Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

It is what it is...

Opening attack from Seiunchin kata.

I was having an imaginary conversation with my daughter the other day. She isn't actually a little kid anymore, but it was the kind of conversation we used to have fifteen or twenty years ago. You know, the kind of conversations you're never really ready for because you never really imagined yourself as a parent. And who can prepare for that anyway? Or maybe you have the same questions 'cause you never got any better answers than "because it just IS!!"

Or maybe they were just dumb questions, like how come people have eyebrows? Or, why don't animals talk? Or, why does it rain? I was actually wondering about all this because I had just watched a video of Hokama Tetsuhiro sensei demonstrating bunkai from Seiunchin kata. It was on a Facebook page titled: Goju Ryu Karate. It's a short video, about 4 minutes long.
Stepping forward and executing an
arm-bar to bring the attacker's
 head down.

Now I have a lot of respect for Hokama sensei. Back in 1987, I think it was, we were visiting and training in Matayoshi sensei's dojo--going to Okinawa for the first time with my teacher, Kimo Wall sensei, for two months--when Matayoshi sensei invited Hokama sensei, who had studied kobudo with him, to come by the dojo and talk to us. He brought copies of his first book, signed them, and gave them to all of us visiting Americans. Of course, this first edition was in Japanese, but the pictures were wonderful. But, back to the present. In this bunkai video I watched, Hokama sensei was showing what looked like very Aikido-esque techniques. I've seen many teachers concentrate on this sort of bunkai--Kuba Yoshio sensei is another one (here's a video showing other Aikido-like bunkai for Seiunchin: http://youtu.be/KyBXOiucFpk). Kuba sensei does this a lot, but it seems to me a bit of a stretch.

Right hand grabs the head (or top-knot)
and the left comes in to attack and
grab the chin.

And so I wondered why people seemed to be attracted to all of these joint manipulations just to throw the opponent. Is that really Okinawan karate? Doesn't the opponent just get back up and attack again? Is it to find less brutish-looking techniques, less violent alternatives? Is it seen as somehow more exotic and esoteric? Perhaps it appears to be more magical--a slight touch here, a little twist and the opponent is down. If you watch the videos carefully (and a bit critically), you see that the demonstrataed two-person techniques (bunkai?) only partially resemble the moves in kata. Why is that? Why not just come out and say, "Here are some cool moves I found while I was watching stuff from another type of martial art. Hey, if you squint your eyes up, they sort of look like Goju."

Conclusion of the opening sequence
of Seiunchin kata--an elbow attack
to the back of the head, neck, or
The problem for me is that it's not Goju. Why not? Because these teachers have taken individual techniques out of the kata and theorized about their application without seeing them in the larger context of the sequence of moves that forms a single bunkai combination. They have also not stuck to a strict analysis and repetition of the kata technique--in other words, they are not doing the bunkai for this particular kata. So why call it Seiunchin bunkai? I know some people will call this oyo bunkai or something along those lines; that is, when you start with a technique from kata and then you get "creative" or "personal" with it, as one discussion forum put it. Or how about this? And I quote: "Bunkai is the analysis of kata, and oyo is the application." I'm sorry, but when you analyze moves in kata isn't that the same as figuring out how you apply them? Let's face it, oyo is when you haven't got a clue and you're just making it up. Or it's when you find something really cool but it's not really part of your own system, and yet you'd hate to drop it from your repertoire.

Goju is a close-in fighting system with a lot of grabs and such, but Goju quickly bridges the distance and attacks the head or neck. Neck breaks and head twisting are standard fare in Goju. Why? I don't know why; I didn't make this stuff up. But why? Because it just IS!!!!


  1. Ryan Payne7:53 AM

    I am sure you get a bunch of flak when you post essays like this one - posts that "badmouth" famous sensei- but I think these are some of the most useful ones. There is nothing like pointing out the obvious ("that doesn't look like the kata") to make people notice things.

    This post also made me think of a great book I just read- "Warrior Dreams: The Martial Arts and the American Imagination" by John Donohue. Specifically, in the chapter on American Dojo, he discusses how "Karate training is rendered memorable, and hence its lessons incorporated into our minds, through many of the same mechanisms used in rituals throughout the world: the inflicting of pain or discomfort, the creation of disorientation and confusion, the inculcation of wonder" (pg 81)

    I think this is what the Sensei who demonstrate bunkai heavily focused on joint manipulations and pressure points are trying to do. Certainly for the person being demonstrated on, it hurts, but for everyone else watching there is the confusion of "What is he doing?" and the wonder of "That seemed so easy". So I don't
    think these demonstrations have anything to do with teaching bunkai specifically and everything to do with bringing more people into the group. The fact that these are posted publicly online and that this type of bunkai seems to be in vogue right now seem to support that.

  2. Ryan, thanks for the response. Of course I wasn't trying to bad mouth anyone, but what you say is an interesting theory. That being said, though, the Aikido-like bunkai that I'm seeing seems to be getting pretty "standard" with some teachers, rather than it being an extra or something special just to inculcate wonder.