MASAO KAGAWA 8TH DAN
As a kiddie I, like most shotokan karateka, loved and fervently studied Master Nakayama’s ‘Best Karate Series’. Even today, in spite of splits and fractures to the international karate community, they remain the essential text; often described as the ‘Kata Bible’.
The kata performances within of course are beautiful, but the katas: Enpi, Nijushiho and Meikyo stood out in particular. I didn’t know his name or of his reputation at that young age, but I could see there was something different about him, something evidently unique. This man was of course the legendary Tetsuhiko Asai.
His ‘uke’ in many of the applications was another karateka I had come to recognise. I had seen his kata many times and had always been blown away by its fluidity and bounce. This was of course Masao Kagawa.
His kata is smooth like water, flowing and changing directions with ease and grace. There’s no hard crash or staggered movement, but a continuous line of energy flowing from beginning to end. His Sochin in particular is a ‘STAND OUT’ for its dominant but pliable energy.
His kumite too was always highly rated and respected, taking countless titles throughout his career, and building him a reputable reputation. Masao Kagawa is now the World Technical Director of the Japan Karate Shotorenmei (JKS), and currently is the Japan Karate Federation (JKF) National Coach.
Earlier this year, Emma and I travelled to Nottingham (See Course Reports for more information) to train with Sensei Kagawa. He taught a variety of kata, including one of Sensei Asai’s developments, with the constant theme being the need for relaxed, smooth movement and sharp kime. Like a rubber band, his movements spring and beautifully expand. His kicks, for which he is famous of course, seem to leap from his body – hit the target – and then spring back into the body effortlessly. His physical ability was quite outstanding.
Here in this interview we cover a variety of topics, and some interesting facts emerge. I am sure you will find this interview as interesting as I did. – Shaun Banfield 09
Many thanks to Scott Langley for translation and Alan Campbell for helping get the interview organised.
(Shaun Banfield) Can I start the interview by saying a huge thank you for being so willing to speak with us this weekend. Can I start the interview by initially asking what your goals are here this weekend in Nottingham?
(Masao Kagawa) How to create correct technique. Whether you are a small person or a big person, whether you have no power, as so many different types of people practice karate; how to use your body and create correct technique.
So whether you are big or small; how to create smooth, correct movements which will help you improve your power. Maximising power through correct, relaxed movements.
There must be total body movement, using one’s body in its entirety to maximise power.
(SB) This is a question you will have answered a hundred times I have no doubt, but could you please tell us how you first got involved in the Martial Arts?
(MK) I started when I was 17 years old, and I am 54 years old this year.
(SB) And where did you start your training?
(MK) I was born in Osaka, but my big brother (Editor’s note – Sensei Kagawa’s older brother is Masayoshi Kagawa) was All Japan Champion and also taught for the JKA in Osaka, so my brother was my instructor. From there I went onto attend Teikyo University - Abe Sensei was Head of Teikyo University at the time – and after graduating from there, I went onto the Instructor Class.
(SB) Can you please tell us about your training whilst on the Kenshusei?
(MK) (Laughing) Very, very difficult and hard.
(SB) And who were the main teachers there during that time?
(MK) Once a week was Nakayama Sensei, but also Senseis Asai, Tanaka, Ueki, Abe.
Nakayama Sensei came once a week to teach. Then, the Head of the Programme was Asai Sensei, and if he wasn’t there, then others below him would teach like Tanaka Sensei, Ueki Sensei, Abe Sensei.
(SB) And who were you training alongside?
(MK) Ogura joined at the same time so was the same level. Yamamoto was my Sempai.
(SB) You mention Master Nakayama. Could you please tell us about your training with him and your relationship with him?
(MK) I was training with Master Nakayama on the Instructor Course as he was coming once a week, and after the Instructor Course in total for seven years, training every week with him. Only once did I ever get any kind of advice from him. What do you think that advice was from Nakayama Sensei?
(SB) I have no idea, I cannot imagine?
(Editor’s note: Sensei laughed here whilst pulling his hand to his hip representing ‘hikite’ without saying a word emphasising that Nakayama Sensei never actually said one word to him the entire time he know him. Even when he got this ‘hikite’ advice, Nakayama Sensei simply mimed the action).
(SB) And was that his approach to teaching, very minimalist?
(MK) (Laughing) To others he would say ‘You need to do this, you need to do that!’ I always felt ‘Why are all of my Sempai getting all this advice and that’s all I get?’ (Laughing)
(SB) You have already mentioned Sensei Asai while you were training on the Kenshusei. Was it there that you developed your relationship with him?
(MK) At the time, I saw how Asai Sensei moved and saw that he was something really special, so I tried to learn a lot from him. He helped me a lot with my relaxation and to get rid of stiffness. It wasn’t so much about Asai Sensei teaching me - because Asai Sensei was leading the training, he was the technical director. Of course Asai Sensei was helping me, but it was much more about watching him, looking at Asai Sensei and seeing that he moved differently. It was about trying to learn from watching.
(SB) And over all the years that you watched Asai Sensei, did you see a big development across the decades?
(MK) He never changed, in the sense of his outlook, he was always unique, but he certainly got better and better and better. And of course, his henka waza, it was always different, like a different approach, and I would see him training by himself. He was always trying to introduce new ideas, and new directions.
(SB) You mention Asai Sensei’s suppleness, his relaxed approach. Did he develop your kicking as you said you watched him. Did your suppleness, your flexibility come naturally to you, or did you work on it over time?
(MK) I was very un-supple when I started, so I hard to work very hard on my flexibility, but it was through watching Asai Sensei that I thought ‘Yes, that’s really important’ and so that’s why I worked so hard. When I started at seventeen I couldn’t do the splits but I worked very, very hard at it from seventeen onwards.
(SB) And what kind of advice would you give to people who are training who are un-supple, who are not very flexible?
(MK) They would need to do lots of training exercises that strengthen the legs and increase the flexibility of the hips at the same time. I always try to give advice while I’m teaching, about building flexibility.
(Editor’s note: Scott Langley then explained ‘Karate is about 50% technical knowledge and 50% physical ability’)
I try to show both when I am teaching.
(Editor’s note: Sensei then demonstrated some leg squat exercises that he uses to develop hip flexibility and leg strength, so therefore helping kicking ability and also all aspects of karate.)
From a stance slightly wider than shizentai:
· 1 minute of squatting down, from ¼ down to ¾ down
· 1 minute fast squatting from ¼ down to ¾ down followed by a slow return
· 1 minute of going fully down and making small squats, with bum sticking out)
(SB) You have quite an impressive competitive record. Looking back, who did you model yourself on, or look to for inspiration, as far as being a competitor was concerned?
(MK) Yahara Sensei, Yamamoto Sensei. I always looked at them and thought ‘How are they so good?’ So during instructors’ training I was always looking at their technique, and at what makes them special, what pushes them to the level above, and then trying to learn more from them.
(SB) So when you were fighting on the JKA National team, who was the main coach?
(MK) The head coach was Asai Sensei, and then Abe Sensei and Tanaka Sensei were below him.
(SB) You are now a very successful coach. How do you feel competition has changed since your competitive years, to what you see now?
(MK) It’s changed a lot. Speed has increased, the timing has changed. Everything has changed.
(SB) Would you say it has become easier or harder?
(MK) Before it was a bit stiller, but still very intense. Before, you didn’t throw as many techniques, you would go for the ippon. Now there’s a lot of movement, a lot of techniques, and it’s all about timing. Before, it was a lot more still. It was intense in a different way. So it hasn’t become more difficult, or more easy, it’s just changed.
(SB) You are the Japan Karate Federation Squad Coach am I correct?
(SB) To make that step into this new sport arena, how did you go about ensuring you were meeting the criteria of sport karate?
(MK) Although the rules are different from Shobu-Ippon for example, karate is karate. My belief is that all karate is the same. I know that people believe that there is sport karate and there is Traditional karate, and they can see a difference, but all of my team are Traditional Karateka like Nagaki (Shinji) for example who is a very Traditional Karateka who also is able to take part in the Sporting element of it too. My belief is that they are the same if done correctly.
(SB) So do you think it is just a matter of taking those transferable skills from Traditional Karate and into a new arena?
(MK) Yes. For example, the National Team in training will do Kihon, Gohon kumite, the type of training we did today – forward, backward, forward – as correct as possible so you develop the dynamic muscles which can then be transferred to any type of fighting.
This is my teaching process and is not to say that every coach does it this way.
(Editor’s note – The exercise Sensei Kagawa discusses above is detailed below:)
Step forward Jodan Oi-zuki
Step backward Age-uke
Step forward Jodan Oi-zuki
Step backward Age-uke
Step forward Jodan Oi-zuki
Step backward Age-uke
(SB) In essence you teach exactly the same, but the competitors are simply just entering a different kind of competition?
(SB) With this drive for Olympic recognition, do you think this will impact on Traditional karate as well?
(MK) I will never change.
For example, my students at the last World Championships became Champions through Traditional Karate, so why would I change?
(Editor’s note – At the most recent WKF World Championships in Tokyo (Nov 2008), Japan took 4 gold titles – ranking them highest on the medal table for all countries to have entered.)
(SB) What would you say is your favourite kata and could you please explain why?
(MK) Bassai Dai. When I took Shodan, of course you can choose which kata you do, it was the first kata I ever chose, so I have fond memories of it.
When I took my 8th Dan, I did Bassai Dai and I felt it was a complete circle.
(SB) So it has personal poignancy?
(MK) Yes. Of Course Sochin I like and I did it many times in competition, but in my heart Bassai Dai is my favourite.
(SB) The leads us quite well onto the next questions. You Sensei are very famous for your Sochin. How important is do you think to have that balance between the heavier kata such as Sochin and the lighter kata such as Nijushiho, Empi, and Unsu?
(MK) Of course there are heavier kata and there are lighter kata and for my body type the heavier kata are more natural. But it is important to not only do what you are good at. In fact it is more important to practice what you are not good at in order to create balance in your karate. So practicing all the types of kata is most important.
(SB) And what place does kata have in your karate? Is it primarily for Kihon training, mental training? And how important is application?
(MK) I practice kata to learn how to use the body. There are lots of movements in kata that you don’t necessarily practice in Kihon training, so there are lots of chances to practice unique body movement to teach you how to use the body.
So for example, when practicing Kanku Dai, there are so many different kinds of movements, going up, going down, double kick. It’s also a very long kata, so it pushes you physically as well. You don’t get that in Kihon. It’s pushing you physically and pushing you mentally to work out how to use the body correctly.
(SB) We have been speaking about kata, and obviously in the second session we practiced ‘Kakyoku Shodan’ – one of the kata Sensei Asai developed – what impact do you think that has had on JKS karate?
(MK) Has it affected JKS karate? Well JKS karate was always slightly different. It hasn’t affected JKS Karate, but it has refined Shotokan karate. So it hasn’t changed it, but it has brought it into sharper focus maybe.
Shotokan kata has very orthodox body movements, you go forward, you go back, you go to the side etcetera. Sensei Asai’s kata are a level above as you are doing different movements. You are going around this way, the spinning this way, trying to create different ways of generating power and that reflects back onto your Shotokan, so that your orthodox Shotokan movements are therefore that much sharper, that much more refined because of it.
(SB) So if we think of JKS karate as a more refined development of Shotokan karate, where are you heading in your own research…what is your bigger plan?
(MK) Within terms of JKS in Japan, there is the wheelchair karate federation which is Government recognised, so that is being promoted in Japan, so the JKS is working on developing that and giving it a broader spectrum.
For myself there, there are times when I feel that there are areas of my technique that are lacking power and so I am working on trying to figure out why that certain area is lacking power, and therefore trying to increase my power and speed and dynamic movement. So always fine-tuning.
(SB) Are there any points that I have neglected to ask you, that you would like to talk about?
(MK) My idea is that I want to follow this direct line: Funakoshi Sensei – Nakayama Sensei – Asai Sensei. I want to, with the help of the JKS Hombu Instructors and the JKS Instructors around the world to keep on promoting JKS karate. JKS Karate has something special, I believe in it and I want to have an opportunity to show people what JKS Karate has to offer.
(SB) Can I please just say a big thank you for your time, thank you Scott also for being so kind to translate for us.