Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What's wrong with this bunkai?

I've been watching a lot of bunkai recently. It seems everybody and his brother is putting out videos of bunkai. One guy out there seems to put out half a dozen short bunkai clips a week, and none of them seem very effective. Another guy has these "martial minutes" where he gives these techniques cute names, though the techniques only seem to have a remote resemblance to the katas. I've started to get discouraged.

Here's a video of Seiunchin bunkai by Morio Higaonna:


What's wrong with this bunkai? In the first sequence, since Higaonna sensei takes the kata apart move by move, there's nothing lethal about the first move--the hands coming up and then down again to deal with a double wrist grab--so he puts in a front kick to the opponent's groin. He doesn't even get the opponent to release his grab until he kicks him! And the front kick he employs is not in the kata! Bunkai is supposed to be an analysis of kata. Horse stance is not a good kicking stance either. He also doesn't move off line. The kata shows one stepping in at an angle.

Where Seiunchin bunkai begins.
In the next move, Higaonna sensei steps to the outside of the opponent's right punch. Again, the kata does not step this way when it shows off-line movement. Then he blocks the punch with the palm-up movement, followed by a grab of the arm. Then he attacks the opponent's ribs with a "nukite" finger strike. One problem here is that the finger strike is not very lethal when aimed at the ribs. The other problem is that it's easily thwarted in this position--the attacker need only bend his elbow down to cover the ribs.

First step forward in Seiunchin.
The problem with the third sequence is that it doesn't look anything like kata. He does not shift back into cat stance against the opponent. Why the hands are shown together in kata is not at all clear, because they aren't in his bunkai! And then he pushes and punches to the attacker's chest--again, not very lethal.

Bringing the head down.
In the fourth sequence Higaonna sensei shows, he blocks the attacker's right punch with his left open hand and then attacks with his right rising elbow. This is also confusing, because Higaonna sensei doesn't step back as in the kata movement--in fact, when he finishes the technique the wrong foot is forward. And it's questionable whether the elbow attack would even reach the opponent in this case. Perhaps that's why he pushes the attacker away at the end--out of frustration.

Grabbing the head.
So how do so many people get it wrong--because Higaonna sensei has a lot of followers!? I think there are a number of reasons. One: They look at kata as individual and isolated techniques, instead of combinations or sequences of moves that go together. Two: When they practice bunkai against a partner in the dojo, they don't try to see how the opponent would react to any of the techniques. Since they don't actually connect with the opponent, the opponent ends up standing there as stiff as a makiwara. Three: They don't look for the techniques to be lethal. When the technique is lethal, it usually involves an attack to the head or neck.

Turning the body--hair and chin.

Take the second point first. If you pull the arms of a double wrist grab apart and down to the sides or if you see it as a double lapel grab, it brings the opponent's head down also. Then apply the first point: techniques in kata are not isolated and independent. Once the head is brought down, bring the hand up and grab it--the hair or topknot--with the right hand. The palm is brought up to remind you to keep your elbow down. Then apply the third point: techniques are lethal. The target of the nukite finger strike is the opponent's throat, not the ribs. Then, continuing to apply the principle that techniques are connected in sequences or combinations, the head is twisted, pulled in and then pushed forward. Then, stepping back and pulling the opponent back--who has been turned at this point--the back of the opponent's neck and head is attacked with a right rising elbow/forearm as the left hand holds onto the opponent's chin/neck. This ends the first sequence in Seiunchin kata. And every technique of the bunkai should look exactly as it does in kata--only where the hands touch in the last technique there's actually the opponent's head between them. The sequence may seem a lot longer than Higaonna sensei's rather simple block-punch/kick, but the other principle always present in Okinawan karate is that the defender should move in such a way as not to allow the attacker a second attack. One should receive the attack (uke) and control the opponent from there on.

This last point--get out of the way or move off-line--is actually one of the problems with Hiagonna sensei's interpretation of the opening move of Seiunchin. By seeing this as a release from an opponent's double-handed wrist grab--as if anyone would get themselves into this in the first place!?!--Higaonna sensei doesn't take into account the stepping movement shown in the kata. If the attacker is coming from the front, the kata shows the defender stepping forward (and off-line) along the northeast angle to deal with the attack. Putting oneself into a relatively safe position against the opponent means moving to his outside. So if we look at his attack as a cross-grab or his left hand grabbing my left wrist, I can explain not only how the hands move but also how the feet and stance of kata are utilized in the bunkai.

Here's a video of Shisochin bunkai by Higaonna sensei that shows many of the same interpretive problems:

Attack to the back of the head
or neck to end the sequence.

So what's the lesson here? Well, in the first place, there's probably a good argument not to put any videos of yourself on the Internet. There's probably good reason not to put anything into words, too, or to state an opinion contrary to generally held beliefs, but I've been out on that limb before. So the real lesson, it seems to me, is that when bunkai doesn't look like kata, it's not the right bunkai. Oh, and it should make sense too. And be real.


  1. Sensei,

    Not to play Devil's Advocate...but your question does bring up some of my own. I have trained once, only once, with an IOGKF group, and their beginner bunkai for Saifa was matched to kata; different from the first referenced video by the school's head.

    1. How does one know that what is presented (the public videos) are a truthful representation of that school's bunkai?

    2. They are dated videos, and studies evolve.

    3. The one occasion that I trained with these folks, I asked about kata bunkai (for Suparimpe) and was told that there are 'four levels' of interpretation.

    Hoever, school-specific critique aside, the points you make regarding the methodology to kata analysis seem so obvious, that it is apparent there must have been a breakdown in the transmission process.

  2. Hi Narda, Where have you been? Training, I hope. As to your first question: Do you really suppose anyone puts anything on YouTube just to throw you off the track, to confuse you and hide the real stuff? If you want to hide stuff, just don't put anything out there. You're right about the videos being dated. Hence my comment about being careful what you put on YouTube. I'm even a little wary of putting things in print sometimes. But I have looked at videos of bunkai (IOGKF among them) that are more recent and the same problems persist. In truth, the same problems persist regardless of what school you're looking at. As to "levels," I guess I'm a bit of a strict constructionist. The way I understand "bunkai" is that it's the analysis of kata. The kata is trying to preserve and teach you technique as well as principles of movement. Wouldn't it raise red flags for you if they told you that level two, three, or four of a kata's bunkai doesn't follow the kata or it conformed to different principles??? You don't do different levels of kata, so why would you do different levels of bunkai? The kata is trying to teach you how to move. Why would you then not follow the kata? It all sounds suspiciously like a modern money-making ploy...or the emperor's new clothes. Rather than concoct all of these fancy explanations, however, ever hear of Occam's Razor?
    All the best,

  3. Where have I been? Down the Rabbit Hole for sure. Training...but never enough. :(

    I've heard of Ockam's Razor...but am aware the the principle of simplest is best, while alluring, is not always correct. Similarly, being pragmatic, my own feeble attempts at analysis would be heuristically driven...but am aware that what may work...may also not be right/best.

    As for 'truth'...I'm not looking for it on the internet; there is 'old school' karate training (that I have heard of), and then 'outdated karate' that grew out of the defunct teaching model of the last two centuries. 'Layers', along with belts, are signifiers of attempts at mass education. Not quality education.

  4. Narda, Certainly the simplest is not necessarily true JUST because it's the simplest, but are the competing theories any more convincing? How about, "because my teacher said so." Or how about "lineage"--but then every one has a different lineage and who's right? What about logic? What's wrong with a heuristic analysis where the techniques--that is in each kata--all actually reinforce the same principles? And I'm not just talking about "what works." What works is fine as far as it goes. But if what works does not conform to the principles we see throughout the system, then it's not Goju. If the techniques of the bunkai do not look like the techniques of the kata, then you are doing something else, not Goju. As to truth...some people just have faith, some experience it, and then some trip over it at some point in their lives and just keep on going.

  5. But...where then does 'kihon bunkai' kata fit into the picture?

  6. Narda,I don't think I even know what "kihon bunkai kata" is"!?! Just because someone has given a Japanese name to something, does that mean it exists? Suppose the technique--that is how you apply a given self-defense move against an opponent (read bunkai if you will)--came first. Then, in order to remember these moves and be able to practice them by yourself, teachers created kata. There isn't a basic bunkai, an intermediate bunkai, or advanced bunkai--there's only bunkai, and it's either right or wrong. Let me give you another analogy. When you do a crossword puzzle, how do you know whether you have the right answer for a particular clue? If you are looking for a six-letter word beginning with "b", you might first try "banana." But then you see that the clue for the fourth letter down--a four-letter word--is "solo karate performance." Then you realize that the six-letter word must be "bunkai." You must first understand the principles--rules, you might say--and then you start to see certain themes within katas, and then you start to see that techniques seem to show variations. And before you know it, it all fits together.

  7. What I'm taking from this is that the teacher is really important. Take the case of Sensei Higaona for example. If during his formative years in Goju there was a form of popular competition that drew focus away from the study of bunkai then he could not help but let the competition influence what he believes to be bunkai. Instiling good ideas is the responsibility of the teacher. This is also seen in Sensei Patrick Mcarthys style. MMA and BJJ are popular now and so Sensei Mcarthy is teaching these under the flag of "Koryu Uchinadi". If people want to do MMA they should do that but calling it a "Old Style" is just poor leadership. Needless to say, the Bunkai is probably wrong...

  8. Hi Cris, How are your bunkai studies going? You may be right. I think "the times one lives in" may potentially have a tremendous influence on how one practices and looks at kata and bunkai. I tried to address this a little in an article in the now defunct Journal of Asian Martial Arts--"Politics and Karate: Historical Influences on the Practice of Goju-ryu."

  9. We seem to have a good pace down the rabbit hole Sensei, though I say this tentatively since it seems every time I open my mouth it spawns a change :)
    Kimo Sensei was here a week or so ago and we had a good time training as we always do.
    I've talked to the guys down here and turned them on to your blog. it's the best one I've ever read! I know it sounds cheesy but it's true...
    Now everyone wants to meet you, just say the word and we will get you a ticket to Miami.
    All the best,

  10. Thanks, Cris, for the support and encouragement. I've gotten a bit of flak for some of these posts--at least ones like this one that are at all critical. I'd love to come down and work with you guys. I'll let you know my schedule. All the best, Giles

  11. The M. Higaonna video was taken in 1980. I have the 30 vhs tape set and transferred to dvd. let me know if you want a copy, I'll give them to you.
    In any given style, over a given time, we always see an evolution of kata interpretation. Logic should tell us that either there was never an original interpretation, or it was lost.
    I haven't met anyone that studies kata who believes there was never an original intent. In fact, that's what the pursuit usually is...to discover (rediscover?) it's original intent. That's great and a worthwhile pursuit.
    The problematic/controversial issue is when people take the position that the pursuit of kata study will lead to some kind of holy grail of fighting/SD technique.
    Higaonna was definitely a good fighter, I've seen him in the 70's and 80's. I don't think he got that way via the kata study / bunkai he shows in the video.

  12. Hi Ed,
    As far as I've been told and what I've seen relatively recently on the Internet, the IOGKF folks are still not doing what I would consider good bunkai (kata interpretation). And I haven't seen any "evolution" that amounts to following the kata, being lethal, and incorporating martial principles. I have no dispute with how formidable a fighter Higaonna sensei is. My dispute is with their bunkai...and, well, I've already explained that. Thanks for the videos offer, but I've seen more than enough and don't find it at all enlightening. I'm sure there are plenty of people out there that could use it and would value much more than me.

    1. fair enough - I haven't followed what IOGKF is doing currently for bunkai. The organization seems to have more of a franchise-centric focus so I imagine the material is geared for mass consumption which would tend for it not to be changed often. but I'm just guessing.
      kata is interpreted in different ways depending on the person(s), time period and intent. Just like any other art, an interpretation can only be 'wrong' if it's compared with both having the same intent (goal of the interpretation).

      Some may see kata (and karate for that matter) as a self-defense system only...not a lethal self-defense via murder system. one person may see a kata technique as a way to break out of a hold, another sees the same technique as a way to break a neck. The intents of the two interpretations differ, so they cannot be compared as right or wrong, in my opinion.

      take care,

  13. ED,
    I guess that's where we have a fundamental disagreement. Yes, techniques or interpretation may differ...but some, though useful, are wrong (pulling no punches, so to speak) as bunkai--as correct interpretations of kata technique, because they either do not follow kata or are not realistic, or they do not conform to martial principles. Didn't you train long enough with us (insert smiley face emoticon)? All the best, Giles

  14. Well, I guess I'm becoming more accepting of interpretations when it comes to things like art and wine tasting. but in the extreme, you are right - if someone interprets a box wine from Rhode Island to be as good as a Burgundy from Cote de Nuits, then yeah, we can agree their taste is probably from their a**. and, unfortunately no, I didn't train long enough with you and your group. :)