“I can tell why karate is wonderful because
I practice other martial arts!”
An Interview with Soke Sadaaki Sakagami
Itosu-ryu Karatedo 4th Generation Soke and the president of Japan Karatedo Itosu-kai
A Courtesy of the Monthly Magazine "Karatedo"
By Kaoru Hinata
Interviewed in August, 1997
Translated by Ayumu Oda & Leo Mulvany
I interviewed the previous Soke, Master Ryusho Sakagami about one decade ago. He explained what karate was about very well to me, although I was very young at the time and did not understand what the difference in karate styles meant. His son, Master Sadaaki Sakagami, also answered questions with great passion. The family had a strong karate tradition and as they say, it’s “family blood” or it is in the blood!
A hatred of karate – why?
Master Sadaaki Sakagami’s father was a great karate master. Not only a great karate master but also a kendo master. Master Sadaaki Sakagami had a fantastic opportunity on his doorstep, the affects of which we can never estimate.
Master Sadaaki Sakagami stated practicing karate and kendo under a great father as “a young boy.” However, his father never made him practice. Observing his progression as a young boy, his father would say to him “Hey, why don’t you try?”
Although he partly knew some kata patterns, he tried hard to practice karate seriously when he was in middle school. This was around the late 1950’s. In contrast to today’s karate world, back then there were very few kids practicing karate. He practiced karate among adults. There were no tournament or rules. Kumite (sparring) was largely tough with hard punching and kicks. It’s reported he sometime lost conscious from his efforts at kumite. As a result, while he was in the middle school, he really hated karate.
When he was in high school, he focused on practicing kendo. He practiced kendo from childhood. He suffered many injuries and was knocked down regularly by kendo masters who were military veterans. It was very hard as well as karate, but he liked it more than karate. He showed results at tournaments at this time. He won a lot of championships although he was a freshman in high school, and he received 3rd dan degree when was a sophomore.
After graduation from high school, four or five Universities drafted him, but he needed to take over a family business which his grandparents ran. Then he moved to his birthplace, Hyogo prefecture, leaving where he grew up, Tsurumi, Yokohama. He focused on his job and worked very hard, but he could not forget kendo, and he kept practicing it at a prestigious dojo which was run by the owner of a famous Sake Brewing Company “Konishi Shuzou”.
When he was 22 years old, his uncle returned to his grandparents’ house because his private business didn’t work out too well. Eventually, he made up his mind saying “Uncle should take over this family business. I’ll quit.” Then he returned to Tsurumi, Yokohama.
His father didn’t comment on this. He worked for a company during the day time and he practiced kendo, karate and Ryukyu Kobudo at night time.
Finding an opportune time, his father said “Why don’t you take over from me?” This was the late 1960’s. Many karate styles and groups started collaborating and a tournament with rules was organized. He was exited. He practiced karate passionately now, a reversal of how he practiced karate in middle school. He always achieved good placings whenever he competed. In 1969, he finally received the gold medal in the kata division of the 8th National Karatedo Championships held in Nippon Budo-kan (Japan Martial Arts Stadium), hosted by Japan Karatedo Rengo-kai / Federation of Japan Karatedo Organizations.
This provides a brief account of Master Sadaaki Sakagami’s’ karate/kendo career from youth to adulthood.
Sports or Budo
Late Grand Master Ryusho Sakagami graduated from Kokushikan University. He learned Karate and Ryukyu Kobudo under Master Moden Yabiku and Kenwa Mabuni while he worked as Kendo instructor. In 1931, he received “Shihan” License by mastering Shito-ryu style Karatedo. In 1934, he received “Renshi” title from Dai Nippon Butoku-kai (preserving the long-standing illustrious classical martial virtues and traditions). After WWII, he succeeded Mabuni to the 3rd generation Itosu-ryu orthodox style. After that, he started teaching kendo and karatedo based in Tsurumi, Yokohama.
If we look at the lineage of the late mater Ryusho Sakagami, we can tell his teachers were the best of the best. He walked the wonderful path of Karatedo. However, he was never arrogant. While he was still alive, I asked a question about a kata, but he didn’t hide anything and explained the details, without any reservations.
His son Master Sadaaki Sakagami, who succeeded to the 2nd generation of the organization, is the very image of his father. He talks frankly and humorously, but we are all well aware of his deep knowledge of karate.
“Many people are wondering if karate is classed as Budo or Sport, but I consider it as 70% Budo and 30% Sport. In this context, sport karate means tournament karate.”
Master Sakagami explains that one role of a tournament is to contribute towards promoting karate. However, if we focus on only the sport aspect, the nature of Budo will disappear. Budo is that aspect which we can learn through a lifelong practice. We can only appreciate the aspect of Budo in karate by training for a long time. The endless `way` is `Budo` , It is the way of martial arts.
“I have practiced kendo as well as karate. The life span of karate is too short compared to kendo. It means weaponless martial arts such as karate, boxing or sumo, has time limit in the sparrers (fighters) life, considering their physical power. In contrast, older people in kendo world can show `strength` in a different dimension besides a tournament. There are a lot of examples where an older man suddenly get sharper as soon as he holds a shinai or a bamboo sword. For instance, a young man tries to fight against an old man by power and speed, but the old man can quickly point the throat of the young man with a sword, so that he cannot move at all. There are a plethora of such stories around”.
In kendo, there are two definitions of “strength.” One is for a tournament and the other is for Budo. All of the practitioners understand the meanings, a mutual consensus, and that makes a meaning of traditional martial arts much deeper. However, there is no such consensus in the karate world. It is because we overdo the importance of kumite tournaments.
“However, karate has a kata element, different from other weaponless martial arts. We can learn techniques of offense and defense from practicing kata. This is a big advantage for karate.”
Master Sakagami keeps explaining that while karate transformed from a savage martial arts, “karate-jutsu” to the way of karate, “karate-do”, in Meiji period, a mental aspect was added to practicing kata and kata practice became more important as a way of correct preparation, i.e. mentally and physically.
He eloquently explains a greater insight into karate. “Actually, kumite and kata are supposed to be the two sides of the same coin. Both sides are supported by kihon or basics, but nowadays, we actually focus on kumite more than kata. Kata tended to be the “poor cousin” of karate.” He feels this situation is somewhat regrettable and would like to see kata in tournaments differently.
People are crazy today!
He also criticizes todays “fight shows” boom.
“When I was young, our society was quite poor. For amusement we would watch a movie, the only movie we had. Young people looked for something which would release their frustration. That’s why karateka came over to our dojo to practice, they were extremely serious about their practice and such practice vented their frustrations. Human relationship in a dojo secondary to practice. That’s all. So, students focused on training hard. Even after practice, they talked about only karate.”
Nowadays there are a lot of attractions in society. If you come to a dojo, you will be kicked and punched, and you even have to bow and say “Thank you very much”. Nobody wants to come to such a place now. Instead, many people prefer to watch other fighters in the ring, fighting and bleeding. This is today’s “fight show boom”. People are crazy today! They never fight but they love to see others fighting!
Master Sadaaki Sakagami cannot stand such a situation where fighters create injurious bleeding and this is a highlight of the evening. Such an idea would never be adapted in the Itosu-kai organization. He never has a special class for raising competitors.
“Of course, some students are good at competing at tournament, and if they want to compete, I will do my best to teach them because I want them to win. However, I would never make a demand for success (winning). Even if they lose, I just say `Good job`. I also don’t have a tournament competitors course by gathering athletes. I consider a tournament as an extension of a regular training. Anyway, I want them to keep practicing longer. A result will come out of a regular lifelong practice”.
However, at the same time, he needs to look at an alternative way of running Itosu-kai’s national championships as the president of the organization. Although they pursue lifelong practice of Budo, it’s a fact that we have to get along with Japan Karatedo Federation (JKF) as a member organisation.
“What is the character of a style? Long time ago, we were able to guess a style from a competitor’s kamae and movement. This is now very difficult and has more or less disappeared in the process of karate turning to a sport. We in Itosu-kai are also involved in this process.”
Being involved in such a process, he is making efforts to change how we compete in Itosu-kai’s nationals. We look forward to seeing if this becomes the norm.
Passing down Itosu-ryu’s katas to the next generation
“If some students want to compete in JKF championships, I urge them to participate in it as much as they can. We can’t be isolated, but we have to keep our style’s character. I have to do my best to succeed in this matter.”
Divisions of the national tournament are being considered. Also, the character of the Itosu-ryu style at the “shihan seminar” are being studied in an effort to pass them down to the next generation.
“Late Soke, my father’s kata slight changed when they got older, but there was a reason for it. I would like to pass them down as a training method. I know it is a very difficult task. However, I want all of Itosu-kai members to be able to learn the same techniques in any dojo in Japan through this program” he said.
In Itosu-kai, there are dan degree tests twice in a year and kyu degree test 6 times in a year. In those tests, students need to show their ability. Especially, in the dan degree tests, they have a writing test. We don’t see this kind of examination in other karate groups. The questions in the writing test are for example “Explain the important points in the Zenkutsu Dachi stance”, “What important points are needed to teach beginners?” “Explain what you think it takes or to be a black belt rank holder”, “Explain about a variety of stances”. We will ask 3 questions from 50 stock subjects, and they need to write an essay and submit a paper.
“We will not fail students on the essay test, but everybody should research and study hard. It does not mean we are requesting an exact answer. We are expecting them to think by themselves through the writing test.”
Practicing kendo was also meaningful for me.
“I think practicing kendo was also very meaningful to me” he said. He also recommends students to practice other martial arts too. “Karate practitioners think karate is the best, but I can tell you why karate is the best because I know other martial arts.”
His father said “Aikido is good for dodging, and Iaido is good for making `kime` for punching and kicking”. He cherished his father’s instruction, and he practiced not only Kendo but also Iaido as well. Currently, he holds Kendo 7th dan, Jodo 6th dan and Iaido 5th dan.
“We can’t bring other martial arts into karate. Not just like that. Karate and other martial arts have a mutual concept in a movement. Sometime we figure it out, just like ‘Oh, I see…’ So, I occasionally recommend some students to do kendo as well.”
He still holds onto his father ‘s instructional way and concept, but his attitude is so natural regarding that. I think it is because of being a martial arts family, it is part the family’s essential nature, as they say, “it’s in the blood”.