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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Hachiriki - Heart and Soul



Kenjiro KawanabeKenjiro Kawanabe is one of the last great masters who studied directly under Gichin Funakoshi, Okuyama and Hoken Inoue. This humble and quiet master continues to dedicate his life to teaching Shotokan Karate as taught to him by Funakoshi Sensei.


I had the opportunity to train and interview Master Kawanabe in Tucson, AZ in the fall of 2005 while he was visiting his students on a whirlwind tour of seminars and demonstrations. – Carlos Varon


(Carlos Varon)     Where were your born?


(Kenjiro Kawanabe)     I was born in Atsugi-Cho, Japan on April 6, 1931.


(CV)     What were your parents like?


(KK)     My father was of such character including being a daredevil spirit, who enjoyed driving and playing mahjongg until his death at the age of 88; he passed away a few days after he had driven to a hospital by himself.  I was deeply impressed by the way he died; it was really his style that he did not say a word to anybody and did not suffer at his death.  My mother was in striking contrast to my father in all aspects. She lived her woman’s life as though it symbolized the contemporary people and social mood. She did not indulge herself. Her only pleasure was to see my older brother and me growing up. My mother was skinny and small and usually had stiff shoulders from housework and sewing.


(CV)     Did you ever get into any fights as a kid?


(KK)     Back then, the social tendency was to encourage fighting because of the war; there were “sumo” wrestling meets in each town, or sumo wrestling meets in the back yards if Shinto shrines for a festival inviting the spirits of the dead, and the children fought well.  The contemporary educational policy was to raise strong children. I never provoked anyone to a quarrel or bullied the weak; however, I remember that I had a dozen fights when I was in the elementary school. An opponent would fight fairly against me as I did, unlike today’s children who often cheat in a fight. Also, I stopped fighting as soon as the other lost his fighting spirit. I think that I fought, not because I liked a fight, but rather I was becoming an extremely unyielding boy in those years and could not tolerate rudeness and wrongfulness, thus the fights.


(CV)    When did you get first introduced to martial arts?


(KK)     I entered Prefecture Atsugi Middle School in April 19, 1944 . After I entered the school, there was a recruitment competition to pick new members of athletic teams. At first I applied for the “judo” team, but before becoming a member of it formally, I was suddenly summoned to be on the field and track team as a runner. So as not to be whipped, I ran seriously and honestly although I had not planned to do so. I heard the senior student team leader saying “that guy is faster than me!”  There was then a meeting between the captains of the Judo and Field and Track teams and finally I could become a member of the Judo team.


(CV)     How long did you study Judo?


(KK)     Because I could become a member of the team of my dreams, I was full of emotions for some days and devoted myself to Judo practice. It was like my heart was already in the judo dojo in the afternoon classes on which I could not concentrate. However gradually 4th and 5th year students began going to farms and factories as part of the labor service. Moreover, there was no chance to be trained by the Sensei who was called away to do other service for the school, so I began studying techniques alone.  The more I practiced with pleasure in improvement because I concentrated on the practice without worldly thoughts in my mind, the more pleasure I found. Unfortunately, it gradually became a situation that I was not able to continue training with such fun because I was requested to go to the farms as labor service. In this way, my judo ended as self taught and thus I could not have any chance to get ranked. I regret that my passion for judo was cut by this uncontrollable situation.


(CV)     What did you do as part of your “labor service”?


(KK)      I worked on the farm as labor service in the fields on consecutive days and for more than one farmer in the harvest. I was then ordered to work in the factories. I began commuting to the factory with soldiers every morning. Whenever an air raid started, the train stopped and all of the people on the train escaped into the bushes. As I look back to those days now, there were many risky moments; however, we were not much scared of them.


(CV)     What was it like in your hometown (Atsugi) after the war?


(KK)     After the war, Atsugi became a nationally known town because General MacArthur first landed at the Atsugi airport, and a combat unit marched through the town. All of them had sunburned red and savage faces. Although we were gradually getting back to normal school life, we were nervous because the American soldiers were occasionally leveling their guns at us on our way to school. For several years some violent confrontations continued such as assaults by American soldiers near the station or revengeful actions by Japanese radicals against them.  People of Atsugi were having a feverish time enjoying community baseball games.  Judo was not allowed to be practiced in those years, so I put my whole youthful energy into the baseball training day after day.


(CV)     How were you introduced into karate-do?


(KK)     I quit the baseball team due to a pleural problem and to study for entrance exams. As I was getting better and slowly recovering from the physical and emotional stresses, I was introduced to a Mr. Hiroshi Goto.  Mr. Goto was the son of a very wealthy family in Kuramo and somehow a weird warrior looking student of Jikei Medical School then.  I think he was about 5 years older than me and appeared to be a man of heroic type with natural martial skills and talents rather than a man of karate despite that I heard he was trained at a karate dojo called “Shudokan” which had been founded by Master Kanken Toyama in Meguro (Tokyo). Mr. Goto was thin and about 170 centimeters tall and yet used to see a bundle of rice straws I had made in the backyard, “It is not strong enough. I can cut it with one stroke if I hit it really seriously.” I recall that he loved sake and seemed to have made many heroic stories along with it. The stories included that he easily caught a knife with his bare hands from his opponent, or that he was invited to have sake together by a group of many after he had defeated all of them who were using his wooden swords. He was indeed a brave man. Mr. Goto often lectured me to enter the ningendo (The Way of Mankind) and through that way to create power. I strongly agreed with his philosophy then and I still treasure his words now. I believed that the meeting with Mr. Goto opened up my way to Karate-Do. Our association through Karate lasted less than 10 years until he moved to the Ibaraki Prefecture area as a medical doctor in 1961. He was a dear senior to me rather than a senior in Karate-Do. He was an unforgettable person who was strong and died tragically in a car accident on his way home. What a heart breaking end of a hero.


(CV)     Where did you go to college?


(KK)      It was about the spring of 1950 that I entered the Department of English Literature, Waseda University. Actually I was not particularly interested in literature, but it was the best choice for me who was not very good at math science subjects. When I went to see the Judo team soon after entering the university, there was coincidentally a match between Waseda and Meiji that was in progress.  It was a very disappointing match in that Waseda was completely defeated by the team of Meiji University. I might have joined the Judo team if the condition was reverse.


(CV)     Judo? I guess it was at this time you opted to visit the Karate team?


(KK)     Yes. I went to watch the practice of the karate team. It was breathtakingly impressive and different from that shameful Judo team. It was extremely wild, dramatic, and convincing to see one beast looking man, like Isami Kondo practicing techniques with his full power. This was quite natural to get such an impression of him because he was a rare and unique individual who had the nickname, “Red Devil (akaoni)”.


(CV)     Did you join the Karate team at that moment?


(KK)     Yes. I ended up joining the practice after having registered for the team right away.


(CV)     What was the initial practice and what were you called?


Sensei Kawanabe with Carlos Varon(KK)     The regular practice of the team was done from 4pm – 6pm from Monday to Saturday, but I was told that the seniors practiced weekends too. Anyway, we new members were called the “shinjin” (new men, new faces), second year members were the “chuburu or chuko” (secondhand or used things), and advanced members were the “chuken” (medium leaders) and finally the officials were the “kanbu” at the top. I heard that it was a custom that made a difference of rank by the difference of one day to join the team in my senior’s time. I was disgusted at this foolish, military-like tradition; my generation was in such a turning point of the public trend of thought.


(CV)      How did the training continue?


(KK)      Well, at last we began training under the directions of the sub-captain, who was the “Red Devil,”- Mr. Hiroyuki Nitsuta. I am not sure whether it was fortunate or not, but it was definitely a shocking year for the new members. I heard that there were about 150 new members that joined the team at the same time as I joined, then about 11 that participated in a summer camp for training, and about 5 at the end of the camp in the fall. It was usual to be hit or kicked once or twice during practice and thus I used to become intense as the time got near 4pm and the beginning of practice. Then the summer camp began. The site was Katsuura in Chiba Prefecture. The training was twice a day, in the morning and evening, for a 7 day week. It was especially hard for the group of new members and I felt it was really a long week. As the 2nd day and the 3rd day passed, even the “chuburu” began showing signs of the effects of the hard training by crawling up the stairs to the upstairs. Because of exhaustion, muscle pains, and injuries, we were unable to move normally.


(CV)     What was the actual training like?


(KK)     The training itself was actually simple: basic practice-kihon, kata and kumite such as 3 steps sparring, 5 steps sparring, and a form of free single-act kumite and rarely a complete free style kumite. The reason for it was reasonable, to limit possible numerous injuries. It was amazing to see the gap of training and experience in the team officials. They were extremely skillful enough to be in the top rank. They knew any possible aggression from any direction like blind persons and reacted correctly. Even if I tried to attack straight with a form of first single act, of the form of 5 act kumite as we agreed to practice, I received countless counter punches. If I had a weak and careless area, I received kicks into that exact weak area. I admit I was beaten. I was forced to realize the fact that my self confidence, that I had kept in myself that I would not be defeated if I fought with my full strength, was nothing in this kind of situation. It can be said that it was the tradition of years past in of the team to train new members with iron fists. Whenever I challenged with a form of 5 act kumite, I was hit with that Iron Fist in the soft inner side of the arm. As the result, the arms had internal bleeding, and they became obviously swollen down to both sides of the hands, making me unable to wear my school uniform on my way home after the camp. It was a really painful experience. I changed the training program for summer camp to be more reasonable when I attended as team captain in 1953.


(CV)     What was the philosophy at that time?


(KK)     The philosophy of training in those days was physical practice only for the body to learn without questioning. Simply, it was stubborn and old fashioned. On the other hand, it was natural considering the historical background; there were 3 team members in the past who worked as instructors of ‘scuffle” technique at the Army Nakano School, which was a training school for the secret service agency during the war, where 2nd Lt Hiroo Onoda was trained with others. With this, it is probably easy for some to understand the nature of the team and its training.


(CV)     Who were its seniors?


(KK)     The highest senior was Mr. Shigeru Egami, who was one of the best pupils of Master Gichin Funakoshi, and who founded a nationwide Shoto-Kai school and who was a coach of the team while I was a team official. Even the youngest senior, Mr. Okuyama, was 13 yrs older than me and with whom I had the deepest friendship. He announced his “Kotodama Tsurugi” (Sword of Spiritual Words) and I was one of many who learned his philosophy and he became my benefactor. Middle Senior was Mr. Toshio Watabe, who was still practicing at his dojo at the age of 80, so I have heard. These seniors were full of warrior spirit and skills. Right after the war, the “budo” was considered a more dangerous thing than General Headquarters wanted, and so practicing was forbidden. I joined the team not long after the ban was lifted.


(CV)     Did you ever meet Mr. Tsutomu Oshima?


(KK)     Yes, he was a student with us and who was one year senior to me. Although he is currently an internationally well known karate performer after founding the American Association of Shotokai School in Los Angeles after graduation, and although he used to be the Captain of the team in the college karate arena during his school times, back then he was complaining that the hard training was nothing but a barbarian drill. He said “Hey, Nabe, let’s run away.” It was a normal withdrawal, not a run-away, if student quit after a formal talk with the team officials and/or with the captain, but otherwise it was a run-away and a cowardly escape from facing the enemy. So I declared, “I will remain here. I do not wish to be a dog of a losing fight.” Thus Mr. Oshima remained too. I think that it is rather a laughable old episode not an insult to the now great “Mr. Karate.” However, it is an unforgettable incident to me because it was an important turning point of fate for his later life and for what I am now. If I had agreed and run away with him, I would have cut the way to the karate-do and the same is true for him. I treasure this experience as a blessed test given by the “Kami” (Heavenly Supreme Being in Shintoism).


Sensei Kawanabe with Carlos Veron



(CV)     What was your kata training like?


(KK)     The training started from a “type” of Heian Shodan to Tekki Sandan, repeating 7 kata 20x each without a break. It was natural to lose power because of this continuous long practice of the katas up to 300 times. Then merciless thrusts, kicks, and yelling of the team officials encouraged us. Strangely, I began having feelings relaxation and quickly reviving energy in me, the feelings similar to that of going down a sharp slope after reaching the top of a hill. It was like a steep ascent up to the hundredth practice. Strangely my body acted better after the three hundredth and I felt so refreshed that I thought I could do more.


(CV)     What are your memories of Master Gichin Funakoshi?


(KK)     Master Funakoshi was born in 1869, 62 years senior to me, thus I was like his grandchild. It was the year 1922 at the age of 53 that the master moved to the main land from Okinawa and began promoting karate. After having suffered great hardship, he founded a dojo in Mejiro that became the origin of karate-do in mainland Japan. The Master was not strong when he was just a boy, thus his first wish was to train the body, and he became a pupil of Masters Itosu and Azato, both of whom were considered great masters. There was no dojo then and he got up early while it was still dark in order to keep the training secret. We can see the historical conditions here too. It appears that the teachers of karate selected men of firm purposes, appointed them as their pupils and trained them. In the time of Master Funakoshi, practice was done in the early morning or at night to hide the training. Originally budo was not supposed to be showy or boastful. It was thought of as defense technique that required critical training. Therefore, it was only for men of firm purposes and the training started with an emphasis on spiritual discipline in the natural environment. It is in striking contrast to the present way that stresses physical practice in a modern sport sense. The Master raised the technique of “an exact killing with one blow”, the soul of karate, to the level of karate-do. It is clearly expressed in his change of the Chinese character of “karate (lit., T’and Hands)” to “karate do” (lit’; way of empty hands).”


(CV)     When did you first meet the Master?


(KK)     It was in the spring of 1950 when I first met him. He was present in the dojo at least once every month until my graduation in the spring of 1954. It was impressive that the gentle Master’s actions in daily life were thoroughly guarded. I was really surprised when I later realized that he moved every movement precisely according to every principle, just like the intentional control of all motions. I believe that it was difficult for young students to understand his high level technique.


(CV)     What about “Waka Sensei?”


(KK)      It is said that his son, Master GIGO, also called “Master Junior”, was threatening to all of the pupils at the dojo. However, I think that it was great loss for the karate world that Master Junior died soon after the end of the war in 1948. They say that the present karate world in which many sects compete with one another would not have been existed if Master Junior was alive. It is well known that Master Junior’s trick of one blow & one kick was a fearless and unparallel technique that was created through risky training. It was probably his devotion to his responsibilities when he acutely realized that he was the one who would have to be the leader to establish the foundation of the karate world in Japan rather than his father, who was gentle and never pushed his own claim. Master Junior sacrificed the whole of his life for karate even as he suffered from a then incurable disease, tuberculosis.. It can be said that Master Junior’s discipline was a more realistic and dynamic training in contrast to his father’s static training. Some of my senior’s recall that Master Junior was naturally firm and brave, very soft and agile, and so strong that no pupil could avoid it when Master Junior returned a dazzling strike in a second to a pupil who had touched his face by accident. His father, Great Master, was a man of dignity, a man with a philosophy of authority, not rage. He never pushed his way on others, and he seemed to have wished it not to be known that he was doing karate. In such a way, his life was truly the life of a respectable and devout karate expert.


(CV)     Did “Great Master” ever get angry at the students?


(KK)     I remember that even this Master who generally kept a gentle face could not stop expressing anger on his red gloomy face when he saw the students striking and kicking the wooden wall of the dojo. At that time the wall of the Waseda Dojo was made of a concrete layer with wooden boards on it with some space between them, thus the wall of the wooden boards was just right to be used as boards for kick practice. The students knew that they should not do it, but naturally they did it with their excessive energy.

Those who did were scolded by the master and told that individuals who did such a reckless act were not qualified to practice karate and told them to quit.


(CV)     You mentioned how the “Great Master” dressed and walked. Tell me about that.


(KK)     The Great Master always came to the university wearing a kimono and in clogs. (getas). With amazement I used to look at his clogs with the edges worn out straight and evenly. It was reasonable because for his whole life he continued training by dragging his feet and keeping the upper part of the body straight up like an armored knight when he walked. His consistent and integrated manner of life at all times was the expression of his will to elevate karate-do by avoiding violence Sensei Kawanabe with Carlos Varonto the ultimate point as the way that a warrior strives to be a man of purposeful ambition and virtue. It was truly an honorable attitude. He used to laugh at my friends’ manner of wearing clogs, as seen in the unbalanced edges of their clogs and of strutting along, by saying that there were too many strong warriors. However, I think that the student’s behavior was just like childish actions in the eyes of the Master. I am sincerely embarrassed that as a student, I was not at all able to understand that this consistent attitude toward life was truly that of a great master.


(CV)     I had often heard or read stories of his strength. Can you share any stories or examples?


(KK)     It seemed that the students tended to underestimate the Great Master, whom they nicknamed “Grandpa,” in regard to the strength of his karate in contrast to that of Master Junior. I heard of one episode from my senior- Mr. Egami, (Founder of the Shoto-Kai). One day when the Great Master was severely lecturing some seniors in the dojo, Master Junior tried to intercede with his father, who was seated, and touched the Great Master’s shoulder from behind. Then the Great Master shook his son’s hand off and threw him down in a second. According to Mr. Egami, it was a great shock to everyone, including him, because they did not expect to see such terrible power hidden in the Great Master, who was always gentle and calm. The Great Master used to tell us that we students who were in the process of training had to hide our hands, had to avoid violence, and had to behave ourselves because a human is weak and would possibly die from one blow. This episode reminds me of what he mentioned in his teaching that karate do needed an absolute power that could even put a tiger down with one blow.