When Okinawan karate was introduced into Japan during the 1920s its teaching method (pedagogy) was based almost exclusively on a solo kata where a sequence of specific techniques related to combat were connected in a series of predetermined movements. These basic movements were then extrapolated to create a compendium of combat alternatives. This investigative teaching method is called bunkai (disassembly). The techniques of Okinawan karate were assumed to be so dangerous that no training method was created that would allow students to engage in freestyle combat. An experienced jujutsu practitioner, Otsuka Hironori, ventured into this environment when he walked into the Meishojuku dormitory in Suidobashi, Tokyo seeking an introduction to the Okinawan karate master, Funakoshi Gichin. The Nihon Koryu jujutsu pedagogy that informed Otsuka differed from that of Okinawan karate, because the jujutsu teaching method was based almost entirely on paired kata that eventually culminated in freestyle competition. During the next 13 years, Otsuka dedicated himself to mastering Okinawan karate techniques, but as he progressed he confronted what he felt were deficiencies in the Okinawan pedagogy. Therefore, he started introducing instructional methods into his karate teaching that he derived from Nihon Koryu jujutsu, which included freestyle fighting. This progressive approach to training eventually fomented a divide between Otsuka and the conservative Okinawan karate community. Otsuka was eventually forced to end his relationship with the Funakoshi dojo in 1935, and soon after created his own style of karate which he named Shinshu Wado Ryu Karatejutsu. The emergence of Wado Ryu as a style of Japanese karate brought with it the inclusion of paired kata and jiyu kumite (free fighting) as an integral part of training.
As the years passed since the establishment of Wado Ryu, virtually all karate styles followed its lead and adopted various methods of engaging in paired practice and jiyu kumite. Modern kata competition has also resulted in the homogenization of karate in general, blurring distinctions among styles. This homogenization has further obscured other aspects of the Koryu Jujutsu origins of Wado Ryu. One of the most important, but least recognized distinctions that point to Wado Ryu roots in Koryu Jujutsu is how Otsuka re-imagined the kata of both Shindo Yoshin Ryu and Okinawan Karate to create a unique expression of solo kata, a teaching tool that on the surface resembles Okinawan Karate, but in fact reflects a teaching theory originating in Koryu Jujutsu. Despite this fact, many contemporary Wado Ryu practitioners mistakenly define the word “kata” as it is applied in Okinawan Karate. I am deeply familiar with Shindo Yoshin Ryu, the jujutsu progenitor of Wado Ryu, and perceive the pedagogy of Wado Ryu as being developed from Koryu Jujutsu. Consequently, I look askance at a Wado Ryu practitioner who mentions kata bunkai, because bunkai was never part of the Koryu Jujutsu pedagogy envisioned by Otsuka.
Generally speaking, all Nihon Koryu training is devoid of bunkai because all kata directly related to combat training are practiced in pairs. Thus, the application of particular solo movements is not viewed through the same lens as it is in Okinawa Karate. Wado Ryu solo kata frequently appear confusing to practitioners of other Karate styles because they assume that the solo kata incorporated into Wado Ryu were taken directly from Okinawan Karate, without adjustment. What these individuals, as well as many Wado Ryu practitioners do not realize, or were never taught, is that Otsuka Hironori altered the "core" of the Okinawan solo kata that he integrated into Wado Ryu. This is completely logical because Otsuka developed his budo kihon in Japan, not Okinawa. Exercises similar to Okinawan solo kata are rare, if not absent in most Nihon Koryu, but when they are present, they do not include bunkai because their objective is related to the study and cultivation of sophisticated body mechanics, not a variety of combative options. Long exposure to this pedagogy is why Otsuka adjusted the purpose of the solo kata in Wado Ryu away from training combat options and tactics, to the study of body movement and the development of internal body connections/dynamics. The related interpretative process in Nihon Koryu is identified as kaisetsu (investigation, explanation), not bunkai.
Confusing this matter is that two Japanese kanji are frequently applied to represent training exercises in Budo. One can be pronounced kata, katachi or kei, but is more frequently pronounced "gyo" (形), whereas the other is most frequently pronounced kata, igata or kei (型). Westerners unfamiliar with the Japanese language cannot discern the subtle difference between kata 形 and kata 型 when either spoken or written in romaji. However, a person familiar with Japanese kanji will intuitively recognize that gyo (kata) 形 implies shape, form or appearance (consider a doll, which is called nin [human] gyo [form] 人形), whereas kei (kata) 型 implies a more comprehensive tool defined as a model, template, or prototype based on a foundation.
Japanese is a very contextual language so the meaning of a word can be easily misinterpreted when removed from the context of its application. The two kanji used for kata in Budo are particularly vulnerable to such misinterpretation. Otsuka explains in his book, Karate Do, his preference for using gyo 形 instead of kei 型 in relation to the kata he included in Wado Ryu. This makes perfect sense to a Koryu sort of person such as me, because in Shindo Yoshin Ryu, the primary teaching forms are identified as gyo 形. This kanji conveys flexibility and adaptability, the core principle of Jujutsu, which Ohtsuka wished to be implicit in Wado Ryu. Imagine the gyo-kata as a folder, and within that folder are other folders with names like gozen dori, ashi dori, shumoku dori, etc. Inside each of these named folders are three more folders. The first folder is named omote kata, expressed as 表型, which implies that the folder contents represent the orthodox instructional template containing the riai 理合 or foundational principles of the form. The second folder is identified as ura kata, expressed as 裏形, which implies a more spontaneous and flexible application of the same riai in the omote kata, but freed from the constraints of its instructional purpose. The last folder is identified as henka waza (変化技), meaning technical variations. This implies that the riai embedded in the kei-kata 型 and expanded upon in the gyo-kata 形 has been internalized by the practitioner to such a competent level that it can be applied in numerous ways.
Consequently, an implication that Wado Ryu tanto dori and idori are not really kata, but bunkai or applications derived from kata, signals an understanding of Wado Ryu based in Okinawa. Specifically, they are defining the term “kata” in the more formalized manner of Okinawan Karate, and not in the more nuanced manner of a Nihon Koryu such as Shindo Yoshin Ryu, which should be true of Wado Ryu.
As a long-term practitioner of Shindo Yoshin Ryu, when I observe both the paired forms and solo forms studied in Wado Ryu I see an interesting hybrid mixture of gyo-kata 形 and kei-kata 型 aspects. This convinces me that Ohtsuka Hironori profoundly understood the pedagogy of Nihon Koryu, and then creatively merged the essential qualities of the Shindo Yoshin Ryu omote and ura kata to create a new type of form built upon on a precisely defined framework but simultaneously reinforcing the flexible application of principles like inashi, nagashi, irimi, nori, and sente. The creative teaching approach of Otsuka, existing inside what appears to be a rather orthodox Okinawan Karate shell, is what differentiates Wado Ryu from all other styles of Karate Do and explains why those who understand its historical origins and technical foundations claim that Wado Ryu is the ultimate exemplar of “Japanese” karate.
That Wado Ryu, a style of Karate Do founded upon such a unique and nuanced pedagogy inevitably struggles against the repercussions of extraneous influences from the greater, and much larger Karate community is understandable. For example, consider the technical leverage imposed on Wado Ryu by everything from modern kata competition to naïve instructors hosting seminars on Wado Ryu bunkai. In an environment where the nuanced definition of the word “kata” is confused and frequently taken out of context, technical influences from other styles of Karate Do can be mistakenly introduced into Wado Ryu, which threatens to distort its unique pedagogical foundation and legacy.
The practical reality is that Wado Ryu as a Japanese/Okinawan hybrid represents a unique expression of Budo that is far more intricate and complex than most Karate practitioners realize. Understanding the technical origins of Otsuka Hironori, and the genius of his pedagogical vision is imperative, so that teachers of Wado Ryu can internalize and express to students the nuanced differences reflected in the terms kata 形 and kata 型. Only then can Wado Ryu practitioners appreciate, preserve, and embody the creative genius of Ohtsuka Hironori to its highest possible level.