Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The First Principle...in no particular order: or, a basic primer on kata analysis

"If there is no first attack in karate, look for the block or uke at the beginning of each combination or sequence of moves."

Seisan block and attack
that begins all three bunkai
sequences only this is on
the opposite side.
I read someone once--a very senior karate practitioner--who said that Seisan kata showed 13 kamae postures. What does that even mean? I assume by kamae postures he meant "ready positions," which implies to me that these techniques were viewed not as uke or receiving techniques or for that matter application techniques at all!!! Well, what the heck?! But perhaps that's a rant for another day.

For me, each kata (of the classical subjects in Goju-ryu) is composed of combinations or sequences of moves. Not counting repetitions, therefore, Saifa has five combinations. Seiunchin also has five combinations. But Sanseiru only has three combinations, though it does show some variation within them. Seipai, on the other hand has seven. Most of these combinations begin with a block or uke and simultaneous attack, followed by a bridging or controlling technique, and ending with a finishing technique or techniques. In Seisan, each of the combinations begins with a sweeping semi-circular right-hand block and a left open-hand palm strike. At the beginning of Seipai kata, we see a left open hand block and right open-hand attack with the controlling or bridging technique being the left step forward and the left hand clasping the right hand. The finishing technique comes with the drop into horse stance. It is, of course, obvious that Seipai kata begins with a bunkai combination, whereas Seisan begins with basic punches and other techniques that appear later in the kata as part of actual bunkai sequences, as if the creators of Seisan were suggesting that it was important to practice these individual techniques on their own prior to applying them in bunkai.
Bridge technique in
the first sequence
of Seipai kata.
Since each of these combinations begins with a distinct receiving technique, block, or uke, if you will, there are a fairly limited number of ways Goju uses to "block" an opponent's attack, and that is perhaps as it should be. But because of stepping shown in kata and directional changes, each uke should leave the defender in a relatively safe position, with the attacker unlikely to be able to easily launch a second attack before the defender can move in to control or bridge the distance.

But the first step is to study the receiving techniques--how to move, how to step, how to block. I remember talking to a good friend in Okinawa once. We were looking at a book with a formal portrait of Miyagi Chojun sensei. He pointed to the inscription in kanji underneath the picture and said it was very important since these were the words of Miyagi sensei. When I asked him what it said, he said, "Don't get hit..."



  1. Giles,

    Thats for your excellent blog — I very much enjoy your writing, and its content. As for "Don't get hit" it's a great principle/ideal, but it almost ALWAYS falls by the wayside in a real-life violent self-defense encounter, which, in my experience, are sloppy, messy affairs in which 99% of those attacked do get hit.

    I do understand striving for that ideal, and I understand why you cited the quote, but students of ANY martial art would be well-served in knowing that they very likely WILL get hit, and must be able to cope with the inevitable blow or blows they're going to have to absorb in such a situation. IMO, receiving techniques and taisabaki will only get you so far. I do love your approach to and overview of bunkai —especially your BAD BUNKAI section — I agree that most targets should be the head/neck, as opposed to many other approaches I've seen. So glad I found your blog!


  2. Hi Russ,

    Thanks for the kind words. I realize the likelihood of getting hit, of course. And certainly what I was referencing, as you note, is more of a philosophical approach. What really provoked my thoughts, though, was just the irony, as it appeared to me, that most karate training is not very lethal and not very good preparation for real encounters--I'm thinking of the kind of stuff we generally see in the training subjects, and sadly the way that most people interpret the classical subjects (since they take their cue from the training subjects and the basics they practice in class). Tai sabaki certainly "will only get you so far," but at least it's farther than standing squarely in front of the opponent as you see in so many videos!

    All the best,