The Bunkai Blueprint: A Simple Framework for Applying the Kata of Karate in Practical Self-Defense

Bunkai should be easy.bunkai-okinawa

That’s my philosophy when it comes to applying the techniques of kata.

But still, many people struggle.

“What does this movement mean? What’s the purpose of this technique? How should it be used against an opponent?”

Most of us have never been taught bunkai in a coherent and structured manner.

(And if we have, it’s often been haphazardly, or as a “sidenote”.)


Because in 9 times out of 10, our instructors weren’t taught it either!

The consequences are devastating: 

  • People start to dislike kata (due to its abstract nature).
  • People belittle its significance (since real-world applications are never shown).
  • People make up their own kata (where the meaning of each movement is clear).
  • People change the techniques of kata (to make sense of the movements).
  • People stop caring about bunkai (satisfied with just having a “general overview”).
  • People ignore kata altogether – leaving those “war dances” to us Karate Nerds™!

In short, many people just don’t see the purpose of exploring kata anymore.

It gives them migraine.

And frankly, I understand them.

I don’t like feeling stupid either.

But I can’t sit on the sideline of this trend no more – watching as our ancient kata get reduced to mere physical performances, or a bunch of awkward movements to be memorized for gradings and tournaments, without any real substance left.


If you know several kata, but never take advantage of the ancient lessons they were originally meant to impart (bunkai), then you might as well be doing ballet.

That’s right.

Kata is a time-tested, prepackaged toolbox of kick-ass lessons – delivered through a bad-ass template of physical awesomeness – designed to save your ass on the street.

(Tweet that.)


So, I’ve decided to share a little *secret* with you today…


The Bunkai Blueprint.

A simple framework for applying the techniques of Karate’s kata.

(Without the migraine.)

You see, over the years I have developed a deceptively simple formula for understanding the movements of kata. A thought-process, or framework if you so will, for making sense of each movement in a kata – along with their practical applications for self-defense.

This blueprint can be applied to any kata from any style, as long as you are willing to put in some time, effort and attention.

I mean, sure, the original meaning of most kata has been lost in the “sands of time”.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t reverse-engineer this puppy.

Follow along:

The Core Premise


All right.

The first part of The Bunkai Blueprint relies on understanding a basic premise, or underlying stipulation, of traditional Karate – which will dictate the rest of our kata discovery process.

Thus, it is of paramount importance that one familiarizes, and ultimately internalizes the following Core Premise – since it provide the contextual mindset from which we will operate throughout the whole Bunkai Blueprint.

Check it:

  1. Karate was originally meant to be used for physical self-defense – most often against a single, untrained, probably right-handed, advantageous, unarmed and aggressive adversary.
  2. Kata is a mnemonic template (learning vehicle for retention and transmission of information) –  handed down from our founders with the primary purpose of practicing the above exact point.
  3. Hence, the techniques of kata must, by pure logic, be based on principles that govern successful self-defense: Effective techniques that are simple to execute, easy to practice and fast to recall – while efficiently delivering a favorable outcome on our behalf.

The Core Premise, which has a lot of direct (and indirect) implications when you go deeper into the words, should be considered the marinade for the meat of The Bunkai Blueprint – which will grill our understanding of kata in the subsequent phases of this awesome bunkai barbeque.

Get it?

On to the next part.

The Supporting Concepts



As practical extension of The Core Premise, we have The Supporting Concepts.

Although there are several important concepts to be known, I will just briefly introduce three major ones now, beginning with the HAPV.


The first of The Supporting Concepts, researched, catalogued and popularized by hanshi Patrick McCarthy, is the HAPV – Habitual Acts of Physical Violence. Put simply, the HAPV is a list of the 36 most basic techniques encountered and expected by civilians in an unarmed fight.

It goes like this:

1. Straight kicks
2. Angular-type kicks
3. Straight punches
4. Circular punches
5. Downward strikes
6. Upward strikes
7. Knee & elbow strikes
8. Head-butt/biting & spitting
9. Testicle squeeze
10. Augmented foot/leg trips
11. Single/double-hand hair pull from the front/rear
12. Single/double-hand choke from the front/rear
13. Front neck choke from rear
14. Classical head-lock
15. Front, bent-over, augmented choke
16. Half/full-nelson
17. Rear over-arm bear hug (& side variation)
18. Rear under-arm bear hug (& side variation)
19. Front over-arm bear hug (& side variation)
20. Front under-arm bear hug (& side variation)
21. Front/rear tackle
22. One-handed wrist grab (same & opposite sides-normal/reversed)
23. Two-handed wrist grabs (normal/reversed)
24. Both wrists seized from the front/rear
25. Both arms seized from the front/rear
26. Single/double shoulder grab from front/rear
27. Arm-lock (behind the back)
28. Front arm-bar (triceps tendon fulcrum up supported by wrist)
29. Side arm-bar (triceps tendon fulcrum down supported by wrist)
30. Single/double lapel grab
31. Single/double-hand shove
32. Garment pulled over the head
33. Seized & impact
34. Single/double leg/ankle grab from the front (side/rear)
35. Ground straddle
36. Attacked (kicked/struck) while down

Next up, I have some letters from the alphabet for you.



The goal of practical Karate should always be to survive unharmed.

Rather than harming the opponent.

So, although the inherently chaotic nature of self-defense can never guarantee any of those outcomes, we should strive to maximize our chances of survival by always aiming to attack the following human structures:

  • Air
  • Blood
  • Consciousness
  • Dislocation
  • Escape

A: Air means blocking the air flow of our opponent, for example by restricting it with a choke.

B: Blood means restricting the blood flow of our opponent. Blood transports oxygen to our brain and other vital organs, which means that shutting it down (through a strangulation, for instance) will shut down the opponent – even faster than restricting air flow.

C: Consciousness refers to knocking the opponent out, making him/her lose consciousness. A solid hook to the chin might do the trick, but so will an elbow smash or a headbutt to the temple. As long as the goal is met.

D: Dislocation is pretty straightforward – it simply means we incapacitate our opponent, without him/her necessarily passing out as a consequence (although it might happen due to shock, depending on the degree of trauma inflicted). Just remember that it takes more than a dislocated finger to stop somebody.

E: Escape is, of course, the ultimate goal in self-defense. (But hey, if we could always escape, what’s the point of practising this stuff anyway?)

(Fun sidenote: When I visited Hawaii earlier this year, for some Karate adventures, I heard of a girl whose parents named her “ABCDE”. Apparently, it was pronunced “Ab-see-dee”. Needless to say, my faith in humanity has still not been properly restored.)

Lastly, we have a third major component of The Supporting Concepts.

I’m talking about…

Human Anatomy


While it’s often fun to use strength, speed or flexibility as an advantage in the dojo, we must always assume that an assailant on the street will be physically superior (and perhaps even mentally fortified), and will most likely have the element of surprise to his/her advantage.

Hence, we need to understand the principles of Human Anatomy in order to maximize our chances of bunkai success.

The human body is the principal subject in all empty-handed physical violence, no matter where you live or who you are, therefore it’s vital to study Human Anatomy in order to learn how its unique structures and universal anatomical weaknesses can best be exploited and attacked when confronted with a HAPV in order to achieve the ABCDE with our bunkai.

Simply put, even a rudimentary understanding of anatomy will allow you to see what regular people would need years of hands-on experience to perceive.


  • The optimal anatomical location of any given attack and/or defense (groin, eyes, ribs, solar plexus, throat, knee etc.)
  • The optimal human weapon to use in each instance of attack and defense (fist, foot, elbow, knee, head, fingertips, etc.)
  • The optimal angle, direction, frequency, timing, combination, intensity etc. of attacks and defense (tactical and strategical topics).

But in order to use this knowledge to your full advantage, you cannot allow yourself to be limited by the traditional labels of Karate techniques anymore.

Techniques must instead be considered movements, without any specific labels or names, since their usage could range anywhere from regular percussive impact to seizing and pressing into cavities, manipulating connective tissue, hyper-flexion, extension and over-rotation (dislocation) of joints, restricting blood and air flow, shutting down neurological structures, displacement of balance, attacking pressure points, eliciting common flinch reflexes/nerve reactions etc.

Understanding the Human Body allows you to easily assess what, where, how and why certain techniques will – or won’t – work.

And with those basic concepts acting as the functional support of our original premise, we are now ready to delve into the first part of the more practical section of The Bunkai Blueprint.

It’s time to choose your kata, break it down, analyze it and finally apply it.

Follow me.

Bunkai – Break it Down


I know what you’re thinking.

I’m the new Picasso, baby.

Anyway, drawing skills aside, the word “bunkai” – which literally means “to break down” in Japanese – has generally come to represent the whole process of breaking down, analyzing and applying the techniques of Karate’s kata.

And that’s fine for regular people.

But in actuality, Bunkai is just the first practical step for unlocking the secrets of kata (with The Core Premise and The Supporting Concepts acting as theoretical backdrop) – before moving on to Bunseki (Analyze it) and Oyo (Apply it) in order to complete the circle of The Bunkai Blueprint.

Hence, Bunkai, or “breaking down”, should just be considered the groundwork.

Some integral questions to be asked in the Bunkai phase is:

Does my kata actually have any cool applications? Some kata were created for the simple purpose of teaching physical education to kids, through the means of Karate movement. In those cases, the form of the kata was prioritized over the function of the kata. Other kata were created with a specific goal in mind; like synchronizing your body with your breathing. In other words, the first step is to choose your kata wisely. Like my colleague Iain Abernethy once put it; “…punching a bag for an extended period of time can improve your health. However, punches weren’t designed to improve your health; they were designed to damage the health of others”. And the same goes for kata. Choose a good kata.

How are the various sequences (combinations/FRU [Functional Rhythm Units]) of the kata divided? Once a kata has been chosen, we now break it down (“bunkai”) even further. Although a kata initially seems to be nothing but a long string of separate techniques, there are actually smaller combinations of interlinked techniques within the kata (typically 1-5 movements). These can be referred to as defensive templates, or using the scientific terminology of Dr. Lucio Maurino, various sets of Functional Rhythm Units (FRU). Looking at the rhythm of kata, you will easily find these defensive templates, and it is very important that you do; because the rest of the process will make no sense if you choose the wrong place to start/end each bunkai.

– Of those smaller combinations, what sequence seems to be the easiest to figure out? Addressing the easiest combination of techniques first will help you provide the context for understanding the harder ones later. As a personal suggestion, the beginning/end are often best (the first and last sequences in the kata), since the start/stop of those defensive templates is already ‘built-in’ and will save you some brain juice.

And so on.

Like you can see, each question inevitably leads down a path of more questions, but the main idea is to always follow the definition of the word ‘bunkai’ – to break down the whole kata into manageable pieces of further analysis.

Which is a perfect segue into the next part.

Bunseki – Analyze it



Now that you’ve chosen your first part of a kata to work with, it’s time to put the rest of the kata on the back burner – and just focus on this particular part.

You see, knowing 168 different applications for a technique means little unless you know why a technique is included at a particular point in the kata – and that’s what we’re trying to figure out right now.

So let’s analyze it (= ‘bunseki’ in Japanese).

Continuing with the inquisitive approach (i.e. asking ourself a bunch of question), we will now look at the first movement from our chosen 1-5 move sequence, and we will start from the legs (the foundation), since they directly influence how our upper body functions.

A couple of logical areas of inquiry:

– Stance: Contrary to popular belief, stances do serve an important purpose. But they have more with the relative position (and subsequent/preceding transfer) of your bodyweight to do, rather than “how many degrees my big toe should be pointing”. So ask yourself this: Where is the majority of my weight centered? To the front? (Zenkutsu-dachi) Side? Back? (Kokutsu-dachi) Down/Center? (Shiko-dachi/Kiba-dachi/Nekoashi-dachi) Single-leg stance? (Tsuru-ashi-dachi) Close quarters combat? (Sanchin-dachi) etc. Why is that so? Consider how changing the stance would change the effectiveness of your technique. There’s a reason for every stance.

– Movement: What direction are you moving in? Towards an opponent or away from an opponent? Is the first movement defensive or offensive in nature? The direction and stance will help you tell. If it’s a turn: Are you moving your front leg or back leg? Why? There is a purpose. Are you stepping or sliding? Jumping or dropping? Standing still? Why? Could a step be considered a kick, knee strike, shin block or even sweep? In the end, all movements are nothing but ways of transferring your mass (or parts of your mass) in various directions. Consider why, and how, changing a movement might change the effectiveness of your technique.

– Lower/Upper Body Interaction: Before moving on to the upper body, you need to check something: Does your preconceived notion of your upper body (arm/hand techniques) match your conclusions about your lower body (i.e. stance, movement, direction, body weight distribution)? If not, reconsider what the arms/hands are doing, and how your upper and lower body interacts. In the end, they should be working as a unit

– Hands: Are your hands open or closed? Open hands can represent a release of a hold, or catch. Closed hands can represent a grab, or joint manipulation. Strikes and/or blocks with open or closed hands have different applications. Pay special attention to your “passive” hand. Because there is no such thing. Both hands have a purpose, just as both legs do. Is your hand by the hip? Is it by the head? Is it in some weird contortion? Why? A hand might sometimes look passive when it’s defending your centerline, or after deflecting an attack (while your “active” hand is busy) – but there’s always a meaning. Is your “passive” hand holding something? Open or closed? Just escaped from a grip? Preparing for something? Grabbing your opponent? Consider the various options.

– Tempo: Is a movement fast or slow? Does the rhythm change over the course of the movement? Slower movements might represent pressing motions, joint manipulation or submission holds, while fast movements might represent direct attacks, breaks/escapes, throws/trips and deflections/blocks. There’s a reason some techniques are always done slowly, while others are fast.

– Non-obvious movements: Try flipping the script. Is a hikite (withdrawing hand) actually a backwards elbow strike? Is a step actually a knee strike? Is a turn actually a throw? Is a forward lean a headbutt? Or an ass-bump? Try to see beyond the obvious.

On it goes.

Simple questions like these will give rise to further questions – which is fantastic – because you’ll need to use this approach for each technique of your bunkai, until you have analyzed all reasonable possibilities.

Fun, fun, fun!

So now that you’ve got some sense of what you’re doing (Bunkai – Break it Down), and why you’re doing it (Bunseki – Analyze it), let’s check out how you do it – by bringing a partner into the equation.

Check it out:

Oyo – Apply it:



Most people begin in the wrong end when they try to figure out bunkai.

They ask a partner to attack them, and then, *fingers crossed* they hope to apply some random kata move. In The Bunkai Blueprint, however, this is the last thing you do. You do it now – when you have a solid understanding of the actual moves you are about to apply, and how to best apply them.

Like we say in Japanese: “honmatsu tentou” (don’t put the cart before the horse).

Time to get a partner and bang out some moves.

Here are the main considerations for the Oyo (Jap. “application”) phase:

– Begin from a natural position of self-defense. Not a boxing guard. Not a crane stance. This is self-defense, remember? If not, read The Core Premise again. The opponent might be situated to your left, right or back. Not just front. Never presume the luxury of a mano-a-mano square off.

– You alredy know your own movement. But you don’t know the attacker’s movement. So try to apply your bunkai against many different attacks. A grab. A punch. A grab/punch. A punch/grab. A double grab. A double punch. A shove, punch, double grab. A slap. You should figure out pretty fast what kind of HAPV attacks fit your moves. Remember The Supporting Concepts here.

Your opponent must react to your techniques. Kicked in the groin? Bend over. Finger jab to the eyes? Flinch. These predetermined, biological responses will dictate the success rate of your techniques. Therefore it’s important that your training partner “plays along”. (If not; do it for real). Your training partner should understand Human Anatomy too, you know.

But your opponent isn’t Bruce Lee. If your defense relies on a fixed combo of attacks/steps/blocks from the opponent, something is wrong. We’re not mind readers here. However, your techniques should still take advantage of the predetermined physiological reactions elicited by your opponent’s pain withdrawal response system. Or else its not realistical. But don’t predict stuff.

– Kata have no “hidden” techniques. But techniques might change depending on the circumstances (i.e. environmental factors, your opponent’s reactions, fighting spirit etc.). In other words, you should be prepared to do a tactical pivot at any time. Like Funakoshi Gichin, the founder of Shotokan Karate once said: “Following a kata exactly is one thing, engaging in a real fight is another.”

– Passive resistance or active resistance? A technique might work very well against somebody who is your friend in the dojo, using only passive resistance against you. But, against somebody offering active resistance? That’s a whole ‘nother story. Suddenly, a big kiai seems more relevant than ever.

And that’s it for now.

Once you’ve gotten hang of the Oyo part, and can successfully apply your sequence against a moderately aggressive opponent, start with a new Bunkai/Bunseki/Oyo cycle from the same kata, until you’ve deciphered the whole thing.

However, it would be foolish to just “start over” in each phase!

The lessons you learned from each stage (Bunkai/Bunseki/Oyo) should be carried over to the next stage, in the form of principles, to act as continually evolving, underlying, foundations for progress.

Like this:


You see, techniques will always vary between kata, styles, masters and schools. There is no way we can ever know if we are doing the “right”, “original” or “best” bunkai/kata/technique in universe.

But principles never change.

They are universal.

(Otherwise they wouldn’t be principles).

And once those combative principles are identified, you will literally be dishing out bunkai faster than you can say “Funakoshi’s Fantabulous Falafel Fraternity”.


There’s only one last thing to add before The Bunkai Blueprint is complete.

A Vitamin Injection


Like the name implies, a Vitamin Injection is anything that acts as a source of inspiration, information or motivation when you’re stuck.

Because believe me – you will get stuck.

Vitamin Injections can be added at any moment during The Bunkai Blueprint process.

Here are some examples:

  • Look at other martial artsWhat are they doing? What can you learn from that?
  • Look at other historical variations of your kataWhat can you learn? (e.g. Bassai Dai, Bassai Sho, Matsumura Bassai, Tomari Bassai etc.)
  • Look at the same kata in other styles – Is there anything else in common, beside the name? (i.e. kata Seisan exists in Shito-ryu, Goju-ryu, Uechi-ryu, Isshin-ryu, Shotokan (under the name Hangetsu), Shorinji-ryu, Wado-ryu etc.) – What can you learn from cross-referencing those?
  • Use media; like YouTube, books, videos, DVDs, blogs and online forums. Call your sensei, ask somebody who trains somewhere else, ask somebody who trains nothing else. How would they do it? Think outside the box.
  • Add dirty techniques. Unconventional methods. Biting. Eye gouging. Spitting. Fish-hooking. Make it work. If there is a small tweak you can do to make a technique work, do it. We have no idea what the exact original movement looked like anyway – 10% wiggle room for experimenting is totally fine. But don’t force a square peg into a round hole.
  • Question your assumptions about everything. Re-read The Core Premises. Are you misinterpreting something? Read The Supporting Concepts again. What area do you need more knowledge in? Be honest. Find out. Research. Try again.
  • Pretend you are a beginner. How would you approach it?
  • Pretend you are Bruce Lee. How would you approach it?
  • Tweet me @KARATEbyJesse and ask for help. (Or send me an e-mail.)
  • Read everything again. And again.
  • Sleep on it.
  • Etc.

Everything that acts as an extra stimulant should be considered a Vitamin Injection.

And with those words I conclude my brief presentation of The Bunkai Blueprint: A Simple Framework for Applying the Kata of Karate in Practical Self-Defense.

What do you think?


Cool? Useful? Nerdy?

The Bunkai Blueprint is still a work in process – so I’d appreciate any feedback/help to make it better. Was anything unclear?

Leave a comment and let me know.


* PS. If enough people share this, I might even improve it: More explanations, real graphics, cool photos and illustrations, real-world “case studies” and bonus videos.

Again, just leave a comment and let me know.

(And use those share buttons below!)

Thanks for reading – good luck!

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

Kenwa Mabuni (founder of Shito-ryu Karate)


  • Hi Jesse Great post. As a professor of Anatomy, Physiology and Microbiology, I loved the mention of one of the classes I teach.
  • Marcus
    Another great article - thank you. I'd love to see a follow-up where you take a small section of a basic kata and explain how you apply this framework.
    • Shane Dubin
      I agree!
  • Mario
    Jesse-san, as I said in the facebook page, that was just awesome. The best article I've ever read about karate ever, by far. I'm really grateful to you for share that kind of knowledge with us. Regards!
  • I think you have done a great job incorporating both creativity and pragmatism. A very nice model. Well done Jesse.
  • Todd
    Great and innovative artical! Curious to know which school does Tomari Bassai? I only know it as Tomari Passai (Matsubayashi-Ryu). ???????
    • Pj
      A lot of schools practice the Tomari version of Bassai/Passai, but it is of course not as popular as bassai dai or sho. I practise kusano-ha shito-ryu, and it is thought in this style as well. There is a very informative wikipedia page about the Bassai kata, you should check it out. greetings
  • Madelyn
    Hi Jesse, thank you for putting so much effort into something for us to read! We are currently learning bunkai, *uhm, our sensei is valiantly trying to get the concept into our thick heads. I'm going to tell him to come read this. You are a star!
  • Lee Mullan
    Hi Jesse-san, This is a great article. I am lucky enough to train under Peter Spanton (Higashi Karate Kai) who teaches us kata bunkai and encourages us to think about "what comes next", "Occam's Razor" and "What if?" scenarios. Your article rings true to what I am being taught, which is really nice to read. Keep up the great work! Regards, Lee
  • Jason Clark
    Brilliant, now you need to flesh this out into a whole book :-)!
  • cecilia
    I loved it Jesse-san! It was really helpfull!
  • Great Article Jesse-san :-) You deserve an insane number of carrot cakes to be baked and eaten in Your honor. In fact I will start right now! For any Tang Soo Do, Tae Kwon Do or other Korean Martial artists out there wishing Korean terminology: Bunkai = Boonhae (??), Bunseki (Analysis) = Bonseok (??) Oyo (Practical Application?) = Eungjoong (??)
    • Ah the Hangul I provided did not work on the comment section of Your blog. If you need the Hangul (korean writing please visit
    • Awesome Ørjan-san, thanks for that!
      • Your are most welcome:-) I have tried writing about bunkai/Boonhae several times in my own blog, but I have never seen such a structured approach illustrated as you do here. Most of my own approach is rather intuitive and difficult to put to Words, but this illustration is very Clear and good. I do hope you expand on this With future articles.
  • Ralf Schepers
    Hi Jesse, great article! From my point of view you should divide the principles in moving principles and fighting principles and add a layer "visualisations" to your diagramm which are used to achieve the principles. They are the underlaying "motor" of the karate I've learned. Then it would be the way I've been taught to look at kata. Regards Ralf
    • Thats a good idea Ralf-san! Can you elaborate on the "visualization" part?
      • Under: you find some of my thoughts on visualisations in Karate Concrete visualisations and how to use them is hard to explain by words. One of my beginning students is in Uppsala for 6 months and plans to visit your dojo. If he will realize this he could explain it by showing it "hands on (I hope). Regards Ralf
  • Stu
    Bit of a circular argument in "Does my kata actually have any cool applications". Having to find a kata with good bunkai in it for you to go find good bunkai?
    • Yeah, that should have been worded differently. Thanks for the feedback Stu-san!
      • Stu
        Your welcome. Also, how would this be modified to cover Kobudo kata? The Core Premise of Kobudo kata is not I believe always self defense. Some elements of the Kon are thinly veiled yari or naginata techniques with a more military context. Equaly, the HAPV attacks will differ when countering another weapon, so the Supporting Concepts might need to be modified. Regards, Stu
  • Branco
    Jesse-san, Great words!!! I'm about to translate this article to portuguese so we can use at our Dojo (not everyone is familiarized with english). I just talked about the core idea you wrote here and the other guys really loved the idea. Hope our Sensei think the same! It´s hard to set a different approach to Bunkai than the sportive bunkai (which sometimes looks like a group ballet). About the Aikido: The softy side is true, but there is hope. Sometimes I think that the ideological/philosophical stream of Aikido (peace, love and never hurting anyone) hindered the martial aspect as much the sports ideology did to Karate (or is doing). Nevertheless, I still consider getting some time to return to Aikido classes in addition to Karate. This bunkai blueprint can be valid for both, I guess? So, please, MORE! Regards from Brasil!
  • Great effort Jesse. You put a lot of work into this article and there are a LOT of ideas to consider. I especially like/agree with removing labels from techniques and thinking of them simply as movements - movements that be be retranslated into a wider variety of actual techniques. My only thought is that there remains limitations on practical use of bunkai if one continues to adhere to the kata pattern, even in small segments. On the other hand, if each movement is considered individually, then it can be put together with the moves around it or other movements from the kata, or from other kata. That is the type of flexibility that seems necessary to me, given the variability in combat, and it can only be achieved by the type of study you refer to, but focused on each individual part first.
  • dave rodway bet. Our school has been focusing on it for years. On the 9th, 10th, and 11th of this month we enjoyed having Taira Sensei come to our dojo, from Okinawa to reveal even more great Bunkai. Our Sensei Paul Enfield is his interpreter. Here's some vids of Taira Sensei and our dojo loving Bunkai.
  • This may very well be the best article of yours I've read to date. Very well done! Thank you!
  • Mario
    Jesse-san, if you give me your permission, I would like to translate your article into spanish so I could share it with my colleagues. Thanks in advance! Mario
    • Hi Mario-san. Please go ahead - The Bunkai Blueprint is already being translated to French and Portugese by other multilingual enthusiasts like you.
  • Ian
    Great, thought-provoking article. Here's some thoughts it provoked ... When you say "Karate was originally meant to be used for physical self-defense – most often against a single, untrained, probably right-handed, advantageous, unarmed and aggressive adversary" ... I think we need to go beyond that rather than rely on it as a core principle. It may have started as mere self defence, but I suspect that soon enough it expanded beyond that. And no doubt, the skilled karate-ka of the past would have anticipated (and perhaps even faced) different opponents ... several attackers, trained attackers, armed attackers ... and I'm suspecting that some of that experience and training made its way into a few katas here and there. So I'd say keep those thoughts in mind when examining a kata's bunkai ... maybe there are more end results lying within a series of movements than just defeating a solitary, angry, lumbering oaf. ... and ... Functional Rhythm Units ... one thought I'd add is that these can "overlap" in a kata. One should be open to starting and ending one's FRUs at different places to fully explore a kata in all its possibilities.
    • Daniele
      Hello Jesse-san I would have to agree with Ian in regards to the self-defense core principle As a general rule, I also believe that karate maintains self-defense as its core practical objective. However, I do not necessarily agree with the second part of your statement which outlines a certain “incompetence” from the attacker. My personal interpretation of kata both in Karate and in Iaido (which I also practice) is that the foundation of the underlying strategy is all about deception. Deception in movement is all about drawing in your opponent (ex: no guard), attacking preemptively, encouraging anticipated and impulse driven attacks (exposing certain parts of the body) etc.. If we take into account these elements, then we can quickly understand why in many cases most of our bunkai start with oi-tsuki or mae-geri or other common HAPV attacks that Sensei McCarthy lists in his theory. Hope this posts provides some interesting insights and, at the same time, if you feel that my statement is incorrect, I would love to hear your views on this. Otherwise, I really appreciated this article! I believe that structuring Karate in this manner will help us (especially us westerners) discover and understand so many things about our beloved martial art that, up till now, we’ve never been able to grasp (due to cultural differences, lack of knowledge and/or methodology). Thanks Ciao! Daniele
  • Uwe
    Excellent article as always, Jesse. The only problem I see is transferring this to the dojo where people like "being told" what to do, and instead of showing them your own version, you ask them to come up with their own interpretation... I need to think about this I guess ;-) All the best Uwe
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  • Rach
    Thanks for some very interesting insights. Kata and bunkai are the most fascinating / important / terrifying things about karate for me as a beginner. I am about to do a grading (my first) and have "learned" Sanchin dai ichi (goju ryu). I have had great feed back from several sempai / sensei / higher rank students in my dojo and other affiliated TJKN dojos and everyone gives me different pointers about my techniques and also about bunkai. They are all right (ie as in correct) but it can leave me feeling cognitively conflicted about what expectations are. The 7th dan Sensei visited our Dojo last training sessopm and deemed I was ready for grading so I guess things will be ok but I still feel bunkai isn't really taught as something spontaneous (not the right word). Don't get me wrong I think my Sensei and the others are fantastic but I feel like I don't have enough knowledge (even with access to the web!!) to work it all out for myself......not to mention getting my head around the next kata which is so much faster and complex.......thanks for the memory tricks entry too....going to try that approach!!
  • A nice piece of introspection Sir... I believe it can g even deeper when we take into account the anatomy (a deeper level), physiology, functionality and attributes. All of this can help the Karateka unlock more potential and evolve more naturally.
  • Ossu! [bow] Oh my goodness, that's a lot to digest! My daughter loves kumite, I love kata, and where we meet in the middle is bunkai. We love exploring bunkai in the garage! We still ask Sensei about stuff, but in the long weekend between Thursday and Tuesday, we gotta do *something!* I remember one series of movements just wasn't making any sense until we explored possibilities. Attack from a fellow karateka wasn't making sense, attack from someone with a sword wasn't making sense, but a thug with a knife - it worked! Now you're asking us to go even deeper - ougtha be fun! Thanks!!! [bow]
    • Buck Smallsy
      Dear Karate Mama, I received an email alert regarding your reply to me and how you made the team. Glad to hear and see you are building momentum in your journey. Don't stop for no one - just throw them aboard your train girl, and go hard ! Life's TOO SHORT to slow down, and stop, - life either goes on with us or without us ! Proud of you girl for making the team - again another stone you've paved for your kids to follow you on - awesome ! God Bless, Osu !
      • @Buck Smallsy Thank you for the complements! Happy training and God bless to you too!
  • A really helpful article, Jesse. In my tang soo do training I've never used the word "Bunkai." I do often, though, consider what I am doing in the midst of kata. Is this a strike or a block? Can I be doing both at once? Why am I even doing this kata? What does it mean? I like the emphasis of the lower body and upper body matching. Kids often want to rush through kata using the upper body but taking bitty steps with their lower body. It's difficult to slow down and help them understand the movement means nothing with out all parts working in unison. Kata has a purpose and it's not for dancing! Bunkai has real world significance and application. Awesome!
  • carlos
    maybe because karate is 3 K. Kumite, kata, kihon, Nobody said anything about bunkai lol
  • Buck Smallsy
    Dear Jesse, Your article is correct ! Only those who have faced a real live assault on the street, in the workplace, domestic assault at home, will truly understand the significance of BUNKAI. There is no RIGHT or WRONG technique - the objective is to NOT BE THERE IN THE FIRST PLACE ! For those of you fu%$ing around on your mobile phones / cell phones on the street or listening to your iPOD whilst walking home late from work - STOP IT ! Consciousness IS the most important tool to defend against any threat. Be aware of your environment, who's around you, what they are doing, where you are, and how you are going to react should the Fit hit the shan ! Expect the worst and hope for the best !, Best to be SAFE than SORRY ! Osu !
  • Sui Takahashi
    That was great. You captured the essence ! This is a must share.... ossu ~Tak
  • Hey Jessie.... Were on the identical same path except this was what I went through in the 90s. I won't take from your progress or post, it is a major step forward and youre organizing it well. But if you wish to know the problems you will run into following this and the directions it will open... Or the points that you can modify to grow more.... Write me.
  • Great article, Jesse. When I am teaching kata applications I use the concept of different ranges to develop alternative meanings for the same movements - kicking range, punching range, grappling range. That could be part of your vitamin injection. Keep up the good work! Steve B
    • James Brodie Lawrence
      I think that is a very thoughtful and interesting article, Jesse San. The only objection I can think of is that the main purpose of hikite is better described as "pulling hand", rather than "withdrawing hand", as its main purpose (as GF described in Karate-do Kyohan) is to pull and twist the attacker's limb so that they lean or fall into your strike. I think that "withdrawing hand" could promote the (erroneous) idea that pulling the other hand back will somehow add power to your strike. I do wish I could have read something as well-explained and user friendly as this when I started getting into bunkai, nearly twenty years ago. Well done and thank you.
      • James Brodie Lawrence
        Steve Beveridge, "kicking range", "punching range" and "grappling range" are, in my opinion, misnomers derived from a sporting context. Self-defence takes place at close range, where the primary percussive techniques are forearm strikes to the off-switches ("blocks" to the neck and jaw). At this range, strikes, kicks and grappling techniques are all used, usually simultaneously.
      • Well spotted James-san! I agree - considering the original application of hikite, it is better translated as "pulling hand". Thanks for chiming in!
  • Soke Tatsuo Shimabuku; Okinawa Isshin Ryu Karate Do. Ver y nice historical picture Jessy San. Greetings from Chile. Always reading your articles . Best regards.
  • Alejandro Navarro
    As someone who barely practises bunkai at the dojo, this article was a godsend. Do not get me wrong, I love my sensei's training, but the lack of bunkai and general self-defense grates on my mind every training session (since we only ever ptractise bunkai when an exam is coming, and then we never really go in-depth on it). I'll make sure to tell this to the rest of my dojo so we can get some more discussion going on! P.S. The extra article would be really helpful, especially to those karateka that train alone.
  • Matt
    Interesting that your drawing resembles the Hidari mitsudomoe. Was that intentional?
    • Nope! Probably my subconscious at work , Matt-san... ;-)
  • James Brodie Lawrence
    I think that is a very thoughtful and interesting article, Jesse San. The only objection I can think of is that the main purpose of hikite is better described as "pulling hand", rather than "withdrawing hand", as its main purpose (as GF described in Karate-do Kyohan) is to pull and twist the attacker's limb so that they lean or fall into your strike. I think that "withdrawing hand" could promote the (erroneous) idea that pulling the other hand back will somehow add power to your strike. I do wish I could have read something as well-explained and user friendly as this when I started getting into bunkai, nearly twenty years ago. Well done and thank you.
  • AM
    Coolest article ever!!
  • Dmitri
    I want to add some more ideas. It seems helpful to try to describe the sequence with simple words. This may really highlight the meaning. See the beginning of the heian nidan. You rise your hands, bring together your arms, and extend one of your arms in the direction of the opponent. Well, this now looks as a natural double arm block against a hay maker, chambering one arm with grabbing another, and countering to the temple or neck. A classic block with an instant counter. We tried it in the class and it works like a charm.
  • Janne
    This must be Your best article so far. Very inspirational. Thank You.
  • Great article, definitely a good framework to simplify the process of analysing kata.
  • article I've seen on the subject, very nice - thank you, and keep it up! :D
  • Ade
    The most important but yet most neglected part of karate. Actual practical self defense. The reason i stopped training karate was sick of been fed bullshit about "this move is for kicking a samurai off his horse" ..."this move is for jumping swords"..."this is for fighting six guys"...karate loses respect when this bullshit is peddled. Id have more respect if i was told :we dont know what this is we just train it coz its in the syllabus..or "we just train it for medals" whatever but dont degrade karate buy lying.
  • Harold
    Dear Jessy, Thanks for an amazing article again!! You are completely right, I practice Shotokan, and I remember reading the first pages of a book (like you said, research!) about bunkai of the Heian Shodan. Suddenly, the application of the first kata, has a completely different meaning. E.g.: the first move, a gedan barai is normally taught as a gedan uke, however, the first part of a gedan barai, when you raise your arm to the head can and is also a jodan uke. Sensei said at the beginning aikido, judo, etc where also part of "karate" so this gives a whole new meaning and understanding to the kata. In my dojo, they practice several styles and Japanese martial arts, so it's easier and interesting to see that moves and concepts from other styles and arts can or exist within karate. I am currently researching and applying Tai Sabaki, that although is in Shotokan, it is hardly mentioned or taught, even though Shotokan karatekas unconsciously use it. Thanks for the article again, hope to get one of your books soon!!
  • Brian Preston
    Great article. It's said that the masters could only master 3 Kata's. Now I know why it's not just learn a kata.....but to understand kata from it's soul.
  • Excellent article, Thank You Jesse !
  • Kerensa
    This was a very helpful article on how to break down kata to understand bunkai! Thank you!
  • Kyuss John
    Hi Jesse, i was wondering if we could have a chat about what would constitute as the original applications or bunki for the kata. As we don't have the old masters to tell us. I would like to first put fallword my thoughts, -frist criteria no move without a reason, -2 flow the kata and look at how each move trasitions into the next, account for which leg is in fount. - the more moves used in an application the more likely it is right. -kicks might not be kicks they might be steps or kicks with the shin bone. - look at the arms as arms not strikes or blocks just they are there for some reason then move to over there for another reason. - sometimes there in multiple applications for the same movements. -most if not all applications should and the fight, most likely a take down as i have found. - most kata has a feel about it, that the applications are about similar situations this could be why we see repeating techniques. - most kata shows the entery into the techniques, i have found the back fist, or the renforced block to be sines of the start of a new application. Not always the case tho. - the application needs to be perfect in the sence it works really really well. Onece an application has been found analyze it by asking how best to apply that technique ajust accordingly and then re assess whether it still fits the kata movements. Look to the kata to fix the application and we might be onto something. -look at older ways of doing the kata or different interpretations to see if your idea's fit. I guess the next question is who has the kata closest to the ideal applications, this is where solo application practice is needed, outside the kata flowing the application over and over. Thinking about the two man application. This i feel will help, but without a perfect model of how the body functions. In regards to strength and weaknesses we can not be shor well in the absolute sence.
  • Bert
    I enjoy your shows on you tube. Having Steven Seagal, everyone states he's the real thing. Where it was good to hear what he had to say. I'd like to see the techniques better! From a phone details are difficult. What you say about kata here is all very true. Which go figure. The day of the sword is over, Jigoro Kano and Morehei Yeshiva saw it as well as Gichin Funakoshi. So, you end up with what really is an art based on martial ways. Yet, teaching a huge mass of people wouldn't be good, as they'd abuse, misuse, or even share it with others that would not hesitate to use such just out of pure meanness. I'm well past the 1/2 century mark, where I would like to know the techniques of all the kata I practiced, just so I would know. I would have liked to pursued Gracie Jiu Jitsu or Machado, not Brazilian. Where originally, they showed how to do it. So many sell bullshit, I do not care to waste my time. I enjoyed your shows. Travel to China, Okinawa, you got it. I think it's good you started bringing your brother. Seriously, never go to the unknown alone, as for some it's home court advantage all the way. Live it while you can.
  • Steve wakeling
    So much cool stuff to learn and you teach it so well...thanks mate your awesome??

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