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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