The 3 Types of Bunkai (Omote, Ura & Honto)

What do you know about bunkai?

If you are like most people – you know a little bit.

You know that the ancient kata of Karate are more than just “war dances”, and that the various techniques of kata actually have lethal applications in self-defense (= bunkai).

But…

Did you know there are 3 distinct ways of looking at bunkai?

Omote, Ura & Honto

bunkai

See, here’s the deal:

Due to the complex nature of Karate’s history, the original meaning of many kata techniques have been lost in the sands of time.

We simply don’t know the original meaning of many kata.

(But, we’re pretty good at guessing!)

Therefore, the Karate world has come up with three common methods for “extracting” the bunkai, or practical applications, from kata’s various movements.

Today, I want to present these 3 ways for you:

  • Omote
  • Ura
  • Honto

Personally, I love to use all three ways (depending on the situation), but most people seem to prefer either one or two of these methods.

So…

Are you ready to find out more?

Check it out:

1. Omote (What You See is What You Get)

omote_bunkai
Omote bunkai

The first type is known as “omote”.

In Japanese, omote means “surface”.

Hence, as the name implies, omote bunkai are very simple & direct.

What you see is what you get.

Like this:

If it looks like a block, it’s probably a block.

Logical, right?

Every technique is taken at face value.

You could say that omote bunkai are similar to the scientific principle of Occam’s razor, or the famous duck test; “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck – it’s probably a duck.”

Fans of omote bunkai often like to point out that practical self-defense must be easy to remember, simple to execute and brutally effective.

So why make it complicated?

Bunkai should be simple.

Therefore, if something looks like a block, it’s probably a block.

(Not a joint lock, throw, strike or wrist release.)

Personally, I like to show omote bunkai during the initial phase of teaching a kata, since it boosts the learning process without interfering with the correct technical execution of the movements.

Makes sense?

All right, let’s get to the next one.

2. Ura (The Real Meaning is “Hidden”)

The second way of interpreting kata’s practical applications is known as “ura” bunkai.

ura_bunkai
Ura bunkai

In Japanese, ura literally means “behind”.

Hence, as the name implies, the concept of ura is a bit hidden, secret or advanced.

Things are not as they seem.

Like this:

If it looks like a block, it could be a chokehold.

Get it?

Proponents of ura bunkai say that Karate is such a deadly art that many old techniques had to be disguised or kept away from onlookers through changing their appearance.

Therefore, although a kata might look very simplistic in its nature, it could actually have some very advanced application(s) hidden inside it.

This, of course, is the total opposite of omote – which was all about the surface.

Personally, I love using ura bunkai with higher ranked students, since it gives me a good reason to apply exotic pressure points, brutal joint locks, sweet takedowns and nasty tricks that I might not usually teach as grading requirements.

Sounds cool?

Great!

Now let’s proceed to the third, and ultimate, way of looking at bunkai.

3. Honto (Okay, Let’s Cut the Bullsh*t Out)

honto_bunkai
Honto bunkai

Lastly, we have “honto”.

In Japanese, honto literally means “real” or “true”.

And that’s exactly what it is.

The freakin’ truth.

The real deal Holyfield.

You see, when people claim a bunkai is either “omote” or “ura”, they sometimes do it for a pretty bad reason.

They’re lazy.

They’ve fallen into a common trap:

  • Either they come up with bunkai that looks exactly like the kata, but is highly unrealistic (defending against straight Karate moves) and call it “omote”.
  • …or they come up with effective and practical bunkai (that work great against street attacks) – but looks nothing like the actual kata, calling it “ura”.

Get it?

This happens often.

It seems some people can’t conform to the basic shape of a kata without dumbing it down (and calling it “omote”) or distorting the moves totally (calling it “ura”).

Me?

I call it “cheating”.

Your justifications don’t work around here, bro.

You gotta work for it!

That’s what being a Karate Nerd is all about.

I mean, sure – the original bunkai of kata have indeed been lost in the sands of time.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Search!

Get books. Watch YouTube. Cross train. Read awesome blogs. Find seminars. Travel more. Compare notes. Meditate. Ask around. Get my videos from in KNX15. Sign up for Karate Nerd Insider™.

Walk the extra mile.

Omote and ura bunkai are great when used correctly as training tools.

But in 9 times out of 10, they’re not the Truth.

Don’t lull yourself into believing the conspiracy theory that all masters throughout Karate’s history magically and unequivocally agreed to compromise the functionality of their precious art through transmitting it in the form of the deceptive omote/ura bunkai vehicle, when the honto bunkai is right there for grabs – if you just look for it.

Sounds hard?

It is.

That’s the point.

If it was easy, you’d be in a McDojo.

And we have enough of those already.

“Kata, as demonstration, is a shallow and limited usage of kata.”

– Donn F. Draeger, martial arts legend

31 Comments

  • aren't there infinite possible bunkai in which only a handful only work?
  • Andreas
    Man, one day you need to shut down your website, erase all copies on the internet, put it all in one file, print three copies of it, erase the files, burn your computer, and sell the copies to the highest bidder... which will probably be the Smithsonian Institution, the British Royal Armory, and the Tactical Command HQ of the Japanese Defense Forces :P
  • Dwight Schrute
    Excellent article. I consider the hidden movements the "Easter Eggs" in the kata (or pomse or whatever style you practice). My personal opinion (and that's all it is) is that the basic techniques have many uses besides the obvious which is why they are taught early and repeated thruout your training. The Omote approach is limited but is appropriate for children and people learning. Once they understand the technique or form, alternate uses become more interesting. Turns in kata can become throws or sweeps, for example. Many of the alternate uses of a technique will have much more dangerous applications which you don't want to teach a 6 year old. Just my opinion.
  • Good article :-) I should point out that the technique me and Jean are demonstrating in the photo is just a strangle and I made no direct connection to any kata (just in case anyone was trying to work out what "bunkai" I was showing :-)
    • chris
      Ha ha, Ive been wracking my brain over that one Ian! -Chris w
  • We can never say we teach "Honto" as the originators have taken those to their grave. However we can gain insights as to more real-istic meanings if we look at their writings and maybe even drawings in comparison with their main Kata.We can compare these targets, there descriptions and then use the Kata as a means to interpret "Bunkai".And it sure beats crossword or sudoku to keep the brains sharp.
    • css1971
      Even in physics nothing is 100%. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle means we can't even be 100% certain where one object begins and another ends. Only 99.99.....% certain. At what point do you say you have the truth?Sometimes you see an application that matches the kata perfectly. The likelyhood of it not being the original meant application is low. The more "coincidences" there are with body and limb positions and with body movements the higher the probability it's the "truth".The most recent "Ah, so *that's* what that is" for me was the Kusanku/Kanku-Dai spin and drop. Yes probably a throw, but it doesn't really resemble anything I'm familiar with. How does it work with arm positioning, balance etc?Noah Legel's Kusanku spin analysis: http://www.karateobsession.com/2015/02/revisiting-the-one-legged-spin-in-kusanku.htmlThe "truth", the spin & drop is a shima throw.Actually, come to think about it, it might even be measurable how "true" an application is. There is a piece of software called "Rosetta@home" which tests how proteins fold and how well hey "fit together", it's searching for drugs to combat various diseases and it does it by throwing out millions of potential fits across thousands of "volunteer" computers like my PC and then calculates which is the "best fit". Like a 3D jigsaw. It's a far harder problem than working out how well an application fits to kata.
  • Josep
    You are right Jesse-san. People are lazy!I need to work harder. Just started to guess Honto, and if you put some time inside and think "correctly", it just comes out to you!
  • Gregory A. Montoya
    Thanks Jesse-San. Your info is not mystery-opening, but right down factual. Awesome.
  • I love training Bunkai. Thanks Jesse!
  • Hi Jesse Thank you for you article and while I don't always reply, I do always read. I am curious to how important you think clinical anatomy is for understanding Honto and if you feel that one move can, with either minor changes or none at all could have different applications with correspond to Ikken Hissatsu?
  • Jesse, the terms Omote and Ura are used frequently in an attempt to label applications of the kata. Your translation of Omote and Ura from Japanese to English is on target and your inclusion of Honto is clever.During your time on Okinawa did you experience an Okinawan teacher using these tersm or concepts? If so, can you share who those teachers were?
  • vic
    Two views of KATA "there are no blocks as commonly taught in kata"HIGAKI KATA sucks at it's own range (as perceived by the onlooker)but rules in a infighting shit hits the fan fight. MILLER
  • Great article, sir! I've definitely learned more bunkai from watching other arts than I ever learned in a karate class!
  • Ian
    One of the best comments I have come across regarding bunkai ... and I'm pretty sure it was somewhere here in a previous article ... was to think of kata not as a series of techniques but as a series of movements.If you think "techniques" you tend to fall back to the basic explanation all the senseis give all the rookies where everything is a punch, kick or block. Or you have a specific technique in mind, and you focus on that as the only possible bunkai.But thinking "movement patterns" has really helped me find new and better bunkai in my kata.
  • Peter G.N. GRIFFIN
    Dear Jesse Sempai,nice to see someone is AWAKE ! Let me just say that the Martial Arts translates as Military Science. The only way to truly KNOW and TEST 'Honto Bunkai' is ON THE BATTLEFIELD. I won't say anymore than that - I know my Warrior Brothers back home will agree - Afghanistan is nasty but very real playing field. God Bless those who study the ARTS and have survived - real hand to hand CQB is the ONLY WAY to truly find out whether or not WHAT one's learned and trained works. Roy Elghanayan and Itay Gil exemplify such realism as they have both served very high up in exclusive units within the Israeli Defence Forces. The best way to find THE TRUTH regarding Honto Bunkai is learn from credible Instructors who have served preferably in Elite Military Units - this way one avoids the Fast Food Dojo rubbish that has become a global virus. Well done Jesse Sempai on your journeys - glad to see someone is wiling to put their neck out and tell say THE TRUTH !
  • Danni
    I didn't know about these kinds of Bunkai, I used to think that Bunkai = Bunkai here and in the surface of Mars. In fact, we have to investigate, experience, see, investigate again, experience again, and see again. Not all the people is able to make some Karate Techniques, so, I like to apply the thought of Sensei Gichin Funakoshi that prays: "Basic stance is for begginers, later, natural stances". I think it applies for techniques too.
  • Peter G.N. GRIFFIN
    To Whom It May Concern, and to any Federal Intelligence Agencies reading these comments ,my comments on "Warrior Brothers" pertains specifically to those I served with on side of the Allied Forces (i.e. Yanks, Canucks, Poms, Aussies, Kiwi's etc.).An old colleague published a fantastic book titled , "Warrior Brothers". Furthermore, forget about the Bunkai and just GET IN THE RING & BANG !It "is" the only way to find out WHAT works and WHAT doesn't.That's all there is to say on that !
  • arekireng
    Nice article, I like this.Thank you very much mr Jesse
  • Great article, Jesse. With so many levels of understandings, there is so much to uncover and so little time. It's no wonder that people get so bored easily with karate. They never get beyond the omote.
  • KarateMama
    LOL, I read this article the other day, filed it away in my mind for "later use" and didn't think anything about it until last night when Sensei had us doing bunkai with partners - we did pretty much the same two movements applied in 3-4 different ways. Way cool. My third class in over a quarter century :-)
  • Joe
    Another great post, but I do have one nit pick. That would be with the misuse of the work "bunkai" "Therefore, the Karate world has come up with three common methods for “extracting” the bunkai, or practical applications, from kata’s various movements." Bunkai means "disassembly;? dismantling;? disaggregating;? analysis;? disintegrating;? decomposing;? degrading" http://tangorin.com/general/bunkai There for "bunkai" would be the method we use to "extract" the meaning in the movements of the kata. If you want to a Japanese word you could use "imi" which translates to "meaning;? significance" http://tangorin.com/general/imiAgain this is just a pet peeve of mine along the same line as saying "bo staff" instead of just "bo". Thanks
    • Thanks for chiming in Joe-san! I actually use three terms: bunkai (break down), bunseki (analysis) and oyo (application) for the various stages of what people generally today just call "bunkai". You can read more here: https://www.karatebyjesse.com/bunkai-blueprint-kata-framework/
    • GoldenGryphon
      I'm on your side, Joe. 'Bo Staff' is one of my pet peeves, as well. I have fun teasing all the fellow students at the dojo where I train who are happily learning the "stick stick". As we just started using Korean to try to help some of the students to actually open their minds a bit, some of the parents laughed when they were told it was time to order Bong for weapons class.And translating any language into anther language is fraught with problems. You have to understand another culture and society to even attempt and, that just doesn't happen most times. We work with rough translations that are almost the meaning ... but not quite. And work from there. Good luck!
  • Like the written word we can accept traditional uses to learn a application but to understand is to use what works for us. Kata is the resource for the alphabet Language results from its practice. Kata can be a dance or a mystical paradise...depends upon your belief
  • Andrew
    Hey Jesse, Thanks for the article and the info, but maybe you should use a common karate kata as an example for a longer piece, maybe like Pinan Nidan or one of the Fukyu kata?
  • Gene Williams
    Wait....I thought all those kata were originally done with weapons...you know like a spear thrust is really thrusting a bayonet and then there are the pitchfork moves and yoi dachi is waiting to draw your pistol like at the OK Corral...very okuden stuff.
  • Perry
    Good morning Jesse-sensei.It's always good to come back to some of your older material and pick out a few gems. I like the distinction you draw. I have erred in the past by trying to push less experienced students straight into "ura" applications and I think it's been a mistake not to wait until they have more physical sensitivity. Perry
  • Todd2016
    I've trained in SKA-Shotokan via one of Funakoshi's students, Tsutomu Ohshima. I was fortunate to be taught by a senior black belt that had a background in judo and had to really fight in his youth, so he was concerned about street fighting applications that were realistic. He was familiar with Ian's work and taught a similar way to think about applications. However, he has been the only one I've encountered in 7 years of training. At our special training's or special brown/black belt practices, the other seniors pretty did what Jesse rightfully questions: distance applications obsessed with perfect techniques. The application has to fit your perfect stance and punch or block, with the opponent doing a perfect front punch.A new job I have had in the past few years has let me travel and I've visited other Shotokan clubs and the same distance issue is pervasive. I asked to do some bunkai at one and they surrounded me with 3 opponents (Heian Godan) and you get the idea. Also, when I ask about possible applications, the "assisted punch" just before the jump is always just that. A punch. Or in Bassai, after the double punch at the end, you magically sense a kick from behind you and turn just in time to block it. Stuff like that drives me nuts. But it's where I've trained and made black belt so I'm going to try and stick with it and see if I can't get some to see the more practical and realistic options in the kata. It's almost as if they can't even comprehend thinking about kata in such a way so it won't be easy. Thanks for your posts on bunkai.
  • Todd2016
    Other questions that have been bugging me after doing some research. Reading Patrick McCarthey's Bubishi and more books by Funakoshi. And I should note that Funakoshi frequently says kata is the heart of karate like he wants us to dig deeper and get to these applications. The problem is that in the Master Text by him, he writes in some basic applications like for Heian Godan saying to imagine punching someone just before the jump. 1. Why put the most unrealistic application in writing so people fixate on that as an option? Maybe he wanted those willing to work hard to get beyond that and read the kata at a deeper level, but it's not happening. There's that episode in Andy Griffith where Barney Fife is learning judo from a book and he gets clobbered by Andy. I think many senior black belts are like Barney unfortunately. They haven't gone any deeper than the surface. I wonder how the the realistic, practical street fighting type of applications got lost. 2. Since Funakoshi had to know them why didn't he pass them on to his students that took karate around the world? Because the Shotokan I trained in came from a direct student of Funakoshi who many senior black belts I've come across in California trained with Ohshima , have no clue about applications or they aren't telling anyone. They always use distance applications. Any thoughts on those 2 questions would be helpful from anyone who wants to reply. Thanks.
  • Tony Horn
    I take everything an instructor tells me with grain of salt. Not that it is bad, but it has to fit into my personal fighting style and physical capabilities. Personally I find little value in an application that relies on one specific attack - karate style. I see it a lot where a punch comes out and "lingers" out there. I much prefer an application that can be adapted fluidly to a variety of situations. I do enjoy kata and very much enjoy exploring them for application. I also enjoy exchanging ideas with others for new insights.

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