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Shotokan Kata Bunkai

Originally posted November 2015.

In this post, I want to look at the whether or not Shotokan Kata have Pracitcal Kata Applications within them.

Before I continue I want to clarify what I mean by the term Bunkai. If we use the literal translation of “bunkai” we get a rough translation of “to analyse or dissemble.

However, for this article I will be using the term “bunkai” to represent the common terminology for the “application” of the Kata technique. More specifically, I will be using “bunkai” to mean the practical application of kata techniques.

Having confirmed the meaning of bunkai for the purposes of this article. I will answer the following question – do Shotokan Kata have practical bunkai?

Semantically the answer is yes, in fact any form of physical expression could have practical bunkai. I have a challenge for you, to search on youtube for any pop band music videos from the last 5 years and you will find dance motions that can be applied practically!!

However, that does not infer that the dances were originally created with those self-defence techniques in mind. I guess what is really being asked in this article is whether or not Shotokan Kata were created with practical bunkai.

The answer to that question is no….and yes…..are you confused yet? Let me explain…..

Firstly, we need to look at what exactly constitutes as being a “Shotokan Kata”. It is important to note that most if not all the kata practiced in Shotokan schools were created a long time before the “Shotokan” style came into existence!!

The Heian Series, Tekki Shodan, Bassai Dai/Sho, Kanku Dai/Sho, Hangestu, Empi, Jion etc…… are all examples of Kata which pre-date the first Shotokan dojo! Therefore, these Kata are not Shotokan Kata. They just happen to be the Katas practiced by Shotokan Clubs.

But what about those Kata which are modern inventions by Gichin Funakoshi and his students?

I am referring, for example, to Ten No Kata. This form featured in Funakoshi’s book Karate-do Nyumon, and also included in the book was the two-person application/bunkai of the kata, which showed the motions used in the typical “block-punch’ sequences we sadly see today being passed off as techniques to be used against real violence. With regard to this kata there was not practical bunkai in mind upon its creation.

A similar thing happened with the Taikyoku Kata series. These kata were invented around 1930 as simplified Heian Kata and were created at a time in history where karate had moved from function and to form.

There is some suggestion that the Shotokan versions of Wankan and Sochin were also created around this time. Although other schools have kata with the same name, the versions in Shotokan bare little if any resemblance to them and when we note that both kata have the deep stance of Sochin/Fudo Dachi (which was a trademark of Gigo Funakoshi) predominately used in the kata, I am lead to deduce that these Katas are Shotokan inventions and were invented without practical bunkai in mind.

Shotokan Kata = Kata’s created after karate had turned its focus from function and turned towards form. Examples included: Ten no Kata, Taikyoku Series, Wankan & Sochin.

But all is not lost!

Whilst, the above kata may not have been created with practical bunkai in mind, that does not necessarily mean they do not have practical bunkai!! I know it sounds contradictory but keep reading….

I mentioned earlier that any solo dance routine could be anaylised and practical applications could be found, the same goes for the four kata above. But there is one key difference between studying a dance routine and studying “Shotokan Kata”.

The Shotokan Kata are made up of movements found in other Kata – which have practical bunkai as their original intention!!

Although, the pre-shotokan kata are designed with practical bunkai in mind and are developed in a logical progressive manner, Shotokan Kata and other katas (and other forms too – such as the Tae Kwon Do Forms) made after Karate turned from function to form in the early 1900s can still be useful tool to help explore, practice, create and develop practical kata bunkai.


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