Exclusive Interview: Iain Abernethy – UK’s Leading Expert on Practical Kata Bunkai (pt. 2)

Note: This is the second part of my interview with Iain Abernethy – UK’s Leading Expert on Practical Kata Bunkai. Read part 1 here.

J: Now, consider this: You and me love the challenge of figuring out bunkai. We love solving mysteries. But NOT everyone does! So… wouldn’t it be easier for people to go “truck this!” and start MMA instead? Or Krav Maga? I mean, if people want effective and deadly techniques, why should they “waste” time trying to make sense of “ancient artifacts” like kata?

IA: “You’re right that I love analyzing and researching kata! It’s great fun… so that can definitely be one reason to do it! But you are also right – that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. In my case, my research into kata convinced me that kata are highly pragmatic and hence to be valued. That is why I value kata so much and why it is so central to what I do. If I did not believe it to be practical I would have dropped it in a heartbeat.”

Sensei Iain’s classic “shuto-uke” drill

J: So, more precisely, what kept you on the kata/bunkai path?

IA: “What I found was that the kata recorded, in a logical and structured way, everything that was needed for the close, chaotic and extremely violent world of civilian self-protection. This is what I teach to my students. If they come to me to learn practical material, kata is what I’m going to teach them.

That being said though, it would be wrong of me to tell anyone to “work the bunkai out for yourself!” What is the point of going to an instructor to be told, “I don’t know, you tell me”?

My students don’t have to work out what the kata means, because I tell them unequivocally what it means – to me. They will also be taught how to “read” kata so they can revaluate for themselves, and they also know that other people have other views on what specific motions represent.”

J: Still, some instructors openly teach kata without knowing the meaning of the moves – because frankly, it doesn’t matter to them. I feel bad for the students.

IA: “Me too! If I were to tell people to figure it all out for themselves, there would be no point training with me – and they’d be right to go find someone who will actually teach them. It’s not up to the student to work it out; it’s up to the teacher to teach. If teachers do what they are supposed to, the students will get what they need.

As regards existing Karate-ka who want to make bunkai part of what they do, but don’t want to start from the beginning, the good news is you don’t have to! There are hundreds and hundreds of Karate-ka out there who are more than happy to share information. You and me have our websites, and many others have theirs too. There are books, DVDs, podcasts, articles, courses, study groups, online forums etc. There’s a huge community of likeminded Karate-ka out there all helping each other to practice their own Karate in a more holistic and functional way.

Karate-ka looking to adopt a more pragmatic approach are therefore not alone; there is a growing army of pragmatic Karate-ka who are only too happy to have people join us. The more people there are looking at Karate in this way, and sharing their findings, the better it is for all Karate.”

J: Indeed! So let’s get pragmatic then: What are the most common mistakes, or assumptions, you’ve encountered during your years of teaching bunkai?

IA: “The main one must be a failing to understand the problem that kata is the solution to. Kata is all about the type of violence associated with civilian conflict. It has nothing to do with defending yourself against formal Karate techniques from a distance. Because people don’t get this, they are trying to bash the square peg of kata into the round hole of “Karate vs. Karate” and it does not fit. To make it “work” they have to resort to pretty outlandish explanations such as simultaneous blocks, very unusual “guards”…”

J: …they have to change the kata, or add “secret techniques”.

IA: “Exactly. But if people genuinely understand the nature of civilian conflict, they can see why the nature of kata is the way it is. It all makes sense.

Another very common error, which is related to the one above, is that bunkai represents choreographed battle against multiple opponents. As I alluded to earlier, if a person’s interpretation of kata demands a specific attack from the enemy, at a specific time, from a specific direction – it should be thrown out.

Good bunkai does not require the enemy’s consent or cooperation. I sum that up in my classes and seminars by saying that, “Bunkai is not something you do with a partner; it is something you do to your enemies.”

(Related reading: 7 Reasons Why Your Bunkai (Probably) Sucks & 5 (More) Reasons Why Your Bunkai (Still) (Probably) Sucks)

There are loads more, but all misconceptions stem from the fact that people fail to grasp that kata is a record of a solution to civilian conflict, and then also failing to appreciate exactly what civilian conflict actually looks like and what the goal is.

Too many people think “fighting” and “physical self-protection” are the same thing. They are not. They are very different beasts and hence the nature of the solution will always elude them if they fail to understand the problem.”

J: And unless people are on this same level of understanding about Karate, it’s hard to even discuss kata! Here’s another dilemma: In ye olde days, people learned “bunkai” first, and then proceeded to practice the solo pattern (kata) by themselves, just as a memory aid. Today, it’s the complete opposite: We learn the kata first, and then grope in the dark for an understanding of the moves (bunkai). How can we reverse this process? Should we even?

IA: “It goes back to what I said earlier. Instructors – who wish to teach Karate as an effective physical response to the problem of civilian violence – should always teach the meaning of kata. Not just give it lip service, or give the odd example, but to fully integrate bunkai in to their practice, drills, kumite, etc.

Teaching the kata and then telling the student to work it out for themselves is not acceptable in my view. Teachers should teach. As more and more instructors study bunkai, and hence are then able to teach it to their students, the process will revert back to what it originally was with an inseparable link between kata and bunkai.

Sensei Iain teaching a sweet bunkai from kata Jion.

As an example, the first kata my students learn is Pinan Shodan. They will learn the first seven motions of that kata, and the drill that then allows them to practice the applications of those movements, in the same session. Part of my 8th kyu grading requirement is to learn the first half of the kata and all four application drills that go with it.”

J: Great approach. However, many modern kata were created/changed with the goal of calisthenics or sport in mind, rather than raw self-defense. This led me to personally seek out more old-school kata in Okinawa, where I knew there were awesome bunkai. But many people don’t have this opportunity; they have to rely solely on katas they are taught by their sensei, regardless of why those kata exist in the first place. So, in your opinion, should we still figure out bunkai to our modern “watered-down” kata (if they even HAVE any bunkai) – or is that a waste of time? Do we, perhaps, need to modify some kata in order to make sense of the bunkai?

IA: “Good question! There are many ways to approach this. Personally, I think most of the modern kata we have are fine and the bunkai remains present. Kata has certainly undergone modifications to comply with non-combative considerations such as athleticism, “style purity”, aesthetics etc. over the years, but as long as we are aware of these modifications we can easily see past them.

As an example, in modern Shotokan we may have kicks performed head-height because they look cool and present a greater physical challenge. But in real situations we don’t want to kick above mid-thigh (if we kick at all), and the older versions of the kata reflect this. However, so long as the Shotokan practitioner knows of the alterations to their kata, they can gain the physical benefits and enjoyment of practicing high kicks in their solo kata practice, whilst understanding that the kick should be low in application, and will be low when they practice the bunkai with a partner.

The athleticism developed from high kicking could also help develop the physical attributes needed for brutal low kicks too! The problem only occurs if the Karate-ka mistakenly believes their kata is telling them they should kick head height in application.

An analogy I use to further explain this is that of writing out a poem: Two people are asked to write down the same poem. One writes it down with a green crayon on a crumpled brown paper bag. The other types it onto a computer and prints it out, in a beautiful font, on crisp, clean white paper. From a distance they look entirely different… but on closer examination we see the information contained is identical. That tends to be how I see the various styles of kata.”

J: Great analogy! I often use the analogy of a Karate river or cloud.

IA: “Actually, I don’t even believe we have Shotokan kata, Wado-Ryu kata, Goju-Ryu kata and so on. What we have is kata as practiced in Shotokan, kata as practiced in Wado-Ryu, kata as practiced in Goju-Ryu etc. It all comes from a common source and records common information, just not in a common way. If we understand the nuances of the style, then we can access the information just fine without the need to amend kata or change style.

There are some exceptions to this of course. I’m of the view that the youngest traditional kata we have are the Pinan / Heian series. I believe those kata represent an independent, holistic, physical self-protection system. In Karate-Do Kyohan Funakoshi wrote:

“Having mastered these five forms, one can be confident that he is able to defend himself competently in most situations. The meaning of the name is to be taken in this context”.

Interestingly, it is this paragraph which leads most people to incorrectly translate “Heian” or “Pinan” as “Peaceful Mind”. A Japanese reading of the characters will be “Peace and Tranquility” and in order to tie the name in with the ability to defend oneself, people say the kata name translates as “Peaceful Mind”; despite the fact there is no character for “mind“.

If you read the same characters from the perspective of a Chinese reader though (specifically Mandarin), they have a different connotation. They translate it as “safe from harm” or “free from danger”. These kata were made by master Itosu who – like everyone else of his time – considered Karate to be a system with strong Chinese roots. It therefore makes sense he would give his creations a name with Chinese roots, just like most of the other kata have.

Anyhow, the point is this: Basic katas, like Pinan / Heian, were intended to be a stand alone self-protection system and that is reflected in the name they were given. My own analysis of those kata certainly bears that out to my satisfaction. Many kata that came into being after the Pinan kata were not intended to have bunkai though.

The Taikoyku kata are a good example of this. Whilst the individual motions that make up those kata have applications – because they originate from older kata – the kata themselves are not intended to present a structured whole, but a means of practising “solo kata” in the simplest way possible.

So I think it would be a mistake to look for meaningful bunkai in kata younger than the Heian / Pinan series. It should also go without saying that kata that involve back flips, dropping into splits, or are perfectly in time with the Rocky theme tune, are also not productive places to look for bunkai!”

J: Hah! So, to sum it up…

IA: “All modern day versions of older kata should be just fine, so long as their more recent non-combative modifications are understood. The same information is there and it is the information within the kata that we utilize, not the kata themselves.

If you think sensei Iain looks like a total badass… well, it’s because he is.

I use the analogy of a computer disk to explain that: Let’s say I have bought a computer disk with Photoshop on it. I don’t use the actual CD to modify photos; I use the information on the CD. It needs to be uploaded on to the PC so I can use it.

Likewise, I don’t use the kata to fight. The kata is simply the medium for recording that information so it can be passed along to others. To make use of that information I need to “upload” it into my body so it forms “combative habits” that can be utilized in the free flowing world of actual conflict.

So all kata, regardless of its external form, are useless unless we internalise the information they contain. Solo kata practice is a part of this, but that too is useless without the drilling of the bunkai, the internalising of the underlying principles so that action can be varied and hence be ever appropriate to specific circumstance, and practicing the methodology in live free flowing practice.

The solo form – whatever it’s external nature – is only one part of a much larger process.”

J: And once that process starts being understood, you will inevitably get a few “aha” moments along the way. On that note, please share some profound “aha” moments you’ve personally had, with regards to kata and their practical applications. What quantum leaps have you experienced during your years of teaching bunkai?

IA: “Man, I love it when that happens! I feel it is like a “revelation” from a long dead master. That sounds a little spooky – I don’t mean a connection in a supernatural “back from the dead” sense, I simply mean that through studying their work we can have a connection with them.”

J: Don’t worry, I don’t believe in zombies anyway!

IA: “Good! So, if I create a song to express a particular emotional state, and I do a good job of it, then someone listening to that song could be put in the same emotional state. When I’m moving in the way the past masters moved (practicing kata), and I’m trying to see those movements from their perspective, I can be guided to think what they thought. They put their thoughts into the kata, so I should be able to get their thoughts out of the kata.

Sometimes that process is through long study with many dead ends and falsified thoughts; other times it is in a flash of inspiration – the “aha” moment!. Both ways are valuable, but the sudden insights are the most fun! I love that feeling of having to try something out there and then, and realising that something very cool has just been dropped into my lap.

The “aha moments” – while very rewarding and exciting – are generally not the ones that have shaped my thinking around kata and application the most though. It’s the research and testing that has been the most profound in the long run. Bringing it all together is a long and ongoing process. So the words “profound” and “aha” tend not to go hand in hand for me personally!

One fun occurrence that sticks with me though, comes from around fifteen or so years ago when my training partner and I were engaged in a live grappling drill: The objective of the drill was simply to put your partner on the floor while you were upright. No striking was permitted so we could isolate throwing skills and practice keeping on our feet. I dropped down to scoop up my partner’s leg, messed it up, but I somehow managed to throw him anyway. I had no real idea of what I’d done. My partner leapt up shouting “You just Kushanku-ed me!”

I had no idea what he was getting at, so he explained the motion I had just thrown him with was found in Kushanku (Kanku Dai) kata. He showed me and he was right! We then spent the rest of the session analyzing that movement, consistently finding that the closer we got to the way the kata wanted the motion done, the better it worked.

(Want more “aha” moments? Here’s some ideas: 58 Bunkai to Kakete – 42 Bunkai to “Monk’s Salutation” – 11 Useful Bunkai For The Kusanku Ninja Move – 11 Practical Bunkai For Karate’s Jump Kick (Tobi-Geri) – 72 Bunkai to Juji-Uke)

The super cool thing was that the only kata we had practiced that night was Kushanku. I guess it was “fresh in my body” (or maybe I just lucked out) and “fresh in his mind” and it was great to have a shared “aha moment” like that.

Although it happened fifteen years ago we still light-heartedly argue about who came up with that application! He claims he recognized it. I claim I did it first. It’s probably nothing that will ever be resolved.”

J: Love it! So, let’s wrap this up: What place do you think bunkai will have in the future? With an increasing global demand for sport Karate, athleticism and showmanship, along with economical forces supporting that specific development, how do you see bunkai and the more practically oriented Karate training methods playing out in the future?

IA: “It may be the circles I move in, but I don’t see an increasing demand for Sport Karate, athleticism and showmanship! Just the opposite, in fact. I see a huge move back toward an older approach to Karate which, perhaps paradoxically, has greater relevance to the modern world.

Twenty years ago you could tell some one that a gyaku-zuki was the most deadly technique there was and they would buy it. In the “information age” people can quickly see past that. People coming to the martial arts are more aware than they have ever been (it could still be better though) and they know what they want.

Sensei Iain considers ne-waza (ground techniques) an integral part of Karate. But you already know that.

Only a tiny minority get into Karate for the sport; and fewer still with an eye on competing at an elite level. I have never bought the “shop window to the world” argument that states Sport Karate is what brings people into the dojo. That’s never been my experience.

In fact, in all my years of training and teaching I’ve never yet met a single person who decided to take up Karate after seeing a competition. That’s probably because it’s only Karate-ka and their families who watch competitions!

What I see is masses of people getting on board with what Mabuni said around eighty years ago; “Those who are thinking of the future of Karate should have an open mind and strive to study the complete art.” That’s what I see; people want a Karate that is a complete and holistic system; just like the Karate of the past.”

J: But are folks really SEEING that future?

IA: “I obviously may have a warped view of things as, by definition, all my time is spent with Karate-ka who are pragmatically oriented! So I accept I could be wrong, but what I do know is that I am kept very busy helping others to adopt a more pragmatic approach. I’ve been invited to teach all over the UK, Germany, Denmark, USA, Canada, Australia, Norway, Ireland, Belgium, Sweden etc. and as we do this interview I am fully booked for seminars all of this year and almost all of next year!

Last year I was even invited by Chuck Norris’s group to run sessions in Las Vegas for their instructors and black belts so they could take parts of what I do and make it their own. From personal experience, I see a huge desire for a more realistic approach to Karate.”

J: I sense a Chuck Norris joke in there somewhere… but I’ll let it go for now. Indeed, there is a huge shift going on in the world right now, not only in Karate – people are gradually moving away from the industrial mindset; becoming self-employed, learning stuff (like nutrition and sport science), taking charge of their own development and empowering themselves to impressive degrees – all through the leverage of online connections – in ways we could never have imagined twenty years ago. Do you see this same shift going on in Karate?

IA: “Yes! I’ve been lucky enough to play a small part in what I feel is going to be another seismic shift in the way Karate is practiced. See, around one-hundred years ago, Karate shifted away from being a pragmatic system in order to popularize itself and fit in with the prevailing cultural trends. But today, I feel it is shifting back the other way for the same reasons. I’m pretty confident that in the next ten to twenty years it will be the more traditional, pragmatic version of Karate that will be the most widely practiced.

All that said, as I said at the start of this interview, there are many types of Karate, and people need to find the one that best addresses their needs.

Ultimately it does not matter what the masses are doing, as long as the individual is getting what they need out of their Karate. Whatever way the prevailing wind ultimately blows; all kinds of Karate will always have their passionate supporters and “Karate Nerds” like us.

Which is just how it should be.”

J: And with those words we end this interview. Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts, insights and experience with my readers Iain sensei. Good luck with rockin’ the bunkai world – keep keepin’ it real!

IA: “Thanks for having me Jesse-san! I had a blast!”


  • Boban Alempijevic
    Great articles, both of them and he has a real great dialect... re watched the youtube clip several times only due to the dialect :D
  • Hobbit
    Great article. Very appropriate for the moment whe're living in karate these days. I believe some kind of rescue is required so the "soul" of the martial arts don´t end in oblivion. Not focusing just on jutsu (forgetting the Do), nor just on Do (forgetting the marcial aspect), not even just on sports (forgetting it all!). Thanks again! Regards from Brazil!! Ótimo artigo, muito conveniente para o momento que o karatê está passando no Brasil. Acredito que realmente seja necessário um resgate àquilo que pode ser considerada a alma da arte marcial, sem focar tanto no jutsu (esquecendo o do) nem apenas no do (esquecendo a marcialidade), nem tampouco no esporte (esquecendo de tudo).
  • "...it’s only Karate-ka and their families who watch competitions!" :D I truly hope the vision of a future karate world that is pragmatic and holistic comes true. Thanks to both of you for not making karate look like a joke.
  • Jason Ng
    "Those who are thinking of the future of Karate should have an open mind and strive to study the complete art." - love this sentence. Trying to instil into students that karate is not just the punch, kicks and kata. The 'zombie' mode in which they practice karate drives me insane, definitely bringing in the practical application of the techniques is a must. So many students see attaining the 'black belt' status as the penultimate of their karate experience not realising that this is the level in which we have some proficiency in the basic skills to which we can start to apply karate. After 40+ years I still get a lot of those 'aha!' moments and loving it. Thanks for another great post.
  • eco
    Many thanks for posting your interview with Iain. If only he could know how he influenced my approach to bunkai and the understanding of certain movements (it started with Tekki/Naihanchi). And after watching his videos and trying to apply his methods lead to countless discussions with other instructors who had the opinion that we train karate (kicks and punches only!) and not judo or jiu-jitsu and therefor we should not think about close range situations or even worse, grappling. But also your role in the community is huge and becoming very important more every day! (I?l stop here with my praising :-) )
  • Ian
    Man, what a gent. You waive the ol' red flag of "maybe people should just do MMA or Krav Maga" and the bull doesn't go all "Master Ken" and take the bait ... talks about why he loves kata/bunkai and it may not be everyone's cup of tea ... Great!
  • Buck Smallsy
    For those lost, curious, and wanting to learn the applications of Kata; two art forms that will assist in learning such applications are Tomiki Aikido (NARIYAMA Kancho) and Daito-Ryu (Aiki-jutsu) under Katsuyuki KONDO Kancho. Hope this helps ! P.S. Anyone who is wanting to learn defending against an assailant with an edged weapon (i.e. knife, sharp instrument); never go to someone (Martial Arts Instructor) who hasn't been stabbed, and or slashed. Otherwise its like asking a plumber to give you an answer to a problem that only an electrician can help you with ! Better to learn from an experienced instructor whose been stabbed and survived than someone who hasn't ! Hence the best knife fighters / instructors in the world ARE those from the Philippines. The Passage of receiving such information regarding Bunkai is so important ! Authenticity IS everything when it comes to learning Kata and WHAT the techniques are actually for, along with HOW they work in the REAL world; followed by the WHEN, and WHY. Osu !
  • Ricardo Lopez Simon
    I would like to express my deepest thanks to both of you for this excellent interview.

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