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Mark B
Mark B's picture

Hi all, 

DaveB mentions that Mabuni Sensei had an approach which rather than having a Ju-Jutsu feel would rather focus on applying kata application to create openings to deliver impact.  I find that fascinating (and satisfying) as this is exactly my approach.  Simple, direct, effective.  Not as impressive to view as some approaches maybe , but it gets the job done!

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Dave,

Thanks for the clarifications.

DaveB wrote:
In essence though my question to all was what do you do when you find the masters of old in direct contradiction of your modern ideas of kata or individual applications?

The simple answer is you go with what is most practical; but there are issues around that which need clarification.

I’ll start with a “test” I use at seminars to partially explain were I am coming from in regards to “history”. Let’s say that later today someone is cleaning out an old Okinawan house and in the attic they find a dusty old booked called “The complete and full applications for all the kata” by Bushi Mastumura. The book is checked and it is confirmed to be an authentic guide to kata application from a point in history where kata was still practised for its functional use above all else. Now I want to see that book! I’d check all the applications in it against the ones I teach today … as I’m sure everyone else would. So here is the test:

If you felt one of your applications was more effective than the proven historical one, which application would you go with?

For the people who say “the historical one” I would class them as “historians” in their approach to bunkai. The people who say “the most practical one” are what I would label as “pragmatists” in their approach to bunkai.

Personally, I am a pragmatist. So while history is a vital guide, it is not the datum by which I judge a method. The functionality of a method is the datum by which I judge. The irony is that the masters of the past were seeking combative efficiency first and foremost so my approach is “traditional” even if we were to vary on methodology.

Anyhow, basically what I’m saying is practicality should always be first and foremost. “History” is more complex and nuanced than I think has been suggested though.

There is not one “history”, but many points in a history which contain differing people with differing views. Karate changed over time and various masters disagreed with each other during that time. There is therefore sure to be “historical contradictions” all over the place. And those contradictions go both ways.

The kind of “bunkai” that is practised in world level competitions by Shito-Ryu practitioners (and others) directly contradicts what the founder of Shito-Ryu said about bunkai. Mabuni called the idea of the enemies attacking from pre-described angles “ridiculous”, and yet that’s exactly what we see today. So in this case they find the masters of old in direct contradiction with of their modern ideas on kata and applications; and it is the past master who is being the most pragmatic.

We have it the other way too of course. The reason Mabuni wrote what he did about angles is because he felt others, of his time, were getting it wrong! So it also entirely possible to say that “attacks from pre-described angles” has historical backing by pointing to the people Mabuni was critiquing.

Now if I read something from history by one of the people that caused Mabuni to write what he did, does that mean I should accept that the angle in the kata represents the angle of attack because it has historical “validity”? Of course it doesn’t, because we have conflicting views from that same point in history … just as our own point in history has lots of conflicting positions.

A given position – such as what angles mean in kata, in this example – has historical supporters and historical detractors. There is not one “history” that people are either 100% in accordance with or 100% out of step with. It’s more nuanced than that.

To given an example of this, I’ll use the statement you made in your post (you wrote “Motobu”, but the pictures were from Mabuni so I’m assuming that’s a typo).

DaveB wrote:
I refer back to [Mabuni's] illustrations of kata that depict the creation of striking opportunities. For some these kinds of simple strike based techniques are a different paradigm to their own view of application; there's not a takedown or choke in sight in the drawings.

That’s true, but I would say that it’s a very big leap to then infer that because these couple of pages show no takedowns, choses etc, that such methods were not part of Mabuni’s teaching or practise at all! It's just a couple of pages from the many he wrote.

We need to know how to create opportunities for strikes, but we also need to know how to grapple. I think kata records such a holistic methodology; and Mabuni also said this in his writings.

The applications Mabuni shows in those particular pictures seem very pragmatic to me, and while there are no throws shown in that particular set, we know from his other works that he certainly taught throwing. As an example of Mabuni’s writing supporting the idea that throws were part of karate we have this:

“The karate that has been introduced to Tokyo is actually just a part of the whole. The fact that those who have learnt karate there feel it only consists of kicks & punches, and that throws & locks are only to be found in judo or jujutsu, can only be put down to a lack of understanding … Those who are thinking of the future of karate should have an open mind and strive to study the complete art”Kenwa Mabuni  1938

He also demonstrates a few throws in his books. He’s not the only one either, but I’ll stay on point (more on the historical basis for karate grappling here: http://iainabernethy.co.uk/article/karate-grappling-did-it-really-exist)

One thing I will quickly add is that Funakoshi was another who was abundantly clear that grappling was always part of karate, and that this is reflected in the kata. So we can say that those who are not including throwing and locking are not being “historically authentic” in their training.

What’s also key here is that Mabuni is once again pointing out that some of his contemporaries are suffering from a “lack of understanding” about karate because they are not teaching throws and locks. So we could point to those people and we again have the situation where “history” has two differing views.

As a pragmatist, I know there is unequivocal historical support for karate throwing from some of the key players, and that we need those skills to have a true holistic system … “My karate” therefore includes throws (Just as Funakoshi's and Mabuni's karate did). The practises of those Mabuni is critiquing (i.e. those who did not practise throwing) will not move me from that position. I am of the view that omitting grappling entirely was wrong then and it is wrong now.

DaveB wrote:
If these are not your idea of good application then are we simply making up a new art, or was [Mabuni] wrong?

In this case, I think Mabuni was right, in that what he shows in those pages in perfectly valid. However, it’s wrong to infer that throwing was not part of karate or kata from that particular part of his work because elsewhere Mabuni and others are abundantly clear that it is. I’m therefore not making up a new art but continuing the development of one version of karate (an older version which was pragmatically biased). Just as there is not “one history”, there is also not “one karate”. “Karate” can mean many things today, and it meant many things back then.

As I say, I feel it’s far more nuanced that perhaps has been suggested and we need to acknowledge history was never uniform or static, and that karate has never been uniform or static either.

The final thing I want to mention in this post is that karate books were not written and published until karate was relatively popular. Therefore most (not all, but certainly the vast majority) of the source material we have comes from the time where karate was moving away from primarily being a functional system, to primarily being a means of physical conditioning and character development. What is therefore of most value to those of us with an interest in the older more pragmatic approach is the parts of the literature that point to the past; as opposed to record the practises of the time they were written. There is therefore a need to view all historical information in the context of the time (as I said in a previous post).

DaveB wrote:
If I understand you (John and Iain) correctly, you simply exercise your right as pragmatists to disagree where you can see better options.

Generally that’s it, but it’s back to what I said before in that I will disagree with some historical positions while agreeing with others. I tend to almost universally agree with the older more practical historical views. I generally disagree with the less practical stuff from more recent points in history.

I want to learn from history, because I believe it has things of massive value to teach me, but I don’t want to be a slave to it. If I fail to understand the value of what came before then I have to start from the beginning. If I let the past limit me then I can not grow. Either approach leads to limitation and stagnation.

The past gives me the deep roots that I need to draw on to grow and produce new branches. As Funakoshi said, “To search for the old is to understand the new.

Another long post! In summation, I am of the view that the historical information we do have, when correctly approached, paints a very clear picture of how kata was pragmatically approached prior to the shift to “kata as physical exercise”. We also have the kata themselves, and we know the nature of civilian violence. When our kata is viewed in accordance with the right historical information we can see that a very effective solution to the problem of civilian violence is there. Knowledge of history, the kata, and the nature of civilian violence come together to give a very robust approach to bunkai that is true to history, the kata themselves and provides in a logical and structured was what is needed to effectively navigate civilian violence.

All the best,


PS Thanks for staring and guiding this thread Dave! I’ve really enjoyed reading everyone’s post in this one :-)

DaveB's picture

You are most welcome Iain, and thank you for your detailed responses. 

I agree completely with your comments on grappling in karate and in fact feel that the dichotomy between these areas of fighting is a completely artificial one. A wrist lock is a wrist lock whether you follow it with a strike or a choke.  What I think Traditional ma's were built around strategies for overcoming, and thus controlling an opponent. Within the range of strategies available to achieve this you have a sliding scale of degrees of control that one can choose to try and exert over the opponent.  At one end of this spectrum sits an art like boxing: where, as is dictated by the rules, the main strategies look to control and subdue the opponent using striking and distancing, effectively giving the opponent free range of choices as to how they can respond (though that is not to say that choices end well). At the other end is an art like BJJ that relies on applying direct physical manipulation of the opponent.  IMO most TMA sit somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, balancing the need to take control of the opponent in order to prevent harm and subdue and the need to remain mobile and upright to avoid both blows and the opponents attempts to control as well as attacks from friends or allies of the opponent.  In the case of karate I feel the balance changes from kata to kata with something li heavy ke Chinto being quite grappling , while Jion is to me at least, much more percussive. 
Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi All,

Bit of a “necro post” so apologies for that. In this thread there has been a discussion about the relationship between Mabuni and Fuankoshi (in terms of seniority). I knew it jogged something in my memory and yesterday I remembered what it was. Funakoshi was asked to write something for Mabuni’s book 1934 “Koubou Jizai Goshin-Jutsu Kenpo”:

“ … Kenwa Mabuni is my childhood friend and a prominent modern expert and researcher in karate-jutsu … A warm and sincere gentleman, if he did not know something he would ask, and never thought of criticising another style. Mabuni would even approach one of his juniors if he did not know something. He was not concerned with who was senior and who was junior and was respectful to everyone. After he learnt something new, Mabuni would never keep it to himself and would introduce it to his association members who would use it for their own studies. The old way was to keep such information secret, but Mabuni chose to be open and disclose information. As a result it is no exaggeration to say that he is the most knowledgeable karate-jutsu teacher … Now that we are both working actively in Tokyo and Osaka, karate-jutsu will undoubtedly spread throughout the nation.”

From this it is clear that Funakoshi held Mabuni in very high regard, that they had a close relationship, and that Mabuni cared little for seniority and gave it little thought.

Nothing definitive one way or the other, but hopefully relevant and interesting nonetheless.

All the best,