Spotlight: Hirokazu Kanazawa – Master of Shotokan

A legend of Karate, much has been written about Hirokazu Kanazawa. For many years he has been one of the most recognisable faces of Karate. Considered by many to be the greatest of the Shotokan Masters, he is arguably one of the best technicians to come out of the JKA.

Kanazawa was born on 3 May 1931, in Iwate Prefecture, Japan. His father was a fisherman who died young in the 1940s. His mother Masue, was a big influence on his life. The middle child of three, his older brother Tatsuo, would eventually run the family’s fishing business. His younger brother, Hideo, would eventually become a doctor.

At high school Kanazawa was a keen boxer and judoka. He eventually reached the rank of 2nd Dan in Judo.

Kanazawa first became aware of Karate in the 1940s while a senior at high school. Yamashiro, an Okinawan friend of his brother Tatsuo, visited on holiday from university. One night the small man became drunk and got into a fight with several local fisherman. The police were called, and Officer Kodama, a very big man and a renowned 5th Dan judoka was in attendance. There was a struggle and the much smaller Yamashiro broke Officer Kodama’s nose. This was Kanazawa’s first experience of Karate in action. This was something he wanted to learn. However there were no Karate clubs locally.

In 1951 Kanazawa enrolled at Nippon University. He joined the university’s Karate club, but was soon disappointed with the training. A weak club, it had only one black belt student and many white belts. He had seen a training session conducted by students from Takushoku University. He was impressed by the standard of their Karate training and knew he wanted to attend a strong Karate university.

Kanazawa took and passed the entrance exams for Takushoku University, and transferred to the university in 1951.

As expected Kanazawa joined the university’s strong Shotokan Karate club. Having developed close-range and ground fighting skills with boxing and Judo, he was impressed by the long-range fighting techniques of Shotokan Karate. Apart from his normal university studies he also trained 5 to 6 hours a day.

Initially there was a gap between Kanazawa and the other students. Some of the students had studied Karate at high school. To overcome the gap he trained by himself at night. He also used a lot of mental imagery to rehearse the techniques he practised. Gichin Funakoshi would come to the club to teach. Kanazawa with responsible for collecting him from his home to bring him to the club.

On graduating from University Kanazawa was recruited to work at Taiyo Fisheries Company. However, Masatoshi Nakayama the Chief Instructor of the JKA, wanted him to join the newly formed Instructors Course. In 1956 Kanazawa was promoted to 3rd Dan. He graduated from Takushoku and joined the JKA.

In 1957 Kanazawa, alongside Takayuki Mikami, graduated from the gruelling Instructors Course. Their instructors included Nakayama, Hidetaka Nishiyama, Taiji Kase and Teruyuki Okazaki. After graduating from the course he became an instructor at the JKA Hombu and several companies and universities that included Musashi Industrial University, Mitsubishi Shoji Company and Arabia Oil Company.

On 28 October 1957 the 1st All Japan Karate Association Championships took place at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium. Kanazawa had trained intensively for the championships. However, five days before the championships were due to start, he broke his wrist in two places.

Kanazawa was upset by the injury and decided not to compete. However his mother had travelled to Tokyo to watch him compete in the tournament. She asked him whether he had other limbs he could use . Not wanting to disappoint her he entered the tournament. He used his good hand for blocking and his kicks for scoring, all the way through the tournament. He won four fights by ippon. In the final he defeated Katsunori Tsuyama in the kumite final.

The following year in 1958, Kanazawa became the first ever Grand Champion of the JKA All Japan Karate Championships. He won the kata title, defeating Takayuki Mikami in the final. In a memorable kumite final he faced Mikami. Both men fought to a draw and shared the kumite title.

On 22 January 1961 Kanazawa was sent to Hawaii by the JKA, to become their Chief Instructor in Hawaii. He would hold this position for the next two years. Introducing the new art of Shotokan Karate to Hawaii was not without its problems. He faced challenges from other instructors of other Karate styles and martial arts. They wanted to test the authenticity of his Karate. Through talking he was able to prevent many conflicts. However, on 5 occasions he faced challenges who could not be dissuaded from conflict. He defeated them.

In 1961 Kanazawa was promoted to 5th Dan.

Always eager to experience other styles of Karate, Kanazawa visited the birthplace of Karate, Okinawa. He had the opportunity to visit a number of dojos. He visited the dojos of Shorin-Ryu founder Chosin Chibana and that of his student Higa Yuchoku.

On 29 March 1965 Kanazawa embarked from Haneda Airport, Tokyo, alongside Taiji Kase, Keinosuke Enoeda and Hiroshi Shirai on a world tour for the JKA. The aim of the tour was to introduced the wider world to the JKA’s brand of Shotokan Karate. The touring party visited cities in the United States, West Germany, Belgium, Holland, France, England and South Africa. The tour was a success and led to a request for JKA instructors to teach outside of Japan.

1965 also Kanazawa become the resident instructor to the British Karate Federation (BKF) who had become affiliated to the JKA. His contract was for one year. He was very popular with the students he taught, who were disappointed when his contract came to an end in 1966.

In 1966 there was a split in the BKF, which led to the formation of the Karate Union of Great Britain (KUGB). Kanazawa became the Chief Instructor of the KUGB. That same year he was promoted to 6th Dan.

The JKA asked Kanazawa to become Chief Instructor to the German Karate Federation in 1967. Enoeda took over his role as Chief Instructor to the KUGB.  When Kanazawa left the role in 1970 to return to Japan, he recommended Hideo Ochi to take over from him.

Kanazawa was promoted to 7th Dan by the JKA in 1971. He was also promoted to JKA Director, becoming General Manager of the International Division of the JKA International Section. He also became the Chief Instructor at Musashikogyo, Kantogakuin and Kitasato universities.

For the next few years Kanazawa worked tirelessly as a senior member of the JKA. He was the General Manager of the Japanese team sent to the 2nd WUKO World Championships, held in Paris, France. He was also an international referee at the 1st IAKF World Championships and the JKA Asia-Oceania Championships, both in 1976.

For many, Kanazawa was one of the main faces of the JKA. So it was a huge shock when he left the JKA in 1977. He had sent a letter of resignation as a JKA director but not as a JKA instructor. As Director of the International Section one of his jobs was to unify all the different JKA groups around the world. He felt he had failed to do this. Some elements within the JKA wanted to see him expelled. While on a trip to Europe he received a dismissal letter from the JKA. He was shocked. He had never wanted to leave the JKA. He had been with them for over 20 years.

No longer with the JKA, Kanazawa formed the Shotokan Karate-do International Federation (SKIF) in 1977 under his leadership. His technical prowess and international profile soon attracted many students.

Kanazawa was still in demand as an international referee. In 1980 he was the referee at the 5th WUKO World Championships held in Madrid, Spain. The following year he was the referee at the 1st World Games, held in Santa Clara, California.

In 1983 the 1st SKIF World Championships took place in Tokyo, Japan. 25 countries took part. Hitoshi Kasuya of Japan won the kata title, with Aidan Trimble of England winning the men’s kumite title. H. Kumakura of Japan won the women’s kata title and Japan won the team kumite title. The SKIF World Championships have become an important event in the Shotokan  calendar.

In 1990 at Osamu Ozawa’s 10th Traditional Karate Tournament International, one of the biggest showcases in the world for traditional Karate styles, Kanazawa was invited to demonstrate his style of Shotokan Karate. His demonstration was well received. He was also invited to the 14th and 15th Traditional Karate Tournament international events, also held in Las Vegas .

Kanazawa was promoted to 9th Dan by the International Martial Arts Federation in 1988. Ten years later he was promoted to 8th Dan by SKIF. In April 2000 and at the 7th SKIF World Championships held in Bali, Indonesia, he was awarded his 10th Dan.

In January 2009 Kanazawa suffered a skiing accident. He fell badly, crushing three of his vertebra. He was in his 70s. After he recovered, he continued travelling around the world conducting courses and seminars.

In 2012, after decades of travelling, Kanazawa decided to spend more time in his native Japan. That year after the SKIF World Championships held in Sydney, Australia he retired from active travelling and teaching. In the course of his teaching he had travelled to more than 130 countries.

Two years later at a special ceremony held in Tokyo on 5 April 2014 Hirokazu Kanazawa officially passed the leadership of SKIF to his son Nobuaki, assisted by Manabu Murakami.

Kanazawa has practised Tai Chi for many years and credits it for his longevity in Karate. He started practising the art in 1957 under the tutelage of Mr Yang. He has also made extensive studies of Okinawan Kubodo  weapons such as the sai, tonfa and nunchuku. A keen historian he has also researched many of the kata found in Shotokan Karate.

Kanazawa has three sons, Nobuaki, Fumioshi and Daizo. Unfortunately, their mother died at a young age. All three of Kanazawa’s sons are professional karate-ka.

Noted Shotokan practitioner, Terry O’Neill, once wrote about Kanazawa,

“He is the perfect specimen of the type of person the art of Karate can develop – there will never be a finer living example of what Karate at its highest level really is.”

In the early hours of 9 December 2019, Hirokazu Kanazawa died.

Hirokazu Kanazawa is considered one of the most skilful Karate masters of all time. A great technician, he is considered by some to be the greatest Shotokan master. He is one of the best instructors in the world and has built up a loyal following of dedicated students. A gentle and sincere man  he has been able to convey the concepts of Karate to many generations of students. A prolific author, he has also had many instructional videos produced. It could be argued that many people would not have started Karate if they had not seen demonstrations from this very talented master.

Author: Patrick Donkor

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