The Problem Today with Bunkai

So the arguments and discussions continue on the web about “bunkai”. Is it any surprise that no consensus has been reached? We have a misinterpreted word with bad translations and a general misunderstanding about its purpose and suddenly everyone has an opinion or a new way to “reverse engineer” the whole meaning of the concept. Before we get heated about “bunkai” we must first understand what it is and then hopefully we will realize why the arguments are both problematic and at times completely relevant and on point.

Before I get going, the main arguments surrounding “bunkai” generally revolve around one person saying or showing how to use a certain technique (usually from a kata) and another person saying that this particular application would not work in a real fight. In most cases, the person presenting the “bunkai” explanation or demo has put in an honest effort, and the person rebuking the said application makes a good point about why it wouldn’t work in a real fight. Both can’t be right of course, or can they? Maybe there is something else going on…

In the West “bunkai” is often translated as “application” and this is where the first problem begins. The second point directly connected to this translation error is that several closely connected terms begin to fall into the same catch-all umbrella of “bunkai” or “application”, despite their obvious differences and fighting nuances. Let’s begin by looking at what “bunkai” seems to mean and then what it actually means and what its related terms mean.

Picture the scene: Sensei says “bunkai” is “application”, so let me show you how to use a “gedan-barai” against an opponent. Johnny, please attack me with a “maegeri”. Johnny throws his best front kick and Sensei moves out of the way and “blocks” the attack with a downward block and then throws a “gyakuzuki” reverse punch to finish off Johnny. Nobody in the dojo dares to question Sensei about the use of this move and they just accept it and go about practicing. Sensei then posts his nice video about how a downward block effectively blocks a hard front kick. Now the fun begins…

The trolling on the video begins with James from England who says that his Muay Thai kick would break the sensei’s arm all things being equal. Heinrich from Germany, a Shotokan practitioner, says that the block doesn’t just have to be against a kick, it can equally block a punch. Gabriel, a Brazilian ju-jitsu practitioner says karate simply sucks and he would use the downward block movement as a way to grab the karate guy’s shoulder and throw him to the mat so he can jump on him and choke him out. A guy who refers to himself as Shihan Smith reminds everyone that the downward block is really a groin strike and that all strikes attack vital points. His buddy Master Jones says he can actually apply that strike and knock out the opponent without touching them. Aikido practitioner Saito-Sensei from Japan says that the word “barai” refers to a sweeping movement and not a block at all…and on it goes. All from a simple well-meaning video by a well-meaning instructor trying to help his students.

Nobody did anything wrong really, they just expressed an opinion to a stimulus that was provided by the video. Their biggest mistake was assuming that the sensei who posted the video actually thought that this way was the best way to defend against a front kick. Of course we all know that the sensei could come up with several other ways to defend against a front kick, or at least we hope he can.

The word “bunkai” is made up of two kanji characters. The first character “bun” means “piece or part”. The second character “kai” means to “divide or separate”. So “bunkai” literally means “separating pieces” or “dividing parts”. Another possible literal translation is to “unravel components”. In practical terms, what “bunkai” refers to has nothing to do with “application”, it is simply an analytical way of looking at a technique and a way to begin to assess the different options of how to possibly use the specific technique. “Bunkai” when faced with the technique “gedan-barai” simply asks “what is this downward block technique”? Can I use it as a block? Could I make it a strike? How about a throw? Can I use it as a grab somehow? “Bunkai” does NOT say one option is the best and nor should it. “Bunkai” simply encourages the practitioner to ask questions. Layered beneath this initial investigation is not just the arm movement of the downward block of course, it includes the stepping movement too (so-called hidden bunkai) and also whether the movement is done in a forward or backward motion, is it used as an attacking move or a defensive move (the terms standard bunkai and reverse bunkai are often used to introduce these concepts). Already, there are many options of how to use this “gedan-barai” technique.

As the practitioner analyses and practices the ways of using the specific movement, he or she comes up with a way to “apply” the movement based on his instructor’s advice and teachings and also based on his or her own ideas. Now the practitioner enters the stage of “oyo”, better known correctly as “application”. The practitioner realizes that if a kick is thrown at him and he wants to use a downward block he should also use some body evasion tactic to nullify the power. If he uses the same technique against a punch his timing must be different. If he chooses to use as a vital point strike, he better be very precise. If his chosen application is a throw or a lock, then he must use his body movement and positioning effectively and strategically. It is at this point that the given criticisms of the different martial artists become valid and the practitioner should show exactly whether his “oyo” works or not.

If it doesn’t then he has to adapt and “change” and he has to go to “henka” and make it work in a given situation. “Henka” is another nuance of “bunkai” and “oyo” that says if conditions change based on a certain use of technique and application, then there must be a natural flow into a different position or there must be an “out” or some kind of retreat in order to regain advantage. So with “henka” a practitioner must have developed a plan B or plan C based on contingencies and based on his “bunkai” analysis of a specific technique or combination. Typically, any technique or combination can lead to another more effective position based on flow of techniques and natural movement but sometimes a practitioner’s experience or lack thereof leads to a brick wall when faced with something unexpected or when faced with somebody of more experience, so a withdrawal of technique back to base camp is better to regroup. This is what “henka” is about. It is about taking advantage of a slim opportunity or bettering a position, or modifying an opening for greater advantage, or of acknowledging a weakness and retreating to a position of strength. Through an understanding of “bunkai” or “analysis of technique”, coupled with an examination of appropriate “oyo” or “application of technique” and the ability to use “henka” to react to a “change” in circumstances, a practitioner becomes effective in a real life situation.

It’s no surprise is it that so many people argue about “bunkai” when so many pieces need to be unraveled first in order to be on the same page for an initial discussion…

 

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The Imbalance of Traditional Kihon Training

At the risk of sounding a little controversial, I have a gripe about the way we karate instructors and students practice our kihon (basics).  Let me set the scene…

The class lines up and everyone bows in.  A warm up begins and is completed and now typically it is time for some kihon practice – punches, kicks, blocks, strikes, combinations, a focus on strong stances, power and solid technique.  We all step forward into left downward block (hidari gedan-barai kamaette.)  “Ichi, ni, san, shi, go (kiai), mawatte.  Ichi, ni, san, shi, go (kiai), mawatte.”  Basic training continues…

A pretty typical start to many a traditional karate class, wouldn’t you say?  What is wrong with this picture?  In all honesty, not much!  The class is well structured beginning with a warm-up and moving on to basic techniques and fundamentals.  Next will be kata and kumite, a good workout will be had by all and some key concepts will have been covered.  However, I believe that there is a fundamental imbalance in the majority of karate classes that follow this format.

Anytime you begin from left stance and follow the “ichi, ni, san, shi, go” method you are training your right side on a 60-40 advantage compared to your left side – three punches right side, two left; three blocks right side, two left; three kicks right side, two left.  Unless you have an extremely disciplined instructor who has you begin from left downward block the first set and on the next set from right downward block, you are guaranteed to practice one side more than the other, thus the imbalance.

There are many sports like golf, baseball, hockey, tennis, to name a few, where one side is always preferred to the other.  It is simply a matter of which side is strongest.  In karate and martial arts this is also true but by necessity both sides should be developed equally.  After all a potential opponent will very rarely be accommodating to your right side strength in blocking and countering or your amazing left leg kicks.  You need to train both.  So why are we continuing to use an outdated method of 60-40 weighting in our basic training?  I believe the problem goes back multiple decades to the time of karate blossoming in the early Japanese school system.

We’ve all seen pictures in karate books and now online with hundreds of karate practitioners lined up perfectly, both in rows and columns.  How do they look so perfect?  I don’t know about you but my junior students nowadays show up to class about 15 – 20 in number and struggle to make two clear lines in my dojo on their own.  It takes a couple of stern reproaches and sometimes several sets of push-ups to achieve a modicum of uniformity.  How do 100+ students in the 1920s and 1930s in Japan line up so perfectly?

One reason is a culture back then of conformity.  You may have heard the phrase of “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”  Another reason, however, is a simple but ingenious idea of how to manage large numbers of people in lines.  I’d like you to stand up right now and find some space.  Put your left leg forward and take five forward steps.  They can be simple walking steps or they can be full “zenkutsu-dachi” steps.  Once you have taken five steps turn around “mawatte” by moving your back foot across and pivoting on your front foot and then do the same five steps back to your original position.  You should be in the same spot, right?

Now do the same with four steps forward, use your back foot to step across and pivot on your front foot to turn and do the same four steps back to your original position.  Something happened, didn’t it!  You didn’t get back to where you started.  Now add 150 people next to you in lines doing the same thing and you can imagine the lack of line discipline.

An odd number of steps and then a turn followed by an odd number of steps and then a turn keeps everything nice and orderly.  An even number of steps and then a turn followed by an even number of steps and then a turn gradually shifts the whole class across the dojo.  On the other hand, an odd number of steps creates an imbalance in training, but an even number of steps encourages equal strength in both hands and feet.  Which way should we be training?

Disclaimer: I don’t know, nor have I read anything that suggests that traditional Japanese training methods have caused this method of training that is so common in so many dojos.  It is simply a crazy idea that I had one evening when thinking about kihon training.  I could be way off.  The purpose of this article is to get you thinking and to get you commenting.  What do you think?  Could I be right?  Or am I way off and have taken too many kizami-zukis to the chin over the years?

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Bassai-sho commentary video

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Nijushiho Commentary on the Shotokan Sensei YouTube channel

The last few months have been extremely busy to say the least but despite everything a couple of new videos were added to the YouTube channel.  One was on the kata Jitte and another on one of my favorite katas – Nijushiho.

Here is the link to the video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0dF2syfz5c&feature=share&list=UUO48PurjV19YHPTdxIiI5-wNijushiho Commentary

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What is the Meaning of Bunkai?

Have you ever wondered what the differences are between bunkai, oyo and henka?  Check out this video for an overview and explanation of all three.

http://youtu.be/oQTS2MykPjI

 

 

 

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Shotokan Home Training Video

Here is the latest video from the Shotokan Sensei YouTube channel. This video offers some ideas on how to train at home by yourself and focuses on basic kihon techniques. You can join in with the video and get a quick 30 minute workout.

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Live Online Classes!

Thank you to all of the visitors and supporters of this site and also of the Shotokan Sensei YouTube channel and Facebook page.

I have been working over the past months to find a platform and method for delivering live online karate classes.  I’m very excited to announce that I have found what I’ve been looking for and the live online dojo is almost ready to be launched.  There are just a few final touches to be taken care of in terms of the initial class schedule and making sure the technology and platform is good to go.

Within the next two weeks the online dojo will be launched with the first official classes.  Initially, the class offerings will be as follows:

An Introduction to Shotokan Karate – This class will focus on the key basic techniques of our style, including punches, blocks, kicks and stances.

Shotokan Karate Essentials – This class will take the intro class further and will deliver all of the most essential techniques necessary for beginning the path towards a much deeper understanding of Shotokan Karate.

There will be also be several kata classes, focusing on basic, intermediate and advanced kata separately.  And there will also be the option to take a private lesson on a topic of your choice.

How will all of this be delivered and what will I need?  Basically all you will need is a computer, a webcam and an internet connection of at least 2Mbps download speed and 0.5 Mbps upload speed.  To test your connection speed just go to www.speedtest.net.

The classes will be delivered live and online with small group classes.  As the student you will be able to see and hear me as the instructor on your computer screen so that you can follow along with the class.  As the instructor, I will be able to see each student in my class at any time so that I can help with technical corrections, encouragement, and in answering any questions pertaining to the class.

So in addition to watching one of the Shotokan Sensei YouTube videos and learning in your own time, you will also now have access to live online classes in order to ask any specific questions you have and to receive personal feedback and constructive criticism on how you can best improve your karate.

Links to the actual online dojo and full information will be released in the next couple of weeks.  In the meantime, please keep watching the many videos that are already posted on the Shotokan Sensei YouTube channel, and also add us to your Facebook likes by visiting our Facebook page so that you can stay up to date with any new updates.

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Recent Updates – September 2012

The Shotokan Sensei website is an ever expanding project.  It began with the YouTube channel, then this site was added and now new projects are in the works…

Earlier this month, the Shotokan Sensei YouTube channel hit 1,000,000 views, which is obviously a big milestone, after just two short years of posting videos.  Due to the YouTube exposure, some interesting things have happened, and a couple of new projects are under development right now.

Also, this week a Facebook page for Shotokan Sensei was created, so please be sure to visit the page and add us to your FB “likes”.  Here is the link to the page:

www.facebook.com/ShotokanSensei

In the coming weeks and months, more content will be added and more news and updates will be released.  Please stay posted by adding yourself to our mailing list (just send an email to paul@shotokansensei.com), or by connecting with us through our new Facebook page or through the YouTube channel.

Thank you for your continued support.

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ONE MILLION views on the Shotokan Sensei YouTube channel

Hi Everyone,

I want to let you know the good news that the Shotokan Sensei YouTube channel just hit 1,000,000 views.  It is thanks to all of you and the very many people who have supported the channel and this website.  I would like to express my sincere gratitude to each and every one of you.

I posted a new video yesterday on the topic, “What is a Sensei?”  Here it is:

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Jiyu ippon kumite – Gyakuzuki

This short video shows the three main defences in the SKIF kumite system against a gyakuzuki attack.

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