Bunkai : The Marriage of Kata and Kumite – Kyokushin-kan Instructor’s Seminars – Concept #3 Part 2

(This author thought it would be beneficial to the Kyokushin-kan community to summarize, to the best of my ability, some content of Kancho Royama’s Internatinoal Instructors’ Seminars, held every year in Japan. Although I do have the dual advantage of having attended more of Kancho’s seminars than any other American, and of having acted as Japanese-English interpreter for those seminars in many cases, the reader should understand that, still, I can only do the best I can to explain concepts presented by Kancho and other high-level instructors in Japan. I do have the advantage of having been there, but my level of understanding in karate is only just what it is, and I can only explain what Kancho and others explain, through the lens of my own limited understanding. Yet to assist the development of Kyokushin-kan in the West, I will do the best I can.)

In part 1 of my discussion on Bunkai (see Instructors’ Seminars in Japan tab above), I suggested that Bunkai, “application,” is a formal class of karate exercise in which the practitioner studies, with an simulated attacker, the meaning of the individual (and sometimes combined) movements that go together to make up Kata. In that sense, we can think of Bunkai as the marriage of Kata and Kumite, as shown in the picture below. Separate this diagram to where there are two separate circles, one for Kata and one for Kumite, thus eliminating Bunkai where the two meet, and you have the model for karate training that has lost its way, training in which Kumite is merely fighting, and Kata is nothing but a dance.


This discussion takes us straight to the heart of an earlier discussion posted here (see Our Moment in History on the Kyokushin Beginners’ Guide tab), in which I discussed the evolution and devolution of Kyokushin. Here I mentioned how Kyokushin was always evolving during Mas Oyama’s lifetime, and that to take Kyokushin as a snapshot of exactly what it was at the time you learned it many years ago from Mas Oyama (for example) is destructive to the art because Kyokushin’s greatness derived from its evolution. AND , likewise, the times that Kyokushin fell short (sending Kyokushin fighters prematurely into K-1 kickboxing rings, for example), those shortcomings derived, in some cases, from Kyokushin’s “devolution,” or situations in which Kyokushin lost some of what it once had (albeit sometimes in the name of gaining something else).

So, what’s the significance?

Kancho Royama teaching Bunkai.

Kancho Royama teaching Bunkai.

That’s easy, but it’s overlooked almost entirely on the North American Continent. By Practicing Bunkai you can master Kata, by practicing mastered Kata, you can apply the motions used during Kata in Kumite (or more importantly in self-defense) to defeat opponents that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to defeat.

Let’s look at it from the American perspective, the limited one, and I think the point will become clear.

What makes a correct Kata? Well, if you ask most people in North America, the answer would be that 1. the sequence of the motions are correct 2. the practitioner is doing the correct motions at the correct time, and 3. that the practitioner is doing them like they were shown to do them by their teacher.

That is the North American answer. But it is the wrong answer. Let’s try again:

What makes a correct Kata? Answer: 1. that the sequence is correct, sure, but 2. most importantly, that the movements are mastered, showing a mindfulness of the practitioner for what the meaning of the movements are/would be if applied against an attacker. This means that if a student does the Kata in the correct sequence but only does it like his/her teacher told him/her to do it, the Kata is still failed if the student has no conception of what the meanings of the motions are, and how they would be applied in Kumite against which attacks.

Consider a fairly complex motion like mawashi-uchi (roundhouse block). We perform them many, many times during the pinan Kata from kokutsu-datchi (a short back leaning stance). Yet, if the student learns how to do that motion by looking at his teacher, but is never shown how that motion might actually be applied during a self-defense situation against a certain incoming attack, the student learns the motion only as something arbitrary. It’s little more than a dance move. In North America we have students learning dance moves from instructors who only know dance moves, and they can win kata competions only based on whether their sequence is correct, and on how much finesse they show while performing them. Yet, any instructor (like for example Kancho Royama, or Okazaki Shihan) who studies Kata from a perspective of Bunkai, can see that Kata, and knows that that Kata is useless. Any instructor who practices Bunkai, can see a student performing a Kaka who has his/her eyes shut to the meaning of the techniques, and that instructor only sees that incorrect model for karate suggested above in the diagram in which the two circles are separated.

Now, a step further into our roundhouse block example, and an interesting thing happens when beginners start learning how to apply the motion against an incoming attack while practicing Bunkai: Beginners inevitably find “a variation” of the complex motions that they don’t yet understand that actually works better for them against the simulated attack of another beginning student (their partner). The beginning student then starts to ask, “why do I have to do it like it’s done in the kata when that motion feels awkward, and this variation I’m using works better?” Well, the answer to that question, is that the variation does NOT work better. Have your attacker be a black belt level student instead, and have him strike you with all of his might. Did your variation work? It probably didn’t, and yet is it at least possible that it could have if you’d mastered the technique?

Of course it is. Hence the practice of Bunkai takes its pointers from both directions, from Kata and from Kumite. If the student’s motion looks different from the teacher’s (which in theory looks more like that of the master that created the Kata) then, yes, the student needs to make the motion match the teacher’s. But if the student isn’t ALSO studying how to apply that more-and-more-like-his-his-teacher movement against a more-and-more authentic attack, the student doesn’t really know how to refine the technique in any way that’s authentic to that student. Hence, Kata informs Bunkai, and Kumite informs Bunkai, AND therefore Kata also informs Kumite and vice versa. Without Bunkai, though, none of it informs any of the rest of it. One is Budo karate, one is kenka (brawling) karate. Take out the full-contact, and, of course (!!), the karate becomes much, much less. But keep the full-contact, and cut out the Bunkai? Yes, your karate is also dangerously diminished when it comes to the mastery of self-defense.

One instructor in North America told me once that his instructor took meticulous notes and wrote down exactly how to do all the Kata when Mas Oyama taught him how to do them decades before. But consider: A list of notes can only be an “informing” of how to master kata from one side of the above diagram. Notes can only come from the Kata side in the diagram. Sure, I’d love to have those notes too, because they’d help me learn from that one side, but without the practice and study of Bunkai, all the notes in the world will only lead to a dance that becomes worse and worse over time.

There’s much more to say about Bunkai. More later.

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