Notice you can read the title as “It is not BUNK….I say Watson!” or equally “It is not Bunk.i Say Watson!” It’s all on context and interpretation.
It’s a funny thing how one research topic open so many others to consider. When I began to consider what Itosu was describing in his 1908 letter, realizing how much of his dreams were being shared with his students efforts, especially in their initial attempts to describe Okinawan karate.
The body of material we have today from the ongoing efforts of the translators of those early works is impressive, but there is much more yet to come and I believe we will find each new translation gives us something new to consider.
So many of the discussions on the arts the past few decades could have been made easier and more productive if we had access to this wealth of information.
No one book tells a full story, they were really the first attempt to communicate with a larger Japanese martial public, but together they tell quite a story.
In Itosu’s letter it seems remarkable he doesn’t mention kata at our distance on time. I think it is logical that Karate in general was so known on Okinawa (many festival demonstrations) that Karate and kata were likely synominous. But when Itosu talked about how technique could be used he very much focused on direct (or oral) transmission from the instructor. They may have been tied to the kata usage or they may have been something else as Shiroma Shimpan dictates.
On the other hand when his students wrote to explain and share what karate represented, they all turned to defining kata. Each of Funakoshi’s works included Itosu’s kata. Mabuni Kenwa’s writings, in deference to Funakoshi sharing mainly the Itosu kata of his teachings, began sharing the Hiagonna kata. So did Hanashiro Chomo, who was among the oldest of those openly sharing karate tradition. Each sharing singularly tells one story, but as a group what they shared tells us much more about the older traditions.
An example Hanshiro’s ‘Jion’ kata from Nakasone’s “Karate Do Taikan’. He clearly demonstrates the strikes are towards the head (and you can find various Shorin groups still practicing the kata that way. On the other hand the Jion practiced by Shito-ryu and by Shotokan have dropped the strikes to the chest not the head. I think it makes a case that older striking tradition was to the head.
Note how this ties into a comment by Motobu.
From “Motobu Choki – Karate My Art” translated by Patrick & Yuriko McCarthy Page 31
19. When punching to the face, one must thrust as if punching through to the back of the head.
Sure different tradition but still from the same small island, and as in the early 1920’s many instructors shared together for a few years the idea may have moved along.
Now many Itosu’s students kept Itosu’s Piana Kata traditions alive. Funakoshi maintained them as his ‘Pin-an’ kata, later to change the name to his ‘Heian’ kata. Motobu kept them, and they moved to many different groups till this day.
Of course some like to maintain the myth that they are schoolboy kata, as if that is to be derogatory, but the truth is Itosu had something else in mind, which I feel is reflected in his students in different ways.
Here is one of the most interesting discussions on the Pinan kata.
Notes on Chosen Chiniba’s Karate – ‘A Karate Odessey’ - an interview with Sensei Pat Nakata in ‘Classical Fighting Arts’ vol 2 No 14 Issue #37.
Chibana Sensei taught there were at least three interpretations per movement. Chibana Sensei also taught that there were meanings or applications when you moved from one technique to another. He corrected the transition and intermediate moves.
“Chibana Sensei taught that there were three levels of teaching in the kata, especially the Pinan kata.
The three levels for the Pinnan kata were as follows:
The first level which was for elementary and intermediate school students, was basic punch, kick, strike and block.
The second level for high school students with more dangerous interpretations.
The third level went into very viscous applications and was reserved for older students.”
Now that opens a question, what were those applications Chibana Sensei mentioned? Were they direct movement use as in the kata, or did they follow Shinpan’s examples?
I don’t know, but I’m sure they weren’t ‘bunkai’.
The Earliest use of the term ‘Bunkai’.
For one thing bunkai wasn’t an Okinawan term. I can make the case it was used to try and explain kata to the Japanese audience.
Long ago Joe Swift challenged me to translate several of Mabuni’s books from 1933 that were translated into French. In 1934’s ‘Karate Kempo – study of Seipai Kata’ the French edition has the chapter labeled “Applications (Bunkai) Du Kata Sepai” and when I translated it I chose not to include the term Bunkai. Much later when I saw Mario McKenna’s translation of “Seipai no Kenkyu” (note the title from the original Japanese was greatly modified for the French translation – appropriate for a translator to make everything fit into the new language scheme) called the Chapter “Analysis & Explanation of Seipai”. Eventually I got around to comparing it to my French original and noticed he also hadn’t included the term ‘bunkai’, and being a friend I specifically asked him about what was in the original Japanese version.
Mario McKenna has explained to me in ‘Seipai no Kenkyu” published in 1934 Mabuni Kenwa originally uses the term "bunkai setsumei" or "breakdown/apart and explanation". When Tokitsu Kengi translated that into French for his 1989 translation he chose to just use bunkai.
I don’t read or translate Japanese, but an independent discussion with a Japanese English instructor, Takedi Haji, visiting my town and staying in my house years ago found his explanation of bunkai the same. He explained in normal Japanese usage the term bunkai might be used to explain what an automobile mechanic did to fix the care, bunkai or take it apart.
Mario then shows Mabuni used ‘bunkai’ just to take apart a section of the kata and then provides an explanation ‘setsumei’ or application.
Not a big deal, but important to understand how the specialized use of a term morphs into other usage as time passes. I might interpret this as taking apart the kata wasn’t the important part, but the application of the section was the goal.
The presentation of the kata
From the Teramoto translation of Funakoshi’s 1925 “Karate Jutsu” the following kata are explained:
Pin’an Shodan, Naihanchi Shodan, Koshokun, Pin’an Nidan, Pin’an Sandan, Pin’an Yodan, Pin’an Godan, Naihanchi Nidan, Naihanchi Sandan, Sehshan, Passai, Wanshu, Chinto, Jitte, Jion
Outside of occasional explanation of how the technique is used when describing kata technique execution there is no specific information on how kata technique may be applied.
From the Motobu Choki’s “Okinawan Kempo Karate-jutsu Kumite Hen” 1925 and “Watashi no Karate-jusu” 1933 the following kata is explained: Naifanchi Shodan. Motobu’s books show specific applications for attacks, many of which are found in Naifanchi.
** Special Note – As my research continues I just read Swift Charles Joseph’s translation of Motobu’s “Night Talking About Karate – Karate Ichiyu-Tan from 1934. In the article he describes he too trained with Itosu for 7 or 8 years when a child… another Itosu link **
Further information can be found in “Motobu Choki – Karate My Art” translated by Patrick & Yuriko McCarthy Page 31
12. The position of the legs and hips in Naifuanchin no Kata is the basics of karate.
13. Twisting to the left or right from the Naifuanchin stance will give you the positioning used in a real confrontation. Twisting ones way of thinking about Naifuanchin left and right, the various meanings in each movement of the kata will also become clear.
I’m not suggesting Motobu’s studies were in the Itosu lineage, but as there are so many parallel studies on Okinawa due to the focused size of Okinawa, there is merit in including his offerings.
From Mabuni Kenwa’s “Kobu Jizai Goshin-jutsu Karate Kempo’ 1933
San Chin & Seinchin * includes bunkai setsumei or demonstrated applications from some of the kata technique.
It’s also most interesting that some of his examples follow the principles of Shiroma Shimpan, or extra techniques not found in the kata are inserted into the kata techniques used for the application.
Allow me to illustrate this (selfishly borrowing an example from my translation – but please don’t trust me, trust Mario McKenna as the superior answer).
“When the opponent kicks to your stomach, you step back to the rear with your left foot and parry in harai tori, shown in bunkai diagram 9-1, then you catch his foot.
And if in this position, the opponent attacks towards your face, and you parry with a high block, and catch his wrist with your left hand.
Next you give him a left kick to the groin.
This is most interesting because the paucity of description and diagrams requires you to actually work on these applications on the floor to understand the actual speed and body shifting involved to make these work. Of course Mabuni wasn’t expecting his audience to work this out themselves, but using ones skills from our own studies and sweat equity you can learn his lesson.
From Mabuni Kenwa’s “‘Seipai no Kenkyu” 1934
Seipai * includes bunkai setsumei or demonstrated applications from some of the kata technique.
Karate do Kyohan by Funakoshi Ginchin 1935 The kata are re-named but the descriptions are very close to the 1922-25 descriptions. The original version (found through the University of Hawaii sharing a .pdf for research use) does contain a section on applied karate techniques and karate throwing techniques. The applied karate techniques were eventually dropped in subsequent revisions of the work. These applications are showing kata techniques but as I don’t have a copy of the English translation I’m not sure if they’re not in the mold of Shiroma Shimpan’s applications, including non-kata additions. Of course this was published before Nakasone’s 1938 text, but as both Funkaoshi and Shinpan were Itosu students the parallel isn’t suprising. Certainly an interesting topic.
It shows an interesting depth of Funakoshi’s karate, and as best you can each technique is worth the time for floor study in depth, especially the takedowns demonstrated.
From Nakasone Genwa’s “Karate-Do Taikan” 1938 McKenna Mario translation ‘An Overview of Karate-do’, the following kata are included.
The 12 basic kata developed by the Association for the Promotion of Karate-Do. Shown with drawings and technique explanations. Side note these kata were never adopted by any group, but I have been recognized them from Taikyoku Shodan advanced study with Sutrisno Tristan. C.W. Nicole in Moving Zen also described such practice, perhaps the methodology behind their development also is paralleled elsewhere.
An Outline of the Kata Jion by Chomo Hanashiro Concluding the kata description Chomo explains the kata application.
An Outline of the Aragaki-ha Kata Sochin by Kenwa Mabuni Concluding the kata description Mabuni goes into a very detailed explanation of the kata application.
An Outline of Passai Kata (Matsumura-line) by Chosin Chibana Concluding the kata description Chibana goes into an explanation of the kata application.
Other works not translated into English at this time. I suggest you go to the Hawaii Karate Museum site at http://museum.hikari.us/ and under the link for ‘Rare Books’ check out what was published in the 1920’s and 1930’s. There is likely a wealth of material which can add to our understanding.
I also recommend the articles by Swift Charles Joseph on the Hawaii Karate Museum site at http://museum.hikari.us/ select the Articles link and scroll down towards the bottom. Especially read the four sections of ‘Wisdom of the Past: Tidbits on Kata Applications from Pre-War Karate Books’.
Also read his translation of Motobu Choki’s “A Night Talking about Karate; Karate Ichiyu-Tan”
Swift Sensei’s insight is very important in the choices of what he shared.
Perhaps because I’m fortunate to possess a copy I most heartily recommend among the most important will be Mutsu Mizuho’s “Karate Kenpo”, which includes descriptions of 20 kata and ½ of the book demonstrating the application of karate technique. Swift Sensei is working on a translation of this book, it will be a huge undertaking but when available another invaluable link. Mutsu was originally a student of Funakoshi Sensei and later traveled and trained on Okinawa to supplement his studies.
This series of articles came about because of a very long term interest in trying to understand what Okinawan karate was before the modern age. It was by accident from my research into Itosu that I came to realize what a wealth of information we possess which tied to our own studies can be practiced and understood in greater depth.
Many of the questions that roll around for years now can find very distinct answers. Do blocks have a real purpose? Are the Pinan kata Schoolboy karate instead of the real stuff? Where did ‘bunkai’ come into the picture and is it the real transmission of karate knowledge?
I trust I’ve given enough information that if one has these books on your shelf you start taking them down and getting to work.
I realize this is a much larger topic than I can complete, but I know I have a much larger vision of our arts origins.
All of Itosu’s students who shared this material broke the original code, this was to be kept private. That’s OK because the only steadfast rule about Karate is there are NO RULES.
Each transmission by itself is only a very small piece of a puzzle, but together they form a tapestry that I do not believe can easily be denied. We’re the audience they did not right for, an experienced group of martial artists who can choose to use our skills to understand what they shared, if we make such a choice.
It is better to do so than just keep endless discussion rolling around, the facts are in our hands to offer true explanation.
I do not believe one art, one school or one instructor is better than another. If Karate’s history shows us anything true sweat equity in any vision will produce results, especially if others traditions decry our efforts. These instructors had a common source, but each made their own choices too, keeping much in common and each remaining unique.
Might my suggested study offer similar benefit.
If I might I’d like to close this with a very personal lesson from Motobu Choki, should you try sneaking up on be from behind.
Photo’s from Iwai Tsuko’s “Motobu CHoki & Ryukyu Karate 2000, page57 (read from right to left).
Description from “Motobu Choki – Karate My Art”, translated by Patrick & Yuriko McCarthy, page 100.
19. This represents how an attacker might seize you from behind unexpectedly
20. By lowering your center of gravity, twisting and stretching your arm down behind the back it’s possible to open a space large enough through which to grasp the opponent’s testicles.
That’s all he wrote……. What comes next?
For more information about please purchase and read:
“Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters” by Nagamine Shoshin – translated by Patrick McCarthy – Tuttle Publishing 2002
“Tanpenshu” by Funakoshi Ginchin – translated by Patrick & Yuriko McCarthy – IRKRS 2005
“Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts – Koryu Uchinadi 2” translated by Patrick & Yuriko McCarthy - Tuttle Publishing 1999
“Motobu Choki – Karate My Art”, translated by Patrick & Yuriko McCarthy – IRKKS 2002 translation of Motobu's 1932 book entitled Watashi no Karatejutsu.
“The Art of Self Defense” - Mario McKenna’s translation of Mabuni Kenwa’s “Kobu Jizai Goshin-jutsu Karate Kempo” 1933
“The Study of Seipai” – Mario McKenna’s translation of Mabuni Kenwa’s “Seipai no Kenkyu” 1934
“An Overview of Karate-Do” – the translation by Mario McKenna of Nakasone Genwa’s “Karate-Do Taikan” originally published 1938 – Lulu Press 2009
“Karate-Do My Way of Life” by Funakoshi Ginchin – Kodansha International Ltd 1975
“Karate Jutsu” by Funakoshi Ginchin – translated by John Teramoto 2001
“Karate Do Koyan” by Funakoshi Ginchin 1935 and other editions
“Shotokan Karate – A Precise History” 1st edition – Harry Cook 2001
“Unante – the Secrets of Karate – 2nd edition” John Sells – Hawley 2000
“Timeline of Karate History” by Hikama Tetsuhiro – translated by Charles (Joe) Swift
Notes on Chosen Chiniba’s Karate – ‘A Karate Odessey’ an interview with Sensei Pat Nakata in ‘Classical Fighting Arts’ vol 2 No 14 Issue #37. Futher discussion with Sensei Pat Nakata found on Charles Goodin’s blog http://karatejutsu.blogspot.com/
From the Hawai Karate Museum Collection Digital Archives
Funakoshi Ginchin – Karate-do Kyohon 1935
If I’ve forgotten anything that should be included on this list if you contact me I will be happy to append this listing for everyone’s reference.
All spelling errors and mistakes are intentional to test the reader.
No cats were harmed during the production of this piece!