During the two years that I was Mas Oyama’s student in Tokyo, he often repeated, “Kyokushin karate is not dance karate! It’s not kenka (brawling) karate! It’s BUDO karate!” What on earth could he have meant by this?
In order to understand fully, it’s important to understand the division that Mas Oyama’s Kyokushin created between “sundomei” karate in Japan, and what become known as “full contact” karate.
(This author thought it would be beneficial to the Kyokushin-kan community to summarize, to the best of my ability, some content of Kancho Royama’s International Instructors’ Seminars, held every year in Japan. Although I do have the dual advantage of having attended more of Kancho’s seminars than any other American, and of having acted as Japanese-English interpreter for those seminars in many cases, the reader should understand that, still, I can only do the best I can to explain concepts presented by Kancho and other high-level instructors in Japan. I do have the advantage of having been there, but my level of understanding in karate is only just what it is, and I can only explain what Kancho and others explain, through the lens of my own limited understanding. Yet to assist the development of Kyokushin-kan in the West, I will do the best I can.)
As hard as it might be for us to comprehend, when Mas Oyama first fought in existing karate tournaments in Japan, he was disqualified for being too rough. He would break the bones of his opponents, and the karate establishment, largely Shotokan Karate at that time, would disqualify him for hitting too hard. Mas Oyama’s synthesis of Kyokushin was responsible for the most dramatic shift in the development of Japanese Karate that has ever occurred. Genchin Funokoshi’s Shotokan Karate was a highly stylized form, based in kata and bunkai. In competitions, practitioners fought to show better technique, but had not yet learned the kind of destructive force introduced by Mas Oyama. Mas Oyama, the “God Hand” they would come to call him in Japan, trained his hands and feet to break stones, and tear the horns off of raging bulls, and when he applied this power to his human opponents of the Japanese karate establishment, he broke them, and he was shunned as a brute. It was therefore, that Mas Oyama created Kyokushin, and began, at Oyama Dojo in a small dance studio behind Rikkyo University in Tokyo, teaching a new generation of Japanese karate students what he believed to be the only form of karate reminiscent of true Japanese Budo.
After all, a key tenant of Japanese Budo (the “Martial Way”) was the Bushido (“Way of the Samurai”) mentality in which the practitioner reduced all the struggles of life, and hence the struggles for better behavior in life, to a sense of do-or-die by the sword. Since, for the Samurai, life could end at any moment, the Samurai endeavored to live a pure life of proper behavior, and without this “closeness to death” Mas Oyama believed, true Budo Karate does not exist. Of course (and parents of kids practicing Kyokushin in the current era should take note!), there were hundreds of years of Japan’s Samurai history that were peace-time years. There were hundreds of years, therefore, in which Japan’s warriors were living by the code of the samurai, a code so strict that they held correct behavior to be as valuable as their own lives, in which there were NOT, however, actually large scale loss (or personal sacrifice) of life. It was during those years of unification and peace in Japan that Bushido joined hands with Zen Buddhism, Art, and Confucianism, and Samurai came to follow the warrior’s code to purify their lives and their behavior, even in times of peace. Mas Oyama’s recognized, however, that if karate wasn’t at some point lethal, i.e. if practitioners didn’t risk life and limb at some point during their training, or at least train with that mentality because their role models were (the most serious of adult competitors), the establishment karate of Japan necessarily fell short of true Budo.
For Mas Oyama, the Japanese karate of the establishment was “dance karate”, there was no power, it was not dangerous, it was not, therefore, grounded in Japan’s warrior code.
Of course, there is no question that Kyoushin’s early years were not very pretty. Comparing the technical ability of modern day competitors to the technical ability of many of the Kyokushin competitors of the first world tournament (1975) is like comparing apples to oranges. Early Kyokushin tournaments where not as pretty in a technical sense, and to the Japanese public, they were considered dangerously violent. As Kyokushin karate roared to international popularity, however, the karate establishment in Japan, the “sundomei” karate practitioners fearing that they were being outclassed (because they knew they couldn’t win those tournaments), began to label Mas Oyama’s Kyokushin “kenka,” or “brawling,” karate. It is a derogatory term, meaning uncouth.
“But it’s not,” Mas Oyama was still regularly preaching when he was my teacher (at the age of 69 and 70) in Tokyo in the early 90’s. “Kyokushin karate is not dance karate [i.e. not like Shotokan karate], it’s not kenka karate [i.e. not the karate the Shotokan folks would have you believe it was]; it’s Budo Karate [i.e. THE only acceptable karate, because it’s the only one that embodies Japan’s historical warrior code.].”
If that’s the case, therefore, it might be important for us to ask why it is that Kancho Royama, and his Kyokushin-Kan, are working now to re-introduce and/or refine elements of karate (such as kata and bunkai) that we largely associate with the sundomei karateka of an earlier era? For many of us, Kyokushin has come to mean punching bags and sparring partners, and a sense of kata that they’re merely something different, some kind of exercise that we have to learn for promotion, but that otherwise have little meaning.
Stay tuned. In part two of this essay later in the week, I will address that exact question.