Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Sunday, October 20, 2013

And so, the method...or how we look at kata

We often bemoan the fact that so many people out there don't seem to see the same things we do. Even when you explain it, people just seem to think that it's just another bunkai. But it's not. There's a method to the madness. But we tend to take that for granted. Or we mention it in passing, as if it's incidental. I was reminded of this by a comment a student made:
Receiving or "uke" technique
from Seipai.

"When it comes to science, peer review generally focuses first on the methodology. The criteria and methods applied to the collection, selection and analysis of data (kata) are presented first. Spend the time to explain the development and application of the methods, as it effectively determines the results (bunkai)." (Narda W.)

Now I have learned the occasional bunkai from various teachers. And I have seen seemingly endless examples of bunkai that individuals have come up with on their own. There are videos on the Internet, pictures in books, and it's a part of every stage demonstration of karate nowadays. But there is no methodology behind the analysis. In each demonstration, the attacker punches and the defender suggests that you could do this, or you could do this, or you could do this. And sometimes these scenarios are quite creative. But this is not a system of self defense.

So what is the method we use in figuring out bunkai

Controlling or bridging
technique from Seipai.

When we began a serious inquiry into kata and bunkai, we simply turned around a principle that we had always been taught as students--that is, to attack the center line. It's the same thing, I suppose, as you find in T'ai Chi push hands, finding the opponent's center and then pushing there. So logically we thought that if the attacker is attacking the center line, the defender should step off the center line. The first step then is to look at kata and determine whether it shows how to step off the center line. In more colloquial terms, does it show you how to get out of the way? The way this translates into kata analysis is that the steps and turns in kata take on renewed significance in determining how a technique is applied, where the attack is coming from, and, of course, how to get out of the way. More importantly perhaps, they cannot be ignored. Secondly, it brings with it the corollary that the defender moves in such a way that the attacker is only allowed the one, initial attack. 

This investigation leads one to consider the steps and turns in kata, and where the beginnings and endings of sequences and combinations might be. This may be an assumption--that katas are composed of sequences or combinations--but it arises naturally when we see that the different techniques in kata fall into different categories. There are, on a basic level, defensive actions and offensive actions. But more specifically we begin to see that there are "blocking" or receiving techniques, bridging or controlling techniques, and violent, ballistic, finishing techniques. And that, in essence, is all you need to begin the study of bunkai.
Finishing technique
from Seipai.

There are, however, a number of other caveats we employ while testing out bunkai. The first of these is that the bunkai must follow the kata. That is, in applying the technique, it should be done against an opponent the same way it is done in solo kata performance. That includes both the hands and the feet. It includes any steps you would take in kata or any turns that are part of the technique. They should all be shown in the application of the technique. To be honest, at first we had some problems with this strict adherence to kata. We had originally learned the movements of the classical subjects the way they are done in the Shorei-kan tradition (Toguchi sensei). There wouldn't seem to be terribly overt or significant differences between the three or four major schools of Okinawan Goju-ryu, but even some small differences can greatly affect how one sees the application of techniques, and some katas, like Sanseiru, have very pronounced differences. So over time, and after a visit to Okinawa and training in the Shodo-kan tradition, we began to do all of the classical subjects in the manner of Higa Seiko's Shodo-kan. This certainly does not mean that any of the other traditions of Okinawan Goju-ryu are any less authentic or wouldn't lead one to similar results, but the Shodo-kan katas seemed to suit our purposes.
Receiving technique
from Sanseiru kata.

The second caveat is to understand the structure of the kata, though this may be something you discover on your own. The Goju-ryu classical subjects are composed of entry techniques, controlling or bridging techniques, and finishing techniques (as stated above). Each kata is composed of a limited number of sequences or combinations; some have three, some have four, and some have five or six. It is not always easy to figure out where the combinations are since the controlling and finishing techniques are separated in some kata. In some kata, the entry techniques and controlling techniques are shown on both the right and left sides before the finishing techniques are tacked onto the second sequence. Sometimes it is difficult to determine whether a technique is the final technique in a sequence or the beginning of a new sequence--the technique seems to work equally well in both cases. This is true for the final techniques in both Saifa and Seipai, for example. 
Finishing technique from
Sanseiru kata.

The third caveat is that the application of the technique in bunkai should not require excessive physical strength. More often than not, it should only require a thorough and practiced understanding of the technique and very little or no physical strength. If a bunkai seems to require too much physical strength on the part of the defender, we generally abandon the bunkai and start all over again. And usually we have discovered a much better application. After all--and I've said this before--if you're faster and stronger than everyone else, what do you need a system of self-defense for anyway?

And lastly, the application--that is, the full combination of receiving, controlling, and finishing techniques--should be lethal. I don't know how else to say it. Goju-ryu is a system of self-defense, not a sport or "mixed-martial-art-like" activity, with rules and regulations, to be used in mutually agreed upon combat. It was developed for a different age. It may even be a bit anachronistic. But the techniques of this system are meant to finish an encounter, to end a confrontation. They are incredibly violent. Many of the techniques that end a sequence involve breaking the neck of the opponent. These are techniques that you can't really train in bunkai. But that, I believe, is the reality of the bunkai...and the method. 


  1. Thank you, sensei, for the attribution.

    As a student, ones sees and listens in the dojo. But 'mat time' is so precious that one is always left with questions that can't be discussed fully. Perhaps it is a particular eccentricity of mine, but the most important (and interesting) part of training is trying to a teacher's perspective - the 'how' of the 'why'. :)

    1. Correction: '...trying to understand..'

  2. Thanks, Narda, for giving me the questions and the food for thought. That's where it all starts. Hope you have managed to make it through the last few weeks. I'm sure these are trying times. I'll look forward to seeing you whenever you make it back to training.

  3. Anonymous5:53 AM

    Hey, check out this interesting article about goju ryu taisabaki:


  4. Dear Anonymous,
    Taisabaki in Goju-ryu?? Well, of course, though I don't think the Okinawans ever referred to it as such. But this "article" lacks specifics. The only example it gives is not referenced to any particular kata movement. As I've tried to point out in a number of posts, the turns and steps in kata show how to step out of the way in applying techniques. But the technique mentioned in this case (a full 360 turn to escape a lapel grab) doesn't happen in Goju kata, at least that I'm aware of. Perhaps the teacher was showing something he had come up with on his own or something he had seen elsewhere.
    All the best,