Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Forgotten Bunkai or lost bunkai?

Seiunchin kata
"If you look back, the thing that strikes you, if you've got any sensitivity, is that extinction is the most common phenomena. Extinction is always driven by environmental change. Environmental change is always driven by climate change." --Richard Leakey

I was reading the newspaper a couple of days ago and I came across an Associated Press story quoting professor and anthropologist Richard Leakey. It struck me how appropriate this might be when thinking about bunkai and what may have befallen karate in the 20th century. I have often wondered--and been alternately perplexed and exasperated--about the different schools/kans of Goju-ryu and how there are noticeable differences in their kata. Why, if they all studied under Miyagi Chojun sensei or even, in some cases, under Higashionna sensei? Some people have suggested that the katas differ because the teachers are emphasizing different bunkai. But if a kata is meant to aid memory--that is, if the kata itself is a memory aid so that one doesn't forget the bunkai, it doesn't really make sense to change the kata. Rather, I've come to believe, though admittedly on scant evidence, that the different ways of doing some of the katas--there are exceptions--were different ways of doing the same bunkai. But all of that's perhaps neither here nor there.

Seiunchin elbow technique
What Richard Leakey's quote really suggests to me is how quickly things can be lost. I have had four students train with me--out of many, many others--but four who have trained with me long enough to really understand most all of what I was trying to teach them--that is, to intellectually understand not only the katas and the bunkais, but the principles and reasons behind them--that is supposing I know any of this myself, which of course is not the point either. But three of those four people aren't teaching and the fourth one has one student. Now I have taught some of this to others, but they only have a partial understanding of it. My point is--and I don't mean this in any arrogant or egotistical way, as if I had all the answers or as if I was the only one who knew anything--but if this is at all typical of what went on in Okinawa in the turbulent 20th century, how quickly can an understanding of a system like Goju-ryu, for example, be lost?
Seiunchin elbow bunkai

If, as Richard Leakey suggests, extinction is more the norm and preservation the exception, could this be what happened to an understanding of karate in the 20th century? Certainly we have the forms/katas, but the wide disparity in bunkai--in the analysis of kata--suggests to me that perhaps something has been lost. Perhaps true understanding has been lost. Or principles. Or bunkai. The "environmental change" that Leakey refers to in this case would be the atmosphere in pre-WWII Japan. Read the notes of the 1936 gathering of karate masters and how discussion turns to de-emphasizing the martial or lethal nature of karate and turns to stressing physical fitness for the public. The climate and the environment was changing and this may have driven karate to change as well. It may not have died off. It may not be a case of extinction, but it is very likely that something may have been "lost," left to the archaeologists to recover, to piece together from the scant evidence we have, the bones. But it's a guess in any case, isn't it?


  1. Is it heresy to suggest the Miyagi sensei didn't transmit bunkai? Or that he taught different bunkai to different students as they trained over time? That, possibly, what is being synthesized in America in various dojos, is actually a new creation/understanding...and better than the original?

  2. Narda that's something I've wondered too. Who really knows what Miyagi did or any of his top students?

  3. Really good and relevant post today, thanks.

    I have theories on this as well and in the end can only say ... to each his/her own.

    As long as they are practicing and benefiting and not deluding themselves that what they do is something it is not then ... to each his/her own.

    If your desire is to keep things in a traditional form, as best as we can today giving what you post, then so be it, go for it and ... to each his/her own.

    Thanks for the enlightened words.

    Regards, Charles