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Bartfast's picture
An Open Letter to Bunkai Researchers

I recently created a Blog, and I think this article may be of interest to this community.  It sums up my views concerning Bunkai and several other misconceptions that I feel are being quoted as fact and misleading martial artists.    


Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Thanks for posting the link. It’s a good article which raises many valid points. I would, however, suggest that it’s addressed to the wrong people? I would suggest that is would be better addressed to karateka at large as opposed to the sub-group of “bunkai researchers”.

Even the most superficial bunkai research will present strong evidence that will have people rejecting most of the fallacies addressed in the article. Therefore, most of what you put forward will be largely taken as “givens” by those who look at bunkai in any depth. It’s not “researchers” who perpetuate those fallacies, but those karateka who have not done any research.

As examples, you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who frequents a forum such as this that believes that:

Kata is for contrived karate attacks

We are never allowed to strike first

That the directions in kata are because we are being attacked by 8 people

And so on.

My major criticism of the article would therefore be that it is “preaching to the converted”; who are likely to agree with the vast majority of what you’ve said.

That does not take away from the validity of the points raised however. In this post I will back up some of the key points with supporting evidence for those who are yet to come across it.

There’s also some nuances that I think are important. I also think there is evidence to support the idea that the names of kata movements are indeed modern innovations, and hence not much store should be placed on them when analyzing kata. So, for what it’s worth, here are some thoughts.

I agree that kata was not created to have “hundred of interpretations”, but I think is a little more nuanced. The first thing is that we need to avoid confusing the free application of kata principles with the principle free “free-application” of kata. It’s not really the thrust of this discussion, and his article covers that for those who want to look at that side of things in more depth: http://iainabernethy.co.uk/article/kata-lock-or-key

The second thing is the subtle difference between “kata having many interpretations” and “kata being interpreted in many valid ways”. I think that’s the main thrust of what you’re saying so I’ll give my own take on that. As I say, I largely agree with you, but I think there is a distinction in the process of analysis that is important.

Bartfast wrote:
Why would a Kata have hundreds of interpretations?

It wouldn’t. However, the original function in many cases is lost to us, so when we are researching differing options will exist as to the kata’s intended function. I liken this process to the scientific method.

When science sets out to assert a theory, that theory needs to be able to explain all the existing data and, crucially, it needs to be able to make accurate predictions. For example, the theory of gravity explains everything we see on everyday scales and it makes accurate predictions about how future events will occur. We can dismiss gravity as “just a theory” but if you step off a high building you are going to fall at a rate of 9.81m/s/s until the resistance of the atmosphere has you reach terminal velocity; or you hit the floor (whichever happens first). The theory of gravity predicts that with no atmospheric resistance, all things will drop at the same speed regardless of mass. During one of the moon landings they took the opportunity to test that theory and it worked.

Now, does this mean we know for a fact and with 100% certainty how gravity works? The answer is no we don’t. But the theories we have explain all the data and make solid predictions. I would say the same process needs to be applied to kata i.e. any application needs to explain all the data and make predictions (i.e. work when tested).

The data that needs to be explained is threefold in my view:

1 – Any application must adequately address all part of the kata (i.e. explain why the kata is as it is).

2 – Any application must be in accordance with the historical information we have.

3 – Any application must be functional in the context of civilian self-protection.

If an application can do that, then it is a valid theory. In science there are competing theories of gravity, competing string theories, etc but all are valid because they explain the data and they work.

I recall listening to a scientist on the radio who was debunking the pseudoscience often attributed to Quantum Physics. His advice (paraphrased) was, “Anyone who says, ‘quantum theory tells us that …’ should be ignored. Quantum theory tells us nothing about the fundamental nature of the universe. It is simply a model, a mathematical tool, which can make incredibility accurate predictions. It has powered great advances in technology, from which mankind has benefited, but about the fundamental nature of the universe, it tells us nothing.”

I want a “bunkai theory” that works and gives me and mine predictable results. I approach bunkai like a scientist (i.e. what explains the data and what works when tested) not an historian (i.e. what people in the past did). As I’ve said before I’m a pragmatist not an historian.

We pragmatists therefore accept that there will be competing theories that all can work; and because they work and explain all the data they are “correct”. An historical approach will search for the “one truth” of the past and therefore only has one “correct” answer.

With regards to bunkai, an historical approach is doomed to failure because it needs historical confirmation to be valid; and we simply don’t have that confirmation. It can never be proved “right”, has no empirical test of validity, and hence will always be nothing more than personal, unverified theorising. The pragmatic approach can be tested however (i.e. does it work?).

So it’s not that the kata has many differing interpretations, but instead that it can be interpreted in numerous valid ways (from a “scientific” / pragmatic perspective).

In my dojo, the kata have one primary application, but we also acknowledge that it can have valid “secondary” interpretations and students are encouraged to explore these once the primary applications have been learnt to a sufficient standard.

The kata therefore has “one application” in the first instance, but can have others later one. This would be like a student of science being taught the valid theories of the day, before being encouraged to test and improve on them if possible.

Initially telling students that the kata has innumerable applications and asking them to explore them is a total cop out in my view. I agree totally there. If we are teachers then we should teach kata bunkai and not ask students to work it out for themselves (with no valid model to even start with no less!).

Bartfast wrote:
For everything else in the universe (literally, the universe), we apply Occam's Razor, which favors explanations based on the fewest assumptions.

This is the exact opposite of how you view your Kata!  For any simple movement you attribute complex and convoluted techniques then invent the correct attack to make it “work”, thus adding assumptions.  What assumptions?

Absolutely! Occam’s Razor exists because there can be competing theories (see above) and I believe that applying Occam’s Razor helps separate the wheat from the chaff. It does not prove “truth”, it just gives a preference to competing theories.  I covered Occam’s Razor and how it applied to kata bunkai in quite some depth in this article:


Bartfast wrote:
Bunkai always seems to be a defense against a Karate attack or some other complex attack requiring Karate training to even attempt.

And it should not be! Itosu was quite clear on this:

“Karate is not intended to be used against a single assailant but instead as a way of avoiding injury by using the hands and feet should one by any chance be confronted by a villain or ruffian.”

As was Motobu:

“The applications of kata have their limits and one must come to understand this. The techniques of the kata were never developed to be used against a professional fighter in an arena or on a battlefield. They were, however, most effective against someone who had no idea of the strategy being used to counter their aggressive behaviour.”

I totally agree bunkai should not be “karate vs. karate” and that is undoubtedly one of the most common errors made. It misunderstands the nature of kata and makes it unusable.

Bartfast wrote:
There is no first attack in Karate. This is entirely misunderstood by many, and only partially understood by some.  While I do agree that reading it to mean that you should use your Karate only for defense is a good start, I don’t think that is necessarily useful, or informative.  For instance, it doesn’t mean that you can’t strike first; it means you can’t attack first (or initiate the confrontation).  If I identify you as an opponent, you have already attacked me be it verbally, physically, or through implication or perceived intent.  I don’t have to wait for the bad guy in a ski mask with a drawn gun to actually shoot me before I take action.  Is that how you practice gun self-defense?

I think all pragmatic karate would agree with you here. As did the masters of the past:

“When faced with someone who disrupts the peace or who will do one harm, one is as a warrior in battle, and so it only stands to reason that one should seize the initiative and pre-empt the enemy’s use of violence. Such action in no way goes against the precept of ‘no first attack’ …the expression ‘karate ni sente nashi’ [no first attack in karate] should be properly understood to mean that the karateka must never take a hostile attitude, or be the cause of a violent incident; he or she should always have the virtues of calmness, prudence and humility in dealing with others.” – Kenwa Mabuni

“There is a saying ‘no first attack in karate’ …To be sure, it is not the budo [martial art] spirit to train for the purpose of striking others without good reason. I assume that you already understand that in karate one's primary goal must be the training of mind and body… But when a situation can't be avoided and the enemy is intent on doing you serious harm, you must fight ferociously. When one does fight, taking control of the enemy is vital, and one must take that control with the very first move. Therefore, in a fight one must attack first. It is very important to remember this.” – Choki Motobu

“When there are no avenues of escape or one is caught even before any attempt to escape can be made, then for the first time the use of self-defense techniques should be considered. Even at times like these, do not show any intention of attacking, but first let the attacker become careless. At that time attack him concentrating one's whole strength in one blow to a vital point and in the moment of surprise, escape and seek shelter and help." – Gichin Funakoshi

There are some old articles on this website that address this too:



Bartfast wrote:
That there are multiple attackers (8 directions=8 attackers)/that your opponent will just stand there.

This was written off as being “nonsense” by Kenwa Mabuni as far back as 1938:

“The meaning of the directions in kata is not well understood, and frequently mistakes are made in the interpretation of kata movements. In extreme cases, it is sometimes heard that "this kata moves in 8 directions so it is designed for fighting 8 opponents" or some such nonsense. I would like to specifically address this issue now.” – Kenwa Mabuni

Mabuni goes on to explain the angle in kata represents the angle we assume relative to the enemy (not the angle the enemy is attacking from). To me, this is a big key to understand what kata is actually showing.

Bartfast wrote:
The names of the techniques mean nothing. This one is closely related to the above, and stems from the idea that just because we call it a block that doesn’t mean it is a block and that it was never called a block until it was taught in schools during the early 1900s. First of all, that is highly questionable, and I’ve never seen any citation to support that assertion (other than quoting other people’s opinions from the internet)

Mabuni states that he had to come up with names for the “blocks” within kata and that may give you the citation you’ve hitherto being lacking:

 “From long ago, all karate styles and systems had names for their kata, however for the uke-waza there were none which in fact is quite foolish. Therefore for the purpose of instruction and explanation I devised the following names:” – Kenwa Mabuni, Seipai no Kenkyu, 1934

So, according to Mabuni, the modern names for techniques did come later and would reflect the karate of the 1930s; as apposed to the earlier karate where the techniques of the kata were indeed nameless.

I’m sure others will chime in too, but I hope the above adds something to the discussion. The article is a great conversation starter and I hope it gets the attention it deserves. Thanks once again for sharing!

All the best,


Kamil's picture

I would like to add my two cents that with all the hand wringing involved in elucidating the intent of the masters or whatever bunkai researchers are personally pursuing, there is a line of thought in karate that kinda ignores what we personally make of kata and what works for us at the expense of some objective idea of what each motion is, or what some master intended 80 years ago.  Kata is a means of making karate your own.  Someone could tell you until they are blue in the face that some such motion is a block or punch or lock, but if you don't practice it that way, it doesn't matter, and if you see it as something else, so long as that interpretation strengthens your karate and is effective for you, who are they to say that you are wrong?  The subjective kata is just as, if not more important, than the objective kata, because that is the karate that you will use when you aren't thinking about it. Tode Sakugawa can come today and point at a motion and say that "This is a defense from a tackle."  But if in your mind, it is a dodge from punch or a kick, that's how your body will use it.   Tode Sakugawa will not be fighting with us when it is time to use the motion.  I think we do ourselves a disservice if we go against our own intuition about what the movements mean and make the interpretations of others more valid than our own.

Iain, you are, by all estimates, an enormous fellow.   I don't see how it is necessarily true that your interpretation of a movement should carry weight with someone who is more likely to be facing someone bigger and stronger than they.  On the level of Shu, we all practice the same kata, and develop general notions of the motions.  On the level of Ha, we break with the common interpretations and explore the alternatives.  And on the level of Ri, we use the kata to work exclusively for us, interpretations that might not work for someone else at all.  Someone could look at your bunkai at this stage and say, "This could never work."  But what they mean is, "This could never work for me."  And they are correct.  'This' interpretation is meant to work for someone else.  But this search for rigid, inviolate meanings of each movement, runs in the face of the idea that karate can work for everyone.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Kamil,

Thanks for the post and the contribution to the thread.

Kamil wrote:
Tode Sakugawa can come today and point at a motion and say that "This is a defense from a tackle." But if in your mind, it is a dodge from punch or a kick, that's how your body will use it. Tode Sakugawa will not be fighting with us when it is time to use the motion. I think we do ourselves a disservice if we go against our own intuition about what the movements mean and make the interpretations of others more valid than our own.

I fully agree with that sentiment; although I would reword the last part to be a little more objective. It could be read as saying we can place 100% validly in our own beliefs, simply because they are our own beliefs. We can all be wrong. I’d therefore phase it myself as, “I think we do ourselves a disservice if we go against what we find to be most effective in favour of what others find most effective.”

There has to be an empirical test of efficiently and effectiveness. “Intuition” suggests no firm or demonstrable methodology. I’d also say that in many cases the interpretations (or techniques generally) of others may be more effective than our own. That’s why we learn the martial arts in the first place. We don’t assume our intuition / personal opinions to be infallible, but instead we seek guidance from those who are able to do things better than we can.

My throwing changed because of the influence of my judo coach. My way of generating power changed because of being exposed to the methods of Peter Consterdine. And so on. They were demonstrably better than what I had; so I adapted them.

I’m totally happy for my ideas on things to be overturned when people show me more effective ways of doing things. It’s always what is demonstrably most effective for me; regardless of whether that is something taught to me, or something I developed personally.

That minor clarification aside, I pretty much fully agree with the sentiment. We fight our own battles, not our instructors and not long dead past masters (zombie bodyguards anyone? ;-).

Kamil wrote:
Iain, you are, by all estimates, an enormous fellow. I don't see how it is necessarily true that your interpretation of a movement should carry weight with someone who is more likely to be facing someone bigger and stronger than they.

Firstly, I’m not that big! ;-) Above average strength certainly, but far from “enormous”. I’d also say that this would seem to be an ad hominem position. Yes I’m a strong guy, but that does not mean everything I do therefore relies on strength or that it is invalidated because of that fact. I’d like to think there is a biomechanical and combative efficiency to what I do that can be used by all. My students of small stature certainly do ok with it. I’d also like to think there is a little more intellect behind what I do besides a clumsy “Iain Smash!” :-)

Those who train with me regularly will know that personal exploration of how to best apply the methods and principles of kata is an inbuilt part of my process. It’s certainly not a “find out for yourself and whatever you say goes” approach though. There are some inalienable physical and combative principles which I think are expressed within kata. There are some things which are simply not up for negotiation: You need to get bodyweight into techniques. You just always strive to be off the enemy’s attack line while keeping them on your attack line. You should always take the path of least resistance. You should maintain initiative. And so on. These combative principles need to be learnt from somewhere. In my approach to karate, the students learn them through the practise of the kata, their bunkai, and the many associated bunkai-based compliant and live drills. Having internalised the principles, they are then free to expresses them as they find most effective … BUT that expression must always be in accordance with those principles; otherwise it will be ineffective and inefficient.

As Itosu said, “Learn the explanations of every technique well, and decide when and in what manner to apply them when needed.” So yes, there are some personal decisions to be made, but that comes after the thorough learning.

The Shu-Ha-Ri model has “copy” as its primary stage. We need that. We need to learn from people more experienced and copy what they do. Having copied, we can then start to put our own personal stamp on things by “diverging” (Ha); but we must diverge in a way that does not break the core combative principles. Finally we transcend (Ri) such that what we have is uniquely ours. I’m a great believer in this and encourage all my students to develop their own way (my syllabus is set up with this very much at its core), but it would be self-defeating if they started with their “own way”, because that would not be based on anything solid in those initial stages. From learning “my way” and the way of my teachers, they hopefully have something of value that they can internalise and make their own in time. If they already had it from day one, none of us need learn martial arts at all.

This old article covers the general idea: http://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/article/four-stages-kata-practise

And this one covers the dangers of insisting each generation does exactly as the one before: http://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/article/styles-are-they-killing-karate

The relevant bit on Shuhari is copied here:

Styles are they killing karate wrote:
Shu: The meaning of this character is “to defend” or “to obey”. In martial arts, this stage would be the learning of the fundamentals of our chosen style. The student does not yet have enough knowledge or experience to be able to effectively deviate from the fundamentals and hence it is important that they strictly adhere to them. Essentially this stage is “learning by copying”.

Ha: The meaning of “Ha” is “to diverge” or to “break away”. A martial artist who has reached this stage will be working to find their own personal expression of the fundamentals introduced by the preceding stage. They will be working out what they feel is most effective and making corresponding changes to their training and teaching. Essentially this stage is “learning by experimenting”.

Ri: The final character means “to leave” or “to go away”. At this stage the martial artist has moved away from the earlier stages of their martial art and – although what they now do can still trace its origins to their early training – is now uniquely theirs. It has “left” what they originally did and may now need its own name to adequately define it. Essentially this stage is “learning by creating”.

The martial artist who has reached the “Ri” stage will encourage their students to copy their teachings (Shu) and the whole process begins again.

All the best,


Dod's picture

Thanks to Bartfast and Iain for the detailed article and responses.

On the point that there shouldn’t be hundreds of applications for the same kata move:  Iain highlighted the fact that we may never know the application intended by the kata creator for some moves,   therefore there will always be some judgment involved in interpreting them.

However,  this links in to the another point raised by Bartfast “let’s all refocus our considerable talents and imaginations to try to discover the simplest, most universally reasonable explanations of the Kata possible”

Luckily it’s articles and internet forums like these that allow us to quickly share, discuss and also eliminate many ideas. Thereby finding better applications or corroborating existing ideas (and be the best guess as to the kata creator’s intentions).  Compare this to 30 years ago when you may have to obtain all your knowledge from one sensei and maybe one or two books.

Regarding complicated interpretations,  which was the other main complaint in the article,   I think it is preaching to the converted on this forum at least.  I believe most would agree that it would be rare for an application to be both complicated and practical.

I agree with Bartfast that it can be damaging when instructors teach applications as being “correct” with 100% certainty as it discourages an open and questioning mindset.  They should also explain the reasons and principles behind why an application is good.

A time machine would be great for asking the kata creators what they intended,   but then we would not have the unintended benefit of testing many different potential applications,  some of which although rejected as not a good fit,  nevertheless may have use in their own right.  This maybe helps karate be a living and progressing thing as well as having a rich history?

Dod's picture

or maybe the kata creators intended this all along ... (crafty old geezers?!)

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

The "only one move" thing doesn't make sense to me. Multiple applications for kata movement is also not an exlusively "modern" notion, you can find it in thw writings of pre war Karate guys who are probably our best link to whatever Karate was before it's mainstreaming.

Kata movements don't have multiple applications due to complexity (which seems to be the implication), it's actually the opposite - they have multiple applications because of simplicity, they are so simple that they constitute a non-diagnostic response which doesn't requires an overly-specific set of circumstances to function. Overly complex and slick bunkai are indeed silly, but since I don't actually know anyone personally who advocates them....

I enjoyed the article, and it makes some good points, but I found myself confused as to who it was intended for. Some more detailed analysis of "bad bunkai" might have helped make where the author is coming from clearer.

Steve Gombosi
Steve Gombosi's picture

I think the OP would probably have benefitted from actually reading this forum  for awhile before launching a "hit and run" post which, more than anything else, demonstrated an unfamiliarity with Iain's approach. Personally, I think he has (some) valid points: there are certainly people out there making various exagerrated and/or unsubstantiated claims about what is or isn't in various kata, or about what the "original" forms of some kata must have looked like - claims which are often contrary to known historical record. There are certainly some other thought-provoking posts in his blog, although he does seem to have an obssessive fascination with the Karate Kid movies. Of course, those movies aren't part of some treasured childhood memory for me since I was 29 years old and had already been training for 13 years when the first one came out.

It would still have been nice if he'd had the courtesy to stick around and join the conversation.

Bartfast's picture

Hi all, many apologies for my absence here, it was unintentional but necessary as I was out of town!  I truly appreciate the careful evaluation and reading of my article, and I hope you may check out some of the other posts to help elucidate some of my other perspectives and how they connect to this particular article.  Let me immediately make a few things very clear.  I have absolutely nothing but respect for Iain and the work he does, and I appreciate his commenting and evaluation of my ideas (if you are Iain reading this feel free to change the 'he' to 'you'). I also have nothing but the highest regard for this particular forum and its members.  My article is not meant to attack anyone here in anyway whatsoever.  Quite the opposite.  It is posted here simply because I want to share my thoughts with this community in regard to how other communities view bunkai and kata.  While it is probably clear that I do mean to single out certain bunkai 'experts' and address their fallacies, I concede immediately that Iain is not one of them.  Perhaps you should look where this article is not posted and you will have an idea of the people I think are corrupting and dilluting the art. Consider this article to be a petition to those people.  It is posted here for your signatures of agreement, not for your defense against it.  Though of course, you are welcome to disagree!  I understand the article is a 'non-event' if you already agree with me, but I feel that's not a bad problem to have.  In fact, I simply take it as encouragement to continue.  

Let me address the Karate Kid (and since you probably haven't read the other posts, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Kill Bill also!).  First, yes I was obsessed with those films/books as a child.  But, they serve many purposes in my writing, aside from my fascination with them.  They provide us with a common language.  We have each had completely individual experiences in our training/study.  But, we all had the same account of Daniel's training.  Or Luke Skywalker's.  It is a universal experience that attempts to explain something to us all.  The Karate Kid was written by a martial artist in reaction to what was happening to Karate at the time.  This is where McDojo originate, and Karate Kid was trying to explain to the layperson what Karate really was.  And I do think that it is the root of (non-Iain Abernethy) ridiculously complex bunkai: Trying to be Miyagi.  In an attempt to make my otherwise lengthy and boring discourse a bit more pallatable, as well as to make things clear, I like to use outside examples from Pop culture.  I feel like if I can explain something to you in terms of things you already are comfortable with, the truth of the arguments become very obvious.  That is my intention.  If you think everything I say is obvious, spectacular!  I'm doing what I set out to do.  

As for the idea of multiple interpretations of a single move, I have never said that you cannot apply a technique however you choose.  Don't misconstrue that point.  I am simply stating that in a kata, if there is a particular action it is intended to express a specific action, not any action whatsoever.  Yes, you can hit someone in the testicles with something resembling a down block.  That is a hammer fist.  That is why we have both.  Because in one kata it is blocking something and in another a technique similar in appearence is a strike to the groin.  All techniques are derived from the kata.  It was not the other way.  The kata were not collections of techniques, techniques are extracted from the kata.  Someone extracted down block, and extracted hammer fist.  In any one movement in a kata, something is either a down block or a hammer fist (or something else entirely).  It could be both in a single kata, i.e. opens with a down block, and then later in the kata there is a hammerfist, but that down block in the beginning is not intended to also be a hammerfist.  Whether we know what a movement intends or not, my point is that logically it is only one thing.  It cannot be there to imply anything you want, it implies whatever they wanted.  Another post above argues that if Tode Sakagawa himself told you what a movement meant you would disagree and say 'that's not what it means to me'.  That is the crux of what I am discussing.  If Itosu told you that the opening of pinan shodan was a defense against a wrist grab, it is.  I absoluetely welcome you and everyone else however to do anything you want in the creation of your personal self defense ideas, but the debate of what the movement means is over if the originator tells you what it means.  Just because you can think something means something else doesn't mean it does.  That is why I say go ahead and come up with original counter attacks/responses/self defense routines.  Just don't then try to qualify it as being a really good self defense routine because Itosu invented it.  Just say you came up with it and move on.  I completely agree that what works for one person might not work for another.  That doesn't meant that the kata is intended for each person to decide what every movement means to them.  Someone mentioned that they weren't sure who the article is addressed to, but I feel that if you spent about 1 minute looking for bunkai on YouTube it would be readily apparent, I am just not in the business of singling people out directly.  I would rather just categorically argue against their philosophy rather than attack them personally.  And again, I completely agree that the expression of kata is completely personal.  That is to say, how you apply what the kata teach is completely up to you and your views/experiences/body, but the kata is absolutely not intended for you to interprete every movement that way.  If the kata has a jumping spin kick in it, that is a jumping spin kick.  If you (like me) can't do that technique very well, then do not do that technique.  It is that simple.  Just don't do it.  Not, reinterpret it to be something else.  It was a jump kick and you don't have to do one.  That's all!

There are a lot of other points raised in the comments, and I will address more at a later time, but I hope for now that is sufficient to at least apologize for my absence!   

Additionally, my name is Dayne.  I never meant to seem anonomous and cryptic, it was simply a mistake of account creation.  No need for 'login names' alone here.  We train together and learn together, and this is only my drop in the bucket that I have eagerly drunk from for many years.