Kata Bunkai - How Do You Read A Kata?

(by Marc Janott, May 2015, latest update May 2016, English version January 2017)

"To be sure, the best way to understand karate-do is not only to practice the kata but also to gain an appreciation of the meaning inherent in each of the various kata." (Gichin Funakoshi)

"Of course both analysis (bunkai) and partner work (kumite) are necessary for a creative, enquiring way of learning. What matters most is to analytically examine and practice actions or sequences of moves." (Kenei Mabuni)

"To hear the meaning for every single movement in oral tradition, and to then decide in which situations each is to be applied, this decision is something that is to be refined continuously." (Anko Itosu)

Bunkai ( 分解 ) means analysis or breaking apart. Within the context of karate this particularly refers to the analysis of kata to find and understand plausible applications (oyo 応用 ) of the kata moves. (In every-day dojo life "bunkai" and "application" are often used interchangeably.)

In kata competition bunkai the athletes perform amazing sophisticated fighting shows, that look like spectacular movie stunts. The choreographies presented in this sports context follow the sequence of the kata and often they insert additional impressive techniques for a greater show-effect. Kata competition bunkai is an aesthetic kind of sport which has developed based on the handed down movements of the original martial art.

Before karate was transformed into a sport (first as physical exercise in schools, later as competition sports) the katas constituted the core of the martial art as a system of self-defence. Because there are no records of the originally conceived applications of the kata techniques, today they are open for interpretation. Everybody can propose their own ideas. The potential explanations are virtually infinite. There is no simple right or wrong, but it is possible to check the varied interpretations for plausibility.

From various sources I have compiled below a few rules that can help with checking the plausibility of kata bunkai applications.

So good luck with your own bunkai work. Enjoy!

Core Assumptions

  • The opponent is "a villain or a ruffian" (Itosu), not a trained martial artist. The kata therefore contains self-defence options against habitual acts of physical violence (HAPV, this term was coined by Patrick McCarthy).
  • Each kata, or series of katas, is a complete fighting system of its own (Heian 1-5 form a system). It provides answers to a wide spectrum of typical attacks (not only the big wide hook).
    "The attacker may grasp the wrists, clothing, neck, or other parts of the body, and one must escape from his attempt to grasp and immediately deliver a counterattack. So the point to remember is the quickness of the counterattack, which is executed almost simultaneously while escaping from the attacker's hold. […] – Escape techniques may be used against front, side, and rear grasping attacks. Attacks from the front may include such techniques as grasping the wrist, both wrists, the collar, hair or hugging, etc., and side attacks such as grasping the wrist and grasping the neck; also attacks from the rear may consist of similar techniques such as grasping the wrist, grasping the collar, hugging, etc." (Funakoshi)
  • The opponent does not know the kata. That means that the kata's applications do not rely on certain follow-up attacks by the opponent, but we take full control over the opponent with our technique. "There cannot be multiple attacks against true Okinawan karate." (Motobu Choki as quoted by Higaki Gennosuke)
  • "Kata is the ideal. Actual combat is a special case." (Funakoshi) "Because of your enemy make adjustments!" (Funakoshi) The katas teach principles exemplified as techniques. They show the techniques in idealised form. In real combat the principles will be used but the movements will become imprecise and the sequence changes in reaction to the opponents actions and reactions.
  • The commonly used names of the techniques are just nomenclature and rather describe the movement than the application. Originally the movements did not have any names. The labelling was first introduced in the 1930s.
  • The kata contains (brutal) methods to end physical conflict as quick as possible. These methods would be applied only if we failed to avoid conflict beforehand, and there would be no other way to save our life. "Running away as far as possible and seeking shelter in someone's home or shouting for help would be the best forms of self-defense." (Funakoshi)

It is the outcome that counts (self-defence situation)

  • Every movement/sequence leads to an advantage on our side and at the very least puts our opponent in a disadvantageous position.
  • All kata applications have the potential to end the fight there and then. The katas therefore do not contain mere blocks.
  • Use your natural, instinctive movements and channel them into effective techniques.
  • Most kata techniques are gross motor movements and applicable under the influence of adrenalin, when fine motor skills and precision are reduced.
  • In application there is a flowing transition from one movement to the next. There are no pauses during combat.
  • The opponent is kept occupied continuously.

Rules for decoding kata (bunkai=analysis)

Didactical structure of kata

  • Katas are collections of fighting principles (not entire fights against multiple enemies). Where variations occur in katas versions of other styles, we see that the principles can be exemplified in different ways.
  • Some kata sequences show a set of alternatives for the same situation or the same principle.
  • Many kata sequences provide redundancy. If the first technique does not have the intended effect, the next technique takes effect, and so on.
  • Some katas group techniques/principles by theme: For example, from simple to complex, from the most probable to less probable attack scenarios, from long to close fighting distance, from escape techniques to strikes to takedowns to locks.

Tactical principles

  • "In karate, hitting, thrusting, and kicking are not the only methods; throwing techniques and pressure against joints are also included." (Funakoshi)
  • Hit to unbalance, unbalance to hit. For a lock or a throw to work the opponent is first weakened with a punch (distracted by pain). For setting up a strike the opponent is first immobilised (locked, disbalanced), so that he can not attack again. The one thing creates the opportunity for the other and vice versa.
  • The techniques take predictable body reactions by the opponent into account (moving away from pain, adjusting for losing balance, etc.).
  • The hand that is closest to the opponent receives the attack. The weapon that then is closest to the opponent is used for the counter attack. Often the receiving (blocking) hand instantly becomes the attacking hand. Block and counter attack often happen at once.
  • All kicks hit below the reach of the opponent's hands. We only kick when we have the opponent under control with our hands.
  • When you control the opponents head, you control the opponent altogether.
  • Pulling or locking the opponent's elbow is a good way to break his balance.
  • Strike hard targets with a soft weapon and soft targets with a hard weapon.
  • The techniques often aim at vital points.
  • Position yourself at the side of or behind your opponent but in a way that you are still facing your opponent.
  • Once you've made contact, stay in contact until your opponent is down on the floor.
  • Enter, do damage, escape. When a fight is not avoidable anymore: Receive the attack, move in, make sure that the opponent cannot run after you, and the run away. Receive-Rattle-Run!
  • "Entering, receiving, disengaging, and grappling – such methods exist in karate." (Itosu)
  • Working crosswise: Striking, receiving, controlling are especially effective/energy efficient when applied with the right hand to the opponent's right side, or with the left hand to the opponent's left side respectively, and then followed through across the centerline of one's own body.
  • Strikes with the lower arm can be delivered with gross motor movements and have a higher chance of hitting the target as well as a lower risk of injuring yourself than strikes with the hand.
  • Move towards what you know and away from what you don't know. Move to where you have contact and to where you know what to do, and away from anything that you have no control over. When your opponents grabs you with one hand, then move towards that hand and away from the arm that could hit you.

General decoding rules

  • My opponent is right in front of me.
  • The angles in kata either tell me the angle I should move to in respect to my opponent, or the direction in which I move, or the direction in which I move my opponent (by shifting and rotating around our combined center).
  • The techniques "preparation/chambering movements" are active parts of the application.
  • The end position of a movement indicates the end of the follow-through action. The actual application happens half way through the movement, mostly in front of one's trunk. The follow-through movement creates the appropriate vector (direction and velocity). Often the end position can not even be attained because the movement ends on the opponent's body. The kinetic energy is then tranferred into the opponent.
  • There are no unnecessary movements in kata. All elements of each movement have a functional meaning. Both hands are always working. A "YOI position" is not a greeting posture, but the first technique. Hikite keeps hold of something and pulls it back to the hip. Within kata there is no ready position.
  • While the one hand strikes, the other hand is either telling me where my opponent is or it is getting limbs out of the way. Iain Abernethy)

Special decoding rules

  • Turns either mean other angles (see above) or takedowns.
  • The stances indicate shifting your center of gravity: ZK forward pressure, KK pulling into your own center, KB downward pressure, a jump means upward pressure or a throw, HS neutral position, KS move your center "into" your opponent.
  • The stances can also be used as techniques (e.g. ZK a knee lock, KB+KK blocking the legs for a scissors takedown, NA reaping a foot, KS rotation or manipulation a joint, or similar).
  • Open hands are either a striking weapon, or they indicate grabbing the elbow, the chin or the neck.
  • Closed hands are either a striking weapon, or they indicate grabbing the opponent (wrist, hair, face, etc.), or the technique is actually applied with the arm (strike, lock).
  • Ground fighting techniques are shown while standing upright in kata.
  • Whenever there is a gap between your trunk and your legs (e.g. kagi-zuki) you may find that your opponent fits in there nicely (head, arm).
  • A triple repitition of a technique shows you the transitions between the postures: Once from right to left, and once from left to right.

Room for interpretation

Of course there is no need for every application we find to meet all the above rules. Nevertheless, we can use these rule as a checklist to test the plausibility of our application. The more boxes we can tick, the more plausible it appears to be.

However, it is worth noting, that the practicability of any application depends on the person executing the technique as well as on the attacking opponent. For a smaller person one application of a certain movement might work well, while for a bigger person another application of the same movement might work better.

We do not know which applications the authors of the katas had in mind originally when they created them. Therefore today we have a lot of room for interpretation of the kata movements.

"In all budo, and not just karate, interpretations of the art by those who are training it differ according to the interpretations of their instructors. Moreover it goes without saying that variations in expression are characteristic of each individual." (Funakoshi)

"Always work on thinking and coming up with new ideas and improvements!" (Funakoshi)