Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Bunkai in Taekwondo?

Bunkai is getting huge in the Karate circles around the globe. What started as a minor trend has now grown into a huge industry. For those who do not know "Bunkai" is a Japanese term wich is often
used for interpreting Your forms (Kata) for combative meaning. It is hard to pinpoint excactly when this trend started, I became aware about it in the early 2000s but I have read books about the subjects that date back to the early 90s. Many People today are saying that this has always been done and others who complain that this is a New fad says it was not done untill the rise of MMA popularity.

When searching Your forms for meaning has become such a huge thing in the Karate circles it comes as no suprise that Taekwondo People starts noticing and aply "karate bunkai" into their own Hyung/Poomsae/Tul. Because the Chang Hon Dojang is more often of a traditional martial art mindset this trend seems more popular in those circles than in the WTF/Kukkiwon circles. There is allready some very good material out there on forms Applications for Taekwondo students to read (unlike when I first started out training) and I advise any that are interested to read Stuart Anslows books or Simon John O`Neill`s book the Taegeuk Cipher.

However there are some questions that arises when more and more Taekwondoin starts researching their forms for combative meaning and some of them I will try to give MY OWN answers to. You might disagree or not, I welcome any comments on this blog and I will answer any polite and sincere comments as fast as I can:-) Note that I will only deal With what I know and that is Kukkiwon`s Taegeuk and Judanja/Kodanja Poomsae. I am familiar With some of the Chang Hon Tul, and 2-3 Hyung/Kata but I will stick With what I know.

Statements about applying Karate Bunkai to Taekwondo Poomsae:
  1. Applications are not the main focus of Poomsae, so it is futile to search for them. Poomsae is for ..... (insert reason here) not combat Applications!
  2. Taekwondo Poomsae comes from Shotokan. Gichin Funakoshi did not know Applications so neither did any one he taught. Therefore Poomsae can not be anything more than Block kick punch!
  3. The Korean Karate students (founders of Taekwondo) received a much more Limited training than their Japanese fellow students. Therefore they were not taught any Applications to their forms.
  4. There has never been any formal explained process when it comes to Applications so it is not a part of Taekwondo
  5. The Kukkiwon website states that there are more movements in the forms than are needed for practical use
  6. The Applications of the movements in Poomsae are Clear as each movement has a name which explains the function of the movement. There is no need to look for more combative meaning than that.
  7. It is a belief that the Okinawans did not share much of the hidden bunkai with the Japanese. The Koreans borrowed from the Japanese. If the Japanese are lacking some understanding of what they do, then it is logical to assume that the Koreans have even less of an understanding of the same techniques.
  8. The KTA Poomsae (The Kukkiwon`s Poomsae) were made for political reasons, they were never meant to teach combat and therefore lack Applications. They are little more than a martial Dance
All these statements or variations are floating around on dicussion forums, articles and even books. They are actually very common and will creep up in just about every discussion you will find on Taekwondo and Applications on different sites if they go on long enough. I will try to comment each statement one at a time and give my personal opinion on them,

  1. Applications are not the main focus of Poomsae, so it is futile to search for them. Poomsae is for ..... (insert reason here) not combat Applications!
This is a very common statement regarding the Poomsae and especially the Taegeuk Poomsae developed by a KTA comitte in the early to mid 70s. The reason for this is that people did not learn much applications when they learned the forms, there are seemingly "odd" combinations that gives little sence when only looking at simple basic applications as well as the fact that the Kukkiwon never codified official applications to each and every move in each and every Poomsae. However if you care to actually read the Kukkiwon Textbook (which should be required reading for each and every instructor claiming to teach Kukki Taekwondo) you will undoubtfully come accross a section on training of Poomsae. 

(Quote from Kukkiwon Textbook page 306 Training of Poomsae)
1)      Pattern. The first step of training Poomsae is to learn the pattern. Concentration of spirit, eyes, angles of movement must be emphasized in addition to the accuracy of actions.
2)      Significance. In the next step, the emphasis must be laid on the balance, strength and weakness, low or high speed, respiration and Poomsae line. The significance of movements, connection of pooms and the complete Poomsae must be learned correctly.
3)      Practical use. One must adapt what he has learned to his practical use, finding out the practicability.
4)      Self style. One must evaluate his findings about the effectiveness of what he has learned, comparing with his or her bodily structure, speed, strength, impulsive power, point of emphasis in training etc., and  modorate the techniques into his own style.
5)      Completion. One achieves a synthetic accomplishment of Poomsae training bye mastering the art of taekwondo techniques including taekwondo spirit (end quote).

As you no doubt can read on step 3 there the finding of practical applications from the Poomsae is very
much a part of serious Poomsae training. It is not the Kukki system of Taekwondo`s fault that everyone is
stuck on step 1 and 2 is it? I personally would very much like to see Kukkiwon making a greater effort on
teaching people more about how to do step 3-5 and less focus on step 1 and 2. Now if the Kukkiwon
Textbook urges us to find practial applications from the Poomsae then it stands to reason that there are
combative applications there to begin with does it not? Remember that quote (at least step 3) because it
is one of the most grossly overlooked aspects of the Kukki Taekwondo systems of all time.

2. Taekwondo Poomsae comes from Shotokan. Gichin Funakoshi did not know Applications so neither did any one he taught. Therefore Poomsae can not be anything more than Block kick punch!

This one is a bigger issue and one that needs to be resolved if you even think about applications in the
Taekwondo Poomsae. If one of the most important pioneers of Karate never taught applications or
even grappling or even mentioned that there vere more to the Hyung Taekwondo`s founders learned and
latere Poomsae was buildt upon then there is no way that there is anything more in Poomsae than basic block kick punch. But first lets deconstruct the statement a little as it does make a few different assumptions and would be easier to deal with one at a time. I think that the assumptions in the above statement is threefold.
1: Taekwondo came only from shotokan karate, 2 Gichin Funakoshi did not know applications, 3 he did not teach any of his students applications.

First of all Taekwondo does not only come from Shotokan. That is a total myth! Shotokan was not even called Shotokan at the point when the earliest Korean pioneer started his training with Gichin Funakoshi. And then there is the different Kwan (schools) who had different roots than Shotokan. We have some schools with a Chinese influence or root, we have some with Shudokan Karate root, one with Shito Ryu root, a few with Shotokan roots, and some who also have the Korean native arts roots.
Gichin Funakoshi and modern Shotokan does get a lot of bad rep when it comes to lack of applications and changing their forms from their Okinawan roots but neither Toyama Kanken (founder of Shudokan) and Kenwa Mabuni (founder of Shito Ryu) are getting any bad rep for this at all. On the contrary they are believed to have a fuller grasp of Karates "big picture" then what Funakoshi had. Also you can not look at modern Shotokan and assume that this is the way it has always been taught or even judge older incarnations of the style based solely on the modern form of Shotokan. That would be like judging and making assumption on how Windows 95 operated and was used when you only have ever experienced Windows 7! They are both Windows programs, operative systems and both from the same company (Microsoft) but anyone who has experienced both programs (I am getting old) can say that using these two are completly different experiences. Think a little about that before judging older incarnations solely based on what you see today.

Then we have the assumption that Gichin Funakoshi did not understand Kata/Hyung and that they had profound applications beyond block kick punch, but this is also a myth. I am not saying that he was the greatest expert on the subject (it is likely that the fact that he was a well educated man outside of Karate granted him the honor of being the first to introduce the art of Karate to the Japanese and not his own mastery of Karate. There were more skilled people in Karates more practical applications I am sure) but that does not mean he did not know any applications either.

Did he teach applications to the forms if he knew any? I believe that he did at first but over time he simplified the art for easier teaching to greater number of students. He did however write about Kata and that they contained more than what many people believe they do in all his books, but in his earliest writings he gives concrete evidence of applications beyond block kick punch and shows where they belong in the Kata, these were downplayed and removed in his newer writings though of reasons I do not know. However the last Korean student who would be a part of founding Taekwondo left Japan in 1943/44 if I am not mistaken and the last of Funakoshi`s writings were not published until the 1950s and even that one explained important things like the true usage of the pulling hand or Hikite in Japanese, or Dangkison in Korean as well as writing that Kata or Hyung contains joint locks and throws and such. There is no doubt in my mind that he understood Karate and that he knew practical combative applications to the forms he taugh (at least some of the forms he taught) there is just too many things pointing in the direction that he did know a lot in his own writings to think anything else. The only thing that would have stopped "true" application knowledge to get to the founders of Taekwondo is that he did not teach them, but if he wrote about them in his books it stands to reason that he did teach them as well? Maybe not for every form he taught and it is likely that he did not have all the applications to each and every form but he did study Naihanchi or Chulgi for 10 years so I guess he did at least know that one pretty well:-)

Another overlooked part of this is that he was sponsored by Jigaro Kano founder of Judo and that he tried to focus on the more distinctly different aspects of Karate like striking techniques. Many early students were also students of Judo so teaching them the simplified self defense grappling might both have been redundant to these students or it might not even have been such a good idea as it would look like he was competing With the grappling art of Judo if he did. Yet another thing that might have made him focus on striking above the grappling in Karate was the fact that often he taught University students and they would only have a few years to Train and would therefore only learn the most simple Things. It is easier to teach someone to punch, kick and Block than it is to teach them to grapple. Both Things belong in both Karate and Taekwondo, but the main focus has always been striking. This might explain why striking was stressed so much but it does not mean he did not teach grappling. As I wrote earlier he gives Clear examples of "sophisticated" Applications in his early writings from the Kata he taught, as well as demonstrate throwing and locking techniques in all the instructional Karate books he wrote. It is more than likely that the founders of Taekwondo studying With Funakoshi learned these techniques as well as the more obvious kicks, Blocks and strikes. If they were right there in the books at the time they would be present in the training as well? The Judo influence (not wanting to compete against Judo) is something frequent commentor Richard has written about in his comments before. Thank you Richard for pointing me in that direction:-)

As you can see the statement above which makes Three assumptions are not likely true. I Guess it is not black and white and as I wrote I do not believe Gichin Funakoshi to be the foremost expert in the practical fighting Applications of Kata, BUT we do know that he did make his art work for him in the his 80s and from his writings that he did know far more than what many People believe today. Also he more than likely taught what he knew. Perhaps he did not know all the Applications to all the forms, but he had more than likely a deep understanding of the Naihanchi/Tekki/Chulgi forms as he studdied them indepth for the first decade of his training.

3: The Korean Karate students (founders of Taekwondo)
received a much more Limited training than their Japanese fellow students.
Therefore they were not taught any Applications to their forms.
Again here is a widely believed statement often viewed as fact. Yes the Korean People finding themselves in Japan in the 30s-40s were discriminated against and actually 3rd generation Korean living in Japan does still not get recognized as Japanese citizens, but this statement overlooks a few important Things: First the instructors were not Japanese they were Okinawan. Okinawan People were also discriminated and looked Down upon by many Mainland Japanese. Why would these People start discriminate other People when they themselves were discriminated? You would believe
that they would feel more motivated to teach the other discrimated People (the Koreans) than the people discriminating themselves would you not? I do not know if that is the case, but I think that the Koreans got at least as good training as the Japanese did. They trained in the same Groups and classes so it would be very difficult to give Koreans any worse training than the Japanese got since they were training together. Some Koreans even got very high master rank from their Okinawan instructors, and in one noteable case the okinawan instructor activly recrouted a Korean student so that the Korean could teach the Okinawan teacher what he knew of Chinese Martial arts! The fact that the Koreans and Japanses were taught in the same Club, in the same classes by the same instructors should in itself discredit the statement above. 

4: There has never been any formal explained process when it comes to Applications so it is not a part of Taekwondo

First of all this is perhaps the most incredibly closed minded statement I have found. If you follow this line of thought then the art of Taekwondo would be EXTREMLY Limited. There is so much in Our art that has not been formally written about, forms Applications and how to find them is only one of them. A few others would be (at least for Kukkiwon system of Taekwondo)
  • Philosophy
  • Ethics
  • Self Defense
  • Vital point manipulation
  • Joint Locking
  • Throws
  • History
  • A lot of training Methods
I doubt that many would disagree if I were to say that all the Things in the above list is a part of Taekwondo, but not one of those Things have been formalized and taught as gospel. Even the history section has evolved and will probably still evolve as New Things are learned. And all the New training Methods that could help you become better in Taekwondo? Better discard them all as they were not originally taught in the system. Vital point manipulation? No sorry, it has not been formalised in Taekwondo so it does not exist (of course it does and I can give you a bunch of 9th Dan you can ask to back me up). Just because something does not have a formal proccess in Taekwondo and that it is not universially taught does not mean that it is not part of Taekwondo. Also the more I read about the Karate roots of Taekwondo the more I am inclined to believe that originally forms Applications were a semi individual persuit. Originally there were no names for techniques and an instructor would only have a handfull of students. The Master would only know 1-5 forms but would teach them indepth. I believe the teacher functioned more as a mentor than as a proffessor and that the students would absorb and learn by themselves (but helped and pointed in the right direction by the teacher) instead of how we in the west today are spoonfed information.

The masters of Taekwondo has always come up With their own interpretation of the Poomsae, to suggest otherwise is futile because it goes against what the masters of Taekwondo are saying. In the book "What is Taekwondo Poomsae?" for instance Grandmaster Lee makes numerous statements along the lines "Poomsae is purely for combat" (I will try to find a Direct quote) so we know that Grandmaster Lee thinks that Poomsae has practical funtions. Also I have been taught Applications from numerous Sources over the years and while most have been basic some have made you think "why did not I come up With that" thoughts. Often I have been taught different Applications for the same movemenents in the same forms, so this is a Direct result of the proscess of the instructor finding the Applications to the Poomsae he teaches. It might not be a formal proscess but it is there nonetheless! It always has been and always will be. The fact that some are trying to formalise and making this process easier through what many will label "bunkai study" is not a case of People importing Things from outside Taekwondo, it is more a case of People trying to make something we allready do better and more efficient. And as you might remember earlier in this post, step number 3 of Poomsae training as instructed in the Kukkiwon Textbook IS to find out the practicality of the movements or in other Words "bunkai study".

5: The Kukkiwon website states
that there are more movements in
the forms than are needed for practical use
This statement is true and it is also repeated in the Kukkiwon Textbook, but what does it really tell us? One way to look at the statement is that Poomsae contain practical movements and movements that are not practical. Maybe the double side kick of Koryo, the jumping kicks of Taegeuk Pal Jang or the spinning jumping kick from Chonkwon is not that practical but that does not discount the rest of the forms movements. The other way to look at it is that Kukkiwon now recognises 17 Poomsae (25 if you Count Palgwe Poomsae) and this is Kukkiwon telling us to study a few Poomsae indepth as knowing all 17 (or 25) will be a futile task at hand. A Third way is to look at it this way: All movements are practical but you only need a few of them for practical use! You can indeed get away With only Learning low, middle and high section Block, and straight punch and front kick. The rest is great to have but you can get way With only Learning those techniques for practical use (in this case practical use infers self defense against an untrained assailant). Since the environment where this "practical usage" is not defined (neither on the webpage or the textbook) it is difficult to really say anything about it. If we are thinking about self defense against an untrained attacker then the techniques covered in Taegeuk Il (1) Jang to Taegeuk Sam (3) Jang is more than likely plenty and all the other techniques migh well be of practical use, but some might be less practical than others.
6: The Applications of the movements in
 Poomsae are Clear as each movement
has a name which explains the function
of the movement. There is no need to
look for more combative meaning than that.
This statement is also problematic. If we first take into account that the techniques of Poomsae did not have names in the Okinawan root arts untill VERY recently and that they had flowery poetic names in the Chinese root arts you see that the names were invented after the change from individualistic martial art for self defense toward the group training of School children and exportation to Japan. There is nothing wrong with the techniques mind you, it is simply that the names has little to do With function. The names were invented so that many students could easily have a point of reference in Group training. If you teach Maximum 4 students at a time it is easy to teach by modeling and phrases like "do this motion followed by this motion" and demonstrate. In a large Group section however it is far easier to say "do low Block followed by middle section punch". I wrote a post on this early on in this blog about what I Call "label disease". It is when People can not look past the name of the movement to see what else we can use them for.

The second problem about the statement is that if you look closely to the names of the movements in Kukkiwon Poomsae you rarely get really Clear descriptions of the focus of a technique. "Dangkyo Teok Chigi" translates into pulling the chin onto a strike" and gives a very Clear description. Yes you can make this movement into several other Applications and many will fit the movement in Poomsae closer than the Application suggested by the movements name but nonetheless the name of the movement clearly suggest that the function of the movement is grasping the opponents head and pulling it onto a strike where we target the chin. How many more movements in Poomsae have such descriptive names of their function? Very very very few indeed. Yes we do have punches and kicks, but Arae Makki? Momtong An Makki? Eolgul Makki? These are translated as low section block, middle section Block (comming from the outside toward the inside) and face Block respectivly. When you look at the root Word for Block makki or makda you get several different translations all dealing With defense, but even looking at the English Words you do not really get to know just how to Block against different attacks by the names themselves. Low Block or arae makki is simply a Block that ends up in low position. Momtong an makki or middle section Block is a Block or defense done at middle height comming from the outside and going inwards. Face Block is a Block that crosses Your face on the way up. The names merely describe the movement not the function. The function is experimented and tested in formal sparring, free sparring and intilectually through an unformalised "bunkai study". This has always been the case With modern Taekwondo and is nothing New. The only thing true in statement 6 is that each movement has a name but they are neither Clear nor describe function (there are a few exceptions but they are rare). What does a mountain Block defend against anyway? Mountains??? :-p
7: It is a belief that the Okinawans did not
share much of the hidden bunkai with the
Japanese. The Koreans borrowed from
the Japanese. If the Japanese are lacking some
understanding of what they do, then it is
logical to assume that the Koreans have
even less of an understanding
of the same techniques.


This has been tackled to a great degree earlier in this post. The Koreans did not "borrow" from the Japanese, they "borrowed" directly from the Okinawans and Chinese Sources. Gichin Funakoshi I have written about before in this post is not famous for his knowledge of practical skills, and is rumored to not have any of this knowledge but as I have written before he most certainly did. Kenwa Mabuni and Toyama Kanken are both regarded as experts in old School karate Toyama Kanken maybe even more so than Kenwa Mabuni. The Bunkai knowledge is not widely known in Japan or so they say, but it is still existant. I think it is a little problematic to say that all the Taekwondo pioneers did not know what they were doing just because of contemporary trends. The above statement is not true simply because it makes a false assumption that the Koreans trained and studdied under Japanese Teachers when they did in fact Train alongside them under Okinawan Teachers. Now if we are going to take this all the way we need to look at the first possibillity and that is that the Okinawan Teachers did not share the "hidden" knowledge to both the Japanese and the Koreans. Now that is something most People saying this or variations of the above statement misses entirely. The reason is that People saying this often practise one form of Karate and by going there you suddenly dismiss the major styles of Shotokan, Wado Ryu and others. People usually just does not go there because it is much easier to belittle Taekwondo than the major Karate styles of the world.

8: The KTA Poomsae (The Kukkiwon`s Poomsae) were
 made for political reasons, they were never meant to teach
combat and therefore lack Applications. They are little
more than a martial Dance
I will first go out and say that there is truth to the part with the political angle to the creation of the KTA Poomsae. The KTA wanted to merge all the different Kwan into one Martial Art so they could grow and make Korea stronger as well as giving Korea at the time a much needed Cultural boost by providing them With a national martial art and a martial sport. At the time the different Kwan practised different forms or Versions of the same forms making it difficult to merge since you would have to choose one way of moving and one set of forms. What they chose to do was to make their own set of forms made by representatives by all the Kwan so that they could center their syllabus around a common set of forms. So they formed a commite who made the Palgwe forms and black
belt forms. The reason for making the forms was motivated by political reasons (the wish to merger the different Kwan together) but this does not discount the forms as being made as martial Dances rather than as bona fide martial forms. It was my belief that the knowledge was there and that they benifitted by a rather large knowledge pool. The different Kwan did not send white belts to represent themselves in this comitte, they sendt those who they believed could do the best possible job often from the fist batch of dan rank holders of the different Kwan. A little later the Palgwe forms and original Koryo were discarded and the Tageuk forms and New Koryo was made by the same committe with the addition of representatives from Ji Do Kwan and Moo Duk Kwan (I might be mistaken because this is written purely from memory). This increased the knowledge pool further and the end result is a series of forms still practised 40 years after their inception.
There are many People who say that the Taegeuk forms are too basic and boring and ugly etc etc. In my view this just proves that the focus had to be on combative Applications. They had their chance not once but twice to make forms filled With acrobatics and high flashy kicks. The kicks in 1972 (Taegeuk were presented) were a lot flashier than the kicks in 1967 (The Palgwe presented) but instead the forms committe choose to keep the body mechanics as in their root arts, they chose to keep it simple and they chose to develop New combinations that makes little sense in a Block kick punch perspective. You would believe that if they were developed by People who only knew Block kick punch that the forms would make Perfect sense in this view no? And if they were indeed developed to be martial Dances you would believe that they would atleast try to make them beautifull to watch?
So should you apply "Bunkai studdies" to Your Taekwondo forms? I believe so and I believe that the Taekwondo forms abound With practical Applications. When you look at the traditional Taekwondo framework you will come to see that the "Bunkai studies" will be the glue that link all the pillars together.

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