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Masatoshi Nakayama: The CEO of Shotokan Karate

Masatoshi Nakayama was a unique personality in many regards. However, no person has done more to expand Shotokan karate around the the World than him. As a long time student and anointed successor of Gichin Funakoshi he carried along the legacy of the grandmaster. As foundeer and chief instructor of the Japan Karate Association (JKA), Masatoshi Nakayama oversaw the expansion of Shotokan Karate. It has been growing from an art practiced only in Japan to an art practiced all over the global by a diverse range of people. By Patrick Donkor and Dr. Christian Tribowski

Masatoshi Nakayama: Early Years

Masatoshi Nakayama was born in 1913 in the Yamaguchi Prefecture, in the southwest of Japan. Until today, Yamaguchi and the Japanese southwest has been bearing powerful figures in Japanese politics and economy. Shinzo Abe, Japans present prime minister, was born into a powerful political family, which originated from Yamaguchi Prefecture. Thus, it is no wonder that Nakayama´s social pedigree was upper-class. He came from a family descended from the Sanada samurai and steeped in the martial tradition. His grandfather and father were accomplished Kendo instructors.

Being from a medical family, Nakayama they expected him to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, he loved Chinese culture and secretly took and passed an entrance exam for Takushoku University, the premier university for those wanting a career in the foreign service. As a result he entered Takushoku University in 1932.

The picture shows Masatoshi Nakayama (Source: JKA).
Masatoshi Nakayama (Source: JKA)

First Encounter With Shotokan Karate

In a twist of fate Nakayama mis-read the timetable for attending a kendo class and instead found himself in a Karate class. Karate was still a fairly new martial art in Japan. However, Masatoshi Nakayama was intrigued and stayed to watch the class. He thought since having a background in kendo and Judo he would find karate easy. So, he decided to come back and try the next lesson. In that lesson he came to realize just how difficult karate really was. He began his training under Master Gichin Funakoshi and his son Yoshitaka. Evetually, it became a lifelong love affair with karate.

Travel to China, Experience with Kung Fu, and the Time After World War II

During his university studies, Masatoshi Nakayama traveled to China as an exchange student. There he advanced his studies in Chinese language and history. While in China he continued his karate practice and even taught a few classes. In addition, he came into contact with Kung Fu training under several masters. His main teacher was Sifu Pai, with whom he studied a Northern Kung Fu style. Northern style Kung Fu is characterised by having long stances, deep punches and high flashy kicks. Under Sifu Pai, Nakayama learnt taisoku uke (pressing block with sole of foot) and reverse roundhouse/hook kick (ura mawashi geri). Both of these techniques were eventually incorporated into the Shotokan syllabus with the permission of Gichin Funakoshi.

Masatoshi Nakayama together with senior students of Gichin Funakoshi demonstrating Shotokan Karate.

During World War II,  Masatoshi Nakayama remained in China working as a translator. In 1946, he returned back to a Japan devastated by the war. He tried to get in contact with some of Funakoshi’s senior students. However, many of them had been killed during the war. Moreover, Master Funakoshi’s son, Yoshitaka, had also died from tuberculosis. However, Nakayama showed first management and leadership skills. In 1947 he managed to gather senior students, who survived the war. They resumed their training under the watchful eye of Master Funakoshi.

Masatoshi Nakayama and US Soldiers

In 1948, Nakayama and other senior students of Funakoshi gave a karate demonstration to personnel stationed at the U.S. Air Force Base at Tachikawa. The participantes received it well. As a result, he traveled around Japan giving demonstrations and teaching karate to the Americans for the next couple of months.

With the permission of Master Funakoshi, Nakayama and some of the other senior students formed the Nihon Karate Kyokai – Japan Karate Association (JKA) in 1949. Master Fuankoshi was named as Chief Instructor with Nakayama as Chief Technical Adviser.

Nakayama demonstrating self-defense.

In 1951, the US Air Force sent Air Force personnel from the Strategic Air Command (SAC) to learn various Japanese martial arts. Karate belonged to them. This encounter became an important learning experience for Nakayama. The Americans asked a lot of questions and wanted to know the theoretical background for performing techniques in a particular way.

In an interview given to Black Belt Magazine (November 1982), Nakayama said:

It immediately became apparent to me and to Master Funakoshi that if we were going to teach the Americans, we would have to provide a theoretical basis for our art.”

So under Master Funakoshi’s instruction Nakayama began an intensive study of kinetics, physiology and anatomy. The idea was to provide a scientific grounding to karate and the body dynamics it incorporated.

Masatoshi Nakayama with US officials
Masatoshi Nakayama with US officials

The Formation of the JKA by Masatoshi Nakayama

After the War, Nakayama also began to working on the establishment of a Shotokan associations. Together with the senior students he gathered after the War he formed the Japan Karate Association. The official formation of the organization took place in 1948. Among his peers were Shotokan enthusiast and later high-level instructors like Teruyuki Okazaki and Hidetaka Nishiyama. However, Gichin Funakoshi played no decisive role in the formation of the organization. Instead, he became chief instructor and oversaw the karate education. Nakayama, however, took the responsibility for the management.

Masatoshi Nakayama proved at this time to be a skillful manager and visionary. For him it became clear that only a formalized and structured association had the power to spread Shotokan karate. His education at Takushoku University had a huge influence on this judgement. Trained to become an oversees public servant he understood the necessity of good organization and governance. In 1955, the members of the JKA elected Masatoshi Nakayama head of JKA.

Establishment of the Instructors Program

In 1956, Nakayama formulated the JKA’s Instructor Program with the help of Teruyuki Okazaki. The program followed the design of an intensive one year karate course. Among the first graduates of the course were Takayuki Mikami and Hirokazu Kanazawa. Apart from the intensive karate practice, students received a theoretical grounding in karate. They also learnt kinetics, physiology and anatomy. In addition, the course required them to learn key principles of other fighting systems. Many of the graduates of the program traveled around the globe later. Their aim was to expand the JKA’s brand of Shotokan.

The picture shows Masatoshi Nakayama with Teruyuki Okazaki.
Masatoshi Nakayama with Teruyuki Okazaki

Development of Competitions

Nakayama believed if Karate did not incorporate some form of competitive element, like Judo or Kendo, then people would lose interest in karate. With the permission of Master Funakoshi, Nakayama started looking at ways of adding a competitive element into Karate. He explored many avenues, including having competitors wear a form of light amour, similar to Kendo practitioners. However, this still resulted injuries.

Eventually, after much deliberation Nakayama decided on a set of rules for competing. He believed that competitions should not be about winning, thus keeping the ethos of Master Funakoshi’s principles. Moreover, he believed that competition should be another part of one’s training, helping to build one’s character.

Some months after Master Funakoshi’s death in 1957, the first ever JKA All Japan Karate Championship took place at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium. Hirokazu Kanazawa won the kumite titlle and in kata Shoji Hiroshi succeeded. The event proved such a success that it takes place annually.

Masatoshi Nakayama Developed the Foundation of Karate Teaching

Today’s karate education has been highly coined by Masatoshi Nakayama. From the 1950´s onward, he developed a the modern method of teaching karate. His deep and wide knowledge of physiology and kinetics as well as didactic and methods of education helped him to set up a general scientific trainings system. As a result, every aspect of Karate like physical and mental development, self-defense sports etc. can be taught within this system.

In 1965 he published “Karatedo Shinkyotei (A New Method For Teaching Karate-do)”. In English it is published as “Dynamic Karate”. This work by Nakayama details much of the knowledge he gained from his studies in kinetics, physiology and anatomy. It is his opus magnum and a must-read book for any serious martial artist. It gives scientific explanations on how certain techniques work and illuminates the physic behind the Shotokan.

Masatoshi Nakayama explaining Hangtsu.

Masatoshi Nakayama and his Students

Nakayama guided the JKA through its difficult early days. Through his hard work the JKA made it into one of the biggest and most respected Shotokan associations in the world. Many of the students trained by Nakayama describe him as a tough but fair teacher. Some of his most able students heave become famous masters in their own right. Some of Nakayama’s most notable students, many who can be seen in his “Best Karate Series”, include:

Masatoshi Nakayama with JKA Instructors
Masatoshi Nakayama with JKA Instructors

He Kept Teaching Despite a Horrible Accident

In 1971, Nakayama an accomplished ski instructor, was caught in an avalanche, which almost cost him his life. At first doctors thought he would die, later changing their prognosis to him never ever being able to walk. However, Nakayama made a full recovery and resumed his active schedule traveling around the world and conducting various courses and seminars in karate.

Masatoshi Nakayama: First 9th Dan

Master Nakayama became the first living master to be awarded 9th Dan. He continued to travel around the world giving courses and seminars to members of the JKA associations he helped create, until his death in 1987 aged 74. After his death JKA awarded him posthumously the rank of 10th Dan.

Following his death, internal politics saw many of the top instructors breaking from the JKA to form their own associations. This shows how well respected Nakayama was, that these conflicts did not happen until his death.

It can be argued that no one has done more to promote the growth of Shotokan karate around the world than Masatoshi Nakayama. As a true institutional entrepreneur he developed the structures of modern Shotokan karate, expended its influence far beyond Japanese boarders, and educated a myriad of excellent and successful instructors. He create a system, which can be learnt by each and everyone. As theorist and intellectual he published several groundbreaking books which led to deeper insights into Shotokan. Like no other he had a vision what Shotokan could be and how it could change the life of people. He kept the organization together although he surrounded by strong hotheads, who all wanted their own stake. Masatoshi Nakayama was the CEO of Shotokan, who steered the art into the water of success. His legacy will always be one of excellence.

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“A sign of character.” Thomas Prediger about Competitions and Sport Karate

Sports karate exaggerates with its focus on tournaments. However, competitions can have an educative effect. But only when they are conducted in the right way. We talked with Thomas Prediger, chair of our advisory board, about the value of competitions for karateka and how karate tournaments will evolve after the dismissal of the WKF from the Olympics 2024. By Dr. Christian Tribowski

The Competitions Against Oneself

Christian: I would like to go a little bit deeper into the educative role of competition. Do I understand your argument right: While in Sport Karate the competition is the end, in Karate Do it is just a means to an end?

Thomas: In Karate Do, tournaments are a forum or they should be a one. It is a space for experience. And it is a space where you have to be honest to yourself. Without the opportunity to compare myself I will never truly practice. Everything I have learnt in training might stay theory until I face pressure and an opponent. That not only counts for Kumite but also for Kata. Without this exposure one will lack necessary learning experiences that are highly important to develop one´s own Do.

In my opinion, even an examination is a competition: A competition against yourself. During a tournament, we add another factor of uncertainty: the opponent. That is a challenge and it creates pressure. There you have to show how strong your Do is. Are you capable to fight honestly and loss with a smile? That is a sign of character.

Without this test, Karate Do will be cheap talk. Only a test can show whether I have incorporated the Do during training.

Competitions and the Experience of Limits

Christian: So, are tournaments a compromise between “absence of violence” (Dojo kun) and the martial arts dimension of karate do?

Thomas: Yes, you need a media and forum to experience yourself. Competitions offer this option in a peaceful and regulated way. This regulated and supervised way of conflict is necessary for socialization of human beings and for the society in general. I must experience my limits and boundaries. Maybe a little bit like stones in a river. They grind each other and become round after a while. At the end, they fit perfectly together.

Thus, competition can be an integrative means. This goes also for children. They must learn to asses their own strength. If we do not open them a regulated and supervised forum, they become a factor of uncertainty in the future. Because they will not know how to handle and apply their strength in a positive and fruitful way.

Christian: How old should children be when they take part in a competition for the first time?

Thomas: I think it is not a matter of age or grade. The rules are important. Like in the JKA where Katas are executed parallel. The children have then a direct comparison. Kumite must be very formalized like Gohon, Kihon, and Jiyu Ippon Kumite. A sufficient level of certainty is necessary for children. Unexpected situations should be avoided. That is very important for them to grow and to get used to the situation.

Sports can be Karate. But Karate Do cannot be Sports!

Christian: Let us talk about the future. What do you think how will the field of competition in Karate Do evolve? This is especially interesting because Karate will become Olympic next year but was excluded from the Olympics 2024. e

Thomas: This is what I expected. The WKF did not represent the whole Karate community and it did not spend much effort to integrate the other associations. It seems as if the committee in France recognized this. In my opinion Olympic competitions would have become to elitist anyway. Only professional fighters were capable to start at the events and they would have not much in common with regular Karatekas.

I would suggest something different: We need an open tournament for all Shotokan Karate Do associations. Currently, every association – if big or small – is a silo. They all should agree upon a certain set of Shobu Ippon rules and have joint tournaments.

But we should go back to the roots. That would lead to less big competitions like Olympics. It would be better to hold a bigger number of smaller tournaments where more people could attend. The Olympics are good for the media. But for the vast majority of people it is too far away from their reality. Smaller tournaments would benefit more people. They all could make the educative experience of competitions. Big tournaments do not achieve this goal. They just monopolize the attention of the audience and the smaller structures will dry out.

In the end, Sports can be Karate. But Karate Do cannot be Sports!

Christian: Thomas Prediger, thank you very much for this interview!