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brianp's picture
A contrarian's perspective.

I think that most karate masters, old timey japanese guys from the 20th century did not know the applications of the kata that they were teaching.  I just got done watching a three part documentary on Mastubayashi Shorin-ryu karate.  This documentary was created by Takayoshi Nagamine, who was, until he died, 10th dan, and headmaster of that style.  He begin his training with his father, Shoshin Nagamine, who founded Mastubayashi Shorin-ryu, at the age of 6.  His father was taught by Motobu, Kyan, and a whole bunch of other well-known Okinanwan karate-ka.  Anyway, his credentials are top-notch, but in this documentary he shows the bunkai of various kata, and it is the same tired old, bollocks.  We have all seen it, two or three people around you, all attacking from a distance, individually, with karate attacks that are as slow as mollasus, and you block, and block, and block, ad nauseum without any attacks.  Obviously not very effective as we all know.  So why would a man, who is obviously a good karate-ka, with a formidable heritage, teach such utter garbage?  I posit two scenarios:

1.  He knows the true applications but is reluctant to show them on camera because they are too dangerous/secret etc?

This doesn't make any sense.  They say that karate takes years to master and learn.  I've been doing it for a decade now and I'm still learning. Some kid watching these moves, and the true application wouldn't be able to effectively pull them off, and if they do, so what?  Also, a secret?  Seriously, are we living in some 1960s kung-fu movie here?

2.  He doesn't know any true applications, has never thrown a punch in anger before, and the people who taught him karate didn't know the realistic applications either.

This seems the most realistic answer.  If this is the case, and we have lost the applications then technically, people like Iain, and other bunkai revisionists, who look to the kata for inspiration in order to derive realistic, street-applicable applications are miles ahead of these folks, who probably didn't know anything.

This is quite the contrarian view considering all the stories that I have read regarding the old masters fighting prowess.  I honestly believe that many of these folks would have been hard to beat independent of their karate training just by their very nature, but I don't think that they knew dick all with regards to the realistic application of kata.  With karate being an art that has not been subject to much change in the past 100 years, you'd think that these realistic combat applications would have stuck around, and would have been passed down, and therefore dojos around the world, with decent linages would have been teaching said applications.  The evidence seems to suggest otherwise.

clouviere's picture

I think that you are both correct and incorrect in your assessment.  I'll explain.  I will have to find it, but basically I read an artilce or a bit of email interview of Pat Nakata (student of Chibana Sensei) a year ago that basically (I am paraphrasing) said that when Nakata Sensei started training with Chibana, Chibana was teaching the public at the school, the firehouse, the police department, etc.  And that he was teaching one way to the public and a different way privately.  Nakata Sensei trained with him all day in public and then in private before or after those public sessions.  Just by comparing how Nakata Sensei performed the same kata that other students (I assume public students) did, I came of the opinion that what we have is 100 years of two tracks of lineage.  The public...and the private.

Chibana himself was a private student of Itosu.  So if we take 100 years of public students, who I assume, did not get the same lesson, or who got a seriously filtered lesson, and we have them train others, and they have less knowledge, etc., you get what you are referring to.

I have no idea if Takayoshi Nagamine knew any applications or how deep his karate knowledge is but I have come to the opinion that there are two karates.  And practically speaking, lots of branches of those two trees.  I think the majority of trees in the forrest are of the public variety.  Public students of these teachers, who started teaching what they were taught.  Which was always Karate for public consumption.  Always meant to be different. 

And the other tree, far less likely to be found in the forrest, is the private karate.  The karate that Itosu and his peers taught in private to students who they chose for those lessons.  Those men themselves had private students.

I use the Itosu -> Chibana -> Nakata lineage as an example.  And I feel that it's not just about bunkai, but alot of things as well.

Anyway, that's my take.  I find myself making those decisions as well.  There are students in the dojo where I train, that I feel are mature enough or of the right mindset that I share things with, and others that I hold back to surface level karate as it were.  I think that Iain does that to some point to, if I remember right, he has applications that he only shares in his dojo to his students, so even today, from a modern karateka, there's private and public karate.


DaveB's picture
I second Clouviere's suggestion. There has always been a subtext of secrecy in the tales of Karate's history, it is simply a part of the culture of the martial arts.
Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

I think the majority didn't know, or dget taught, the real thing as far as bunkai.

Nonetheless, there are both Okinawan masters, and non-Okinawans that do now have real understanding of bunkai, though I imagine they are still a small minority. In some cases the understanding comes through lineage, and in others I think it came through intense and dedicated personal study..which in the end, is a better thing to pass down than the correct techniques.

So in that sense, there are definitely "two Karates"  I imagine though, that this has always been so, for whatever art. You can read for instance Musashi's description of this exact dichotomy in a Book Of Five Rings.

brianp's picture

It still doesn't make any sense for these folks to do this.  They obviously care about karate, but the secrecy, if that is the case, just dilutes karate.  It's simple mathematics.  So most of your students are not going be those with whom you trust providing with 'real karate' so it leads to a few things occurring.  The ones who only learn surface karate, and get far enough, end up teaching, and passing on this shitty karate, giving karate a bad name, like it has amongst most of general public.  Secondly, a lot of these karate-ka will get annoyed that they are learning impractical crap, give up, and suggest that karate is shite.  If they cared, they would show the world how awesome karate actually is.   Unless they think that they don't need to prove anything to their world and can closter up their karate, which is just pretentious, in that it ascribes more importance than there actually is.

Maybe I’m just committing a fallacy from incredulity.  I cannot understand someone would present to the world, in documentary format, water-down, impractical karate.

Maybe they don’t view karate with the same purpose as myself.  I see it as a beautifully brutal and effective system of self-defence.  I don’t really care about my karate developing anything else but my ability to defend myself if I’m required to use violent aggression.

I honestly still don't think they know.  If they did there would be more realistic karate and there just isn't.  If they knew there would be books and videos outlining their theories on practical self-defence, but instead we have practically nothing.  If they do know then these people run the risk of their art dying due to their reticence to teach correctly and disseminate the information to those who want it.

I don’t believe in secrets.  I refuse to hold things back from.  I don’t view it as my responsibility, but up to the individual to use their own common sense on what is appropriate for a given situation.  If they mess up, then that’s on them, not me.  I can teach someone to shoot, but if they then go and shoot up some school, I am not in any way culpable for their behaviour.  It’s definite something we will have to disagree on.

Incidentally, Chibana taught Ankichi Arakaki who was also one of Shoshin Nagamine.

Thanks for taking the time to reply to my post.  I’m not trying to be antagonistic, I’m just really trying to understand this all.  Obviously the people who first developed karate weren’t stupid and understood the realities on civilian self-protection, so there has to be something to all this, but at times, well most of the time, I feel as though that it has mostly  been lost.  All the videos on practical karate I have found have been westerners, I’ve never seen a video from a Japanese person showing practical self-defence.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

brianp wrote:
All the videos on practical karate I have found have been westerners, I’ve never seen a video from a Japanese person showing practical self-defence.

Allow me to introduce Taira Masaji 8th Dan :-)


I’ve also trained with quite a few Japanese instructors who teach very good bunkai. So they are out there. I would suggest that part of the reason we don’t see them – and why westerners seem to dominate – is that having English as your first language gives you a huge advantage when it comes to sharing things internationally. Most of Europe has English as a second language too. So if you put things out there in English you can instantly share what you do with the whole of Europe, America, Canada, Australia, India, etc. Japanese speakers will struggle to share what they do beyond their shores because Japanese is nowhere near as widely spoken or read.

We also have the fact that the version of karate that spread through the Japanese education system, and from there to the west, was one in which character and physical development were the primary goals and hence kata was practised for those purposes.

There were plenty of able fighters in that generation, but their understanding of the applications of kata did not play a part in the development of that fighting skill. They learnt kata as a solo exercise – and taught it as such – and their fighting prowess was developed independent of that.

Back in Japan, there were and are people who continue the tradition of kata and bunkai being inextricably linked. And we have such people in the west too. Likewise, we also have people who don’t understand bunkai and are good fighters globally. And across the globe we also have people who don’t understand bunkai and are poor fighters too. It all depends upon what they learnt from whom and how they practised it.

If we do away with the false assumption of one homogenised direction of development in karate – and instead see the distinct and individual streams – almost all of the seeming contradictions disappear.

All the best,


Wastelander's picture

I would agree with the "two lineage" theory, in general, and I can throw in a few more tidbits along the lines of clouviere's comments. Chibana Sensei handled challenges issued to Itosu's dojo, and was said to have never lost any of those challenge matches, which indicates fighting skill. Whether or not that translated into his kata applications is hard to say, but I can say that I have been told by two students of Nakazato Shugoro (a student of Chibana) in no uncertain terms that kata application was taught, but only to small, select groups of people.

All that said, we are discussing Itosu-lineage karate when we talk about this "two-lineage" theory. Over the past year or so, I have held lengthy discussions with a practitioner of non-Itosu-lineage Shuri-Te--a very small style, these days, with very few practitioners. He says that, at least in his training under his Sensei in Okinawa, practical kata application has been taught along with the kata the entire time. I've seen some of his applications for their Naihanchi, and they look to be practical, effective, and in-line with the tuidi and striking methods I have seen from people like Oyata, Hokama, and Motobu.

brianp's picture

Thanks for this.  This gentleman is very good.  It looks a lot like wing chun only with a distinctly karate flavour. 

Enrico's picture

After a few years in which I have been exposed to a wide variety of Japanese masters I think I can point out a few common traits I observed in their - otherwise very different - ways of thinking.

1) there is a huge cultural gap between western and japanese educational system. In Japan a student is not supposed to ask questions, he has to prove himself worthy of explanations just by mechanically repeating over and over the same things, "pefecting" them for years. Our tendency to always ask "why" annoys Japanese masters and is considered rude and typically western.

2) there is a strong sense of "learning without even noticing you are learning"; remember karate kid? All that stuff about polishing the car that magically turns out to be a kick-ass technique. Yes, it'a a movie but in this regard is 100% true. Many masters honestly believe that you can practice a gedan barai for twenty years against (simulated) kicks and then your master, just before dying, tells you with a whisper "it's an arm lock" and from that day on you are able to use it in the new fashion. The question is: what happens if WWII wipes out an entire generation of masters before that magic moment happens?

Much has been lost, but much is still deliberately untold.

Enrico's picture

sorry... I think "deliberately left untold" is the correct form.