Kyoshi's Technique of the Week

January 13th 2013

From Sensei Daniel Gobillot, Shihan - Shichidan, Northampton Ueshiro Karate

Thoughts on Bunkai

We often hear the phrase "The essence of Karate is Kata" but what is
the essence of kata? The definition of kata is, "Form - an organized
series of prearranged defensive and offensive movements symbolizing an
imaginary fight between several opponents and performed in a
geometrical pattern. Handed down and perfected by masters of a system
of karate". So why was kata invented and composed?
Before kata there was likely only what we now refer to as "Bunkai".
Possibly individual responses to real life situations, attacks.
Defensive and offensive options were practiced for practical purposes.
Then they were strung together for practice purposes to help train and
perfect body response. This is a theory accepted in the martial arts
community of which we are a part of.
"Bunkai" means to separate, break down and take apart ("bun") then
understand and comprehend ("kai"). Bunkai for our kata in Shorinryu
karate means to analyze and dissect our kata and then use the
movements, all of the movements for practical application. So why do
we need to think about application if we know our kata?
As karate spread throughout the world in the early 1900's the teaching
and learning vehicle "kata" remained while the application part, the
"bunkai" lost emphasis. Kata can easily by illustrated and described
in print and moving image. The parts can be defined. We call a punch
a punch a block a block and a kick a kick. Was this the original
intended application? Very unlikely. Couldn't a punch be something
else, anything else? Could a block be a strike? Could any change of
direction be a throw, could every step be a sweep?
It would be much more difficult to illustrate the endless options of
bunkai. The split second decisions are a response to a dynamic
changing environment. The intension of the response can often be
brutal, but controlled. I have often responded to an "inappropriate"
attack during kata/bunkai practice that I could never explain much less
As an exercise in bunkai practice the kata with the attack coming from
front, back and all sides for each move, 360 degrees. Slow things down
at first, clear your mind and try to use just the movements of the kata
as your response. Let go of the notion of block and punches. Use
extreme control to avoid injury. Think of effective disabling ways to
use the movements of the kata. Try to work a little outside your box.
When your fist returns to the chambered position it might just have
something in it, like your opponents ear. We kick high in practice and
in kata to develop good range and strength but "old style" karateka
only used low kicks, mostly to the legs and groin area. There is an
old karate saying that says "if you want to kick someone in the head
you should throw him on the ground first".

Domo arigato gozaimasu Hanshi,

Daniel Gobillot, shihan - shichidan, Northampton Ueshiro Karate