The term Bunkai literally means “analysis” and the term oyo means “application” but these terms are generally used interchangeably in the karate world. The difference is subtle since a specific example of how to apply the techniques from a kata technically should be referred to as oyo, while the process of analyzing the sequences and determining the various applications is correctly called bunkai. For the purposes of simplicity, I will follow the convention of referring to all analysis and applications from kata as bunkai.

The idea that kata is the essence of karate makes sense when viewing karate from a historical perspective. Prior to karate’s introduction to the Okinawan school system, the practice of the art was very different from what it is today. Prior to the twentieth century, karate was practiced secretively in small groups and the focus of training was on kata. In his autobiography, master Funakoshi describes his early training as nearly endless repetitions of a single kata for up to years on end until it was performed to the master’s satisfaction before he was allowed to move on and learn another. Today, the focus of training centers more on the basic techniques and combinations of basic techniques that have been pulled out of kata to be practiced individually. This fundamental change in the way karate is practiced is widely believed to have occurred when Funakoshi’s instructor Yatsutsune Itosu introduced karate into the Okinawan school system in the beginning of the twentieth century. This is also the time period in which he is also credited with the creation of the Heian kata which many believe he devised by taking sequences and techniques from the older, historical kata. This shift in teaching methodology could be one of the main reasons for the problem of the transmission of kata bunkai because the practice of basic techniques became the emphasis of training. Furthermore, many believe that when Itosu devised the Heian kata, he purposely changed them to disguise the dangerous techniques to make them more suitable for teaching to school children and thus, the bunkai were simply not taught.

Kata bunkai is generally not practiced much in modern karate dojo and when it is practiced it is usually trained at the simplest level or the explanations given are not practical.

That is to say, most bunkai that is demonstrated and taught to students is oriented towards defending against an attacker who is doing karate techniques and thus, most bunkai is shown as defenses against simple punching and kicking techniques. However, it is very unlikely that a practicing karate-ka would need to worry about defending against a straight punch or a front kick outside of the kumite ring. Furthermore, kata techniques beyond the most simple block, punch or kick are never seen during kumite matches.

According to Gennosuke Higaki, “the greatest problem facing modern karate is the gap between kumite and kata.” He further notes that other martial arts practice their kata with two people so the bunkai is understood from the beginning and the technique is the same whether practiced as kata or kumite. For example, a judoka performing a seoinage while practicing nage no kata is performing the technique exactly the same way as ippon seoinage performed during a judo match. When I realized this, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of the Ten no Kata presented in the Karate-do Kyohan may have been an attempt by master Funakoshi to bridge the gap between kata and kumite. What remains a mystery is why the grappling techniques that master Funakoshi points out as being in the katas were not included in kihon and kumite practice. One theory that I have heard in the past is that this master Funakoshi wanted to ensure that karate was differentiated clearly from Judo and thus wanted to emphasize the punching, kicking and striking aspects of karate. I cannot remember where I heard this so I cannot attribute it to anyone but it is a reasonable thought although it cannot be confirmed.

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Shito-Ryu Karate-Do Kata & Bunkaï DVD 01

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