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Jonathan Walter
Jonathan Walter's picture
How did we lose the bunkai?

Hi everyone. I've been studying Goju-Ryu for 28 years, and have been doing a deep dive on bunkai for the last year. It's been incredibly rewarding, but one question has been bothering me. I can't understand how the applications were lost in the first place. The "standard" bunkai, at least for goju, is simply nonsense. It isn't good marial arts, it isn't good fighting, and it doesn't follow the kata. I would blame it on modern misunderstandings, but I recently got a copy of Mabuni's book on Seipai kata, and it is the same. He was a friend of Miyagi. Did Miyagi not understand the bunkai? How deep does this rabbit hole go? I understand that Itosu introduced watered-down explainations of the kata when he started teaching in the schools. It makes sense that that would create confusion, but I don't see how it would lead to the total loss of the bunkai even in direct lineages. And it doesn't explain why such a renowned karate master like Mabuni would publish a book that he had to know was full of misinformation. 

I've got to be missing something. Can anyone point me in the right direction?

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Jonathan,

Jonathan Walter wrote:
I can't understand how the applications were lost in the first place.

There are a few key factors:

1) Karate was in decline, so the shift to being a “modern budo” (like Judo and Kendo) was seen as a way for it to have a future.

“It is regrettable that karate is not popular in Okinawa at present. We need to find a solution to promote karate in the fields of physical education and martial arts education.” - Genwa Nakasone, 1936

2) The primary goal of the modern budo was to produce strong minds and bodies. Combative function was not a primary driver. The applications of the kata were therefore of little concern.

3) Almost all of the books we have come from when karate as “modern budo” was firmly established. There was no market for books (not enough karateka) prior to this point. The books are useful to us when they reference the older version of karate; even though most of what is shown reflects the karate of the time i.e. they are writing for the audience they had.

4) One of the main ways that karate spread was through the Japanese education system. Students therefore learnt a superficial version of the art:

“The Karate that high school students practice today is not the same Karate that was practiced even as recently as ten years ago, and it is a long way indeed from the Karate I learned when I was a child in Okinawa.” – Gichin Funakoshi, Karate-Do: My Way of Life.

5) The other budo arts had a huge influence on karate i.e. the 3 step and 5 step drills of judo and kendo being badly copied which results in the long rage “oi-zuki-thons” of modern pre-arranged kumite … which in turn had a negative effect on the way kata was viewed.

6) WW2 resulted in the death of many leading karateka and a huge disruption in organised training. At the end of the war, we have the remaining karateka – most of whom learnt the superficial budo version – grouping back together to standardise.

“As a result of the social disorder that followed the end of World War Two, the karate world was dispersed, as were many other things. Quite apart from the decline in the level of technique during these times … ” – Gichin Funakoshi, Foreword to the revised edition of Karate-Do Kyohan.

Jonathan Walter wrote:
I don't see how it would lead to the total loss of the bunkai even in direct lineages.

The bunkai was not deemed important anymore. Generally speaking, no one wanted to teach it and no one wanted to learn it.

Jonathan Walter wrote:
And it doesn't explain why such a renowned karate master like Mabuni would publish a book that he had to know was full of misinformation.

They were writing for the audience of the time. The karateka of that time were learning the budo version of Itosu’s children’s version. A book on the old version of karate would not sell in great numbers. We can look at Motobu’s and Itoman’s books to see the combative version of the art, but it needs to be remembered that both men were minority players during their own time (we know almost nothing about Itoman). It is only now that interest in combative function has resurfaced that their works have risen in popularity. Funakoshi was the main voice of that time, with other popular karateka following his lead.

All of the leading players of the time adopted a budo approach. You could not become a leading player if you did not, because that is the karate people wanted to learn and that the authorities wanted to promote.

If Funakoshi had not done his thing, karate would, in all likelihood, have died out. It certainly would not enjoy the huge popularity it has today. However, it is fair to say that not everyone was comfortable with him taking the lead or enjoying the popularity he did:

“When I first came to Tokyo, there was another Okinawan [Funakoshi] who was teaching Karate there quite actively. When in Okinawa I hadn’t even heard of his name! Upon guidance of another Okinawan, I went to the place he was teaching youngsters, where he was running his mouth, bragging. Upon seeing this, I grabbed his hand, took up a position of kake-kumite [a position they used to begin live practise from] and said, ‘what will you do?' “He [Funakoshi] was hesitant and I thought to punch him would be too much, so I threw him with kote-gaeshi [wrist lock] and he fell to the ground with a large thud. He got up, his face red and said ‘once more.’ And again, I threw him with kote-gaeshi. He did not relent and asked for another bout, so he was thrown the same way for a third time.” – Choki Motobu

Jonathan Walter wrote:
Did Miyagi not understand the bunkai?

I think he knew it, but he also understood the need for a modern version. His plan was to preserve the traditional kata, but create new “kata which are suitable for students of primary schools, high schools, universities and youth schools” (my highlights):

“As to karate clothes, we need to agree a standard karate uniform soon; as we often have problems. As for the terminology of karate, I think we will have to control it in the future.  I have been making new technical words and promoting them. Regarding kata, I think traditional kata should be preserved. As for the nationwide promotion of karate, I think we had better create new Kata. We will create both offensive and defensive kata which are suitable for students of primary schools, high schools, universities and youth schools. Mainly, we, the members of karate promotion association, will make new kata and promote them throughout Japan; now there is the Physical Education Association and the Okinawan branch of Butokukai. We also have senior students of karate and those who are interested in karate. We, therefore, cooperate with them to study and promote karate. If such organizations and experts study karate thoroughly, we can make a decision about the karate name issue and karate uniform relatively soon. I think the old kata should be preserved without any modification while new kata should be invented, otherwise I am convinced that no one will be interested in karate in the future.” – Chojun Miyagi, 25th of October 1936 (minutes from “The Meeting of the Masters”).

It seems to me as if Miyagi was keen to produce a separate budo version of karate, while preserving the older version alongside it.

Pretty much all attempts all attempts at new budo kata failed to take hold, but what did become prevalent was the teaching of the old kata in a new way (as physical conditioning and divorced from combative function). That is the karate that spread.

The “Kasai no Genri” are Goju’s “bunkai rules” and according to Seikichi Toguchi – who shared them in his writing – these were taught to him by Chojun Miyagi. These rules are solid and guide us away from “3K applications”. They are also consistent with what other masters wrote about the true applications of kata. They are good evidence that Miyagi understood bunkai and taught it to some students; even though it was budo version that dominated wider practise for the aforementioned reasons.

I hope that’s of some help.

All the best,


Jonathan Walter
Jonathan Walter's picture

Thanks for the reply. It helps a lot. I guess I never considered that the Miyagi/Motobu/Funakoshi generation were the ones changing karate. I always assumed it happened after them, but does explain a lot. And thanks for the quotes. I'm trying to read all I can from early karate so new sources to run down are always great.