First, what have been the major changes in Karate over the last several decades?
Yahara: You might say that modern Karate is moving in three separate directions. It has been fully about half a century since I undertook my professional calling in Karate and became a Japanese Karate Association (JKA) instructor. Since then, I have traveled the length and breadth of Japan and the rest of the world to participate in matches and spread the practice of Karate. In doing so, I have come to understand that the meaning of Karate changes in line with changes in the societal environment. In more medieval or more violent times, Karate was “Budo Karate” (Martial Art of Karate). In peaceful times, Karate became a competitive sport. Finally, in shall we say apathetic or uninspired times, Karate has become entertainment. I first encountered Karate shortly after the Second World War, meaning Karate was essentially “Budo Karate” at the time.
Over the past 30–40 years, competitive Karate has spread through the world like wildfire. The longtime dream of having Karate approved as an Olympic sport has come true with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, so the world of Karate is bursting with excitement. However, of note is the fact that over the past decade “Budo Karate” has become increasingly popular among Karate aficionados; such persons are particularly interested in KWF’s “Budo Seishin” (Martial Arts Spirit) and its techniques.
1. The KWF Organization
What was it that motivated you to create the KWF back in 2000?
Yahara: My overriding motive for launching the organization was my fear that authentic, traditional “Budo Karate” was dying out. I felt that the creation of the KWF network on an international scale was necessary to bring “Budo Karate” back to its former prominence and also to spread awareness among martial arts practitioners about what we might call an existential crisis facing “Budo Karate”. My view was that my distinctive style of Yahara Karate needed to be at the core of such an organization, and that this organization would be devoted to my study of “Budo Karate” based on the principle of “Ichigeki Hittou” (Single Overpowering Strike).
I believe that this cause inspired me to such an extent due both to my ancestry and business profession. In point of fact, my family history can be traced back to Japan’s Sengoku era (Age of Civil War, 1467–1573) in the second half of the Muromachi period (1336–1573), when one of my ancestors on my mother’s side was the leader of a clan of “Suigun”, which was a kind of local naval force. I imagine that they spent the majority of their time battling enemies. They say that the clan gained sovereignty over the region that would later be my birthplace, and that they prospered there for a time. You can still find a large stone monument there that commemorates the history and merits of my ancestor.
Regarding my business profession, I established a bodyguard services company at the age of 28 while I was still working as a JKA instructor. My objective was to confront the evils in Japanese society with nothing but the body I was born with and my Karate. It may seem extreme to say, but my own demise was of little concern to me as long as I could accomplish this task. Working as a bodyguard was like killing three birds with one stone: It was a perfect opportunity for me to put my training into action; it let me defend people in need of protection; and it paid well. Of course, being a bodyguard is a hazardous profession, but it is precisely because of my numerous encounters with danger that I was able to develop the “Santen Rikiho” (Three Methods of Power) utilized in KWF's “Ichigeki Hittou”. In a sense, working as a bodyguard put me in an environment where I was required to model my Karate for use as a practical weapon. (Note: Today, Grandmaster Yahara’s company employs around 300 persons.)
Based on these unique principles of “Budo Karate”, in 2000 I established KWF together with Malcolm Dorfman and others. The KWF organization currently has branches in some 58 countries and territories with further expansion planned for the future.
KWF is a gathering of “Karateka” (Practitioners of Karate) from all Karate schools who wish to pursue authentic, traditional “Budo Karate”. The Single Overpowering Strike of Yahara Style “Budo Karate” is rooted in the Okinawan Shotokan style of “Budo Karate”, and takes a physiologically and psychologically modern approach to traditional “Budo” while still remaining true to its origins.
Is there a special meaning behind the path of “Karatenomichi” (Way of Karate)? What sets it apart from “Karatedo” (Way of Karate)?
Yahara: They have the same English translation and are generally similar, but KWF’s “Karatenomichi” holds a deeper meaning. Adding the Japanese preposition “no” (of) to the noun “Karatedo” turns it into “Karatenomichi”, which serves to emphasize a certain path. The term does not refer only to Karate as a martial art, but it also refers to the pursuit, path, or “Way” experienced while studying “Budo Karate”.
In other words, the Way is the journey of ordeals undertaken while studying the technique and spirit of “Budo Karate”, as well as the objective found beyond that stage. As a lifelong undertaking, the “Way of Karate” must ascend to the level of a “Way of Life.” I believe that all KWF members would benefit by sharing this goal as well.
What is the current main objective of KWF, and have you changed your objective since starting out?
Yahara: A key idea for me is “Shoshin Ittetsu”, which means always stay true to your original intention. My faith and convictions as a martial arts practitioner have never changed. In order to use the principle of the Single Overpowering Strike to revitalize “Budo Karate”, I have pledged to dedicate myself as central advocate of the study for these methods, to recruit a sizeable network of likeminded practitioners, and to spread our ideals across the globe. At heart, Yahara Karate is entirely about how to turn every single movement of the human body into an effective weapon while remaining unarmed, and not about how to earn points in a tournament.
While KWF has some 58 branches, it is still developing as an organization. Many of our members, excluding a select few, seem still to have their own take on what Karate is. Going forward, one of our primary tasks is to have our practitioners refocus on KWF’s unique “Budo Seishin” (Martial Arts Spirit) and techniques. The first step we need to take is to change our way of thinking, meaning to refrain from viewing Karate as a sport, but to properly see it as a traditional martial art bringing together spirit, technique, and physicality to achieve “Ichigeki Hittou”.
2. KWF Karate
Tell us about the kind of research KWF is conducting on the fundamentals of Karate.
Yahara: The concept of defeating your opponent with a Single Overpowering Strike is not something that you can accomplish by just willing it with your mind. Martial arts are all about how to use your body to achieve devastating power, which is something that KWF Yahara Karate can make possible.
At the foundation of my theory lies our own methodology, which we have termed “Santen Rikiho” (Three Methods of Power).
Using the Three Methods of Power allows one to use the human body’s kinetic chain system to instantly compress the body’s muscles and joints to their limits, storing energy that can be amplified using the body’s kinetic chain system for the purpose of focusing and delivering all the power of the body onto a single target.
“Santen Rikiho” (Three Methods of Power)
1. Hip Rotation and Compression Power
2. Flexion / Extension Power of Lower Body Joint Moments
3. Full Body Rotation Torsional Power
The Three Methods of Power utilize the body’s kinetic chain system to achieve “Ichigeki Hittou” (Single Overpowering Strike), which is the essence of Yahara “Bujutsu Karate” (Martial Art Technique of Karate).
Regarding compression, it seems as though you have the power to gather and store energy, but not just via the movements of your body. Rather, it is as if you have the ability to attract the energy around you and then gradually or instantaneously shoot it back out. How does that work?
Yahara: My explosive movements all come from the proper application of the unique KWF Three Methods of Power, which allow you to effectively and fully control the movement of your muscles and the elasticity of your joints. According to an advisor, each of KWF’s movements also makes use of the so-called closed end of the kinetic chain, which is to say when striking we use ground force resistance to generate power from the foot that is firmly planted on the ground. In this way, you must have almost certainly seen my correct utilization of the body’s kinetic chain system via the Three Methods of Power as a truly explosive and masterful movement.
Through rigorous training, you can learn to sense the energy stored by this method and even understand it flowing through your muscles and joints as though you were watching it frame by frame, like with a high speed camera. Because you can feel the flow of energy in super slow motion, controlling it becomes child’s play. Again according to an advisor, I understand one MIT professor has termed this experience Flow Psychology, or being in the zone.
What is your opinion on training with “Makiwara” (Padded Striking Post)?
Yahara: Training with “Makiwara” is extremely important in “Budo Karate”. However, for Karate as a sport where only points matter, “Makiwara” training is for all intents and purposes useless. In KWF Karate, the Single Overpowering Strike is everything, so using “Makiwara” is the most basic of basics and absolutely essential for training. The “Makiwara” is not only for creating calluses on your fists; it is a vital tool to help you learn to feel the kinetic chain system involved in the Three Methods of Power.
Three factors are needed to enhance devastating power. Any devastating weapon needs Mass (density), Weight, and Speed. All three can be concentrated and improved when training with a “Makiwara”.
For Mass (density), you need to be hard as stone. If a weapon is soft, then it won’t be able to withstand the impact resulting from hitting the target. To pierce through the target, you need to be hard (dense).
For Weight, you need to be sufficiently heavy. The material a weapon is made out of must both heavy and solid. Japanese “Katana” (Swords) are known for their cutting ability because the blades are made out of special types of steel, and the swords themselves are heavy.
For Speed, even if a weapon is heavy and solid, it will only bounce off of the target unless it has sufficient speed. The harder a target is the more speed is needed in order to pierce through it.
Therefore, training with a “Makiwara” allows you to forge your body into a powerful weapon through the application of the Three Methods of Power with the correct use of the kinetic chain system.
If you are having difficulty understanding my Karate, think of the relationship between the Three Methods of Power and Mass, Weight, and Speed as the same type of relationship as between a high power gun and a high power bullet, where the closely compressed gun powder (here, Three Methods of Power) delivers the needed energy to propel the bullet (here, Mass, Weight, and Speed).
Even though the core principle of KWF Karate is the Single Overpowering Strike, you still hold competitive tournaments. Why is this?
Yahara: That is an excellent question. In short, yes, KWF holds competitive matches, or “Kumite”. However, by sparring matches, I do not mean the same kind of matches seen in mainstream competitive sport Karate. That is, because KWF’s focus is the Single Overpowering Strike, our matches cannot in effect be about taking turns to score points. Each match has to be decided with a Single Overpowering Strike. KWF’s Three Methods of Power are used to instantly charge the body’s energy and launch it at your target as a strike of maximum power. The energy will, in effect, then either explode inside of your opponent’s body, or, so as to avoid injury, just outside of it. In this way, two martial artists who can control their output can spar with each other. One must not hit rapidly, and, therefore, lightly in KWF Karate. You earnestly face your opponent with the intent to deliver a Single Overpowering Strike, knowing that you have a single chance to attack and failing will result in your own devastation. Because you only have one chance, it must be “Ichigeki Hittou”. The state of mind is vital for the spirit and technique used in KWF’s “Ippon Kumite” (One-Strike Sparring), and this is how matches we hold are meant to be.
I hope that you now understand how different competitive sport Karate and KWF Budo Karate matches are even if they may seem similar at a passing glance.
We who train in martial arts cannot be ignorant of the rest of the world or else our Karate will end in mere self-satisfaction. We must be confident in our ability and use the techniques we have acquired by participating in public matches. In doing so, we can measure our ability against our opponents and also develop the spirit of battle. Obviously, because dueling is no longer permitted in modern society, competition is one way for KWF members to improve their techniques.
There is a saying that goes, “There's no first strike in Karate.” Does this not contradict the nature of the “Ippon Shobu” (Overpowering with One Strike)?
Yahara: That is another key question. There does seem to be a contradiction, but only from that particular point of view.
Points are everything in so-called sports Karate today. As such, a greater value is placed on speed, timing, and preemptive strikes than proper Karate technique and power. So, naturally, the saying does not make sense under this context.
However, the saying does not contradict the ideals of KWF Karate at all, because KWF Karate is “Budo Karate” (Martial Art Technique of Karate). It is simple to wander off the path of “Bujutsu” and become in effect a walking, talking dangerous weapon; accordingly, we rely on reason and ethics to control the ferocity that lurks within. Actually, since ancient times Karate has been considered the martial art of sophisticated individuals who would never utilize it to assault others. In this sense, “There's no first strike in Karate” is actually a word of warning. When a fight is unavoidable, however, we are obligated to end it in a Single Overpowering Strike, which is the quintessence of a traditional martial art.
In “Budo Karate” (Martial Art of Karate), via the concept of “Gishin Ichinyo” (Unity of Technique and Mind), we learn to train and discipline both our mental outlook and physical skills.
Through the disciplined practice of KWF Karate techniques, we become familiar with the spirit necessary to prevail, and we ultimately come to appreciate the significance of the Zen expression that the “Ordinary Mind is the Way”. As a lifelong undertaking, the goal of Karatenomichi (“Way of Karate”) is for it to become a truly transformative “Way of Life.”
In KWF Karate, “Oi Zuki” (Lunge Punch) and “Oi Geri” (Lunge Kick) can both be used as the decisive strike. Could you explain a bit more about this?
Yahara: Both moves can be used as “Ippon Waza” (Fully Fledged KWF Technique) because they possess the most potential for destructive power. Having a greater distance between yourself and your opponent allows you to amplify acceleration. Speed and weight are needed to create destructive power, and the two moves put you in the prime position to utilize them.
When practicing Kata, do you always have to envision your opponent? What specific meaning does doing so have? Do we envision a Kata to its completion?
Yahara: Karate is “Bujutsu” (Martial Art Technique), not a sport. A Kata takes the offensive and defense techniques used in a given situation, such as being in close-quarters combat or right up next to your opponent, and links them together for maximum efficiency. All techniques need to have practical use in “Bujutsu”, which is why you must always picture yourself in battle and be conscious that each of your movements can decide whether or not you will walk away alive. The diverse free Kumite we do today did not even exist back when Karate first came into existence. It may sound rather simple from a modern perspective, but the Karate of the time was basic self-defense techniques, such as how to react to your hair or collar being grabbed, and that was what they would practice. Over time, the techniques became more and more complex and local practitioners of the day trained themselves for bare-handed combat while also looking towards everyday objects (like farm tools) as makeshift weapons. Over time, we came to the advanced empty-handed martial art we know today.
During my time training to be a JKA instructor, JKA Karate Master Nakayama would often tell us that “Karate begins with Kata and ends with Kata.”
Karate Master Nakayama taught us that it takes a full three years of constant repetitive practice in order to master the movements of a single Kata. Speaking from experience, it took me over 10 years to become able to use my signature Kata, “Unsu” (Cloud Hands), in an actual Kumite. Everything from lying flat on the ground to flying through the air has made me capable of being able to use most techniques in actual sparring, which is the ideal. To get to this level, I had to envision myself in the midst of deadly battle and repeat the Kata over and over again until my body absorbed it. Whenever I had a match coming up at JKA, I would spend the month leading up to it practicing “Unsu” 50 times in a single training session without resting in-between.
Many people have told me that my “Unsu” has soul, and I believe that this is because I always envision myself in battle when executing it. If you fail to follow the principles of offense and defense and just focus on looking beautiful, then you are not doing “Bujutsu”; you are simply dancing.
When do you think is the right time to start deconstructing the applications of a Kata, and can a beginner do it, too?
Yahara: Whenever I am teaching, I always deconstruct the movements within a Kata after my students learn it. This is, again, because Karate is “Bujutsu”. If you fail to understand how the parts of a Kata work together, then there is no way that you can properly execute “Bujutsu” offensive and defense techniques. Learning the movements properly is the way to learn the Kata properly. It is of little consequence whether you are a beginner or not.
Do you think it is better to focus on a single Kata over a long period of time, or practice many Kata at once?
Yahara: If you want a serious answer, then you have to consider the historical background. Though we can practice “Bujutsu” in modern society, it is really not so that we can be ready to enter combat at a moment’s notice. Even though envisioning oneself in a real fight when executing Kata is important when studying traditional Karate, you need to be able to separate fiction from reality. You can remain conscious of “Bujutsu” while enjoying it at the same time. So, I think you can work on a number of Kata at once for the sake of making Karate a lifelong undertaking.
3. Other Topics in “Budo Karate”
You have touched upon the concept of “Sen no Sen” (Attack Before Being Attacked). For those of us lacking in actual fighting experience, how do you become able to sense your opponent’s feelings?
Yahara: Everything is based on experience. Over time, you will become able to read your opponent’s movements. From my time as a bodyguard, if I am up against someone with a weapon, I can sense on an unconscious level whether they are serious or are just bluffing. I can also sense their reactions to my intense spirit in the distance separating us. There are three tempos in the rhythm of battle: “Sen no Sen” (Attack Before Being Attacked), “Go no Sen” (Attack While Being Attacked), and “Go no Go” (Defend and Counterattack).
Have your teaching methods changed over the years?
Yahara: Speaking metaphorically, I taught like a lion back in my younger days, dropping my cubs into a valley and offering my teachings only to those who managed to climb back up. The guiding principles I used were the same, but the nurturing method was entirely different. Let us say that I had three apprentices. I would essentially knock them around; only the ones who kept coming back would be kept on. Basically, I had my apprentices experience the same pain and fear that I did when I was studying at JKA.
I am still a strict instructor today, but now I strive to teach my students via modern methods and providing motivation, while also preserving the best traditions of “Budo Karate”.
Final question. What advice do you have for people studying traditional Karate?
Yahara: Perhaps it is simply a cultural difference, but from my experience teaching abroad, I have noticed that students dislike practicing Karate fundamentals and prefer Kumite. However, if they have yet to have mastered the fundamentals of “Budo Karate”, their Kumite is all over the place. It makes me wonder what they are trying to do in Karate in the first place. In Karate Kumite, you utilize bona fide Karate techniques.
My Karate is all about the fundamentals. You must study proper form and the use of the kinetic chain system to amplify power by means of “Santen Rikiho” (Three Methods of Power). It is the same as folding steel, where the metal is heated and hammered, heated and hammered, countless times before the finished product is complete.
Proper form and full utilization of the kinetic chain system that comes with it are absolutely essential to concentrate the energy of one’s body into one’s target with maximum efficiency. The ideal the Martial Art of Karate requires you to forge your weapons one at a time before bringing them with you into battle.