Ryukyu Martial Arts Research 琉球武道研究

Bunkai Kata - The Visible and the Hidden

Bunkai Kata - The Visible and the Hidden / by Itzik Cohen
The term "Bunkai" in Karate represents an application and is generally associated with "Bunkai kata", i.e. Kata application.
The term Bunkai 分解 in Japanese means: Decomposition or analysis.
Disassembly, dismantling, disaggregating, analysis, disintegrating, decomposing, degrating.
In other words, when we go down to the depth of the term, we find that the intention is not merely to implement but to decompose and to analyze the Kata in depth.

Bunkai Kata contains several layers.
The outer layer is the technical one.
It is simplistic or complex explanation of a single technique or of concatenation techniques as serial move.
There are several approaches to infinite combinations such as defenses, attacks, stumbles and throwing, joints techniques, grasps or release from grasps and the diversity is wide. You can start at a low level of complexity and continue to a complex Bunkai-kata.

A more internal layer is the one that pays attention to the components of the technique such as ranges, angles and timing. Changing one of these components often changes the whole application.

An even inner layer of Bunkai-kata is the deep practical knowledge of classical Okinawan Karate. This is the unique knowledge rooted in Okinawa history, going back to the days of Ryukyu Kingdom.
It is precisely in this layer that the complexity of the technique sometimes declines, but it is the distinction in subtle nuances that encompasses knowledge in depth. The pattern of motion does not change, but subtle changes that are hardly visible or completely invisible are the ones that make the difference, both in technique effectiveness and in different application outcomes.
This principle is even more appropriate and correct for basic techniques, i.e. "Kihon"基本.

Modern or athletic Karate is aimed at objective parameters and eye-catching visual patterns, in order to allow competitive judging or attractiveness.
Classic Okinawan Karate is aimed to more practical fields from the personal empowerment aspect as well as social aspect. The guiding principles are not visual but practical.
Going back in time to Ryukyu-di, the ancestor of Okinawan Karate, it was purely high skilled combative.

An example to such difference between modern Karate and Okinawan Karate are the stances. Modern Karate contains very low-structured Nekoashi-dachi and exaggerated straight back in Okutsu-dachi. It is not natural but more than that, it is not optimal from the practical aspect. In classic Okinawan Karate, the Nekoachi-dachi will be higher and in some cases significantly higher such as between Nakuashi-dachi and Okiashi-dachi or Shizen-dachi while performing Pinyan-yondan. Pinyan-godan Kata will be performed with a slightly bent back in a very specific way to provide optimal stability.
An additional important nuance is the almost entirely straight hand in the example presented in Pinyan-yondan. The high stance and straightness of the hand have great significance in the intention of the performer and of the technique. This is not a mistake but a measured and precise movement that opens many intelligent possibilities for performing a variety of techniques such as joint technique, disengagement, grappling, throwing or any other possibilities.

Pinyan Yondan - High stance and straight hand Pinyan Godan - Inclined back to increase stability
Pinyan Yondan: High stance and straight hand. Pinyan Godan: Inclined back to increase stability.

A short and minor technique while performing a Kata in Classic Okinawan Karate will often be replaced by a technique or a longer movement in modern Karate. Despite the examples taken from Shorin-ryu, the same is true for Shorei-ryu, that is, Goju-ryu.

In conclusion
If we judge a Kata based on competitive "objective parameters", then we dispose from the Kata its rooted nature, and to my humble opinion we lose the meaning of Kata and the meaning of Okinawan Karate.

As for Bunkai-kata. I return to the beginning of this article. Literally the term "Bunkai" does not mean "implementation".
The meaning of the term is disassembly, analysis or decomposition, meaning a deep understanding of things.
The deep and hidden knowledge (with an emphasis on "hidden" rather than "secret") in classical Okinawan Karate is not found in a simplistic or complex application of Kata techniques, but rather in nuances that are not always visible or sometimes invisible. These are the nuances that cannot be learned from a video or some shortened workshop. These are the important and unique details of classic Okinawan Karate that have been passed on for generations by “Ishin Denshin” (Zen expression: Mind to Mind / Heart to Heart) in a personal and direct way in the Dojo.

Itzik Cohen

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