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.
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 Asai, Masahiko Tanaka, Masaaki Ueki, and Keigo Abe.
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´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.
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.
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.
Abuse Scandal of Ayumi Uekusa and Resignation of Masao Kagawa
In March 2021, The Japan Times published an article that national team member and world champion Ayumi Uekusa accused Masao Kagawa of abusive practices and bullying. According to further articles, he should have “frequently shouted at her and admonished her about her private life.” In addition, Masao Kagawa was alleged to use a Shinai (bamboo sword) for Kumite training. Students were supposed to block and defend against the Shinai while Masao Kagawa attacked them. Ayumi Uekusa testified that the Shinai hit her in the eye leaving a bruise during one sessions. Other students also got hit in the face according to her report. Kagawa had denied all allegations.
The JKF then ordered a hearing in front of the ethics committee of the organization. Ayumi Uekusa testified on April 1, 2021. Only six days later on April 7, 2021, media stations reported that Masao Kagawa was about to resign from his positions at JKF. He was quoted saying: “I take complete responsibility. In order to bring the matter to a close quickly, I’m resigning from all my positions at the Japan Karatedo Federation.” (Nikkan Sports late Tuesday).
This incident stands in strong correlation with a video of Masao Kagawa using a Shinai against a student for corporal punishment in Teikyo University Karate Club. The video appeared on Youtube and claims to be recorded in the 1990`s. It shows Masao Kagawa who bets a student during a training session several times and uses derogative language against the same student. An inquiry by The Dojo at the JKS about the practice and whether it is still applied in training stayed unanswered.
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 still play an important role in Shotokan Karate. How these role will look like cannot be predicted after the latest scandal regarding abusive practices.
Further Reading: Masao Kagawa autobiography can be found here.