EDITORIAL By John Cheetham.
As you can see we have two featured interviews in this edition of the magazine with Nakama sensei (based in Brazil) and Fanicchi sensei (based in the south of England) both offer quite different ideas.
However, in this editorial, this time I don’t want to speak about the interviews or other articles which appear in the magazine, I’ll let you enjoy them without adding my two-penneth. I would say though, that along with the interviews, the technical articles are very interesting.
Instead, I want to address the subject brought up by Dave Hooper in the last edition regarding the state of karate nowadays as opposed to the 1970s/80s, which was a big technical turning point in worldwide karate when foreigners were getting to grips with the techniques whilst being taught to preserve the ‘karate spirit’.
There is no doubt that many things have changed in the karate world. Talking about how things have changed, strangely enough, I had to smile this morning when I was in the car in a line of slow moving traffic. Walking on the pavement at the side of the road was a young man, say about 25 years old, he was proudly pushing his baby son or daughter (I presumed) in a push-chair, and obviously thinking nothing of it. This is quite a normal sight these days as you know. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this but how times have changed, that’s the point. I can tell you that when I was a kid there is no way on earth that anyone’s Dad would have been seen dead doing this task!
In karate, I think the early 1960s was a discovering, a finding out period, the technique was very poor from what I have seen. People were learning from books and being taught by other people who felt Green belt was an extremely high level! In the 1970s karate improved massively and was a very strong, tough activity, and not for the faint hearted. Thousands tried it because of the Bruce Lee films but very few lasted once they started getting the knocks and bangs that came along with it. On a negative note I have to say that there was also a lot of bullying. I won’t tell you his name but I witnessed a very famous karate sensei here in England, kick a student full in the groin for daring to answer back in the dojo! The guy doubled up and was dragged to the side of the dojo in order to recover! Can you imagine that now? I really don’t think so. I myself, like many others I could name, got what can only be described as, ‘beaten-up’ in the dojo and you could not say a word about it. All that has thankfully changed nowadays. But what has been lost as Dave Hooper pointed out in his article, is, “That following the path of budo often meant enduring pain, sacrifice and hardship. Showing respect and appreciation to your opponent, regardless of the outcome, was the priority, and the measure of a traditional karate-ka.”
If you look at WKF competition these days, sadly, in general, these principles do not apply. It was drummed into us in the 70s/80’s that respect for your opponent both in the dojo and in competition, was paramount. The correct ‘karate spirit’.
Good health, good training. Editor.
THE BUNKAI BARRIER: Contemporary Myth and Misunderstanding in Kata Interpretation. By Josh Stewart.
In the first two decades of the 21st Century, there has been an obvious effort on the part of Karate enthusiasts to look back at the history of the art in order to revive its practical self-defense value. For the majority of the previous century, when Karate was breaking into mainstream martial arts from its original birthplace in Okinawa, there were primarily two streams of Karate practitioners: those who studied the art as a form of physical philosophy, and those who competed. Both of these approaches favoured the “3K Karate” approach, practicing Kihon, Kata, and Kumite.
Kata’s role in the mix is an interesting one. For many of those with a philosophical attitude towards Karate, kata was seen as an opportunity to develop a focused mindset and pursue absolute perfection in movement. For competitors, kata was one of the main categories in which one could win, but many of those who specialized in kumite saw kata as a sort of historical baggage from Karate’s earlier days.
Today, with martial arts a much bigger part of pop culture and easy access to information about other fighting disciplines, Karate has no room for practices that are impractical or misunderstood. As a result, there has been a huge revival in historical research, in large part to discover kata’s self-defense practices. To be effective, as well as to compete with other martial arts systems, these need to incorporate a full range of skills, beyond simple striking and blocking.
A number of leading experts in Karate these days are in demand because of their knowledge of bunkai, the analysis or application of kata techniques. Though there has been a huge amount of progress in practically applying kata techniques beyond the simplistic, ritualistic lunge-punch defenses that dominated most dojo in the 20th Century, there remain a number of common misconceptions about bunkai in the average dojo today.
One of the biggest barriers when dealing with interpretation of modern kata is the assumption that modern versions represent historical self-defense methods. A quick comparison between different styles descended from the same sources reveal how drastically the forms vary from generation to generation—and not always with practicality as the root motivation.
With kata primarily an individualistic set of exercises in most dojo, there will be aspects of aesthetics driving how techniques are performed. When competitive success is the purpose of kata practice, forms are usually altered to display more athleticism and physical prowess to impress judges. The Shotokan versions of the kata Unsu or Enpi, two of the most popular competitive forms, are great examples. They contain ducking, kicking from the ground, and jumping—none of which are present in other versions of the kata handed down through other lineages.
In addition, many of the Okinawan masters openly admit altering the kata they taught for a variety of purposes. Funakoshi Gichin says he “set about revising the kata so as to make them as simple as possible” for his students, which is reflected in kata such as Bassai Dai. Other styles utilize a block and uppercut combination in the opening sequences, whereas the Shotokan version just has simpler inside and outside blocks. Similarly, the thrusting yoko geri is performed as a mae geri, fumikomi, or even ono geri (axe kick) in other systems. Obviously these variations in the solo form would alter someone’s interpretation of the application as well.
Given the knowledge that the kata have transformed so vastly in the last hundred years, the movements themselves need to be taken with a grain of salt. It is incredibly difficult to find applications for techniques when those techniques may no longer represent their original self-defense purpose. The best way to overcome this barrier is to compare versions across different styles and lineages to discover the original kernel of truth contained within the kata.
Another area where people often stumble in their explanation of kata is explaining the turns.
The dominant belief throughout the 20th Century was that turning represented changing from an attacker on one side to an attacker on another side. Those with the intention of finding realistic self-defense scenarios related to kata have completely abandoned this approach—for good reason. The defender standing in the centre of a group of attackers with each attacking one-by-one (typically with the ritualized lunge-punch) is obviously choreographed and unrepresentative of real conflict. Realistically, being positioned that way would mean all of the attackers jumping the defender in the middle simultaneously instead of politely waiting their turn.
Now, many understand that each kata is a series of templates that each represents a defensive strategy to neutralize an aggressive action. The truth about the turns, then, may be that they are sometimes arbitrary connectors to link the templates together. As such, they can be useful in determining when one template ends and another begins. There is also a logistical consideration to this: in most dojo, if you tried doing kata with no changes in direction, you’d likely run out of space. In that way, the geometrical configurations of the kata are quite practical.
Turns also ensure for many kata that templates are done on both sides of the body. Although very few kata are completely symmetrical, there are many sets of movements that get repeated to allow both left and right to be developed. However, the reason why some templates are repeated on both sides and others are only done once, or repeated multiple times on the same side, is still the source of some ambiguity.
With these more prosaic considerations mentioned, there are also practical self-defense applications associated with kata’s turns. The first may seem blatantly obvious: turning in kata sometimes represents turning relative to an opponent. One case where this applies is the yoko kamae and yoko geri/uraken uchi combination originally from Kanku Dai, but also repeated in Heian Nidan and Yondan. Taken from a single lapel grip, the turn represents positioning yourself to the side of the attacker, which facilitates the armbar application (Photo’s 1-2-3).
Similarly, turns can also represent ducking—either to evade high strikes or to slip under the attacker’s arm(s) when they grab from behind. This application practice allows the defender to reposition him or herself to a more advantageous location on the outside of the assailant’s arm when they grab, which sets up multiple opportunities for strikes, joint locks, or throws. The turn into the final template of Heian Godan is a clear example of this situation (Photo’s 4-5-6).
Finally, a turn can represent the execution of a throwing technique. The 270-degree turn in Heian Shodan makes sense in this context. When facing the attacker, if you seize and turn exactly as in the kata, it positions you for Tai Otoshi (body drop) perfectly (Photo’s 7-8-9).
The 180-degree turn at the top of Heian Sandan, coupled with the arm position and the following stomp, also can be applied as Kubi Goshi (neck and hip throw—Photo’s 10-11-12).
So when armed with the knowledge that historically, the kata templates each represented a single one-on-one combative scenario, and the turns were designed primarily to link them together, we arrive at three practical purposes for them: to reposition yourself or change angles relative to the attacker, to duck under a high strike or grip, and to throw or take down the opponent.
Another difficulty practitioners frequently encounter when interpreting kata is the assumption that it includes all aspects of the self-defense scenario. The key point here is that kata templates actually operate similarly to anagrams in language—each movement has a meaning that is represented in solo form, but its purpose is as a mnemonic device to trigger recollection of a complete set of movements for that defensive application.
Of course, Karate lore involves a lot of discussion of secret practices handed down in the shadows (which also operates as a convenient excuse for instructors to avoid aspects of the art that they may not fully understand). At the risk of slipping into this realm, it is clear that the unwritten rules of kata application are hard to discover individually—it helps to have someone teach you how to read between the lines.
There are primarily three aspects of kata applications that may not be represented in the solo form. The most obvious one—but again an area where many have faltered—is what the aggressor is doing. Most frequently, teachers default to the chudan oi-tsuki as the standard attack, even when it clearly doesn’t logically match the defender’s reaction in the solo form. Basically they insist on putting a square peg into a round hole. It also presupposes that the assailant will strike like a trained Karate-ka, which we know is unlikely in real, spontaneous violence. Security or news footage from any actual fight shows that big, wild, looping punches are actually the norm in striking, but also that grabbing onto sleeves, garments, hair, and wrists are prominent, as well as shoving. This probably hasn’t changed in the last few centuries. We can reasonably conclude that these are the forms of violence that the kata were designed to address.
A lot of this likely stems from the pre-WWII era in Japan, when martial arts training took on militaristic qualities and utilized kata and bunkai as merely a form of drilling basics. The ritualized oi-tsuki attack fails to take into consideration the advice of Motobu Choki, that “the techniques of kata were never developed to be used against a professional fighter, in an arena or on the battlefield. They were, however, most effective against someone who had no idea of the strategy being used to counter their aggressive behavior.” If we experiment with different approaches an aggressor might use, taking seizing, striking, and combinations of the two into account, we often find more plausible and realistic explanations for what the kata templates were designed to do.
The second area unrepresented in the solo kata are the detractors. One of the criticisms that many kata applications, especially those that deal with seizing, receive is that it wouldn’t work against a resistant attacker the same way it does against a compliant partner in the dojo. This, of course, is a legitimate criticism which also applies to the robotic oi-tsuki when the person remains posed in zenkutsu dachi with a perfect hikite, allowing the defender to complete their counter.
The kata itself doesn’t include detractors, which are techniques designed to cause a pain response to distract and overwhelm the opponent in order to facilitate the application of the technique. Detractors include spitting, biting, kicking, kneeing, or slapping the groin, slapping the ears, gouging the eyes or throat, etc. Everyone knows that these are effective techniques, yet we frequently forget to employ them in our kata applications.
Take, for example, the armbar application demonstrated above for yoko kamae from Kanku Dai, Heian Nidan and Heian Yondan. Realistically, if your partner adds any resistance to the lapel grip, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to turn his or her hand over, unless you’re much larger and stronger. Generally speaking, assailants tend to be stronger and more aggressive than the victims they select, so this poses a problem. However, if you add a spit to the face, knee to the groin and a stomp down on the instep, the pain withdrawal reflex will loosen the grip enough to make the technique effective once again.
The reason that the detractors aren’t included in the solo form is obvious—those things instinctively happen in real self-defense situations without conscious thought, so they don’t have to be trained the same way. Animals don’t have to be taught how to bite or scratch, and under stressful conditions when our fight or flight response kicks in, we have very similar instincts. Though these reactions don’t appear in the solo form, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them in our training to supplement the effectiveness of the defensive responses.
Lastly, the exits and finishing techniques that allow the defender to actually withdraw from the situation aren’t represented in the kata. Running away would be the ideal one, but these also include takedowns, chokes, restraints, joint locks, etc. In some cases these are part of the form, but often these are add-on techniques that don’t appear in the kata as part of the defensive response.
Often these are criticized on the basis that they are “made up” techniques that aren’t part of the kata at all. Again, the kata template is a mnemonic device, just like an anagram. The nature of such a system is that not everything done in the two-person application will be represented in the solo version; the point of the solo template is to trigger a memory recall of the two-person application.
Many kata templates demonstrate only how to reverse a potentially dangerous situation and place yourself in an advantageous position, but in actual self-defense, we have to be able to subdue the opponent in order to escape. That can be done in a number of ways and depends on the relative size, strength, skill-set, and individual style of the defender, as well as the circumstances and surroundings of the encounter. These variations are another reason they don’t appear in the kata itself.
Furthermore, their inclusion in the kata would disrupt the rhythm of the exercise itself. Exits could often involve taking the assailant to the ground and choking, locking, restraining, or separating from them. These are very practical skills, but the vast majority of kata avoid such techniques because going down to the ground breaks up the flow of the solo routine.
In the same sequence from Kanku Dai, you can see that the kata template teaches you to execute the armbar, kick the knee to break the opponent’s balance, and impact the head. This may be enough to subdue the attacker, but in the majority of cases we can imagine that a single strike to the head may not be sufficient. One possible exit is coming back to the elbow with Ude Barai and pinning the attacker down (Photo’s 13-14).
If escape is possible, you can then disengage from the opponent and run. If not, it’s easy enough to put the final shoulder lock on to fully restrain the opponent and de-escalate the situation (Photo 15).
You can imagine as well that, if these techniques were added to the solo form of the kata, it would probably prove somewhat disruptive to the continuity of the exercise.
The mistaken assumptions that the form has always existed without undergoing change, that turns represent changing from an attacker on one side to an attacker on another, and that the kata template includes everything necessary in a self-defense scenario are three of the primary hindrances that I see in contemporary kata applications. Keeping in mind the role of kata, as a summary of a set of core self-defense techniques, should help alleviate some of the ambiguity and impracticality often found in bunkai practices.
On the whole, it’s obvious that Karate has made progress in this regard, led by experts whose research, critical thinking, creativity, and insight has opened the door for many others to explore relevant avenues of thought as to how kata practice can remain relevant in modern martial arts.
As martial arts evolve and continue to penetrate mainstream culture, Karate enthusiasts have to continue to build on this work to create a transparent, functional and complete set of practices related to kata.
This connection between past and present is vital to keep alive both the tradition of our art and its modern, living essence.
Author: Josh Stewart studies Koryu Uchinadi Kenpo Jutsu under the direction of Hanshi Patrick McCarthy (9th Dan).