Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Saturday, December 24, 2011

How real is this?

I was looking around the Internet the other day and stumbled upon a number of people recommending books by Kenwa Mabuni (at least one or two translated by Mario Mckenna and generally available). Now I'm familiar with the stories of the close friendship Miyagi Chojun sensei supposedly had with Mabuni sensei. Someone even referred to them as "best friends." I've heard how they were both part of a study group that had as one of its members Go Ken Ki. It says in Patrick McCarthy's book, Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts: Koryu Uchinadi, that Mabuni "trained directly under Higashionna Kanryo," though only for a year (McCarthy, p. 4)--and yet McCarthy says the following: "In an advertisement that he ran in his book on seipai, Mabuni describes himself as a shihan of Goju-ryu kempo...." (p. 30)

I find that surprising, though I'm not sure what to make of it. Further on in his book, McCarthy quotes Mabuni as saying, "There are no styles of karate-do, just varying interpretations of its principles." (p. 33)

I don't really understand this either, though perhaps there is something lost in translation. It seems to me that different schools or martial arts may emphasize different things, but that principles are principles. How can an interpretation of a principle vary?

In fact, I never really understood why you would collect both Shorin and Goju into one system. Isn't there redundancy of some kind at the very least? From the list in McCarthy's book there are 52 kata in Mabuni's Shitoryu system. How can one practice, let alone fully understand, so many kata? I've had occasion to talk to Shitoryu black belt instructors, and they have confessed that their knowledge of many of these kata is at best "rusty."

When I look at the cover of Mabuni's book on Seipai (illustration above), I immediately wonder how realistic this application from the last technique in the kata is. It seems to me that if the attacker is throwing a double punch, your chances of grabbing the attacker's arms in this fashion and executing a throw are rather poor, and not much better if the attacker is grabbing the defender...unless, of course, you have a very willing and compliant partner--that is, a dream technique that may work only in the dojo. Masaji Taira sensei of Jundokan shows this application, I believe, as well as a number of other prominent teachers.

The other thing that bothers me when I see this kind of discussion or illustration of application is that the right hand is "out of position" or not really following kata movement. You can't grab an incoming attack quickly and securely this way unless the "attacker" is not resisting. (It has always seemed to me--and something I was always taught--that the kata is there to teach correct movement and bunkai means the analysis of kata. If your application doesn't follow kata movement then the kata is not teaching you how to move nor are you really analyzing kata.) And further, the stance does not show how the lower half of the body is moving in kata; Mabuni seems to be in shiko dachi.

The kata, it seems to me, actually shows that one is side-stepping a right punch/attack from an attacker stepping in from the west (supposing that the kata begins facing north). The left hand or forearm "receives" (uke) the attack while the right arm comes across to the right side of the attacker's neck. This places the defender in a 90 degree relationship to the incoming attack--that is, getting out of the way. In this position, with the defender's arms describing a small circle, the attacker's right arm is brought up and the attacker's head is brought down, while the defender steps back into a left foot forward neko-ashi-dachi (cat stance). This is followed by a hammer fist to the attacker's temple.

In another text translated and published by McKenna, Kobou Jizai Goshin-jutsu Karate Kenpo, Mabuni shows applications of a number of techniques from Seiunchin, but here again the interpretations only partially seem to follow the actual movements of the kata. I wonder whether that's what Mabuni meant by "varying interpretations of principles"--randomly ignoring logical movement. In this illustration depicting the opening of Seiunchin, Mabuni's defender is not stepping out along the 45 degree line or outside the attack. Neither is there an explanation of why both of the defender's arms are brought down over the thighs. Because of the stepping shown in figure 1 (or lack of stepping to the outside of the opponent's attack), the defender has left himself open to a second attack. Furthermore, the counter-attack shown in figure 3 is certainly less than lethal. And it also raises the question of why one would drop into shiko dachi to block an opponent's punch in the first place.

Again, it has always seemed to me that one should follow kata technique when doing bunkai since the kata--if kata is worth anything--is teaching one how to move. In this application, illustrated above, the stepping is important and both hands are used. In addition, the defender's counter-attack is to a more vulnerable target, the opponent's throat.

Mabuni's second sequence is equally questionable it seems to me. He doesn't show the cat-stance fist-in-palm technique that immediately follows the last technique in the first sequence and precedes the first technique in this second sequence. Then he seems to show the two-handed technique as a push against the opponent, who then seems to advance once more and is attacked with an elbow to the mid-section. Not to say that these technique would be completely ineffective but there are a number things that seem unrealistic about them. Why would one push the opponent away just to allow him to attack again? Again, in the kata, the left open palm is cupped over the right elbow. Is this one of Mabuni's "varied interpretations"? I much prefer to see this sequence as a continuation of the previous sequence of moves.

So how does one explain the differences? Are these just variations in interpretation or are they more significant than that? Was Mabuni hiding techniques by showing only fairly simplistic bunkai? Could he have thought that to show more lethal bunkai was at odds with one of his apparent themes in this publication, to stress the health and fitness benefits of practicing karate? Or did Mabuni, "the shihan of Goju-ryu kempo," not study long enough to really learn much about Goju-ryu? That sounds so blasphemous though.


  1. Are you aware that the formatting for your posts places a good deal of "space" between paragraphs and at the end like you last one?

  2. Yeah, I noticed, but I haven't figured out how to get around those glitches. Happens to me every time I write something. I don't think Blogger.com's word processor is all that good. Particularly screws up when I try to add pictures.

  3. Hmmm, I use the blogger editor too. I do one thing tho, if I write a post outside and copy/paste it into the blogger editor I always convert to pure "text" only.

    I found that if I import from say Word it does funny stuff due to Word's hidden formatting stuff.

  4. Thanks, but I'm writing directly on blogger, only pasting in photos. Maybe that's the problem. Every time I insert a photo, the formatting goes haywire. Whatever.

  5. I read today a person asking comments from a shito ryu book that he wanted to buy and asked if the book showed the "internal bunkai" because it seems that mabuni hide the bunkai on purpose, seems posible to me.

  6. I don't buy it. To think that it's been hidden all these years sounds sort of wacky, like a conspiracy theory. And what's "internal bunkai" anyway? It would have been taught to somebody.