An Interview with Soke Ryusho Sakagami
Itosu-ryu Karatedo 3rd Generation Soke
A Courtesy of the Monthly Magazine "Karatedo"
By Yasuhiko Ietaka
Interviewed in June, 1988
The rain is pouring down, as if to represent the whole rainy season. The interview is conducted at the Japan Itosu-kai Headquarters, sat at a table in the corner of the dojo.
It's 10am. Master Ryusho Sakagami wears a casual tracksuit. Born in Kawanishi city, Hyogo Prefecture, in April 1915, he is currently 73 years old but his body still looks youthful and his skin tone still tight and beautiful. He looks very healthy and full of energy, and he has a fine tone of voice that echoes in the quiet dojo. His son, Master Sadaaki Sakagami, Shihan in the dojo, also sits with us. Although I'm a little nervous, I begin the interview
Encounter with Karatedo
- When did you start practicing Karate?
It was 1927. I was a freshman in middle school. My parents ran a sake bar and a man from Okinawa often came to drink there. I started practising Kendo at 8 years old, when I was in first grade in elementary school. Seeing that I liked martial arts, the Okinawan man told me about 'Te' (an old name for Karate). He said there was an interesting martial art in his hometown, I asked him to teach me, and so I started practicing Karate. This was just the beginning, however. I started practicing seriously after I enrolled in Kokushikan University's Kendo department. I was practicing 'Te' in a little corner of a dojo in the school. Looking at me, my friend Ishikawa from Okinawa asked me “Isn't that Karate?”. I replied that I didn't know, but I'd learned it from a man from Okinawa. Then he explained to me “That's called Karate!” Ishikawa's father was actually a karate teacher in Okinawa. Although I majored in Kendo at university, I started practicing Karate with Master Moden Yabiku, who was living in Sazauka, Tokyo at the time. I also went to Okinawa with Ishikawa during spring and summer break, and I learned from various teachers such as Master Chomo Hanashiro and Master Shinpan Gusukama. At that time they introduced me to a good Karate teacher, Kenwa Mabuni, who was living in Osaka back then. In Tokyo, Master Gichin Funakoshi (the founder of Shoto-kan style) was very famous, but my home town is in the Kansai region (near Osaka). So, I started working as a Modern Japanese, Chinese Classics and Kendo teacher in the Kansai area, and I also started practicing with Master Mabuni in my spare time.
About the Period when Master Ryusho Sakagami practiced under Kenwa Mabuni.
- Was the name of the martial art already changed from “Te” to “Karate” at that time?
Master Funakoshi had already used the term “Karate” in his book, but in general almost nobody knows. Normal people didn’t know of the existence of such martial arts. People started hearing about them after WWII.
- So, why were you interested in such unknown martial arts?
My father practiced Kendo and Jujutsu, so I have been interested in martial arts since childhood. Also, a masseur hired by my grandmother always told me stories of heroes such as Samurai Matabei Goto and Ninja Sasuke Sarutobi. Listening to those stories, I wanted to be strong like them, though you might laugh at me now.
- By the way, what kind of practice did you do with Master Kenwa Mabuni?
His main focus was kata! And also yakusoku kumite (pre-arranged sparring forms). It is an original form of today's free sparring. “Karate begins with kata and ends with kata”, that's Master Mabuni's favourite saying. He also said “kumite (sparring) is kata's Bunkai and its application”.
- Did the name 'kata' exist back then?
Yes, there was a name, but the meaning and origin of the name were not clear because it's an old Okinawan language. It might be better written in Katakana characters (phonograms), but Master Mabuni asked me to write in Kanji or Chinese characters (ideograms). For example, I wrote the Kanji “内歩進” for the name of the “Naichanchi” kata. It shows that the meaning of the kata is 'inside footsteps'. I also wrote “抜砦” for “Bassai. This gives a feeling of bravery as the Kanji mean 'breaking fortress'. The “Rohai” kata has parts that resemble a heron standing on one leg, so I used the characters “鷺牌” which mean 'the symbol of the heron'. However, the meanings of “Seisan” (13), “Seipai” (18), “Niipaipo” (28 steps) and “Gojushiho” (54 steps) are all numbers, so I kept them as they were. Master Funakoshi in Shoto-kan was very different, he completely changed the names. For instance, he changed one kata's name from “Naifanchi” to “Tekki”.
- How long did Master Mabuni teach for in a day?
There was no training schedule in his dojo, students went to practice any time they wanted. The class schedule itself didn't exist like it does today. Everything was different. Although a thin Karate-gi (uniform) was used in the Tokyo area as a result of Master Funakoshi's ideas, in the Kansai area we used a Judo-gi. There was no wooden floored dojo. Master Mabuni rented a small house which had an entrance area the size of two mats (3.65m2) and a room the size of six mats (11m2) and he lived there. We practiced in the 6 mat room. The floor was traditional, so it was worn out and completely broken. Sensei Mabuni sat with a Hibachi (Japanese charcoal brazier) and gave instruction to students who came to his house, with no concern for time schedules. The monthly fee was also about 1 yen (USD 1 cent), so even if he had 10 students, he only made 10 yen. It was impossible to make a living out of Karate. He had a wife and child (who later because Soke of Shito-ryu) so he struggled. Well, nobody lived on Karate at that time.
From Shuseki Shihan (the chief Shihan) to Itosu-ryu 3rd generation Soke
- When did you receive the Shihan license under Master Mabuni?
It was December, 1931. After that I demonstrated at many places with Master Mabuni as Shuseki Shihan, and I also taught a lot of people.
- What is the difference between students back then and current students?
It's completely different! If I give a slightly strict lesson, today's students will not show up any more. I experienced very rigorous training and struggled a lot, but I wanted to be stronger and I worked harder than any student and studied more than anyone. Because of this I actually got stronger.
- Please talk about how you succeeded to the position of Itosu-ryu 3rd generation.
Although Master Mabuni was the 2nd generation successor of Itosu-ryu style Karate, he also created the Shito-ryu style and usually used the name Shito-ryu. He had a son who, of course, needed to be the successor of the Shito-ryu style, so he ordered me, the Shuseki Shihan at the time, to carry on the name of the Itosu-ryu style. I officially became the 3rd generation of Itosu-ryu style in January 1952.
Devoting myself to the way of martial arts.
- What do you think about the prospects of Itosu-kai karatedo?
I have to establish systematic Itosu-ryu techniques, which are peerless among other styles. The most important thing is the kata, which have been passed down through two generations. Nowadays, people tend to look down on kata, but it is a core part of karate. If the roots are not strong, a big tree will fall down. If the kata is not solid, the style will not last long, so passing down correctly is our priority. And then we of course try to get on as well as we can with the Japan Karatedo Federation (JKF), of which we are also a member, which means we can participate in JKF tournaments as frequently as possible. Bujutsu (martial arts) was originally a fighting art which allowed the killing of opponents, as bad as it sounds today. Instead, Budo (the way of martial arts) is an art form which also strengthens our spirit and mind. Considering this, if only bigger, more powerful competitors win at tournaments, it is not real . Karate is different from Judo, but just like Judo, Karate needs to go by the mantra “Softness subdues Hardness”. Times are different now, competition Karate and sports Karate are becoming more popular. If we stick only to our style we will be isolated, we can't be like the old Japanese saying “A frog in a well doesn't know the ocean”, meaning we must preserve tradition while also following current movements. It's a very difficult task.
- Master Ryusho Sakagami, you hold not only Karatedo Hanshi 8th dan but also Kendo 7th dan, Iaido 8th dan and Jodo 7th dan. You can see martial arts from a different point of view.
Yes, I am teaching those arts as well at my dojo. Karate instructors know only karate, but it is important to know virtue of other martial arts. I would like to it into karate.
- Finally, please talk about your belief and passion towards Karate and Budo.
Well, it is very difficult. There is no reason for it. But I devote my life to Budo.