I have recently been sent some excellent videos via Youtube on rules for interpreting bunkai (applications), examples of bunkai and training drills for Naihanchi Kata by Ryan Parker of Ryukyu Martial Arts, from his own Youtube Channel, The Contemplative2. Note: Naihanchi Kata in Okinawan Karate is known as Tekki in some Japanese styles.
Having previously done some Youtube videos myself with a friend who does Wing Chun where we looked at similarities between Wing Chun and Naihanchi/Tekki kata bunkai, I was taken by how these videos also had so many similarities with Wing Chun close quarters trapping/striking and flow drills. As mentioned before, Karate is largely derived from White Crane Kung Fu, whilst Wing Chun is largely derived from Snake and Crane Kung Fu, so there is a common lineage between the two systems.
In this first video, Sensei Parker looks at 2 rules for interpreting bunkai in a very straight-forward step by step manner, demonstrating how to interpret which hand is defending/trapping and which hand is striking/locking and also how to interpret what direction you should be in relative to your opponent. This is built up into flow drills, including how to maintain control of your opponent as he tries to counter your moves. I won’t try to explain it all hear as that is done so much better by the video itself. All I will say is that having done a lot of Shotokan Karate and some Wing Chun myself, parts of this video will be more familiar to Wing Chun exponents than most Shotokan Karateka!
The second video builds on the first one and goes more into “Renzoku” drills. These are not bunkai, or self defence drills, they are just drills which are designed to teach specific skill sets.
The final video goes through the Naihanchi kata and demonstrates a number of it’s bunkai. In Sensie Parkers own words:
“These are just old tapes which I made for individual students as reference material to study. They weren’t intended to impress anyone (as they were made for people I trained with many times a week). The kata is just done in “walk-through” mode without any koshi action.
The bunkai are also done pretty lackadaisically, without any speed, power, or much attention to form and are just meant to be a memory aid”.
Going back further in Okinawan Karate history before Karate was introduced to Japan, they had the interesting concept of Shu-Ha-Ri, which I have discussed before. However, to recap:
Shu: means that you copy your master as closely as possible, to learn his techniques in as much detail as you can. Ha: means that once your technique is up to a good standard, you have the freedom to make subtle changes to suit your own physique and experiences. Ri: means that you have mastered the techniques to the extent that they are a natural part of you. At this point the student may transcend the master.
This is not a far cry from Bruce Lee’s famous quote: “Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.”
The “Ha” part in particular tells us that it was expected for the advanced student to adapt their Karate to suit themselves. Although there is a certain amount of leeway for us to do this today, we are still in the main confined to what our seniors tell us is our style. We are not free to change our kata’s to do (for example) a Front Kick rather than a Side Snap Kick which we might struggle with. Can you imagine the masters of old raised with the concept of Shu-Ha-Ri, insisting that their student continue to do a technique that damaged their joints, simply because it was always done that way? If you want to train in the traditional manner, rather than a “traditional style”, then maybe you should consider making little changes to suit your own body.
To quote Matsuo Basho a haiku poet, we should progress: “Not by blindly flowing the footsteps of the old masters, but by seeking what they sought”
There are a number of examples of Shu-Ha-Ri in modern martial arts. I hope martial artists of other styles will forgive me for focusing on Shotokan Karate, but it is the style that I’m most familiar with, (though I’m sure other styles have similar examples).
Those of us who have trained in Shotokan Karate over the decades have instinctively known (especially in the early days) that something was missing. Not just in the unrealistic bunkai that was taught to us by our Japanese masters, but sometimes technically in the art. We would see films or read magazine articles about masters doing great feats with seemingly no effort, yet we were encouraged to put more and more effort into our training (overly exhaling and tensing to create kime) as we progressed. That seemingly mystical ability to generate masses of power with little effort, derived from pure technique which we thought we would attain as we progressed, seemed to become more elusive as we rose through the grades. Very few senior Sensei in those earlier days seemed to be able to show us anything except more of the same. As my former Sensei, Graham Mead used to say, “ We were ending up with 2nd & 3rd Dans who were really just very good brown belts”.
However, over the years things have gradually changed and mainly for the better. Sport science has obviously shown that fast movement requires relaxation rather than more tensing. The emphasis on deep stances has relaxed (though Shotokan stances are still deeper than many others). Little things like bending the back leg slightly in Zenkutsu Dachi (front stance) relieves the tension on the lower spine and hips has replaced the straight back leg which was common years ago.
These all help to reduce the damage to our bodies that many early practitioners suffered from.
The availability of many other martial arts have allowed exploration to fill the gaps and bring some of the answers back into mainstream Shotokan.
Master Hirokazu Kanazawa, 10th Dan and founder of the Shotokan Karate International, also studied Tai Chi. When he taught around the world he would often have Tai Chi seminars alongside the Karate seminars. His Karate has become much more softer and more relaxed than most others and he has inspired many Shotokan practitioners of all associations to take up Tai Chi (including me).
The Late Master Tetsuhiko Asai, 10th Dan, lived and taught in Taiwan form many years. During this time he also studied White Crane Kung Fu, Dim Mak (critical nerve points) and Qi Gong. He placed great emphasis on relaxation and using the body like a whip. He was the founder of the Japan Karate Shotorenmei and brought his own special influences to bear on the Shotokan world.
These influences along with many others have led Shotokan Karate to become very varied depending on which association or instructor you train with. Some versions are quite relaxed like the original Okinawan Karate making it a healthy art to practice, whilst others are still quite stiff like the early post war Karate which can be damaging.
Taekwondo too has also changed significantly over the years and now has many variations. Some associations for example have introduced a sine-wave movement into their step to also create a more relaxed manner of moving.
Please add any other examples below of how any martial art has been adapted to make it healthier to train.
We so often hear that martial arts are good for our health and well-being, but is this always the truth? I would say in the main . . . . yes.
However I do feel that there are exceptions. All to often you hear of the more mature warriors amongst us having hip or knee operations. Many (who are not professional teachers) have to give up training all together. So if martial arts are a lifetime study (as is often said) how come the people who are left training over the age of 50 is such a small percentage.
Funakoshi, who introduced Karate from Okinawa to Japan, said in his latter years that the Karate being trained at that time in Japan was very different to the Karate of his youth.
The Karate that Funakoshi would have learnt in his youth in Okinawa would have had a very strong emphasis on combat effectiveness. It also had a strong emphasis on health. Many masters were originally introduced to Karate training in their childhood because they were sickly children and Karate was seen as one of the best ways to improve their health.
So what happened to Karate after Funakoshi introduced it to Japan in the 1920’s?
At that time, having relatively recently been forcibly dragged out of centuries of isolation, Japan was modernising very fast. As such the Japanese saw the modern weapons imported from the West as the way to go and saw the old martial arts as obsolete except for physical and character development. Furthermore, Japan’s militaristic character at that time, especially during the build up for the war, meant more emphasis on toughening up and strengthening up quickly, rather than looking to the longer term health. Physically gruelling training was good for the spirit!
Emphasis on real combat was not really necessary in traditional martial arts as Japan was far more focused on how to use the newly found power of guns, warplanes and battleships. The subtleties of Okinawan karate would be dumbed down to make it more acceptable to Japanese popular ideas of the time. A more physical emphasis was required. Dumbing down also made it easier to teach to large classes.
Funakoshi focused on teaching in Universities which meant introducing Karate to the higher strata of Japanese society (hence more respectability for Karate). It also meant that as Karate was now being taught to relatively large numbers and as students left University and moved on, they did not form the deep relationship that the Funakoshi and his peers would have formed with their masters, so the transfer of knowledge would not have been quite so deep.
Unfortunately many of Funakoshi’s top students lost their lives during the war. By the end of the war, Funakoshi was in his late 70’s and although still training himself, was getting a bit old for regular teaching, so to a certain extent the surviving students had to work it out for themselves.
Furthermore the occupying American’s banned martial arts training. During the war, the Japanese had displayed a ferocious fighting spirit which for obvious reasons the Allies wanted to curb. The Japanese had to make a case that Karate was not a real martial art, but more a way for self development. As such, they got permission to train. However, traditional weapons like the Bo, Tonfa, Sai etc were dropped from the syllabus as the Japanese realised that they would really be pushing their luck to ask permission to train weapons (of any kind) as well. Karate was dumbed down even further.
With Funakoshi’s influence diminishing and most of his most knowledgeable students gone, Shotokan began to evolve (or devolve depending on how you look at it) into a forceful system with a heavy emphasis on the physical side. This led in part to the stances becoming longer and deeper placing more stress on the lower body joints. If you look at any photo’s of Funakoshi demonstrating technique, he is always in a fairly high stance. Shotokan was mainly derived from Okinawan Shorin Ryu (created by Yasutsune Itosu). If you go to Youtube and search for “Shorin Ryu kata”, you’ll see that most of their movements are done in a higher stance than modern Shotokan.
Just compare the Shorin Ryu and Shotokan versions of the same kata below:-
A large group wanted to hold competitions which Funakoshi vehemently opposed. However, after Funakoshi passed away in 1957, the movement to introduce competition went full throttle ahead and the first All Japan Championships were held that year. Again the emphasis on being fit, strong and athletic grew with the short term goal of winning competitions rather than longer term goal of life long health.
Okinawan Karate was would have expected most fights to be at relatively close range (which is how most real fights are) so it would have geared its techniques that way. But the new competition fighting where neither fighter was allowed to grab their opponent necessitated a longer range of fighting. This in turn necessitated being able to take long steps, to cover relatively large distances. This again creates more stress on our bodies and joints as we get older and was absent from the original Okinawan Karate.
High kicks (which had barely existed in Okinawan Karate) become much more common place, putting even more stresses on the body (especially hips and knees). Again if you watch Shorin Ryu kata on Youtube, you’ll see less emphasis on kicks. Furthermore, you won’t find Side Snap Kicks anywhere. In Shotokan kata where we use a Side Snap Kick, Shorin Ryu uses a Front Kick). Not only that, but the Shorin Ryu Front Kick is usually no more than groin height.
Side Snap Kick is one of the most difficult kicks of all for people who have hip and knee problems. It is also not nearly as practical as a Front Kick in most real combat situations. So why did Side Snap Kick replace the Front Kick in so many Shotokan katas and why did it end up usually being done at head height rather than groin height?
Well at that time, the Japanese had very little understanding of bunkai (fighting applications of the kata). Not only that, most of them were not really interested either. Kata competition was becoming very popular too and that was the driving force. Kata had to look good. The head height Side Snap Kick looked much better than the mid level Front Kick. Many techniques performed in Neko Ashi Dachi (Cat Stance) in the Shorin Ryu kata were changed to a much longer deeper Kokutsu Dachi (Back Stance) in Shotokan kata.
Much of this has improved over the years and many branches of Shotokan has change quite radically even in the time that I’ve been training. When I first started, we had to keep the back leg straight when performing any technique in Forward Stance. This put pressure on the lower back and hips. Now the back leg is slightly bent, relieving the pressure. This and many other modifications have greatly improved the way that we train today. In many ways many schools of Shotokan have become much “softer” in their training (and I softer as in how technique is performed, not as in “taking it easy”). However, many still train the old way and many styles (Japanese & Korean) which are derived from Shotokan still bear some of those old hallmarks.
Training can be great for health, but if you are not careful, it can be damaging to your body, especially hips, knees and lower back.
This is an intersting article from www.ikigaiway.com which is very relevant to the aims of this blog as well. I hope you enjoy it:-
“Without bunkai (applications), kata is little more than pre-arranged dancing. The hands can be flowing in exciting and vibrant ways but if we never discover the meaning of the motion then our time would be much better spent hitting a heavy bag or sparring.
Bunkai is the key to developing useful and effective techniques preserved for us by those individuals who developed and tested them in fierce, life protection situations. Over the course of time much of the true meaning of these movements has either been lost or purposefully disguised. If your desire is to unlock some of the skills of our predecessors, you’ll need to know the right questions in order to find the best answers.
The following are seven things to ask yourself that might illuminate your kata in a different (and hopefully productive) way. These are in no particular order and are not prescriptive. Use some when you can and invent others.
1. Can I change the angle in which I address my opponent?
Many times during bunkai we assume that an opponent is coming straight from the front or from the sides, and that we must stay directly in front of them and try to defend. What happens if you cut a 45 degree angle during your technique? What if turning from left to right allowed you to arc around the same opponent instead of addressing a new one?
2. What came just before and what is coming right after?
When we learn kata, it generally occurs in a set cadence. Step1 – block up. Step2 – block down. Step3 – punch kiai! That being the case, our mind generally sections itself off in those little boxes. It is our job to look at what is occurring right before our current technique and right after and how the body moves from one to the next. Stringing techniques together makes for a more devastating outcome to your opponent.
3. Am I utilizing all of the technique or just the end piece?
Techniques are often more dynamic than we give them credit for. Take for example the knife hand block. When we perform a knife hand block we generally step somewhere, prep the block, and then shoot the block out. The block itself is what we use to defend against an attack, but what about all the stuff that came before it? Can’t we use that too? Can’t the body shift be used to off-balance or attack our opponent, and can’t the prep be used to either defend or attack?
4. Can I condense the number of opponents I have to face to get through my applications?
If you find yourself going through a dozen bad guys for your bunkai you may be too segmented. In order to mentally escape from a tricky technique we often dismiss the current bad guy and invite a new one in from a different direction. Worse yet, if we are using two hands at once and don’t really know what’s going on we might invite two bad guys to attack us at once from different directions. Multiple opponent training is valuable, but kata is not suggesting that GuyA is likely to kick low while GuyB punches from behind. Those scenarios are too unlikely and miss the real intent of what’s happening. Condense the number of opponents as much as possible.
5. Are my opponents behaving naturally and with likely techniques, or am I forcing them into increasingly unlikely scenarios?
Patrick McCarthy Sensei developed the acronym HAPV, or habitual acts of physical violence. The point of HAPV is to keep focused on the techniques you are most likely to encounter. Furthermore, the longer you make the string of actions done by your uke the more unlikely an actual attacker will follow that pattern. Therefore, when performing bunkai, we want our opponents acting as naturally as possible. If the opponent has to punch, step back punch, step back punch, step back block up and receive your strike, you’ve asked your uke to behave in a way they never would in real life.
6. Have I affected my opponent in a way that makes more technique work?
Let’s say you manage to block your opponent (so far so good). You then put them in a wrist lock or arm bar in order to control them. That progression seems very effective, especially after years of training, and generally works in the dojo. However, if you’ve ever come across a live opponent who is experiencing adrenaline dump you’ll know that manipulating that arm is extremely difficult. Your attempts to bar or lock it will be met with iron resistance and counter punches to your face. Always be sure to negatively affect your opponent as soon as possible, then go into more technique.
7. What is the emotional content of my encounter?
What kind of scenario is your kata taking place in? Is it a school yard pushing match? Is it a life or death home invasion? The emotional environment you place yourself in is going to alter your bunkai dramatically. Your technique may need to restrain or it may need to kill.
With all of these questions/problems/complications we have to address the concept of simplicity. In a real life altercation, your simplest and most effective techniques will be the ones that help you. Thinking about responses in the heat of the moment will keep you one step behind your opponent.
Why then bother with all of this business about bunkai? Shouldn’t we simply practice a series of basic, effective techniques and avoid the mental gymnastics?
The short term answer is yes. For the first 5-6 years of your training you need to become “brilliant at the basics”, as Bill Hayes Sensei would say. Without a rock solid foundation and instinctual integration of your style’s stances, punches, and basic techniques nothing else can be built firmly. However, once you do achieve that level of proficiency, you acquire the privilege of exploring your art even deeper and improving the way you go about your business.
Simple techniques practiced a certain way seem like the best option until you learn how to improve them. That doesn’t necessarily mean complicate them. Instead the goal is to find ways to improve your angle, distance, timing, striking locations, and technique progression in order to enhance what’s already been built. This style of study leads to an understanding of tichiki, or “what the hand is doing”, which can be used extemporaneously with great percentage of success”.
As discussed in an earlier posting, the Okinawan master, Sokon “Bushi” Matsumura was a central figure in developing the now familiar linear technique, at a time when most martial artists on Okinawa were still using the circular techniques of Chinese origin. As discussed in that posting, Matsumura was also the head bodyguard to the King of Okinawa and the bodyguards (like all Okinawans) were not allowed to carry weapons by Japanese decree.
This left a situation where the bodyguards could end up fighting a superior number of assailants, who might also be armed. That previous posting discussed how the linear technique would have helped take the fight to the opponents and dispatch them as quickly as possible (necessary when facing larger numbers).
Taking a step further back in history, the earlier Okinawan masters had developed a system that included all modes of combat. This would include striking, grappling and weapons. Although Matsumura developed the linear technique and clearly emphasised the “one hit, one kill” philosophy which we are very familiar with today; Matsumura and his men would clearly have needed some grappling skills. They would not be interested in taking a fight to the ground where others could kick them on the floor and they would not be interested in the time taken to gain a submission when others would be attacking them. However, they would be particularly interested in knowing how to release any kind of grabs or holds and release them very fast before others came up to hit them.
Matsumura is believed to the be the author of Bassai Dai (also known as Passai or Patsai), which is still practiced in may styles of Karate and Tang Soo Do. When you look at the opening sequence of Bassai Dai just after the forward thrusting back fist strike/block, you turn 180 degrees and perform 2 chest level blocks, turn 180 degrees again and perform 2 more chest level blocks, then turn 90 degrees to the right, scoop low and perform 2 more chest level blocks. When you stop to think about it, this is a bazaar sequence. Firstly, Matsumura was known to be a man who studied his enemies, and in this case his enemies would be angry Westerns wanting to trade (and being rejected by Japanese order). Matsumura would know that these “barbarians” would not practice straight lunge punches, but would more likely swing at the head. Secondly, why do so much blocking and not hit back? You’ve just blocked 3 people and they are still standing, still wanting to hit you! The defence is not geared to the likely attacks and still leaves you vulnerable at the end.
Was it that Bassai Dai was more for character development than for actual fighting. Matsumura was practical, clever, ruthless and fanatical about martial arts. It is very unlikely that he would author a kata that did not have very practical, effective and ruthless fighting movements from start to finish.
So what conclusion can we draw? The obvious one is that this sequence of 6 chest level blocks are in fact, nothing to do with chest level blocks. Bearing in mind that Matsumura’s men would expect to be outnumbered, should a fight break out they would expect to be grabbed from all directions. So try practicing this sequence with a partner. Have them grab you in various ways from behind, then turn and perform the double blocks. You will find that most grabs will be knocked off and as you are moving into your opponent/partner, you will find that the second “block” can often be used as a close quarters strike.
My Sensei, Paul Mitchell always says that Bassai Dai is a grappling kata. Not grappling as in the sporting sense, but to release attackers grabs and line them up for a finishing blow. He also says that Karate is “a kind art” as it teaches you to strike first (which is the easiest way to dispatch somebody) and grapple later. However, when learning to strike we place a great deal of emphasis on stance and posture which some people decry as unrealistic and static. But that stance and posture gives you the balance and stability that you need when somebody has grabbed you and is trying to shake you about as you try to release them. Furthermore, the mobility that we are supposed to lose by using these stances are more valuable for sporting contest than the reality of the street.
This may seem strange to some people if they are reading these type of ideas for the first time, but the more you analise it, the more you realise that it is the only logical conclusion.
Our own DVD on Bassai Dai and its bunkai is now available at our store.