The Beginner’s Guide to Bunkai

Do you practice bunkai?

Some people say it’s the most important aspect of Karate.

jesse_enkamp_bunkai_knx15
Teaching my bunkai at KNX15: Karate Nerd Experience 2015 (video available here).

Others say it’s a waste of time.

(Probably because it doesn’t result in getting shiny trophies.)

Anyhow, as a Karate Nerd™ you will probably encounter bunkai many times in your Karate journey.

  • But what exactly is bunkai?
  • Why is it important?
  • And how do you do it?

This is what you’ll learn in todays’s article.

Check it out!

What is bunkai?

Bunkai is the practical application of kata.

The word itself actually means “to break down” in Japanese.

Here’s how it’s written:

bunkai-kanji

When used in the context of Karate, bunkai symbolizes the whole process of breaking down the movements of a kata to understand how the techniques can be applied in self-defense.

In other words, bunkai is the essence of kata.

You see, kata was never meant to be used as a standalone solo exercise.

That’s a modern phenomenon.

Originally, kata was created as a memory tool – so you could practice various self-defense techniques used against a violent attacker on your own.

Sadly, the study of bunkai was dropped in the modernization of Karate.

That’s why kata training has been reduced to physical exercise in many dojos today.

(And if they do practice bunkai, it’s usually without any depth or enthusiasm – almost as an afterthought.)

Like putting the cart before the horse.

“You may train for a long time, but if you merely move your hands and feet and jump around like a puppet, learning Karate is not very different from learning a dance. You will never have reached the heart of the matter; you will have failed to grasp the quintessence of Karate.”

– Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957)

Why is bunkai important?

Bunkai is important because it’s our #1 link to Karate’s functional origins.

You see, the original purpose of Karate was self-defense.

That’s it.

If you don’t understand this, you don’t understand Karate.

Karate was not created for sport, character building, fitness or McDojo business.

(Although today we use it in those ways, and many more.)Nakazato-Joen_bunkai

It was created for one purpose:

Self-defense.

These self-defense techniques were naturally practiced with a partner. But, as I mentioned before, in order to memorize and reinforce multiple self-defense sequences, you strung them together into longer sets called “kata”.

This is a learning technique called mnemonic device.

So, practicing kata without bunkai goes against the whole purpose of kata’s existence.

In a world where Karate is aiming for Olympic dreams, this fact is more important than ever. Bunkai is our last remaining connection to Karate’s original purpose and values.

Additionally, I think bunkai training can solve many people’s lack of motivation to practice kata.

I mean, if you don’t know the purpose of the techniques… what’s the point of doing them correctly?

“Kata without bunkai is like a shamisen (3 stringed Okinawan guitar); Nice sound, but empty on the inside.”

– Choki Motobu (1870-1944)

How do you practice bunkai?

Lastly, the fun part.

How do you practice bunkai?

By doing exactly what the word means: break down a kata.

The basic steps are:

  1. Choose a kata.
  2. Pick a sequence of the kata.
  3. Analyze the movements of that sequence.
  4. Apply the techniques in a self-defense scenario.

Sounds easy? It’s not…

This process of “reverse engineering” a kata is difficult for many people, because their limited ability to see kata as a pragmatic self-defense tool, rather than an abstract dojo dance, holds them back from realizing the true potential of kata’s practical applications.

That’s why I wrote a comprehensive guide called The Bunkai Blueprint and occasionally record bunkai videos for Karate Nerd Insider™.

Here’s a quick example:

At the end of the day, the #1 thing to keep in mind when doing bunkai is this:

The techniques should not be applied against “Karate attacks”.

Why? Because nobody will attack you with a perfect Karate punch/kick in a deep stance in reality.

A real life attack will be brutal, quick and unexpected.

That’s what your bunkai needs to work against!

Keep it realistic.

Good luck! ; -)

“Kata are not some kind of beautiful competitive dance, but a grand martial art of self-defense – which determines life and death.”

– Mabuni Kenwa (1889-1952)

To learn more about bunkai, check out these resources:

21 Comments

  • Talaniel
    I like the "The techniques should not be applied against “Karate attacks”." part especially :-) Very true :-)Anyway, I also think that doing bunkai helps me memorize kata movements if I know what the movement is supposed to achieve.
    • Wonderful. That makes me glad to hear Talaniel-san! Thanks for chiming in.
      • Okinawan karate schools has been doing this since ever.
        • Mike
          Many dojo in Okinawa also do not teach bunkai.It's totally incorrect to place Okinawan dojos at the pinnacle of skills and training methods. It's laughable how so many dojo around the world feel so much more legitimate if they can say they are affiliated with a home dojo in Okinawa.Listen up guys: Okinawan "masters" are not self defense gods. Most are chubby and not fit, and do not move very well. Their reputation and so called skill rests on their laurels. Most just do not comprehend that Okinawans decades ago realized the money making opportunity karate presented them if they just marketed it right to the rest of the world. And the prefectural government helps them with that because it boosts the local economy. I mean, if you could set your area up to be a Mecca for people to make a pilgrimage to at least once in their life, wouldn't you do so?
          • Himura
            Visit IOGK Hombu Dojo....then, come back to talk about.
  • Paul H
    100% Agree !!
  • :-) I usually imagine my opponents to be motorcycle gangs, evil clowns, and creeps of various stripes. None of them come at me with Karate attacks - that would be completely out of character for them. A few days ago I wrote about an important reminder of how vital bunkai is to a kata: http://abeginnersjourney.azurewebsites.net/2016/03/16/unleashed/ Enjoy, and thanks for your informative articles! I appreciate learning something new every time I stop by your blog :-)
  • By far my favourite kata is Heian Sundan- it is full of applications. And I find that when I teach it that way the kids learn it more deeply, especially after using some aspects of it in kumite. There is nothing like spinning around to deliver a strike against your opponent after they have grabbed their (right) arm.Another great article. Thanks!
    • Hairo
      Sandan*
  • Nicholas Franks
    I have always found that the same bunkai will not work against all opponents every time. What works for an opponent my same size will not work against one that is twice my size. Bunkai must be learned, but then adapted at any given moment. The only way to achieve this is by repetition of bunkai.
  • Sjef
    About 15 years ago, we practiced kata on sunday afternoons in my dojo (additional to our other training). Every week we chose a sequence of a kata and asked everyone te come back next week with a self defense solution for that sequence. We really appreciated the input of beginners, because they were not so stuck in karate as a kick, punch, block routine as we as advanced karateka were. Of course we had to come to the conclusion lots of times that our solutions didn’t make any sense, or that we had invented the wheel. But every few weeks we made magnificent discoveries i.e. applications that work for raw brutal attacks. After a time we had a collection of nice jigsaw puzzle pieces and they all fell in the right place a bit later, when we attended the seminars of Pat McCarthy. Karateka who are interested in this bunker method, here are some hints for you: • Use the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid! • Forget you’re the sensei and be willing to learn from your students. Don’t judge the input from others as not of any value, but look for the circumstances in which their input is applicable, because a next time, they’ll come with a solution you could only dream of.
  • Joe
    Thank you again Jesse-Sensei! Your posts on Bunkai always help me to better understand the concept and the process.On occasions, an instructor will come to dojo after learning about a recent attack from the news. Those nights we work on the analysis and evaluation of kata bunkai against that assault. Some examples have been a brawl starting around you, an assailant wielding a knife that tracked their target for a few city blocks before attacking, and the unfortunate case of a mentally ill individual walking the streets with a chef's knife. If you're really lucky, you might get a LEO in your dojo that can offer insight to the common attack patterns in the areas you frequent.
  • When you have to explain why bunkai is important, then something terribly wrong and corrupt has happened. It is not only very saddening but an imminent threat to the future of karate. Thank you, tack Jesse för att du försöker förändra denna utveckling.
  • Per Nielsen
    As always, Jesse san, you show insight.Suddenly a popup emerged and asked I have a black belt. Yes, I have several - but more important: I am a blackbelt. :)
  • Myra Richard
    Our teacher has shown us bunkai but I wish we could do it more often. The Katas make a lot more sense after our teacher includes us all in performing the bunkai with him. I understand that it takes a lot of time out of his already planned classes and we only have 2 hours per class. He's an awesome teacher, I'm sure if I ask enough times, he will teach us more Bunkai!
  • Sarah
    Luckily my sensei loves doing bunkai. It is a steady part of karate training. Normally we do it in every training (the last 15-30 minutes).During training the exercise is given (how to attack and what move from the kata to use) - but we are always allowed to think of variations. There are two ways how bunkai training works in my dojo: First: We have a kata and are doing the applications it offers Second: We have an attack and do different moves that work against it - our trainer always says: "I don't care if you forget most of them after the training as long as you can remember one that works for you when you are in a situation you have to defend yourself. And if you train many varations the chance is high that you will remember at least one of them."
  • The World Karate Federation (WKF) now recognises the importance of bunkai. The winners of team kata events must perform the bunkai in order to actually win the title. Failure to show bunkai results in them being stripped off the gold medal. Therefore, bunkai is now an essential tool to win and keep those shiny medals. Moreover, this move now encourages sports stylists to also learn bunkai. Though only for show, at least it puts them on the path to exploring the techniques their katas incorporate.
  • Matt
    A great article. While I do not regularly practice true bunkai, I do find it easier for me to learn kata when I break down and understand why I am performing a given technique. Where to generate power, where to deliver that power, etc. have such a clearer meaning when I work through the attack.When I teach students kata I also often teach in terms of practical application- "There is a bad guy to your let so turn and block, now step with a face punch. His friend is now behind you, etc." I think it gives a certain depth to the form.
  • Mathieu
    this makes me think of sensei Naka Tatsuya's seminars. He shows the direct application of kata movements in self-defence. Indeed they are not supposed to use against karate attacks. Wonderful
  • Everything you've said about bunkai is true. Bunkai are the "why" to a kata's "what & how." The funny thing is that learning the bunkai for a given kata both improves my understanding and ability to perform the kata, and makes performing kata more fun as a result. It is because of the bunkai that kata are one of my favourite aspects of my training!
  • Josie
    I have read several of your bunkai articles and I still don't understand what it is

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