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Tau's picture
Discovering Bunkai

How do we create or discover Bunkai? Are there more or less effective ways of studying kata and Bunkai? Are there a finite number of possibilities to technique interpretation or should constraints be removed?

If I get this correct (and I apologise if not) then Iain's three criteria by which he considers validity of new Bunkai are:

- It must closely resemble the kata

- It must conform to the principles as established by the Past Masters

- It must be pragmatic.

I'm sure others have additions to this

Of the three, the last one is the most contentious as it's open to oppinions and the sum total of our past experiences.

I'm sure I approach Bunkai quite differently to others with Karate being not even a secondary art for me. Primarily I'm a Jujitsuka and Aikidoka (with plenty of other bits thrown in.) I love training in these Karate methods because of how they bridge the gap. I make no secret that techniques, principles and drills from kata have found their way into my Jujitsu teaching. The flip side is that I approach Bunkai with the mind of a Jujitsuka. That's not intentional, it's who I am. There must be others like me. Are our Bunkai therefore any less valid? I rarely set out to create Bunkai, instead I see movements in kata as I'm teaching or practicting Jujitsu and then modify how I explain it or suit my given audience. There's no denying the crossover. 

The short question that I'm getting to is... do Bunkai practitioners have set ways of approaching the discovery or creation of Bunkai?


Edit: just some poor spelling and grammar that I think reduced clarity

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Yes, there are the rules of Kaisai (for Goju Ryu at least) as set down by Seikichi Toguchi, which came from Miyagi.. then expanded on by Kane and Wilder in The Way of Kata. You can look at old books by people like Motobu, Mabuni etc. and also find what amount to sets of principles for understanding and "using" kata. Interestingly, even when you read and look at things said by old masters (that i'm aware of at least), there is no mention of "correct" intepretations or sets, it usually goes in the direction of principles.

shoshinkanuk's picture

Various Sensei over the years taught me strategy, technique and principles from within the classical kata.

One in particular opened my mind to the strategic and principles elements.

I am taught Bunkai from my Sensei, which I may, or may not teach exactly but this usually centres around the context of use. My Sensei is a full time martial artist, with a reasonably large student body of exceptional quality.

Do I create Bunkai, absolutly based upon these lesons and principly the strategy, technique and principles from our classical kata. But certain things are 'fixed' and need to be taught as I was taught etc.

My Oyo is much simpler, it has to be to have any real use for application.

There is a vast gulf between 'seeing' stuff, and it's actual pragmatic use. It's something im mindful of when I train as it's very easy to venture off into la la land. I can only base this mindset on my actual violent personal exposure, nothing else comes close IME.

Mark B
Mark B's picture

Hi all,

I think this is one of the most difficult questions to answer. I'm sure Iain will make a better job of it than me but I'll give it a go. 

I think when we practice an application at a slow learning speed it USUALLY looks like the kata but I think even this is open to interpretation.  I don't think it HAS to look like the form although it most often does. Of course once you add movement and resistance of some description it becomes messy, so then visually it looks less and less like the kata. I think that's one area where some people get slightly lost in kata study. 

I think the same principles are present in all the kata- they are just expressed in a different way , take a one handed lapel grab for example . Pinan Nidan suggests locate the opponents hand, step back and use Age Uke. Seisan suggests Soto Uke for that Scenario. Same principle different technique. 

I reckon that says certainly use the principles as set out as they are the best way to get the job done.  There is the quote about violence and how the principles never vary. I'm at work so I don't have it to hand, I'm sure someone else can share it off they think it approriate.

I personally think  Bunkai Oyho must be pragmatic as that is the reason kata exists. 

To find my own applications I reverse engineer by considering my opponents actions, my predictable reaction while at the same time referring back to the kata I'm working on. The irony is that as I get better at analysing my kata my Bunkai Oyho is getting simpler, moving away from the overly complex stuff  I used to give myself headaches over trying to discover.

I think we know they each move in kata can have lots of different applications and it is a lot of fun searching them out.  For myself I start with the most obvious ( in my opinion) and work from there and definitely I think personal preference and where applicable ,past experience play a significant role in anybodies personal study. 

All the best


Jon Sloan
Jon Sloan's picture

Hey all

Within the Kissaki group we use the Rules of Combat that Vince laid out in this


in order to assess whether the bunkai we're developing/thinking of is practical for self protection. It's a simple rule set really - you can see the categories if you 'look inside' the book option on Amazon's site.

For, say, number 20 "hands do only two things in a fight" it's simply 'hurt him or protect you". So, if you have a dead hand during the application you've got to ask yourself why? Why isn't it hitting him, or grabbing him or preventing him hitting or grabbing you.

All the rules aren't necessary in any given scenario I think but if you find you're failing the test in a number of them then maybe you should reconsider the application you're playing with.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Tau wrote:
How do we create or discover Bunkai? Are there more or less effective ways of studying kata and Bunkai? Are there a finite number of possibilities to technique interpretation or should constraints be removed?

Great idea for a thread and I look forward to reading everyone’s take on this!

Tau wrote:
If I get this correct (and I apologise if not) then Iain's three criteria by which he considers validity of new Bunkai are:

- It must closely resemble the kata

- It must conform to the principles as established by the Past Master

- It must be pragmatic.

That’s pretty much it, but I would express it a little differently.

For a scientific theory to have validity it must encapsulate all the available data and give accurate predictions when tested. In modern usage the word “theory” may have different connotations, but scientific theories are very robust. Try stepping of a tall building and saying, “Well, the ‘theory of gravity’ is just a theory!” and see what happens ;-) Basically, that’s the same kind of robustness I want. So my theories on bunkai must also encapsulate all the available data and withstand testing.

As I see it there are three main areas of data that apply to kata bunkai. These three things originate from the premise that kata represents a solution to the problem of civilian violence (as stated by Itosu, Motobu, etc). These three areas give rise to three main “rules” or criteria. For an application to be valid (in my view) it must comply with these three criteria:

1 – The application must be congruent with what we know about the nature of civilian violence.

2 – The application should be in accordance with the information we have from the past.

3 – The kata motion should keep its integrity and be fully utilised.

Basically, the nature of civilian violence is the problem; the kata is the recorded solution; and the information from the past tells us how to understand that solution. If an application ticks all three boxes, then it is a solid “theory” (in a robust scientific sense) and hence I view it as being correct.

I could write loads on this – and indeed have over the last 14 years – but to flesh this out just a little:

1 – The application must be congruent with what we know about the nature of civilian violence.

Civilian violence has nothing to do with formal “karate-style attacks” from 10 feet way. If we don’t fully understand the nature of the problem, we can never correctly understand the nature of the solution. Many karateka genuinely think that choreographed formal exchanges is what kata is all about. They think this because they don’t appreciate what real situations are actually like. Kata is intended to be used in the close-range frantic chaos of civilian conflict. And it works well when applied in that context. All kinds of failures of logic need to come into play to get “modern bunkai” to “work”. However, kata fits the nature of true civilian violence perfectly without modification or failures in logic.

2 – The application should be in accordance with the information we have from the past.

When Mabuni tells us that thinking of a kata as a battle with eight people who attack along the compass points is “ridiculous” then we should listen. When he tells us that the angles in kata represent the angles we shift to we should listen. When Motobu tells us we should never have a dead hand we should listen. When Funakoshi shows us – with photographs – that the “lower block” in Naihanchi / Tekki Shodan is an arm-lock (not blocking a kick) we should listen. And so on. There is loads of information from the past that tells us how we should look at kata and, for me, any valid approach to kata has to take that into account

3 – The kata motion should keep its integrity and be fully utilised.

In some of the “modern traditional” applications we see lots of the motion not being utilised. For example, the opening motion of Pinan / Heian Yodan is frequently thought of as a “left block” where the right hand is doing nothing useful. The stance, the angle, the use of every part of the motion, etc are frequently not considered. It’s also common to see some “creative applications” that no longer bear any resemblance to the motion they are supposedly explaining. The kata is the way it is for a reason.

If an application effectively addresses all three components then I’m happy with it. And the better it addresses them then the better the application is. In my case the one I feel best addresses all areas becomes my “primary application”, with other applications – which will still address all three areas – becoming “secondary applications”.

We sometimes hear that there is no “right or wrong” when it comes to kata applications, but I disagree. While history may not have given us a definitive “right answer” (in most cases) there are certainly lots of obviously wrong answers. What I teach is what I feel is the “rightest answer” :-)

All the best,


JWT's picture

I take a different approach to Iain, though we do have some things in common.

When I look at Kata bunkai I prefer to look at it from the point of view of techniques first, combinations second, principles third. I look at what people in the past said about karate and kata, but I don't let their knowledge or expressed viewpoints limit my thinking.  In particular some of the oldest kata bunkai looks to me to be a sanitised form of kumite for the post Itosu generation, not combative karate.  I can't be certain how much even karateka as famous as Itosu really knew, so even if someone were to find a secret copy of his or Matsumura's writings (as Iain said recently) I'd read it, but I wouldn't regard it as the end of the discussion or the only use of the movements.

I don't limit myself to what may be commonly taught as 'the technique', so for example if there is a combination of a down sweep followed by a thrust, rather than always look at the two as separate items I might take the end of what is thought of as the down sweep and the start of what is thought of as the thrust and work that motion for my bunkai independently of what comes before or after.  One way of looking at this is how in some Aikido systems you might see a flowing sequence of movement taught from the start, in others (Yoshinkan for example) you might have that same movement broken down into four separate movements by count.

I believe that sequences and combinations can sometimes be applied as per the form, but often I see several sequences as showing multiple options from the same starting point depending on your success. Similarly I see some combinations or techniques as redundancies for other combinations.

I generally pay very little attention to the line of movement or the direction of the head in the Kata. Sometimes it can be there to teach something, but a lot of the time I suspect it is there because of the intent to get back to the starting point. It may also be there due to the layout of someone's pot plants in the yard. I note it and often use it to very good effect, but I don't let such things constrain my thinking.  With regard to the head movement - it is often only linked to one of many possible applications, and to follow it slavishly implies that the Kata's originator understood all the potential applications for the movements they were drilling, or were not deliberately obfuscating their intent - I don't know that.

When actively studying bunkai I look at the individual techniques first against HAOV. Then I look at them as positions I might have moved to following other responses. Then I look at combinations. Then I look to see if there is potentially any underlying principle that might be taught through what I'm doing.  

For me my bunkai has to meet as many of the following criteria as possible: 

  • HAOV Relevant 
  • Legally Underpinned (not a concern I'm sure for many of the originators, but if I teach a lethal response to a non serious threat then I'm liable)
  • Effective, Efficient and Easy (I'm always trying to work gross motor skills that will be accessible when the heart rate is elevated rather than fine motor skills)
  • Minimizing Risk of Harm (defender) 
  • Technique Multiplicity with Transferable Skills (does training this reinforce and work something else? Does this approach clash completely with my existing skill set?)
  • Utilizing Predictable Response 
  • Taking and maintaining the Initiative
  • Inherent Redundancy (if something doesn't work I want backups)
  • Vital Points Targeting (not necessarily pressure points, but areas of the body I know will do things)
  • Adrenaline Tolerant 
  • Low Maintenance 
  • Stable Posture 
  • Physiology appropriate movements utilizing Natural Positions

deltabluesman's picture

Tau wrote:
Are there more or less effective ways of studying kata and Bunkai? Are there a finite number of possibilities to technique interpretation or should constraints be removed?

The most significant (and frequent flaw) I see in kata bunkai is an insufficient appreciation of context.  In other words, this is the analysis of a motion in isolation, paying only minimal attention to the rest of the kata.  I believe that this understanding of context is what separates a decent karateka from an excellent karateka.   

It is something that I encounter frequently.  I am thinking of the karate instructor who can show you ten different applications for a downward block, but who has absolutely no explanation of why the downward block is included at that point in the kata.  This is a gamebreaker for me even if the application is pragmatic. 

My core principle/assumption in approaching the bunkai of a kata is this:  each kata is meant to be a complete fighting system.  And of course I am thinking of the quote from Choki Motobu which Iain cites in this article:  http://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/article/naihanchi-karates-most-deadly-kata  (This should be nuanced for kata such as Heian, which are best understood together.) 

This is my bedrock assumption for each kata.  It is crucial for two reasons:  1)  developing actual, reliable fighting skill takes time; and 2)  training time is limited.  A kata that contains an entire self-encapsulated fighting system is therefore far more valuable to me than a kata that contains a random mishmash of techniques. 

Having an effective, efficient curriculum is important for any martial art.  I get really annoyed when I have an instructor who runs every class off-the-cuff, as it were.  Sure, that might be fun, but it is a highly inefficient way of creating well-rounded martial artists.  (I think it is a major issue for a lot of new MMA schools.)  This is why kata are so valuable to me—they are a time-tested, prepackaged tool box that serves as both a high-grade core curriculum and as an effective physical mnemonic.

My own exploration of kata has convinced me that Motobu was right about each kata.  So that is why I value them.  If I did not believe this were the case, I honestly would discard them completely.  I do not need a random mishmash of techniques, no matter how old they are. 

So when I am (seriously) exploring kata application, I take the bedrock assumption from Motobu.  Since the kata has to record a complete fighting method, that eliminates any technique that would not work in an actual fight.  I then add two principles.  First, I do not accept any application unless it fits the whole kata.  This can be especially tricky in the initial stages of dissecting a kata, as I will frequently have to completely revise my view of the whole kata based on a single problematic application.  But they almost always fall into a coherent whole.  And then second, I extrapolate principles broadly based on what I found in the kata. 

Now that I have Youtube, I feel like my bunkai has improved dramatically because I can find high-quality examples of style variations in the kata.  So this gives me an even better gauge for each kata, because I have to assume that style variations are thematically related to the original method.  This can be exceptionally challenging at times, but it tends to tightly limit my available options.  As a result, I rarely end up with so-called secondary bunkai.  However, I have absolutely no issue with including anything and everything that is effective when doing kata-derived drills or kata-derived sparring.           

DaveB's picture

My own approach mirrors that of DeltaBluesMan above almost exactly. On a specific note, in the first instance I tend to stay with the traditional explanation of a technique (I.e. punch is a punch, block is a block) unless there is a reason embedded in the context of the technique that this is unfeasible. A good example of this is the last oizuki in Hiean sandan: while it can be a punch it makes more sense when. combined with the following turn as an entry to a throw. It should also be noted though that I see a variety of uses for basic uke techniques and so their inclusion does not necessarily imply defending against a strike in my analysis. 

I would also add that in looking for the fighting system for each kata I am looking for the direct route to take me from the start of a conflict to its end. 

A system is generally described as having 3 parts: an input, a process and an output. For a fighting system your input is the conflict situation, your process then is not the fight its self, but the strategy you employ to get to your output: you safe and your opponents neutralized. 

Following this premise we can see that the strategy is the key point to be taken from kata and for me this is done by analyzing the applications of the sequences to find the "why" and "when" of the combination. Why does this work? and When do I use it? I think not understanding the when, of techniques causes much to be discarded needlessly. 

The last feature of my application philosophy that differs slightly to those presented above is that I regard self protection against the untrained as the beginning of the art not the end. 

The single untrained unarmed assailant is the most basic area of martial arts and I believe studying MA should be a path up the ladder of threat to include armed, trained and multiple assailants. As a result I don't think that kata should be seen as devoid of dueling methods or that karate can't work in the ring and so I don't shy away from things that fit that environment. 

Dale Parker
Dale Parker's picture

I'd like to bring up Kakushi te/waza.  ??

Hanshi Miki, Shihan Demura, and Soke Mabuni all teach this in kata, and it refers to hidden techniques.

With that, all the Kakushi waza flow with the kata, but only present themselves in bunkai.  So to state bunkai must look like kata may not always be accurate.

On the other hand if you are creating bunkai, you probably are not following the Kukushi Waza.

Shito-Ryu is the only style in my experience that teaches Kakushi Waza.  

Dale Parker
Dale Parker's picture

I'd like to point out the two question marks in my post were an attempt to use kanji.

Iain, you do know its the 21st century?

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Dale Parker wrote:
I'd like to point out the two question marks in my post were an attempt to use kanji.

Iain, you do know its the 21st century?

I do :-) The website does not like kanji though as they get lost as the site generates the HTML code. I may get around to adding that function at some point. It’s not a high priority though seeing as this website is in English. It’s therefore pretty rare people want to display kanji, and when they do it generally adds little as most can’t read it. There is always the option of displaying / linking to it as an image if vitally important. I am happy to do that when requested if there is a need. I’ve done that below so you can expand on the meaning of the characters if you wish?

So I may add that functionality, but it’s unlikely as I feel the budget for the website will be better spent elsewhere.

All the best,


Dale Parker
Dale Parker's picture

Mostly just razzing you on.

DaveB's picture

Dale, can you give us some examples of official Shito ryu kakushite application?

Kokoro's picture

Great question. And not often an easy one to answer. I don’t look at it as creating bunkai I look at it as discovering or rediscovering. there are several levels of application to a bunkai.

I start off with the most basic moves, how a fight starts. If a person pushes you what will this move do, then go on with a punch, kick, grab, etc., keeping in line with the principals of the kata. I break it down into sequences at times. Or sometimes I will drop it when the techniques repeat on both sides, depending upon my goal at the time.

I also look into other variations of the kata and the history of the person that created the kata, to see what kind of fighter he was whenever possible. The variations get me thinking why does this style do it this way and that style do it that way. I try different stances or angles with the various techniques. And in the rare cases that I’m stumped I bring it to my student who is a jujutsu expert and he pulls something out for me. Or my friend I see every so often he is a genius even if he never saw the kata in minutes he comes up with application.

I love many of the other answers, I'll have to reread them in a bit when I have more time

Kokoro's picture

also to me its not so much about what the techqniue is but what is between the techqniue. the start and stop is more jsut a photograph in time. everything happens between the motions.