You must learn not only how to make Karate natural to you but also how to strengthen your body without stressing it more than necessary.Masahiko Tanaka
Nicknamed ‘Hasha’, meaning champion, Masahiko Tanaka is one of the most technically gifted and dynamic kumite masters to come out of the JKA. He was blessed with speed and the ability to coordinate kicks and punches simultaneously. Former JKA Chief Instructor, Masatoshi Nakayama, made the following comment about him:
“There are very few competitors who can use both hands and feet with as much skill as Masahiko Tanaka.“
Masahiko Tanaka was born in Tokyo on 24 February 1941. His family moved around a lot and he never really had the chance to put down any roots. It was the sport of rugby that gave the young Tanaka much pleasure. He loved the physicality of the sport. When he was nineteen his father died.
Tanaka attended Nihon University in Tokyo, where he studied Agriculture and Veterinary medicine. He came to Karate quite late. In his second year of study, a friend introduced him to the university’s Karate club. The club’s instructor was Yutaka Yaguchi, a member of the JKA, who had two third-place finishes in the JKA All Japan Karate Championships kumite event in 1962 and 1963. Tanaka’s first foray into the tournament scene was at the Kanto Area Championship where he helped his team take first place in team kumite. While still at university he took part in his first JKA Championship in 1961, the 4th JKA All Japan Karate Championships.
In 1963 Tanaka graduated from university. Now a 3rd Dan, he wanted Karate to be a major part of his life and hoped to become a JKA instructor. However, he was refused by the JKA as they did not have funds to support a student. Nonetheless, he was allowed to train, provided he could support himself.
Controversy hit the world of Karate in 1972 when the Japanese team walked out of the 2nd WUKO World Karate-do Championships held in Paris. A team that consisted of JKA fighters Tanaka, Takeshi Oishi, Norihiko Lida and Yukichi Tabata were beaten convincingly in the team kumite event. This prompted the Japanese team to pull out of the individual kumite event. The Japanese were upset at the alleged bad officiating during the team event. This prompted the governing body of world Karate to give a warning to Ryochi Sasagawa, the head of the Federation of All Japan Karatedo Organizations (FAJKO). However, other officials, including Masatoshi Nakayama, Kimio Ito and Hirokazu Kanazawa, were disqualified from officiating at FAJKO and WUKO events. The four members of the kumite team were also banned from entering future FAJKO and WUKO tournaments. This eventually led to Nakayama establishing the JKA’s own version of the World Championships.
1973 marked a turning point in Tanaka’s life. At the 16th JKA All Japan Championships he finished third in the individual kumite. Now in his mid-thirties, he had only ever managed to reach the quarter-finals of the tournament. He had always had the potential but the final ingredient required had been missing. The difference was that he had worked on his ability to concentrate and altered his fighting style. He worked on his fundamental techniques which started to earn him success in his matches.
With his tournament success, Tanaka quit his job working in real estate and dedicated himself to a life in Karate. At the age of 32, he finally became certified as an instructor at the JKA’s headquarters. This was a dream come true for him. He had been chasing this particular goal for ten years. Although not a graduate of the JKA Instructor Course, he had attended classes as an unofficial member of the group.
The 1st IAKF World Championships was to be held in Los Angeles, USA, in 1975. Tanaka focused on becoming a world champion. In 1973 he won the JKA Kyushu Tournament. This was followed by him winning the Tokyo All Styles Tournament. He then won the All Japan and JKA International Championships.
1974 saw Tanaka become JKA All Japan kumite champion. In his first title win at the 17th JKA All Japan Championships, he defeated the talented Norihiko Lida. Tanka had lost to Lida on their previous seven meetings. He featured in the October edition of Black Belt Magazine, being named as one of the top ten Karate men in Japan.
At the 18th JKA All Japan Championships in 1975, Tanaka retained his kumite title, defeating Mikio Yahara in the final. In the same year, he was sent overseas by the JKA to become national coach of Denmark. Even though he had been working towards his goal of representing Japan at the 1st IAKF World Championships, it still came as a surprise to him to be selected in the Japanese team, especially as he was teaching in Denmark. Working overseas meant he could not practice with the rest of the Japanese squad, prior to the tournament. To help him prepare, he used some of his Danish students.
At the World Championships Tanaka made it to the final of the tournament, where he faced compatriot Takeshi Oishi. The match went into overtime, with Tanaka becoming the first IAKF World kumite champion. Billy Higgins of Great Britain finished third. Tanaka also helped the Japanese team become IAKF World Team Kumite Champions. The Japanese team consisted of Tanaka, Oishi, Norimasa Hayakawa, Mikio Yahara and Toshihiro Mori.
1976 saw Tanaka miss the 19th JKA All Japan Championships due to his teaching commitments in Denmark. The following year he became the oldest person to win an All Japan kumite title. At the 20th JKA All Japan Championships he won his third individual kumite title, defeating Italian Bruno De Michelis in the final. The same year hear retained his IAKF kumite world title-winning at the 2nd IAKF World Championships. At 37 years he became the oldest individual world champion.
After a three-year teaching assignment in Denmark, Tanaka returned to Japan in 1978. He resumed working as an instructor at the JKA’s headquarters in Tokyo.
Masatoshi Nakayama’s eleven-book “Best Karate” series was published in 1979. Tanaka featured in the following books:
- Book 4 – Demonstrating kumite against Masao Kawasoe
- Book 8 – Demonstrating Jion kata
At an age when most competitors would have retired, Tanaka competed in 1980 at the 3rd IAKF World Championships, held in Bremen, Germany, as a member of Japan’s kumite team as well as a coach. The team won the world title with him winning the deciding match in the final against Germany. At 40 he became the oldest member of a winning world championship team, winning his third consecutive world team title. Tanaka retired from active competition after the championships. His major honours include:
- WUKO World Championships, Team Kumite – 1st Place (1970)
- IAKF World Championships, Individual Kumite – 1st Place (1975, 1977)
- IAKF World Championships, Team Kumite – 1st Place (1975, 1977, 1980)
- JKA All Japan Karate Championships, Individual Kumite – 1st Place (1974, 1975, 1977)
- JKA All Japan Karate Championships, Individual Kumite – 3rd Place (1973)
A successful competitor, Tanaka made the transition to being a successful coach. At the 1983 4th IAKF World Championships held in Cairo, Egypt his team won the kata, individual kumite and team kumite titles. The following year he coached the Japanese team at the World Cup held in Hungary.
In 1985 a documentary on Tanaka was made. Called “Tanaka – The Master“, it provides an insight into the way he thinks. The same year his book, “Mastering Kumite”, was also published. For any serious karateka, this is a must-read book. It provides detailed descriptions of fundamental concepts used in kumite. The book contains many photographs of him demonstrating various techniques. In the photographs, he is aided by Takenori Imura, Fujikiyo Omura and Malcolm Fischer. The calligraphy used in the book was written by Tanaka. Originally published in Japanese, the book was translated into English in 2001 by Schlatt. Nakayama wrote the foreword for the book. He said the following about Tanaka:
“Masahiko Tanaka is one of the greatest karateka of the Japan Karate Association.“
In 1986, aged 45, Tanaka came out of retirement to compete in the 29th All Japan Karate Championships. Competing against men much younger than him, he reached the quarter-finals of the kumite event. Always looking to test himself, he wanted to test himself against the new generation of younger fighters. He showed that age had not diminished his talents or skill.
In 1987 the Chief Instructor of the JKA Masatoshi Nakayama, died aged 74. His death led to infighting within his beloved organisation. By 1990 the JKA had split into two factions. One faction consisting mainly of older instructors were led by Nobuyuki Nakahara and Motokuni Sugiura. The faction included Maasaki Ueki, Yoshiharu Osaka and Masahiko Tanaka. The other faction, consisting mainly of younger instructors, was led by Tetsuhiko Asai. This faction included Mikio Yahara, Masao Kagawa and Keigo Abe. Each faction referred to themselves as the JKA. However, The Japanese courts eventually decided that the Nakahara led faction had the right to use the JKA name.
As a senior member of the JKA Tanaka travelled around the world giving courses. He is a firm believer that improving Karate in other countries will lead to an improvement in Japanese Karate, through the competition provided. In 2010 he and Yoshiharu Osaka were appointed deputy Chief instructors to Maasaki Ueki, who had been appointed Chief instructor of the JKA. He was the head of the JKA’s international section, tasked with promoting Karate abroad. It appears that as of 2013/2014 he no longer holds that position.
Currently holding the rank of 8th Dan, Tanaka sits on the JKA’s Shihankai (Instructors) Committee as an honorary member. He also sits on the JKA’s International Board of Directors.
In 2018, Tanaka gave his last ever training course in Europe. The training course took place in Lenzkirch, Germany. Around 100 participants were allowed to attend the course. Tickets were sold out for the event. At a special banquet given in honour of him, Tanaka and his wife Emiko were presented with a cake, to mark their golden wedding anniversary.
Even though Masahiko Tanaka is well over the age of 70, he can still perform techniques that much younger karateka struggle with. As a competitor he exhibited a strong spirit, never giving up. He found success at a time when most have retired. Through his dedicated training, he brought both mental and physical strength to bear on his opponents, many who were much larger than him. As a teacher, he was a firm believer in building strong basics and a solid foundation over a long period of training. Described by Nakayama as a gifted master of kumite, his achievements include:
A 64-fight winning streak
- 16 consecutive appearances at the JKA All japan Karate Championships
- A consecutive quarter-finalist in the JKA All Japan Karate Championships 15 times
- A 2-time consecutive individual kumite world champion
- A 3-time consecutive team kumite world champion
- Oldest champion at the JKA All Japan Karate Championships at 36
- Oldest individual world champion at 37
- Oldest team world champion at 40
Tanaka has proved that with a determination, hard work and a strong spirit, anything can be achieved.