The Value of Bunkai, or Martial Arts Technique Training

I recently came across a chat in which martial artists questioned the value of bunkai.

Bunkai are techniques, specifically in Karate, but certainly not limited to karate, which are taken from forms (kata) and practiced.

The arguments were that these were unreal situations, that they didn’t resemble real world fighting.

Now, as in most of these types of things, the people were split, half and half, on the value of training through the application of techniques from forms.

So here’s something to think about concerning those long ago practices, practices which, for the most part, are no longer adhered to in the martial arts world.

When one does a form one is practicing in a pure world of theory. There is no resistance, but one looks at techniques, practices the moves, as they would wish to be able to perform them in a perfect world.

When one does Bunkai one is practicing translating those perfect moves into an imperfect world. This will increase one’s sense of time, reality, and enable one to adapt the perfection of pure concept to an imperfect world. This learning process is invaluable, and can even be said to be at the heart of real karate training.

Consider the following real world example.

When I was teaching Kenpo, back in the late 60s, there was a distinct difference between colored belts, brown belts, and black belts.

White belts had to be taught, literally, how to put on their clothes.

Colored belts (orange belt, purple belt, etc.) were rungs on a ladder, but that ladder was basically a fantasy because we trained our techniques in the air. We air punched and air kicked, and, with no resistance, we had nothing to gauge ourselves by, and thus could only entertain the notion that we were the most deadly creatures on God’s green earth.

Brown belts had power, and it was bruising and painful to fight them.

Black belts were incredible. They would beat you, but without the bruising and pain.

So, what was the difference between brown belt and black belt?

Brown belts stopped doing their techniques in the air and had to work with real people. They had to practice their techniques in the real world, with people who resisted, who did odd things, who didn’t stay still or move as a fantasy indicated.

In other words, Brown belts stopped waving their hands in the air and started doing real bunkai.

The value of this kind of training was enormous. Students suddenly came face to face with making timing work, with figuring out how much resistance they would encounter, and how much power they really needed.

Of course, there were a few bruises involved in this kind of training. Brown belts were continuously bonking somebody, throwing them too hard, causing bruises indiscriminately.

But, after that training, when they made it through that training, they become polished and really deadly… and they understood and respected people and their bodies without the need to massacre them.

So, do I believe in Bunkai? Absolutely. Best stuff in the world. In my politely offered opinion people should practice the pure world of form, adapt those pure theories to the real world through the application of form techniques, and then make the jump from theory to practice the chaos of freestyle.

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