Spotlight: Taiji Kase – Expanding Horizons

Taiji Kase is considered by many to be one the best Shotokan instructors to have come from Japan. Although he was a long time member of the JKA, he did not fit the mould of the traditional JKA instructors coming from the hotbed of Takushoku University. Many of the karate-ka who had the opportunity to train with him continue to revere his teachings and unique approach to Karate, especially after his death in 2014.

Kase, born on 9 February 1929 in Tokyo, Japan, came from a family of martial artists. Both his father, and one of his brothers were Judo practitioners. His father Nobuaki already held the rank of 5th Dan and was known to teach Judo.

The young Kase began his Judo in 1939 at the Kodokan, the home of Japanese Judo. By the time he was in middle school he had become the captain of the school Judo team.

Kase’s martial arts training was not limited to just Judo practice. He also practised Kendo and studied Aikido under the arts founder, Morihei Ueshiba.

In February of 1944 the young Kase began his journey into the world of Karate. He had come across Gichin Funakoshi’s book, Karate-Do Kyohan, originally published in 1935. The book featured photographs of Funakoshi performing various techniques and kata. This was radically different from anything the young Kase had previously seen. He was so interested in the new art that he contacted the book publishers to find the location of Funakoshi’s dojo.

When Kase initially arrived at the dojo, Funakoshi’s son, Yoshitaka, refused to teach him as he was too young. However after he talked to Kase he the younger Funakoshi realised that he was more than capable of handling the training. So Kase began his his training at the original Shoto-Kan dojo in the Meijiro district of Tokyo. The dojo would eventually be destroyed in the bombing of Tokyo during World War Two.

Gichin Funakoshi, who was now in his seventies had retired from day to day teaching. His son Yoshitaka now oversaw much of the teaching, assisted by Shigeru Eagami and Genshin Hironishi. Kase recalled in later interviews that he was heavily influenced by the younger Funakoshi’s dynamic style of Karate. Yoshitaka Funakoshi had a very progressive approach to Karate.

During the war years, Kase was a cadet in the Japanese Navy. Because of the nationalistic and patriotic nature of the times he had enlisted in the infamous Kamikaze Corp of the navy. However, just before he was due to be deployed the war came to an end.

After the war Kase enrolled at Senchu University to study Economics. It was during this time that his Karate really took off. In 1946 he had reached the level of 1st Dan. That same year he stopped his Judo to concentrated on Karate. By this time he was a 3rd Dan in Judo.

At Senchu Kase joined the university’s Karate club, where he would eventually become the club captain. Hironishi was the resident instructor at the club.

Kase would train up to eight hours a day. He would also visit Chuo University’s Karate club to train with Shigeru Egami. During this period he trained with Hidetaka Nishiyama and Jotaro Takagi, who would eventually become the president/chairman of the Shotokai. Takagi who was the captain of the Chuo Karate club can be seen with Kase in Gichin Funakoshi’s book Karate-Do Nymon.

By 1949 Kase had graded to 3rd Dan. At 20 he was the youngest to be awarded the grade. His grading had taken place in front of a panel of senior grades from Keio, Chuo, Takushoku, Waseda, Hosei  and Senshu universities. The senior grades were from the Karate clubs and old boy clubs located at the universities.

After graduating from Senchu University, Kase briefly worked as a bodyguard for a friend of his father whose business had run into some union troubles.

The Japan Karate Association (JKA) was originally formed in 1949, when some of Gichin Funakoshi’s senior students like Isao Obata, Masatoshi Nakayama and Hidetaka Nishiyama came to together to form an organisation dedicated to the research and promotion of Shotokan Karate. Initially the JKA was made of Karate clubs from from various universities. However by the mid 1950s differences between the different groups within the JKA led to many of the university clubs leaving. Takushoku University remained a part of the organisation as many of the JKA’s instructors were graduates of the university.

Nishiyama, who was the JKA’s Chief of the Instruction Committee, invited Kase to join the JKA. Kase had been interested in teaching and joining the JKA provided a suitable opportunity. He was one of the few non-Takushoku graduates teaching at the JKA. He taught alongside Nakayama, Nishiyama and Teruyuki Okazaki, one of the originators of the JKA’s Infamous Instructors Course.

Apart from teaching at the JKA’s dojo, located in  the Yotsuya district of Tokyo, Kase also taught kumite three days a week on the Instructors Course. His students included future All Japan Kumite Champions Hirokazu Kanazawa, Keinosuke Enoeda, Hiroshi Shirai and Hideo Ochi.  He was known to be a hard but fair instructor. Not much information exists, but it is thought that he also handled any challenges made to the JKA.

In 1957 Kase began teaching at the Hitotsubashi University located in Tokyo. That same year he officiated at the first JKA Championships.

A principle very close to the heart of the JKA was the expansion of its brand of Shotokan Karate around the world. It was one of the first Japanese associations to send instructors to reside and teach in other countries. Kase himself was sent to Durban, South Africa in 1964. He taught at the Dojo of George Higginson and was in the country for a period of three months. Pioneer of South African Karate, Stan Schmidt who was graded by Kase to 1st Dan, recalled how tough the training sessions were.

1965 marked a pivotal moment of the growth of JKA Karate in Europe. The JKA sent a team of four instructors, headed by Kase, on a world tour to demonstrate Shotokan Karate. Alongside Kase, who was now a 6th Dan, were Kanazawa, Enoeda and Shirai. They travelled to several countries including the United Kingdom and South Africa. The aim of the group was to spread Karate around the world.

Vernon Bell, who had introduced Karate to the United Kingdom, organised displays and master classes in London, Liverpool and other parts of the country. Bell recalled that although the younger instructors such as Kanazawa were very dynamic, it was Kase that impressed him the most, due to his technical skill ans knowledge. The tour of the UK was so successful that Bell and the British Karate Federation (BKF) became affiliated to the JKA. Also many of today’s top Shotokan instructors such as Andy Sherry and Terry O’Neill remember the JKA visit as a major turning point in their training.

Following the tour of the UK the four JKA instructors journeyed to South Africa where they stayed for around six months. Each instructor was assigned to a different province in the country, where they taught. Their visit culminated in a number of gradings and the first South African Championships.

The rest of 1965 saw Kase travelling to the United States and Germany to conduct a number of seminars. Kanazawa and Enoeda were now teaching in the UK and Shirai in Italy. The following year he visited both Belgium and The Netherlands. In 1967 he travelled to Milan, Italy, where he joined with Shirai for a couple of months, helping him with the establishment of Karate in the country.

Kase was invited to France by Henri Plee in 1967. Plee, who had introduced Yoseikan Karate to France and the rest of Europe, would later recall the immense respect he held for Kase. Plee, who was also a Judo black belt, would like to test the skills of an invited instructor by sparring against them. He would sometimes perform the occasional throw to test them. However, against Kase nothing he did worked. He admitted that  Kase was one of the toughest fighters he ever faced. Plee offered him a one year contract to teach at his Paris dojo.

Kase moved to Paris with his wife Chieko and their two daughters. The city would remain his home and base of operations until his death. He eventually opened his own dojo after his year’s contract with Plee was completed.

In the beginning Kase was faced with a number of challenges. He faced the challenge of being in a new country with its different language, cuisine and culture. He also faced the challenge from other martial artists who wanted to test the validity of his Karate. Suffice to say he successfully handled all of these challenges.

After running his dojo successfully for a number of years,1986 saw Kase close his Paris dojo. He travelled around the world giving seminars and courses. He travelled a number of times to the old Yugoslavia where he conducted several courses for the Yugoslav Karate Association.

Following Nakayama’s death in 1987 the JKA faced political in-fighting among some of the factions within the association. Never one for the politics, Kase founded the World Karate-Do Shotokan Academy (WKSA) in 1989, alongside Shirai. The aim of the association was to be free of the politics that plagued Shotokan Karate. It also taught Kase’s style of Karate called Shotokan Ryu Kase Ha. Kase had always wanted to continue following the teachings of Yoshitaka Funakoshi, which seemed to have been largely forgotten by the JKA. He also wanted to explore other avenues, such as the principles of Miyamoto Musahi’s School of Two Swords and how it could be applied to Karate. The WKSA broke away from the JKA.

Kase suffered a heart attack on 31 May 1999. He was admitted to the American Hospital of Paris where he recuperated for around twenty days. On leaving hospital he resumed his teaching duties.

Several years later on 6 November 2004 Kase became very ill and was admitted to hospital. He was allowed to go to home as he seemed to have recovered. However on 19 November his wife was unable to wake him. He was rushed to hospital where he fell into a coma.

Taiji Kase died on 24 November surrounded by family and close friends. He was cremated on 30 November at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Around 350 people attended his funeral.

At the time of his death Kase had reached the rank of 9th Dan. He had not come to the JKA from the traditional hotbed of Takushoku University. He had trained with the great Shotokan masters i.e. Gichin Funakoshi, Yoshitaka Funakoshi, Shigeru Egami, Genshin Hironishi and Masatoshi Nakayama. This enabled him to take a different approach to Shotokan Karate as taught by the JKA. This also enabled him to impart a wealth of knowledge during his teaching and allowed him to also be consider one of the great Shotokan Karate masters.

Author: Patrick Donkor

3 thoughts on “Spotlight: Taiji Kase – Expanding Horizons

  1. Great teacher and very affable man. The reason he gave for his perpetual smile was, that he had survived being a Kamikaze pilot.

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