The Bunkai Trap.

Before we start I will briefly touch on the subject of “bunkai” and “oyo” as there is a certain amount of pedantry surrounding the subject (and karate people do love a good bit of pedantry).

Actually the word “bunkai” should refer to analysis, in our case to analyse or break apart a kata in order to understand the meaning, this should lead us to the “oyo” or application of the techniques revealed to us by this analysis. However, within karate circles the term “bunkai” (rightly or wrongly) has come to be accepted as being the application of kata and given that language works by words meaning what the majority agree that they mean, for the sake of an English speaking audience I will use the terms “bunkai” and “application” as meaning the same thing.

All the way though my karate career (such as it is) I have been assured that Kata is the true heart of karate and it is at the very core of everything we do, it is fundamental to karate training and that understanding of kata is the true understanding of karate itself, and to a large extent I believe this to be true (but not exclusively so).

Now, my experiences of “traditional” karate have been almost entirely Shotokan based so there may well be something I am missing but my understanding is that other mainstream styles follow the same tenet.

The big irony in all of this is that it would seem that, despite everybody holding to this truth, very few in mainstream traditional (Japanese) karate seem to actually have any real understanding of kata as it was originally intended.

It is looked upon as the ultimate perfection of solo form, technique and practice and has become an end in itself. Whilst this can lead to something of real beauty and aesthetic appeal it was not the original core of karate training, however it has become the goal of the modern tradition (if you ignore the current drive towards sporting prowess). There is nothing wrong with that if you are studying art for art’s sake and using it for that purpose, it can be an interesting and challenging thing.

You may well be told that if you just train long and diligently enough, true understanding will come (yes, I have heard it said). If it does then please tell the rest of us so we can save everybody 20 years of practice by just teaching them this in the first place.

In recent years, there has been a rise in the number of karate-ka looking to move back to a function over form style of karate which more closely matches the original model and purpose of the training. This, ironically (given that it is the older model), is looked upon as “non-traditional” and a modern fad by the mainstream.

You will see terms like “Pragmatic” “Practical” or “Applied” added to the karate-ka’s styles in order to differentiate it from the traditional training of many of the large organisations (and many small independents), although you do need to be a little cautious of this as it has started to become fashionable now as people are starting to look for genuine practical skills from their martial arts. Because of that there has been a big rise in people teaching what I refer to as “comedy bunkai” and just attaching the applied label to it. Traditional practice with (sometimes) good looking karate style applications thrown in, good exercise, good fun and cool to do but in no way applicable to real life scenarios.

As with traditional martial arts the watchwords for those looking for pragmatic karate is still “buyer beware”, take the time to do your research if that is genuinely what you are looking for.

That is not to say that those jumping on the band wagon are all flim flam artists (although some genuinely are) but the sad fact is that, for many, their entire understanding of practical skills comes from one on one karate to karate confrontations and they make the assumption that these skills therefore will translate directly to the street.

This is not exclusively a karate problem however as the rise of MMA and BJJ as the ultimate “fighting” arts means that many there are now learning rules based, one on one sporting skills as “street defence” with all the same issues.

Anyhow, that is beyond the remit of what I set out to write in this particular article and is a topic for another day.

Historically the way of traditional karate has been to turn up, train hard, listen to the instructor and ask no questions. Free thinking has never really been encouraged and in some cases been quite actively discouraged. “Just shut up and train” was the mantra in many organisations for many decades and has, to a large extent, lead traditional martial arts to where they are today.

The problem with that philosophy is that, even if the original instructor did know and understand his art in depth (not always the case when karate was being introduced to the West), the generations of students who then became instructors after them have moved on to teach without that understanding ever being imparted to them.

Because they were never encouraged to be free thinkers or to question it never occurs to them that there is anything more to the art than what they know. That is of course a sweeping generalisation, I know traditional instructors who know and understand a great deal more than they teach but they do not generally share it with their students because they are “passing on a tradition” or “the way” of karate.

Over those decades there have obviously been those who did question and, in a number of cases, found good answers but they were typically shunned by the mainstream and were left to practice in quiet corners. However, with the rise of the information technology age, it is no longer really possible to hide these black sheep away and the information is out there for anybody who has the desire to look.

That is not to say that this will (or should) impact that heavily on the traditional arts as there are many out there for whom learning “the way” of karate, studying form over function and carrying on the tradition  are all the goals they aspire to, and if they are doing this knowingly then I personally see nothing wrong with that.

For the rest of us we are in the position of now being able to explore the possibilities that the art truly has to offer as a practical skill set and share and learn from a growing number of knowledgeable and well informed instructors who have developed their own individual takes on what the skill set is (this is not the same as “having discovered the secrets of the old masters” btw) and can offer demonstrably practical skills using the art of karate as a base.

So this should be a potential golden age for the practically minded karate-ka, we are going back to the original point of training but with the benefit of access to fully recorded first-hand information from the instructors, books, DVD’s, on-line video and (with relatively little effort) direct training with the instructors themselves . Almost every weekend it is possible to attend a seminar with one or other of the top instructors and get some first class tuition along with a room full of like mined people to train with. I attend enough of these (and even run some) to know the excellent level of instruction that is on offer. What could possibly go wrong?

There we hit the crux of what I see as a developing problem. It may not be prevalent as yet but from my experiences and conversations I’ve had I can certainly see a section starting to head down a particular path which leads us to the same dead ends of the past (which I suppose is at least traditional 🙂 ).

We have come to the point that there are now a growing number of karate-ka who understand (or at least are prepared to believe) that kata is the core of karate and that bunkai is the core of kata. However, what they seem to be missing in the wonder of these new revelations is the very point that the instructors are making.

I don’t know if it is the karate mind set especially or just human nature in general (a bit of both I suspect) but there are a significant number of students who are not only happy to be but actively seek to be “followers”. They pick the path of (insert name of a famous instructor here)’s way and he can do no wrong.

I had a recent conversation with an instructor who I respect very much who told me that he really likes the work of “Instructor A” and “Instructor B” (and others) but he’s never really happy until he finds something about their teaching that he doesn’t like, it means he’s still thinking critically.

I have had conversations with people both directly and on-line who have told me “I have bought (insert name here)’s book or DVD and I’m learning the bunkai to (whatever) kata at the moment”, what they are actually telling me though is that they are learning THE bunkai to a particular kata, not that they’ve understood what the instructor is telling them about learning good combative principles that can be applied to any kata to devise and aid their own practice and understanding, but that they are learning THE bunkai.

They are happy that they have made the move to the practical karate side because they are now training kata with a partner at realistic ranges against what they are told are common attacks (which is very much a worthwhile activity) but the reality is that they have gone back down the path of technique collecting.

This is pretty much the traditional path as was, the techniques may be different and the drills trained with a partner (rather than against fresh air) but they are still trying to remember and catalogue a 1000 combinations, if fact I have heard the criticism levelled at “the bunkai brigade” from the traditionalists that “you will never remember all those combinations if it does ever kick off so that sort of training is useless” and I have to say, if you are training bunkai with that mind set then they probably have a very valid point.

Now, it could be argued, much like it is with traditional karate, that the constant drilling will instil a body memory that will be triggered should it be required so understanding isn’t really required. This works fine if you are attacked in exactly to right way in the right circumstances to activate your trigger but the number of variables probably mean this won’t happen and you are left trying to think which bunkai is applicable (or would be if you hadn’t already lost the fight and are on your way to hospital).

This is a risk we are now taking with a set of 2nd generation and beyond instructors who learned all the moves at a superficial level but not the why behind them, how do they pass the understanding on to those who follow?

This is the trap of “bunkai”, if you treat it as application then you will only ever be a collector of technique, you may well be a very good collector but that’s the limit.

If you treat bunkai as what it was originally intended to be, a critical way of thinking to enable to bring your experience and training to bear in analysing the lessons of a particular kata then you applications will merely be a demonstration of a principle from that kata rather than a rigid fence to hold you to a set path.

This is why if you truley understand one kata you should pretty well understand them all, and if all you have are the applications to a 100 kata then you probably understand none of them.


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