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Kata and Bunkai


Bunkai means “application” in Japanese. It refers to a type of training, usually performed as formal one-step kumite, in which the practitioner studies the application of the individual movements performed during kata by applying them as defenses against the simulated attacks of a training partner. The practice of bunkai is a long-missing-from-Kyokushin, but vital, link between kata and kumite. 


Shihan Okazaki teaching Bunkai.

Members of the Kyokushin-kan Technical Committee, Director Shihan Okazaki  and Shihan Ishijima, teaching Bunkai.


(Kyokushin-kan strives to define itself as an organization with the tools to ADVANCE Kyokushin through a specific technical vision which includes a concentrated understanding of kata, bunkai, and tournament kumite, along with the (re) introduction to Kyokushin of Chi energy training (through Ikken), Bukijutsu (weapons training), head/face-punch kumite, a heightened standard for manner, a stricter standard for promotion, and a refined set of tournament rules. These technical articles were written with the intent to inform Kyokushin-kan’s members of all that is meant to be gained.) 

In kata, of course, not only is there no opponent, there is also no partner. Those who practice kata have no choice but to visualize an opponent. The problem is that many of us fail to do so, and the movements become arbitrary. Karateka who have lost their way practice fighting, on one hand, and this bizarre karate dance called “kata” on the other. There is no connection without a study of how the precise movements of kata can be applied precisely to defend against actual attacks. In fact, one might argue that it is impossible to master kata, or even really understand it, without studying how to perfect the movements, and, furthermore, that one can’t effectively study the movements without applying them against attackers performing the corresponding attacks.

There were elements of Kyokushin that evolved during Mas Oyama’s lifetime, there were others that devolved, and others that remained the same. Ikken, for example, is not something that was regularly taught by Mas Oyama, but it WAS part of the original Kyokushin synthesis, since Mas Oyama practiced Ikken (or Taikiken) prior to his founding of Kyokushin, and because he encouraged his early students to do the same. Just like defense from face punches, which was all but lost during the era of Kyokushin’s golden age of world tournaments in which face punches were prohibited, the practice of bunkai is not something that Kancho Royama and instructors of Kyokushin-kan are introducing to Kyokushin; it is rather a practice that is being re-introduced because it was all that karate was, prior to Mas Oyama’s creation of full-contact karate.

Sundomei karate (“sundomei” refers to all the non-contact styles of karate, including Shotokan) has kata and bunkai at its core. Hence all of the karateka who contributed to the formulation of Kyokushin who had prior karate exposure, including especially Mas Oyama, had extensive practice in bunkai. In other words, it’s always been present in our training; it just hasn’t been emphasized until now as our instructors at Kyokushin-kan are working to bring back some of what was lost along the way.

One might ask, “What would be the meaning of kata and bunkai WITHOUT the full-contact type of training for kumite that we are more familiar with?” 

The answer is that it would be a lot less meaningful. After all, without the full-contact training for kumite, we would be just another sundomei style of karate. However, let’s now flip the question and ask, “What is the meaning of full-contact karate without the practice of kata and bunkai?”

Well, since Mas Oyama taught that full-contact kumite is vital to Kyokushin, one might say that it would be a little bit better than the former case, but not by a wide margin. Mas Oyama always said, “Kyokushin karate is not brawling (brute) karate; it’s Budo karate!” and, yet, if all we practice for is beating someone else up in a tournament, our karate risks becoming just what Sosai said it shouldn’t be. Training only for competition in which there are rules to protect the competitors, and the melee is always one-on-one, is limited in terms of what the practitioner can learn about self-defense. What if in the self-defense situation the karateka is facing 5 attackers? What if they’re armed? Certainly, those attackers are not following any rules, because in life-and-death situations there are none. Kancho Royama teaches that there is no way to master Budo karate without the practice of kata and bunkai.

In the below video clip, watch Kyokushin-kan world champion, Senesi Inoue, demonstrating bunkai for Sushiho kata, and then continue to read below about the marriage of kata and bunkai.



Bunkai: The Marriage of Kata and Kumite


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 the practice of 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 is easy to see, but it’s also something that is overlooked to varying degrees, especially in overseas branches. By Practicing bunkai you can master kata, by practicing mastered kata, you can apply the motions learned during kata in kumite (or more importantly in self-defense) to defeat opponents that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to defeat. What makes a correct kata? Many overseas practitioners would answer, “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.”

But Kancho Royama and members of the Kyokushin-kan Technical Committee are asking us to redefine this answer:

What makes a correct kata, let’s ask again. Answer: 1. that the sequence is correct, sure, but 2. most importantly, that the movements are mastered, showing a mindfulness for what the meaning of the movements are (or 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. It’s the difference between copying and truly understanding.


Kancho Royama teaching Bunkai.

Kancho Royama teaching bunkai.


Consider a fairly complex motion like mawashi-uke (roundhouse block). We perform them many, many times during the pinan kata from kokutsu-dachi (a short back leaning stance). Yet, if the student learns how to do that motion by looking at his teacher and imitating, 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 many overseas branches we have students learning dance moves from instructors who only know dance moves, and they can win kata competitions 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 Shihan Okazaki) who studies kata from the perspective of bunkai, can see that kata, and knows that that kata is meaningless. Any instructor who practices bunkai, can see a student performing a kata 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. Have no doubt that this is what Kancho sees in the kata of a student who hasn’t practiced bunkai.

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 in a real situation. 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 performed the technique properly?

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 bridges the gap (see the diagram above) and 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? There is no question that your karate would also be dangerously diminished when it comes to the mastery of self-defense.