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The Great Bunkai Paradox

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

The Golden Pagoda - Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto. The reflection case across the water.

Bunkai is potentially one of the most divisive topics in Karate. The applications put forward as the accurate interpretations of kata movement vary from the wonderful to the ridiculous. There is in my opinion an unnecessary argument between what some perceive as traditional bunkai and others who claim practical bunkai. This argument is predicated upon the false notion that the two are mutually exclusive. Furthermore the notion of practical bunkai should surely be an unnecessary statement because from my perspective I’d question why anyone would consider impractical bunkai, surely there is only one type.

Of course this is the real world and unfortunately there are people who practice bunkai which is unfortunately hopelessly inadequate. This often stems from an assumption that the previous generations who taught us always got it right, and whilst there were many who did, for every success there is failure. Insecurity must also be a factor that so many are afraid to admit that perhaps they don’t know. So why did we end up in this situation?

The complexity of this question cannot be overstated. There will be a myriad of individual factors affecting each group so I will only attempt her to consider some broad points.

Firstly time stands still for no man. The social and cultural nature in which most kata were developed bears little resemblance to the modern 21st century. By the very fact kata survived the 20th century at all, as a century which saw more global change than at any other time in human history is testament to their value and genius. Firstly the nature of training has changed. If we rewind 120-140 years or so we would see dojo with only a few select dedicated students who would have direct and personal tuition from their teacher. Training was not geared towards a belt or specific target but understanding and development. Hence you might spend a year or so just exploring one section of kata or one technique and look at its variations, its counters, its follow ups, all leading to an in depth understanding of that one technique.

Usually a teacher would only teach a few specific kata and that there would not be collection of kata we see more in modern training. Depth rather than breadth was the order of the day. Kata therefore served as the foundation of training, it developed the fundamental techniques and concepts and acted as a stimulus for your training. If you consider systems which do not have kata you can still learn and develop an extensive range of combat skills without it however often you will find specific drills serve as a replacement. Of course kata is more than just a drill, it encourages you to reflect and analyse the movement you practice and to fit them into a much broader concept. In essence kata promotes thinking and analysis and in doing so develops understanding. This is what makes it more than just drill which is primarily focused on developing a specific skill or skill set.

As to be clear, I am not dismissing the value of drills, on the contrary kata practice can lead you to work on effective drills which, again, see it act as a stimulus.

So if we run with the proposition that kata is a fundamental stimulus to training it is no wonder therefore that you get stark contrast in the variety of bunkai which is produced. This is where purpose and perspective become significant.

If your goals in training are to be able to effectively defend yourself against an adversary then this defines the purpose of your training. This in turn alters your perspective; you will draw conclusions from kata based upon your desire to work effective applications. In contrast if you’re a high performance athlete and your goal is to be effective in competition the meaning you synthesise from bunkai is most likely to adhere to the principles of sporting kumite.