Spotlight: Tsuguo Sakumoto – A Legend In His Own Time

Tsuguo Sakumoto is unmistakable with his clean shaven head and his intense gaze. He is a three time WKF World Champion in kata and when watching him one cannot fail to be mesmerised by his power, speed and grace. By wining successive world championships with the kata Anan, he put the Okinawan family style of Ryuei-ryu karate on the international map.

Sakumoto was born on 13th December 1947 in the Okinawan village of Onna. He was a weak child, having suffered from diphtheria and pneumonia as a baby.

He came to Karate a little late, not starting Karate training until he was fourteen. His first style was Goju-ryu. He credits his training for making him stronger.

In 1965 Sakumoto attended Tokyo University (Nippon Taiku Daigaku) studying Physical Education. After graduating, he returned to Okinawa in 1970 to pursue a career as a physical education teacher.

Once back in Okinawa Sakumoto heard about the family karate style of Ryuei-ryu. Ryuei-ryu is an Okinanwan style of Karate for the Nakaima family.  It was a closed style of Kkarate only being taught to family members.

The originator of the Ryuei-ryu was Kenri Nakaima who spent time in China learning different fighting methods. The style is characterised by its mixture of Karate and Kobudo and is a style closer to its Okinawan and Chinese Budo roots. It is not steeped in sports as some of other Karate styles. It was Kenri’s grandson, Kenko, who opened the style to non-family members. He was sixty years old at the time and feared that the style could  become extinct. He had been the headmaster of a Junior High school and was a well respected martial artist.  He taught a small group of students who were all school teachers. He believed  they had the necessary good character and education to transmit the style in the right manner. Several Okinawan High School Karate clubs have officially adopted Ryuei-ryu as the style they practice.  Following the death of Kenko Nakaima in 1989, his son Kenji assumed the mantle of leader of the system.

Initially Kenko Nakaima refused to train Sakumoto, only relenting when he learnt that Sakumoto was a teacher.  For the first two years of his training in Ryuei-ryu Karate, Sakumoto was taught nothing about the style, only learning very basic techniques, and sweeping the dojo floor. He felt like giving up. However being quite stubborn he persevered.

It was only after five years that Kenko Nakaima  fully trusted Sakumoto and began teaching him the main techniques of Ryuei-ryu. In truth Nakaima had been testing the determination of his prospective student. Sakumoto developed into one of Nakaima’s top students.

At the age of 34, as a coach to a junior team, Sakumoto found that his students were not interested in sport. As a way to encourage their interest and participation in Karate, he entered his first Karate competition, taking part in the kata event. To his surprise he won the event. This was the beginning of his successful tournament career. Sakumoto is considered one of the best and most successful  kata performers the world has ever seen.

The international world became aware of Tsuguo Sakumoto and his style of Ryuei-ryu when at the age of 37 he won the 7th Karate World Championship held in Maastrict, Holland. He performed the kata Anan, which many people outside of Okinawa and Japan had never really seen. The audience were thrilled by his powerfully dynamic yet graceful performances.

He went on to become a three-time world champion in kata, winning in 1984 (Maastrict), 1986 (Sydney) and 1988 (Cairo). He is also a two-time winner of the World Games (1985 and 1989) and a two-time winner of the World Cup(1987 and 1989).

It should be noted that Sakumoto’s teacher, Nakaima, was not a fan of sport Karate, and did not fully agree with his student competing. He felt that that the introduction of tournament karate had diluted the true essence of kumite and kata. Like many masters of his generation Nakaima believed karate should be used for building one’s character. This conflicted slightly with Sakumoto, and many younger masters who saw the sport  aspects as a way of attracting more people to Karate-do.

Sakumoto describes his style of Karate as being hard, scientific and modern. He believes that competition, as typified in sport karate, is just one part of Karate training. Sport Karate should not be mistaken for the art of Karate, as they are two different things. The art of karate has become popular because of sport Karate which is fast becoming a popular spectator sport.

It could be argued that Nakaima’s assertion that kata can be diluted by sport Karate can be seen in Sakumoto’s favourite kata Anan. In its original form it is a kata that best demonstrates the principles found in Okinawan Karate. It utilises body-shifting (tai sabaki) and strong palm strikes and blocks. Unfortunately the kata has been modified by some competitors to appear flashier for tournaments, thus losing some of the Budo aspects of the kata

At the time of writing Sakumoto is the President of the World Karate Kobudo Ryuei-Ryuho-Kai. He is also the Technical Chairman of the World Karate Federation (WKF). He has also been involved with the Japanese Karate Team as a coach. Much of his time is currently spent training and teaching in Okinawa. He travels two to three times a year giving seminars and demonstrations internationally.

Sakumoto currently holds the rank of 9th Dan in Ryuei-ryu Karate. He also holds  the ranks of 1st Dan in Kendo and 4th Dan in Judo.

It can be argued that few competitors have had as much of an effect as Tsuguo Sakumoto. His dominant performances in winning three consecutive world titles changed the way other competitors performed. The kata Anan has become one of the most performed katas in tournament Karate, and the little known family style of Ryuei-ryu Karate is building an international following.

The videos below show Tsuguo Sakumoto performing some of the main Ryuei-ryu karate katas.

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Author: Patrick Donkor

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