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|
|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?