Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Imagine that...

Well, we've probably all heard the stories. It's part of legend. I heard it from my teacher, and I'm sure he heard it from his. Japanese samurai swords, katana, were "tested on the bodies of convicted criminals as part of the practice of tameshigiri, or test cutting. One Japanese sword made in 1662 is inscribed 'Two persons completely cut into two pieces (one stroke),' a scholarly article informs us, and reportedly blades bearing five-body ratings can be found in Japanese museums" (http://www.straightdope.com/).

After all, how would you know you had a good blade unless you actually tested it...unless you actually asked it to do what it was expected to do under the duress of battle, what it was made to do? Was it balanced? How did it feel to actually wield? Would it withstand a cut against muscle and bone and sinew without breaking or chipping? Disturbing to consider perhaps, but these are real questions.
Head twists in Seipai
are often too dangerous
to practice safely.

The same questions arise when we consider the unarmed martial arts, though I'm not remotely suggesting that karate-ka hang out at the local bar and wait for a fight to break out. Or go sauntering through notoriously rough parts of the city in the late-night hours in order to test their martial skills, though I have heard some people say they have done just that. But it's also no secret that there are a lot of idiots out there.

No, what I'm suggesting is that it is very difficult to analyze kata (bunkai) without imagining what is going on. This is the problem I have with the continuous bunkai of training subjects created by Toguchi sensei (Gekisai, Gekiha, and Kakuha) that one sees in Shorei-kan dojos. It's also the problem I have with the continuous sequences (is it bunkai?) of Taira Masaji sensei of Jundokan. In both cases, there is no opportunity to see what the reaction of the other person is. Every technique is blocked or parried or countered in such a way as to frustrate the application of the "finishing" techniques that are shown in the  classical katas. Consequently, one applying this sort of "analysis" to the kata cannot really see what are finishing techniques. And one can't separate entry (uke) techniques from controlling or finishing techniques. All of the techniques of kata, in this scenario, seem pretty much the same. It's fun to look at, and it may even be fun to train, but it doesn't seem to me to do a very good job of explaining kata and bunkai
This head twist from Seiunchin seems
safer to practice if it's done slowly.

So what's missing? As strange as it sounds, I would suggest that what's needed is an imagined reality. Perhaps that's what T. T. Liang had in mind when he titled his book on T'ai Chi Imagination Becomes Reality, though I think he was really talking more about chi and the mind. Nevertheless it's a wonderful phrase. I've encountered the same problem. Unless I can get my training partner to react to my technique, even though I can't actually hit him--that is, if you see the connection, I can't actually test the technique on "convicted criminals"--then I may miss how a particular technique in kata is meant to be applied. At the very least, I won't understand the speed or the rhythm of the kata techniques and how in application those may differ from how they are taught in kata where they need to be done slower, with more articulation or punctuation, in order to learn them. After all, we have to teach kata step-by-step, almost in slow motion, if you will. Bunkai should exactly follow kata, but the speed and the rhythm may differ greatly. You have to imagine the effect of the entry technique--not to mention the bridging or controlling techniques--on your opponent to understand the techniques that follow it. Where does the entry technique put the opponent? Has the opponent's position changed relative to the defender? For example, what effect does a shuto to the neck have on the opponent? What effect does a kick to the side of the opponent's knee have? If the knee kick is effective, how has it turned the opponent? How does this turn facilitate the next move of the bunkai? If we can't imagine these things, or if our training partner cannot react in a realistic manner, then we may have a hard time discovering bunkai and, in the long run, understanding kata. 

It's difficult to imagine a reaction without actually testing things out. And the problem with testing the reality of techniques should be obvious; some of the techniques are too lethal. How do you train a neck break? I wanted to see how a particular bunkai worked--how it actually felt and whether or not it seemed realistic--that is, whether it "worked," in layman's terms--and had Bill, my training partner, try it on me.
Shisochin kata
This was a head-twisting technique and throw from Shisochin kata. At first, Bill did it relatively slow and easy. But that didn't seem to me enough to give me a sense of how "real" the technique was or how effective it was. So I asked him to "take it easy" but go a little faster and with just a bit more forcefulness. My job as attacker was to see if I could frustrate the technique or make it any more difficult to apply. Needless to say, we discovered that the technique worked just fine...and I was in physical therapy for three months with a neck that I couldn't turn enough to even peripherally see behind me. The funny thing was that I didn't remember we had been training this rather lethal neck twist and throw for most of the three months I visited the physical therapist. Probably because she never asked! Still, lacking any "convicted convicts" I think using the imagination is probably a better way to go, especially when we're talking not about kicks and punches, but about attacking the head and neck--real Goju.


  1. When considering Bunkai, as you have mentioned before, most of the entry and controlling techniques seem to bring the opponents head down. after much practice and watching many hours of youtube, I come to believe that many of the follow up techniques are considering a opponent who is in a compromised position but has somehow managed to continue attacking "which is a likely scenario in battle unless we get lucky or are really THAT good". continued attacks ought to be considered not continued defense as Taira Sensei shows it.
    If someone somehow managed to get my head down and not finish me, id likely tackle them.
    Thanks for the post Sensei.


    1. Cris, the premise of Okinawan karate is that the attacker only gets the one chance to attack. Off-line movement and the controlling or bridging technique has hopefully thwarted any continuous attack. On the other hand, maybe it shows you how fast one needs to apply the controlling and finishing techniques after the initial receiving uke. What are you doing watching hours of YouTube stuff anyway??

  2. Interesting post. I happened upon Taira's various YouTube videos the other day myself. You right that the continuous sequences are not bunkai, (i.e. self defense applications), they are more like one directional sticky hands drills, or maybe continuous gaining/losing/regaining of opportunity to strike, and maybe actually apply a finishing technique? Seems to me to be far less useful for reaction training, than to go right through to the finishing technique and really have muscle memory how to get there. Not to say there isn't some place in training for losing and regaining of openings (sticky hands), but it getting to finishing should be the end goal, right?

    1. Mike, I agree--as a sort of sticky hands exercise it seems an interesting use of kata. But kata to me is a window to bunkai, and that window is almost impossible to see through because of the way different kata moves have been interpreted or the way there are no finishing techniques.