Bunkai, or the practice of finding practical applications in kata, is something practiced by many serious Karateka. Interest in bunkai is something that has been re-emerging in recent times in the Karate world, and in effect, this interest is creeping over to the Taekwondo world as well. And although it is almost certain that Karate kata contains 'hidden', or 'lost' meanings, does the same apply to Taekwondo poomsae?
Seeing how poomsae, and Taekwondo itself, was born almost exclusively from Karate, it is sometimes argued that the idea of bunkai is therefore applicable to Taekwondo poomsae. However, this requires much further study.
To begin, we must look at the kata that were used as the basis for modern Taekwondo poomsae, the pinan kata. These forms were created in the early 1900's by Anko Itosu, believed to be based on two Chinese forms called Channan and Kusanku. The term 'Karate' was not used at this time, and Itosu taught what was called 'To-de'. During this period, the practice of To-de was done in a much more personal manner, with a master teaching only a handful of students. In addition, a master would usually only know between two and four kata, but he would have a great depth of knowledge of them. This knowledge would only be passed along to his most trusted students.
Kata were studied for the purpose of practical application. There was no other reason. That a master would know only a small number of kata is supportive of the idea that there was a great deal of knowledge to be learned from each kata. In fact, Choki Motobu wrote, "The Naihanchi, Passai, Chinto and Rohai styles are not left in China today and only remain in Okinawa as active martial arts." Using Motobu's description of these kata as "martial arts," it is arguable that each kata was actually an entire fighting system in itself! Although a kata obviously did not contain every single technique of a fighting style, it would have taught the major concepts of the style; the ones the creator of the kata would have found to be most important to the understanding of the overall martial art.
In 1901, Itosu successfully introduced Karate to the Okinawan school system as a part of physical fitness education. He continued to teach kata, but because his students were of young age, he left out the applications of the forms, instead using them only as physical fitness tools. In order to teach large classes, he also began to label the techniques in the kata. It is much easier to yell, "Turn, low block. Step forward and punch!" to teach the kata to a large class rather than to try and teach the motion of the techniques.
This practice of giving techniques specific names shrouded the original applications of the kata even further. Forms were originally taught without labeled techniques, and instead, the master taught his students the motions of the techniques, and not labeled techniques, which made it much easier to understand the idea that there were applications behind them. By giving each motion a specific name, students had no need to study the forms in any sort of depth, because they were simply handed applications, although these were not the true applications that the creators of the forms were trying to pass along. The applications now being taught were simply blocks, kicks, and punches. Although not the original intention of the founders, they were applications nonetheless, and were accepted at face value by the young karateka, requiring no further study. Although this became the mainstream way of teaching kata, the old way of passing on kata, and bunkai, from master to trusted and mature students, did survive in Okinawa as well.
One of Itosu's students, Gichin Funakoshi, would eventually bring Karate to mainland Japan. He, for many reasons, continued with the method of teaching kata and Karate, as developed by Itosu. This meant that applications for kata were more or less left behind. Many people argue that Funakoshi did not even know applications to the kata, and any knowledge that he did have, was minimal at best. This, in my opinion, is not true. I believe Funakoshi knew and understood kata better than most give him credit for. One of the reasons I believe this is due to Funakoshi's training with both Itosu and Anko Asato, another well-respected Okinawan Karate master. Funakoshi stated that he spent ten years studying just the naihanchi/tekki kata. After a decade of studying just this kata, I find it hard to believe that he did not have a deep understanding of this form, including its practical applications. Other examples of Funakoshi's deep knowledge of kata can be found in his writings, especially his earlier books.
So with this in mind, the question becomes, "Did Funakoshi actually teach the applications that he knew?" This question is very difficult to answer, and looking at modern Shotokan Karate schools would lead you to believe that, no, applications were not really touched upon by Funakoshi. Shotokan kata tend to look quite different than the Okinawan performances of the same form and it seems as though kata are practiced for reasons that do not include learning practical self defense applications. However, Shotokan Karate as it is taught today is vastly different than what Funakoshi was teaching when he first came to mainland Japan, and this can also be seen in the progression of his books throughout the years.
So first we must question, why would Funakoshi not teach applications of the kata if he did indeed know some, and had an obvious understanding of bunkai? A reason that may or may not hold merit is the idea that being an Okinawan, Funakoshi might have had an ill perception of the Japanese, due to their invasion of his homeland and subsequent poor treatment of the Okinawan people. If this was true, he most likely would have withheld Karate's secrets from the Japanese. This being said, and knowing that a few Taekwondo originators were first generation students under Gichin Funakoshi and his son Gigo, it should be mentioned that Okinawans would not have had any negative thoughts towards the Koreans. So it may be possible that even if Funakoshi did withhold some important teachings from the Japanese, he may have not done so with his Korean students.
Nevertheless, another possible reason Funakoshi might not have taught bunkai was due to other martial arts styles already being practiced in Japan. Many Karate practitioners that study bunkai often translate the movements in their kata to actually contain throws and joint locks. Being that Jujutsu and Judo were already well-rooted in Japanese society, throwing and joint locking techniques were well covered. Therefore, the Japanese people would have been much more interested in the striking techniques of Karate, leaving the true applications of kata to be unnecessary.
A further reason why Funakoshi may have left applications out of kata was due to his purpose for teaching Karate. Gichin did not go to Japan simply by chance, but rather, was asked by the Japanese Ministry of Education to teach Karate as a part of the physical education system. Like Itosu, his Karate was to be taught as a form of exercise, and did not require, nor would it have been recommended, that potentially lethal applications from the forms be taught. Even if he did wish to teach these applications, he would most likely have done so only to his most senior, or trusted students. However, seeing as Funakoshi taught Karate at Japanese universities, he would only have had his students for a short time, until they graduated from the university. As we all know, a degree takes an average of four to five years to obtain, barely enough time for Funakoshi to train them to even a basic level of proficiency. It is likely that by the time students had the basics down pat, they were graduating from the university. This did not give Funakoshi the time to teach the applications of kata to a student. Remember, Funakoshi spent ten years learning a single kata. In Japan, he would have been teaching his students numerous forms in only the short time they were studying at the university. There was not nearly enough time to teach them the intricacies of kata, nor did he have enough time to form a relationship of deep trust to which he would have felt comfortable transmitting these lethal techniques to any of his students. Therefore, it would seem much more likely that Funakoshi would have taught Karate as Japan wanted him to; as a form of exercise and character-building. Not soon after Karate became rooted in Japan, did the focus shift to promoting Karate as a sport, like had happened with Judo, even further decreasing the need to teach bunkai.
To be continued...