Seal of the North American Beikoku Association

Bunkai in the Martial Arts

Mark W. Swarthout

Shido Kan Kanji

For many decades it was not considered proper to teach the martial arts to ‘foreigners’ or even to members of other families. The martial arts were considered a family secret, carefully guarded and passed down from generation to generation. Or it was shared with a certain warrior class, or even a specific company or regiment. It was thought by many that there were secret techniques associated with the katas that were not being shared with the European and American communities. I think it more likely that many of the impatient Americans never stayed long enough with an instructor to learn the next level of skill from the katas.

Once you have learned a kata (or form) to a level acceptable to your instructor, it is time to work and understand the various applications associated with these movements. Sometimes the instructor will have explained what a specific move represents as you are learning it. Or even show a couple of interpretations, specifying which one he follows.

One way of sharing these techniques is through Bunkai. The typical bunkai involves a person in the middle of a number of training partners, typically four, sometimes only three. The person in the middle does the kata. Those on the outside step in to the correct distance and perform the attack the kata is designed to defend against. The kata one does in the middle of the square is almost identical to the one done alone, though there may be an additional punch or finishing move.

Throws in particular are much easier to understand when one is actually doing a throw, rather than just imagining it in one’s mind. The variance in heights of the different partners on the outside helps one adjust attacks and defenses to a full range of possibilities.

Naturally, one has to trust one’s training partners in order to execute the kata and defend against the attacks with the knowledge that no one will get hurt. It is essential that the timing and speed be understood by all of the participants. The speed is set by the person in the middle. Doing the movements in a smooth and flowing manner is more important than doing the bunkai quickly.

The Mechanics

The standard formation that my style uses is that the senior student starts in the middle. By rank, next senior is directly behind them, then to their right, then in front and then to the left. If there are more than five participants, the remain ones line up behind the person to the left. The participants bow and then the center person readies themselves. On signal, usually a nod or verbal, the bunkai begins. Upon completion, the partners bow again. The person in the middle steps to the left and replaces that individual, or moves to the back of the line.

One of the advantages of rotating in this pattern is that the less experienced individuals can watch for several rotations before they are in the center. The senior student, after having demonstrated the technique and pattern, can step out and help direct the junior ones on the proper execution.

In some of the larger seminars I’ve seen Bunkai squares lined up across the floor, each square doing a different bunkai. Once one has rotated through their square, they move on to the next one.

Oyo Bunkai

For some katas there may be another layer of Bunkai, referred to as Oyo Bunkai (or Oreo Bunkai by my kids' classes!). This provides still another set of possible uses for the kata. Some parts are the same as the ‘plain’ bunkai with just the addition of a kick. Other parts are very different, exploiting a totally different possible interpretation of the kata. The form one is doing in the middle of the square is less easily identified as a specific kata when first seen. Some motions are eliminated and others added.

The other significant difference is that the person in the middle is now responsible for the distance between themselves and the various partners. Again, the variation in builds and heights helps one learn the techniques of moving in and out without having to think about it each and every time. There tend to be more throwing techniques included and more difficult combinations.

Any corrections or additions, please contact me!

And don’t forget to Get in the Car!

Back to the Odds and Ends Page!

A version of this article was originally published on Suite101

Copyright 2006, Marek Swarthout