San-Do Hoho

The Three-way method for teaching Bunkai

Essential training for the karateka

Kata is the heart of Shotokan karate and within kata there are many elements and one of these is called Bunkai. Bunkai is an essential component to kata and unfortunately the true applications of kata have been lost, but through hard study a many of the applications have been recognised.

Today there are still a lot of instructors throughout the world who are looking for the right applications, some of the awkward looking sections within kata are still to be explained with a logical answer for their movements, but unfortunately because we haven’t worked these out, many instructors make up these applications as they are unsure of the real interpretations. We may never know the real applications to the movements in karate kata as many of the great masters that created them have now passed away and their knowledge is becoming more scarce.  

Each kata was created to deal with specific attackers and scenarios that the Japanese people may have faced in their day to day life many years ago. for example, Heian Shodan, all though this kata means peaceful mind, its techniques within the kata were created to deal with street brawlers. Nothing peaceful about brawling. Empi is all about throwing techniques and Kanku Dai is about fighting in the dark.

The term Bunkai literally means "analysis" or "disassembly" and can become as simple or as complex as you want it to be. After many years of teaching and studying karate, kata and it’s Bunkai, I noticed a pattern and started to make notes to develop a method of teaching which I call San-Do Hoho (the 3-way method)

The three-way method consists of three elements broken down in to three areas.

Element                                                         Area

The 3 stages of teaching                                 Beginner / Intermediate /Advanced

The 3 types of Bunkai                                  Omote / Ura / Honto

The 3 Types of attack                                   Punches / Kicking / Grappling

Bunkai is usually performed with a partner working on a specific area, or in a group to demonstrate multiple techniques of that kata. This is referred to as Oyo.  So, lets break down the three methods to see how they apply to kata.


The three stages of teaching

When learning, teaching and demonstrating Bunkai, you firstly need to see what level your students are at and adapt the technique to their level. This is where the first element is broken down and we look at the three levels beginner, intermediate and advanced.

In this part we teach one movement such as Gedan Barai but increasing its complexity of the technique within the kata as we move up the grades.

The 3 types of Bunkai Omote / Ura / Honto

In this part we start to make our applications more complex and reach out further afield for the applications by using Omote, Ura and Honto.

Omote (front or surface)

The first type of Bunkai is very basic and is taken at face value, this type of Bunkai can be taught to everybody. If you are blocking a kick in a kata, that’s it and you then finish with the next movement i.e. first two moves of Heian Shodan.

This is a good base to work from when learning Bunkai as these applications are basic and very easy to remember.

Ura (behind)

The second interpretation of Bunkai “ura” means “behind” I prefer to use the term hidden. It is these techniques that you can’t see until we start to explore deeper.

By this I mean that when you apply a block such as Age Uke, we normally think that this is protecting our face from a punch. However, if we apply Ura, then this technique can change into a strike to the arm or the throat, a lock or a set up for a throw. Ura now becomes the intermediate level of application.


Finally, the third type is known as Honto meaning “real” or “true”, this type of Bunkai requires dedication and a passion to search for the true meaning.

To find the real applications you need to branch out past what you know in your style of karate whether this is Shotokan, Goju Ryu, Wado Ryu etc. and start to study through either books, DVD’s, Text or classes of other styles of martial arts such as Judo, Iaido, Aikido etc.

Select a certain movement from a kata and see if the techniques are embedded in different arts. This way you may just start to unravel the truth behind the kata’s meaning and why it was developed.


The 3 Types of attack

The last section links the first two sections together. When you practice a kata, you are told that you are blocking imaginary attackers from kicks or punches, however what you also need to do is explore other options for attack and opening sequences to the movements in the kata. Instead of blocking a kick or a punch see if the applications work against a wrist hold, a shoulder grab, choke hold, bear hug etc. and see how they unfold with the next set of moves in the kata.  

There is so much to learn with kata. Its not just a case of “I’ve done the movements now, so I know it”. I am still learning Heian Shodan 20 years on unravelling new information and hidden techniques in the kata, it’s just a case of how dedicated you are to find the true applications. The main rule is, you never stop learning the basics.


Points to remember