You do Karate for self-defense? Don’t!

Nowadays, there is something called „bunkai“ for the kata (forms) of Karate, considered the application of techniques and concepts found in the kata and therefore to be used in situations where one has to defend him- or herself. The fashion of „kyusho jitsu“ is docking to this idea, telling the tales of some old masters who encrypted the kata of Karate with some „secret“ knowledge. I don’t want to talk about kyusho this time. This is more about the trend of doing bad ass self-defense by „decrypting“ something seen (probably more wished for) within the structure of a particular kata: „bunkai“!

„Bunkai“ is fashionable. Every kata today is being „bunkaized“. Before „bunkaiism“, Karate practitioners commonly believed in the idea of killing a person with a single punch (before „kyusho jitsu“ had been invented). But this has put Karate into the „nice to watch but insignificant“ niche, with Wing Chun (and its many offsprings), Grappling, Vale Tudo, or BJJ being supposedly more applicable in a real „street fight“. Therefore, considered being unpractical for a „real fight“, Karate has been filled with bunkai since then, to prepare it for the discourse on self-defense reality. Within the few past decades, „bunkai“ has become mandatory for anyone pretending to do a serious Karate. And so, no one longer questions how bad ass the old Karate masters of Okinawa were. (They probably could still kill anybody with a single punch.) Well, that was easy, wasn’t it?

According to Henning Wittwer and other scholars researching the history of Karate though, the trend of „bunkaizing“ every kata is a new one, even on Okinawa. Today, there is bunkai everywhere, even in the athletic Karate of the Japan Karate Association, not to mention the „nice to watch“ bunkai tournaments held within the World Karate Federation, which are being considered as dancing competitions (thus invaluable for self-defense) by outsiders. I for myself used the term „bunkai“ a lot in the past, explaining and refering to what I had identified as the core of a „true Karate“. As I stated lately, Karate is a social construction, mostly based on individual experience, own taste, and ascriptions, giving the practitioner a system of symbols and belief. And this not a bad thing at all. But it has us questioning, wether there could be something like „the one“ or „a true“ Karate, being an entity which had fallen from the sky and is not supposed to be changed in any way. So, could „bunkai“ still be the missing link (pun intended, LOL), equipping our Karate for the bad ass self-defense we need to hold our ground against Wing Chun etc.? It surely is considered that way. But as a relatively modern trend – like kyusho jitsu – it is just another man-made creation, artificially linked back to something past to have it legitimized on the shoulders of some old masters (whoever they might have been). Yes, this is an ambitious statement I am making here.

The title implies that Karate is nothing for self-defense. So, Karate is worthless in a fight (as the Wing Chun guys usually say)? Case closed? Not at all! My point is not that you cannot defend yourself based on the ideas conveyed by Karate training. (The same goes for Judo, Ju-Jitsu with whatever derivative, or Aikido.) My point is for one, that the main purpose of Karate training is not self-defense, and for another, bunkai is not about any ascribed secrets of fighting encrypted within the Kata. I wrote an article about which purpose kata is for some time ago. I repeat so much here now: Kata is not for self-defense in the first place, and probably not even in the second. And so is bunkai as a part of the kata. Remember the endless discussions online about which martial art is best for street defense? Those were a complete waste of time, since one entity was compared with another one: Karate vs. Wing Chun, Judo vs. MMA, Thai boxing vs. something else… Exactly the same is happening in the discussions about which religion was more true or more from God. The creamy filling of martial arts is to be found far away from such idle talk.

Again, let’s turn to the language first. I have written about the meaning of „bunkai“ before. „Bunkai“ (分解) is a Japanese expression meaning „analysis“, „disassembly“ or „dismantling“. It says nothing about any secret content of any kind. In order to analyse a thing, you need to dismantle it, break it up into pieces to get an insight of how it is structured. And there is no chance of interpreting anything else into this particular term, be it spiritually inspired or anything else. It is not „zen“, it is nothing beyond any „logical understanding“. There is no way of interpreting the single components (the kanji) of this term towards the encrypment thing, either. It is simple as that: The kata is broken up into sequences to get a grip in remembering the flow. The following example is a „bunkai“ of Naihanchi Shodan:


And that is all there is about bunkai. This had been done way before the need for any self-defense based on fancy „secrets“. Most trainers and teachers just split up the kata into several consecutive parts to make it easier to learn for beginning students. I am not going any further on bunkai kumite etc., since this was part of the article I linked above. You get the idea: Doing self-defense with some Karate movements has just been elevated to being an old, bad-ass tradition by calling it „bunkai“. Unfortunately, Japanese practitioners have – again – taken this custom up from the West and do „bunkai“ themselves now, revealing the pretended secrets of Okinawan Karate as a cultural asset. This suits, since the Olympics is coming to Japan.

So, in dealing with fighting situations, there is no such thing as „bunkai“. There is simply no time for that. I noticed that I was limiting my own potential and my ways of teaching Karate when I was figuring out some fancy bunkai myself, back when I started teaching. Everybody did it, so why not follow the current? Besides the fact, that self-defense is a euphemistic term for fighting – punching someone’s face that is – there is not one bunkai that equals one movemeng of a kata. When taught a specific sequence of a particular kata, I was immedeately confronted with the problem of differences in height, weight, strength, and experience between the practitioners. This was the place where „variations“ came in handy. But since every body is different, and even practitioners equal in height, weight, strength, and experience would do a certain movement differently, the number of variations would seem infinite. Just do the math for yourself: A kata like Heian Nidan with around 25 techniques, given three variations for a certain application would make 75 techniques of self-defense. Take in the turns around your longitudinal axis (e.g. after the first kiai) into account, adding the sequences of several techniques grouped together… how many „bunkais“ would there be? You get the idea: It doesn’t work this way.

Another part are the self-defense applications themselves. Self-defense related to Karate differs so much from other methods of budo (traditional Japanese martial arts) like Aikido or the more classical schools of the bushi (warrior) class like Daitoryu or Takenouchiryu. And it differs from what is practiced in Wing Chun, Progressive Fighting System, or other modern day „self-defense only“ methods. When it comes to weapons – like used in Okinawan Kobudo – it gets even worse. Although Karate is said to always having employed weapons, Karate and Kobudo seem like a pair of siblings who can’t get along well with each other. What happens again and again when I recommend German Karate practitioners to try some movements with a staff or even a pair of sai (trident): They don’t feel „ready“ for such an audacity, or they pretend to having „too much to do with their weaponless techniques“ already. Well, it is not like handling a weapon couldn’t improve your techniques at all. As soon as they start with Kobudo, though, bound to a different way of medialization like black uniforms and another federation membership with a different grading syllabus, everybody instantly recognizes that Karate and Kobudo always had been one since. But when turning to the application of weaponless techniques taken out of the kata and used for self-defense, hell breaks loose: A punch turns into shoving people around, because there is not enough room to throw a basic punch after blocking a front kick with your forearm. To my question why there is no adaptation of distance or any of the abovementioned variations, the answer is mostly hot air. And there is no one to blame for. Karate was globally introduced as the „sun-dome“ sports that defines Karate until today, with mostly no weapons and no self-defense at all. There was simply no „self-defense“ other than the one ideal punch or kick as striven for in tournament bouts. Even the blocking techniques (ude-uke waza) didn’t fit in there, because they were not considered functional in a tournament fight. (And we know they are not in a „real fight“.) This is a similar situation to the one Judo has been in until today: Karate athletes are heavily challenged when it comes to a working self-defense concept, because sportive techniques work in an athletic environment only.

So, what is it with Karate training if it is not self-defense? Taking the „soft“ training concepts of Aikido or the remarks on Okinawan Ti by Mark Bishop into account, the settings of dealing with an opponent are often mistaken for a cooperative dance and therefore useless for self-defense. But since martial arts are bound to the taste of athletic training, reflexions on structural body movement are neglected or even unknown. But working with your body, percieving it on a deeper level (deeper than common muscle gain, that is) and cultivating a body culture with a specific background (like it is being done in budo) is the sole purpose of kata or any form of pre-arranged sparring. Yet there are some movements or techniques resembling fighting scenarios, but before re-enacting ancient (rather movie-inspired) fights, body control, muscle memory, fascial connection, or even the often mystified „ki“ (internal energy or power) need to be built before they can be of any use in something like a self-defense scenario. The purpose of kata is therefore not to provide „bunkai“ with an unlimited amount of variations, but to cultivate the body. Yes, take this and let it sink in. You have done nothing wrong so far. It might be just the right time for the next step – by giving up the burden of creating more and more „bunkai self-defense“ and enjoying the benefits of a body cultivated by budo.