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T_Annan's picture
A quick question about Bunkai.

Is anyone able to give me a definition of Bunkai and a general breakdown of it's relation to Kata? I've personally never really practised it and would really like to learn more about it as it seems to be such a fascinating exercise.

PASmith's picture

Far more qualified people than I on here but basically if kata is a solo form then bunkai is how the solo movements can be used on another person.

This can range from the flash and fanciful "wishful thinking" overly choreographed bunkai you can see in lots of kata competitions and demonstrations right up to the pragmatic and combative bunkai Iain A teaches and advocates. There are also related terms like oyo, henka, ura, etc.

Chris R
Chris R's picture

Bunkai means to analyse the kata. The intended outcome is to find fighting techniques, which are called oyo. Basically, bunkai refers to the process you go through to find the practical fighting techniques.Bunkai is very important, and is a necessary part of properly learning karate. The kata were made to be understood, and we achieve this understanding through bunkai.

There are also different related terms which allow you to be more specific about your bunkai practice. Omote, ura, or honto are an example of this, as they mean surface, hidden, or true applications. Another relevant term is henka, which means variation. This refers to changing a move in the kata slightly to fit your vision of how it might be applied.

There are other terms too, but the above is all I've really tried to learn regarding this type of terminology. Anyone feel free to correct me if I got anything wrong.

OhioMike's picture

Disclaimer: I am a engineer with a Japanese car maker so my perspective may be a little strange.

The japanese term Bunkai litterally means "to disassemble", and it refers to the process of reverse engineering and gaining understanding of the whole by careful examination of how the parts fit together (source: I asked a friend that happens to be a Japanese engineer). Iain has described kata as a map which helps you on the journey to combative skill, but it is not the journey all by itself.  I tend to view kata as a blueprint since it allows me to see the individual portions of a kata as different systems in a engineered whole, it also helps me realize that there are a lot of ways to do the same function and so avoid martial tribalism. Every car maker does Bunkai on compediter's cars, we buy one after it has been in the market for a little while and then take it apart down to the point that we spilt individual welds, all the time asking the same question "Why did they do it that way?" about a million times. I do the same thing when I look at a new kata, I look for common themes and solutions to common problems and then work out from that point all the while asking "Why did they do it that way?" then do it again assuming different positions and ranges between myself and my opponent. 

Hope that helps,


Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

T_Annan wrote:
I've personally never really practised it and would really like to learn more about it as it seems to be such a fascinating exercise.


Joking aside … If you join the newsletter, you will get a link to a short e-book which acts as a first introduction to practical karate and kata bunkai:


The above definitions of bunkai are really good too. “Bunkai” tends to be used colloquially to mean “the applications of kata in combat”, but, as has been pointed out, when being stricter with our terminology “bunkai” refers more to the process of examination and understanding that is part of the “kata process”. I’m happy to use it wither way, depending upon my audience at the time.

All the best,


Wastelander's picture

You've gotten some good suggestions, so far. I figured I would just throw in my own thoughts on the subject--I wrote this a few years ago, now, but I think it's still a pretty good outline:


Of course, Iain's books go over it well. I think that the book, "The Way of Kata," by Lawrence Kane and Kris Wilder, is also a good primer for people interested in getting started with bunkai as a process.

Marc's picture

Great answers so far.

I especially like the Mike's analogy with the automobile industry process of reverse engineering competitors' cars.

Also go and read Wastelander's article.

I'd like to throw in another take on the topic: My article "Kata Bunkai - How Do You Read A Kata?" can give you some idea of how to go about analysing a kata.

"Bun-Kai" (分解), according to the dictionary means: disassembly; dismantling; disaggregating; analysis; disintegrating; decomposing; degrading

While the first kanji "bun" mainly carries the meaning of "segment, part, one's share", the second kanji "kai" mainly means "unravel, explanation, understanding, solve, explain".

So "bun-kai" is "to split something into segments in order to understand its meaning", which is exactly the process Mike describes.

Each kata was created to record the methods and principles of a system of self-defence as practiced by some expert. A kata represents a series of two-person-drills that were encoded into a sequence of movements which allow the student to remember them by practicing them as a solo form. Bunkai then is the process of decoding the solo form back into two-person drills that exemplify the methods and principles which were originally recorded.

Of course there has never been a standardisation body that has formalised the process of encoding and decoding kata. That's one reason why we see different versions of the same kata. And the same method/principle can be represented by different movements in different katas.

So bunkai (the decoding of kata) is a process that requires a bit of creativity, critical thinking and some understanding of how violence works and of how the human body works.

All the best,