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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Karatenomichi World Federation


An Interview with Sakae Ibusuki



Sakae Ibusuki practicing Mae Geri at Waseda University just after becoming Captain of the Waseda University ClubPresented to us here in this Special 2nd Year Anniversary Edition of TheShotokanWay, we have a rare interview with the unique Sakae Ibusuki Sensei, KWF. Sensei Ibusuki is of the generation fortunate to have trained with the Founder Gichin Funakoshi. He, a student of Master Funakoshi, and later Masatoshi Nakayama, in this exclusive interview discusses his time training with the Founder, his training and time with Master Nakayama and his friendship with Mikio Yahara and being a part of KWF. In the organizing of this interview, I spoke to Paul Kallender-Umezu, who was kind enough to organize and conduct the interview with his wife Yuko, and he told me of Sensei Ibusuki and the tree he has been visiting for 25 years, using as a makiwara. It got me thinking about the history and experiences of this inspirational man, and the all that he has to offer in wisdom and knowledge, and I am so very proud to present to you this interview, that you will undoubtedly take something away from.- Shaun Banfield 08


Many thanks to Sensei Ibusuki for his time and photographs, Paul and Yuko Kallender-Umezu for all of their hard work in bringing this interview to TSW.


Questions by The Shotokan Way.



(Yuko Kallender-Umezu)     Sensei, can we say a huge thank you for being so kind enough to giving us this interview. We really appreciate it and look forward to learning more about you and your karate. Can you please tell us a little about how you first got started training in the Martial arts?


(Sakae Ibusuki)     I started Karate when I was young, like a lot of people, to be stronger. I think that’s why most people start, isn’t it. I did Judo at middle school, but Judo wasn’t fighting; I was small and I guess it was that simple. When I was 16 or 17 I felt I wanted someting more.


(YKU)     You were a graduate of Waseda University Karate Club am I correct?


(SI)     Yes. So when I entered Waseda I joined the Karate club. I entered in 1948 and graduated in 1952.


Sensei Ibusuki on the left with a Kohai while at Waseda University(YKU)     What was the training like at Waseda, could you share any memories that you have? Who was your teacher there? Who were your sempai?


(SI)     At that time the club had been running for about ten years and Funakoshi Gichin Sensei was teaching. Training was Monday, Wednesday and Friday for three hours a session. That was the basic training. Of course, we had winter and summer gashuku for a week to ten days, and we’d go to local temples to train. At this point the JKA hadn’t been formed, so universities provided one of the main training bases for Funakoshi Sensei, who was also teaching at the Kodokan. There wasn’t at that point a clear organization. The universities were split into associations that were loosely allied and we would train together. There wasn’t a clear organization us such, but associations. The practice was in some ways much as it is today in that there was kihon, kumite and kata, but the kumite was very different. Firstly there were no fixed rules and there was no sun-do-me, so we used to hit and kick each other hard and it was very close to street fighting- we used to kick each other in the delicate areas and if you didn’t learn how to really block you would get hurt. And in those days many people got injured during kumite and there were quite serious injuries. In fact, it was very dangerous. However, I believe that Jissen- the ability to fight well in a street fight- is very important so when I teach Karate, I try to teach practical Karate that’s going to be useful in a real fight.


(YKU)     How was your University training different would you say from the training you experienced elsewhere?


(SI)     Like today, we had oizuki, gyakuzuki and all the basics you would recognize today. In terms of the number of repetitions you would do depended on the particular captain you had. When I joined we had one captain who insisted on several hundered of each technique. I thought that to be stupid. I have always thought quality is better than quantity so when I became captain I generally used to limit repetitions to 50 or so. I think after you do 100, you are just copying the motions. What was different today was the variety- when Sensei Ibusukiwe hit the makiwara, we’d not only do seiken and shuto, but hiji, haito, etc., for example, 30 times each. Hitting the makiwara hundreds of times with oizuki without focus and concentration and thinking about it, just mechanically doing repetitions, doesn’t mean that much.


(YKU)     What is the training like today at some of the famous Universities do you think? Is it still as hard as it once was?


(SI)     In Japanese university clubs of that era the first years were regarded as slaves, the second years were regarded as regular humans, the third years were emperors and the fourth years were gods. It’s a bit like that at Takushoku. Waseda and Keio are more intellectual so while we had a hierarchy, it wasn’t as rigid as places like Takushoku. We thought of them as barbarians.     


(YKU)     You are a student of Master Nakayama. Can you tell us about him? When you first introduced to him? How long were you taught by him?


(SI)     Well I was a student of Nakayama Sensei later at the JKA, but actually I was a student of Funakoshi (Gichin) Sensei at Waseda first.


Funakoshi Sensei’s teaching was very spiritual and philosophical. The most famous expression in Karate is “sente nashi” and this is what he always used to stress. He was already at an advanced age in those days and he was not able to move so much at the time. When he would demonstrate, his techniques resembled or contained strong elements of Aikido, using the opponent’s attack power against them to deflect the blow.


Sensei Ibusuki(YKU)     And what was the training like with Nakayama Sensei?


(SI)     When I rejoined Karate I was 53. I was personally taught kata by Nakayama Sensei at the JKA. He would focus on kata and taught me the 26 Shotokan kata. When I was young, all I had wanted to do was do kihon and fight. But Nakayama Sensei said he wanted to understand the meaning behind each move of each of the 26 kata, and this was a vitally important thing for an instructor. Nakayama Sensei had a very deep and detailed knowledge of the kata. He was the first instructor who had the ability to really be able to teach kata systematically. He had exemplary skill in breaking down the movements and meanings and explaining them. Originally, at third and fourth dan, you were expected to be able to perform all the kata, but at fifth dan you were expected to be able to teach them as well. So Nakayama Sensei explained to me that he wanted to educate me to become an instructor.


(YKU)     What was your training like in those days?


(SI)     I was eager to learn from other martial arts and kakutogi, so I used to visit and train at kickboxing gyms and a Kyokushin dojo, because I liked their low kicks. What I wanted to do was to try to learn what were the strong and weak parts of each. It’s very important to understand Shotokan Sensei Ibusukiby being able to compare it with other styles. For example I used to enjoy boxing and the uppercut is a great punch that is not a Shotokan technique. I used to try to visit other places because if you are attacked in the street, it’s very important that you be prepared for all sorts of things because you don’t know what sort of attack is going to come at you. If your opponent has some boxing experience, he’s going to throw hooks or uppercuts so you need to be experienced to be able to deal with these. Another reason is because knowing your enemy and preparing for whatever might happen is an essential part of strategy. This is a key part of Shonshi (Sun Tzu’s Art of War) that Japanese people used to read in the past to learn how to fight. There are four main pillars in the fighting strategy- 1. If you know yourself but not your enemy, you will win once and loose once. 2. But also if you know the enemy but not yourself, it is the same result, it’s 50/50. 3. If you know yourself and the enemy, you will win 100 times in a row. 4. But if you don’t know your enemy and don’t know yourself, then you will loose 100 times in a row. I think this lack of planning was one of the reasons why Japan lost the Pacific War. We couldn’t understand our enemy at all. 


(YKU)     Would you be kind enough to share some stories that you have of Master Nakayama?


(SI)     I think people don’t know about this but Nakayama Sensei was a private instructor to senior officers at a major embassy in Tokyo. One day he invited me along to come to teach with him at the embassy. Nakayama Sensei told me that this was unofficial teaching so this was kept as a secret between him and I. But I think its OK to be revealed.


(YKU)     How was Sensei Nakayama different inside the dojo to how he was outside of it?


(SI)     Nakayama Sensei did not change much, he was the same in or outside the dojo; his behavior was very modes and he behaved as a gentleman. He hadSensei Ibusuki gravitas and at the same time, a purposeful and calm charisma, which seem to attract people and inspire confidence. It was very sad for us when he passed away.


(YKU)     What were the most important things you took away from your training with him?


(SI)     If I could sum Nakayama Sensei up, it would be to call him a gentleman. The spirit of Karate that Nakayama Sensei taught is to be strong enough to be gracious and patient with others. That’s the most important thing I learned.


(YKU)     How would you describe Master Nakayama’s philosophy to karate?


(SI)     If you are a strong man, you have the space and the depth to be gentle. You have to be strong in yourself and if the time comes, you use your power to defeat your opponent. This is basic philosophy that I learned from Nakayama Sensei.


(YKU)     You had a period of time away from karate. Why was that if you don’t mind me asking?


(SI)     Well I started my own business and I was busy running and building up my own company.


(YKU)     And what was it that eventually made you come back to karate?


(SI)     I decided to come back to Karate when I retired.


(YKU)     You are a longtime friend of Sensei Yahara am I correct? How did you first get to know him?Sensei Ibusuki


(SI)     Well, I was introduced to Mr. Yahara by a restaurant owner in Nagano where I had bought a villa who was a mutual friend. So I went to see the JKA All Japan championships and I saw him fight and his kata and it really made a strong impact on me. I remember it was always Mr. Yahara doing Unsu vs. Mr. Osaka doing Sochin…. (At this point, Ibusuki Sensei’s wife, 8X years young, who is serving green tea breaks in.... ‘Oh, he was so handsome! He was so exciting and adorable!”)


[Ibusuki Sensei continues]...and my wife wanted to meet him. So I thought, OK, I’ll call him. And we did and we invited him to our villa. The first time he visited he came with a friend I think because he was feeling a little bit shy.


(Yahara Sensei comments on this strange coincidence: I love driving and I used to love to drive to Nagano, and Nagano used to be a favorite place to go, and I used to pop into that café because it was stylish and had a nice atmosphere).


(YKU)     Can you tell us a little about him and what it is about him that makes him such an intriguing character?


(SI)     I think what strikes me most about Mr. Yahara is that he is very straight and very black and white and he doesn’t flatter people. He knows what he likes Sensei Ibusuki as a very young manand what he doesn’t. His personality- it’s rare, he has a very clear consciousness of what he likes and what he doesn’t and he is very honest. I also admire his sheer talent in karate and as a man: that he is a businessman that he has been running a company more than 30 years.


(YKU)     Why did you start teaching at the KWF?


(SI)     Why I started teaching at the KWF is because of several reasons. One was Mr. Yahara’s Kenkyo, a genuine sense of modesty and humbleness and the other were his reasons. He said he wanted me to teach KWF students about the traditional Karate that I had learned at Waseda, and that form of Budo spirit mentality to inspire the younger generations. When I used to teach at the JKA in Shinagawa, the sensei there was very strict on what he wanted to teach but he didn’t really know anything! Mr. Yahara’s attitude was to please teach the way I wanted and also to have a bit of fun. I love to share a joke and have a conversation with our student. It was Mr. Yahara’s comments and attitudes that persuaded me.


(YKU)     What do you think about the KWF’s Karate or Yahara Sensei’s Karate?


Mikio Yahara and Sakae Ibusuki at Ibusuki Sensei's Nagano villa circa 1983


(SI)     Jissenteki – real- that’s the word that sums up Mr. Yahara’s Karate. His Karate is based on real fighting skills, on real fights, on fighting experience. In the JKA, headbutting etc is illegal, but in a real fight, headbutting is one of the effective techniques. I think these days JKA kihon renshu is a little different- the KWF kihon training is quite different from JKA time and I learned from this. I think first of all you have Mr. Isaka’s training which trains the body. Then you have Mr. Yahara’s ability to compress and twist and this makes a lot of power. Mr. Yahara is a person who really fights.


(YKU)     Some people might argue that the KWF uses too much twist and compression.


(SI)     Mr. Yahara’s skill level and experience level is different from the people who say such things. If you are in a real fight, you want to knock your opponent down with a single punch. The people who argue about this don’t understand. If you want to do that, you realize that Mr. Yahara’s technique and theory is not only reasonable, but necessary. When you see Yahara Sensei’s Karate you can see how powerful and impressive it is. He understands real fighting.


(YKU)     Many believe kata is closely linked with spiritual development. What are your feelings on this?


(SI)     Kata is essential for Karate to be Karate. Without kata, Karate would be street fighting, or just become brawling...but Kata has grace and meaning. I think Shotokan is distinguished by its Kata- compared to Karate like something like Kyokushin. Kata is the essence of Karate. When the Shimazu invaded Okinawa and banned the use of weapons they also forbade the Okinawans to train. So while they had to train in secret, the Kata were also disguised as Okinawan folk dancing. So you could watch Okinawan folk dancing but you can see the techniques of Karate movement in them. The Shimizu clan could ban weapons and training, but they didn’t see the dancing for what it was and didn’t ban it. Within the dancing were all the kata movement. So I was amazed when I was watching a TV program on Ryuku dancing a little while back and I saw a form of Hangetsu in the dancing. In Kata you have the wisdom and essence of the versions of techniquesAt the KWF Japan Cup, Note Mikio Yahara, Sakae Ibusuki and Akihito Isaka developed by Okinawans and you have the Okinawan culture. In the dances you can see the origins of Karate and the culture of the Ryuku people. So yes, I strongly believe kata is spiritual and cultural. If there is no kata, why don’t you just wear a dogi and toughen yourself up with kickboxing? Kata makes Karate Karate. Why- because it contains the tradition and culture of the Okinawan people against the Shimizu-ha. Kata is where all the fighting techniques are preserved.


Also, Kata is a kind of Zen. By practicing Kata you learn technique, balance, breathing, focus, concentration. As it’s said, Kata is DoZen, or moving Zen. Instead of motionless Zen, it’s Zen in motion. This is very, very important. Karateka should have something of the aesthetic monk in them, a sense of calm and spirituality, and they should hold that spirit when they practice. These points are also important. It’s character- what’s good and what is not good. The spiritual aspect is important.


(YKU)     Kata application in recent years, particularly throughout the West, has increased in popularity and significance. Do you think application of the kata should be a central part of the karate training?


(SI)     It is a fact is that different Sensei have different explanations of the applications and meanings of different Kata. However, I believe that the teaching of application is very important. There are many ways to understand and digest Kata and there are many ways and methods to teach. I think this breadth is a good thing. There is nobody who can say “this is ultimate bunkai of this Kata’’. There are many approaches and understanding, and this is the wonderful thing about Kata- there is no one ultimate answer. Kata applications can be taken just for fighting skills training, and Kata can be used to emphasize spiritual training, but the point is that the Kata themselves contain the essence of Karate in them and it is up to the teachers and the students to discover and learn and distill that essence to develop themselves.


In a sense I believe that Kata applications should be a bit like cooking from raw materials. Now Japanese food is different from British food, but Japanese food cooked in the UK is often subtly different from Japanese food cooked in, say Tokyo. Japan has its own way of taking foreign cuisine and subtly adapting it to our tastes. So in Japan you’d never serve avocado and sushi, and you won’t find Japanese mild and sweet curry in India. Now if you are narrow minded you can say this is all wrong and there is only one way of doing one thing. But the Kata stand for themselves. Basically how you teach applications is you can be free to think what you want.


(YKU)     What is your favourite kata and why?


(SI)     Kyuzo Mifune (considered by many to be the greatest Judo master of all time) said: “I have no favorite technique...so my favorite technique is everything.” But Mifune was a great, a great master. My philosophy is that we should all make all the Kata our favorite.


(YKU)     But really you must have a favorite?


(SI)     When I was a young man- I really loved Jion- I really like the rhythm and the meriharii (the contrasts). However, Yahara Sensei says Jitte suits me...and I also personally like Nijoshiho-sho. And Kawasaki san (Norio Kawasaki, KWF International Shihan) is really excellent at Gojusho-dai.


Sensei Ibusuki teaching at Gassuku(YKU)     How is kata regarded today by younger karate do you think?


(SI)     These days young people lack courtesy.... we are in an age where there is a collapse in manners in young people. Young people practicing Karate should train part of themselves to be spiritual and aesthetic in their attitudes.


(YKU)     You have been using the same tree at a local park as a makiwara for decades am I correct? Is this something you still very much enjoy and have you established a relationship with this tree would you say?


(SI)     I have been hitting trees in Komazawa Park (the local park) for 25 years. Where I live here, on the balcony, it’s difficult to make a makiwara at home- I can’t make a hole in the concrete to bury the base, and if I did have one, the sound would echo of the neighboring buildings and cause complaints. So I decided to try out the trees in Komazawa Park. There are lots of Hinoki (Japanese Cypress) trees there so the first time I tested out one with a trunk about this thick (makes a gesture indicating about 20-25 cm).


The Hinoki has a very soft bark and the tree is very yarawakai (bendy, with give) so I started using that. By the way, don’t do this if you are a beginner. After a few years I worried that I was injuring the tree, so I switched trees. So now I switch trees every few years. I don’t have to worry because it’s a park and there are plenty of trees!


One of my other training in the park is to train my shuto and one day I looked to see if I could cut stalks cleanly. So one day my wife got a bunch of hand cut hydrangeas.


(Author note- one of Ibusuki Senseis favorite tricks used to be chopping off the tops of beer bottles, a trick that was popularized by Mas Oyama. Ibusuki Sensei used to be able to chop two bottles, but strangely enough, only with his right hand).


(YKU)     How has JKA Karate changed over the decades would you say?


(SI)     I don’t think the JKA has really changed a lot in some ways from the old days. However, there are some rules in JKA shiai that don’t make sense. In a real fight, the person who hits the hardest wins. I don’t think it’s correct to stick to sun-do-me rues. It means in those kinds of Shai you can’t really throw powerful techniques.


This is what I like about the KWF shiai because you aim to score ippon and you have to hit the person hard to score ippon. And I think without that sort of pressure, a shiai just becomes a game. Remember, before the JKA, there weren’t really any fixed rules and we really used to hurt each other. There were too many injuries, and that’s why the JKA introduced standard rules to prevent injuries.


(YKU)     The WKF is having a major affect on how karate is being practiced throughout Europe with Karate increasingly becoming more sportified. Has the WKF had any impact on the way karate is being practiced in Japan would you say?

 An Informal moment between (L-R) Ibuki Tawara, a young and up and coming Kokushikan fighter, Sensei Ibusuki, and Masamichi Otsuka, the KWF new trainee instructor

(SI)     Well if you were harsh, you could say that Kendo is not sword fighting, it’s just become a game with sticks. You tap someone on the shoulder and you get a point. This is pathetic. When you slice with a sword, you must slice the through the bone. Or with Judo, it’s often like a game of wrestling to get points.


It was inevitable that Karate be sportified. And I think that people who play sports karate just fight to make themselves look good and score points. There is no technique. The points system damages the meaning of Karate. That sort of Karate is a joke.


(YKU)     Who do you think is practicing karate closest to its original source?


(SI)     Well the source is Jissen Karate and of course this is Nishiyama Sensei and his generation, and Kanazawa Sensei, and Mr. Yahara. Of course, Karate evolves and changes generation by generation. But if you do jissen Karate in shiai, then you are practicing original Karate, like Mr. Kawasaki does in his shiai.


(YKU)     What is your overall philosophy for karate?


(SI)     Mr. Ifrah (Serge Ifra, KWF Advisor and friend) and I were having a long talk about philosophy and Karate and he said his philosophy was “Be a gentleman first before you are a Karateka.”


I really agree with that.


And even when you are dripping with sweat and suffering like hell, enjoy yourself! You must have a pure aesthetic, but you must also enjoy yourself. If you don’t have some fun involved with Karate, there is no point!


(YKU)     Can we say a big thank you for this opportunity to interview you. It is so appreciated, and may we wish you every success for the future. 



Taken the weekend of (22nd August 2008) at KWF Saturday afternoon Kurobi Kata



For more information on KWF Karate, please visit www.kwf.jp