Shotokan Karate Magazine Issue 101

Featuring Manabu Murakami 7th Dan SKIF
Kata Bunkai | The Sempai-Kohai System | A training trip to Japan

October 2009

Shotokan Karate Magazine Issue 101

October 2009

Shotokan Karate Magazine Issue 150

December 2021

Subscribe Print Now
Subscribe Digital Now
Full set of back issues on CD



SENSEI MANABU MURAKAMI 7th Dan. Interview By Seamus O’Dowd.

BUDO TODAY. By Mike Clarke.




KATA BUNKAI. By Paul Willoughby.



EDITORIAL By John Cheetham.

It did my heart good to receive so many hundreds of emails, letters and phone calls congratulating me on the 25th anniversary 100th edition of SKM and I want to thank everyone for their kind words. The all-colour 100th issue was certainly a big hit with all SKM subscribers around the world. So much so that I have decided to continue with this all-colour format in the future.

We have all probably read many times about the cultural kohai-sempai-sensei relationship in the martial arts of Japan and again this is brilliantly outlined in Scott Langley’s article in this edition.

Relating to this Japanese cultural trait, it reminds me of an incident that happened some years ago.

Please allow me to tell you the story... Around 1990 I went on a course in York with some very senior Japanese Shotokan senseis, T. Asai, K. Abe, T. Yamaguchi and M. Kagawa. They had with them some very young junior instructors from Japan. One junior was Nobuyuki Aramoto an excellent technician who was featured and appeared on the Front Cover of SKM issue 33. My friend and fellow karateka Dennis Tilley arranged for Aramoto to teach a class at his dojo in Manchester and Aramoto’s teaching style and content of the class was excellent. After the class we all went (as per usual) to the local pub. Now, in the dojo environment during training I had no problem addressing this young man as ‘sensei’. However, in the pub, (in our country, in our culture) there was no way that I was going to call a young guy, a junior instructor at that, ‘sensei’, or do any bag-carrying or door-opening etc. Now, I’m not sure if this is a cultural thing or an age thing but if he had been more or less my own age for instance, I don’t think I would have had the same problem with the ‘sensei’ tag, even in the pub, it was always like this with senseis Kato, Asano, Kawasoe or Enoeda, they were always addressed as ‘sensei’ both in and out of the dojo. However, this was a baby-faced ‘junior’ instructor, drinking beer, playing pool and generally enjoying himself and he was actually, a nice, charming, well mannered young man. So, I said to him, “What do we call you?” He looked at me like I was an alien, he was rendered speechless! I thought, Christ! if he says, “Call me sensei,” how can I explain to him that with the greatest respect, we don’t play that game ‘outside’ the dojo with someone so young. Dennis and I had probably been training when he was still in nappies! I clearly saw in his eyes the confusion over this question because in Japan this would never happen. However, he waited a few seconds, and I think he must have read the situation, then with a huge smile on his face he said .... “Please... call me Aramoto.”

Interestingly, I’d call a 25 year old person by their title, “Doctor”, in a hospital or clinic, so why the problem with ‘sensei’ I wonder? I believe that for most western karate-ka, although practiced in the dojo, the kohai-sempai-sensei culture ends at the dojo door. It does for me anyway. In truth I can count on one hand the amount of people I would call ‘sensei’ outside the dojo.

Good Health, Good Training. Editor.

Subscribe Print Now
Subscribe Digital Now
Full set of back issues on CD

KATA BUNKAI. By Paul Willoughby.

In the practice of modern karate-do, many practitioners see little connection between the practice of kata and the practice of kumite. They see kata as performance art with no bearing on kumite. This is reinforced by modern sports karate in which kumite practice is mainly concerned with duelling between two trained karate-ka to score an ippon while kata competition is based on the external aesthetics of the kata performance with interpretation having no real bearing on the outcome. However, since “kata is the essence of karate”, there must be more to the practice of kata than simple performance art in which success and accomplishment is based on who has the cleanest looking technique and best rhythm. Furthermore, there are many historical references by past masters as to the importance of understanding the kata movements. These lessons of the importance of kata are reiterated by modern day karate masters to this day. However, for many experienced karate-ka, there has always been a nagging question as to why the practice of kata and kumite do not seem to directly complement each other even though our instructors tell us that they do. Why are there so many sequences in kata that seem to consist of multiple blocking applications without a counter-attack? Additionally, even when the applications of some kata sequences seem self-evident, there are always certain movements within a kata that seem superfluous or were explained simply as set-up movements for the next sequence rather than having a direct application. For many practitioners, the idea of using a set-up movement for self defence is seen as problematic. It begs the question, “if this move has no meaning, then why do we practice it?” Since the end of the twentieth century, there has been a surge of interest from karate practitioners regarding kata bunkai that has resulted in publications of some interesting, if not controversial, work in that area from authors originating both inside and outside of Japan.

In this article, I will summarize some of the work that has been done in this area, along with the relative merit of some of the more controversial claims from the perspective of the historical documentation that is available. I will also attempt to present my own bunkai for selected parts from the kata Chinte to demonstrate how a karate-ka may use some of the principles presented by the authors in question to explore kata bunkai on their own in order to enrich their understanding of the kata, self defence and the art of karate-do in general.

Opening movements from Shotokan Kata Chinte: In this case, the attacker has grabbed your right hand with his left and is getting ready to swing at you with his right hand. You need to get away from the opponent’s center line and avoid the punch. First, you make a small counter-clockwise circle with your right hand to extend and lock his elbow, then you quickly grab his hand with your left hand, turn your body counter-clockwise to avoid the attack and further extend him off balance. It is then quite easy to release your right hand and hammer fist his head or clavicle. The second hammer-fist movement is the bunkai for when the attacker grabs your left hand instead of the right hand.

For the purposes of simplicity, I will follow the convention of referring to all analysis and applications from kata as bunkai. The idea that kata is the essence of karate makes sense when viewing karate from a historical perspective. Prior to karate’s introduction to the Okinawan school system, the practice of the art was very different from what it is today. Prior to the twentieth century, karate was practiced secretively in small groups and the focus of training was on kata. In his autobiography, master Gichin Funakoshi describes his early training as nearly endless repetitions of a single kata for up to years on end until it was performed to the master’s satisfaction before he was allowed to move on and learn another. Today, the focus of training centers more on the basic techniques and combinations of basic techniques that have been pulled out of kata to be practiced individually. This fundamental change in the way karate is practiced is widely believed to have occurred when Funakoshi’s instructor Yatsutsune Itosu introduced karate into the Okinawan school system in the beginning of the twentieth century. This is also the time period in which he is also credited with the creation of the Heian kata which many believe he devised by taking sequences and techniques from the older, historical kata. This shift in teaching methodology could be one of the main reasons for the problem of the transmission of kata bunkai because the practice of basic techniques became the emphasis of training. Furthermore, many believe that when Itosu devised the Heian kata, he purposely changed them to disguise the dangerous techniques to make them more suitable for teaching to school children and thus, the bunkai were simply not taught.

There is ample evidence in historical documentation that suggest that kata bunkai was valued and well understood during the time that Master Funakoshi was training. Master Yasutsune Itosu, one of master Funakoshi’s instructors, created and documented his Ten Precepts. Precept #6 states: “Practice kata often, learning the meanings and when to use them. There are many oral instructions for the strikes, blocks, escapes and grappling techniques.” Master Funakoshi also provided a similar message in his textbook: Karate-do Kyohan: The Master Text. In this book, Funakoshi provides a chapter on throwing techniques (nage waza) in which he instructs that the throws are applications from kata that should be studied carefully. The translator of the 1973 edition, Tsutomu Ohshima, also provided pictures of the throwing applications and it is easily recognized that some of them are straight out of Bassai Dai and Jion. Choki Motobu, another karate master and one of Master Funakoshi’s contemporaries, devised fighting sequences based on the Tekki kata and published them in his book: Watashi no Karate-jutsu. Motobu had a reputation as being a formidable street fighter and apparently, a favorite saying of his was “Kata and waza are limited by themselves unless one learns how they are applied in context”. This is also similar in sentiment to principle number 18 of Master Funakoshi’s Shoto Niju-kun which states that performing kata is about correct and proper form but engaging in a real fight is another matter. At a very literal and superficial level, one might take this to mean that kata have no relative application to fighting and self defence. However, this would be an incorrect assessment based on the context of Funakoshi and Motobu’s training backgrounds – they trained primarily in kata. In fact, Itosu’s sixth precept gives us several messages about kata practice. First, it implies that you should practice the kata knowing the bunkai first – “learning the meanings and when to use them”. Secondly, it states that in order to understand the meanings of the kata movements, you need to have the oral instructions that go with them. Lastly, many of the kata applications are grappling techniques – meaning throwing and joint attacks. Based on these historical pieces of evidence that we have available to us, we can make a few conclusions about the way karate was practiced. First, the practice of kata is important and central to training and the kata had known bunkai. Furthermore, the oral instructions are necessary to understanding the kata bunkai. Lastly, it is clear that a karate-ka should have an understanding of the grappling techniques contained in kata.

3rd movement (Chinte) after second hammer fist... The opponent is coming in with a right handed punch. Use both hands to block the punch while turning your body to the side and moving outside of the opponent’s center. Your right hand should be blocking the opponent’s wrist and your left should be blocking the forearm above the elbow so that you are levering the elbow. Grip the opponent’s wrist with your right hand and use the vertical knife hand block to pull him off balance and position yourself behind him. Counter-attack with the left vertical fist punch.

Kata bunkai is generally not practiced much in modern karate dojo and when it is practiced it is usually trained at the simplest level or the explanations given are not practical. That is to say, most bunkai that is demonstrated and taught to students is oriented towards defending against an attacker who is doing karate techniques and thus, most bunkai is shown as defenses against simple punching and kicking techniques. However, it is very unlikely that a practicing karate-ka would need to worry about defending against a straight punch or a front kick outside of the kumite ring. Furthermore, kata techniques beyond the most simple block, punch or kick are never seen during kumite matches. According to Gennosuke Higaki, “The greatest problem facing modern karate is the gap between kumite and kata.” He further notes that other martial arts practice their kata with two people so the bunkai is understood from the beginning and the technique is the same whether practiced as kata or kumite. For example, a judoka performing a seoinage while practicing nage no kata is performing the technique exactly the same way as ippon seoinage performed during a judo match. When I realized this, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of the Ten no Kata presented in the Karate-do Kyohan may have been an attempt by Master Funakoshi to bridge the gap between kata and kumite. What remains a mystery is why the grappling techniques that Master Funakoshi points out as being in the kata were not included in kihon and kumite practice. One theory that I have heard in the past is that Master Funakoshi wanted to ensure that karate was differentiated clearly from Judo and thus wanted to emphasize the punching, kicking and striking aspects of karate. I cannot remember where I heard this so I cannot attribute it to anyone but it is a reasonable thought although it cannot be confirmed.

If bunkai was so central to training in the time that Master Funakoshi was learning karate, why is it not better understood today? There are many theories as to why this is true. As mentioned earlier, when Itosu devised the Heian kata, many believe that he purposely altered the techniques in order to disguise the dangerous techniques so that they would be more suitable for teaching to children. There is some logical merit to this assertion. Prior to karate’s introduction into the public school system of Okinawa, karate was practiced in relative secrecy in a master-apprentice relationship. In that kind of environment, the instructor can teach the dangerous techniques found in kata because it is easy for him to judge his students’ character and judge whether or not they would use the techniques for less than noble purposes. Teaching a large group of kids in an open environment is a completely different scenario. The instructor cannot truly get to know each of his students. Therefore, it makes sense that Itosu may have wanted to hide the dangerous techniques from the kids in order to ensure they would not injure each other outside of the class environment or go home and use the techniques on their siblings. Disguising the techniques also provides a method for everyone to train together, performing the same kata, while allowing the true bunkai to be taught only to the instructor’s trusted students. Since the techniques are disguised, oral instructions are required to unlock the meaning and allow the practitioner enough understanding to be able to actually use the techniques in the kata. An alternative and interesting possibility offered by a friend of mine is that Itosu might have actually changed the bunkai to simplify the kata and make them less dangerous for the school children. When I was presented with this argument, I had to acknowledge that it is certainly a possibility because we truly cannot know Itosu’s true intentions since anyone who had trained under him for any length of time is no longer living. However, I think it is more likely the case that the true bunkai were hidden simply because the Heian kata resemble the older kata very closely. I would think that if the bunkai had been changed, then the kata would have been changed more drastically to meet the requirements of the new bunkai.

Question: Why would you block with your fist in the two fingered spear hand position (nihon nukite)? “The front hand is the attacking hand,” answers this question. The draw hand must either be the blocking hand or pulling hand while you use the nihon nukite as a counter attack. The opponent grabs your wrist. Your hand that has been grabbed becomes the draw hand pulling him off balance and into your spear hand attack to the throat or the pressure points under the chin. You can continue to apply pressure which should compel him to move back. When he tries to escape, pursue the attacker with the rising punch spear hand attack to the eyes.

The modern authors of published works on bunkai acknowledge that the kata bunkai were not taught. Most believe that the reason is what I mentioned previously – that the bunkai were purposely hidden to make the kata safer for teaching school children. However this line of thinking only addresses part of the equation. What about all of the adult students that were practicing karate under Itosu and others? Why weren’t the bunkai passed on more clearly through Itosu’s adult students such as Master Funakoshi? Gennosuke Higaki, a Japanese karate-ka who has authored a couple of works on kata bunkai, claims that the Okinawan instructors who brought karate to Japan had a secret pact with each other not to teach the true bunkai. He further claims that his instructor, Shozan Kubota, was a personal student of Funakoshi’s and was taught the true bunkai of the kata despite this supposed oath of secrecy. Most other authors are sceptical of the claim that there was a pact of secrecy and it certainly would be difficult to find any hard evidence of such a pact if it was indeed secret. Higaki presents an argument that is based on circumstantial evidence and hearsay. Higaki recounts that sensei Kubota told him that the kata were altered on purpose before being taught on the mainland and that the karate that sensei Funakoshi taught and spread primarily at the universities were different from the karate that he taught at his own home. His claim is that this was because Master Funakoshi and other Okinawan instructors had made a pact not to teach the true bunkai to the mainland Japanese. There is some compelling circumstantial evidence that this could have been a possibility. First, there is a lot of historical evidence that Okinawans were discriminated against on mainland Japan. He also notes that Funakoshi’s autobiography states that he sent letters to his instructors asking for permission to teach karate on the mainland and that they sent him letters of encouragement. How could that be possible since master Azato had passed away in 1906 and master Itosu passed away in 1915? Higaki claims that Funakoshi wrote this to be deliberately confusing and it is rumored that his letters were actually discussed and decided upon by the Okinawan Karate Kenkyu Kai which had been established in 1918 and was comprised of many famous Okinawan karate masters. The outcome of this meeting was where the saying originated that “even if you teach the kata, do not teach the actual techniques”. There is no real way to verify whether these intriguing claims are actually true or not but to summarize, Higaki claims that Master Funakoshi knew the bunkai for kata, the oral instructions are key to understanding the bunkai, and that Master Funakoshi only taught them to a select few students, including Higaki’s instructor Shozan Kubota who passed them on to him. Higaki has now made the bunkai public by publishing his books. Higaki states that once the true bunkai for the kata are known, they can be trained with a partner and thus the gap between kata and kumite is successfully bridged. The following is a list of the oral instructions that Higaki presents as the keys to unlocking the mystery of kata bunkai as presented to him by his instructor Shozan Kubota who claims that they were passed to him by master Funakoshi. I also provide my own paraphrase of what they mean:

Countering – This means that the most common technique in karate is a counter-attack. This corresponds to the niju kun point that there is no first attack in karate.

Immobilize your opponent before striking – This means that you should render your opponent unable to continue attacking before you counter attack.

The names of the movements have been disguised – Higaki claims that originally there were no names for the kata techniques and the nomenclature we use for the basic techniques today was introduced once karate came to the mainland. This has caused the bunkai to be less understandable because if you strictly follow the naming of the techniques, you cannot understand that a block in a kata may actually be a counter-attack.

Use these movements to escape from a rear grab and then counter attack. The opponent grabs both of your arms from behind. Presumably, this would be a controlling attempt by an opponent that might want to abduct you. Use the pivot and scissor punch to escape from his grasp and then use the vertical sword hand block followed by the vertical punch as a counter attack. The pivot and scissor punch works to escape the grab because you move into the opponent rather than trying to pull away from the opponent.

There are no sequences that end in a block – Many sequences in kata appear to be sequences of multiple blocks. However, it is impossible to counter-attack an opponent by just using blocks. Therefore logically, some of the blocks in kata must be counter attacks. A perfect example of this is the last four knife hand blocks in Heian shodan. In this case, it is actually 2 sequences of block and counter-attack in which the 2nd and 4th knife hand blocks are actually strikes.

Block with both hands – It looks like most blocks are done with one hand followed by a counter-attack. If we take a look at how blocks are performed, there is always a set-up movement where the hands are crossed in front of the body. This is the key, the set-up movement could actually be the block and then the blocking hand performs the counter.

Grabbing hand and pulling hand – Master Funakoshi presented this idea in the Karate-do Kyohan. The draw hand can be used to grab the opponent and pull them off balance or pull them into your counter-attack. Also, by grabbing the opponent, it can present an opportunity for perform a throw or joint lock as a counter.

The front hand is the attacking hand – In most karate text books, the front hand is the blocking hand and the rear hand follows with a counter. However, in most kata bunkai, the front hand is the attacking hand while the rear hand is blocking. A perfect example of this is the opening movement of Heian Nidan whereby the front hand is a hammer fist to the face and the rear hand is a rising block.

Perform a movement that consists of two counts in one count – There are many techniques in kata that are performed in two counts but when actually applied they should be performed in one count. The idea is that the movement has been broken down for beginners. Higaki claims that the opening two movements of Heian shodan are an example of this. The block and counter should be performed in one count.

Switch step – Most movements in kata are performed in a walking gait. However, this often makes the distance incorrect. Therefore, in application you can perform what Higaki terms as a “switch step” to adjust the distance. This can best be described as a shuffle like step in which the front foot is pulled back and then the rear foot is advanced forward. Again, the opening 2 movements of Heian shodan make better sense if you employ a switch step.

Kick low while grabbing the opponent – Many of the bunkai for kata involve grabbing the opponent. For example, in Heian yondan, an elbow attack is delivered directly after performing the side kick. Even though we perform the kick above the waist in the kata, to make the distance correct for self defence, the bunkai would indicate that the kick should be applied below the waist.

There is one opponent to the front – Even though the performance line of the kata is in multiple directions, you are only addressing one opponent at a time and he is to the front. In many cases, changes in direction in the kata indicate that you are throwing or dragging the opponent around. There are some exceptions to this general rule since some kata movements show escaping techniques from an opponent to the rear. For example, the last two movements of Heian sandan.

Hang the opponent to the sky – Higaki states that this is the same technique as the forearm twist in Aikido. An example of this technique can be found in the pressing blocks in the shotokan kata Empi.

Reblock and regrip – This refers to controlling the opponent by using both hands to frustrate the opponent’s attack. For example, the first three movements of Heian sandan are an example of this.

Take the opponent’s back – This refers to positioning yourself behind the opponent since this makes it difficult for him to attack you.

Cross legged stance signifies body rotation or a joint kick – Kosa dachi in a kata indicates a body shift or a joint kick – most of the time to the opponent’s knee joint.

Jumps and body shifts represent throws – Jumps in kata usually represent throws. For example, in Heian godan and Empi, these are throwing techniques. Sometimes, a body shift in the kata can represent a throw.

Break the balance in a triangle whose base is formed by the opponent’s feet – If you picture the opponent’s two feet in their stance as a base of a triangle, if you want to break their balance pull their head towards the tip of that triangle.

Meoto te – This means using both hands together such as in the augmented forearm block. The supporting hand is the grabbing and pulling hand.

Cut the forearm – This refers to using a knife hand block as a strike against the opponent’s attacking arm. For instance, the spear-hand technique is one that could be used to attack the forearm.

The kamae is an invitation – This is the idea whereby you use your posture to invite an attack. If you know where the attack will come, it is easier to defend against it.

Final movement from Chinte (the hops are not shown but are explained below). Here, the opponent attacks with a right handed punch. Block it with the left vertical sword hand block and counter attack with the vertical punch to the opponent’s solar plexus while keeping hold of his right arm. This should cause him to fold forward some. Slip your head under his right arm and slip your right arm around his neck laying your radius against his carotid artery. This part of the movement is easier if you are smaller than the attacker. You want to keep his right arm trapped over your shoulder with your arm as well. This should be enough to subdue him. The backwards hops are actually the most brutal part of kata Chinte. These represent jerking your whole body backwards while applying the strangle hold to break the opponent’s neck.

Conclusion:The bunkai shown here (from the Shotokan kata Chinte) are just a possible set to be used as an explanation for this kata. There are more bunkai that could be determined with further study. It should also be noted that what might work for someone of a certain body type, may not work for everyone else and it is up to each individual to explore the kata to unlock the techniques and make them useful as a set of self defence tools and add an additional dimension to the practice of kata.


Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Irvin Smoot for being my partner for the bunkai sequences in this article. I would also like to thank Irv for giving me the first of many lessons in Shotokan Karate. I would also like to thank my wife, Lynn, for photographing the kata sequences in this article and for putting up with all the time I spend going to the dojo, seminars, tournaments and camps. Lastly, I would like to thank everyone who has ever instructed me, trained with me, shared ideas with me, or taken lessons from me.

Related Articles


The magazine has been published since November 1984. Because it is a very specialised and Traditional magazine we only publish each quarter (March - June - September - December) . We do pride ourselves on featuring the most senior and famous Shotokan Senseis in the world in the magazine and it is totally non-political, we feature everyone from all the various organisations.