Thursday, 30 April 2015

Pic'n'Mix Bunkai

Kata bunkai and applications are becoming increasingly complex, with kata enthusiasts creating their own flow drills, fight sequences and choreography for the various forms, whilst at the same time borrowing from arts such as Wing Chun, Judo and MMA to fill in the blanks and add material the kata obviously does not include. Sticking hands/Pushing hands type drills add a little spice and a different way of performing the application but the same fundamental problems when assuming kata were created to record and be applied as fighting or self defense are still there no matter how much it is dressed up in Chi-Sao, Gi grips or arm-bar finishes on the ground, none of which are in the kata. The complex choreography is more akin to the movies than real fighting with spurious applications just about passing for the kata techniques they are supposed to represent. Some of these problems include,

1. The compliant stooge who delivers his attack and then waits to be dealt with. Not much has changed here for decades, the attacks are more 'street' and the responses have certainly moved on from block counter Karate but the compliant attacker remains the same. Usually a single attack is given (very unconvincingly in many cases) providing the platform for the application to be showcased. The lack of realism here is obvious and this raises a serious question over the validity of the suggested applications performed from a single attack which is not in any way reflective of a violent assault from someone who will aggressively fight on, resist, or escalate the level of violence quickly.

Not much has Changed!

2. Multiple attackers. Almost all kata bunkai is taught as one on one. Surely a major consideration is dealing with more than one person but this is not reflected in most applications. If kata were synthesised to record self defense and fighting then undoubtedly this would have been an important factor.

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3. Concealed weapons and blades. Forget fighting someone with a knife, how about surviving an encounter with someone that has a knife and will use it. Many of the applications presented as knife disarms and defense against someone armed are so detached from reality they could potentially be disastrous for someone who has taken these moves on faith and tries to use them. There is also the very real problem that a concealed weapon may be produced during a fight or it may have not been noticed in the beginning this raises the question regarding many of the applications that initiate grappling or throws and continue to go to work on the person while they are on the ground. Again if the antique forms were put together to be a comprehensive representation of self defense concealed weapons and knives would surely have been a major factor in considering tactics and efficient strategy.

4. Changing the techniques. Often in application many techniques are heavily altered with major components omitted in order to fit the desired usage, if a movement was recorded in a particular way then surely that implies a specific function and intention for that movement and technique. If the movements are as non-specific in their applied function as many suggest then why catalogue techniques or have any katas at all!

Specific movement = specific function

5. Crossbreeding. Apart from the endless usage of various different martial arts to present little bits and pieces of forms there is a growing practice of presenting techniques from various forms together. So a bit of Naihanchi goes into a technique from Seisan which ends with something from Chinto. These forms all come from varied sources and there is no evidence that they should be applied together or mixed. If anything it shows how incomplete these forms are when assumed to be for fighting.

The crossing breeding of kata and mixing of various martial arts is not bringing anyone closer to understanding what was originally intended for these forms. Instead of borrowing from lots of different Martial arts to fill in the combative deficit left by the antique kata when applied in this way isn't it about time to re-assess the assumptions made about these forms and start from the beginning to see what is actually possible with each individual form and consider alternative functions and contexts for use.

Please contact us with any comments, questions or most importantly for training please email Tom Maxwell at, thanks for reading!!!

Friday, 24 April 2015

Stranger Than Fiction

The subject of unlocking and interpreting Karate kata stands out as a peculiar inversion when compared to the multitude of topics, specialisations and ongoing research within relevant and related subjects such as Anthropology, Archaeology, History and Linguistics. Creative interpretation of kata (The idea that endless applications and possibilities exist for each movement) is seen by the 'creationists' as the only possible way of making practical use of antique forms and the idea that the original functions could be discovered and restored through careful and methodical research is quickly dismissed as nonsense. None of the above mentioned subjects when approaching a newly discovered text, symbol, glyph, building, piece of art etc at any point suggest that making up the meaning in a fictional free for all is an acceptable idea or process to be applied to anything that has survived from antiquity. Instead painstaking research, critically developed method and patience are the order of the day hopefully leading to an accurate translation of the intended meaning or function (Or a close as possible approximation). So why is it the case in Karate that anyone and everyone can make up endless applications for kata that have no real relationship from one move to the next, flow drills that make no real sense (but might look good!) and seem to be more about the personal tastes of the instructor than a genuine attempt to decode kata within a pragmatic framework.

Unfortunately there are very few people currently that are even remotely interested in approaching kata with the aim of finding out what was originally intended in the movements and the underlying functions which would be the very reason for creating the kata in the first place. It is very easy to dismiss this approach as many often do (some to protect their personal and financial interests) saying the original functions are lost forever or that kata were created to be interpreted and re-interpreted over time. Where would Egyptology be if this attitude had been taken when the subtle meaning of Hieroglyphs were lost to the world? or indeed any subject that studies history and the past. Did the great translators of hieroglyphs decide "well, no one knows so lets make it up?" thankfully not.

The antique kata are a gateway to the past and thankfully are not all random collections of reactive empty handed techniques to be used against a single attacker in a controlled environment! Instead the forms inherited from China contain a rich and profound understanding of the proactive and preemptive skills essential for success in various types of physical engagement (Or to at least give a fighting chance!). These principles are expressed in the functions and techniques encoded in the various forms, such as the use of Sai (Sanchin, Seisan and Sanseriu), Locking, restraining and disarming skills (Naihanchi and Kusanku) and other simple ideas encoded in kata like Chinto, Rohai and Passai.

There is still a vast amount of work to be done with many forms that need to be decoded and to have their original functions unlocked, correctly understood and restored within the appropriate historical, cultural and functional context. It is true that skill sets like the use of the Sai have no place in modern society beyond a hobbyist's passion for Karate kata but is it such a great loss to real fighting that Sanchin, Seisan and Sanseriu catalogue Sai techniques and not deadly nukites! It should come as a relief to anyone with real experience in violence that these forms are in fact not for brawling and reactive self defence but instead contain highly sophisticated Sai skills and techniques that when experienced reveal the true brilliance and ingenuity of the kata creators!.

Please contact us with any comments, questions or most importantly for training please email Tom Maxwell at, thanks for reading!!!

Sunday, 26 October 2014

What If??

What if the original functions of the antique kata were discovered? how would this change the way Karate is practised? what if the functions of the forms were not what people assumed them to be namely self defence? what would be the place of kata and how would Karate practitioners choose to proceed and develop their art?

For the last 25 years Nathan Johnson and many members past and present of the Kodoryu Karate and Kobudo Renmei (formally Zen Shorin Do) have been engaged in researching the original functions of the antique kata (forms inherited from China). The research has been clearly documented in publications that record the ongoing process and changes in direction according to the insights and assimilation of new evidence and experiences. The results are not the guesswork of an afternoon in the dojo, they are the product of years of painstaking research and practise with constant feedback and criticism from a group of senior Karateka. This has led to a research method and set of criteria (partly laid out in previous posts in this blog) which must all be fulfilled by those continuing the decoding of other kata.

The evidence amassed is overwhelming and way beyond the scope of a blog post or a youtube video. Karate kata are physical records and need to be experienced physically, they are the primary sources and always the beginning and end of the research. We would like to invite those with an interest in the original functions of kata such as Naihanchi, Sanchin, Seisan, Kusanku to come and experience it for themselves. To assess the evidence by active participation and immersion in the functions of the forms and to then decide. We look forward to hearing from you!

Please contact us with any comments, questions or most importantly for training please email Tom Maxwell at, thanks for reading!!!

Monday, 21 July 2014

Ask More of Kata

Many creative interpreters of kata enjoy the luxury of never being 'wrong', anyone can make up an application to a kata movement and in the world of anything goes bunkai it will be accepted as another alternative and in some cases added to the collections of bunkai enthusiasts. Bunkai ideas are often driven by personal tastes, for example one teacher may be a grappling enthusiast or a pressure point junkie and their applications will often reflect this. By dismissing the possibility of discovering the original function, context and usage of an antique form creative interpreters are absolved from ever facing any real criticism and having to explain the rationale, sequence, technical repertoire etc of a kata. No one ever treads on anyone's toes and there is room for everyone to present their stuff, as is the case in many popular Karate forums. The fact remains that if creative interpretation and making up applications is the chosen way of approaching kata then there has to be some justification for taking that position and reasons given as to why the original function which gave birth to the movements and form are not explored.

Many practitioners will not even begin to attempt to seek out the original meaning of kata because they have been told that it is not possible or lost forever. Thankfully this sort of attitude did not effect those who unlocked the Rosetta stone or those currently decoding the Voynich manuscript. Instead of reducing all kata to reactive self defence or bits of a fight dressed up as 'flow drills' that have very little to do with the chaos of a violent encounter, I would like to invite those with a passion for kata to take another look and see if it is possible to unlock the original functions and see what is actually achievable with only the technical repertoire of a form like Chinto or Passai etc. Is there an underlying theme? a context for use? an intended environment for usage? what is the relationship between each technique and movement? is the sequence significant?

There is great diversity in the content of the antique forms which suggests many functions, contexts and ideas and once unlocked can only add to the rich history and heritage of Karate. Please contact us with any comments, questions or most importantly for training please email Tom Maxwell at, thanks for reading!!!

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Why Three years one Kata?

Many of the kata inherited from China have their roots in military and civil arrest arts, it should come as no surprise then that the content of the forms and skills encoded are difficult to achieve and in some cases unobtainable to hobbyists and recreational practitioners. Specialised skills such as unarmed control and restraint techniques, the effective use of policing tools or different types of weaponry demand a level of practise and skill that is usually reserved for professional groups and institutions such as the police and military.

The specialised skills of a police officer or a Royal marine for example can take years to develop fully and are always initiated with one to two years intensive training to develop the necessary foundation. The antique Martial arts were no different in their requirements. A kata and its function may well have taken at least three years for a practitioner to become effective in its application and usage as the Karate and Gong-fu traditions record.

Unarmed civil arrest and the various techniques used to control, restrain and cuff are undoubtedly difficult to master and are generally out of reach of the hobbyist who might perhaps train for a couple of hours once or twice a week. This would also be the case in the use of weapons and any other skill, sport or art! Imagine a trainee civil arrest officer or bodyguard in Chinese antiquity who spends several years training three hours a day (just an example) performing thousands and thousands of repetitions of joint locking techniques, rope binding, weight training and of course on the job training with seniors getting that all important hands on experience. Skills and techniques on a glance that might seem impractical and not functional become brutally efficient methods once the appropriate training and demands for efficacy are met.

It is also important to note that not everyone would possess the right attributes to master these different skill sets in the same way not everyone can become a Royal marine, police officer or world class boxer. That does not at all exclude anyone from enjoying the varied Martial arts and many forms as recreational practices, dynamic forms of exercise and hobbies. The antique kata can and are enjoyed by millions and stand as wonderful cultural relics that give a fascinating glimpse into the Martial skills of the past.

Please contact us with any comments, questions or most importantly for training please email Tom Maxwell at, thanks for reading!!!

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Original Function or Creative Playground?

Okinawan karate has always been a melting pot for mixing various martial arts, katas and the creative drives of its pioneers, this was a necessity due to the often incomplete and erratic transmission of gong fu forms and styles that arrived with little or no applications. Forms without functions were re-engineered, added to and given a new life eventually evolving into the various styles of Karate. Creative interpreters today are continuing this process started in Okinawa. The search for the original meaning of kata requires a very different approach and a move away from almost everything in Karate apart from the forms themselves.

It is quite rare among Karate teachers, enthusiasts and groups to spend time attempting to unlock the original functions of kata, often dismissed as a pointless endeavour kata are left wide open for creative interpreters to pin any meaning they like to the techniques contained in the forms and to the personal tastes of the student in choosing which applications they like best.

Committing to researching a kata and attempting to discover its original function is a painstaking process where countless mistakes will be made, months even years of experimenting sometimes produce no solid results and if a discovery is made and the kata becomes decipherable the function may not be what was originally suspected or hoped for! This is diametrically opposed to the creative playground where anything goes in interpreting a form. It is undeniable that the creativity that goes into imagining the countless applications is inspiring and the appeal to bunkai collectors is obvious but if the original function of the techniques is not to play a role in the bunkai then isn't this a call for completely new kata to be created?

Please contact us with any comments, questions or most importantly for training please email Tom Maxwell at, thanks for reading!!!

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Proactive Not Reactive

One of the most important discoveries to come out of the research conducted by Nathan Johnson and the Kodoryu group is that the techniques catalogued in the antique forms inherited from China such as Naihanchi, Sanchin, Seisan and Kusanku are of a proactive nature with a very specific function for each form such as civil arrest, Sai techniques and disarming techniques. This has been a key insight into explaining the sequence of each kata and the relationship between techniques.

Proactive application of the techniques significantly alters the course of the bunkai and it becomes possible to deduce from the catalogue of techniques what the context for use and underlying function was. For example Naihanchi is an ingeniously devised form that instructs the practitioner in proactive locking techniques that restrain and subdue without brutalising or injuring the person being detained. The techniques are ordered in a way to create a progressive study of crossed arm (right arm to right or left arm to left) finger, wrist, elbow and shoulder manipulations that lead into two key holds which may have been used to then bind the wrists together with rope, or to bring the person onto their backs for further effective restraint. The absence of striking, hitting when a person is down, chokes etc suggests that Naihanchi's applied context was within civil arrest and could have been used by police, bodyguards or guards of the royal courts.

Here is an isolated section of the Naihanchi set,

Proactive civil arrest techniques seek to avoid a situation descending into a violent confrontation, for example in modern policing an officer making regular arrests does not wish to have to fight every person they arrest otherwise it would be almost impossible to do their job without sustaining massive injuries and facing bigger risks than they already do. Proactive techniques seek to overwhelm and take control of a person and situation while minimising as many of the possible responses from the person being arrested, Naihanchi fulfills all of these criteria.

With a clear purpose, context and removing the endless 'what ifs' that arise with reactive techniques and making them proactive it quickly becomes clear that these were the essential criteria in the formation of the antique kata.

Please contact us with any comments, questions or most importantly for training please email Tom Maxwell at, thanks for reading!!!