double leg takedown. Nothing fancy. Grab the heels and push with your shoulder (using your legs).

4. Hiji Osae

This is a submission hold, popular in Aikido, where you press down on your opponents elbow with one hand and twist/bend his pinned hand towards his head. Very effective!

Keep you opponents hand above, or parallel to, shoulder level for maximum efficiency.

5. Sprawl

When your opponent reaches for your front leg, kick back, lower your hips and place your weight on top of your opponent. Bonus points if you knee him in the solar plexus at the same time!

6. Kneeling Kata Guruma

Classig wrestling throw.

And yes, the pictures are in a strange order, but I hope you get it anyway. On a side note, some people might find this technique far-fetched, and I might agree. But try it anyway!

7. Single Leg Takedown

Almost the same mechanics as when you do the double leg takedown (#3). Except you should be pressing against the knee with your shoulder, not your throat (!) like in the picture…

Am I the only one smelling a degradation around the corner?

8. Kesa Gatame Gyaku Dori

Okay, okay, before you say anything, I know this technique looks strange.

It is actually taken from Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (sic) a long time ago, so it definitely works though. It’s a shoulder/elbow lock that you do after having escaped from the reverse side control position (kesa gatame). The lock is applied when you lower your shoulders and straighten your neck.

Of course the actual kata doeesn’t feature all of the steps required to end up in the correct crouching position for this lock, but that’s not the point. And it’s a great move nontheless. Surprisingly painful!

9. Evil Face Crusher That I Couldn’t Make A Japanese Name For

Grab ears. Or hair. Smash face. Done.

10. Ushiro Ryo Ashi Dori

Just like when we did the takedown from the front, it works equally well from behind.

There’s some nasty follow-up techniques from this one!

11. Senaka Kudaki

And last but not least, when you feel utterly sadistic. The back breaker.

I mean, just look at that evil smile!

Works great if you catch a leg, spin around, then drop down.

So, that’s basically it.

Instead of making up (and believing) all of these fancy stories just because some techniques (or whole kata!) look unexplainable or unusual, try to sit down for a moment and think, and I bet you’ll come up with a lot more ideas than you believe you could.

Of course, some of it won’t work, but some of it will.

Discard the former, keep the latter!

And for those of you who can’t swallow fact, just keep eating fiction.

“Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.”

– Mark Twain

About the author

Jesse Enkamp is a Karate Nerd™, #1 Amazon best-selling author, national team athlete and founder of Seishin - the world's first crowdfunded & crowdsourced gi. He thinks you should become a Karate Nerd™ too.

38 Comments

  1. Batman

    July 18, 2010 at 12:29 am

    Always wondered what the hell could possibly come from that move. I kinda fail at bunkai in a big way. Nicely done Jesse, thanks

  2. Fatih Ince

    July 18, 2010 at 6:22 am

    “Truth is stranger than fiction,because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.” Doesn’t make sense…

    There is something wrong in the sentences. I guess “stranger” must be “stronger”…am I right bro?

    • Jesse

      July 18, 2010 at 11:58 am

      Nope, that’s how it is! It’s about the limitations of our minds :)

  3. Glyn Jones

    July 18, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    Another excellent posting Jesse. A great blog that always makes me smile!

  4. frederic Lecut

    July 18, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    Hi Jesse
    Great job. I had always wondered, and I was not convinced about the crouching in the grass… I like the dropping ashi barai the best as it would fit with the immediately preceding crescent kick. It is also a sweep used in several styles of Chinese martial arts. I also like the Tai Otoshi, and we know that Mr Kusanku was part of a Chinese legation to Okinawa.
    I’ll practice that one as well as the Tai Otoshi (one of my favorite Judo moves).
    There are just like for other kata several versions of Kusanku, and in our Yoshukai version, these 2 would seem the more likely.
    Thank you

  5. CrazyJoe

    July 19, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    Good job, Jesse-san!

  6. Andi

    July 20, 2010 at 12:19 am

    You definetely have a lot of fun studying Karate :O)

  7. frederic lecut

    July 20, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    Well, I gave it a try last night Jesse.
    In Yoshukai version of Kusanku, the opponent grabs your hand , you kick his hand away with the crescent kick, then you do the crazy jump.

    I believe the first option is the most likely one -- drop spinning ashi barai. I’m too old to be able to do this move fast enough now, but I would recommend it to some younger students.
    The Tai Otoshi is much easier for me. It would be done from a closer position.

    • Jesse

      July 21, 2010 at 12:14 am

      Nice Frederic! :)

  8. Drew Baye

    July 24, 2010 at 7:22 am

    It also looks like an effective “de-panting” movement.

  9. Francis

    August 2, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    Your article made me lagh a lot, you’re great! I just found something… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsUai4wt6Yk&feature=related 2:32. Kallaripayatt

  10. Daniel

    September 10, 2010 at 11:51 am

    LOL! Thanks Jesse, this REALLY made me laugh! And thanks fot the useful applications!
    In Gichin Funakoshi 1925 book (I have the Italian edition -- the correct title might be Rentan Goshin Tode Jutsu?) it is stated that this move is applied when the contenders are both exhausted, and this crouching would aim to confuse the opponent pushing him to make the next move. What do you think about this statement that sound a bit odd to me?
    And why after crouching, in the Shorin Ryu Kushanku, do you have to look backwards?
    Thanks in advance!

    • Jesse

      September 10, 2010 at 3:34 pm

      Hi Daniel!

      Yes, I have read the same explanation from Funakoshi. He writes that you crouch down, pretending to be hurt, right? And when the opponent approaches from behind (to kick you in the head) you block it in a sitting position etc…

      I’m not sure that it would work as intended (ie why not simply attack the groin if you’re crouching and all?) but his explanation might have come from his teacher Itosu, who was the man responsible for codifying the Kusanku Dai/Sho to begin with, and therefore the bunkai might be a little “non-dangerous” (unrealistic) in order to facilitate Itosu’s goals of Karate in the schools system etc etc…

      None of the “older” Okinawan versions of (Chatan Yara) Kusanku have the same follow-up move that Shotokan and some Shorin-ryu groups use, so…

      Just some thoughts :)

  11. Szilard

    September 10, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    I like #11, it is a lot like the bunkai I learned originally. I always thought that is a stretch, it is not in the kata, but still I liked the bunkai itself. It went like this:
    Tori: ushiro geri, lets say left foot
    Uke: step up to the right side of Tori, ram your left hand under his kicking leg close to the groin, slap the right hand on his left shoulder and grab (so he can’t turn), lift with left arm and hip, kick out the supporting leg if he does not fall. At this point he either rotates by itself in the air, or you can flip him to his back.
    If you want to spend 20 years in prison you do this move from the kata accelerating his fall and he lands on your knee breaking his spine.
    Alternatively you can land him on the ground. If you can manage to flip him back 90 degree you can kneel on his side from behind, arriving into a real advantageous fighting position. But you can practice this later version only with people who know how to fall or you risk breaking their arm when you flip them back.

  12. Andreas Quast

    September 10, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    Gichin Funakoshi 1925 book Rentan Goshin Tode Jutsu:
    The reason for going down may not be that both combatants are exhausted, but that the (left) hand is caught in the technique before. In the technique before, Funakoshi says (P. 176):
    #1
    ?????????????????????
    The meaning of this movement is to chop down with the left hand upon the pulled-up knee.

    In the description of the following scene (P. 177) which is the movement in question, he states:
    #2
    ??????????????????????????????????????????????
    If the (left) hand is stuck and can’t be released, as the following tactic one pretends to be anxious and intentionally collapses. This serves to perplex the enemy.

    However, the part stating “???????????????” has some weird expressions and old Kani. It may also be written as:
    “?????????????”, which changes the meaning to:
    If the (left) hand is stuck and can’t be released, as the following tactic one holds on (to the adversaries hand) and intentionally collapses. This serves to perplex the enemy.

    So maybe technique #1 was an attempt to release the left hand from a wrist hold.
    Technique #2 supposes, that the releasing of technique #1 wasn’t succesful, thus another attempt is started. Continuous techniques.

    This may correspond to Chatan Yara Kushanku, where you kick against your left hand before turning and going down.

    Assumed, your partner grips your left wrist with his left hand (cross-over). You try to release the grip by punching it against your knee (or with your knee against the hand).
    If this doesn’t work, grasp his hand and step through under the connected hands with your right leg, and place the right foot in front your adversary (on his right side). While you start turning and going down, place your right hand on his left elbow (or use your shoulder), and thus twirl him around in a Kansetsu type of waza. Let him fall over your right leg, which is stretched out under him, bring him downwards to the ground, and pin him.

    Now look over your shoulder in order to see if the spectators value your technique. too.
    :O)

    One may also perform the release kick and swing the right leg over the connected hands and downwards.

    • Andreas Quast

      September 10, 2010 at 7:38 pm

      Oh, it scrambled my Kanji and Kana, sorry.

      • Jesse

        September 10, 2010 at 10:05 pm

        Thanks Andreas, nice work! Interesting! :)

  13. hans

    January 4, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    The movement resembles somewhat the sword ducking move from wadoryu’s tachidori. On Youtube there are demonstrations of the Ohtsuku family Hironori (I) (the founder of wadoryu and his son)doing these much commented knive and sword defences…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6aBcJyg2HjE&feature=related

  14. Matt

    January 4, 2011 at 10:22 pm

    Great post, thank you. I’ve always used this technique as a sprawl defense, which I was very happy to see you include here. The great thing about how the movement is designed is that if you engage your opponent sooner (which is usually desirable) it can be transformed into a knee strike as he begins his shoot attempt (which you touched on in the article).

    These built in timing differences and redundancies is what makes movement in kata worth preserving and exploring.

  15. Noah L

    January 4, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    Interesting and practical takes on the bunkai! The way I saw it done in Shuri-Ryu was the crescent kick was not so much a kick, but a jump--you jumped onto your opponent and dragged them to the ground where you applied the wrist lock or an elbow lock with their elbow braced on your raised knee.

  16. Kevin

    April 19, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    I was taught some whopper of explanations including the dropping to the ground in Kusanku. However, after I recieved Shodan, I was pulled aside and told that those explanations were to hide the real meaning of karate from the unworthy. My training then changed and I was shown the real meaning of things.

  17. warrioress

    August 11, 2011 at 3:13 am

    That last picture REALLY made me laugh! I’ll be trying some of those bunkai on my best mate (who is a fellow karateka. If she can’t handle it it’s her problem not mine!)

  18. Blog Kindo

    March 10, 2012 at 10:59 am

    Your Articles always amazing jes…
    Osu

  19. Dave Burnings

    April 25, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    Really appreciate you sharing this article. Fantastic.

  20. Sasha

    July 28, 2012 at 2:30 am

    This post is hilarious and very informative at the same time, thank you so much!

  21. Kevin

    October 23, 2012 at 10:54 am

    Not listed or mentioned here is the double ashi Barai. Using the crescent kick as a front foot sweep, then dropping and sweeping the rear foot as well. Bruce Lee used this in the duel with Han in “Enter the Dragon”. Watch and you’ll see it. Also the high jump spinning back kick after the crescent has been caught by the opponent landing on the hands, also the leg scissors takedown. And PS have hidden like this in knee high grass with the ability to come up quickly. scared the heck out of my buddy who was about to step on me.

  22. Bob

    March 6, 2014 at 4:58 am

    There is also always an even more basic exercise aspect to kata. As someone who has resumed karate at 59 years of age, after 2 hip replacements, and a 30 year hiatus, just getting down and up in Kusanku is a real challenge. So being able to do this move requires (and develops) strength and flexibility that is applicable to any fighting situation. The bunkai possibilities are very interesting, especially to me the tai otoshi connection. I studied jiu-jitsu briefly before karate. There is a possible tai otoshi in Tensho as well. In my current school, we recognize another single leg takedown in Kusanku in the kneeling elbow strikes — if the hand grabs the leg and elbow presses the knee. So perhaps there is a lot of “ground attack” built into kusanku. Interesting stuff.

  23. Dr.Bombay

    June 3, 2014 at 1:34 am

    Dear Jesse,
    in the first part of your article, you bravely fight the stupidity that is ‘kata explanation’ today . I commend you highly for this.

    Yet, in the second part,called ‘useful bunkai’, you introduce stupidity of your own. NONE of the ‘bunkais’ suggested make sense for Kushanku.

    First and foremost, they only superficialy resemble one fixed ‘snapshot’ of the kata; if you take the kata movement as a whole, it cannot be used in any of the ways you listed.

    Moreover, even the ‘bunkais’ itself are flawed (mostly because you try to force them to fit the kushanku position). The low sweep, done like that, would never work. Such a single/double leg takedown would only work on somebody who is heavily drunk. etc.
    Of course, this is not the problem of the techniques themselves; but it is caused by the fact that you try to ‘force the kusanku’ on them.

    If your article shows something, it is that these 11 movements, while they might look plausible at the first glance, are definitely not the reason why the ‘ninja move’ is contained in Kusanku. I guess we can call them ‘the antibunkai’.

    • Jesse

      June 3, 2014 at 2:13 pm

      “Practicing kata is one thing, engaging in a real fight is another” - Funakoshi Gichin

  24. Bob

    June 3, 2014 at 3:34 am

    Dr. Bombay’s comments raise several intriguing questions for me. As someone who has resumed karate after so many years it is evident that thinking about kata has changed a lot. I can’t say if things back then were better or worse, but there was less emphasis on explaining every element of kata in terms of practical application, and it does also seem to me that the current focus on bunkai often involves some force-fitting of technique into the form of the kata, as Dr. Bombay’s comment’s suggest. I have no idea what specific application this “ninja” sequence in kusanku represents. My question is if it must represent a specific move at all? If it did, following the logic of the comment above, why isn’t it obvious? This sequence involves some acrobatic skill, flexibility, and strength. Aren’t those virtues in their own right? I have even wondered if this isn’t a reverse bunkai situation, about getting up after being thrown. But mostly, due to my age and arthritis, the physical challenge itself is sufficient. Didn’t all of the martial arts begin with exercises developed to keep monks awake during meditation? Does everything have to have a specific combat application, or can some of it at least be more about physical (internal and external) development? I do wish however, that Dr. Bombay didn’t offer any alternative explanation for the kusanku “ninja” sequence.

  25. Bob

    June 3, 2014 at 3:38 am

    Sorry, I meant that I wish Dr. Bombay had offered an alternative explanation.

    • Dr.Bombay

      June 8, 2014 at 7:57 pm

      OK, give me a week and I will try to put down some short article on what I believe is the meaning of the ninja movement(not just some quote unquote ‘useful bunkai’).

    • Dr.Bombay

      June 16, 2014 at 11:44 pm

      Dear Bob,
      yours are legitimate questions. Unfortunatelly, the answers are quite complex and there is not enough space(and time) to discuss them in detail. I will try to give some disjointed pointers:
      1)There are two common approaches -- the old one: taking kata techniques at face value,without meaning, doing them because one was told to. And the new one -- brainstorming any number of ‘bunkais’ based on superficial similarity. I find both of them flawed and antirational.

      2)Why are not the applications more obvious to us? In my opinion, it is because we lack the context. We are like people who never heard of physics opening a textbook on relativity theory; or people who never heard of boxing, and arguing what is the purpose of a punching bag. Is it to put clothes into? Or is it a sleeping bag? Then why is it hanging in the air? But once you understand the context a bit, it is a lot more obvious. Movements in kata start to make sense; they are not foreign movements that can represent nothing or anything (including random judo throws) anymore.

      Another reason is probably that the okinawan masters were quite secretive. Before guns were widely available, I guess a fighting method that allowed you to rip somebody’s shoulder to shreds (potentially making him lose the arm for good) was not something you handed to people casually. Punching somebody in the mouth is comparatively harmless.

      3)Must the ninja movement (or any kata movement) represent a specific technique? No, it doesn’t have to; but it does ;-) Seriously, must a mae geri in kata represent a kick, or are we just stretching our leg? Must a gyakutsuki represent a punch, or are we just stretching our shoulders?

      Kata is like a letter in a foreign language(say, arabic) that arrived in my mailbox. Before I accept the explanation that somebody just drew lot of tiny little squiggles on a sheet of paper, but there is actually no meaning behind them, I presume there was a person -- an actual, thinking person -- that was trying to tell me something. He tried to put his thoughts into the letter. So I will try to find out what he wanted to tell me; not what the squiggles on the paper ‘look like’, nor what I would like them to mean -- but what the author of the letter actually wanted to say.

      Kata, to me, are the same. There was an actual person that wanted to pass on his life’s work in the form of sequence of movements. So I try to give him benefit of the doubt before I conclude that he just created a glorified system of calisthenic.

      The proof, in both cases -- foreign letter and kata -- is that once you have the correct key, the letter starts to make sense. And not just individual,isolated squiggles (ninja position,for example); but as a whole; as a logical structure, tied by one idea. Of course, this can never be 100% sure proof; but if the resulting meaning is reasonably inteligent, it is very probable it isn’t just coincidence.

      This is what irks me about the bunkai brigade: They say ‘OK, this squiggle looks like a sprawl to me, so it is a sprawl’ -- without any deeper analysis of what follows the squiggle and what precedes it. They want their bunkai -- and they want it now. So they change, substract, add, and force-fit, so they can apply their latest youtube find.

      4)The Ninja movement: A legitimate answer would be ‘I do not know’ -- I could tell Jesse’s bunkais for Ninja movement make no sense even without knowing what is the real meaning of the movement. But as a matter of fact, yes, I have the application of this movement of Kusanku, which I believe is not just an ‘alternative application’, but THE application; the intention of the creator of the kata. I do not force it upon anybody, but I believe it is fair to tell people that one can do better than the ad-lib improvisations outlined in this article.

      I wrote a short article that explains the context and shows the application (the videos are not as clear as I would like, but what the hell):
      http://razorwire.wz.cz/rw_kusankuninja.htm

  26. Bob

    June 17, 2014 at 5:04 am

    Dear Dr. Bombay,
    Thank you for your well developed and informative reply.

    Your bunkai example seems very convincing as a representation of the “ninja move” in Kusanku.

    THere is still a gap between how the move in practiced in the kata, with variations according to different styles, and this application. If I understand you, you attribute this to the secretive nature of the ancient masters. Using the example of language, you suggest the possibility of a code or cipher that might permit the camouflaged kata to be properly interpreted.

    All this may be true. The analogy with language is very interesting to me. The variations of katas such as Kusanku among various styles suggests that perhaps the original “language” of kata has devolved into various “dialects.” Within the realm of language, linguistics places greater emphasis on usage than origin.

    But my background in the arts compels me to consider another possibility, and that is the idea of poetry. I would propose an analogy based on the difference between metaphor and simile. A simile provides a specific comparison (this is like that). In terms of kata, this move/sequence is “like” this bunkai. End of story. On the other hand, a metaphor is much more open ended, and invites many possible comparisons. Not only are none of them exclusively “right,” but to limit the comparison to a single meaning diminishes its poetic power rooted in manifold interpretive possibilities. Although in the form of a simile, a famous metaphor tells us that “love is like a red, red rose.” Like its sweet fragrance? Like its short lived beauty that is quick to fade? Like its thorns? Like passion associated with the color? Etc.? To say that it isn’t any of these specifically, but all of them and more is not to say that the metaphor is meaningless. Rather it is to say that its meaning exceeds literal interpretation.Perhaps because of my background, I have often wondered if it might not be the same with kata. Perhaps the forms are generalized (in many cases) in order to provide for multiple possible interpretations.

    I can imagine that one might need to escape an attack, reaching out to grab the top of a low wall and swinging one’s leg over, coming down on all fours on the other side of the wall, perhaps to escape a volley of bullets (or arrows). This sequence of movements might meet all of the critera you establish for determining a valid bunkai application.

    Like you, I think that there are levels to kata. I don’t think that kata can be reduced to a single set of bunkai applications. What I find most fascinating about kata, in addition to the fact that one can always perform it better (with Zen implications) is that it offers so many interpretive possibilities. Perhaps something like the “ninja move” in Kusanku isn’t any specific application but a framework for many possible applications. To limit it to one would weaken its potential value. Perhaps the ancient masters were brilliant poets.

    But please forgive me if I have gotten way ahead of myself. Coming back to karate after a 35 year hiatus, after hip replacement surgery, I am struggling just to perform the basic move in this perhaps most physically demanding kata. This brings home to me a fundamental value of kata in physical conditioning. If I can do this, I would be in slightly better shape if I ever found myself in a fight, than if I couldn’t. There might be many reasons to use this practice, to grapple as you propose, to jump over an obstacle, to get up quickly and get back into the fight, etc., that practicing this move would help me do. Its more than enough for me now to get through the kata.

    Thanks again for your very interesting response.

    • Dr.Bombay

      June 19, 2014 at 9:19 pm

      Dear Bob,
      this would make for a nice long philosophic discussion (especially the ‘kata as a language’ topic), but no time, no place…So again, some tidbits:

      1)Of course, you can use kata for many things. For basic exercise, for dance exhibitions (=kata contests), for fighting choreography, etc. In fact,you don’t have to use them at all -- you can be a great fighter without ever hearing of Kusanku. I do not dispute any of this.
      However, my primary goal is -- and always was -- to understand. I will never win a kata competition anymore; heck, I cannot even do the ‘ninja drop’ myself (health problems get us all eventually, I guess). Yet, that was never my primary focus, my primary focus was knowing why; why does kusanku look like this, and not otherwise.

      If Jesse talked about ‘having fun time matching youtube techniques to kusanku’, I would not care. However, it is where he talks about /meaning/ of things where I have to chime in. In my opinion, all those sprawls and backbreakers are no less naive than ‘hiding in the tall grass at night’.

      2)Can you get something from kata that was never put there? Obviously, you cannot (‘from nothing, only nothing comes’). If you get something that was not put there in the first place, the only possibility is that you created it yourself. Now this might be fine for one’s purposes, but cannot be called ‘meaning'; and certainly I am not interested in it.

      3)Universal tools, besides being hard to create, are always less effective than specific tools. There is a reason that hammer and screwdriver are two separate objects. I know the argument of ‘one application too constricting’. People prefer ‘universal’ bunkai, for the fear of being constrained by ‘one truth’. They fear certainty and univocality. Universal movements give them wiggle room. In my opinion, this is a syndrom of an intelectual climate of this age that cannot stand certainty. Chesterton, in 1920’s, wrote something like: “We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.”. But this is, again, topic for whole article.

      4)Imagine teaching self-defence in an age when hand-to-hand fighting could still mean life or death. What would you prefer to teach under such circumstances:
      a)How to jump over a wall or
      b)How to do a low spinning back sweep :-) or
      c)How to dislocate a shoulder quickly and efficiently and thus neutralize the opponent?
      Anybody can, quite naturally, jump over a wall. However, dislocating shoulder is quite rare trick;rare, as in, precious. I know it is not that interesting NOW. We do not go around breaking people’s arms, so such a technique is usually nothing more than a curiosity for us. So in certain sense, jumping over the wall(or just getting some exercise) is more relevant NOW. But I believe that at the time Kusanku was created, armbreaking technique was prized highly. Technique for jumping over a fence was not, as anybody could train this alone in his own backyard.

      It is the context that changed. Today, people do karate to have fun or exercise. It is extremely important to realize that _kata, today, are anarchonisms_. (As are fighting techniques in general). Rationally, it would make all sense in the world to dump Kusanku, and create modern forms -- calisthenic for old people; acrobatic forms for youngsters to have fun(some modern kata already go along that lines). And those that like to fight would study MMA.

      Today, people are more attracted to aerial cartwheels than to fighting techniques, not matter how sophisticated. Kusanku, as a transmission of hand-to-hand fighting method, is irrelevant,irrelevant,irrelevant.
      If you forgive me being personal: The only reason we have this discussion is that we do not need fighting methods anymore. Some 100 or 200 years earlier, you would not ruminate about different ways of understanding kata; the moment you’d see I can make Kusanku work (ie.break arms), you would jump up and say “Wow, teach me that!”. Instead, you only regard the shoulder dislocator as an intelectual curiosity.

      [When Mr.Jesse brainstorms bunkais above Ninja movement, he doesn’t do it because he wants to learn to fight; he is a middle class kid having fun being ‘creative’. BTW: It is interesting that lower class people are still more ‘in tune’ with real fighting methods; because they still to some extend use physical violence in their lives. Middle class clerks do not.]

      However, as I said, I want to understand what Mr.Sakugawa got out of Kusanku; not what people today want to get out of Kushanku.

      5)The problem of your approach is that using it you cannot rationally explain the changes in kata. For example, why, in Itosu Kusanku, the ‘double punch’ technique of Kyan version is changed into ‘uchi uke and two punches’? Did Itosu want to give people better exercise by having them punch twice instead of once? Did he just ‘feel’ like changing it,for easthetic effect? Or did he want to give people more ‘wiggle room’ for the long winter evenings when they will try to match youtube techniques to his kata?

      If one is honest, one must admit that the classic approach to kata will always keep you in the dark on this issue. Under classical view, Mr.Itosu was a demi-god who created Kusanku out of nothing,for reasons only He understands and we mere mortals cannot hope to comprehend why he made the changes he made. (Or, worse, the changes were completely random, thus we can interpret them however we like).

      Now, perhaps my ‘scrying glass’ is delusion; but it gives me the answers to the above question. I can see why Itosu changed Kushanku, and why exactly in the places he did it, and how.(I know that under classical viewpoint, I probably just commited an act of sacrilege, because “No human being can understand kata!”) Yet when I remove the glass, the kata becomes jumble of meaningless techniques again….

      6)Finally, I am thankful for you question, because it gave me a reason to put in writing something I usually only think about.

      PS: In real Kusanku (ie non-Shotokan), there are two additional low crouches that can be too quite good for exercise (and are also vital to the application ;-)

      • Andreas

        June 19, 2014 at 10:02 pm

        Gents, I enjoy your discussion very much. Thanks for the time and input.

        • Dr.Bombay

          July 8, 2014 at 1:19 pm

          I am glad somebody did! However, it seems it is over ;-)

          From the retrospective, I want to add one point:

          I would really like to know where did the preposterous ‘everybody create his own bunkai’ theory originate.
          It is contrary to any sensible teaching and information transferring method -- imagine coming to BJJ school and the teacher telling you there is this movement called rear naked choke, but he will not teach you fine points of it, and you should create your own.
          That teacher would go hungry soon; or at least his students would get tapped out on every tournament.

          Yet for some reason, karate players seem to really get off on this ‘teaching model’. Instead of learning one best, time-tested technique, they are happy that the can brainstorm their own, untested, second-rate techniques.

          That goes beyong reinventing the wheel; it is inventing square wheels, hexagonal wheels and oval wheels, for the sake of ‘being creative’.

  27. Bob

    July 8, 2014 at 9:34 pm

    Orthodoxy vs. innovation; an old story. I think most schools/styles seek a balance. And any “creative” bunkai should be subject to some strict reality testing. My last take on this is that we (Dr. Bombay and I) were not so much at odds as at cross purposes. I wasn’t arguing for or against any particular bunkai, or even arguing about the merits of creativity vs. orthodoxy, although I think that the uncertainty of actual combat demands some creative improvisation beyond rote learning. Rather, my point is that kata is more than the sum of its bunkai (however authentic or imaginary). Kata is more general and less specific than bunkai, and it would seem perfectly in line with Dr. Bombay’s “originalist” position that there was probably good reasons for this, intended by its creators. I am not a member of an imagined “anything goes” school of bunkai, but I believe that kata offers more understanding and potential growth than specific bunkai. Just my take on it, with no claim to authority or authenticity. I’m just “being creative.” (insert winky emoticon here)

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