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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Can You Use Your Kata With Kumite?

      Student: "Is that Tai Chi or something?"
      Sensei: "It's karate."
      Student: "What's the name of the kata?"
      Sensei: "It's Pinan Shodan."
      Student: "?????? What style is that?"
      Sensei: "Matsubayashi-Ryu. Direct from O'Sensei Nagamine."
      Student: "Huhh! I train in Maysubayashi-Ryu, why is your kata so different?"
      Sensei: "You're just doing gymnastics."
      Student: "Why?"
      Sensei: "Can you use your kata with Kumite?"
      Student: "No, I can't."
      Sensei: "So, . . you're just doing gymnastics."
      Student: "Sensei, can you use your kata for Kumite?"
      Sensei: "Let's see. Come at me."
      Student: "Are you sure? You're pretty old? Ok . . . Pow, ouch!!"
      Sensei: "Senpai, you'll be okay. Just lie there and take deep breaths, just breath."

            (Adapted from Higaki Gennosuke)

   A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a seminar focusing on bunkai. The seminar was sponsored by Liberty Karate Club in Orlando and was conducted by Shihan Joche Zapata, 6th dan Matsubayashi-Ryu, 7th dan Matsumura Seito, and 7th Dan Hakutsuru (White Crane).

   I'm not one to be impressed by high dan rankings. Too many self promoted "masters" out there and even some who allow their students to actually promote them to high ranks (hachi-dan, ku-dan, etc.). However Shihan Zapata is a student of Hanshi George Alexander whose credentials are well known throughout the martial arts world.

   This was a two day seminar. By the second day the pieces started to fit together. I began to see kata movements in a different light: blocks became throws or even chokes. Metaphorically, I had been visualizing the whole dojo just fine (thank you very much) but no one had told me the dojo had another entire room I had never explored!

   This was not the limited, traditional bunkai; beginner bunkai, I had been drilled in time and again. It was Matsubayashi-Ryu being taught as CQC (Close Quarter Combat) very different than what I had been practicing up to the seminar.

   I began researching to see how valid the concept of CQC was to Matsubayashi-Ryu. I found a reprint of Motubu Choki's book "Ryu-Kyu Kenpo." He talks about always blocking to the upper arm not the forearm. Try it; that’s close quarter combat.

   I’m pretty articulate. For me to grasp a concept it has to have a name, a proper name. Calling the applications I was learning “Bunkai” was like calling karate: martial arts. Technically correct but not really accurate.

   So if this is not traditional bunkai, what was it? What to call it…

   Bunkai is inaccurate. Looking at the word in Japanese it breaks down like this: “Bunkai” depending on the source you read, means “analysis” or "application” most commonly standard bunkai refers to traditional interpretations of what the practical applications to moves in kata are supposed to be. This type of bunkai is rather standardized; i.e. a block is always a block and a punch is always a punch.

   A higher degree of bunkai can be referred to as "Oyo Bunkai" which refers to the application of moves in kata in other than the traditional bunkai. More commonly this is used interchangeably with the term “personal” bunkai, or how "I" interpret the applications.

   When you break down Oyo Bunkai it translates like this:

      分 解 す る Bunkai (verb) to break down; to disect; to take apart.
      応 用 す る Oyo (verb) to apply; to put to practical use.

   Or even more accurately:

      Ou(ô): 応: answer, reply, respond
      you(yô): 用: 1.Work, function, errand, engagement
                        2. Use, adopt, apply.

      Bun-kai: Bun 分: Divide, part, break, to make shares of.
                    Kai 解: Solve, untie, undo, understand.

   It's been suggested perhaps; "Okuden Waza". But Okuden Waza refers to “hidden teachings” applied to “fighting techniques.” None of these techniques are hidden, they're right there you just have to open your eyes and look. Don't just repeat what you were told but go beyond that.

   McCarthy (2005) explained it quite nicely when he quoted the renowned Japanese poet Matsuo Basho 松 尾 芭 蕉 [1644-1694] who wrote, “Seek not to follow in the footsteps of the men of old but rather continue to seek out what they sought.”

   So evolve, don't simply repeat what your Sensei taught you 20 years ago.

   Another way of looking at it is described by Jean Janses (1920) who wrote; “Tradition doesn’t mean preserving someone’s ashes in a box but rather keeping its flame alight.”

   When I trained in bunkai I found myself feeling like I was missing something. I had instructors who simply repeated what they had been taught; mindlessly. "This is a block, so create a way you can use it as a block." When I was in the seminar with Shihan Zapate I was struck by what McCarty calls a "BFO" which stands for the "blinding flash of the obvious." This really is a very appropriate phrase.

   Continuing I found "Hidden Karate" by Higaki Gennosuke. While he focuses on Shotokan katas, e.g. Heian's, the bunkai is anything but traditional. He combines non-traditional bunkai moves with a focus on close quarters combat. Good text but he still answers the question for you; so his answer not yours (mine).

   Shihan Zapata answers the question "his" way but encourages you to find "your" way. He says "My approach works for me, you need to find what approach, what applications work for you." In teaching non-traditional bunkai he does not solely teach the moves but tries to get you to start looking at the katas differently and develop the applications you "feel" in the kata. He takes "sport karate" and returns it to true combat karate roots.

   As a Counselor Educator I can understand the process. In counseling you frequently have to return to the past to see where you deviated from your path and get back on the road you were on in order to move ahead. In karate we need to go back in time to advance into the future of the art. The future of karate lies in the past.

   So back to original question; what to call it? Probably Oyo Bunkai is the best choice of phraseology, but that's just me: as always T.F.Y.Q.A.!

Cox Hakase


Higaki Gennosuke. (2007). Hidden Karate: The True Bunkai for the Heian Katas and Naihanchi, Champ Company. Ltd.: Tokyo

(NOTE: This book sells used on Amazon for $220.00 HOWEVER you can order it directly from the publisher for $39.00 Go to )

Patrick McCarthy. (2005). Sometimes you don’t know how to fit in until you break out, (retrieved from: (Discussion on "Bunkai")

Kane, L. A., Wilder, K. (2005). The Way of Kata: A Comprehensive Guide for Deciphering Martial Applications, YMAA Publications: Boston.

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