What is Bunkai in Karate?

Bunkai is to analyse something to understand how it works. Bunkai is the Haynes Manuel of kata.

Some techniques in kata have obvious applications, sometimes a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.

But other times kata have more abstract applications.

In many Chinese styles the techniques are so flowery and unusual looking, that on a superficial level they seem to not resemble any martial arts technique. For example look at “white crane spreads wings” in Tai Chi – it doesn’t look much like a punch, kick or block.

Another problem for Karate is “labelling disease”. Many of the Japanese styles such as Shotokan and Wado Ryu allocated names to techniques that meant they had to be pidgeon-holed as strikes.

For example the third/fourth move of Heian Godan used to be called Mizuno Nagure no Kamae (flowing water posture) but now most Shotokan practitioners call it Kage Tzuki (hook punch).

The technique we now call Morote Uke (supported or augmented block) was a favourite position of Choki Motobu – but he never used it as a supported block, it has just evolved that way.

Originally kata contained every type of technique in the art’s repertoire. Masters such as Funakoshi are quoted as saying katas contain throws but few people practice them in this way because the technique that was meant to be a throw was burdened by a name which suggests it is a punch, kick or block.

So once we have liberated ourselves from the shackles of these labels, we are able to see a vast array of possibilities within the kata. Throws, locks, chokes, trips, breaks, even some groundwork.

Identifying these techniques through Bunkai gives us our Oyo (application).

Bunkai/Oyo should be learnt in a structured way. I have spent many years cataloguing Bunkai/Oyo for every technique in each of our first 14 kata. I can’t do it for every kata yet, but I’m not interested in accumulating 30 kata I’m more interested in understanding the ones we’ve got.

Then we have the Oyo we look at Henka (variations) depending on the level of advancement within the syllabus.

Of course part of our Bunkai includes performing the katas with weapons, something that has been largely lost.

Most Shotokan practitioners will have heard that Jutte includes Bo defences, and some will have heard that the Matsumura family used to perform Kushanku while holding hairpins in their hands.

Studying the weapons along with the kata helps us peel another layer off the onion.

Finally the Bunkai study is taught according to the Three Sciences, otherwise known as the Three Treasures. Some might call this “mind, body and spirit” I call it the Science of Violence, the Science of Technique and the Science of Learning.

Within Bunkai the Science of Violence means the Bunkai has to work against realistic attacks. No Ninjas jumping off horseback throwing spears. These applications must be against real attacks. They also must work under pressure.

The Science of Technique means effectiveness of the Bunkai. Using the lessons within the kata to generate efficient power.

The Science of Learning means making the Bunkai part of our repertoire by drilling and practice.

Many times an advanced student will see a technique – let’s say they see a technique from Judo – and recognise where it fits as a Karate application. The principles are the same, whether they are principles of efficiency (using the waist, breathing, moving in two directions etc) or principles of physics (fulcrum, lever, pulley etc).

Bunkai breathes life into Karate kata and makes it a never ending study. The more you understand Kata, the more the kata helps you to understand


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