Bunkai is a critical part of traditional kata training. In kata, a person learns a series of techniques strung together to form fighting concepts. Some kata contain many techniques, 30-40, some contain far less. But these techniques are merely a physical exercise if we don’t come to understand what they represent. Bunkai brings us to a higher level of understanding by prompting us to analyze motion, body position, attack, defense, and much more.

Unfortunately, it’s extremely easy to get stuck in “base-level” bunkai. By that I mean, an explanation of technique that only represents the most obvious possible interpretation. For example, you may hear someone (or yourself) walking through bunkai saying “now my opponent punches to my face, so I block up. I step in and punch. kiai. Then I turn left and a new opponent kicks at me. I block down…step in…punch…kiai.”

This type of analysis is useful for beginning students (and please remember – a black belt represents those who are ready to begin), but there is so much more to be gleaned from kata. There are many bunkai concepts I would like to explore – but here is one that I think might be able to help you right away. After you have learned a kata and the base-level bunkai, try scenario thinking. Put yourself in situations and scenarios where the techniques of this kata can be applied. Furthermore, imagine your opponent as more than an amorphous blob. Provide him with real, visceral characteristics.

Go through your bunkai once and imagine your opponent as an enraged, knife wielding attacker. Also imagine that your family is close by. If you don’t eliminate the threat, all of your lives are in mortal danger.

Now go through that same bunkai, but this time imagine you are confronted by an angry dad at a soccer game who starts putting his hands on you.

Your technique should be different…right?

Let’s take it a step further. Here are three main ways that you can break down your bunkai to really explore what’s happening:

Historical Bunkai

This one is for those who practice martial arts with deep lineages. In order to completely understand the root of our arts, we must put ourselves in the mind frame of the masters. Why did they create and practice these kata? Who were their enemies?

If you study a weapons (or kobudo) art, don’t forget to consider what those folks would be facing. An Okinawan farmer may be facing another farmer with a bo…but it’s more likely he would be facing a Japanese Samurai with sword or spear.



Standard Bunkai

Standard bunkai is useful for everyone, and represents what we most often see. Standard bunkai pits you against relatively equal opponents with a knowledge base roughly the same as yours. These type of attackers are in good state-of-mind and are skilled fighters, capable of punches, kicks, and attack/defense. By imagining (or using someone else) who is as good as you, you can constantly strive for improvement.


Modern Bunkai

Modern bunkai must be applicable in our everyday environment. Your modern bunkai should put you in your workplace, your home, your frequented shops and bars. Modern bunkai dares us to imagine all kinds of attackers – men, women, short, tall, drunk, high, with knives, broken bottles, pool cues.

It also forces us to use our surroundings to their most efficient degree. A bo practitioner will not find a bo in his everyday life…but he will find brooms and pool cues. A sai practitioner will definitely not find a sai lying around, but he will find ice scrappers and short, stout tree limbs.


(special thanks to my green figurine friends, whom I’ve slightly altered from their originals here – http://www.perry-miniatures.com)

Let your mind bend around the possibilities. Soon you will find yourself analyzing bunkai as you go about your day. Kata will begin to breath and take life. Eventually you’ll be ready for the next step – making kata extemporaneous and part of your reactionary combat.

But that’s a whole other post!