The History and Bunkai of Bassai Sho

In last weeks Monday night black belt class, we given a homework assignment. Shihan Viola asked us to research the application behind Bassai Sho. The week passed by quickly and today was our day to break down this kata. We spent the entire class discussing the bunkai (application) behind the kata. Take a look at the kata Bassai Dai, infamous tournament-style kata recognized in many styles of martial arts, even in Korean styles of karate. The moves are very practical. There are blocks, punches, strikes, and the works. The application can be very easy to figure out.

Moving on to Bassai Sho at black belt level, the kata is far different. There are slow moves, strange hand formations, circular blocks with strikes, and a very strange ending to the kata. In class, everyone had their own input from doing the entire kata with a bo staff, to blocking a bo, to even some Jujitsu style application.


Personally, I feel that weapons do not coincide with Shotokan kata, or any empty hand kata. Karate translates to empty hand and I feel as soon as we start introducing weapons into the mix, it becomes something different. By all means I do not mean that the moves cannot block weapons, but often I find the generic responses to blocking weapons very impractical.

For example, the third move into the Bassai Sho. We do a two-handed block with a slow press. It almost looks like a move where you “catch the bo”. However, I think that someone swinging a bo staff a full force to hit someone, I don’t think that’s the right move to block that. Shihan agreed with that statement, stating that, number one, weapons are dangerous.. He always said “weapons are an extension of the body”. Before anything you would want to move in on an opponent before they swing. Number two, going back to my original argument, I think that move is simply impractical for blocking a weapon. Here is an interesting video of Kenneth Funakoshi showing his application for the kata. He is one that does the “catching of the bo” move that I personally hate.

I can spend all night explaining moves. And I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong way to do it. But picking any application for kata, I don’t like the weapon explanations given. Anyway in the end, what Shihan told us was, there is basically no real answer to the application of Bassai Sho. He explained that there were  meeting(s) between several high level black belts in various organizations such as “USAKF” that couldn’t agree on the application to the kata. Certain moves represented different types of applications and over the years bunkai to not only Bassai Sho, but many other kata, it’s almost becoming a lost art.

Looking at the bigger picture, this is becoming a problem in modern karate. Kata gets watered down, altered for tournaments and different styles, and many people don’t retain the information for the application for all the kata which is really the most important thing. One reason why I like coming on here during the digital age and blogging about it is that digital information is this information never vanishes. Books, physical text papers, it crumbles with the masters who wrote it. Back in the early 1900’s, martial artist didn’t have YouTube, videos, and etc. to retain that information. And because of society, laws, and political reasons, I think many of the masters back then never knew karate would get so huge nor did they think about these types of things back then.


Finally we went into a brief history lesson over the kata. I believe Shihan mentioned Funakoshi acquired this kata from Azato. However, other sources claim he got it elsewhere. To my knowledge I don’t think there’s any solid evidence to back where this kata originated from in terms of Shotokan kata. I find it interesting though. Sometimes you get to black belt level and you end up having more questions than answers about a particular move or kata. I’m starting to find out slowly that there isn’t always a dead set way of doing things, whether it’s kata, bunkai, or the works.

I think after today’s lesson I have a new respect for finding the application to each kata.  I think it’s in my generation where people are going to have to start figuring out application to these kata and finding practical and useful ways to make people learn it and retain it. But this goes into a whole other argument. The younger audience (10 and under), they really struggle with bunkai. I think somewhere in-between this kind of stuff has to get reintroduced into the repertoire.