Spotlight: Masatoshi Nakayama – A Legacy of Excellence

It could be argued that no person has done more to expand Shotokan karate around the World, thus carrying on the legacy of Gichin Funakoshi, than his long time student and anointed successor, Masatoshi Nakayama. As the Chief Instructor of the Japan Karate Association (JKA), he oversaw the expansion of Shotokan Karate from an art practised only in Japan, to an art practised internationally by a diverse range of people.

Nakayama was born in 1913 in the Yamaguchi Prefecture,  Japan. He came from a family descended from the Sanada samurai and steeped in the martial tradition. His grandfather and father were accomplished Kendo instructors.

Being from a medical family, Nakayama was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, he had a love of Chinese culture and secretly took and passed an entrance exam for Takushoku University, the premier university for those wanting a career in the foreign service.

Nakayama entered Takushoku University in 1932. In a twist of fate Nakayama mis-read the timetable for attending a kendo class and instead found himself in a Karate class. Karate was still a fairly new martial art in Japan. Nakayama was intrigued and stayed to watch the class. He thought since having a background in kendo and Judo he would find karate easy.  So he decided to come back and try the next lesson. In that lesson he came to realise just how difficult karate really was. He began his training under Master Gichin Funakoshi and his son Yoshitaka, thus began a lifelong love affair with karate.

On competing his university studies, Nakayama travelled to China as an exchange student, to further his studies in Chinese language and history. While in China he continued his karate practice and even taught a few classes. He came into contact with Kung Fu training under several masters. His main teacher was Sifu Pai, with whom he studied a Northern Kung Fu style. Northern style Kung Fu is characterised by having long stances, deep punches and high flashy kicks. Under Sifu Pai, Nakayama learnt taisoku uke (pressing block with sole of foot) and reverse roundhouse/hook kick (ura mawashi geri). Both of these techniques were eventually incorporated into the Shotokan syllabus with the permission of Gichin Funakoshi.

During World War II,  Nakayama remained in China working as a translator. In 1946,  Nakayama returned back to a Japan  devastated by the war. He tried to get in contact with some of Funakoshi’s senior students. However, many of them had been killed during the war. Master Funakoshi’s son, Yoshitaka, had also died from tuberculosis. In 1947 he did manage to gather what was left of the senior students and they resumed their training under the watchful eye of Master Funakoshi.

In 1948, Nakayama and other senior students of Funakoshi gave a karate demonstration to personnel stationed at the U.S. Air Force Base at Tachikawa. It was well received and for the next couple  of months he travelled around Japan giving demonstrations and teaching karate to the Americans.

With the permission of Master Funakoshi, Nakayama and some of the other senior students formed the Nihon Karate Kyokai – Japan Karate Association (JKA) in 1949. Master Fuankoshi was named as Chief Instructor with Nakayama as Chief Technical Adviser.

In 1951 American Air Force personnel were sent from the Strategic Air Command (SAC) to learn various Japanese martial arts, karate being one of them. This proved to be an important learning experience for Nakayama. The Americans asked a lot of questions and wanted to know the theoretical background for performing techniques in a particular way.

In an interview given to Black Belt Magazine (November 1982), Nakayama said:

It immediately became apparent to me and to Master Funakoshi that if we were were going to teach the Americans, we would have to provide a theoretical basis for our art.”.

So under Master Funakoshi’s instruction Nakayama began an intensive study of kinetics, physiology and anatomy. The idea was to provide a scientific grounding to karate and the body dynamics it incorporated.

In 1955 Masatoshi Nakayama was elected the head of JKA.

In 1956  with the help of Teruyuki Okazaki, Nakayama formulated the JKA’s Instructor Program, which was intended as an intensive one year karate course.  Among the first graduates of the course were Takayuki Mikami and Hirokazu Kanazawa. Apart from the intensive karate practice, students were giving a theoretical grounding in karate. They were also taught kinetics, physiology and anatomy. Also they were exposed to the key principles of other fighting systems. Many of the graduates of the program were sent around the world, with the aim of expanding the JKA’s brand of Shotokan. For example, Kanazawa spent time in Europe and Mikami in the United States.

Nakayama believed if Karate did not change to incorporate some form of competitive element, like Judo or Kendo, then people would lose interest in karate. With the permission of Master Funakoshi, Nakayama started looking at ways of adding a competitive element into Karate. He explored many avenues, including having competitors wear a form of light amour, similar to Kendo practitioners. However, this still resulted injuries.

Eventually, after much deliberation Nakayama decided on a set of rules for competing. He believed that competitions should not be about winning, thus keeping the ethos of Master Funakoshi’s principles. He believed that competition should be another part of one’s training, helping to build one’s character.

Some months after Master Funakoshi’s death in 1957, the first ever JKA All Japan Karate Championship was held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium. The kumite title was won by Hirokazu Kanazawa and the kata title won by Shoji Hiroshi. The event proved such a success that it continues to be held annually.

1965 show the publication of “Karatedo Shinkyotei (A New Method For Teaching Karate-do)”. In English it is published as “Dynamic Karate”. This work by Nakayama details much of the knowledge he gained from his studies in kinetics, physiology and anatomy. This is a must read book for any serious martial artist, as it gives some scientific explanations on how certain techniques work.

Nakayama guided the JKA through its difficult early days and through his hard work made it into one of the biggest and most respected Shotokan associations in the world. Many of the students trained by Nakayama describe him as a tough but fair teacher. Some of his most able students heave become famous masters in their own right. Some of Nakayama’s most notable students, many who can be seen in his “Best Karate Series”, include:

In 1971, Nakayama an accomplished ski instructor, was caught in an avalanche, which almost cost him his life. At first doctors thought he would die, later changing their prognosis to him never ever being able to walk. However, Nakayama made a full recovery and resumed his active schedule travelling around the world and conducting various courses and seminars in karate.

Master Nakayama became the first living master to be awarded 9th Dan. He continued to travel around the world giving courses and seminars to members of the JKA associations he helped create, until his death in 1987 aged 74. After his death he was posthumously awarded the rank of 10th Dan.

Following his death, internal politics saw many of the top instructors breaking from the JKA to form their own associations. This shows how well respected Nakayama was, that these conflicts did not happen until his death.

It can be argued that no one has done more to promote the growth of Shotokan karate around the world. His legacy will always be one of excellence.

Author: Patrick Donkor

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