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IS BUNKAI REAL? Understanding the hidden Kata

Everywhere you go in a traditional Karate atmosphere you will hear the term Bunkai. Bunkai is the practice of the applications hidden with the Kata you study. It is important to remember that many Sensei may have never learned this and that some treat Kata only as a necessary part of the belt earning process but it goes much deeper than just the surface. Within all Kata, from the very basic to the most advanced, are actual applications. For example a down block could be just that, blocking a kick to the leg or it could actually be throwing an opponent to the ground.

The study of Bunkai will vary from Sensei to Sensei and Ryu to Ryu. Some students spend a great deal of time on understanding the deepest parts of Kata while others merely attempt to make it graceful and pretty. Regardless it is important that all should understand there are purposes for each single movement within their Kata.

For a student to truly understand their Kata they must train with the Bunkai in mind. Sure in the beginning your Sensei will show you the explanation of the Bunkai, but in reality it is all open to your own speculation and interpretation. Most of us have learned a set Bunkai for the Nihanchi series of Kata, however I had to explain and demonstrate my ideas of its applications for my third dan test. I simply repeated what my Sensei had taught me and I could tell right away that the board was displeased. I was not sure what they wanted so I asked respectfully. The answer I was given was that I must learn my own applications to the Kata in addition to the ones I am taught since no one will be the same when actually apply the techniques.

I failed that examination but passed it the next time I went before the board. It was important for me to learn that each student would use their best techniques and not everyone is the same. For example I am decent kicker and I modified some of the techniques to have more kicks in them than sweeps. I also prefer my left side so I strengthened my right side in the Kata to perform my Bunkai appropriately. This is how I teach Bunkai in our dojo. Each student will learn the set manner as I was taught by my Sensei but as they progress they are required to learn how to study and examine the Kata more deeply by themselves. Then they must represent their understandings to our board. It is easy to tell if a student is grasping their knowledge accordingly when they demonstrate their Bunkai. If their Bunkai is weak or based on movies...they typically fail the higher testing within our Ryu.