Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Who says so? Understanding kata technique in context

The final position of the
mawashi-like technique.
I was watching a video the other day of a guy explaining three ways to use a mawashi uke or tora guchi--can't remember whether he distinguished between the two or not. But anyway, I was a bit surprised, since I believe that the style he practices is Shotokan, though I suspect his interests are more widespread since he calls himself a "karate nerd." Now when I was young, I practiced a Tae Kwon Do style that was based on Shotokan--same forms and all. In fact, I think the Korean teachers had practiced Shotokan during the Japanese occupation of Korea way back in the early part of the twentieth century. But I also trained a year of Shotokan in England back in 1976-77. And in all that time, I don't remember ever doing a single mawashi uke or even anything that remotely resembled one. So I'm thinking, how can this guy presume to explain the function of a mawashi uke? And the guy's YouTube video had over 29,000 views!

But I've seen this happen over and over again; that is, people whose primary style is something other than Goju trying to explain the applications of Goju kata. It seems to me, however, that if you can divorce the technique from the kata--and there are frequently disclaimers stating that the kata under analysis is not one that they personally practice--then the technique can mean anything...or nothing. You have taken it out of context. It's like trying to define a word without seeing the sentence or even the paragraph it is used in. That's why crossword puzzles are often so hard; the words are not always given a context. Context changes meaning or more precisely, I suppose, actually determines meaning. Dr. Johnson, that particularly idiosyncratic lexicographer who gave us the first dictionary of the English language, set about first defining words by making note of how they were used in the books that he read. Unlike a word, however, a solo technique--like mawashi uke, in this case--could literally mean anything you want it to mean, out of context. After all, you're just waving your arms.

I suspect that this teacher is simply providing three conventional applications for mawashi uke that he learned from a Goju teacher or practitioner. In fact, they are pretty standard interpretations. One mawashi uke trapped the arm and then attacked the opponent's trunk and head with two palm strikes. The second example he illustrated was used against two punches, one after the other, and then he attacked the same way with the two palm strikes. And the third mawashi uke began with a same-side wrist grab, broke the grab, and then was used to apply an arm-bar against the opponent's elbow.

So the question is: Could the mawashi uke technique be used this way--that is, in any or all of these ways? It's really a question of grammar or, more properly, verb tense. Could one use a mawashi uke to block and then attack with palm strikes? Could one use a mawashi uke to release a wrist grab or apply an arm-bar? Anything is possible (particularly with a compliant partner, though that's another story for another day). Could aliens have built the pyramids? Could have, I suppose, but in the context of what we know, is it likely?

Mawashi-like technique at
the end of Seipai kata.
In the context of the Goju-ryu classical kata, the mawashi uke can be seen in Sanchin, Tensho, and Suparinpei. A mawashi-like technique occurs at the end of Saifa, at the end of Seipai, at the end of Seisan, and in the middle of Kururunfa (and, in my heretical opinion, three times in the middle of Suparinpei). The mawashi-like techniques all have one thing in common, other than the circular rotation of both hands--they are all done in cat stance (neko ashi). The mawashi uke we see in Sanchin, Tensho, and at the beginning of Suparinpei are all executed in basic stance or sanchin dachi.  The context, it seems to me, determines how they were originally intended to be used. In each of the mawashi-like techniques, it is at the end of a sequence of moves which have allowed you to seize the attacker's head, and in each case the head is twisted with the rotating arms or hands and then, because the defender is in cat stance, a knee kick is executed to the opponent's head. In the case of the mawashi uke techniques, there is little context other than the fact that they are all executed from the double-arm kamae posture--a posture akin to the beginning of a grappling position, which would argue for each of these mawashi uke techniques to begin with a release from an opponent's two-handed grab.

Mawashi uke at the
beginning of Suparinpei.
But the question is: Are the techniques found in a kata meant to be understood within the context of that kata or can they be interpreted independent of their context? This raises much larger issues, of course. Are the kata of a system merely random collections of techniques--in which case, one might ask, why put them into kata form?--or are they part of application (bunkai) sequences? If they are part of sequences--and the easiest way to see this is in the realization that all of the techniques in a kata do not function as ends in themselves--then how the techniques are used in any given sequence illustrates the principles of the style or system. To understand the self-defense principles of the system, then, it is important to understand the applications of the techniques. Some of the creative interpretations of techniques people have tried to apply, taken as they are out of context, seem to violate fairly sound martial principles.

Of course, if you believe that someone created kata (long ago and far far away) with movements that were so generic that they could be understood and applied in a variety of ways, often too numerous to even grasp a fraction of the "application potentials," as some like to call them, then there's little to reasonably argue. And there seems to be a lot of support for this sort of position. As one noted author quoted a legendary teacher: "'None of the movements is restricted to only one application...each application is unlimited.'" The author himself goes on to say that "Anyone who says differently simply does not understand what he or she is talking about." End of discussion....though I would agree to disagree.


  1. There is another problem in his interpretation. I call it "the dragon ball syndrome" a double strike never go hit as hard as a single punch. 1 plus 1 not always is 2.

  2. Stephan Bertram1:23 AM

    Dear Mister Hopkins, I appreciate your blog and your thoughts. In this case I want to make same note. A) There are Mawashi-Uke-like techniques in Shotokan-Gata (Nijushiho, Unsu). B) This guy Begins with a style but now says he have no style. He trained on several occasions in Okinawa in different styles. I don't like his applications too. But this is the price for the freedom which the Karate-youth seek. A lot of "old Heros" don't teach self-defense-techniques against habitual acts of violence, only Karate-techniques. Thus this "Bunkai-movement".

    Thank you for your work with this blog.

    Kind regards, Stephan

  3. Thank you for your kind words, Stephan. And thank you for the reminder about the mawashi techniques in Nijushiho and Unsu, though they both occur near the end and look more like after thoughts. As strictly Shotokan kata, however, I think they are a little suspect as they both may have come by way of Mabuni sensei (and further back perhaps from Aragaki?) and may have some Naha-te influences. Still, to me, the point is that techniques need to be understood in the context in which they occur--that is, how they are used in the kata, not independent of the kata. All the best, Giles