Training as a karate-ka has many aspects, all of which are related in the sense that they improve your skills. It is difficult to draw a distinct line between the lessons learned by practicing kata, ippon-kumite, self-defence, and bunkai. Bunkai is what joins everything together; it teaches you principles and meaning behind the movements. Ippon kumite, self-defence, and kata are training exercises to apply and perfect the principles and techniques you learn through bunkai. Usually, bunkai is translated as “application” of movements. In other words, we are decoding the meaning, which is not always obvious.

Whoever designed the kata from which the bunkai comes had a purpose in mind, but did not necessarily pass that information on. While some have made efforts to discover the meaning in pressure points, others have hidden it, or dismissed bunkai as unimportant to karate. Without the knowledge of the meaning behind the movements in Karate, it is not as effective as an art.

Bunkai is taken from movements in kata. Most martial arts have katas. They exist because they are the best way to remember and practice the moves, but one must know what the meanings of the moves are. The most common explanation for techniques that are not punching or kicking, is blocking an attack. On the surface, that makes sense, as karate is supposed to be used in self-defense. However, most of the blocks are not very effective when put into practice. Following this logic, katas are not very useful in real situations because they are not effective for self-defense, and more practical techniques replace kata and bunkai. Another kind of bunkai is a symbolic explanation of your movements.

For example, in the kata Saifa I was first taught that the first three movements were designed for fighting on a ship, in a narrow galley, where you needed to be in a horse-stance to keep your balance. This bunkai is not practical either, as one does not usually find themselves fighting on a ship in high seas. Bunkai is supposed to be practical and effective.

The article by Bill Burgar, “Discovering Bunkai”, has some suggestions as to how to develop meaningful bunkai. They are all important, but the two that I think are the most important are; “keep it simple”, and “only deal with the first opposing movement or be pre-emptive”. Even without the other suggestions, taking these two together eliminates the above-mentioned explanations. Bunkai should not be so complicated that it can only be used on a ship at sea, nor should it be simply blocking a technique. In a real fight situation, if the first punch is blocked, a second punch will follow, and the kata probably doesn’t fit that scenario. If it neutralizes the first attack, or prevents the attack, it is a much more effective bunkai.

There are many ways to interpret a single movement, or a series of moves, depending on the direction, type of attack, and application of pressure points. To make a technique effective, It is possible to study karate without using these principles, but kata and bunkai then become unusable in a real situation. The purpose of studying bunkai is to make kata a more effective training tool, as you visualize your opponent, and apply the principles based on what you imagine them doing. Ippon-kumite gives you a chance to apply what you learn through practising kata, in a controlled manner. Karate is like a box of legos; by knowing which pieces go together, you can turn it into almost anything you imagine.

look the katas and click on the links below to see their applications.

Gekisai Dai Ichi
Gekisai Dai Ni

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