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How can Sport Karate Become Respected Again?

The picture shows children fighting is sport karate gloves. Thus, we ask the question:Is Shotokan effective?

Sport Karate has lost the respect of the global budo karate and combat fighter community. The reasons for this has been the sanitizing of karate to make it more attractive for the Olympic Games. But this project has failed. Now it is time to consider reforms of Sport Karate, to make it respected again. A proposal of reforms in the column Shotokan Essence by T.D. McKinnon

A Proposal of Reforms

Olympic Karate has been talked about, at least, since my heyday as a fighter in Scotland in the 1970s. The tournament organizers have been sanitizing competition Karate ever since, to present a more visually attractive event to the Olympic committee.

But has the whole sanitizing exercise been worth it?

With France leaving Karate off the agenda for the 2024 Paris Olympics, in favor of breakdancing, it appears that the Olympic dream might begin and end at the 2020/21 Tokyo Olympics.

Therefore, the answer must be: No, it has not been worth it.

With the sensitization, sport karate has also lost a lot of respect within the Budo Karate and combat fighter communities. Yahara Mikio Sensei, when asked for his opinion of today’s sport Karate, is reported to have said, “No… no, this is not sport Karate… this maybe ‘sport fighting’, but this is not Karate.” I myself call modern sport karate ‘martial ping pong’ rather than a Martial Art.

Therefore, since the Olympic dream is over, let us start to envision how sport karate could regain its credibility. To do so, I will review a few elements in the WKF rule system and consider how they could be changed for the better. With a focus on Kumite, I will finish with a proposal of how future sport karate could and should look.

Sport Karate and World Karate Federation Rules

Within WKF point scoring competition, a score is awarded when a technique is performed according to the following criteria:

  • Good form,
  • sporting attitude,
  • vigorous application,
  • awareness,
  • good timing and
  • correct distancing.

Once these criteria have been met it depends on the technique how many points a fighter receives. I give you a brief overview here:

Ippon (3 points) is awarded for:

  • Jodan kicks
  • Any scoring technique delivered on a thrown or fallen opponent.

Waza-ari (2 points) is awarded for:

  • Chudan kicks.

Yuko (1 point) is awarded for:

  • Chudan or Jodan Tsuki
  • Jodan or Chudan Uchi.

Shortcomings of Sport Karate: WKF Rules and 4 Areas for Reform

So, where are the shortcomings of the WKF rule system? Following I discuss 4 areas of reform which are fundamental to karate. However, willfully or not, the WKF has neglected them.

1) The Lack of Kime

The first area stands at the center of karate: the concept of Kime. In the WKF rules, Kime is mentioned in the ‘Kata points to be considered’. However, it is yet not mentioned in the ‘Kumite points to be considered’. Why is that? There seems to be a lack of understanding of exactly what Kime is. And although Zanshin is not mentioned in the criteria it is mentioned in the latest rule changes (page 13 article VI) as a criterion often missing in a scoring technique. However, while I agree in regard to Zanshin, in my observation, Kime is the element most often missing from WKF competition scoring techniques.

Because Lack of Kime = lack of intent, that the controlled technique would indeed do the damage it represents. A technique can be ‘delivered vigorously’ (WKF criteria) and have no ‘Kime’. More acceptable, from a Budo standpoint, would be ‘delivered vigorously with Kime!’

2) The Role of Referees in WKF Competitions

In WKF competition, the referee conducts the competition but doesn’t seem to make any decisions concerning the actual scoring. Unless a corner judge shows a flag the referee cannot award a score. At the latest Australian Karate Federation (Australian national level of WKF) Championships, I observed missed flag calls on several occasions. No wonder. It is difficult enough to control a bout, let alone, simultaneously, watch for flag calls. Conversely, I did see referees, having recognized a scoring technique, stopping the bout; however, with no flag support, the referee was forced to restart the bout without awarding a point.

The picture shows that the Olympic Dream of the WKF is over. That is the reason why reforms of sport karate should be considered.
The Olympic Dream of the WKF is over!

3) Yuko is Unnecessary

In my competition days (and still in Shobu Ippon and Shobu Sanbon), an Ippon was a decisive strike leaving the opponent with no chance of defending against it. It had to be delivered with Kime, while balanced and in a state of Zanshin. A slightly less decisive technique would score a Waza-ari; two Waza-ari equaled one Ippon. Cleanly delivered kicks to the head and strikes to a downed opponent generally scored Ippon. However, any technique, regardless of its nature, delivered with all the scoring criteria in place could score an Ippon, if it was considered a decisive technique.

Many years ago, I watched (the legendary tournament fighter) Frank Brennan Sensei, subtly, encourage his opponent to attack with mawashi geri. Mid-kick, Frank executed a gyaku tsuki that knock him to the floor. Frank scored an Ippon, and his opponent received a Mubobi (unprotected while attacking recklessly). The epitome of timing!

With WKF criteria in today’s competition rules, a Yuko might be awarded for the gyaku tsuki; if indeed a warning isn’t given for excessive contact.

As mentioned in the WKF Rule Book – affective from 1.01.2019 – page 13 article X:

‘A worthless technique is a worthless technique – regardless of where and how it is delivered. A bad technique, which is badly deficient in good form, or lacking power, will score nothing.’

Quite right, it should score nothing. From a Budo standpoint: a technique that has not managed to touch enough bases to score a Waza-ari and has no potential to cause damage should score nothing. So where is the point of a Yuko?

And yet, technically, one Yuko can win a match. Indeed, one Yuko could win an Olympic Gold Medal. From a Budo standpoint, that is just wrong. Only a karateka, who really prevails, should win a fight.

4) Senshu Rule and Hikiwaki

Senshu rule: in the event of a draw, the fighter to have scored the first point in the match wins. This rule is questionable. In my competition days, I liked to claim a psychological edge by getting the first score. However, from a fighter’s viewpoint, the Senshu rule is nonsense. This rule creates the incentive to get the first point, which is usually a yuko, under any circumstances.

Even worse is the Hantei rule, whereupon a drawn match cannot be decided by Senshu, i.e. no score given. An arbitrary vote is taken. Hantei is another rule that, from a fighter’s perspective is nonsense. What if a fighter focuses on a counter-strategy? Hantei fosters hyper-active fighters instead of fighters with Zanshin.

In the event of Hikiwaki (a draw) we had Enchousen, a one-minute extension rule. If, at the end of that time, it was still a tie the ‘sudden death’ rule was applied (first score wins). Those rules worked well. They were quick, simple and easy for competitors, officials and audiences to understand.

Reforms of the WKF rules are necessary

Sport is generally considered good for an individual, especially the young: teaching many of life’s lessons. But sport is not for everyone. Not everyone benefits from the kind of stress that accompanies competition with others. Nevertheless, even for those who don’t wish to compete, seeing your art performed, realistically, at an elite level is enlivening.

However, flash and showmanship have replaced Budo and practicality in sport Karate. Not only has this trend lost the respect of the martial arts world, traditionalists and the martial combat fighters alike, but also the wider community. To reform the four mentioned areas would be at least a first step to a more acceptable approach of sport karate.

True Karate-Do Spirit is missing

I have felt for some time that the true spirit of Karate-Do is missing from sport Karate, particularly the WKF. It’s a shame, because competition on such a wide, varied, multi styled level could be a positive, developmental element in Karate-Do. It was for me. However, the tendency for the sport to take precedence, as in many purely sport orientated organizations, diminishes the understanding of the larger picture: Karate-Do.

Karate-Do is far more than sport, more than Budo even. Karate-Do is a way of life, a competition with one’s self: ‘to be better today than you were yesterday.’ Rather than

merely honing and perfecting a few athletic techniques, the goal is being better in an expansive, holistic way.

Shobu Sanbon as Alternative

As for the sport: for what it’s worth, to close the ever-widening gap between the sport and the art; I, a life-long karateka, would recommend to the WKF: If the Shobu Ippon format is too restricting, the Shobu Sanbon format could be implemented. It forces the karateka to focus on a few decisive and vigorous techniques but still offers enough time and space for spectacular action. Of course, if the WKF did that they would need to teach competitors and referees alike the difference between ‘Delivering Vigorously’ and ‘Delivering with Kime’!

This legendary fight between Toshihito Kokubun and Johan Johan LaGrange in Tokyo at the Shoto World Cup 2000 shows how intense and exciting Shobu Sanbon fights can be.
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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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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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“Shobu Ippon is not a game like Sport Karate.” Thomas Prediger about Kumite

Shobu ippon and sport karate could not be more different. Thomas Prediger, however, knows both because he won the Shoto-Cup and was kumite head coach of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany. In this interview he illuminates the difference between both systems and why he thinks that sport karate is a game. By Dr. Christian Tribowski

Kumite Boot Camp is the regular column of Thomas Prediger in which he will discuss crucial topics for Shotokan Karate. This time, he spoke with Dr. Christian Tribowski about Shobu Ippon and Sport Karate.

What are the Difference Between Shobu Ippon and Sport Karate?

Christian: Where is the difference between the competition you have descript and the one´s that foster Do?

Thomas: You can see the difference when you look at the big associations: The WKF with its 8-point system and the JKA with the 1-point, Shobu Ippon system. The JKA also renounces weight-classes. Both systems have advantages and disadvantages, because they are man-made. But we have to consider the aim of the competition. The 8-point system of the WKF does not lead to situations that foster Do. It is more like a process-oriented sport where power and speed are paramount.

The idea behind that system is, that over the course of a match the fastest and more powerful will win. Athletic determines the outcome of the match. While the JKA Shobu Ippon system creates way more uncertainties one has to deal psychologically with. The outcome of the match is not determined by your physical traits but rather through your mental state.

Just compare the fighters in both systems. WKF fighters are very athletic. The JKA fighters are less athletic but they have a splendid attitude, are very honest, and do not avoid dangerous situations.

The 8-Point WKF System is flawed

Christian: Does that also mean that the 8-point system offers more options to take advantage of it?

Thomas: Yes! You can see that every year because the WKF constantly adjusts the rules. This goes also for World Championships. Right after the tournament the WKF alters the rules.

For example, some competitors do not tie their Gi very well. The reason is simple: if the Gi opens the referee has to stop the fight. That buys them time when they are under pressure. Because they can pull the Gi a bit and it opens. Before the last World Championship, the WKF changed the rules so that the ties at the Gi must be closed. Athletes could steer the fight with such measurements.

However, when you do not have a rule for such things like it is in the Shobu Ippon system then a fighter cannot take advantage. They would not gain anything by having lose ties at their Gi. That is something I find immensely important about Shobu Ippon: The rules force you to specific actions.

Shobu Ippon as an Educational Situation

Christian: Does that mean that Shobu Ippon has a different educational effect then the 8-point system?

Thomas: Exactly! The 8-point system leads to an inconsequential attitude. Because after the first point you get 7 more points to make-up your mistakes. Such a system does not reflect the seriousness of a real-life situation where you usually do not have more than one opportunity to defend or attack. Shobu Ippon is not a game like Sport Karate.

On the other hand, the execution of the technique has no decisive effect whether you get a point in Sport Karate or not. When you touch your opponent with your fist or your foot you will receive a point. In Shobu Ippon power and clean techniques are serious categories. If your technique is to weak you won’t get a point.

Keisuke Nemoto has been 5 times JKA All Japan Karate Kumite Championship. He is an shobu ippon expert.

Educational Goals of Shobu Ippon

Christian: But what educational goals does Shobu Ippon exactly want to achieve?

Thomas: Very provocative speaking: To learn to loss! You must have the ability to loss. That sounds simple. But it is a different way to loss than in an 8-point system. In Shobu Ippon losing is always possible and sometimes you do not have much influence on it. In a single blow a fight could be over.

Thus, you need a completely different awareness and tolerance. Due to the fact that the power of the punches and kicks is judged you might get hit but the referee does not give a point. These punches can still hurt und you have to stand that. The pressure of the situation is, therefore, very high. Your task is to stay capable to act and react. That requires inner balance and strength.

Christian: And focus, right?

Thomas: Under pressure you need the coolness to focus on your one technique that finishes your opponent. For instance, if you want to use a Gyaku-zuki then you always face the danger that you also get hit. Thus, you have to put everything you have into this one punch.

Christian: But let’s assume that we have a Shobu Ippon tournament and the winner will receive 100.000 US-Dollar. The incentive to fight and to win is now completely different than usually. Do you not think that such an incentive would lead to cheating as well?

Thomas: Some incentives are good. But I agree. Extreme prize moneys will again pervert the system. The competitors will then rather be motivated in a financial way. However, if we keep the rule system lean, we will still generate the learning effects. The motivation is less important for learning than the modus of your learning. Shobu Ippon is the more honest system. Competitors just do not have that much options to exploit the system.

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The Olympic Dream of the WKF is Over! And rightfully so

The Olympic Dream of the WKF is over

The Olympic dream for Karate is over. And the decision by the french Olympic Committee was right. A commentary by Thomas Prediger

The Olympic Dream of the WKF is Over

It did not last long – the Olympic dream of Karate. Last Friday, the organizers of the Olympics 2024 in Paris proposed to the IOC to remove Karate from the shortlist. The Shotokan Times reported about the decision. Instead, Breakdancing and Skateboarding should be included. This is especially sad for all Karateka who sacrificed so much to make their dream come true. Karate at the Olympics will only be a brief intermezzo.

For some it appears as if the participation of Karate at the 2020 Games in Tokyo would have been an acknowledgment to the host country Japan. But it is striking that in France, the country with the largest national World Karate Federation (WKF) section, Karate was excluded. The reason for the rejection of Karate might lay deeper and within the WKF itself.

WKF does not Represent the Global Karate Community

The WKF was recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1999. Since then, it is the sole representative of Karate at the IOC. Like no other organization the WKF has claimed to represent the global Karate community. However, this is not the case and it might be that the committee in Paris realized this. Too many countries and associations did not want to follow the WKF way of Sports Karate. Although it was the only way to the Olympics. Especially, more traditionalist associations had difficulties with the 8-point system, gloves, and foot-protection. Not everybody dream t the Olympic Dream of the WKF. The bureaucracy (e.g. at tournaments), the imposition of WKF rules on national competitions and associations, the stark similarities between Sports Karate and Taekwondo, and the gradual commercialization and exaggeration of competition were the straw that broke the camel’s back

For many, the WKF has become unattractive. But it did not do much to open itself to other opinions, rules, and standards. Maybe it was hubris after the recognition by the IOC in 2016. Or it was managerial dilettantism. We do not know. The rejection, however, has shown that the WKF does not speak for the global Karate community. It is just one association among many. And its future has become uncertain – since last Friday.

Opener Picture: Crumbling IOC by Elhan Numan

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Karate and the Olympic Games: A Long Conflict is Over

The picture shows the Rings of the Olympic Games.

The Olympic Games have long been a dream and a field of conflict for many karateka. However, the decision of the french national Olympic committee to not include karate in 2024 is only the finally to a several decades long conflict which has come to an end now. By Dr. Christian Tribowski

According to an article by the BBC at the beginning of this year, the organizing committee of the Olympic Games 2024 in Paris will Karate not include Karate in the program. The article says:

“Karate will make its Olympic debut at the 2020 Games but has not been included on the shortlist of proposed sports for the Paris Games four years later.

Therefore, the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 will be the only occasion for Karatekas to fight for Gold.

Budo-oriented Karateka express relieve

For some this announcement came as a relive. The doubts about a participation among budo-oriented Karateka increased in the last few years. They feared that Karate would lose its ethical foundation. In addition, Sport Karate would turn a value-oriented endeavor to the perfection of ones character into a profane business. Above all, the “traditional” Karate community did not feel represented by the World Karate Federation.

Sport Karate Community Deeply Disappointed

Others, on the other hand, expressed deep disappointment. In addition, the decision by International Olympic Committee came as a surprise by the proponents of the participation of Karate in the Olympic Games. Some saw their dream been crushed.

The WKF president Antonio Espinos commented immediately on the announcement:

“Our sport has grown exponentially over the last years, and we still haven’t had the chance to prove our value as an Olympic sport since we will be making our debut as an Olympic discipline in Tokyo 2020”

Long and Conflict Laden History of Karate and the Olympic Games

Independent of which side one stance, the history of Karate and the Olympics dates back to the 1970. Even back then conflicts emerged, which organization has the right to represent Karate on the global and Olympic stage. In 1988, John K. Evans wrote an article in which he described this difficult relation. The Black Belt Magazine published the article. It can be found here: THE BATTLE FOR OLYMPIC KARATE RECOGNITION WUKO vs. IAKF. (The Shotokai-Encyclopedia provides the article. We highly recommend the encyclopedia because it is a very concise and enlightening compendium.)

Evans described in his article, how the different Karate Do organizations emerged and developed certain political interests. It becomes obvious that Karate in general but Shotokan in particular was from the beginning a field of conflicting positions and groups. Unfortunately, the article leaves out important historical parts like the emergence of the WUKO. In addition, the independence of Evans can be doubt. Because he served a high official for the WUKO back then. However, the article gives a first hint about the history of Karate Do and the Olympics. And it reveals that the dispute dates back much longer than the most think.

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“I realized that this is a perverted system”: Thomas Prediger about Sport Karate

The picture shows Thomas Prediger who says that Sport Karate is a "perverted system". He also sees a great potential for kumite in violence prevention.

Kumite Boot Camp is the regular column of Thomas Prediger in which he will discuss crucial topics for Shotokan Karate. This time, he spoke with Dr. Christian Tribowski about Karate Do vs. Sport Karate. By Dr. Christian Tribowski

Christian: Hello Thomas, I am very glad that you found the time for the interview. We want to talk about Karate Do vs. Sports Karate today. But before we start, I would like to ask why this is an important topic? Why is it relevant for you and the Shotokan community in general?

Thomas: Hello Christian, yes, thank you for having me. The reason is that a division between traditional and sports-oriented Karateka has emerged in the last two decades. And I think that this division does not do justice to Shotokan Karate at all. Sports alone does not reflect the whole variety of Shotokan Karate. Instead, we should seek for a comprehensive education in Karate Do.

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Sport Karate vs. Karate Do

Christian: Before we dive deeper into your argument we should define, what you mean when you talk about Karate Do and Sport Karate. What is what?

Thomas: Karate Do as a martial art shall, in my opinion, comprise all aspects of personality development. This goes for training and competitions. Everything in Shotokan Karate Do should strive for the development of good personalities.

Sports, on the other hand, focuses mainly on competitions and success. It is about being faster, more powerful, or more agile. Sport revolves around competition. Development of character and personality does not play a big role in sports.

The Perfection of Character Is the Goal

Christian: So, the major goal for Sports Karate is winning competitions, right? And Karate Do is about striving to make one’s character perfect, like the Dojo-kun teaches.

Thomas: Yes! I know that it sounds exaggerated to “make one´s character perfect” and it is difficult to define what that actually means in practice. But yes, that´s it.

However, I do not mean to exclude competition from Karate Do. Competitions are a very important part of the education in Karate Do. We need them in order to train certain aspects of Karate Do. Everybody, who avoids competitions or tries to demonize them, does not practice the whole spectrum of Karate Do. Unfortunately, they leave very important educational experiences out.

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Emphasize of Sport Karate vs. Karate Do

Christian: I think we have to elaborate on that. If competitions are a part of Karate Do and we also have Sports Karate, which focuses on competitions, where exactly is the borderline between both? Why and how are they different?

Thomas: The exaggerated and overemphasized form of competition like it is practiced in Sports Karate stands in a stark contrast to Karate Do. If wining is the focal point and making points in a competition is the only thing that matters, then the most aspects of Do get pushed out and eliminated. Because athletes will do and are supposed to do everything to win. That leads, for instance, to doping and bending of rules.

To develop one´s personality, on the other hand, requires to stick to the rules and to deal with losses. When you only want to become the winner, you will hold yourself back from making important experiences as a human being. For instance, that you cannot always win.

“Athletes intentionally stepped into Zukis”

Christian: You were the coach of several top athletes. What situations have you experienced where athletes bend rules to win?

Thomas: The most unsettling situations were when athletes intentionally stepped into Zukis or Keris in order to win a fight. Because their opponents would have got a penalty and they would have declared the winner. That was the moment when I realized that this is a perverted system. One cannot and should not risk intentionally his or her health in order to win.

Focus on Competition Corrupts Morality

Christian: Does that mean that the overemphasized focus on competition corrupts morals and rationality?

Thomas: Yes, of course. If nothing counts except winning then I will focus everything towards this goal. My character also develops in this direction. If lying becomes strategically senseful to reach a goal, people will lie. For instance, fighters will claim that they were injured by their opponents, although nothing happened. I have experience all that during competitions. Eventually, that undermines the development of a good personality. Then a good personality means to be honest to others and yourself. If you get hit, you must indicate that and do not disavow like some fighters in the WKF do. One must learn to stand defeat – with a smile! That is a crucial part of the development of your personality. Because no personality is perfect. We all have shortcomings. But we have to accept them and work on them. If we only want to win, the development of our personalities becomes meaningless.