The Karate Tapestry – Part 20
Robert Hunt


Someone commented once that a demonstration of karate application bears a striking resemblance to a World Wrestling Federation match.

They weren’t far off.

Here’s an idea – you step forward and punch at me and hold still. I’ll block, kick you in the head, then an arm bar, then I’ll sweep your legs out from under you and deliver a screaming blow to your prostrate body, fierce as a tiger, and then you grimace in imagined pain.

What do you think?

Such is a demonstration of (contrived) bunkai – the secret fighting techniques hidden within the kata that we learn and pass on and how we understand them, manipulate them and demonstrate them.

The story of bunkai is truly long and winding, filled with myth, imagination, a few facts, untold misunderstandings, make believe, fairy tales and lies – pretty much like the rest of life.

The original point of kata was apparently to preserve and enhance fighting methods among a predominantly illiterate fraternity of martial artists. A selection of techniques was strung together, memorized, practiced in an order and passed on. Over the centuries, those strings were modified, expanded and named, to fit the criteria of various teachers until, in modern times, they became calcified in karate “styles” and innovation ceased. Now we sort through ancient kata for understanding, much like an anthropologist sorts through ancient cities. We strain to glean hints to the meanings woven into routines created hundreds of years ago.

It’s like trying to resurrect a language unspoken for a thousand years. We search for reason in movements envisioned hundreds of years ago in a faraway society that wore different clothes and perceived the world through an ancient looking glass that we can’t begin to fathom.

But we strive, and, to some extent, succeed.

Much of the problem we face is that kata have been modified, especially in the last century, by people crafting a style to fit an agenda. At this point in history, there are few people in the world, if any, who grasp the original intention of kata.

This is particularly the case in Shorin line katas.

Take Wado-Ryu. Without complicating the lineage, we can generally assert that Itosu modified old Okinawan kata (Bushi Matsumura’s and others) to render them understandable to the public; Funakoshi modified them again; Ohtsuka learned from Funakoshi (and Mabuni) and altered them into his vision of a karate-like art for Japan – Wado, the “Japanese Way”.

Every step of the way, they were revised to fit some teacher’s vision of physical fitness, sport, political correctness or whatever else that teacher envisioned. To try to guess Matsumura’s bunkai from Ohtsuka’s kata is virtually impossible.

The Shotokan version of Passai (Basai Dai), begins with a series of 10 or so blocks, depending on how you count them, before there is any strike. That doesn’t seem like an effective fighting method, “penetrating a fortress” with ten blocks and no counter strike. Wouldn’t last long on the street. Is bunkai hidden there somewhere? Was that someone’s vision of a way to teach fighting?

Sometimes it seems like a take on the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

“Wow, look how strong it is!”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t make sense?”

There are at least 11 versions of Passai that approach defense and counter attack in various ways: Ishimine, Tomari (Matsumora), Matsumura, Chibana, Tawada, Oyadomari, Kyan, Motobu, Itosu, Shotokan, and Bassai Sho. Each has its own similar approach, but several are very direct and filled with evident bunkai.

Shotokan Bassai Dai isn’t. It was modified first by Itosu, then Funakoshi, then Nakayama. Most of the connection to Matsumura’s original has been washed away by modification for school or sport.

In many cases a manual is almost essential to figure out if a block is actually a block or maybe a disguised strike. And manuals are non-existent, except possibly the Bubishi, which Patrick McCarthy has so obligingly translated for us. But the Bubishi is comprised of simple copies (of copies,

of copies) of drawings that go back centuries. One needs a Shaman to translate it.

A manual and a Shaman/Sensei would definitely help.

Naha line katas like Goju-Ryu, Ryuei-Ryu and Uechi-Ryu are less enigmatic. The individual movements seem to have applications that more easily apply to the way hands dance through air. They are more evident than the block, block, punch, kick of many Shorin line katas. It is easier to ascribe martial meaning to the first move of Seiunchin than the first move of Kanku Dai.

In fact, the very first movement of Kanku Dai, the dramatic “gaze at the moon” through splayed hands, is probably not martial at all. It is most likely something akin to a breathing exercise, like Chi Gung. Again, someone’s vision trumps reality and without that manual it’s hard to guess. We can make up whatever, but we should probably acknowledge the same when passing it on.

If you watch Goju Sensei Lee Gray teach Kururunfa, you will become aware that he is teaching the meaning, as he envisions it, of the kata moves. They seem to come alive in his hands. This may be because Goju Ryu arrived in Okinawa much more recently (late 1800’s) than Shorin, which goes back several centuries.

Find ten Goju teachers, however, and you will likely find ten versions, some very creative.

The latest attack on bunkai has come from national and international team kata competition. Competitors are expected to perform a kata and then illustrate their vision of bunkai. The interpretations are incredibly imaginative, worthy of the best fight coordinator on any Jackie Chan movie. But, they bear little resemblance even to the apparent moves of the kata being depicted, not to mention the underlying meaning. Hard as I try, I can’t uncover any bunkai in any kata that encourages a defender to leap from an attacker’s shoulder to deliver a punch to a second attacker’s throat.

But it’s sure fun to watch.

Part of the problem is that we know so little about the culture of those ancient days.

Hohan Soken, born in 1889 and a descendent, through an uncle, of Bushi Matsumura, described to Earnest Estrada (in Spanish, no less, due to Soken’s 25 years in Argentina) about practicing karate, in those days called Uchinan Sui-di, at the turn of the twentieth century.

Okinawan Bushi wore hair pins, kanzashi¸ for decoration as well as to identify societal rank. They developed fighting techniques with the kanzashi and Soken remembers practicing kushanku kata with a kanzashi in each hand. That opens the door to some interesting interpretations.

All karate in Okinawa involved weapons, it was part of every dojo. How can we begin to understand the meaning of empty hand kata that may or may not have even been developed for the empty hand? If we perform the Ryuei Ryu kata, anan, with a pair of sai in our hands, it opens up entirely new meanings.

The other aspect of Chinese/Okinawan martial practice that affects bunkai is hand conditioning. In China, martial artists drove their fingers into sand and stone to develop weapons. They probably weren’t very good guitar players, but their fingers became as hard as the stone that honed them. The opening moves of the Goju katas were originally performed with open hands, until Miyagi decided it would be better to use the fists and hone those on a makiwara. What bunkai may have disappeared or misunderstanding arisen from that subtle adjustment?

A third impediment to understanding bunkai is that kata have become, as in the aforementioned Wado Ryu, “stylized” for testing and group identification. Often the original movement has been replaced with something that “fits” better into a teacher’s vision. The low center of gravity of Shotokan, the high, snappy knife-hand blocks of Shito Ryu, the grounded intensity of Goju Ryu and the shoulder-high blocks of Wado Ryu are repeated without question, because we are mimicking some forebear’s idea of how that forebear thought things should be done.

Passing tests is the goal, not learning to fight.

In the end this is what makes karate so interesting – the discovery. The essence of karate is kata and the essence of kata is bunkai, yet we know so little. We reenact centuries-old routines and we imagine the battle within – within the kata and our own hearts, and it is truly the battle within our very own souls, the one we fight every day, that we strive to conquer.

Perhaps kata helps.


This article was assembled from personal research and interviews, as well as the work of John Sells (Unante), various works of Patrick McCarthy, Mario McKenna, Hawaii Karate Seinenkai, Meibukan Magazine, Joe Swift, Sal Canzonieri (Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles), Benny Meng (Ving Tsun Museum), Earnest Estrada, the internet and Takao Nakaya (Karatedo History and Philosophy).

These articles are included in a free monthly newsletter emailed by the Chandler Martial Arts Center. If this came from some other source and you would like to receive the newsletter, send your email address to twarren@smacus.com.

Contact Robert Hunt directly at steelmoon@hushmail.com
Facebook: The Art and the Way
Internet: www.theartandtheway.com
Chandler Martial Arts Center: