Without bunkai (applications), kata is little more than pre-arranged dancing. The hands can be flowing in exciting and vibrant ways but if we never discover the meaning of the motion then our time would be much better spent hitting a heavy bag or sparring.
Bunkai is the key to developing useful and effective techniques preserved for us by those individuals who developed and tested them in fierce, life protection situations. Over the course of time much of the true meaning of these movements has either been lost or purposefully disguised. If your desire is to unlock some of the skills of our predecessors, you’ll need to know the right questions in order to find the best answers.
The following are seven things to ask yourself that might illuminate your kata in a different (and hopefully productive) way. These are in no particular order and are not prescriptive. Use some when you can and invent others.
1. Can I change the angle in which I address my opponent?
Many times during bunkai we assume that an opponent is coming straight from the front or from the sides, and that we must stay directly in front of them and try to defend. What happens if you cut a 45 degree angle during your technique? What if turning from left to right allowed you to arc around the same opponent instead of addressing a new one?
2. What came just before and what is coming right after?
When we learn kata, it generally occurs in a set cadence. Step1 – block up. Step2 – block down. Step3 – punch kiai! That being the case, our mind generally sections itself off in those little boxes. It is our job to look at what is occurring right before our current technique and right after and how the body moves from one to the next. Stringing techniques together makes for a more devastating outcome to your opponent.
3. Am I utilizing all of the technique or just the end piece?
Techniques are often more dynamic than we give them credit for. Take for example the knife hand block. When we perform a knife hand block we generally step somewhere, prep the block, and then shoot the block out. The block itself is what we use to defend against an attack, but what about all the stuff that came before it? Can’t we use that too? Can’t the body shift be used to off-balance or attack our opponent, and can’t the prep be used to either defend or attack?
4. Can I condense the number of opponents I have to face to get through my applications?
If you find yourself going through a dozen bad guys for your bunkai you may be too segmented. In order to mentally escape from a tricky technique we often dismiss the current bad guy and invite a new one in from a different direction. Worse yet, if we are using two hands at once and don’t really know what’s going on we might invite two bad guys to attack us at once from different directions. Multiple opponent training is valuable, but kata is not suggesting that GuyA is likely to kick low while GuyB punches from behind. Those scenarios are too unlikely and miss the real intent of what’s happening. Condense the number of opponents as much as possible.
5. Are my opponents behaving naturally and with likely techniques, or am I forcing them into increasingly unlikely scenarios?
Patrick McCarthy Sensei developed the acronym HAPV, or habitual acts of physical violence. The point of HAPV is to keep focused on the techniques you are most likely to encounter. Furthermore, the longer you make the string of actions done by your uke the more unlikely an actual attacker will follow that pattern. Therefore, when performing bunkai, we want our opponents acting as naturally as possible. If the opponent has to punch, step back punch, step back punch, step back block up and receive your strike, you’ve asked your uke to behave in a way they never would in real life.
6. Have I affected my opponent in a way that makes more technique work?
Let’s say you manage to block your opponent (so far so good). You then put them in a wrist lock or arm bar in order to control them. That progression seems very effective, especially after years of training, and generally works in the dojo. However, if you’ve ever come across a live opponent who is experiencing adrenaline dump you’ll know that manipulating that arm is extremely difficult. Your attempts to bar or lock it will be met with iron resistance and counter punches to your face. Always be sure to negatively affect your opponent as soon as possible, then go into more technique.
7. What is the emotional content of my encounter?
What kind of scenario is your kata taking place in? Is it a school yard pushing match? Is it a life or death home invasion? The emotional environment you place yourself in is going to alter your bunkai dramatically. Your technique may need to restrain or it may need to kill.
With all of these questions/problems/complications we have to address the concept of simplicity. In a real life altercation, your simplest and most effective techniques will be the ones that help you. Thinking about responses in the heat of the moment will keep you one step behind your opponent.
Why then bother with all of this business about bunkai? Shouldn’t we simply practice a series of basic, effective techniques and avoid the mental gymnastics?
The short term answer is yes. For the first 5-6 years of your training you need to become “brilliant at the basics”, as Bill Hayes Sensei would say. Without a rock solid foundation and instinctual integration of your style’s stances, punches, and basic techniques nothing else can be built firmly. However, once you do achieve that level of proficiency, you acquire the privilege of exploring your art even deeper and improving the way you go about your business.
Simple techniques practiced a certain way seem like the best option until you learn how to improve them. That doesn’t necessarily mean complicate them. Instead the goal is to find ways to improve your angle, distance, timing, striking locations, and technique progression in order to enhance what’s already been built. This style of study leads to an understanding of tichiki, or “what the hand is doing”, which can be used extemporaneously with great percentage of success.
I’d like to share a story given by Bill Hayes Sensei. Pardon any paraphrasing.
One time Hayes Sensei was training with his instructor Eizo Shimabukuro on the kata Passai. This kata is known for its power generation and its sweeping motions that feel for the opponent and almost reach out to him/her.
After training, Shimabukuro mentioned that this kata was like fighting at night.
The statement caught Hayes Sensei’s attention who thought he had gained some valuable insight into the original impetus for the form. Brave Okinawans, he decided, must have crept along during the night and dispatched their opponents using the passai kata! Certainly that explains the ‘feeling’ and ‘scanning’ hand and foot work.
Some time later the topic of Passai came up again, and Hayes Sensei engaged in discussion about how the kata came from night time fighting.
At that point Shimabukuro peered into Hayes Sensei’s eyes as if to see if there were any lights on.
“No, no”, he said. “Not at night. Like at night.”
Many times things can be lost in translation, especially when it comes to the mysteries of kata. In this case Shimabukuro Sensei was never suggesting that Passai kata was specifically for night time fighting, or that it was born from it. Instead he was trying to express that the same sensations and abilities you would rely upon at night are summoned and utilized via training in the Passai system.
Consider this: at night, you would not be able to see well. Therefore, when you make contact with an opponent, you must maintain Muchimi, or stickiness. Once that contact is made you can instinctively know where each part of your opponent’s body is. Essentially, should it be necessary, you could fight blindly.
This is an important concept to remember when considering the adrenaline dump that occurs during combat. Humans acquire tunnel vision when under extreme stress, which means you will have much less visibility (even during broad daylight) than you are used to. Therefore you have to rely on proprioception and touch response to first acquire your target and then properly eliminate him/her.
It’s important to remember that kata were not created for one specific environment or circumstance. That would be far too limiting a form of practice. Instead the concepts that are contained within each kata are omni-useful and work in harmony with the concepts of other kata.
The translation for the term Passai, which is frequently stated to be “penetrating the fortress” or “extracting from the fortress”, is not to be taken literally. The name may have a poetic connection to breaking down the barriers of an opponent, but it was never necessary to have an actual castle involved.
I recently had a conversation with a fellow martial artist known as Hard_Karate_Stylist. he was a bit uncertain as to the value and effectiveness of kata. He had heard varying opinions from multiple trustworthy sources about kata’s usefulness in the realm of combatives. Some believed that kata had value in the form of physical fitness but were devoid of real-life practicality. Others thought of kata as dances that served only to obfuscate the realities of fighting.
I provided HKS with a response that I thought covered the core ideas as to how and why kata is still a vibrant and viable practice. I personally consider kata to be a vital part of learning the Life Protection Arts as originally passed down by the Okinawans, and that kata are a highly valuable piece of a bigger puzzle. Kata provide insights unique to other training methods, but shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. To read my full respond, click here and scroll down to the comments section.
After that convo I got to thinking – I’ve certainly talked a lot, but in any good show&tell there has to be some show. Therefore, this post serves as a follow up for how kata can lead to free expression of technique, combining all of the best qualities of karate in a way unmatched throughout training history. I will do so in the context of one of karate’s oldest and most widespread kata: Naihanchi.
The Story of Naihanchi Kata
To simply jump into the physical form of Naihanchi is not good enough. We need to understand its roots and the context upon which it was built.
Naihanchi is the name of a kata that appears in many karate systems, and goes by multiple names. The most widely accepted is Naihanchi or Nai Hanchi, which is the Japanese pronunciation. It can also be called Naifanchi, Naifanchin, or Naifanchen (the Okinawan pronunciation). It has also become known as Tekki, a change produced by Funakoshi Gichin when bringing the kata from Okinawa to Japan.
The form traces its roots back to Bushi Sokon Matsumura. Matsumura was a renowned martial artist and served as bodyguard/retainer for three Okinawan Kings. In his younger days he learned from Okinawan masters such as Tode Sakugawa, but was also exposed to many Chinese envoys and warriors throughout his travels for the king. It is believed that he learned Naihanchi from a Chinese influence, either on Okinawa or while abroad, and then infused it with his own Te.
Matsumura had multiple famous students, but the two most prominent were Yasatsune “Anko” Itosu and Yasatsune “Anko” Azato. Azato and Itosu were among the greatest karateka of their time and are heavily responsible for the transmission of Shuri-te, later known as Shorin Ryu. Azato and Itosu produced many famous students of their own, including Funakoshi Gichin (Shotokan), Chomo Hanashiro (Shorin Ryu), Kentsu Yabu (Shorin Ryu), Chotoku Kyan (Shobayashi), Choki Motobu (Motobu Ryu), among others. The kata Naihanchi was passed through many of these capable hands to modern day students.
The Action of Naihanchi
As I mentioned in my response to HKS, karate (at its best) is an effective blend of strikes, tuite, kyusho, and throws utilizing kuzushi (off-balancing). But how can we take something as seemingly stale as the Naihanchi kata and make it dynamically effective in all those ways?
I’d like to hand things over to my video self at this time and let him explore this question. You’ll notice early on in the video that I use an opponent directly in front of me. I do that to bust some of the myths that are tightly ingrained with the proliferation of this kata. As opposed to some of the romantic stories that seem to float around, Naihanchi was never intended for use when a practitioner’s back was up against a castle wall. Nor was it intended for self defense on a boat or between rice patty fields. As you’ll see, the simple embusen of Naihanchi that goes side-to-side can be used effectively in three dimensions against an opponent who in all statistical probability will be approaching you head-on.
Remember – this kata is not considered a cornerstone of karate because its only for people attacking you from the side or on a boat; it can be a complete means of life protection. Watch as I explore the kata and then demonstrate how Naihanchi techniques might look when used in an unstructured environment.
After viewing that you may be thinking ‘Matt you cheated, there was barely anything resembling naihanchi in there’. Not so – the naihanchi elements existed as moments in time expressed extemporaneously. Some were strung together in recognizable ways, others not. The ideas of the kata mingled freely with other concepts and techniques that proved valuable at the time.
Here are just a few tactile examples of Naihanchi making an appearance:
On the attack thrown at 2:32, I show how a Naihanchi style punch can be used for percussive striking (to the ribs), or for choking as it hooks up around Ericsan’s neck.
At 4:59 I show how you can strike low and high in quick succession, just like in Naihanchi Sandan.
Throughout the combative exercise I demonstrate how the deep kiba-dachi or naihanchi-dachi can be used when needed for moments of enhanced stability or strength. I also use it from a sidelong perspective when trying to defend some of Ericsan’s attacks in order to minimize the targets available to him. In that sense some of Naihanchi’s bunkai from the sides becomes applicable, but only if you understand that the intent is to move through and passed that.
At 5:05 I show how the blocking methods of Naihanchi can roll directly into joint locks and then can be followed up by a finishing percussive strike.
At 5:10 I utilize some of the deflection+elbow techniques that make appearances in both Naihanchi Shodan and Nidan.
At 5:16 you can see how techniques, even when well practiced, can devolve into grappling and in-close jockeying for position. Luckily I managed to get behind Ericsan in that instance and could have utilized some of Naihanchi’s leg checking to take him down (but that’s the catch with live drills, they don’t allow for everything to be just right).
At 5:23 I utilize cycling as demonstrated earlier in the video to avoid getting struck and keep Ericsan’s momentum reeling. I also use the kosa-dachi type of stance in order to create smaller circles of rotation, which ultimately allows me to off-balance and throw him.
If we were to slow our bunkai training down and really analyze the kata, we could develop much more sophisticated series of attacks and defenses. That mental exploration is valuable, but we also need to understand how Naihanchi approaches HDAST (height, distance, angle, stance, timing) in a live environment, which speaks to the heart of how the kata operates.
Of course it is important to remember that what I did in the video is just a brief attempt by a rather raw karateka to show Naihanchi technique. I made no particular conscious decisions during that exercise (as that negates the positive gains of mushin), and trusted my body’s responses. Some of it was ok, some of it could stand to be improved. But that just means I need a bunch more training (hooray!)
The Need For Sparring and Other Drills
The kata and drills shown in the video have many benefits. They allow you to hone techniques that have been proven effective over many generations. They also give you the freedom to cycle through some of the most effective aspects of not just karate, but combat in general (small joint locks, momentum flowing, vital target striking, etc). Unfortunately, no matter how much kata or controlled freestyle drills you do, you’ll never really learn how to transmit power.
Power transfer can only be developed through years of striking practice. The Okinawans would use Makiwara training and eventually padded sparring to help students learn how to make their blows punishing.
You may have noticed that sparring rarely looks like kata. In sparring there is a lot of distance and timing play, and people generally rely on a certain barrage of classic strategies like jab-cross combos, feinting, and high-low kick series while following a bunch of strict rules (like no techniques toward the eyes). Sparring is quite limiting in that way, but also allows you to hit for real without permanently damaging your opponent. As such it is a highly necessary and valuable companion to kata training.
Mixed in with sparring and kata are the other kinds of training that traditional stylists tend to do, like Yakusoku kumite, basics, movement drills, etc etc. When understood properly and used for their intended purpose in conjunction with the other pieces, they are all valuable assets to a martial artist’s training regiment as he/she tries to prepare for the realities of combat.
Why Not Just Do Full Contact?
Traditional training can seem a bit overwhelming, and even muddled. As Bruce Lee said, a “classical mess”. Why not just bag all the nonsense and fight full contact with as few rules as possible, much like the very early UFC? Certainly that would supply all the realism and dynamics traditional drills supply.
It’s true – full contact fighting would be a more direct path. Despite what Hocus Pocus Chi Masters and “deadly vital point, no touch knockout experts” try to sell, simply knowing how to hurt someone is not the same as being able to do it against live, aggressive opponents.
The problem with full contact, real fighting is longevity and practicality.
Karate and other traditional arts can be practiced well into a person’s twilight years. It’s not uncommon to see 80-90 year old exponents getting up and doing kata. In fact, when done right, traditional training can improve and elongate the quality of a person’s life. The same simply cannot be said for full contact fighting. A remarkably high percentage of full contact fighters suffer from serious health problems in their late middle ages and on. Some even suffer brain damage (especially in the realm of boxing).
Furthermore, full contact fighting is not possible for many children, women, and men who have imperfect physiques. Just as an example, my previous post was about grandmothers in Kenya who have started self defense programs. Technically speaking they would become better fighters if they subjected themselves to full contact fighting…but that’s hardly a good idea. Instead they can rely on bag work and traditional methods to improve.
When exploring your training, it is important to recognize and accept the weaknesses and strengths of each training method.
- Sparring provides contact, but lacks the deeper aspects of karate.
- Kata teaches strength of body, mind, and spirit in addition to a full system of advanced techniques…but also involves hitting a lot of air. Simply understanding the details of kata is not enough to make a complete martial artist. Freestyle kumite drills can bridge that gap if both students have enough control.
- Prearranged Yakusoku drills can provide conditioning and repetition, but run the risk of teaching students the bad habits of waiting for attacks and relying on knowing what will happen next.
Assess, explore, and continue to train as best you can. Each piece hints at a bigger picture.