An Interview with Soke Sakagami
A Courtesy of Masters Magazine
The Sakagami family tree traces its roots to the great Anko Itosu who was regarded as one of the best karate masters originating from Okinawa. Sadaaki Sakagami has followed in his father’s footsteps and is now known as one of the most knowledgeable men of karate and the Soke of the “Itosu ryu” style. Described as an unselfish and dedicated instructor, Soke Sakagami travels around the world sharing his knowledge and expertise. It is Soke Sakagami’s desire to preserve and spread the original art developed and passed onto his father by the great Kenwa Mabuni. For Soke Sakagami, spirit and heart are the most important attributes in karate training. “in order to be the best,” he says firmly, “you must have the warrior’s heart and spirit”. He is a knowledgeable and fascinating man, full of interesting stories, and brimming with a positive attitude towards teaching and life. In the modern world of disillusionment, he is truly a unique individual and a true karate master.
How did your father, Ryusho Sakagami, become the successor of the Itosu Ryu style?
According to what I heard from my father Ryusho Sakagami, he was invited to his teacher's, Master Kenwa Mabuni’s house, a few months before he passed away. At that time, Master Mabuni offered my father to be the successor of the Shito Ryu style. But my father respectfully refused his offer because he had his own business and also he had never thought he would be able to make a living from karate at that time. So, my father told him: “I am not worthy to be the successor. Also, you have a son. So, please give him the title Soke, Shito Ryu.” But Master Mabuni said, “If you won’t be the successor, I will feel very bad and sorry for you. So, if you don’t, please be the successor of my teacher, Itosu Sensei’s orthodox lineage, using the name of “Itosu” instead of “Shito” to describe the style you will be teaching after my death”.
How did your father start training Shito Ryu with Master Mabuni?
The reason my father started practicing Shito Ryu was due to the fact that he went to Kokushikan University in Tokyo to practice Kendo, and there he met a classmate who was from Okinawa and was also a karate practitioner. My father started practicing karate when he was 12 or 13 years old in his hometown, Hyogo. He learned the art from a man from Okinawa. Anyway, one day he was practicing karate’s kata by himself at the University, and his friend from Okinawa surprisingly looked at it and he asked if it was karate or not. And my father replied to him by saying “Yes, it is Karate.” His friend also asked “Who did you learn it from?” My father replied to him that he learned the art from an Okinawan man in his hometown. The father of his friend was actually a karate teacher and he even owned a karate club in Okinawa. So, he asked my father to go to Okinawa to practice karate together. And while he was a University student, he often went to Okinawa to train. After he graduated from the University, he wanted to keep training karate near his hometown in the Osaka area. So, he asked some Okinawan teachers if they could introduce him to a local karate teacher. They said that Master Kenwa Mabuni lived in Osaka [at that time] and he was a very good and reputable teacher. After the proper introduction, my father started training with Master Kenwa Mabuni.
Would you please define and explain the main characteristics of the Itosu Ryu style?
Master Kenwa Mabuni was the founder of the Shito Ryu style. So, what my father learned from him was actually the complete Shito Ryu method but before Master Mabuni passed away, he appointed my father to be the successor of Master Itosu’s orthodox lineage, but what he was doing was actually Shito Ryu. Master Kenwa Mabuni knew he had to pass the Shito Ryu style to one of his sons and that is the reason why he named my father the leader and successor of the Itosu lineage. However, one day my father thought he had to distinguish the Itosu orthodox style from the Shito Ryu style, so he officially named it “Itosu Ryu”. Shito Ryu is based on Itosu Sensei’s lineage and Higashionna Sensei’s lineage. It was named after those two great masters’ first kanji character, “shi” and “ito”. So, we consider the Itosu Ryu style to be one of the roots of Shito Ryu and we keep cherishing the style although it is true we have the ‘naha’ elements and kata from the Higashionna lineage as well.
When did you start training in Kobudo?
The reason I started training Kobudo was because Master Shinken Taira took up residence at my father’s house in 1957 or 1958 and was teaching Kobudo at my father’s dojo. I directly learned Kobudo from Master Taira. Karate was getting popular at that time, but Kobudo was not. I was wondering why we had to practice Kobudo at all. So my focus was relatively more on karate than Kobudo. However, since Master Taira and my father were living in the same house, I couldn’t run away from Kobudo training. So, I trained and practiced Kobudo everyday. The sessions with Sensei Taira were very demanding and hard. With time, I found practicing Sai improved the strength and the power of the wrist, even for regular punching; training Bo was good for making sure distance was correct when facing an opponent. These discoveries made me practice Kobudo harder and harder so I could improve my karate at the same time. Those practices in my young days became a part of my body, and they are a treasure for my martial arts’ life today.
How did you actually feel when you became the successor of the Itosu style?
On a personal level, it was a huge shock to me when my father passed away for obvious reasons. Then, a lot of my father’s students, who were actually my ‘sempai’, senior students to me, told me that I should be the successor of the Itosu Ryu style. After thinking about it and getting the support from my ‘sempai’, I agreed and became the successor of the style. I received the huge responsibility to preserve the art which had been passed down for three generations: from Master Itosu, Master Mabuni and finally to my father Ryusho Sakagami, At the same time, I had strong feelings that it was my mission to promote the Itosu Ryu style worldwide.
Please tell us about the evolution and development of your personal training in the arts of Karate and Kobudo.
I learned karate from my father, so obviously he had a huge influence on me. However, there are a lot of styles in karate, for instance Shotokan, Goju Ryu and Wado Ryu, and I thought each style must have had wonderful techniques. So, I actually questioned many of the instructors of the other styles, regarding their techniques, and I especially asked about the applications. For instance, I asked other top instructors questions such as; “In our style we have this kind of application, but how do you interpret this technique in your style?” This is how I studied the difference between the Itosu Ryu style and other styles. I thought, “If I don’t ask, I cannot develop Itosu Ryu itself. Learning other styles is also very important for having a full understanding of what my style, Itosu Ryu really is.” This is how I accumulated my karate knowledge besides training under the guidance of my father.
How do you see the Itosu Ryu style around the world?
Nowadays it is actually very difficult for any instructor to promote karate worldwide. Our karate organization is based on our karate techniques. However, not only the techniques but also humanity and communication skills are very important for international promotion. Also, there are cultural and economic differences in the world. Filling up the gap is a very difficult task these days. So, I always think spreading Itosu Ryu to the world is a very hard job because there are many other elements that affect the task.
What do you think about Budo and the sport aspect in Karate-do?
This is a very difficult issue. It is just like a diamond. If we look at a diamond, we can see a lot of glitters according to the angles. Karate is similar. According to the angle, there are a lot of aspects and facets. Some people consider it as Budo - the way of martial arts, but other people think it is sport. Budo is Japanese traditional martial arts which pursues the mental and physical ability through hard training. It is self-discipline. The idea of Budo is deeply related to Zen Buddhism. We have to have very hard training for that, and the final goal is developing ourselves. But, if you consider Karate-do as Budo, then the mental and spiritual aspects are very important, and it is a very difficult idea for regular people to grasp. I don’t mean sports do not have a mental aspect, but the goal of sports is winning at a sporting competition, and that is the main purpose. Of course, any sports need hard training, but winning or losing is not so important in Budo training. Developing ourselves and especially our spirit is the focus of Budo training. That’s the biggest difference between Budo and sports. So, nowadays many people tend to forget about about the aspects of Budo, and they just focus on only winning tournaments. But I think Budo’s aspects are very important in karate, and that’s what I want to teach and pass onto my students and the followers of the Itosu method of karate. We actually cannot say “This is the definition of the borderline for Budo or sport.” Also, we cannot say, “Budo is better than sports” or “sports are better than Budo.”
Furthermore, we have to teach both Budo and sport aspects to our students. So, now we - all karate instructors are in a difficult position. Actually I think not only Karate instructors, but also other martial arts instructors, such as Kendo and Judo, must have the same issue. Real martial arts training has nothing to do with trophies and black belts. In fact we should learn the other way: think of losing your black belt or your trophy. Like the Zen master Sawaki Kodo said, “To gain is suffering; loss in is enlightenment.”
Can you elaborate on that Soke?
The main difference between the old time practitioners and today’s is that old martial artists understood and looked at their training as a “loss.” They gave up everything for their art and their practice. Today’s practitioners only think of gain: “I want this, I want that.” We want to practice martial arts but we want nice cars, a house, a lot of money, fame, etc… It is important to not forget the spirit and determination of the great masters of the past.
Please tell us about the traditional principle of “Shu-HaRi.”
The term “Shu-ha-Ri” came from Kendo. Actually, many Kendo words were introduced to the art of karate-do. “Shu” means “Preserve.” It means we firmly preserve what we learned from our teachers. We have to follow what our teacher taught us, and we have to practice it very hard. “Ha” means “to add our own idea on what we learned from a teacher” and it is an idea for further personal study. “Ri” means “Being away from the idea of “Shu” and “Ha,” and create our own style.” But there are a lot of people who do not understand the idea of “Shu” and try to do “Ha” and “Ri” right away instead of dedicating many years of practice to the concept of “Shu.” Many karate styles have this problem. There are a lot of groups and branches in any style now. I mean, many people make their own style by themselves simply to break away and be ‘leaders’. If anyone decides to make his own style, nobody can stop it. It is true that there is no such rule that we can’t make our own style. That’s why more and more styles and groups are created now without really bringing anything new. I let people judge that for themselves. “Shu-Ha-Ri” is a concept of Budo, and it is actually for self-development. So, I believe the most important thing in Budo is that we have to preserve what we learned from our teacher… and later in life…follow and develop our own path.
What kind of message you would like to give to all karate practitioners?
I always ask this question to my students, “There are a lot of arts in Budo such as Judo, Kendo, and Karate-do, but why did you chose karate?” Some people simply say, “Because I like it,” but I always ask them “Why do you like karate?” They might reply; “Because it looks so cool!” and “Why do you think it is cool?” They say; “fighting looks so cool!” But I finally tell them “I don’t think it is the right answer,” and I explain “Budo is for self- discipline, and we acquire it through hard training. If you just want to pursue the sport aspect, you will eventually quit karate-do.” Nowadays, most of the students are actually children. It is very difficult for them to understand what Budo means. It is very complex for them. So, what I always do at first is “try to amuse children through karate training,” and I let them understand “what is Budo” and little by little, taking time to do it.
How do you want everybody to remember the legacy of Itosu Ryu karate-do?
I think the most important element of a style is “Kata.” The character of our Itosu Ryu style is preserving the art as much as possible, which has been passed down for three generations: from Master Itosu, Master Mabuni to Ryusho Sakagami. This is my mission, and I want everybody in the world to know what the Itosu Ryu style truly is. Would you give us some final advice? In Budo you learn “to do the most natural thing in the most natural way.” But to find the most natural way and execute it in the more natural manner, it is not easy and that may be one of the biggest obstacles not only in our training but in our lives too. Sometimes we seem to be unlucky in life and we start thinking negatively about training and about ourselves. Feeling sorry for yourself is self-defeating. We need to keep training and pushing forward because then the barriers will reveal themselves as teachings and a better understanding of things will come out of it. Just because the world is not going the way we want it is not a reason to surrender or to become negative about our lives. Budo training is not about playing out our fantasies. It has to do with your own life and death.