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Jukuren Karate: About Elderly Friendly Karate

The picture shows a Jukuren Karate Group led by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Herbert.

Jukuren Karate, elderly friendly Karate, is not very prevalent yet. But demographic changes and the growing interest of elderly to learn and keep practicing Karate make it necessary to develop a Jukuren Karate that fits the needs of senior practitioners. Then especially Shotokan Karate focuses on athletic movements and military-like classes. But does this approach suit elderly? Do they maybe need a different training regime? How should this look like? An analysis and proposal by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Herbert

Jukuren Karate for elderly barely exists

Nowadays, many Dojos have kids classes or beginner courses for children. Hardly do I see “classes for the elderly” or “beginner courses for seniors” advertised on Dojo websites. This is remarkable. After all the overall population in industrial countries is over-aging and the age of Karate practitioners is also rising.

The reason for this is that Karate was introduced to the USA and Europe in the 1960´s and boomed with the Bruce Lee craze in the 1970´s. Therefore, many Karateka from this early period still train actively Karate, compete in Master classes, and teach in Dojos. They are well in their 60’s, 70’s or even 80’s. With 60 I consider myself part of this generation although still on the younger side.

Jukuren Karate: The Aim of this Article

But what about our training? Has it adjusted to our increasing age? Do we still practice the same routines in the same way as we did when we were in our 20`s? And how should a Jukuren (熟練) Karate for elderly Karateka look like? What must change in order to make it more suitable for seniors, so that they can still train despite their advanced age? I will propose some answers to these questions in this article.

As a caveat: I will generalize many of my observations (some laudable exceptions might exist) and mostly speak about Shotokan, since this is the style I practice and I am most familiar with. The setting to keep in mind are seniors (beginners and veterans alike) training together in a group. In fact, I teach an open lecture at my university called “Karate-dô for Health and Fitness” for more than eight years (see opener picture). The median age of the participants is around their mid-sixties. This course is my laboratory to reassess traditional concepts and develop Karate and Quigong (Taijiquan) exercises appropriate for people of an advanced age.

Why Jukuren Karate? Insights from Hirokazu Kanazawa

The late Kanazawa Hirokazu, an eminent teacher of Shotokan Karate, has in his autobiography and numerous interviews talked about how Karate training should change over ones lifetime. Let me pick out his statements made in an interview with Seamus O’Dowd in 2002:

“… everyone’s personal training should change as they go from youth to being an adult and then again as they get older. It is natural for training to change.

If a person is always training the same way all their life, then this is not natural. For example, for people up to thirty or forty years, physical power is the main power, generated through the muscles, with the power of the internal organs and power of the spirit working in harmony to support the physical power.

After forty the muscles start to become weaker, but the internal organs remain strong, now these become the main source of power … After sixty the internal organs also become weaker. The human body has limits, and it is natural to become weaker. Nobody can live for 150 or 200 years, so this is natural and should be accepted. But your spirit can always remain strong and even become stronger indefinitely, if people train correctly every day.

Therefore, after sixty, the power of the spirit is the main power in the body, with the power of physical muscle and internal organs used to assist and channel this power. Therefore, as we get older we must adapt our training to utilize the correct power sources in our bodies. Techniques must change and training methods must change.”

Shotokan Karate Magazine 143/2020: 10

In another interview Kanazawa jokingly remarked:

“… I think training from baby to grave is something that I must do, but for other people it is as I have said before, one must train as one grows in different ways. If I did not do this then when I reached 70 or 80 years old Unsu and Enpi will be impossible. Maybe I could do some Shito-ryu or Goju-ryu kata, maybe, but I know I could do Tai-Chi until I die. Because it is more internal than physical. If I only did Shotokan, after 70 or 80 it would be ‘Bye, bye.’”

Shotokan Karate Magazine 143/2020: 7

In his autobiography Kanazawa states:

“ Sure enough, when I reached my sixties I noticed that my physical condition had deteriorated and ki-ryoku had become the driving force for my karate. I let this development take its natural course and continued to develop it further. Muscular strength, and the strength of your innards certainly decrease with age, but mental and spiritual strength can be increased as you get older.”

Hirokazu Kanazawa 2003: 293

Kiryoku is written 気力 in the original book (Kanazawa 2002: 344) and thus means the strength of the subtle energy Ki. I would figure that the gist of these statements is: training should be adapted to ones age and physical condition. Then it is “natural” and in accordance with ones stage in life. But do most of the older Karateka follow this advice?

The Need for Jukuren Karate

I am quite sure that on an individual level Shotokan Karateka adapt their workout to their aging bodies and physical capabilities. However, when it comes to collective training it is different. If you attend international Shotokan Karate seminars with many participants, groups are frequently formed along grade or skill level (beginners, mid-level, advanced etc.).

Training, that addresses senior Karateka, rarely exists. Kihon lessons usually take place for all in the same way: from teenagers to septuagenarians – everybody performs the same techniques and is supposed to do this in the same way.

The picture shows a Jukuren Karate Group led by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Herbert.
Prof. Dr. Wolf Herbert with his students from his “Karate-dô for Health and Fitness” course at the University of Tokushima, Center for Community Engagement and Lifelong Learning in 2018.

Teaching usually Focuses on Younger Karateka

The same goes for home training videos that circulate on the internet. They obviously address and focus rather on younger athletes than seniors. Some create the impression that the instructors want to show off their skills, like how fast they can perform difficult combinations or how high they can kick. Not only elderly, but also the average Karateka might struggle to follow these instructions. It illustrates that teaching in Shotokan focuses on young competitors rather than the casual and physically less able enthusiast.

To run through fancy combinations like Mawashi Geri Jodan, Ushiro Geri, Gyaku zuki dozens of times is not quite easy for the beyond-60´s. Indeed, it is “unnatural”, if not harmful.

Karate for Elderly has to take Body Changes into Account

I am aware that there are some hard-boiled elderly Karateka around who desperately want to keep up with the sportsmen in their twenties or thirties. A few are physically still capable of doing so. I let them have their way.

But I would contend that the vast majority of older Karateka practice the art in order to maintain their health and agility. This implies that one is more likely to listen to the voice of ones body and to avoid unwholesome exercises. Joints become more fragile, particularly the knees, hips, elbows or shoulders. To feel slight pain in them is quite common among senior people. So are degenerative afflictions like gout, arthritis, osteoarthritis, cartilage atrophy or other wear and tear.

However, this should not preclude anyone to practice Karate Do. Everybody should be able to perform Karate with the very body one has and all the flaws coming with it. That is why we even have Karate for people with special needs. Thus, it would be desirable to develop a Karate that fits older people.

What has to change in Karate to become Jukuren Karate?

Such a Karate must change in two ways:

  • in a physical/somatic way and
  • a practical way.

I will start with the latter one: the practice of Karate. I want to characterize the necessary change with two words: de-militarization and individualization. To understand what that means we have to look at the history of Shotokan Karate that still coins the way we practice Karate in Dojos in a manner most Karateka are not fully aware of.

De-militarization of Karate

Shotokan has a background deeply entrenched in militarism. This has shaped our Karate and the way we train. For instance:

  • standing in rows,
  • militaristic drill,
  • movements in unison obeying commands shouted by (usually) a man in front,
  • who struts up and down like a general inspecting his army.

This had already begun in Okinawa in the first decade of the 20th century, when Karate was introduced as physical education into schools. In fact, it replaced “military gymnastics” (heishiki taisô) and Itosu Ankô (1831-1915), who was the driving force behind this, explicitly stressed the respective benefits in his Ten Precepts. In the second precept he recommends that children start with Karate (Tôde) while in elementary school, because “then they will be well suited for military service.”

In precept ten he reiterates that Karate should be taught in elementary schools, because “this will be a great benefit to our nation and our military.” Itosu wrote these principles 1908 in form of a letter addressing the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of War on the main island. Karate was, thus, annexed to a nationalistic and later imperialistic agenda.

When Karate became a real Military Exercise in Japan

Two assistant’s of Itosu, Yabu Kentsû (1866-1937) and Hanashiro Chômo (1869-1945), were both military men. They joined the army in 1891 and were noticed for their exceptional physiques in the medical exams. It was ascribed to their Karate training. That was the reason why Karate caught the eye of the military for the first time.

Yabu Kentsû reached the rank of a lieutenant, although his lifelong nickname was gunsô (“sergeant”). He taught at Shuri’s Prefectural Number One School and was known for his discipline and doing Karate “by the numbers” and with endless repetitions. This was in tune with every athletic training on the main island, which became heavily militarized in the 1930s and 1940s.

Hanashiro Chômo was the first to use the modern version of “Karate” (空手) in 1905, written with the Kanji for “empty” and “hand”. This publication was rife with military terms and Hanashiro taught Karate in elementary schools and with Yabu also at military schools.

On Honshû, the main island, it was Funakoshi Gichin, his son Yoshitaka, Egami Shigeru, Okuyama Tadao and others who taught Karate to special forces at the Nakano military school during WWII. The political climate of the 1930´s, when Karate began to spread on the main island of Japan, was one of ultranationalism, xenophobia, Tennô-totalitarianism and mobilization for war.

The Okinawan and Chinese roots of Karate were eradicated and erased. Karate was streamlined along Kendô and Jûdô and transformed into a Japanese Budô and thus due to the zeitgeist militarized. It became infused with Bushidô-ideals, which were perverted for military goals and emperor-worshipping.

Elements of this fateful ideology were:

  • unquestioned loyalty,
  • absolute obedience,
  • self-effacing service,
  • exaltation of death and sacrifice,
  • glorification of dying for the fatherland and the Tennô.

Benesch calls this kind of indoctrination the “imperial bushidô” (cf. Benesch 2006: 200-213).

To become a martial art that follows modern ethical standards all remnants of this ideology should be eliminated from Karate. However, it seems as if quite a bit of it lives on in an attenuated form. Westerners, who entertain fantasies about Bushido and want to emulate it, should be aware of this history. And it also has an influence on the possibility of an adequate Jukuren Karate.

De-militarization of the Dojo

De-militarization in the Dojo mostly pertains to the training in soldier-like fashion. Particularly elderly people do not have to be commanded around. With the high value put on fitness until the grave nowadays, elderly people are increasingly interested in beginning to learn a martial art. For the mature novices the techniques should be thoroughly explained. They can then be performed within the group. Thereafter, the practitioners should be able to experiment, explore the moves, repeat them according to their own taste and pace. This goes for Kihon combinations or Kata sequences, even for Kumite exercises. Once the practitioners are comfortable with the new techniques one can go back to training on command.

This alternation between group drill and free experimentation loosens up the atmosphere, brings a playful element into the Dojo, gives room for laughter about ones clumsiness and provides the chance to learn on ones own terms. Strict group drill always risks to leave some people out, who cannot follow the tempo or grasp the moves in a short time. This only leads to frustration.

Individualization of the Dojo

“Individualization” means to give the participants time and room to exercise and study by themselves. The instructor can take turn to watch them and give advice. A well balanced alternation between individual and collective training during one session is a good way to give elderly Karateka a chance to train in accordance with their capabilities and physical condition.

It also gives them space to recuperate and take a breath if needed. It takes older people longer to recover after intense physical activity and a good regime for rest is as important for them as adequate training as such. Karate training around twice a week will suffice. The other days they can do some walking, weight training, fascia loosening, yoga, tennis, gardening or the like or just rest.

Some older Karateka have issues with their circulatory or respiratory system or other ailments. You cannot put them through the same regime as the athletes in their twenties. We should give up the boot camp mentality of Shotokan. It is good to go to ones limits, but they should be determined by the practitioners themselves (particularly when they are older!) and not a commander in chief.

Seniors are more likely to introspectively scan their bodies and avoid discomfort. Physical exercise of any kind should be for their well-being and not bring them to the brink of a heart attack. They should be totally in charge of the tempo and the degree of exertion they want to undergo. Training should be highly individualized and fine-tuned to ones physique.

The Physical Part of Karate and what has to Change for Jukuren Karate

This brings us to the physical side of Jukuren Karate. That means in a nutshell:

  • higher stances,
  • lower kicks,
  • less tension,
  • more relaxation,
  • moderation in effort and
  • no acrobatic jumps.

In a way, this equals to going back to the roots.

When the Physical Education Dimension of Shotokan Karate developed

There is one more historical development Shotokan underwent, which we ought to scrutinize. If we look at the photos of Funakoshi Gichin in the 1920s, we can see that his stances were very high compared to the way they are done in modern Shotokan. The fact that most of his instruction was done at University clubs had an effect on the training and techniques.

His third son Yoshitaka aka “Waka-sensei” (the young teacher) took over most of the teaching in the 1930s. Students in Japan spend four years at University until graduation. During the war, the military drafted students even before they finished their studies. It is said that Yoshitaka was interested in a physical regime that would enable the students to become tough and strong as fast as possible. Deeper stances meant immediate strong muscle development. His favorite stance was the rooted, powerful low Fudô dachi.

The Issue of Deep Stances

How deep one stands, should depends on body type, flexibility, muscular strength and age of course and should be individually calibrated. Not everybody can stand as deep as Frank Brennan or Osaka Yoshiharu in their prime time. Even many youngsters, who copied them, looked awkward, because they did not have their stamina and elasticity. If one does not stand as deep as it became usual in Shotokan, this does not mean it is not Shotokan anymore!

Okazaki Teruyuki is quoted as follows:

“When Master Funakoshi taught us he never said copy his form. Because of his weight and body type he made it that way. He explained for instance, that there is no particular length or width for a stance, it depends on each individual’s body type.’ Obviously as far as Funakoshi was concerned stances could be high or low, according to the student’s physique.”

Shotokan Karate Magazine 1998:22

Many instructors will agree with this and recommend the same thing.

Sometimes this remains lip service. As far as I see, in Shotokan there is a strong adherence to textbooks and the standards set down in them. They almost have the status of dogmas and incontestable orthodoxy. In many textbooks stances are precisely delineated with ruler and compasses and weight distribution is specified in percentages. Usually you are corrected, if you do not fit into these templates.

Do not misunderstand me: age is by no means an excuse to get sloppy. The strengthening of the thighs and abdominal region is the goal of assuming (deep) Karate stances and is also good for the health of the elderly. But everybody should find his own depth and width of the stances the way one feels comfortable and maintain a good inner tension and muscular stimulation. As far as alignments of the knee to toes or tailbone and spine are concerned, they should be bio-mechanically absolutely correct and not compromised.

Funakoshi, Kanazawa, and the Deep Stances

The following anecdote by Kanazawa Hirokazu illustrates this notion. Because Funakoshi Gichin read his mind during some classes. In his autobiography Kanazawa Hirokazu reports:

“Even during training sessions, similar things happened. While we were practicing the kanku-dai kata, I copied his every move exactly the way he was doing it.

‘Kanazawa san, spread your legs out further and drop your hips down.’


I dropped my hips down as I was told, but thought to myself ‘I was doing it exactly how sensei was …’

Then he got me again.

‘Kanazawa-san, you’re still young. You have to build up strength. Young people should do young people’s training, and not copy old men.”

Kanazawa 2003: 87

What does this anecdote tell us? Adapt your stances (and Karate) to your age.

  • The picture shows Gichin Funakoshi in a high stance, which is also adviced for Jukuren Karate. The pictures are taken from his book To-Te Jitsu from 1922.
  • The picture shows Gichin Funakoshi in a high stance, which is also adviced for Jukuren Karate. The pictures are taken from his book To-Te Jitsu from 1922.

Many Okinawan styles have rather high stances in the first place and only low kicks. Hence, adjusting your stances is like going back to the roots. And indeed in Okinawa you can see many older Karateka, even octogenarians doing fine Kata performances. Their movements are relaxed, tension is low and there is no exaggerated Kime. The notion that Karate should be an endeavor for a whole lifetime comes from Okinawa and should apply to Shotokan as well.

Quality over Quantity! Physical Limitations and Jukuren Karate

With increasing age come physiological limitations. The heart muscle contractibility diminishes and maximum attainable heart rates decrease. Too much cardiac exertion should be avoided. In training this means lesser repetitions – quality over quantity! It is not natural, when people in their sixties, seventies run through the same program as young athletes in their twenties. The point of exhaustion is different and endless repetitions do more damage to an old body than bring benefit. Again: no boot camp for seniors.

Water Drinking during Training

Sweat cools the body, but even perspiration changes with senescence. Dehydration occurs quicker when one becomes older. Therefore, it is vital to replenish the body with fluids, minerals and electrolytes: before, during and after workout.

Japanese summers can be cruelly hot. Nowadays, it is common sense in sports and Budô-circles to rehydrate, i.e. drink something during breaks in the training. A generation ago, indeed, it was usually not allowed to drink something during workout in Japanese sports clubs (even in schools and at universities)! Even now, every summer, legions suffer heatstrokes in Japan, particularly children (doing sports like baseball in the open) and elderly, who have no air conditioning or due to insensitivity (which comes with age) do not notice that their bodies need liquids.

During heatwaves you are daily admonished in the prime news to drink water regularly, stay in shadowy places or inside and get your air conditioning working. Elderly Karateka should therefore frequently take a rest and consume some water or sports drinks.

The outdated Taboo in regard to rehydrating during Karate Classes

In this context I want to tell you an anecdote or cautionary tale which also tells something about the history of the transmission of Shotokan Karate to the West.

It happened just a few years ago in Europe. I was in my mid fifties and came as a guest into a dojo in Vienna. Although, I was the oldest and highest in rank, as a guest I just partook in the training like everybody else. It lasted a good two hours and was led by a guy in his early thirties.

Shortly before a line up to do some Tsuki in the group at the end of the session, I dared to reach for my bottle in my bag and gulp down a few swigs of water. I was immediately approached by the trainer and heavily reprimanded. It is forbidden to drink anything during training, he shouted, and I would give a bad example to the younger students by doing so. I was quite put off and inquired why this should be so.

The answer was, that this was the stipulation of the Japanese Sensei “So and so”, who sadly passed away a few years ago. It was an order of his, there was no drinking in the dojo, basta!

Well, this is pure old school! I attended a JKA-dojo back in the days, where the same rule was observed. You were supposed to nurture perseverance, patience, endurance, self control, gaman in Japanese – a highly valued virtue. But times have changed. Even in Japan. Not so in Austria. Why? Be sure that after the training I started quite a diatribe and lambasted the young guy for his “faschistoid, toxic loyalty, blind obedience, cowardice and inability to criticize the Sensei!”

Misunderstood “loyalty”

The ultimate point of the story is that this young man was a doctor, a medical doctor. I told him that he of all people should know that I as an older practitioner was more prone to dehydration and not getting replenished with liquid was harmful to my salubrity. As a physician it would actually have been his duty to inform Mr. Sensei that his directive and this ascetic practice were hazardous nonsense and detrimental to the health and also diminishing the performance and ability of his pupils!

What showed here, is a pathology in Shotokan which was rampant in its early days in Europe: the deification of the Japanese Sensei, total subservience, a wrongly understood “loyalty”. Nobody ever dared to criticize the (Japanese) Sensei. Sometimes this was encouraged by the very Sensei under the (misguided) guise of “Bushido”. Rigid hierarchies and authoritarian attitudes are out of place when teaching the elderly. They deserve respect for their life experience and unique personality. Instructor and student should meet on the same level. Even more so, when the teacher happens to be (much) younger.

Jukuren Karate: The “Why” of your Training Counts!

Seniors have no time to do meaningless things. As the violinist Isaac Stern said about his art: “to play good music is not about how to play, but why you play!” And every single note counts. Thus, you exercise fully concentrated, purposefully, mindfully.

Once you know the how and shift your attention to the “why” training acquires a different quality. You scan your body, ask why you stand this way and not otherwise, feel what it does to your body and if it enhances your well-being. You make every technique your very own and become aware of its characteristics. This “why” does not necessarily look for an intellectual answer. It rather denotes an attitude of inner awareness, heightened body-consciousness, introspection, and mindfulness.

Kata in Jukuren Karate

Kata can be trained in slow motion or in Shotokai-style in a continuous flow without Kime. This also serves to realize one of the objectives Kata were invented for in the first place: the regulation and harmonization of the Ki-flow. According to the understanding in Chinese traditional medicine this leads to health and inner peace.

The incorporation of softer martial ways like Qigong and Taijiquan is also highly recommended and improves coordination and balance. The older you get, the more Karate should be “internalized”. You pay attention to the inner energy flow. It is Ki or Kiryoku – as Kanazawa Soke put it -, that directs your Karate. Health in the Chinese understanding means that Ki can flow freely and without blockages or occlusions. Latter occurrences lead to sickness and indisposition.

Jukuren Karate should focus on Energy flow

Acupuncture, moxibustion, massages, gymnastics and meditation (visualization) were developed in ancient times to guarantee an unimpeded Ki-flow. The martial arts were practiced in this context. Good martial art practice is said to open the energy channels, eliminate blockages and harmonize the flow of Ki. Ki is virtually sent through the whole body from head to toe, thus one feels refreshed after a good Karate training session, even if one is physically exhausted. Ki flows best, when the body is totally relaxed. Therefore meditation also leads to health and well-being.

In Chinese martial arts there are meditations done in a standing position (called ritsuzen 立禅, the character 立 means “to stand”; 禅 = Zen). Sitting meditation (zazen 坐禅, 坐 denoting “to sit”) has the same effect. Sitting with legs crossed and upright, the arms and hands forming a circle, the spine straight, the crown pushed up and chin slightly tucked in is a compact way to sit completely relaxed. Combined with natural gentle breathing and a calm mind the Ki finds its perfect equilibrium.

Ritsuzen can be a vital part of Jukuren Karate.

Benefits of Jukuren Karate and How to Achieve them

The benefits of Karate for seniors are undisputed and manifold, just to name a few:

  • higher energy level,
  • bodily and mental agility,
  • flexibility,
  • increase in bone density,
  • decrease in muscle loss,
  • weight control,
  • good coordination and sense of balance (prevention of falling!),
  • better overall health,
  • disease prevention etc.

How to Conduct Jukuren Karate Classes?

In order to earn these rewards of Karate training for the elderly, let me sum up. Here are the desiderata for a meaningful training and learning process for seniors:

  • less military drill, more individual practice,
  • less power/muscular strength, more relaxation,
  • less repetitions, more awareness/mindfulness,
  • higher stances, lower kicks, no acrobatics,
  • alternation in tempo, slow motion, fluid movements, no unnecessary tension,
  • breathing exercises, soft style martial arts practices (e.g. Qigong, Taijiquan),
  • less cardio, more rest,
  • lots of stretching, fascia release work,
  • meditation, and
  • fostering of body consciousness. 

Spirit First, Sport Second

To engage in Karate training in old age can help to grow spiritually. Frantzis argues, for instance:

“Many Eastern physical exercise systems have at their core a spiritual tradition. … In both, yoga and quigong, physically-based internal exercises are preparatory phases of their respective spiritual paths. However both can be practiced with only the goals of enhancing health, reducing stress and quieting the mind.”

Frantzis 2006: 66

With the transplantation of these Eastern disciplines to the West, their spiritual roots have been clipped. Yoga is practiced as gymnastics for health, so is Tai chi or Karate. There is nothing wrong with this. It seems that the more popular these practices become, the more competitive and acrobatic they get. In Yoga ever more complicated contortions are added to the basic simple postures (asanas). Taijiquan has become an acrobatic performance or show in Wushu competitions. Even the way Kata are executed in Karate championships has become more and more theatrical and athletic. The reduction to sports is literally visible.

If one is not spiritually inclined, one can leave this aspect out and still benefit from the many good effects of the purely physical exercises. These however have to be adapted to age and ability. The focus may change from body to mind/soul. The older martial artist will likely put more emphasis on the spiritual core of his discipline. It will then unfold its full potential and richness.

To age means to have to let go

To age means to have to let go. There is much half-baked parlance about (Zen)Buddhism in martial art circles. Let me put it into a nutshell. The revolutionary message of the Buddha was: there is no permanent self, no soul (sanskr. an-âtman, Jap. Muga 無我). This was blasphemy for the Hindus, but only consequent thinking in Buddhist terms: should there be an eternal soul, one would cling to it and this would hinder liberation.

Nothing is permanent (Jap. Mujô 無常). So, do not attach yourself to anything. Your personality (ego), your thoughts and memories, your emotions – it is all fleeting and evanescent. To cling to them means suffering. Let go and you will be free. To die means to have to let go of everything. To age should teach us to let go step by step. Strength, speed, flexibility are inexorably on the wane with age. We have to let go e. g. of our high kicks and jumps.

And do not tell me there was no ego involved while demonstrating them to our students or in a competition in our younger years. It may be a painful process, but an inevitable one, if we want to age with dignity. To let go of the ego – this is a true Buddhist attitude. And then Karate will emanate a different quality independent of technical aptitude. It will really be: spirit comes first, technique second (技術より心術 gijutsu yori shinjutsu: one of the instructions in Funakoshi Gichins 20 precepts).

Time is crucial for Jukuren Karate

One more consideration: time. The older you get, the more precious it is. And this connects to Buddhist concepts as well: every training, every movement, every breath could be your last. Therefore you give it your full attention in the here and now. You do it mindfully, as it is now fashionably called. Training becomes a blessing and fills you with thankfulness. This gives rise to compassion – another Buddhist virtue which should always be coupled with detachment.

What we can Learn from Buddhism for Jukuren Karate

To make it clear: I am not a Buddhist, but I want to show that if the influence of (Zen)Buddhism on martial arts is to be taken seriously, it implies more than just an unfettered, clear, “empty” mind (no-mind, Mushin 無心) or “lingering mind” (sustained attentiveness Zanshin 残心) to enable you to succeed in combat. These concepts have unfortunately been ideologically misinterpreted in order to legitimate killing enemies in a non-attached state of mind.

In the conclusion of his book, in which he exposed and analyzed the role of Zen-Buddhists during the second world war in Japan, the ordained Zen-monk Brian Victoria writes:

“Experienced Zen practitioners know that the ‘no-mind’ of Zen does in fact exist. … But they also know, or at least ought to know, that these things, in their original Buddhist formulation, had absolutely nothing to do with bringing harm to others. On the contrary, authentic Buddhist awakening is characterized by a combination of wisdom and compassion – identifying oneself with others and seeking to eliminate suffering in all its forms.”

Victoria 2006: 230-1

In China, meditation (be it Daoist or Buddhist) usually is an integral part of martial arts training. The Mokusô (黙想) at the beginning and the end of a Karate training session is a remnant of this practice. With the “internalization” of Karate the mental and spiritual aspect becomes more central. The focus can even completely shift to introspection.  

Grandmaster Wan Lai Sheng said, for instance: “People who are too old and weak to practice Gongfu (or Karate for that matter, W.H.) can meditate in order to preserve health.” (Kozma 2013: 57)

In the Chinese martial arts it is the “internal” ones (like Taijiquan) which “are unique in that they seamlessly fuse exercise and meditation.” (Frantzis 2012: 5) Exercises can be found on a continuum from “meditation in motion” to “meditation in stillness”. With ageing comes a continuous reduction in the range of movements you are able to execute. In the martial ways you may give up the hard styles in favor of soft, internal practices. If these become too cumbersome, you may change to “immobile” or on the spot practices like Qigong, breathing exercises, meditation and self-inquiry.

The ultimate martial art might be the motionless one: to just sit, get absorbed and dissolved into pure consciousness, being, bliss. One may get a momentary taste of infinite emptiness (sankr. śūnyatā; jap. Kû 空), nondual suchness, the ground of all being and form, a timeless, formless eternal presence, the absolute reality. These are just helpless attempts to describe the indescribable. This insight is the apex of Buddhist wisdom.

Conclusion: Jukuren Karate as Kara Te

Let us be clear that Funakoshi Gichin had this meaning in mind, when he sought to change the character for “Kara” from 唐 (“China”) to 空 (“empty”). The decision was also politically motivated, since in the 1930s anything considered to be Chinese was not welcome to say the least. Funakoshi however explicitly referred to the most famous line in the Heart sutra 色即是空、空即是色 (shiki soku ze kû, kû soku ze shiki, form is emptiness, emptiness is form) on choosing the character 空. Could Karate-dô 空手道 in the deepest sense be the way (道) via the body (pars pro toto: 手) to the selfless Self, the incommensurable and inexpressible Absolute (空)?

For Funakoshi Gichin Karate was a way to stay healthy, an art for self-defence and a “method to cultivate the spirit” (精神修養法 seishin shûyôhô, see: Funakoshi 1922/2006: 5).

In Jukuren Karate we, therefore, should not strive mainly for physical prowess. The integration of the body and the mind, the original aim of (Shotokan) Karate, should stand at the center of our efforts. Then, elderly Karateka will benefit much better from Karate training. And it will also have a huge effect on your Dojo. Because a Dojo is a community that should comprise all generations and bring together the wisdom of the old and the energy of the young to be vital.


Benesch, Oleg: Inventing the Way of the Samurai. Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushidô in Modern Japan. Oxford: Oxford UP 2014.

Frantzis, Bruce: Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body. Quigong for Lifelong Health. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlanctic Books 2006.

Frantzis, Bruce: Bagua and Tai Chi, Martial Arts, Meditation and the I Ching. Berkeley, Calif.: Blue Snake Books 2012.

Funakoshi Gichin: Ryûkyû kenpô. Karate (Fukyûban). Bibliogr. Notes by Miyagi Tokumasa. Ginowan: Yôjû shorin [1922] 2006.

Funakoshi, Gichin: To-Te Jitsu. Translated by Shingo Ishida. First published by Tokyo Ko Bun Do Books in 1922. Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: Masters Publication: Second Printing 2004.

Kanazawa Hirokazu: Karate. My Life. Translated by Alex Bennett. Kendo World Publ. 2003.

Kanazawa Hirokazu: Waga karate jinsei. Nihon Budôkan 2002.

Kozma, Alex: Warrior Guards the Mountain. The Internal Martial Traditions of China, Japan and South East Asia. London & Philadelphia: Singing Dragon 2013.

Shotokan Karate Magazine: “The development of Shotokan”, Shotokan Karate Magazine 55 (1998), 20-22.

Shotokan Karate Magazine: Special Tribute Edition: Stan Schmidt (1936-2019). Hirokazu Kanazawa (1931-2019), Issue 143/March 2020

Victoria, Brian Daizen: Zen at War. 2nd ed. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield 2006.


Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Herbert holds the chair of Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Tokushima, Japan. He obtained a degree in Japanese Studies and Religious Science. In 1975, he began to train Karate and can look back on a successful career as athlete and instructor. His last major victory was the 1st place in Kata at the 39th SKIF All Japan Karate-dô Championship Masters II (50-59yrs) in 2019. His Karate has been coined by Hirokazu Kanazwa, who also promoted him to 5th Dan in 2016. Beside Karate he also practices Taijiquan.

The text was edited by Dr. Christian Tribowski.

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Relaxation: Kime and Ki Revisited

The picture shows Hirokazu Kanazawa. His Seiken and Ki were tremendous. In this picture he does a Choku-zuki. But today, relaxation must become the focal point of Shotokan.

Relaxation has long been underestimated in Shotokan Karate. Kime, understood as muscle tension, was the major aim. However, recent developments call to revisit Kime and Ki in the light of relaxation. Relaxation before and after a technique should be the focal point of Shotokan Karate. By Dr. Wolf Herbert

When you have learnt Shotokan Karate at its beginnings in Europe, the 1960´s up to the 1980´s , the word you most likely have heard most often in the Dojo was: “kime”. It was mainly understood as a contraction of the whole body’s musculature at the end of a technique. It was (and is?) the hallmark of the powerful and dynamic way Karate was/is practiced and spread by the JKA (Japan Karate Association). However, Funakoshi Gichin mentioned “kime” nowhere in his books. So where does the notion come from?

John Cheetham explored this question amidst an ongoing discussion in some insightful articles in his “Shotokan Karate Magazine” (Cheetham 2019 a/b).

Early Definitions of Kime

Nakayama Masatoshi

He claims that Nakayama Masatoshi never used the term “kime” in his first book. I leafed through the Japanese original (Nakayama 1965) and found that he does not in fact use “kime” as a noun anywhere, however as a verb (kimeru) it appears on p. 116. It corresponds to the following passage in his book Dynamic Karate (Nakayama 1966: 102). My literal translation from the Japanese original would be:

“Generally ‘waza (technique) o kimeru’ means to let a well-controlled power explode instantaneously on a chosen target.”

In the English version (where there is no mention of kime or kimeru) the translation reads: “Remember that an effective technique in karate is produced by a concentrated blast of power at the moment of impact.”

Nakayama repeatedly writes about “kimewaza” in the sense of “decisive technique”, however not of “kime” as an isolated notion. It almost seems that kime as a word/noun and concept has been taken out of its context and reduced to its physical/muscular aspect.

Nishiyama Hidetaka

The word “kime”, however, is explicitly used by Nishiyama Hidetaka in his book Karate. The art of empty hand fighting and he calls it “focus”:

“Briefly, ‘focus’ in karate refers to the concentration of all the energy of the body in an instant on a specific target.” (Nishiyama & Brown 1960: 21).

This definition notably resembles the one we have seen in Nakayamas use of it as a verb. Nakayama and Nishiyama obviously shared the same idea about kime and its application. John Cheetham quotes further from Nishiyamas book (Cheetham 2019a: 10; 2019b: 30):

“As the fist nears the target its speed is increased to its maximum point, and at the moment of impact the muscles of the entire body are tensed. … This, in essence, is what ‘focus’ in karate means.”

Now, if you read on, you find the following:

“It should not be forgotten that this maximum exertion of energy is instantaneous and in the next instant is withdrawn in preparation for the next movement, i.e., the muscles are relaxed, the breath inhaled, and a position appropriate for the next technique assumed.” (Nishiyama & Brown 1960:21)


I would argue that exactly this (“relax”) was forgotten by many practitioners (and teachers!) back in the early days of Shotokan in the West. “More kime, more kime!” was the battle cry or mantra of the day and lead to hypertensed, stiff, and awkward Karate-moves.

We all know the term waza no kankyu as being one of the principles that should be observed when executing a Kata. It relates to the slowness and quickness of technique. The term kankyu (緩急) is written with two characters, of which the first means: “to loosen, relax” and the second: “swift, rapid”.

Nakayama Takatsugu, a karateka and physiotherapist, gives this an interesting interpretation in regard to “kime”. He describes “kime” as a flow from “loose” (kan) to “rapid” (kyu) to “loose” (kan). The body goes from very loose to strong for an instant, only to loosen up again (Nakayama 2013: 92). It is a snapping move like the one of a spring, which is compressed, then releases its power and immediately returns to its original state. The bigger the amplitude is between relaxation and tension, the bigger the power unleashed. It can also be likened to a wave hitting the shore and pulling back.

Muchimi and the Loosening of the Hip


This reminds me of muchimi, one of the Okinawan principles, which defines a powerful technique. Kime is not emphasized in Okinawan styles. It really seems to be an invention by Nakayama and Nishiyama based on the assumption that tension as such produces power, a (mis)conception imported from Western sports science. John Cheetham (2019a: 11) actually asked Kanazawa Hirokazu after a course in 2004:

“’Where did this ‘physical kime’ concept originate and who developed it?’

He replied without hesitation:

‘It was Nakayama sensei’s idea.’”

Muchimi is interpreted in two ways: Mi (身) can either stand for “body” or differently written (味) for “taste” (metaphorically: “feeling, quality”). “Muchi” is the Okinawan pronunciation of the Japanese “mochi”. This is a sticky, glutinous cake made of pounded steamed rice. In this sense muchimi describes a tough, but supple body and also technically to stick flexibly to your opponent in an altercation. One more meaning derives from the Japanese word “muchi” (鞭 whip), thus implying one should use ones body like a whip. A whip lashed out causes as much damage by its initial impact as it does by the laceration due to the pullback movement.

Whip-lash Hip

Now, the whip hip or double hip, which has been revived in Shotokan by Naka Tatsuya Sensei, is applied mostly and widely in short range techniques in Okinawan Karate. Kagi zuki (鉤突, hook punch) in Tekki Shodan can serve as a good example. Executed in “whip hip style” means, that a slight pulling back of the hips before the punch, initiates relaxation, and is followed by the speed of the thrust and throwing in of the hips in the direction of the tsuki. On impact the hip snaps back and again a full body relaxation is achieved. This is the perfect cycle between relaxation – momentary tension – relaxation.

Naka Tatsuya using the “whip hip” during Tekki Shodan. This is the foundation for relaxed motions in Shotokan.

This corresponds to John Cheethams bow and arrow analogy. The orthodox understanding of kime looks at the end of the technique, whereas it is equally important how the action starts.

“If you forget about the completion, and focus on the start, the drive from the legs followed by the rotation of the hips and trunk in conjunction with the breath – as long as you have a good, strong fist position, (which is vital) the arm should just fly out like a missile with unimpeded speed which ends with the fist doing the damage at whatever point or distance it lands. … It’s the speed and release of the rotation of the body which fires the punch (arm and fist). The Archer will focus on the target with calmness, relaxation, before releasing the arrow. We should apply that same principle to our karate!” (Cheetham 2019b: 30-1).

It is again the cycle of “loose-taut-loose”. You cannot deliver a fast punch, when you are tightened up at the inception of the thrust.

Dr. Wolf Herbert showing how the whip hip and kagi zuki work. Relaxation is the key.

Relaxation and the Flow of Ki

Therefore the interesting points are the start (relaxation), the target/impact/”end” and to me even more so: what happens after the “end”: the implosion or total relaxation. This is known in Taijiquan as “opening/releasing” and “closing/receiving”. “Opening” means that the ki (“internal/vital energy”) is sent out into the extremities of the body and beyond while executing a technique (an attack). When “closing” one lets the ki flow back and accumulate again in the lower abdomen. This is harmonized with breathing, exhalation when “opening” and inhalation during “closing”.

A Shotokan-Karateka in Osaka displaying an exemplary whip hip (muchimi 鞭身) and nimble alternation between tension and relaxation:

While the ki-flow is mentally guided in Taijiquan and the movements are soft and of uniform tempo (andante) in an uninterrupted flow, in Karate they are swift, forceful, abruptly stopped and explosive. The velocity with which the ki is transported is different, but the effect is the same in the end. From a health-exercise view the flow of the ki is harmonized, and blockages are removed. Ki is virtually sent through the whole body from head to toe, thus one feels refreshed after a good Karate training session, even if one is physically exhausted.

Kime and Ki

Kanazawa Hirokazu makes a connection between Kime and Ki in his autobiography Karate – My life (2003: 266):

“There are three kinds of ki, which manifest in the tanden, or lower abdomen, which serves as the central powerhouse of our bodies. Tai-ki is the energy drawn from the atmosphere, chi-ki from the ground, and nai-ki resides within the body. This flows through our spine and explodes out of our fists, and this instant is termed kime, or focus.” 

It may be noted that kime (or “kimeru” as a verb) can actually be written with two different characters. The one denoting “to decide, determine” (kimeru 決める) is often used and well known. The other character (kime 極め) means: “to go to the end, to go to extremes, the apex”. In the Japanese original Kanazawa prefers the latter for “climax” rather than the former in the sense of “decisive point”. Written with 極 kime has a strong psychological connotation with the nuances of “sharp, one-pointed concentration” or “maximal single-mindedness”.

One more linguistic remark: the ki in kime (it is just the first syllable) has nothing to do with the ki in the Chinese meaning of “universal energy”, which is a word in itself and written with a completely different character (氣 simplified 気). The term “ki” has an esoteric tang in the West, but it can be understood quite rationally. Allow me to give a brief explanation. I shall concentrate on the aspect called nai-ki by Kanazawa and pick up an attempt to describe it from a former article on the fore fist (seiken).

What can Qi/ki mean? An approximation

Qi (Chn.)/ki (Jpn.) is a psychosomatic holistic concept. In Western anatomy one tends to dissect and separate everything according to function, whereas in eastern thinking the interconnection and homeostasis of the whole body/mind/spirit is central. A mind/matter or soul/body-dualism is not dominant.

Thus, ki has material and immaterial aspects. It is and flows in the bones, the marrow, the muscles, the blood and circulatory system, the lymphatic and the nervous system, the organs, glands, spine and brain and the meridians which connect everything. Ki pervades the totality of physical functions and the mind, which is the conductor in this orchestra. Ki is the regulator or monitor of a fluid balance and the harmonious interplay of all the above mentioned elements.

It has to be stated that Qi/ki has historically never been defined consistently. The concept changed over the centuries from a cosmological/metaphysical one to a more “anthropological” and recently, even a materialistic one. There is a lot of research conducted in the West and in China (under the influence of Western science) to pinpoint what ki might be, or even to find methods to measure it.

Research into bioelectromagnetic fields has shown some correlation with the nervous system and mental states. Others concentrate on mitochondrial function and heart rate variability. But these attempts can only highlight and pick out aspects of ki rather than “measure” it in its totality. No single instrument might ever be able to gauge it, not least because of its immaterial aspects.

Because ki acts as a psychosomatic regulatory feedback system it is so encompassing, its definition is pliable and can easily be recalibrated or adapted to beliefs or research interests. We can nevertheless operate with ki as a phenomenon, a sensation or hypothesis, empirically corroborated by a legion of practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine and martial arts throughout the ages.

The Regulation of Ki and Health

Health in the Chinese understanding means that ki can flow freely and without blockages or occlusions. Latter occurrences lead to sickness and indisposition. Acupuncture, moxibustion, massages, gymnastics and meditation (visualization) were developed from time immemorial to guarantee an unimpeded ki-flow. The martial arts were practiced in this context.

Good martial art practice is said to open the energy channels, eliminate blockages and harmonize the flow of ki. Ki can be mobilized, directed and circulated by conscious mental activity. The standard formulas are: “Where the thinking/mind (意 Jpn. i, Chn. yi) is, there is ki.” “Guiding the ki with the thinking/mind”.

Another term widely used in internal martial arts (e.g. Taijiquan, Qigong) is inen (意念) (Matsuda 2013: 176). As so often, the characters in this term have various meanings and can hardly be translated by just one word: 意  “I” means “mind, heart, thought, idea, intention, care”; 念 “nen” means “idea, feeling, concern, attention, caution”. In a Buddhist context nen is used as the translation of the Sanskrit term smriti (Pali: sati), which means “mindfulness”.

Nowadays, this defines a whole method of meditation. Inen thus signifies “consciousness, intention, attentiveness”. “Inen guides the ki” implies, that every mindful physical exercise leads the ki to flow into the parts of the body, on which one concentrates. “If you do not use strength but will, wherever your will directs chi will arrive.” (Wong 2002:37; chi = ki 気) Thus if one concentrates on the fist, when one focusses (kime) a punch, this will stimulate a surge of ki.

John Cheetham (2019a:11) wrote:

“Some people say that kime is like putting the brakes on, which makes the energy stay ‘inside the body’ and not transfer to the target.”

If you understand kime in the context of ki, the exact opposite is the case!

Kanazawa Hirokazu was able to split the very board that was indicated to him in a stack of four or five without breaking the rest. His explanation was that he could consciously control and direct his ki. He describes it in his autobiography, which I have translated into German. During the translation process, I spoke to him directly about this, because it has always intrigued me. He told me that everything is connected on a molecular level in the sense that everything is vibrating energy in the end. He described it as visualizing the indicated board vividly and projecting his consciousness into it, becoming one with it, and thus being able to pulverize it.

He added with a laugh:

“People usually wanted me to break the second or third board, hardly the last one and never the first one. But to stop the ki at the first board and not break the others would have been the hardest task to fulfill.”

Kanazawa also used to say that a punch does not end at the fist, but goes way beyond, because the ki shoots out far on and yonder. It is quite clear that ki in this context is connected to an intense mental focus rather than a mere somatic one. Thus, kime is coupled with the mobilization of ki. In good combination with relaxation it makes the technique strong on more than a physical level and leads to a balanced, hence healthy ki-flux.

Ki as a Psychosomatic Concept. Again: relaxation!

When we look at other Southeast Asian martial arts, namely many soft Kung Fu styles, Pentjak Silat or Kalaripayattu, they are very fluid and do not apply kime. Even in Shotokan, its first offspring, the Shotokai, headed by Egami Shigeru (1912-1981), who deemed himself to be totally loyal to Funakoshi Gichin and his Karate, suppleness and relaxation are emphasized. Kata in Shotokai are performed in a continuous flow, almost tensionless. The fixation on kime in the sense of a physical tightening up of the body seems to be the exception rather than the rule in the wide world of bare hand fighting arts. Therefore it is worth revisiting.  

John Cheetham (2019a: 12) states:

“30/40 years ago, kime to me was a totally muscular concept, now it’s changed: now a ‘decisive’ blow is a combination of power generated from relaxation, speed, breath, intention and mental focus!”

This is a wonderful, comprehensive definition! As we have seen, intention and mental focus are exactly the elements, which mobilize ki. I say this with tongue in cheek: but when the Japanese instructors back in the days exhorted us to put more kime into our techniques, they might just have meant that we concentrate more, focus our mind, and put our heart and soul into every single movement.

To do something with total commitment and dedication is deemed a great virtue in Japan. This pertains to minor tasks like sweeping a garden or cleaning the floor of the dojo – you ought to give it your full attention. So the Japanese instructors might have meant the mental aspect of “kime”, while we Westerners misunderstood it in the way that we should display physical power and strength.

From the Chinese perspective, ki can flow best, when one is totally relaxed. Actually too much or extended tension impedes the ki-circulation. As a Karateka of a certain age, what happens after the technical kime is much more interesting and important for the physique than what happens during tension. The alternation between tension and relaxation characterizes the physical discipline of Karate. Now when we put the focus (kime) more on the latter, it might be good for our health and well-being – and our performance of Karate too!


Cheetham, John: “Kime-Focus: the concept revisited”, Shotokan Karate Magazine, Iss. 141/Sept. 19 (2019a), 10-12

Cheetham, John: “The Bow & Arrow Analogy”, Shotokan Karate Magazine, Iss. 142/Dec. 19 (2019b), 30-31

Kanazawa, Hirokazu: Karate – My life. Transl. by Alex Bennett, 2012.

Matsuda, Ryûchi: Shôrin Kenjutsu. Rakanken. Kihon kara sentô gijutsu made. Shinsôban. Tsuchiya shoten 2013

Nakayama, Masatoshi: Karate-dô. Shin Kyôtei. Tokyo: Tsuru shobô 1965

Nakayama, Masatoshi: Dynamic Karate. Tokyo: Kodansha 1966

Nakayama, Takatsugu: Dakara, Karate wa tsuyoi! Himeta pawâ o dasu, dentô no shintai gihô. BAB Japan 2013

Nishiyama, Hidetaka und Richard C. Brown: Karate. The Art of “Empty Hand” Fighting. Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo: Tuttle 1960

Wong, Kiew Kit: The Complete Book of Tai Chi Chuan. A Comprehensive Guide to the Principles and Practice. Tokyo, Rutland, Vermont, Singapore: Tuttle 2002

About the Author

Dr. Wolfgang Herbert, Professor of Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Tokushima, 5th Dan Shôtôkan Karate, practices Yang-style Taijiquan. He can be contacted via his Dôjô-homepage:

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Quo Vadis, SKIF? Strategy Desperately Needed

The picture shows the emblem of the SKIF with the word future and a question mark.

How will the Shotokan Karate-Do International Federation (SKIF) evolve after the sad passing of Hirokazu Kanazawa in December 2019? Will SKIF maintain its position as the second biggest Shotokan association in the world? In which direction will and should Kancho Nobuaki Kanazawa and Shuseki Shihan Manabu Murakami lead the organization? An analysis by Dr. Christian Tribowski

The unexpected passing of Soke Hirokazu Kanazawa on December 8 was one of the saddest events in the Shotokan year 2019. It shocked the whole karate world. Even beyond that, practitioners of other martial arts expressed their condolences. The Shotokan community fell into deep sorrow and mourning. It lost one of its greatest mentors, instructors, minds, spirits, and charismatic leaders. Without a doubt Hirokazu Kanazawa belonged to the most influential figures in Shotokan karate in the 20th Century.

SKIF after the death of Hirokazu Kanazawa

While the Shotokan world mourns, SKIF has been hit by the passing of Hirokazu Kanazawa. It lost its founder and figurehead. His loss has torn a huge whole into the aura of the organization. Since its establishment in 1978, SKIF has become one of the largest Shotokan organizations in the world. According to SKIF, 130 country organizations are affiliated combining several million members. But its leadership centered on Hirokazu Kanazawa.

Such a system also dominated the JKA under Masatoshi Nakayama. However, JKA learned its lesson in the aftermath of the passing of the supreme leader. Several groups of high-level instructors claimed the leadership over the organization. They all saw themselves as the rightful heirs of Nakayama, and they were ready to fight for it.

The turmoil erupted because Masatoshi Nakayama did not declare an official successor. Thus, a legal dispute broke lose that took almost ten years until it finally got settled. Several renegade associations emerged and the JKA lost a huge portion of their best instructors and branches.

Today, the JKA has a much flatter hierarchy, integrates many more characters, and does not focus solely on one supreme leader. Masaaki Ueki is surrounded by a huge group of capable instructors that all play a valid role in the success of the association.

SKIF: Succession Secured

Hirokazu Kanazawa, on the other hand, observed the self-destruction of the JKA in the 1990’s. He established his own organization ten years earlier. But he learned from the JKA experience.

On April 5, 2014, SKIF held a special ceremony in Tokyo where Hirokazu Kanazawa officially passed the leadership of the association to his son Nobuaki and Manabu Murakami, his longest disciple. Both belong to the most talented and successful karateka of their generations. Since then, Nobuaki Kanazawa holds the title of Kancho (director). Manabu Murakami has become Shuseki Shihan (chief instructor). Together they manage the organization. Both have known each other for several decades, and have even fought against each other during world championships.

A legal dispute about the succession of Hirokazu Kanazawa, which could damage and lead to a collapse of the association, seems more than unlikely.

The Field of Shotokan and why we need a strong SKIF

Yet, the future of SKIF and its position as the second biggest Shotokan association worldwide is not secured. The loss of the figurehead has damaged the aura of SKIF. Many members came for Hirokazu Kanazawa. But will they stay for Nobuaki Kanazawa and Manabu Murakami?

This question is open. But both must find some valid answers. Because currently SKIF builds together with the JKA the center of the traditional/budo karate field. This center helps to stabilize Shotokan especially against the powerful and growing faction of sports karate represented by the WKF. But it also keeps Shotokan dynamic. Because both associations wrestle and distinguish from each other like in a market oligopoly.

The competition increases due to the abundance of smaller associations, which surround and challenge them in the periphery. Some of them offer slightly different approaches to Shotokan, other organizational structures, or charismatic and highly skillful chief instructors. This leads to a healthy competition within the field of Shotkan karate and members can choose which association suits them best.

The picture shows the currently karate/Shotokan landscape. The SKIF builds together with the JKA the center of the traditional/budo Shotokan field. They are opposed to the WKF, but are surrounded by several other Shotokan associations in their periphery.
The picture shows the current karate/Shotokan field. Note: Due to the high amount of smaller Shotokan associations we could not all accommodate, if you think that your association should be in the picture, please write us an email.

However, SKIF has now considerably been weakened. And in the upcoming years it will face some serious external and internal challenges. If the leadership of the association will not manage to deal with these challenges, SKIF might migrate from the center to the periphery. The consequence for the Shotokan community would be not desirable. Because the JKA would then become – like the WKF – a monopolist. Its position would be weaker than its sports karate counterpart, but it would still could highly influence and dominate the field of traditional/budo karate. Therefore, a strong SKIF works as a corrective and is hence highly desirable. But the future of the association is open and it will depend on the management how they cope with the future challenges.

The Five Challenges for SKIF

What are these challenges? SKIF has to face five internal and external trends and drivers in the upcoming years:

  1. Changing Global Karate Environment and Need of Strategy
  2. Founding Instructors of SKIF About to Retire
  3. The Need for an Instructors Program
  4. Media Visibility and Presence
  5. USP: What Distinguishes SKIF?

1. Changing Global Karate Environment and Need for a Strategy

The global karate environment has changed considerably since the 1980s. Sports karate dominates the public perception and attention. It is going to debut at the Olympics – at least for one event. However, due to the attention and money the WKF will generate through this event, it will put the traditional/budo field of Shotokan under pressure. The WKF will define the future of karate, mainly driven by fun, entertainment, competitions, media needs, and customers/viewer interest. Budo and values play a minor role in the WKF system. Thus, it will also attract plenty of young karateka and offer them something traditional/budo associations have not managed to deliver: public recognition and fame as well as income and a career.

JKA already positions itself as keeper of the traditions

Under such circumstances traditional/budo karate organizations must develop strategies how to position themselves. The JKA markets itself as the keeper of the tradition and as the “only independent karate entity legally and officially recognized by the Japanese government as an association of members (Shadan Hojin) for the promotion of karate.” Through its large group of instructors, who constantly travel the globe, it manages to be present in all their member countries on a regular basis. Through this the JKA manages to maintain strong ties into the countries. Instructors like Tatsuya Naka have also created a high media visibility and popularity to promote the JKA.

Many Karateka came for Hirokazu Kanazawa

The popularity of SKIF in the past stemmed from the popularity of its figurehead, Hirokazu Kanazawa. Many karateka entered the association to learn from him, because of his charisma, wisdom, and personality. But now after his death the question arises: What will they stay for?

Attentive observers have already noticed that some national SKIF teams already compete at WKF events. So, for some young SKIF karateka the WKF does not seem to be off-limits. As mentioned: It offers them many attractive and lucrative opportunities. Hence, the erosion of the member base has already started within the younger generations.

SKIF strategy desperately needed

Thus, SKIF needs a strategy to cope with the changing global karate environment and how to react to the popularity of sports karate. However, the leadership of SKIF has not presented such a strategy since it entered office in 2014.

That is the reason why we want to know from SKIF directly what their strategy will be. In October 2019, The Shotokan Times inquired at SKIF. We wrote an email to Nobuaki Kanazawa and Manabu Murakami about the official strategy of the organization. We posed several thoughts. However, we never received an answer neither from the management nor from the SKIF HQ. We can only speculate what that means.

However, high-level SKIF instructors and Manabu Murakami have organized the Takudai seminar series in Germany in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Here they brought together Takushoku University Karate Club alumni from different associations to teach an open seminar. That initiative might indicate that SKIF is about to join forces and to collaborate with other associations stronger in the future in order to strengthen the traditional/budo Shotokan community. The Takudai Club seems to be a good vehicle for such exchange because it links instructors from the whole spectrum of Shotokan. But the problem: Nobuaki Kanazawa did not attend Takushoku University. That raises the question which role he will play within this collaboration? In addition, SKIF is not going to organize a fourth Takudai seminar in 2020. Has this initiative stopped?

The silence of SKIF and the lack of a visible new orientation of the association forces us to make the conclusion that a strategy is needed. Without a strategy SKIF might migrate to the periphery, which weaken the traditional/budo Shotokan community as a whole.

2. Founding Instructors of SKIF About to Retire

The need for a strategy becomes even more relevant because of the upcoming generational change in the leadership of national SKIF branches. Important, charismatic, powerful, and well-connected instructors in Europe, the stronghold of SKIF, like Shiro Asano (England), Akio Nagai (Germany), Masaru Miura (Italy), and Rikuta Koga (Switzerland) are about to retire. All of them are in their 70s and 80s.

As “founding fathers” they built and established the association alongside Soke Kanazawa. Thus, SKIF will lose these important pillars when they retire. Together with them, many resources, knowledge, and connections will leave.

Therefore, the question arises: Who will follow them? Fortunately, SKIF has very talented and engaged national chief instructors and presidents like Stephane Castriques from Belgium and Tony Racca from Switzerland. However, the karate background and connections of an instructor, who has been educated at a Japanese University karate club and later attended an instructors program, is hard to match.

At the same time, JKA and JKS flood the globe with weekend seminars by Japanese instructors. Associations like KWF, WSKF, FSKA, JSKA etc. also compete with their Japanese instructors for the attention of the Shotokan karate public. The loss of the “founding fathers” of SKIF will considerably weaken the association oversees.

3. The Need of an Instructors Program

The void, which will emerge in the upcoming years in Europe, could be filled with young instructors from Japan. But that requires a prerequisite: young instructors. Unlike the JKA or JKS, SKIF has not set up an instructors program. Currently, only six instructors including Nobuaki Kanazawa, Manabu Murakami, Ryusho Suzuki, Shinji Tanaka, Fumitoshi Kanazawa, and Daizo Kanazawa are listed on the website. Occasionally, Hiyori Kanazawa teaches Shotokan karate oversees.

The JKA, on the other hand, employs 25 instructors in the honbu dojo in Tokyo. Through their instructors program the organization has a constant influx of highly qualified karateka that it can send abroad.

Why SKIF has never established a similar program is beyond my knowledge. An organization with “several million members” could (and should) create such an educative infrastructure.

The negligence of the past might block future developments. According to insights from SKIF officials, the travel volume of Manabu Murakami exceeded 300 days per year. As chief instructor he must maintain a high technical standard among the members within the global federation. Therefore, his position requires traveling and constant education of its members.

However, such a high amount of travel-time comes with costs. His absence makes it impossible to set up an instructors program and to educate young instructors in the honbu dojo. As a consequence this leads to a dilemma that a German proverb captures nicely: “I have no time to build a fence, because I have to catch chickens.”

To strengthen the association in the upcoming years an advancement of the instructors group and the implementation of an instructors program is recommended.

4. Media Visibility and Presence

Another way to resolve this dilemma would be a higher media visibility and presence. Hirokazu Kanazawa understood the power and necessity of media like books and films to spread karate and to convey his style of Shotokan. He wrote at least eight books, which all became breakthroughs in the teaching of karate. In addition, he produced several educational video series about Shotokan. His sense of the visual dimension and presentation of Shotokan was splendid. In this regard he followed Masatoshi Nakayama, who also understood the importance and opportunities of media for the spread of Shotokan karate.

Today, Tatsuya Naka follows the in footsteps of Masatoshi Nakayama and Hirokazu Kanazawa. He gained a huge audience through his performances in several popular karate movies like Kuro Obi (2007) and High-Kick Girl (2011). Together with Fuyuhiko Nishi, the owner of Kuroobi World Media, he has produced a myriad of educational and entertaining Shotokan videos. Therefore, Tatsuya Naka has become the public face of Shotokan karate.

Unfortunately, neither Nobuaki Kanazawa nor Manabu Murakami show significant engagement with media. Neither of them has a considerable social media channel. The official SKIF facebook channel seems to be abandoned. Most media promotion of SKIF comes from the national branches. They are active in social media and beyond.

Luckily, SKIF has Hiyori Kanazawa. She has shown considerable activity and interest in media visibility. She runs a solid Instagram channel and seems to have a sense for the necessity of promotion. For instance, she produced a video, which shows from a female perspective her understanding of Shotokan Karate. She also gave The Shotokan Times a comprehensive interview about her life and vision of Shotokan.

Today, however, social media and an excellent internet presence must become a high priority for every organization – it is mandatory. Both determine the visibility and hence the success of an association in the competition of attention and public perception.

5. USP: What Distinguishes SKIF?

The final challenge SKIF has to face, is its “Unique Selling Point” (USP). What distinguishes SKIF from other associations? Why should somebody join or stay in SKIF?

Every company, every club, every party, every association, and every rock star must find an answer to this question. Some members might stay because of pure loyalty. But others need legitimate reasons and arguments in order not to leave. The passing of Hirokazu Kanazawa could have created a reason to reconsider the membership in SKIF. Other reasons like the lack of strategy, the upcoming retirements of other founding fathers, the low visibility and engagement in media by the leadership could cause some to reconsider, too.

Therefore, SKIF has to position itself and distinguish its portfolio from the other associations. One proven way to do that would be a joint book publication by Nobuaki Kanazawa and Manabu Murakami about their understanding and vision of SKIF Shotokan. A video serious could support such activities.

In comparison to the JKA, for example, SKIF offers a different concept of Shotokan that can be observed in their approach to kihon. While the JKA has deliberately streamlined its technical repertoire and focuses on combinations with maximum 3 to 4 techniques. SKIF still offers the whole versatility of Shotokan. That means long combinations with several changes of direction and the whole set of techniques Shotokan. The same can be observed during a comparison of SKIF and JKA kihon and jiyu ippon kumite.

For both approaches one can find valid arguments. And the practitioners should decide which path they want to follow. But before they can decide, the associations have to make clear what kind of path they offer.

A Strong SKIF Needed

This analysis has shown that the unfortunate passing of Hirokazu Kanazawa has created several challenges for SKIF in order to hold its position in the center of the field of Shotokan. From a systemic perspective and for the individual Shotokan practitioner it would be beneficial if SKIF recognizes this challenges and starts to find appropriate strategical solutions. A strong SKIF offers more advantages for the global Shotokan karate community than a weak one.

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Hirokazu Kanazawa Soke: A personal Obituary

The year 2019 ended with a tragic event for the global Shotokan community: the passing of Hirokazu Kanazawa. The Karate world mourns since then. In this personal obituary Prof. Dr. Wolf Herbert reminisces the extraordinary life and personality of Soke Kanazawa.

On December the 8th 2019 Kanazawa Hirokazu passed away “peacefully”, according to the official announcement. I had the honor and pleasure to translate his autobiography into German. For this edition I conducted an interview with Soke. I talked with him about death and dying. He stated:

“If one engages in downright normal training and has a downright normal lifestyle, the opportunities of development will also be downright normal. If, however, one trains in the way of going beyond, of transcending one’s natural powers, this in my opinion means to be present with deadly seriousness in everything, even the smallest kind of things!

To exaggerate a bit, you do everything as though it were a matter of life and death. To be involved with deadly seriousness, indeed as if it were a matter of life and death, is, I think, the true and final meaning of bushido (the ethical code of the warrior). If one does everything as though one’s life depended on it, there will be nothing to look back on with regret. When the time to die comes, one can die with utter peace of mind. I think the manner of dying is a barometer of how one has lead his life. This also constitutes the way of the warrior (bushido).”

Kanazawa Hirokazu

Hirokazu Kanazawa Soke: Life of a Warrior

Kanazawa-soke undoubtedly has lived and departed this life like a warrior. Kanazawa Hirokazu was born in 1931 in the Northeast of Japan, in the prefecture Iwate at a rough seashore with rocky cliffs and pine groves. He was the sixth child and had an older sister, four older and two younger brothers. The extended family, the fishery and trading company of his father and the care of his mother were the social context in which he absorbed consideration, cooperation and mutual benevolence as manners and a way to treat people. “Harmony” should later become one of the central pillars of his Karate philosophy.

Besides playing in nature and on the beach, Hirokazu practiced sumo, judo, rugby and boxing in his youth. His body was thus aptly prepared when aged 18, he seriously started with Karate in the Karate department of the Takushoku University. After graduation he and Mikami Takayuki became the first graduates of the instructor course of the the JKA (Japan Karate Association). 1957 he won the first JKA All Japan Championship. Subsequently, he twice repeated this triumph. 1960 he was sent to Hawaii as a JKA Karate instructor. His unprecedented journey into the world had begun.

The picture shows Soke Kanazawa and Wolf Herbert at the 35th SKIF All Japan Championship/Tokyo.
Soke Kanazawa and Wolf Herbert at the 35th SKIF All Japan Championship/Tokyo in 2015.

A Global Instructor

Presumably no other Japanese Karate teacher has traveled as much and often around the globe as Kanazawa Hirokazu. Most of the instructors who were delegated to foreign countries by the JKA settled down and built up their national organizations. Soke stayed for a while in England and Germany, but he was the JKA International Section Chief and was often on the road. Particularly after the foundation of his own organization (1978) he was virtually permanently visiting different countries all over the world. This made him one of the best known Karateka on the globe.

The break-up with the JKA was neither initiated by Soke nor wanted.  In the end it can be seen as a blessing in disguise, since it gave him the chance to develop and promulgate his very own Karate-do unencumbered. He placed the “International” (jap. kokusai) in the name of his organization (Shotokan Karate-do International Federation SKIF) intentionally on top in the Japanese version (Kokusai Shôtôkan Karatedo renmei). This was to demonstrate that Karate-dô has become a global movement and cultural world heritage.

Technical Brilliance and Charisma

Soke’s reputation was not solely based on his internationalism, but his extraordinary abilities, his technical brilliance and in particular his personality, charisma and charm. What also distinguished him was his capability to stage perfect and breathtaking demonstrations in Kumite and Kata on the spot at big events or clinics. Notable was not only his technical refinement and engaged and warm-hearted teaching style, but that he and his Karate-do was there for everyone.  That really meant no distinction in regard to sex, age, race, nationality, religious affiliation, social or economic status etc.

Before Soke went to Hawaii he stated in an interview, that he wanted to help to develop and promote Karate in its three aspects: physical education, martial art and competitive sports. This also illustrates his broad approach to Karate-do: it is meant for everybody, young and old, hobbyist and top athlete, even for those with special needs.

Hirokazu Kanazawa Soke Studied other Styles of Karate

The width of his horizon was also obvious in his openness and lifelong willingness to learn from other Karate-styles and martial arts.  He included old Kata (e.g. Koryu Gankaku, Niju hachi ho), which enrich the spectrum of movements beyond orthodox Shotokan, into his syllabus.  He was also known for his masterly command of the weapons staff (bo) and nunchaku. He integrated them into his tutoring. Soke also cherished lifelong friendships and exchanges with teachers of other styles and also from the JKA.

Karate and Health

In one of his English publications Kanazawa-soke proposed an intriguing perspective. He postulates that Karate historically evolved as a hygienic program to boost physical fitness and was only later used as a means of self-defense:

“Without going into the history of Karate I would like to explain a facet which is usually overlooked. Karate history starts some four thousand years ago as a series of movements for health. Later it was discovered that these could be applied for fighting. In the last few years it has been developed into a sport. All other combative sports started their life as fighting techniques. Therefore, Karate is the only one which started from natural movements to promote health.”

Hirokazu Kanazawa

Breathing and Ki

There originates one of the characteristics of Soke’s Karate-do: how he emphasized the importance of correct breathing. Via breathing the circulation of ki (chin. Qi, “universal energy”) is regulated. He also deemed the mental and physical concentration on the center of the body in the lower abdomen (seika tanden) as essential. There ki can be accumulated and from there ki can also be transmitted elsewhere. Ki is a central concept in Chinese cosmology and medicine. It is often translated as “inner energy” or “vital force”.

In the West, energy is primarily seen as something physical and as a quantum. Ki is also a kind of quality (qualia) and linked to consciousness. It has material and immaterial aspects. In the human body ki is mobilized by willpower. If one concentrates ki will flow into the object being focussed on. If you thrust a punch with a sharp intention ki will surge and shoot into the fist and beyond. Soke was able to split the very board that was indicated to him in a stack of boards without breaking the rest. His explanation was that he could consciously control and direct his ki. Although not many will ever reach this level, the regulation of ki was a central element of his Karate. And the positive health effects of Karate are based on it.

Ki and Taijiquan

According to the Chinese view, health means an unblocked and balanced flow of ki. From time immemorial diverse methods have been developed in order to gain an unobstructed flow of ki: meditation, visualization, breathing techniques, therapeutic interventions (acupuncture, massages, moxibustion a.o.) and physical exercises (e.g. Quigong).

Soke has practiced Taijiquan all his life and understood the respective concepts very profoundly. A crucial  goal of Taijiquan is to equilibrate and balance the ki-flow. This brings about harmony and well-being, worded slightly dramatically, a feeling of being at one with the universe. This was exactly what Soke was aiming at. I know that from numerous conversations and interviews with him. It has become a guiding principle for my personal Karate practice. Soke’s Karate-do was rooted in and based on Chinese philosophy and physiological conceptions, which made it one of a kind for me.

Hirokazu Kanazawa Soke and his Spirit of Karate-do

To me Soke and his Karate-do had a spiritual dimension, though it was totally unassuming. If you tuned your antennae into this direction you had ample reception. If you were not interested you were not bothered. Soke always understood Karate as moving Zen. His ideal was to reach an egoless state of all-encompassing alertness and inner calm. To point this out, he used terms from Zen-Buddhism and the art of sword fighting which was influenced by it, such as mushin (no mind) or muga (non-self).

If one witnessed Soke, one had the impression that time and again he embodied these states of mind. He had an aura which enveloped everybody with peace and serenity. Again, I fear I sound dramatic, but being in his mere presence filled me with happiness. I have never noticed any negative emotions like anger or irritation. Many will remember his infinite patience when he signed books, t-shirts and the like with his mountain Fuji-emblem after training courses – sometimes in hour-long sessions.

Hirokazu Kanazawa Soke was Here for Everyone

By no way I want to give the impression that I had any kind of “special” relationship to Soke. Everybody had his/her special connection to him and shared unique experiences with him. Soke did not show particular preferences. He was here for everyone: the veteran black belt as well as for the beginner and the children. I met Kanazawa-soke on many scattered, but pivotal occasions. His view of Karate and the world had an indelible impact on me. In this sense he was and is a constant mentor and guiding star for me. Let me therefore add some personal footnotes and anecdotes.

Some Personal Anecdotes about Hirokazu Kanazawa Soke

Hara warm/well, all’s warm/well!”

At one of his many sojourns in the 1980’s in my home town Bregenz in the West of Austria we talked about the winter. He was amazed, when he heard that in this cold alpine region a haramaki (“bellyband”, a kind of woollen kidney belt) was not customary.  In Japan, haramaki are well-liked by workers, who toil in the open or artisans in chilly workshops. Soke commented: “If the stomach (hara) is kept warm, the whole body will get warm!” For a martial artist like Soke hara of course had a much broader meaning. It is the pivot of every technique and the locus of ki-concentration. “Hara warm/well, all’s warm/well!” one could venture to say.

The picture shows Soke Kanazawa and Wolf Herbert in Bregenz, Austria. Wolf is translats the explanations of Hirokazu Kanazawa fo the audience.
Sôke Kanazawa and Wolf Herbert in Bregenz, Austria. Wolf translates the explanations of Hirokazu Kanazawa in 1984.

Anyway, I had two haramaki sent from Japan, which I still wear, particularly during winter in the unheated Dojo. I owe the discovery of the haramaki to Soke. Everytime I put one on I think of him and his teachings concerning the hara and seika tanden! As a sidenote, haramaki which were seen as hopelessly old-fashioned and proletarian now enjoy a renaissance in Japan as a fashion item and protection against the cold.

The Right Diet

As a young athlete I was very health conscious. Therefore I wanted to know from Soke what he deemed to be a wholesome and balanced diet. The gist of what he said was:

“I am traveling a lot and I am confronted with a lot of different national cuisines. Most of the time I am treated by the host, thus I can not refuse the dishes coming to the table. It is like that: while I eat the dishes, I inwardly tell myself, ‘This is good for my body, it supplies me with subtle energy and makes me strong!’ Then every food is well absorbed and purposefully utilized. With this positive attitude even fast food can be ingested with salubrious results. Generally speaking, it is best to consume local products and whatever is seasonal.”

Hirokazu Kanazawa

This again revealed to me that for Soke it was mind over matter, the spirit which reigns the body! As an aside: with regard to beverages, Soke in Austria professed a marked fondness of Pilsener.

He also had seriously considered to quit

Since there was a hiatus in my Karate practice I had the chutzpah to ask Soke if he had ever thought to desist from doing Karate. Without hesitation he replied that there were several critical periods in his life in which he had seriously considered to quit. However, every time he retreated to contemplate the possibility, inevitably some Kata sequences appeared before his mind’s eye. He saw himself performing e.g. Kankû dai and indubitably he knew with every fibre of his being that this was his “destiny”, his mission and his life task. Soke has always paid close attention to “imagery training”. Lately it seems to come into vogue. For Soke it obviously had positive effects. He pursued his path unperturbed by ups and downs.

The Little Gestures Matter

When I started with training again after my break from Karate I went to the Honbu dojo in Tokyo for instruction several times on Wednesdays. On this day Soke taught in person and all the instructors who were not abroad also assembled. While greeting formally, I moved the wrong foot into the closed V stance. Soke pointed out my “misstep” in his benevolent way. For a second I was irritated and thought, “why insist on such a trifle!” In a sudden intuition I understood the message. It was exactly these little gestures which should manifest the intent behind them.

The alert Mind

Soke was a keen observer. I had participated in the national championships (Kata Individual Masters II 50-59 yrs.) for the umpteenth time. Soke was already rather fragile at the time. After the championship there was a party in the evening with a stand-up buffet and drinks. The SKIF All-Japan Championship is a yearly event with over more than 600 participants. It is split up into school years for children and age classes for the adults. There are also several disciplines and the competition lasts for two whole days.

On the evening in question Soke went back home early due to his frail condition. All the party guests formed a lane and made a deep bow when Soke passed by. He walked with his cane and when he came close to me he stopped, looked at me, smiled and said: “Today you won a medal. Congratulations!” I was moved. Among all the bustle of the contest he did not miss to notice this – or, very likely, anything else for that matter.

He Cared about People

Soke cared deeply for people and had an extraordinary memory for them. In the 1980’s (my most active time in Karate) the first thing he invariably asked me when we met, was, if Fujinaga Yasuyuki (1944-1995) was doing well. I found that very considerate and acted as a messenger between the two. Fujinaga-sensei headed a JKA-Dojo in Vienna, where I was allowed to train twice a week. When Kanazawa-sôke was still in the JKA, Fujinaga-sensei had studied under him in Japan for an extended period. Even after Fujinaga-sensei’s demise, he repeatedly told me how sorry he felt about his passing on in the prime of his life. Soke knew well, how much I had adored and appreciated Fujinaga-sensei.

When he Visited Austria

In 1982, the first SKI-organisation in Austria was established. I had become one of its first members and was in the managing committee until the end of the 1980’s. I also ran a SKI-Dojo in Vienna. We intentionally put the name of the founder first in the name of the federation: Kanazawa Shotokan Kokusai Karate-do Österreich (KSKKÖ). Thanks to the selfless commitment and efforts of the pedagogue Rosemarie Osirnigg, Soke came to Vorarlberg/West Austria on a yearly basis to hold training courses lasting a couple of days. We also shot videos, which were meant to become instructional material. They show Soke at the height of his powers. The then national trainer Norio Kawasoe (1951-2013) can also be seen demonstrating his excellent techniques.  The videos are now sold and distributed by VP-Masberg.

I frequently served as an interpreter for Soke. This offered me superb insights into his didactic ingenuity and systematic approach to Karate. At the beginning of the 1990’s the KSKKÖ was dissolved due to various disputes. The majority of its members joined the organization of Hidetaka Nishiyama. Although invited, I did not follow suit. Barely anything  connected me with Nishiyama-sensei and everything that was Karate to me connected me with Soke. I stayed loyal to him, but due to their rampant political narrow-mindedness, I stayed away from Karate organizations for a long time.

His Encouragement

It was almost two decades later when I visited and met Soke again in the Honbu-dojo. There was an instant rapport and bond. It was as if no time had passed since our last meeting. He could recall amazing details of the moments we had spent together. Soke encouraged me to open a Dojo for him in Tokushima. There was no SKI-Dojo at the time on the island Shikoku, where Tokushima is located and where I teach at university. Without this encouragement, I would never have been as presumptuous as to teach Karate to the Japanese.

When I was in my twenties I learned some Taijiquan from Soke. I recollected this and began to take lessons again. Now Yang-style Taijiquan is part of my daily exercises. When I related that to Soke he was overjoyed: “Taijiquan and Karate are like Yin and Yang, soft and hard, fluid and rapid, circular and straight! They are complementary and synergetic. It is good to practice both. Especially when one grows old it is commendable to move to the softer side. It is not about muscular strength anymore, but the cultivation of the ki that should become central. Carry on!”

A Personality and Karate Master Full of Dignity

Soke said this at a time, when he was no longer able to practice himself. Now I have to address something that filled me with outright admiration: his dignity in being able to let go of everything! Soke loved to ski and even had a licence as an instructor from a skiing school in Davos. When he was in his late-seventies he had an accident while skiing in Northern Italy. He broke several vertebrae and required an extended period of rehabilitation. But he returned to the Dojo nevertheless. However, his physical condition deteriorated thereafter.

A Beautiful Mind and Spirit

When he got into his eighties an illness broke out, which was medicinally subdued until his passing on: Parkinson. This incomparable grand master of the martial arts, who could control every single cell of his body had to watch how he lost command over it. And here again Soke’s spiritual greatness revealed itself: no struggle, no bitterness, no lament. He endured his advancing frailty with stoic composure. Without clinging to anything, he just let things go. To be able to observe the process of ageing and the way of the world with such calmness and non-attachment will forever be etched into my memory as an ideal. It was daoist unity with the cosmos personified.

The Light of the Buddha

Sôke once remarked, that with getting older he became convinced, that he was protected by some higher power. December the 8th is Bodhi-day, the day on which the awakening of the historic Buddha Shakyamuni is commemorated and celebrated. It is the last day and climax of an eight-day-long intensive period of meditation (rôhatsu) in Zen monasteries. Kanazawa Hirokazu crossed to the other shore in the light of the Buddha. He ist now united with the higher powers and as a guardian and protector of Karate-dô, his lifework will continue to have effects and radiate forever. Eternal thanks, Sôke! Ossu

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Hirokazu Kanazawa has passed away – An Overview

Soke Hirokazu Kanazawa passed away on December 8, 2019. And the karate world mourns.

For everybody, who wants to express their sympathies, we have set up a condolence board.

The facebook page of the SKIF-GB facebook page reported first about Soke Kanazawa´s passing. However, rumors spread that the announcement could have been a hoax very fast. While the post disappeared a few hours later, we received information from a high ranking source within the inner circle of the SKIF. The source confirmed that the information about the passing of Soke Kanazawa is true.

Official Confirmation of the Passing of Soke Hirokazu Kanazawa

Around 1 pm central European time, the board of the SKIF published an official statement about the passing of Soke Kanazawa. The document states that he passed away peacefully.

It also states that he passed away at the “blessed ripe old” age of 88 years old. This refers to the Japanese tradition of “beiju“. Because the Chinese character of 88 looks similar to the character for rice. Rice, on the other hand, is considered to be a happy and sacred food in East Asia. That is why the age 88 is considered sacred.

Official statement by the SKIF Global Headquarter about the death of Soke Hirokazu Kanazawa.
Official statement by the SKIF Global Headquarter about the death of Soke Hirokazu Kanazawa.

Further, the announcement by the SKIF asked to abstain from attending the funeral. It will take part in the inner circle of the Kanazawa family. An official farewell takes place at the next SKIF international seminar in Tokyo in 2020.

The Karate World Mourns

A wave of condolences have been expressed by the karate world about the passing of Soke Kanazawa in the last days. Several thousand karate commented on facebook and other social media how deeply shocked and shattered they were. Many more sent blessings and best wishes to the family of Hirokazu Kanazawa.

The sympathies go thereby far beyond the community of Shotokan karateka. Also practitioners from other styles of karate expressed their mourning and grief. For instance, the Kyokushinkai channel The Martial Way published a R.I.P. post about the passing of Soke Kanazawa. Such acts display the tremendous respect Hirokazu Kanazawa enjoyed in the karate world.

The Shotokan Times also expressed its condolences by sending an email to Kancho Nobuaki Kanazawa, Shuseki Shihan Manabu Murakami, and the SKIF HQ. Thomas Prediger, Chair of the advisory board of The Shotokan Times, commented: “He was a living legend. Soke Kanazawa will be dearly missed. His guidance and character are invaluable. However, his legacy will continue in Shotokan. Because a worldwide community of students will now carry his torch.”

Dr. Christian Tribowski, Managing director and chief editor of The Shotokan Times, stated: “I had the chance to meet Soke Kanazawa last year during the 40th anniversary festivities of SKIF in Tokyo. His health had deteriorated already. But I did not imagine to see him for the last time. His death has left a huge void in the karate world. He was Mr. Shotokan, a splendid and charismatic personalty. Generations after generations have learnt from him the true meaning of karate do.”

Deteriorated Health of Soke Hirokazu Kanazawa

In January 2009, Kanazawa suffered a skiing accident. Trough a badly fall he crushed three vertebra. Although already in his 70´s he recovered and taught Shotokan until 2012. Then he retired and spend most of his time in Japan.

Beside the skiing accident rumors spread that Soke Kanazawa also suffered two strokes in the last decade. Last year on the 40th anniversary of SKIF in Tokyo, he had difficulties to walk and could barely speak. Yet, he was the charismatic karate master who had a room filling presents.

The Legend Hirokazu Kanazawa

Soke Kanazawa was an outstanding Karate master. Patrick Donkor and Dr. Christian Tribowski concluded in a recent portrait about him in The Shotokan Times:

“Hirokazu Kanazawa is considered one of the most skillful karate masters of all time. A great technician and an excellent instructor, he has built up a loyal and dedicated following of students. A gentle and sincere man, he has been able to convey the concepts of karate to many generations of students. As prolific author, he has also had many instructional books and videos produced. It could be argued that many people would not have started karate if they had not seen demonstrations from this very talented master. In any case, he is a true legend of Shotokan karate.”

Patrick Donkor and Dr. Christian Tribowski

Like no other, Hirokazu Kanazawa coined Shotokan karate in the 20´s century. He studied directly under Gichin Funakoshi and Masatoshi Nakayama. His technical elegance as well as his philosophy made him an unprecedented karate master. After leaving the JKA he founded the Shotokan Karate International Federation in the late 1970´s, which chief instructor and later soke he became.

Hirokazu Kanazawa About Life and Death

Soke Kanazawa´s karate do was highly influenced by Zen Buddhism. In an interview he stated about life and death:

” My philosophy is that I try always to be true to myself and to others … I can say that I fear nothing – not even death, and this I do not say in a big-headed or conceited way. My meaning is that I always try my best in everything I do, so I will be satisfied when I do die – I think the reason that people fear death is because they want to do and accomplish so many other things that are still undone . . . they always want to do more. Also, I truly believe that life continues after physical death – all life continues … life is a circle “.



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Gojushiho Dai and Sho: The Solution of the Confusion

The naming of the Gojushiho Kata differs between associations. Some call the longer Gojushiho Kata “Dai” and the shorter “Sho”. Myths emerged about the reason for this confusion. Some revolved around JKA Chief Instructor Ueki Masaaki. Today, Peter Crawford is going to shed light on the history of this paradox and he is going to give us an answer that seems to solve the Gojushiho Riddle. By Peter Crawford

The Ueki Masaaki Legend

The first time I encountered the legend about Ueki Masaaki mixing up the names of the Gojushiho kata he was performing and the JKA subsequently changing the names to spare his blushes was back at the end of the last century. Rob Redmond, on his sadly long-gone website “24fightingchickens” wrote:

“It is rumored that in a JKA tournament some years ago, a now very high-ranking Ueki performed the Dai kata while accidentally calling out the name “Gojushiho-Sho!” in the last round of competition on National Television in Japan. 

According to this story, the judges were befuddled, since the performance was perfect, about what to do with Ueki and his misnamed kata. Their solution: give Ueki first place, and switch the names of the two kata. So, today the karateka who outrank Ueki generally call the more basic kata Dai. However, most people in the JKA, and the Best Karate series of books refer to the more difficult kata as Dai and the easier kata as Sho. Is the story about Ueki true? Maybe not.”

Despite the obvious caveat, this story gained traction, more often than not masquerading as “the truth”, as people copied and pasted bits of this article into their own websites. Until last year, the Wikipedia article on Gojushiho also presented this story as fact.

The Truth about the Different Naming of Gojushiho

However, the truth about the naming disparity between SKI and the other Shotokan organisations is quite easily discovered. When Kanazawa Hirokazu formed his own SKI organisation after being expelled from the JKA, he decided to change the names around as he felt that the smaller, more subtle kata deserved the “sho” designation so that the Gojushiho pair would align better with Bassai and Kanku. Since then, Kanazawa sensei has been asked many times at seminars and dinners why the SKI kata names are different to everyone else’s. I have heard him recount his decision on a number of occasions, and way back in 2003 Traditional Karate Magazine published an article by David Lewin, a senior with SKKIF in the UK, where he writes the following account of a weekend course he attended:

“One particularly interesting explanation Shihan gave was the reason why on founding S.K.I.F. he swapped the names of the two katas (Gojushiho Dai and Sho around). He explained that as with the Bassai and Kanku katas, the first one studied was usually the Dai form a kata. The Dai form is usually the longer but less complicated of the two forms. The instructors at the JKA were already practicing the JKA Gojushiho Dai form (i.e. the one with the ippon nukite techniques) before the JKA Sho form (the one with the shihon nukite techniques) had even been introduced into the JKA. Once the new form had been introduced, it was clear that the old kata was the more complicated and so should have been the Sho form, and so Shihan swapped the names over.”

Why is the JKA naming “wrong”?

This hopefully clears up the issue of the difference between the SKI kata names and everyone else, but really brings up a larger question. Why is the JKA naming “wrong”? Why is the smaller kata “dai”, and the larger one “sho”?

Kanazawa provides some pointers here too. In his 2009 book “Karate: The Complete Kata”, he provides the following information about Gojushiho:

 “Through Master Kanken Toyama, the kata ‘Koryu Gojushiho’ […] was introduced into the Shotokan style…”

“The author believes that the ‘Sho’ and ‘Dai’ designations […] became reversed at the time of their introduction…”

I find this explanation very plausible. We know for example, that in his 1935 book “Karate do Kyohan” Funakoshi Gichin describes the fifteen core kata of the Shotokan system. Yet, by 1943, we also know that more kata had been added. In 1943’s “Karate Nyumon”, on pages 58 and 59, Funakoshi lists a number of kata that were being studied at the Shotokan, including one “Hotaku” (Hotaku, or “phoenix-peck”, was the name Funakoshi gave to Gojushiho). Both Kanku and Bassai are listed separately as dai and sho, but there is only one Hotaku listed.

Masatoshi Nakayama Introduced Gojushiho Sho to JKA

According to Nakayama Masatoshi, he was asked by Funakoshi to travel to Osaka and learn kata from Mabuni Kenwa. In addition, in Randall Hassell’s book “Conversations with the Master”, Nakayama is quoted as saying:

“Some of the kata have come into the JKA system because Master Funakoshi took me around Japan to visit and pay courtesy calls on some of the other old masters in Osaka, Kyoto, Okuyama and Hiroshima”


“…when we visited Master Mabuni, Master Funakoshi told me to learn Gojushiho and Nijushiho so we could study them more carefully. So Master Mabuni taught me these kata.”

We know that the JKA syllabus already contained one Gojushiho kata at the time Nakayama was asked to learn from Mabuni. According to what Kanazawa said, this second kata should be the JKA “sho”. Fortunately, we are able to compare the two Shotokan kata with the versions that Kanazawa claims are the originals.

The Original Gojushiho Names are reverse

Toyama Kanken published details and photographs of his “Koryu Gojushiho” in his 1956 book “Okugi Hijutsu Karate Do”. His kata is clearly the smaller kata which, according to Kanazawa, was introduced first.

The current Shito-ryu Gojushiho can, therefore, be viewed on YouTube and is obviously the larger kata that was introduced to the JKA second and given the “sho” designation as a result.

Hopefully this information clears up the mystery of the inconsistent naming, and will kill off the somewhat bizarre “competition myth” once-and-for-all!

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Hirokazu Kanazawa: The Life of A Shotokan Legend

Hirokazu Kanazawa belongs to the group of Shotokan pioneers, who made karate what it is today. In this portrait we give you an overview about his life as a Shotokan legend. By Patrick Donkor and Dr. Christian Tribowski

For many Shotokan karateka Hirokazu Kanazawa is a living legend. His supporters place him behind Gichin Funakoshi and Masatoshi Nakayama in the hierarchy of the martial arts. However, it cannot be doubt that nobody has coined Shotokan karate like Hirokazu Kanazawa in the last 50 years. Thus, he is among the most recognizable faces of karate in general. This admiration arises from his exquisite technique and his humble approach of Shotokan.

However, who is Hirokazu Kanazawa? Why did he start Shotokan karate? And how did his karate career unfold? We are going to answer this question in the following portrait, which was co-authored with Patrick Donkor from Finding Karate.

Hirokazu Kanazawa´s Early Years and First Encounter with Karate

Kanazawa was born on 3 May 1931, in Iwate Prefecture, Japan. His father was a fisherman who died young in the 1940s. Therefore, his mother, Masue, became a big influence on his life. The middle child of three, his older brother, Tatsuo, would eventually run the family’s fishing business. His younger brother, Hideo, became eventually a doctor. Therefore, his family background was rather labor class and nothing indicated his later career.

During high school, on the other hand, Kanazawa developed an interest in martial arts. For instance, he was describe to be a keen boxer and judoka. In Judo he eventually reached the rank of 2nd Dan.

Hirokazu Kanazawa first became aware of Karate in the 1940s while he was a senior at high school. The person, who got him in touch with the art, was an Okinawan friend of his brother named Yamashiro, who visited him during holidays. One night the small man from Okinawa became drunk and got into a fight with several local fisherman. Somebody called the police and Officer Kodama, a very big man and a renowned 5th Dan judoka attended the squad. After a while a fight broke out in which the smaller Yamashiro broke Officer Kodama’s nose. This was Kanazawa’s first experience of Karate in action. And it had a gigantic effect on him. As a result he wanted to become a karateka. However, there were no Karate clubs locally. Thus, he had to wait until he entered university.

Takushoku University Karate Club

In 1951, Kanazawa enrolled at Nippon University in Tokyo. He joined the university’s Karate club, but was soon disappointed with the training. In his perception the club was weak because it had only one black belt student and many white belts. Fortunately, he also had the chance to watch a training session conducted by students from Takushoku University. The performance of the Takudai´s impressed him so much, that he chose to transfer to Takushoku Unversity. This decision became formative for his later career.

Later the year, Hirokazu Kanazawa took and passed the entrance exams for Takushoku University, and transferred to the university. In addition, he also joined the university’s Shotokan karate club, which was considered the strongest in the country. Having developed close-range and ground fighting skills with boxing and Judo, he was impressed by the long-range fighting techniques of Shotokan karate.

A picture of the still very young Hirokazu Kanazawa from the 1950´s.
A picture of the still very young Hirokazu Kanazawa from the 1950´s.

Hirokazu Kanazawa Trained 5-6 Hours a Day

His passion for the art grew so much that he trained 5 to 6 hours a day beside his general studies. But Hirokazu Kanazawa also had to catch up with the other student. Some of them already studied Karate at high school. To overcome this deficit he trained by himself at night. He also used a lot of mental imagery to rehearse the techniques he practiced.

Every now and then, Gichin Funakoshi would come to the club to teach. Kanazawa had the responsibility to collect him from his home and to bring him to the club. As a result, he developed a string relationship to master Funakoshi.

Hirokazu Kanazawa in a video about karate self-defense.

How Hirokazu Kanazawa Became a JKA Instructor

In 1956, Kanazawa was promoted to 3rd Dan and graduated from Takushoku. Like many other young graduates he became interesting for the corporate world. So, the Taiyo Fisheries Company tried to recruit him. However, Masatoshi Nakayama the Chief Instructor of the JKA, wanted him to join the newly formed Instructors Course. Therefore, Kanazawa chose this option instead of becoming a corporate man. Because he already had joined the Japan Karate Association during university and felt the confidence that he wanted to become a karate instructor.

Alongside Takayuki Mikami he graduated from the grueling instructors course in 1957. Their instructors included Nakayama, Hidetaka Nishiyama, Taiji Kase and Teruyuki Okazaki. As a result, he became an instructor at the JKA Honbu dojo, at several companies, and universities. So, he gave training at organizations like Musashi Industrial University, Mitsubishi Shoji Company, and Arabia Oil Company.

Winning the First JKA Championships with A Broken Wrist and Becoming Grand Champion

On 28 October 1957, the 1st All Japan Karate Association Championships took place at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium. Therefore, Kanazawa had trained intensively for the championships. However, five days before the championships were due to start, he broke his wrist in two places.

The injury upset Kanazawa and he decided not to compete. But his mother had traveled to Tokyo to watch him compete in the tournament. She asked him whether he had other limbs he could use. Certainly, not wanting to disappoint her he entered the tournament. He used his good hand for blocking and his kicks for scoring, all the way through the tournament. To the astonishment of the audience and himself he won four fights by ippon. Moreover, he defeated Katsunori Tsuyama in the kumite final and became the first JKA kumite champion ever.

Hirokazu Kanazawa together with his mother after winning the first JKA championships in kumite.
Hirokazu Kanazawa together with his mother after winning the first JKA championships in kumite.

In the following year in 1958, he exceeded his success from the previous year. Hirokazu Kanazawa became the first ever Grand Champion of the All Japan Karate Championships. While his victory was clear in kata, kumite posted a bigger challenge. In a memorable kumite final he faced Takayuki Mikami. Both men fought as if it was a battle about life and death. In the end, the judges decided on a draw. Therefore, Kanazawa and Mikami shared the kumite title.

First Deployement of Hirokazu Kanazawa Abroad

The year 1961 hold many changes for Hirokazu Kanazawa. Firstly, he got promoted to the rank of a 5th dan. Secondly, the JKA send him to Hawaii to become Chief Instructor on 22 January 1961. For the next two years, he introduced the new art of Shotokan karate to the island.

Our partner website Finding Karate

However, his first deployment was not free of problems. For instance, he had to face challenges from other instructors of other karate styles and martial arts. They wanted to test the authenticity of his karate and his strength. He managed to prevent some escalations through talking many conflicts. However, five challengers post more difficulties. Even after several rounds of talking they still wanted a physical confrontation. They all lost.

Hirokazu Kanazawa: Very old fighting scenes.

Visit of Okinawa, the Birthplace of Karate

Always eager to experience other styles of karate, Kanazawa visited the birthplace of Karate, Okinawa. While on the peninsula he traveled around in order to train in as many dojos as possible. For instance, he visited the dojos of Shorin-Ryu founder Chosin Chibana and that of his student Higa Yuchoku. I would not be his last visit to Okinawa.

Hirokazu Kanazawa and The First JKA Promotion Tour

On 29 March 1965, Kanazawa embarked from Haneda Airport, Tokyo, alongside Taiji Kase, Keinosuke Enoeda and Hiroshi Shhirai on a world tour for the JKA. The tour aimed to introduce the JKA and Shotokan karate to the global stage. The touring party visited cities in the United States, West Germany, Belgium, Holland, France, England and South Africa. The tour succeeded and led to a request for JKA instructors to teach outside of Japan.

For Hirokazu Kanazawa himself the tour also led to another major change in his life: He became the resident instructor to the British Karate Federation (BKF), which had joint JKA. However, his contract duration was only for one year. When he left the BKF in 1966 many of his students felt a huge disappointment, because Hirokazu Kanazawa had gained popularity among British karateka. The reason for him leaving the BKF laid in the split of the organization. Thus, he became the chief instructor of the newly formed KUGB. That same year the JKA promoted him to 6th Dan.

One year later, Hirokazu Kanazawa moved again. The JKA asked him to become chief instructor to the German Karate Federation in 1967. So, Keinosuke Enoeda took over his role as chief instructor to the KUGB.

During this time in Great Britain he also must had got in contact with somebody from the film industry. In 1968, he played a very tiny role as a karate fighter in the British tv series The Saint with Roger Moore. As far as we know, this was his only detour to the film industry though.

When Kanazawa left the Germany to return to Japan in 1970, he recommended Hideo Ochi to take over from him.

Hirokazu Kanazawa in the tv series The Saint with Roger Moore.

Back to Japan and Moving Up in the JKA-Hierarchy

1971 became another year of changes for Hirokazu Kanazawa. The JKA promoted him to 7th Dan and he became general manager of the international division of the JKA International Section. Furthermore, he received appointments of Musashikogyo, Kantogakuin, and Kitasato universities to become their chief instructor

For the next few years, Kanazawa worked tirelessly as a senior member of the JKA. He was the General Manager of the Japanese team sent to the 2nd WUKO World Championships, held in Paris, France. He also referred at the 1st IAKF World Championships and the JKA Asia-Oceania Championships, both in 1976.

Hirokazu Kanazawa´s “Dismissal” from the JKA and Founding of SKIF

For many years, Kanazawa occurred as one of the main faces of the JKA. Thus, it came as a huge shock when he left the JKA in 1977. What really happened at that time is only in the knowledge of the participants. But two legends exist. The first one says that Hirokazu Kanazawa sent a letter of resignation as a JKA director to the honbu dojo. However, he did not resign as a JKA instructor.

Legend I

The reasons for his resignation was that one of his major tasks was to unify all the different JKA groups around the world. He felt he had failed to do this. Therefore, he step down as director of the international division. For some people within the JKA this came as treason and a sign of weakness and the wanted to see him expelled. While on a trip to Europe he received a dismissal letter from the JKA. He was shocked, because he had never wanted to leave the JKA.

Legend II

The second legends says that Hirokazu Kanazawa had already engaged in talks with other former JKA instructors, who had left the organization. Some of them already started to setup their own karate associations in Europe. They felt treated unfair within the Nakayama dominated JKA. Therefore, they organized and approached Hirokazu Kanazawa to become their figurehead. When high ranking official in the JKA honbu dojo became aware of the talks they preempted Kanazawa´s resignation and removed him from the organizations by themselves.

Hirokazu Kanazawa found the Shotokan Karate International Federation

Independent of which legend one beliefs, Hirokazu Kanazawa formed the Shotokan Karate-do International Federation (SKIF) under his leadership in 1977. His technical prowess and international profile soon attracted many students and countries joined the organization. As a result, it is still one of the biggest Shotokan association world wide.

International Tournaments

In the 1980´s and 1990´s Hirokazu Kanazawa focused to established the SKIF on the international stage. He also acted as an international referee. In 1980, he was the referee at the 5th WUKO World Championships held in Madrid, Spain. The following year he acted as referee at the 1st World Games, held in Santa Clara, California. In 1983, the 1st SKIF World Championships took place in Tokyo, Japan. 25 countries took part. Hitoshi Kasuya of Japan won the kata title, with Aidan Trimble of England winning the men’s kumite title. H. Kumakura of Japan won the women’s kata title and Japan won the team kumite title. Two years later, the SKIF World Championships in Düsseldorf, Germany. Since then, they have become an important event in the Shotokan calendar.

In 1990 at Osamu Ozawa’s 10th Traditional Karate Tournament International, one of the biggest showcases in the world for traditional Karate styles, the organizers invited Kanazawa to demonstrate his style of Shotokan Karate. THe audience received his demonstration well. He was also invited to the 14th and 15th Traditional Karate Tournament international events, also held in Las Vegas.

Dan Promotions of Hirokazu Kanazawa

The International Martial Arts Federation (IMAF) promoted Hirokazu Kanazawa to 8th dan in 1988. Ten years later, he received the 9th Dan by SKIF. In April 2000 and at the 7th SKIF World Championships held in Bali, Indonesia, the IMAF awarded his 10th dan. Currently, he is together with Teruyuki Okazaki, Hiroshi Shirai, and Ueki Masaaki the only Shotokanka, who has ever promoted to 10th dan.

Hirokazu Kanazawa during a seminar in Germany in 1999.

Later Years and Retirement

In January 2009, Kanazawa suffered a skiing accident. He fell badly, crushing three of his vertebra. He was in his 70s. After he recovered, he continued traveling around the world conducting courses and seminars.

However, after decades of traveling, Kanazawa decided to spend more time in his native Japan in 2012. That year after the SKIF World Championships held in Sydney, Australia, he retired from active traveling and teaching. Over the course of his career he had traveled to more than 130 countries and instructed hundred thousands of students.

Two years later at a special ceremony held in Tokyo on 5 April 2014 Hirokazu Kanazawa officially passed the leadership of the SKIF to his son Nobuaki and Manabu Murakami.

Hirokazu Kanazawa together with his son Nobuaki (right) and Manabu Murakami (left)

Hirokazu Kanazawa´s Life Beside Karate

Kanazawa has practiced Tai Chi for many years and credits it for his longevity in karate. He started practicing the art in 1957 under the tutelage of Mr Yang. He has also made extensive studies of Okinawan weapons such as the sai, tonfa and nunchuku. A keen historian he has also researched many of the kata found in Shotokan Karate.

Kanazawa has three sons, Nobuaki, Fumitoshi and Daizo. Unfortunately, their mother died at a young age. All three of Kanazawa’s sons are professional karateka with an exceptional skills. Hiyori Kanazawa, daughter of Nobuaki Kanazawa and grand champion of the SKIF world championships 2019, has already step into to the footsteps of her grandfather. With her the 3rd Kanazawa generation coins the global Shotokan community.

Hirokazu Kanazawa with his grand daugther Hiyori.

Noted Shotokan practitioner, Terry O’Neill, once wrote about Kanazawa,

“He is the perfect specimen of the type of person the art of Karate can develop – there will never be a finer living example of what Karate at its highest level really is.”

Hirokazu Kanazawa is considered one of the most skillful karate masters of all time. A great technician and an excellent instructor, he has built up a loyal and dedicated following of students. A gentle and sincere man, he has been able to convey the concepts of karate to many generations of students. As prolific author, he has also had many instructional books and videos produced. It could be argued that many people would not have started karate if they had not seen demonstrations from this very talented master. In any case, he is a true legend of Shotokan karate.

Opener picture by Jim Palmer

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Increasing Life-Expectancy Will Lead To 11th Dan

The 11th dan in Shotokan karate has been a grotesque idea until lately. But the art has been already having 4 10th dan holders. Will the increase in life-expectancy lead to a 11th dan in the future? An analysis by Dr. Christian Tribowski

This year, Ueki Masaaki of the JKA received the 10th Dan. Together with Hirokazu Kanazawa, Teruyuki Okazaki, and Hiroshi Shirai he serves as the highest ranking Shotokan Karateka in the world and in history. Before those four, no living Karate master hold a 10th dan in Shotokan Karate. And nobody has ever hold a 11th dan either. Yet.

11th Dan Becomes Probable

The likelihood for the awarding of a 11th dan has increased. A simple reason leads to this. When the Federation of All Japan Karate-do Organizations (FAJKO, the predecessor organization of the JKF) established its dan promotion system in 1970 people dies earlier. The FAJKO decided to award a 10th dan only when an awardee had reached 70 years of age or higher (see table 1).

The FAJKO established a system for the awarding of dan ranks. An 11th dan was not intended.
Table 1: FAJKO age and experience requirements for dan gradings and honory awards. Thank you Chuck Coburn for providing us with this table.

Many things have changed since 1970 and so did the life-expectancy. In 1970, the average Japanese male died with round about 72. So, the amount of people, who reached the age requirement for becoming considered for a 10th dan, was much lower. Today, however, the average has grown tremendously. In 2017, the average Japanese male can expect to live 84 years according to data provided by the World Bank (Table 2). With his 80 years Ueki Masaaki Sensei, therefore, is still below the average. Due to his excellent fitness he can expect to reach 100 years of age. We, in any case, wish him good health and a long happy life.

Life-expectancy in Japan has increased and makes the awarding of a 11th dan more likely.
Table 2: Life-expectancy in Japan since 1960. Source: World Bank.

Adjustment of System or Inflation of Dan Ranks

If the system stays like this Shotokan will experience an inflation of higher 10th dan. Because even today, the life-expectancy rises. It rises slower than in the 1960´s or 1970´s. But it rises. 8th dan holders like Nobuaki Kanazawa, who is only 47 years now, have already a life-expectancy of 90 years. Thus, Kanazawa Sensei can practice Karate for another 40 years or longer. We wish him a lucky and long happy life, too.

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What is Kime? Some Remarks About an Often Misunderstood Concept

Kime is the central concept of Shotokan Karate

Kime is the central concept of Shotokan karate do. However, many practitioners misinterpret it with a esoteric force. But what is it really? By Thomas D. McKinnon

Kime (jap. 決め): where mind, body and spirit meet with intent, from the core of your being to the point of delivery.

Definition by Thomas McKinnon

Depending on the dictionary, it may be defined as decide, focus of power, or finish. Literal translation is a ‘decision’ or ‘commitment’; also, concentration of spirit, mind and physical body at an intended, particular point.

It’s not unusual to find that a word can mean many things, and it is even less unusual to find that a term in Japanese doesn’t translate smoothly into English. Outside of the martial arts, the word kime is ambiguous at best. However, within that esteemed enclave, the meaning of it becomes even more abstruse.

How Westerners Try to Explain Kime

I have heard various instructors (usually westerners) trying to explain the concept:

Thomas McKinnon training kime with Gyaku-Zuki.
Thomas McKinnon training kime with Gyaku-Zuki

1. “Accelerating into your target, where your kime focuses the energy.”

2. “is the ability to rapidly deliver power into the target.

3. “a destructive force that, once mastered, transforms the student into a master.

4. Even the almighty Wikipedia says kime means “power, and/or focus.

These are but a few of the many I’ve heard. I’ve also heard those who would debunk kime:

5. It “is merely a physical contraction that happens when, in traditional karate in particular (because most of its practice is done against an imaginary target), the antagonist muscles (that is the opposing muscles to those used to initiate whichever technique) are used to stop a technique; denoted by the snapping of the gi.

Those who subscribe to 1, 2, 3 or 4 are merely trying to verbalize a feeling that is so elusive it escapes purely physical, logical explanation. And those who subscribe to number 5 simply don’t grasp the concept and never actually feel kime. I find that some of the sport karate or freestyle orientated styles, with no traditional roots, those who, instead of the Japanese term, use words like fixate, or phrases like, ‘Deliver vigorously, and pull the punch,’ fall into this category.

Frank Nowak´s view on the Concept

One of my favourite metaphors, concerning the term, I heard from Frank Nowak Sensei, sadly now deceased. Originally from Germany, after completing the legendary Nakayama Sensei’s JKA Instructors Course, Nowak Sensei immigrated to Australia in 1971. Nowak Sensei was the very first recipient of the “Best Referee Award” by WUKO, at the World Championships in Taiwan in 1982:

“Imagine an antitank weapon firing, first of all, a missile without a warhead at a tank; the missile would surely rock that tank but would probably not stop or incapacitate it. Now picture that missile, fitted with an explosive warhead, hitting that same tank… That is the difference between hitting with and without kime!”

Masatoshi Nakayama and Hirokazu Kanazawa

Shotokan legend, the late Nakayama Masatoshi Sensei, founder of the Japan Karate Association (JKA) in 1949, and Chief Instructor of the JKA until his passing in 1987, said:

“The essence of karate technique is kime. Kime may result from striking, punching or kicking, but also from blocking. A technique lacking kime is never true karate. “

Shotokan legend, Kanazawa Hirokazu Sensei, founder of the Shotokan Karate-Do International Federation (SKIF) in 1977, is still Chief Instructor of SKIF. As a younger man, while traveling the world, an emissary for the JKA, he would demonstrate how it can work by taking a stack of four or five boards and – after asking which of the boards the observers wanted him to break – striking the stack, breaking only the required board.

The picture shows the master of kime Hirokazu Kanazawa.
Master of kime doing an Oi-Zuki: Hirokazu Kanazawa

My Experience with Kime

While in the army I was a useful boxer; I was fast but not heavily muscled, with no concept of kime. No matter how hard I tried, and I stopped several opponents with my ferocious onslaughts, I could never manage that one punch knock-out. That changed after beginning my Shotokan training and, thanks to kime, half a century later I’m still renowned for my knock-out blow capacity.

Everyone has their own special relationship with, and understanding of, kime; regardless of opinions to the contrary, kime is a very real phenomenon. Kime is fundamentally an essential, qualitative part of any martial art. Without kime, any technique in any art – a boxing punch, Jujitsu throw, Muay Thai elbow, Iaido cut, or any of the precision strikes of Shotokan ‒ lacks the necessary quality to give said technique its full potential.

For the martial arts fraternity, Shotokan Karateka in particular, kime is an internal function that can be observably demonstrated during the practice of kihon, kata and kumite. I know it when I feel it; and, as an instructor, I recognise it when I see it.

About the Author

Writer and author Thomas D. McKinnon is a lifelong karateka, a multi-accredited international Martial Arts Specialist in Boxing, Karate, Kung Fu, Bushido, Muay Thai and military Close Quarter Combat with combined experience of more than 55 years’.  He is also a former British Parachute Regiment soldier and international Close Personal Protection Specialist (Bodyguard), and was a tactical and self-defence instructor for the Australian security industry for a period of twenty-five years. He is Chief Instructor of Torakan, Shotokan Karate-Do, and Technical Advisor to the Karate Union of Australia.

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Women of Shotokan: Ildikó Rédai

To get yourself up and back to competitions after a torn ACL is a huge challenge and requires endurance, persistence, and a strong will. Ildikó Rédai, our today´s Woman of Shotokan, mastered the challenge and fought her way back to the Tatami. She is not just a very successful competitor but also national Kata coach of Hungary. This summer, she will face the next great challenge: She will lead her team to the SKIF World Championship in Czech Republic. Our guess: She will prevail. Read this inspiring and highly motivational interview with Ildikó Rédai. By Dr. Christian Tribowski

Ildikó Rédai will lead her team as a national Kata coach of Hungary to the SKIF World Championship in the Czech Republic this summer.

Portrait: Ildikó Rédai

  • Name: Ildikó Rédai
  • Age: 39
  • Karate since: 1989
  • Origin and residence: origin Hungary / residence The Netherlands
  • Rank: 4. Dan
  • Dojo: various

Additional information:

  • SKIF Hungary national kata coach and vice chairmen SKIF Hungary,
  • 2x SKIF European champion kata (2011/2014),
  • SKDUN European championships 3rd place (2014),
  • JKS Euro Cup 1st place (2017),
  • JKA and SKIF national champion in Hungary and Netherlands.

What was the reason that you started Shotokan Karate?

Ildikó Rédai: I was a child who couldn’t really sit in one place for too long so I needed to find a sport. When I started karate, I haven’t had many options to choose from and karate just started in the town where I lived. So, my Mum took me to my first lesson, years passed by, and I have stuck around since then. At that time, Karate Kid came out in the cinemas and we had a Hungarian tv show with a fighting girl. But that wasn’t the first inspiration. I liked that you could do many things and that you need some skills which I also had – like flexibility. Running bare feet outside were some less enjoyable parts but we did it – no questions asked …

Ildiko during a seminar

What do you like about Shotokan Karate?

Ildikó Rédai: Shotokan karate compared to other styles is hard but still elegant with the long stances and punches. I like also the traditional shobu ippon kumite rules, where you have to score one perfect point to win. It is straight forward, you win or lose, not much space for errors. This should make you work for perfection for the techniques during training.

Is there something you do not like? What is it?

Ildikó Rédai: Unfortunately, too many federations are involved in Shotokan karate nowadays. They are not always willing to work or train together or allowed to participate at each other’s competitions or events. Especially, when it comes to open Shotokan competitions and participants get point reductions for performing a kata according to a particular standard and getting judged by a referee from a different federation. Everybody should be more open minded about techniques and why are they performed in a particular way instead of giving a negative feedback to something that is different. The political aspects are my least favorite part of karate.

Training under the guidance of Kancho Nobuaki Kanazawa during a technical seminar in Belgium

What has been your greatest and your worst experience so far related to Shotokan Karate?

Ildikó Rédai: I have many great experiences involving traveling around the world participating on World and European championships or even just for seminars. Getting to know many countries and wonderful karate people and karate masters in the world.Winning European championships definitely one of the most memorable experience that happened. Other great things are the trips to Japan. I had the opportunity to train in many different Dojo’s and see this wonderful country.

Worst thing what happened is injury related, when I tore my ACL during a tournament in 2014. I had a one-year break from competing and I doubted if I could ever set a foot on the tatami again. Luckily, the recovery went well and I could participate at the SKIF World Championship in Indonesia where I reached the finals.

What do you do when the training becomes challenging? Where do you get motivation from?

Ildikó Rédai: Training is very often challenging because I train on my own mostly and then I have to rely on myself to get up and go practicing. I visit my Sensei´s abroad, which means a lot of driving or flying. In Belgium sensei Yvan de Windt and in Siciliy sensei Santo Torre helping me and I go there as much as I can to get great inspiration and motivation from time to time. Seminars are also a great source of motivation. There are always some new ideas that I can learn and build into my training. Of course my fellow Karateka, friends, and family are also around and sometimes convincing and encouraging me not to give up. A good talk helps a lot sometimes.

How has Shotokan Karate changed you as a person?

Ildikó Rédai: Maybe I can control myself better to not say or do things over rushed as I might tend to do. It gave me more confidence about myself.

How has Shotokan Karate influenced your life? Has it helped you overcome or deal with difficult situations in your life? Is it helping you on a daily basis with the challenges of life?

Ildikó Rédai: It influences my life almost on a daily basis. During my ACL recovery I had to train like I was preparing for a competition. I couldn’t have this mindset without all the training I did before.

During warm up

How has your Shotokan Karate changed over time?

Ildikó Rédai: When I started first, I started mostly at Kumite competitions. Later, I also started at kata competitions. After a couple of years, I start mostly in kata and trying to perfect my skills. Although I still like kumite and it is very important to practice now and then, the body unfortunately gets older and I do not have the right speed for it. I hope my karate will improve with the years (that is also the reason why we are training). I’m also interested to implement different training methods from other sports to get some diversity.

What are your personal Shotokan Karate short- and long-term goals?

Ildikó Rédai: The short-term goal is to get as a national kata coach the Hungarian team ready for the SKIF World Championship this summer.

I’d like to carry on and taking the next dan examination in the future. Learning from different styles and martial arts is another goal, which I think is very important at a certain level. Teaching and coaching nationally and internationally will be among my plans. Organizing seminars together with other inspirational karate women is also one of my goals. One day, hopefully, I will have my own Dojo and students.

How should Shotokan Karate evolve in the future?

Ildikó Rédai: I’d like to see a closer gap between WKF and other federations with less difference between “sport” and “traditional” karate. Karate is still a martial art. You need some physical abilities and for top competitions you still need excellent condition. But you should not to forget basic traditional values as respect and humbleness.

Yoko-Geri by Ildikó Rédai

Would you recommend Shotokan Karate to your female friends? Why?

Ildikó Rédai: Karate benefits the health. You have a diversity of exercises for strength, speed, endurance, and flexibility. It keeps you strong, makes you slim and eventually you don’t have to be scared to walk through a dark street if you learn to place some punches and kicks on the right spots. I see many young girls starting. But they leave right at the moment, when they actually become good. I think it is not only necessary to recommend to start. But it is also necessary to encourage to carry on practicing karate.