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Drew Loto
Drew Loto's picture
Primary and secondary bunkai

This question has two parts. 

Pedagogically, what is the relationship between kata and bunkai?  I comprehend why the solo kata form is useful and important and why the investigation of bunkai is crucial.  I'm not asking for people to justify their attitudes towards those practices.  In your various dojos, when do you teach kata and when do you teach bunkai?  Are the solo forms taught side by side with their corresponding bunkai?  Is the solo form taught first with a large time gap between then and when the bunkai is introduced?  Is the bunkai taught first, with the solo form taught as some sort of souvenir only after students master the techniques?  Does a student learn a kata and its corresponding bunkai as part of a single grading or do you split it up?

Secondly, what is the relationship between primary and secondary bunkai?  Primary bunkai generally refers to the applications that are taught first or considered the most readily applicable or the instructor's favorites.  Secondary bunkai refers all of those other valid applications that do not serve the role of primary.  When do you teach secondary interpretations of kata movements?  Do you teach them at all?  Do you allow students to create their own interpretations of kata?  How do you go about conducting such an exercise?

I look forward to hearing what everyone has to say on the matter.  :) 

shoshinkanuk's picture

Interesting question, here's how I do it-

1. Teach a general movements to the kata. 2. Start showing some simple Bunkai and letting the students work that 3. Introduce elements of the overall strategie and specific tactics from within the kata 4. Start to nail down the solo kata 5. go back to 1....................

I think many of us are far, far to logical and systemised within the karate context but I appriciate that works well for many, part of karate is personal freedom and this really shines in Bunkai/Oyo.

My Sensei, granted is far more organised than I am as he is a full time, proffesional martial artist.

JWT's picture

When I last taught new Kata to students on a regular basis I would drill bunkai with them, showing the same movement used effectively as part of different combinations or in different ways. When I'd done this a few times I'd then introduce the Kata, which they found much easier to remember and accept as they already had both a visual and tactlie memory of the movements.

Wastelander's picture

My instructor generally teaches the kata first, but we are very informal about what is learned and when. We have self defense techniques that are required at every rank, and some of them are kata applications (I would like all of them to be, but it was a compromise between my instructor and his business partner), so everyone gets exposed to applications through those techniques. If students with less experience are in a class with more experienced students, we often work applications together whether they know the kata or not.

Personally, I would like it to be structured more like the way JWT does it--application drills first, solo kata second to serve as a method of remembering and practicing the applications when you don't have a partner. Of course, from there the movements can be broken down into what you call "secondary" bunkai. We also don't have any formal structure to "primary" or "secondary" bunkai, so the only way you know which is which is by how often my instructor has you drill an applications :P

Zach_MB's picture

In the school that I teach at, we teach the kata first. I think it's important that the motions be learned, along with the weighting and positioning. And let's be real, there is a lot more to kata than just the bunkai. There is the mental and emotional parts, as well as the historical part. We tend to teach the kata first in order to teach those elements, getting our students familiar with the kata and it's nature. Then we can go into the applications after the movements feel a little more natural. In the past 18 months we've done a major overhaul of our curriculum with a focus on the kata and the bunkai. We have found that the new version of our school is both tighter in our instruction and more intuitive in the material. Our students are becoming better martial artists more quickly and understanding depth on a level that we had not seen in the past. Not only are they taking in what we show them, but they are thinking for themselves.

Secondly, we tend to show "less violent" applications to the color ranks, especially the children. The fact of the matter is that we cannot be showing children how to break necks and end lives. Even the less lethal applications can have some complexity to them. It's inappropriate in their individual practice and they do not have the mental capacity to make such a moral decision. So we show them a more simplistic applications and save the nasty stuff for later down the line. Something that I'm working on is a addendum to of curriculum that would establish an additional class with the intention of taking the blackbelts into a much deeper level of the kata based on the history, connections, bunkai, and drills based on the kata. My point is that there is absolutely a time and place for certain applications.

Drew Loto
Drew Loto's picture

Zach_MB wrote:

Secondly, we tend to show "less violent" applications to the color ranks, especially the children. The fact of the matter is that we cannot be showing children how to break necks and end lives. Even the less lethal applications can have some complexity to them.

Could you give me an example of a less violent application?  When I hear "less violent" in regards to bunkai, I can't help but think of Funakoshi reducing kata application to basic punches, kicks, and blocks as a way of making his karate suitable for school children.

lcpljones_dontpanic's picture

Hi all

I teach kata and primary bunkai alongside each other at the same time ie; I will teach a portion or segment of a kata and then show the bunkai for that part. I will then move on to the next phase of the kata and follow the same process until the whole kata has been practiced and learned along with the corresponding bunkai. This saves on the whole "what are we doing this for" mindset as students know they will shortly be finding out the why and hence concentrate on learning and practicing because the good stuff is just around the corner.

I would require the kata and primary bunkai be known and appropriately demonstrated for the grading test. In my view so long as the kata looks basically right, the student can apply the bunkai (which I believe is the most important part of the process) and they have the requisite understanding relevant to the grade then that’s a pass, if the kata does not look pretty I really don’t care. If my students want to enter competitions they can go elsewhere for that particular training requirement with my blessing and would always be welcome back anytime.   

With regard to secondary bunkai I would require students at each grade to come up with their own bunkai for their grading. For lower grades the bunkai they come up with would have no bearing on the result of their grading unless they clearly did not bother. For senior grades they should have sufficient understanding to be able to come up with some good real world practical alternative bunkai.

As for teaching less violent applications, I don’t teach anyone below 14 years old so don’t really have an issue there. Besides which the difference between a less lethal technique and a critical technique is in my opinion and experience mostly down to the amount of  force exerted and exceeding the natural range of motion of a particular body part. The main point is to maintain your safety and wellbeing and that of those for whom you care and to be able to justify your actions afterward.

Zach_MB's picture

I see how you got to that point, and it's a valid concern. Say a particular sequence involves neck control. For the adults we may show how to crank the neck and where the position exists to cause serious damage to that joint if necessary. However, we do not feel comfortable teaching children how to end lives, so we end their particular instruction on controlling the joint to a position of advantage.

DaveB's picture

I my that I am not a karate teacher, but were I building a syllabus it would be kata first and I would require the performance of the form to be at a reasonable standard. 

My reason for this is nothing to do with competitive ambitions or concerns over aesthetics, I simply believe that form has combative purpose and we dismiss it at our peril. I also think that coordination and technique are of real importance to applying martial arts and that these should be developed progressively. In my experience as a student, I have been able to gain much more from partner training since learning how to move and those I've known who started the other way took longer to pick up partner sequences and had more trouble making them effective. 

As I said, I'm no teacher so my sample is probably quite small and my experience limited to myself.