It bugs the hell out of me when we learn kata one way but then are taught bunkai or kata applications another way. In this article, I’ll argue that in order to get the most out of our kata practice, kata and bunkai should be consistent.

First, let’s talk about the reason why bunkai or kata applications exist and why sometimes there are inconsistencies.

How kata was created

Somewhere, some long time ago, someone thought of putting several fighting techniques together into a pattern.

Such patterns or kata could reflect certain combat strategies. For example, Saifa meaning “to destroy and tear” contains techniques to tear one from an attacker’s grip and counter with powerful back fists.

A kata could include techniques to suit certain body physiques. For example, Chinte means “unusual hands”, “incredible hands” or “rare hands” and the kata is said to suit a person of smaller stature to defend against someone bigger and more powerful.

It also could include techniques mimicking a particular animal (e.g. the White Crane kata Hakkaku or the “Flying Swallow” Empi kata).

A kata could simply include a master’s favorite techniques or reflects the fundamentals or the fighting system of a style.

So, martial art techniques existed first and kata was created based on these techniques as a convenient way to practice, teach and pass on martial art knowledge from one generation to the next.

“Lost in translation” kata bunkai

As kata are passed on from one generation to the next, they have been changed over time either deliberately (to fit in with certain ideologies or body physiques of students being taught) or unintentionally (recalling errors or failure to understand the original meanings of certain techniques).

And as kata is passed on from one generation to the next, from Okinawa, the birthplace of karate to Japan and then to every corner of the globe, the original meanings of the individual techniques or micro sequences in kata have either been lost or got “lost in translation”.

We simply don’t know the original meanings of the techniques that martial art masters had in mind when they created those katas.

We don’t know, for example, why there is this turn or consecutive changes of direction in this kata or why there are three backward hops in that kata.

So, karate masters and instructors today are tasked with decoding the meanings of kata techniques and sequences and hence we have “bunkai” or “oyo” (kata applications).

As a side note, bunkai means “analysis” or “breaking down” and refers to the breaking down of a kata into techniques and sequences in order to understand their meaning and apply them to kumite. While bunkai is subtly different from applications, they have generally been used interchangeably in most dojos and so we will use the term bunkai to refer to practical applications of kata in this post.

Because we don’t know what those masters had in mind when they created those forms or kata, instructors have to do either with “educated guesses” or teach what they have been taught by their instructors.

Why we need to get rid of the discrepancies between kata and bunkai

The focus of the present discussion is the difference between techniques as performed in kata and techniques that are used in bunkai or applications which I believe should be eliminated.

For example, if you practice a kata where you are required to perform two blocks simultaneously but in the bunkai you are taught to perform them one after the other. When you question this discrepancy, you would be told something like “bunkai is not always the same as kata”.

I’ve seen many cases like this in my training and, if you read online exchanges on this topic, you will see that this is a common problem that many karatekas face in their training. They are taught bunkai techniques that vary slightly from how they are taught in the kata.

I believe this shouldn’t happen.

My understanding of the purpose of kata practice is that with thousands and thousands of repetitions over time (with deep understanding and full martial intent), you will be able to apply what you practice in kata into kumite unconsciously.

However, this only works if what we visualize in our solo kata practice is the same as what we do in our partnered bunkai drills. If differences exist, we can’t do that, at least with the parts of the kata where there are discrepancies between kata techniques and their supposed applications.

Back to the above simple example, if the kata requires you to perform two blocks simultaneously, in your solo kata practice, you should, for instance, visualize that your opponent is launching two attacks simultaneously as well and you are intercepting those two attacks with your blocks.

But if you are taught a bunkai drill where your partner is launching two separate attacks, one after another, and you are also blocking them in a sequence, then what would you visualize when you practice the kata on your own?

You will either perform these techniques as mere physical exercises and visualize nothing or visualize your kumite drill which is not exactly what you are actually performing.

I believe those discrepancies should be eliminated in order for us to make the most out of our kata training.

According to Iain Abernethy (7th Dan with the well-respected British Combat Association), in teaching kata, he tells his students exactly what the kata techniques mean and they are taught exact bunkai drills for those techniques.

But perhaps Iain Abernethy is a rarity amongst karate instructors. Even the 10th Dan Goju Ryu master, Morio Higaonna, demonstrated some bunkai that are slightly different from how kata is performed.

I totally understand that one kata technique can have many different applications, but if you are to show an application for a particular technique in a particular kata, you should start with the same technique or the same set of techniques that are performed in the kata in the first place.

It must be so otherwise practicing kata would be a total waste of time. One could save a lot of time by abandoning kata altogether and just practice those drills directly.

I’m aware of the argument that kata practice has value in improving one’s muscle strength, endurance, balance, patience, focus, and so on. Sure, but you can become good at those things without kata and there may be even more efficient ways to achieve those goals than practicing kata.

We shouldn’t waste time on unrealistic bunkai

In addition to the inconsistency between kata and bunkai drills, I think you’ll agree with me that some of the bunkai drills that are taught today are just so impractical that you would never imagine using them in actual fighting situations.

There is really no point practicing a kata for life if most of the applications of the kata are useless in combat.

For example, in this Saifa bunkai demonstration by Morio Higaonna, you’ll see some very unrealistic bunkai. The second bunkai is just incredulous. No decent fighter would continue to kick if their punching hand has already been grabbed. They would use the other hand to deliver some devastating attack at vital points, break free of the grab or go in for some close-quarter tackling. Kicking when your hand has already been grabbed is like inviting your opponent to throw you and deliver a guaranteed victory to them.

Similarly, the fourth bunkai is just as unrealistic as the second one. I mean who would go in for their opponent’s knee and offer their entire head to the opponent like that? I don’t know if Morio Higaonna came up with this bunkai himself or was taught by his master, but this just looks so naive to me.

On the other hand, if you watch the alternative bunkai that Iain Abernethy came up for the same kata, you’ll see that it just flows naturally and beautifully and looks totally believable. The whole bunkai also looks more “Goju Ryu” than the one that a Goju Ryu master came up with. It includes close-quarter fighting and grappling techniques typical of traditional karate, unlike Morio Higaonna’s version which has a lot of unrealistic stock standard “karate punches” from a distance.

I don’t know which version might be closer to the kata creator’s original intention, but I notice that while Iain Abernethy’s bunkai is one continuous close-quarter fight that very much resembles an actual fight, Morio Higaonna’s bunkai is a series of unconnected and unrealistic micro sequences.

I think unrealistic bunkai is one of the reasons why karate receives a lot of criticism nowadays for its ineffectiveness in actual street self-defense situations or competitive combats.

We probably practice hundreds of different bunkai drills over decades of training but because we practice so many of those useless combos that when we get into a fight, we don’t have the opportunity to use them. And as to those that are actually practical and useful, we don’t have enough time to practice and aren’t able to use them like our second nature or without conscious thought.

Boxing, for example, is straight, simple, and effective. What doesn’t work is ruthlessly discarded. If you train as a boxer for a year, there is a very good chance that you’ll beat a karateka training for the same period of time.

During this time, he or she would have to spend a lot of time perfecting many impractical stances, memorizing kata, memorizing a dozen of bunkai, and preparing for grading with very little focus on actual sparring. The boxer, on the other hand, has one basic fighting stance, practices a few effective drills, works on his or her fitness and has a lot of actual sparring experience.

You know with a high degree of certainty who would come out on top in such scenarios.

For the same reason, in some dojos nowadays, kata is neglected or totally abandoned. Some may say that they are not teaching genuine karate. Well, it may be not “traditional” karate as we know it, but it does not mean that those dojos would automatically produce useless fighters because of that. They may well produce excellent fighters if they teach them the fundamentals of techniques and fighting strategies and give them a lot of practical fighting experience.

In short, my point is that kata and bunkai should be aligned and kata bunkai should evolve over time for kata and karate remains effective and relevant. Adhering to something that may work a few hundred years ago for the sake of staying truly “traditional” is foolish and risks becoming obsolete and irrelevant.

Why Changing Karate Kata Should Be Encouraged

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Motobu Choki’s Karate Principles Through Quotes

Motobu Choki’s Fight with a Boxer that Brought Him Fame

Karate vs BJJ: Which One Is Better for Self-Defense?