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Masao Kagawa: The Competitor and Teacher

The picture shows Masao Kagawa. In the 1990´s he bet students during training with a Kendo Shinai.

Masao Kagawa belongs to the most prominent Shotokan karate instructors of today. Two things made this prominence possible: Firstly, his media presents. A myriad of explanatory videos on YouTube and Facebook have introduced him to a global audience. Secondly, he is without exaggeration one of the best technicians and competitors of his generation, who came out of the Japan Karate Association (JKA). As winner of numerous titles and graduate of the JKA instructors course he has developed into one of the best instructors in the world. By Patrick Donkor, Dr. Christian Tribowski, and Dr. Jeff Christian

In addition, he is also one of the most influential personalities in the karate world. Executing influence in the realm of traditional karate and sports karate. He bridges this gap by being head of the Japan Karate Shoto-Renmai and as Chair of the technical committee of the WKF.

Early Life of Masao Kagawa

Masao Kagawa was born June 8, 1955 in Osaka, Japan. His older brother, Masayoshi, was eleven years older and would eventually become like a father to him. In 1965 at only 10 years old, Kagawa’s father died. Five years later, his mother passed away as well. It was then that his brother Masayoshi who became his guardian and his role model for starting karate.

Masayoshi Kagawa teaching kihon in Osaka.

Years later in 1972, Masao Kagawa traveled to Tokyo to watch his brother compete at the Budokan, the home of Japanese martial arts. This was the first time he had left Osaka. While his brother practiced karate and took part in competitions, he preferred to play baseball instead. This preference changed, however, when he saw his brother became victorious in the Budokan.

The tournament held in the Budokan was nothing but the 15th All Japan JKA Championships. In the final kumite bout his brother fought against nobody less than Yoshiharu Osaka, one of the best technician Shotokan karate has ever produced. The victory of his brother made him want to train karate. So, he gave up his pursuit of a baseball career and started to learn Shotokan.

Beginnings in Karate Training

His brother became the first teacher of Masao Kagawa. Masayoshi taught in the JKA branch in Osaka and his training could become very tough. This hardness took a toll on Masao Kagawa. During the years, his brother trained him he suffered several injuries, including a broken nose and broken teeth.

But he was dedicated to become an excellent karateka. Therefore, he enrolled at Teikyo University in 1976 to study Law. In the first place, however, he enrolled at Teikyo University because it Karate Club had a reputation for its traditional Karate program. It also had a long history producing champions, especially for the national team. The Chief Instructor was Keigo Abe, who had been a senior to Kagawa’s older brother. Abe had gained fame as an exceptional karate technique.

Joining the JKA Instructors Program and Becoming Champion

After graduating with a degree in Law, Kagawa stayed at Teikyo University in 1980 to pursuit a postgraduate degree. Three years later in 1983, he, however, decided to become a professional karate teacher and enrolled on the JKA Instructors Course. As a result he received training from Masatoshi Nakayama,  Tetsuhiko AsaiMasahiko Tanaka, Masaaki Ueki, and Keigo Abe.

Masao Kagawa in the JKA instructors program

Kagawa had started competing around 1974. At university he competed at the Kanto University Championships for Teikyo University and won several medals. But his excellence came to light in his professional career because of the influenced of Tetsuhiko Asai and Mikio Yahara. He always watched them during training sessions, learning from their relaxed, dynamic techniques. Between 1983 to 1991 he always featured in the top three positions of all competitions he entered. In 1985 Kagawa emulated his older brother, Masayoshi, by winning the individual kumite title at the 28th JKA All Japan Championships. He also won the kata event, becoming Grand Champion. He retired from active competition around 1991 eventually.

Major Tournament Successes of Masao Kagawa

His major tournament successes include:

  • IAKF World Championships, Team Kata – 1st place (1983)
  • Shoto Cup, Individual Kumite – 1st place (1990)
  • World Games, Individual Kata – 1st place 1990)
  • World Games, Individual Kumite – 1st place (1990)
  • JKA All Japan Championships, Individual Kata – 1st place (1985, 1990, 1991)
  • JKA All Japan Championships, Individual Kumite – 1st place (1985, 1989, 1990, 1991)
  • Grand Champion of the JKA All Japan Championships – (1985)
Masao Kagawa during the JKA All Japan Championships 1985 against Ogura Sensei

Masao Kagawa´s Separation From the JKA

After Masatoshi Nakayama´s Death in 1987 the Tokyo businessmen, Nobuyuki Nakahara became Chairman of the JKA. As a result some instructors, led by Tetsuhiko Asai, disagreed with the appointment. The JKA split into two opposing fractions. One was the Matsuno and the other the Nakahara fraction. The Matsuno supported Asai and included Keigo Abe, Akihito Isaka, Mikio Yahara, and Kagawa. Nakahara fraction included Masaaki Ueki, Yoshiharu Osaka, and Masahiko Tanaka. Both fractions referred to themselves as the JKA.

The picture shows Masao Kagawa.
Masao Kagawa

This dispute about the true heirs of the Nakayama JKA caused a ten-year legal battle. The Nakahara fraction received the right of the sole use of the JKA name in 1999, following a Japanese High Court ruling. As a result, the Matsuno fraction left the JKA and soon split into three groups:

  • The Japan Karate Shoto-Renmai (JKS) led by Tetsuhiko Asai
  • Japan Shotokan Karate Association (JSKA) led by Keigo Abe
  • The Karatenomichi World Federation (KWF) led by Mikio Yahara

Kagawa joined the group led by Asai.

In 2006 former JKA Chief Instructor, Tetsuhiko Asai, died. Kagawa was eventually asked lead Asai’s JKS. Under his guidance the organization has grown into one of the biggest and most influential.

Successes as Coach

Beside his engagement with the JKA Kagawa also became the Chief Instructor of the Teikyo University Karate Club. Using the knowledge, he gained from being a top competitor, he began producing the next group of Japanese world beaters. The crop of new talent included Koji Arimoto, Takato Souma, and Takumi Sugino.

With a wealth of experience, he became a coach in the Japanese National Team. At the 2004 World Championships, held in Monterrey, Mexico, he coached Shinji Nagaki kumite gold, in the 70 kg event.

Kagawa’s coaching success continued at the 2012 World Championships held in Paris, France. He coached the Japanese Men’s kata team to gold medals consisting of his proteges Koji Arimoto, Takato Souma, and Takumi Sugino. In the final they performed the kata Unsu.

Watch the full performance of the Japanese Team.

Masao Kagawa´s Relationship to the JKF and WKF

Masao Kagawa continued his close association with the Japanese National Team as a coach. Consequently he became the Chairman of the National Coach Committee of the Japan Karate Federation. In this capacity he also developed a close association with the World Karate Federation (WKF). In 2014 he became Chairman of the Technical Committee of the WKF. He took over from Tsuguo Sakumoto.

Kagawa’s aim as Chairman of the WKF Technical Committee was to see Karate become an Olympic sport. Consequently he has been at the forefront of pushing this to happen. On August 3, 2016 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that Karate would be one of the new sports making their Olympic debut at the 2020 Games to be held in Tokyo, Japan. This has divided opinion in the karate world.

As a result, some see this as a slippery slope, a sign that karate is losing its budo soul. However, proponents of karate’s inclusion feel that it may lead to an increase interest in karate. To clarify, Kagawa firmly believes that Olympic recognition should not have an impact on traditional Karate.

Masao Kagawa: A Competitor and Teacher

In general, he sees Karate as a mentoring tool for young people. His educational engagement was awarded with an Mizuno Sports Mentor Award in 2013. Apart from being the Chief Instructor at Teikyo University, he is also a board member of the Kanto Area University Student Karate-Do Federation.

Their cannot be any doubt that Masao Kagawa is one of the best technicians to come out of the JKA. Although people recognize him more as a phenomenal competitor, he is a traditionalist at heart. This can be seen by the bunkai he demonstrates at the numerous seminars and courses he conducts around the world.

Above all he is an example to all karateka that karate is a lifelong pursuit and not just a competitive sport for the young. Now in his 60´s he is still a formidable opponent. Due to his highly influential position we can be sure that he will guide and govern the development of karate in general and Shotokan in particular for at least another decade. This will give him a place between grand master of Shotokan.


Further Reading: Masao Kagawa autobiography can be found here.

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Kumite Classics: Masao Kagawa vs. Georg Best

Usually, Masao Kagawa´s style is nothing but splendid. But the following match was not the most beautiful fight. On the other hand, it still belongs to the most exciting matches in the history of Shotokan. In 1988, Masao Kagawa meet Georg Best at the JKA World Shotokan Cup in Brisbane, Australia. The incredible bout took therefore place between two most unequal fighters one could imagine.

A Bout Between Unequal Fighters

Masao Kagawa was already 33 years old and an accomplished fighter back then. Georg Best, on the other hand, had the role of the contender. However, he arrived in Brisbane with a tremendous winning streak. He who won the European Championships in the individual kumite category in 1986 and 1987. Georg Best had therefore no reason to worry. His self-esteem and his fighting spirit must have been on a high during this years.

Masao Kagawa vs. Georg Best – The Duel of the Unequal Opponents

Besides this fact, Georg best had another advantage: his size. As you can see in the video, he towered above Masao Kawaga. Georg Best was at least one head taller than his Japanese incumbent.

Masao Kagawa: No Means Against the Reach of Georg Best

The contenders had to meet in the individual and team kumite competition of the event. Both times, Georg Best could win the bouts. But Masao Kagawa showed an incredible amount of fighting spirit against the much taller British fighter. In the end, he did not find a means to deal with the difference in size. Georg Best utilized his advantage in a perfect way and kept Masao Kagawa on distance. Even with his splendid kicking techniques he did not manage to reach his opponent or to put him in real trouble. Georg Best understood in an smart way to dominate the fight through his reach.

For smaller karateka this fight teaches an excellent lesson to learn how to fight against taller opponents. Standard shobu ippon strategies might not work under such circumstances.

However, this duel is without a doubt a classic.

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Koji Arimoto: Unsu Jump and Bunkai

Koji Arimoto is a Shotokan prodigy. The world champion of 2012 has displayed his excellent skills in several Kata videos lately. One of the most astonishing is his explanatory video of the Unsu jump which was published by Andre Kok. He not just explains the right motion. He also shows its Bunkai.

Koji Arimoto About his Technical Education

Hi tremendous technical level comes stems from the rigorous education of his Sensei Masao Kagawa. In a recent interview with Karate-K.com he described what it means to take part in Masao Kagawas master class and instructor program: “Normally, it lasts two years. But for me, it lasted three years. After the first two years, Kagawa Shihan felt that I was not enough ready to teach yet. I then worked harder for another year to get my instructor exam. It is a training that requires a very high technical level and an outstanding will.”

The Difficulty of The Unsu Jump

However, the jump in Unsu confronts every Karateka with a challenge. The rotation takes place, on the one hand, around the horizontal axes. At the same time, the body is slightly diagonal. So the body also rotates around the vertical axes.

For some Karateka this move already poses a challenge to envision it. But Koji Arimoto does an excellent job in the video to explain, what the jump is about. In addition, he also shows its bunkai. It requires very advanced skills to execute such a jump without hurting or missing the opposite Karateka. Whether the bunkai comes close to reality or not, can be deemed as secondary. Above all, the control of the body and to master the movement are more important.

We in the editorial office of The Shotokan Times cannot remember that we have ever seen such a precise Bunkai of the Unsu jump? Have you? Then send us the video!

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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.