What is karate? "Oh" I have heard many answer, "it is that self-defense stuff where you kick, punch and yell." It is the perception of many that our art of karate is limited. Limited to just fighting off attackers or screaming 'High-yaaaa' at one another. That may be what one who lacks the knowledge of karate understands it to be. Sadly, there are those in the practice of karate that don't even understand the truth. I have read introductions and heard some senseis saying that "karate is an art of self-defense utilizing percussion technique." What!? Do you know your art? If you think that karate is just a percussion art where we depend solely on the impact of our kicks and punches to render our attacker helpless... Well, you missed the bus. Have you studied bunkai (application with interpretation)? Do you understand bunkai?
Bunkai is the interpretation of movement. That's right, the movement we practice within our kata (form). Wait a minute you say. What do I need with those funny little dances? Well, you really missed the bus! Kata is where it is all at. Kata is karate and karate is kata. Before there ever was the enjoyment of throwing on the gear, sticking in the mouth-piece and pulling up the pants, there was kata. In fact, kumite (sparring) never was practiced in the true old days of karate. It was our modernization and sport-ti-zation of karate that has given us kumite. Sure, it is fun and challenging to square off with a competitor in kumite competition or to practice endless hours in the dojo banging and slapping foam padding into one another's tender parts. I even enjoy it and can't get enough of it. But, don't ever think of using it that way in a true, serious life or death situation. I have heard of those terrible outcomes where a karate practitioner got knifed or knocked out by an attacker. "Wow!" everyone says. And he was a karate man! That karate is certainly a waste of time. Look at what it did for him."
Back to bunkai, again. The problem with that poor-ole-boy getting beat up, even if he knew karate, was in how he learn his karate. Probably sparring all night in class or doing line drills. "High-yaaaaa!" Well, it is sad that many instructors don't teach bunkai. Maybe because they don't know the bunkai. Which goes to reason why they think those funny little dances are a waste of time. Bunkai, in truth, is where our art embodies the most devastating and realistic of technique. The kata is packaged full of bunkai. Each kata has many interpretations with different levels of interpretation. A trained eye (qualified instructor) can pull the bunkai out of each move in a kata. And not just the move, but the moves between the movements. The reason for this is that his/her instructor has taught those interpretations and his/her instructor has taught them as well. It goes way back to the originator of the kata. The master who devised the particular kata has packaged it with devastating technique, hidden signatures and much profound knowledge. With this understanding, our karate world just gets deeper and deeper and more fascinating.
Now, one can realize, that within bunkai there is a need for understanding body mechanics, control points, breath utilization, and many other facets of martial arts. Then is when we, the privileged to have knowledgeable senseis, learn that karate is definitely not just a percussion art. Of course it was repackaged that way when Master Yasutsune Ankoh Itosu taught the school children, and when Master Gichin Funakoshi delivered it to Japan. There was a need to prevent corruption of the art or misuse of the art. With the art comes a lot of discipline. Discipline to not hurt others unless it is for what? Defense of our family, our country or our life. If children were taught to break elbows and press points that would turn the lights off, don't you think there would be allot of crippled or dead children. Certainly, the instructor would be banned from teaching them anymore or taken out back and shot. Well, here in lies the reason why bunkai was temporarily removed. Only problem was that allot of karate students got the karate with the removed bunkai. Their karate was 'bunkai-less.' Did you ever wonder why, when reading history, that a number of Japanese traveled to Okinawa to get the real karate straight from the Okinawan masters. "Oh?" you say, "I thought karate came from Japan." Now you are really in the dark and missed the bus. Read your history. The Okinawan masters (and the people in general) were a proud and secretive people. They were not about to reveal all of the information to the invading Japanese, whom have taken their land to be a part of Japan since 1609.
In the kata, for example, we see a performer position himself for a gedan-barrai-uke (low sweeping block) looking in the opposite direction he/she pivots 180 degrees and executes the technique after completing the turn. You think, "ok, the attacker was coming at him/her from behind with a kick to the back of the leg or where?" "So, you would spin around and block that kick with a gedan-barrai-uke." Well, sure, that is what you teach a beginner or maybe that is all you can teach. From the trained eye (once again, qualified instructor) the bunkai of the technique is revealed. It is actually a 'small' hip throw, or what we learn technically in judo to be 'uki goshi.' The punch that is executed after the 'block' actually completes the throw with the necessary pull and control. "Wait a minute," you say, "that is judo, not karate." No, it is bunkai. The Okinawan karate masters did not have the organized technique of kodokan judo, but what they did have was very effective. And, mind you, it wasn't just kumite. Maybe you have seen a kata performer pull his/her fist back to the hip on one side after executing a chudan-uchi-uke (inside chest-level block) or yama-tsuki ('u' punch). Actually that could be an entanglement for joint lock or choke. Now you say, "that's jui-jutsu you're talking now." Correct, but maybe not as technical, but certainly effective. You see, there is much more to karate than what meets the eye. Unless you have a 'trained eye' and qualified sensei lineage, you can't see into the bunkai.
I remember in the seventies, we were talking, training and exploring the word 'bunkai.' When we would go to another dojo (karate school) and mention the word bunkai, other karate-ka (student of karate) would look at us confused and not understand. Amazing! We thought that if you studied karate, you would know the meaning and application of 'bunkai.' It wasn't until the mid to late eighties did it seem to start catching on with most dojos. Now, we see that most dojos do have the 'mysterious' art of bunkai in their repertoire of teachings. And, amazingly enough, there are still allot of karate schools (you might call them 'dojos') that don't share in the excitement. It is possible that they produce students that still utilize sparring techniques for the basis of their self-defense.
I, for one, would like to put the "High-yaaaaa" to rest and proclaim the true purpose behind KARATE. On my 'waza' page you can find where our standards have to be met for our students to grasp the realities of what they are learning.