7 Reasons Why Your Bunkai (Probably) Sucks

Continuing on the bunkai (practical applications of Karate’s kata) theme from some of the last posts (to me, Karate = bunkai, in case you haven’t noticed), I thought about all the ridiculous bunkai you sometimes see out there.

If you only knew…

One in particular, that springs to mind, was when I saw this demo in Ireland once, where some guys were doing the Wado-ryu kata Chinto along with its applications (Shotokan people know it as Gankaku).

The move in question was the double hand block (manji-uke) when you’re standing on one leg (tsuruashi-dachi), just before you’re about to kick (chudan mae-geri or jodan yoko-geri for Shotokan).

Here’s a picture I found, to make it clearer:

Now, the bunkai these guys at this Karate demonstration were doing on that eventful day in Ireland many years back was something so absurd I can barely find words for it. Brace yourself, because here it comes:

They did the triangle choke.

Known as sankaku-jime in Japanese.

In case you don’t know, here’s what the triangle choke looks like in MMA:

I sh*t you not.

Right there on the tatami, these guys were rolling on the floor in their prissy Karate uniforms, trying to apply the triangle choke on each other. All just to show us (the audience) that they “understood” the kata Chinto/Gankaku bunkai where you stand on one leg.

Well…

At least they got the leg formation (almost) right!

Apart from that, I’m not so sure.

Actually, I usually bring this up as a humorous example in class sometimes.

But, funny or not, the fact remains: These guys had no idea about how they were supposed to figure out the practical applications for the kata in question. And neither has many other enthusiastic Karate-ka all over the world.

Which is a shame.

So that’s what this post is for.

For all you people who have stood there completely clueless when your sensei went “Umm… I’m not sure about that one…” after you showed off your 720 Dragon Kick of Awesomeness bunkai, this one is for you.

Hear ye, hear ye:

7 Reasons Why Your Bunkai (Probably) Sucks

#1: You put unnecessary labels on techniques.

A block is a lock is a blow is a throw. Remember that phrase the next time you’re thinking “This is a block, so I must use it as such” or “This is a kick, so I must use it as such”.

There are no blocks.

There are no kicks.

There are no punches, stances, strikes, elbows, knees, headbutts, deflections, jump kicks, takedowns, throws or joint-locks.

There are no techniques.

There’s only movements.

The idea that every move needs to be a certain technique with a specific label, or etiquette, stems from the modernization of Karate; where you needed to be able to quickly and efficiently explain the meaning of a solo technique to many people at the same time – without going into the specifics of the practical application lying beneath the surface.

So, techniques got labels.

Because that’s what teachers of large groups need to do.

Simplify. Separate. Specify.

And watch students multiply.

Before that, in ye old days it was just, “put your hand here, turn here, lift your arm, slide back…”.

So what you need to do is forget it. Forget everything you know about what a certain technique is (or isn’t) because that will only serve to limit you in your search for an awesome bunkai.

  • There are no “punches”. Just the physical act of straightening the arm.
  • There are no “cat stances”. Just the physical act of shifting your bodyweight back.
  • There are no “kicks”. Just the physical act of lifting and extending the leg.

Think: movements.

And a whole new world of opportunity suddenly opens up.

#2: You Presume Your Opponent Is (Physically) Weaker Than You.

A system of self-defense must always be based on the presumption that a person (physically) superior to you will most likely attack you.A midget with arms like spring rolls will probably leave you alone. Unless he’s drunk.

Big people attack small people. Strong people attack weak people. Pure logics. Survival of the fittest.

So don’t do bunkai that requires you to physically force your opponent into some awkward police brutality submission position. Don’t rely on the concept that you need to break down your opponent with your raw muscles alone for a certain technique to work properly. Don’t do techniques that “would have worked if he hadn’t been resisting”.

Because if you are, you’re doing something wrong.

If a ten year old girl can’t replicate what you just did, throw it out the window.

A martial art that relies on always being attacked by physically weaker opponents isn’t called Karate.

It’s called bullying.

And we don’t need no friggin’ bunkai for that.

#3: You Get Obsessed With Tiny, Ridiculous Details

“But Jesse-san, I can’t do that! We have the hand closed in our style, not open!”

Please.

Don’t even go there.

The mere notion that your kata in question hasn’t been slightly altered in one way or other (intentionally or not) through centuries of transmission is just baloney. I mean, even Higaonna Kanryo, the “father of Naha-te Karate” , changed the open hands of kata Sanchin to closed fists (in what would later be known as Goju-ryu). And let’s not even talk about Itosu and the early JKA people.

So stop being obsessed with pinky fingers here and there.

Take a move like the kake-te (gripping hand) for example. This act of gripping your opponent can either be represented in a kata by an open hand (about to grip), closed hand (having gripped) or both open and closed (Ryuei-ryu Karate uses a snatching action called washi-zukami).

Three different movements that represent gripping somebody.

All with the same bunkai.

I mean, a shuto-uke might easily turn into a kake-te if you turn your hand slightly. If if fits, do it! Just because one sensei chose to represent a move a certain way doesn’t mean that the actual meaning is a any different from another sensei’s version, even though it might look different when you do it in “thin air” (without an opponent).

Sometimes, treating open hands like closed hands (and vice versa) gives very interesting results.

Play around. Who knows what you’ll discover?!

#5: You Keep Adding Your “Secret” Hot Sauce

There is no Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu triangle choke hidden in kata Chinto/Gankaku. Those guys I talked about in the intro truly made a duck out of a feather.

Yet people keep convincing themselves (and worse, convincing others) that there’s all kinds of hidden, secret, long-lost weird/cool moves in kata – and yes, they’re all invisible too – which they have evidently recently rediscovered through some magic dream (or was it magic mushrooms?) or something.

I’ve written about this briefly before, so don’t make me repeat myself.

Unless you actually see one, there is no “720 Dragon Kicks of Awesomeness” hidden by evil masters who didn’t want us to learn their secret techniques anywhere in any kata. Toying around with details that are already present in a kata (point #4), and adding your own fantasy are two separate things.

So just… drop it.

Sometimes I think people need to sit their speculative asses down and figure out what they’re really looking at.

Occam’s Razor.

KISS principle.

And all that.

#6: You Chose the Wrong Kata

If you were to ask me to find out a bunkai for a certain kata, chances are big I wouldn’t.

Because I only do bunkai to “old-style” kata.

Post-Itosu kata? I don’t even bother. Modern Goju-ryu? Give me a break. Shotokan? That’s a bastardization of a simplification. Wado-ryu? Get lost. Shito-ryu? Oh my god. Shorin-ryu? Good luck.

All of these styles have only a handful of kata you can really work with.

The rest is simply reference.

But, before you go all hate-mailey on my inbox, don’t get me wrong here. You know I’m exaggerating a bit. There’s probably loads of great bunkai to the Pinan/Heian, Bassai Dai/Sho, Kusanku Dai/Sho, Gekisai Ichi/Ni, Suparimpei, Seisan, Chinto, Meikyo, Sochin, Jion, Jitte, Jiin and other modern interpretations of old-school Okinawan Karate kata. Yes, seriously, there probably is.

I just haven’t found them.

(At least not without using a significant amount of imagination!)

Because, the fact is, although old Itosu Anko (1831 – 1915, considered by many the father of modern karate) was responsible for revolutionizing Karate in Okinawa by introducing it to the school system (without him, none of us would probably be doing this Karate stuff), he also revolutionized Karate by deleting everything cool and awesome.

He was like: “Cool and awesome?”

“Delete.”

That was his entire process when he codified 20+ kata or so for the school system. And we still practise them all today, in even more simplified versions.

Imagine taking some hot coffee, pouring loads of water in it. Then you drink half of the water/coffe blend and proceed to pour even more water in it! Drink some more, and fill the rest of the cup with water. That should give you the picture.

Believe me, when you’ve seen the original versions of certain kata in Okinawa, everything else suddenly seems so… boring!

Simplistic.

Watered-down.

So, what I’m saying is: When you’re standing there all frustrated, trying to get your bunkai on, don’t be sad if you can’t come up with some of that nasty, grimey, raw, dirty, uncensored eye-poking-groin-kicking-face-spitting bunkai stuff.

You might just have chosen the “wrong” kata.

Watered down school-kids kata will most likely produce watered-down school-kids bunkai. It’s as easy as ABC, 123.

And I guess that’s why everybody keeps adding their McDojo™ “secret” hot sauce.

To spice things up.

#7: You Ignore Your Other Body Half

If the masters of old designed kata to be completely useless and unpractical in real life, some of us have pretty much got the idea right. At least this guy.

But I don’t think so.

I think, for instance, that the rear hand (the “inactive hand” or “dead hand” as it is sometimes referred to) is just as important as the active hand. If you punch with one hand, you pull back with the other hand, right? So why can’t that “other” hand be holding something then?

Hiki-te, which we call the other hand, literally means pulling hand.

It pulls something.

It’s interesting to note that this was standard practise in old JKA style kumite tournaments in Japan, where fighters would repeatedly hold and pull the opponents gi while smashing his teeth out.

So why did we stop doing that in bunkai?

Other martial artists always critizise Karate for being ineffective, since there is no point in keeping your defensive hand anchored at the hip all the time. Or behind your head. Or somewhere else where it makes no sense. And I agree. There’s no point. There is no dead hand. Your body is not a Christmas three, there is no place to put decoration.

And if there was such a thing as an inactive hand, it would most certainly be somewhere protecting your face – and not your hip bone.

Which it is, when you look at kata.

A hand held at the hip is not a dead hand. Neither is any other part of the body. Everything has a purpose. Nothing is inactive. Both body halves parts are working fine, unless you are a cripple.

Let’s stop making the masters look stupid.

____________________________

And that’s it for today.

7 Reasons Why Your Bunkai (Probably) Sucks is officially over for this time, but please believe me when I say that I’ve got hundreds of more where the above came from. There’s so many aspects to take into consideration when figuring out this whole mysterious bunkai thingy.

Midgets, cripples, McDojo owners, Irish bunkai experts and other offended people – get in line.

The rest of you, who are truly prepared to work hard on decoding our beloved kata of Karate… there’s a phone call waiting.

It’s Greatness.

He wants to say hello.

39 Comments

  • Seb
    Great and awesome post Jesse! (But only almost as awesome as my Super Awesome Dragon Cheerio Bowl of Bunkai) Seriously speaking though, I think this post was needed. I (and probably most karate people) would not have thought about this, we would just have been doing the "secret,hidden triangle chokes", since after all, coolness matters right? From now on I'll think a little (much) extra about my bunkai. :D
  • Nice commentary, I like the practical thinking especially the movement, the secret sauce and of course the minute detail... I like to think that if 90% of the people cannot do the techniques 90% of the time then it need to be simplified. The thing I missed in the article was compliance, will need to re read and see. Nice work.
    • Compliance, along with a bunch of other factors, is for next time! ;)
  • James
    Hey Jesse, I love this article, short, brutal and effective just like any bunkai should be.
  • Thanks, Jesse-san - you are gifted in summarizing and putting my thoughts into well-arranged and yet funny words (i.e. I'd kill for the ability to write such interesting article). ;-)
  • Manuel
    ahahaha that's why I always get angry with my sensei, during bunkai kata he tells us "use your imagination" the -movements- can be turned into everything!I always hope for only one -or maybe two- readymade bunkai to learn by heart... =P
  • Boban Alempijevic
    I love doing Kata, I used to think ( back in the days when I was a noob ) that kumite and that weird stuff bunkai was boring. That was when I was a kid. Thing is that if you are ever in a situation where you Have to defend your self no matter what you can not just start whipping out a kata.... dam your ass will feel sorry for it self when the whopping of it is over and you lay there bloody and wondering what the h*** happened. So, going from a kata to applying it practicly or in other words making it into Bunkai, you simple have to use your imagination ( to a certain extent as you just sayed Jesse :D . Blocks can be offensive just as much as defensive, kicks the same and even hits and locks. One kata can have loads of different approaches as a bunkai, why, well in real fights you do not have time to stop and think " was this a real bunkai or did I just mess up...well the other guy has the broken noose not me".Great post, luuuuurved it a lott.
  • Ørjan Nilsen
    Hi Jesse. Great article. You wrote that do not worry if you can not find bunkai for a kata. Maybe you just choose the wrong kata to work with (paraphrasing). What do you think is the surest kata to work with? I think Naihanchi shodan would be a good choice. If you compare the different styles on youtube or something you see that the Kata is almost the same to most of the styles. What do you think?
  • Barbara Hesselschwerdt
    Great article. Thinking in terms of movements rather than techniques is the approach we are taking right now. It takes a lot of 'unlearning' but it brings results.
  • Terry Maccarrone
    What is really useful in your article is that it gives someone unfamiliar with "bunkai" a place to start their research. We should allow incorrect asumptions to be attempted in kata to realize what actually does work. Today we are very fortunate to have many experienced kata sensei who have done much of the work for us in a particular style but not all. I am still waiting for MatsubayashiRyu to take this effort head-on...( read that sensei Figgianai Please)Back in the 80's I took many chances and upset many "orthodox" kata people with inside applications as apposed to the "punch-kick-only) standard sets. So Thank you Jesse-san for your insights and your "blog"
  • Dojorat
    I agree with most of what you said, Jesse. But what do you mean by `using the wrong kata`? Itotsu`s pinan kata are basically made up of techniques in older kata. Understanding the proper application and techniques in those is important to progressing to the other from which the Pinans were made up. Your main point hit the nail on the head, though. Bunkai is never pre-defined and there is only basic principles.
    • True, except they are heavily modified. A perfect example is Pinan Shodan's first set of moves (which are taken straight from Kusanku. Try changing stance and lowering the arms a bit). Either you try to connect (and reverse engineer) every set of movements to their old form (which requires a lot of experience to successfully do) or you're screwed. Here's some help to get people started: Pinan Godan = Chinto. Pinan Yondan = Kusanku and Bassai.
      • Dojorat
        I learned that connecting the forms is the only way to really get an understanding of all the kata. It is only by connecting the kata that the variations become possible. Without making the connections it is very easy to get stuck with only the most obvious interpretations or even impractical wild fantasy moves that are improbable and ineffective. The Pinans introduce the basic principles of techniques used in all the other kata that come afterwards.
      • Markus
        I couldn't agree more.I am/have been heavily "shotokanized", in the rural area I live there are only Shotokan Dojos close that I could go for more than one time a week.Fortunately I came to know an instructor who was doing other styles and who knows an okinawan version of Passai, I can't recall the original chinese name. He was patiently instructing, showing moves and the immediate application. So many things made sense all of a sudden for the "Shotokan Bassai-Dai", I couldn't believe it. So many things were so obvious then when you could figure what "stylization" has done. I'm so thankful for this enlightning experience and I hope there are more coming.
  • Dan
    Very good article!
  • Great article.. Don't agree with everything you say.. but overall concept... thumbs up!!
  • Lecé
    Nice article. I practice Goyu Ryu and It always amazed me how some people do the Bunkai . Punching with one hand while the other did nothing but stay in the waist etc...can anyone tell me where in the kata is that?? Except for Geikisai dai ichi and dai ni, wich I believe where created just for basics, the rest of the katas are ALWAYS executing techniques with both hands simultaneously. Look for Masaji Taira´s bunkais. And it´s evident that the retracing punch is a pull.
    • Jack M
      all too true. Never have I ever referred to gekisai for bunkai. Seienchin however, is another story
  • barnold
    Jesse, which "old style" kata do you train bunkai? What lineage(s) are they from? Is there public video on You Tube or else where of the kata? Of the bunkai?
    • I've filmed some of our dojo's sempai performing my bunkai, they're on the YouTube channel (filmed with mobile though). I persoanlly suggest looking at kata which are present across different styles (Seisan, Kusanku, Passai etc...), finding out the common denominators and working on those bunkai. That's what I do.
  • marziotta
    Nice article, nice blog! I am shotokanised, but you say a lot of nice things even for my point of view! You have analytical thinking, can laugh, and give some nice ideas. I will try to peek at other styles, even if... I like it simple!I am pretty curious to read point 4, if there is one. ^^
    • Hush! It's secret! ;)
  • Excellent comments...
  • kai-ru
    Another great post. I myself come from a shotokan background and have had a hard time unlocking bunkai in many of the Kata. Usually when I am lost I try to trace back the Kata and see how it is performed in other styles or if someone else already has a great Bunkai ready for me to learn but you said you only practice the most ancient of Kata when it comes to Bunkai and here is my question, which kata do you practice. I would love to see a short list of your most practiced Kata.talk soon
    • Hey Kyle-san! I generally try to study kata you'll find across several styles and lineages (albeit sometimes in different variations/names), i.e. Seisan, Kusanku, Naihanchin, Sanchin, Bassai, Rohai etc. Not only do these kata appear in several styles, but often in different versions too, for example Bassai (Dai/Sho/Tomari/Matsumura/Tawata/Oyadomari etc.). That's always a good sign ;)
      • Kairu
        Yeah these are all Kata I also like to focus on. Is there any one in particular who you think performs inspiring randitions of these kata or any vids you recommend watching on YouTube. I still love to watch Kanazawa Sensei's stiff Shotokan randitions but I am a little biase but I must admit when it comes to unlocking bunkai Shotokan videos are the last place I look.
  • Jeff
    Something important to remember when working through Bunkai is what Miyamoto Musashi said - "From one thing, know ten thousand things."If it looks like a down block to you, and you can make it work, it might be a down block. But to me it looks an awful lot like a groin strike, especially when you turn your body 90 degrees and drop into shiko dachi...I think the most important lesson when digging into bunkai is that it has to be effective, and "greeting of the morning sun" is not effective bunkai, it is something someone came up with because they don't know what that move in Matsumura Bassai was, so they decide to give it a cute name when they teach it to their students who should still be kyu ranks themselves...
  • Richard Overill
    Nice piece Jesse san! Interesting that you chose Gankaku's tsuru-ashi-dachi / manji-uke to illustrate your point, because its Okinawan forerunner Chinto also has this same technique, so one would think that it has a HAPV related functionality!
    • Thanks for chiming in, Richard-san! As far as I know, the same technique does not really occur in the original Chinto (i.e. from Okinawan Shorin-ryu, Shorinji-ryu/Tomari-te etc.). Check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tNNYwEJpTI
    • css1971
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-sg3g9D4hUBTW, I've also seen almost exactly the same technique in various kung-fu forms, with followup movements which largely confirm the application. Main difference to Iain's video is instead of leaving your foot in the way, you "bump" your opponent off the ground with your knee. The effect is pretty much the same.Kata speaks.It's interesting how many of the weird kung-fu stances are throws of various kinds.Kung-fu movies will never be the same again.
      • css1971
        Forgot to say. Iain Abernethy is just an awesome karateka. In fact I split my Karate epochs into pre-Abernethy and post-Abernethy.
  • Richard Overill
    Thanks Jesse-san; my source was Pat McCarthy's 'Classical Kata of Okinawan Karate' pp.100-117 where it appears 4 times (as in Gankaku). So could you place Pat's version of Chinto within the historical context of Shorin / Shorinji / Tomari-te for me please? Many thanks!
  • Jesse Great article! I have some questions for you though. Taking shotokan for example which kata are good in that art for bunkai? Which kata are pointless to even do?Another thing i notice on forums talking about this is the denigration of simple basic bunkai. Why is this? Yes i agree that some moves can be other things. Your block is a lock sentiment. However a block or strike can also be just a block or strike. Its my experience that simple basics win fights. Not overly complex things that cant be done under pressure. I just think people should not write off simple basics. Shouldn't the bunkai fit the kata? Say the pinan are considered a beginner kata. Shouldn't the bunkai fitting for beginners? Simple and basic?What about Tang soo do? I have been searching for a Martial art to do for a while now having done everything from boxing to mma then to a shorin ryu/judo dojo that went under. I have found a well taught ITF tang soo do teacher and they do bunkai starting at Black belt. Starting with the Pyung ahn huyng.What is your opinion of tang soo do forms and the art as a whole?I ask because i get the impression from this and other blogs/forums (like bullshido) that its pointless to do karate now.Oh and when you talk about old school not watered down simplified kata, can you give some video examples? I would love to see a non simplified old school kata.I appreciate your comments and advice.
  • Trentin
    I'd have to say I disagree with a majority of this article. The bunkai itself is the INTERPRETATION of the kata! The kata isn't just a series of movements, it's very certain punches and kicks. Otherwise, there's no point to them! The kata are mainly used to teach these techniques, and the bunkai to know in what situation to use them. You most certainly are using punches and kicks.
    • css1971
      You're partially correct. Yes kata contain punches and kicks. However there are several levels to kata, which is one of the things which makes them confusing.The first level are the punches and kicks yes. These are useful things in themselves, but the problem is most karateka get stuck there and never go beyond the first level.So you learn your punching and kicking and sticking your arm up to block things...Take a look at a kata, any kata. See the amount of repetition there. How many gedan barais are there? How many in different stances? In different directions. How many shuto-ukes? There are simply too many of them. In heian shodan/pinan nidan for example there are ~20 movements but only 5 different techniques. This doesn't make sense unless there additional levels of information there. Or you can take the view that kata are just random collections of movements...The second level of kata is to understand that the old masters were not idiots. They needed a way to record and transmit self defence techniques for people who couldn't read or write. So they encoded the methods into physical movements, and if you're doing this you need some rules which will let you encode the methods consistently. At this point you "take the labels off" of the movements as Jesse says.Because the old masters who created the kata used rules to encode them, you can use sets of rules of thumb to decode the original meaning of the movements in the kata as well. If not the original meaning, something very close to it.The rules are too long for a post and Jesse and others have done it far better than I can in various articles, but there are rules and the more people who know them the better. This is a superb free ebook by Iain Abernethy which has a methodology for decoding kata and then taking the resulting techniques and training them in a practical way. Definitely read this:http://www.iainabernethy.com/Applied_Karate.pdfI rather disagree with Jesse over the Pinans/Heians. Itosu was obviously able to decode kata himself and therefore able to encode his own with favourite techniques he thought were useful. Think of it as zipping and unzipping a file. Sure, unzipping is fine but it's also really handy to be able to zip your own files.
  • Hairo Aguilera
    Where's point #4?
    • Andrew Jennings
      You fell for the labels again. Point four is "#5: You Keep Adding Your 'Secret' Hot Sauce", because despite the label, it IS the 4th point. Listen to Jesse: throw away the labels.Having said that, you should have asked "where's point #7?"Jesse??

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