Shokan Takeda Sun: Karate without compromise

Written by Boon Mark Souphanh

While most karate schools these days have one foot (if not two) in the sporting arena and have long ago discarded the toughest elements of the art, Shokan Takeda Sun Hanshi, 10th Dan, stands out from the crowd like his calloused knuckles do from the backs of his hands. Although the 84-year-old grandmaster has lived Down Under for nearly 30 years, he maintains an unflinching approach to the karate methods he began learning 65 years ago in Japan. He studied under Shito-ryu senseis Watanabe, Tomoyori and Nakano, and learnt kobudo (weaponry arts) under Furugan Sensei. A Korean-born Japanese, Takeda was also good friends with Sosai Mas Oyama — a relationship that began with a public challenge. As he prepares to pass on stewardship of his association, Shito-Ryu Kanbu Kai of the Shito-ryu Kei Ken’yu-ryu, Blitz spoke to Takeda Hanshi about his philosophies on karate training and technique, and his unique theories on developing the power to beat bigger opponents.

Takeda-DSC02162
Shokan Takeda Sun Hanshi trains with the makiwara

Hanshi, how did you get started training in martial arts? Being Korean-born, did you begin learning Korean arts before moving to Japan?
I developed a strong interest in martial arts from a young age. We used to wrestle a lot as young boys and sumo was very popular at the time. My ambition was to become a professional sumo wrestler; however, I did not meet the minimum height requirement.  So I turned my efforts to karate, as I knew it was a mysterious and effective small man’s fighting art. I moved to Japan as a young boy so I did not study Korean martial arts before leaving.

What drew you to the style of Shito-ryu?
When I moved to Japan I disembarked in the port city of Osaka. Shito-ryu was by far the most common form of karate in the Osaka region at the time, while Shotokan and Goju-ryu were more popular in Tokyo.  Shito-ryu and brother style Kei Ken’yu-ryu had highly respected shihan, several of whom — Tomoyori and Nakano — were legendary fighters in Osaka, who I considered excellent role models for me as a teenager. The Shito-ryu curriculum was very formalised and the requirement to learn over 50 karate kata plus kobudo kata was an enticing challenge. I was also attracted by the fact that Shito-ryu was the most legitimate Japanese karate ryu [school] with clear lineage.

Shito-ryu has been described as a ‘combination’ style of karate. Can you please elaborate on what this means?
Shito-ryu’s founder, Kenwa Mabuni, was a student of Shuri Te [the karate from Okinawa’s Shuri area] sensei Anko Itosu. Mabuni Sensei was also a student of Naha Te [karate from Naha, Okinawa] sensei Kanryo Higaonna. Both Itosu and Higaonna were taught hard-soft forms of Okinawa Te; however, Itosu was known for straight and powerful techniques, while Higaonna was better known for his shorter and more circular techniques. In honour of his teachers, Mabuni named his new style using the first two letters of his teacher’s names, reflecting the hard-soft heritage.

Training sounded pretty tough back in the day. Can you describe the training you had to undertake to be accepted as a student back then, and then to reach such a high level in the art?
The circumstances at the end of WWII were very difficult for everyone in Japan, especially Korean immigrants, who were considered second-class citizens.  We were often starving and struggling to make ends meet, so fighting was very common.  Street fighting was very serious back then, usually resulting in severe injury, so being able to fight was a necessary means of survival. With this strong motivation in mind, we would train for eight hours per day; two hours in the morning and then another six hours until midnight. Training for life-and-death situations required brutally realistic training; we were always injured and recovery was difficult as rest days were very rare.

The training hurdles for Koreans were very high, but we had greater motivation than our Japanese classmates. We would often complete 50-to-60 kata in a day, do thousands of makiwara [wooden striking post]techniques and then complete brutally bloody kumite sessions to finish off. One of the requirements for Black-belt was perfect completion of 300 nekoashi-geri (cat-foot kick) without the slightest wobble in the standing leg or loss of focus in the kicking leg.  

You’ve spoken about ‘bone-deep’ pain from training. What is bone-deep pain and why is it such an important aspect if you want to excel in martial karate?
Traditional martial karate is a fighting art form, not a sporting pursuit, so it requires brutally effective techniques with no second chances or margin for error. These techniques require precise, sharp, whip-like motions using the bones of the hands and forearms as the striking points to inflict maximum damage. Kumite is a painfully important part of this training, however, in my experience, nothing surpasses makiwara training in conditioning of the hands and forearms. Years of concerted makiwara training results in greater bone density and sharpening of the bones of the hands and forearms into weapon-like instruments. This method of training is brutally painful, takes time to yield results and requires enormous discipline to remain committed to the objective.

Further, traditional martial karate methods do not sanction the use of bugo (armour or padding), resulting in painful bone-to-bone strikes. The other aspect of bone-deep pain is that of correct and effective kata training. Kata has mysteriously superior benefits in conditioning the body’s tendons, bones and organs. It is the lynchpin that combines karate’s essential techniques and ‘motion logic’ into an effective fighting art.  Kata has many complicated techniques, stances and body positions that are difficult to learn and take many years of repetitious training to master.  Often, these techniques have no direct fighting application, but they are an important part of the foundation for the development of devastating keiroyoku power.  Kata deliberately requires the execution of the most difficult method and techniques, so the body is conditioned to the core, resulting in tendon- and bone-deep pain when done correctly.

Why is martial karate such a small part of the karate scene today? Do less people train it this way than when you started, or was it always only followed by a small number due to the difficulty of the training?
Karate’s origin was as a small or weak man’s means of martial resistance against larger or stronger opponents. Invariably, these small, weak men were part of minority groups rather than part of mainstream society.  Often, karate techniques were secret and practised discretely by small groups rather than in today’s well-patronised dojos.  Regardless, most karate training was of a martial nature back then, with little interest as a spectator sport.
In realising karate’s effectiveness, at the end of WWII, US occupation forces embraced Japanese martial arts, encouraging the global spread of ‘karate fever’. This was a great opportunity for karate to establish a global reputation; however, it was also a tremendous commercial opportunity.

To be commercially successful, karate had to become popular in the mainstream, requiring compromises to make it appealing to the general public. The opportunity to make money, and host exciting and entertaining tournaments, was also tantalising for instructors, many of whom abandoned their traditional ways. As a result, traditional martial karate is rarely taught these days, relative to the total numbers pursuing sports karate. I would guess that over 90 per cent of global karate these days is sport or commercially based, meaning less than 10 per cent of karate dojos are pursuing traditional martial karate methods.

You’ve said in the past, “If you concentrate too much on do (way), you become a monk. If you concentrate too much on technique, you become a showman. If you gather too much strength, you become a wrestler.” So, with that in mind, how is the right balance achieved? What elements of skill and body conditioning should one most concentrate on in martial training?  
Kanbu Kai extols balance in training — taiso (martial callisthenics), parallel bars, kumite, makiwara and kata — to increase capacity, and provide a solid and wide foundation for the development of well-rounded martial ability. Taiso and parallel bars provide the body with excellent gymnastic ability: strength, flexibility, balance and suppleness. Kumite and makiwara train the body to strike in a fast and brutally effective manner.  Kata provides the lynchpin or computer software that ties these essential ingredients together, making them work in harmony. However, without serious and dedicated kata and makiwara training, the ability to achieve excellent levels is severely curtailed. Therefore, kata and makiwara should command greater emphasis where sufficient time cannot be allocated to the other elements in a balanced manner. The training method that is most important is makiwara. Without makiwara, fighting confidence is not fully hatched, and the hands and forearms cannot be fashioned into weapons that make karate truly effective. For this reason, traditional martial karate shihan would often say ‘No makiwara, no karate’.

Tell us about your friendship with Kyokushin karate founder Mas Oyama. Is it true that you are the only one to ever challenge him face-to-face? If so, what prompted the challenge and how was it received?
Yes, that is correct. Many challenged Mas Oyama; however, I was the only one to ever challenge him face-to-face. While Kanbu Kai is not a tournament karate style and I did not encourage tournament participation, I had students who chose to participate from time to time. On one occasion, a student participated in an open-style tournament with over 10,000 spectators in attendance.

My student was publicly unknown, but he knocked out one of Mas Oyama’s top Kyokushin fighters who had a very significant weight and size advantage.  Oyama announced over the microphone that the kick was amazing and that the fight should be extended one more round. I was also judging and very unhappy with his suggestion as, had it been a real fight, my student would have clearly won.  We argued over the microphone and I challenged Mas Oyama to fight me if he chose to disagree, to the wild applause of spectators. At the same time, my students were facing off against Oyama’s students and the air was electric. Oyama was very smart and he intelligently talked his way around the issue, so the challenge did not end up taking place. The episode cemented a very strong friendship and we remained very close Korean ‘brothers in arms’ until he died in 1994. Mas Oyama had enormous charisma and few people could have introduced karate to the world in the exciting manner that he did.

What prompted your move to Australia, and what did you think of the karate scene when you arrived?
In the early 1980s I was invited to Australia to do a demonstration in Queensland by several Kyokushin shihan. I thought the invitation also provided a good opportunity to take my family for a holiday. We thought Australia was paradise with an enviable lifestyle and this prompted the move from Japan. My impression of the local karate and martial arts scene was one of opportunity and a fresh start. I was very impressed with how tough the footballers were and thought that if this determination and guts could be translated into the martial arts, Australia had a very bright future.

What was it like training here in the early days compared to today?
There was still a keen interest in the traditional martial arts at that stage and the dojo would often attract 20-to-25 students per class. In my experience, this was not typical of traditional martial karate in Japan, where class sizes tended to be smaller on average. My feeling today is that there is little appetite for traditional martial karate and there is generally more interest in sports karate and MMA. Unless some karate self-reflection occurs, I worry this decline may be more than simply a short-term trend.

What led you to form the Kanbu Kai karate school?
Traditional Japanese dojos were not easy places to survive and prosper as a Korean immigrant. We had to train that much harder to make the next grade and respect was not easy to earn. While I respected my sensei[s] — Nakano, Watanabe and Tomoyori — I wanted to achieve even greater levels of excellence and I felt a fresh, unencumbered start was the best means to achieve these aspirations.

Why have you now decided to relinquish your post as president of the Kanbu Kai?

Everything ultimately expires in nature and the martial arts are no exception. I am now 84 years old, with 65 years of hard, serious training under my belt, and it is time to give the new generation an opportunity, just as I sought my own independence. This succession planning is important to provide the new generation with the ambition to achieve new heights, and experiment and try new innovative methods, without forgetting karate’s past and reason for being.  

Being over 80 years old, what karate training do you still do today?
I have always considered martial arts to be a lifelong pursuit for true masters. I still train two or three hours per day but this is mostly limited to taiso, kata and as much makiwara as I can do. Taiso and kata help keep the body supple and conditioned while makiwara maintains hands and forearms in a weapon-like manner.

Do you feel that you’re still learning?
In the early days I felt like Christopher Columbus, scooting off, researching and exploring in all directions. In some ways I regret not being more focussed back then; however, it opened my mind and broadened my capacity base for what is humanly possible from a martial arts perspective. After 65 years, the rate of learning and discovering new methods has certainly declined; however, I remain determined to discover more effective techniques if they are out there.

Where do you hope Kanbu Kai’s new leaders will take the art in future years?
My hope is that these new leaders will take the knowledge and expertise I have given them as a base to build from, developing amazingly effective techniques that preserve karate as an effective fighting art well into the future. Australia is paradise, the Australian people have been very good to me and I offer this as a gesture of thanks and goodwill to the Australian people.

So is evolution of the art an integral part of Kanbu Kai’s future?
The basic assumption of Kanbu Kai is that your opponent is always larger and stronger than you are. This natural weight and strength advantage means that you cannot defeat your opponent through strength alone, and that technique and speed are the only effective options for victory. It is therefore vitally important to be thinking in four dimensions as to how to improve speed and technique. Each person is different physically and mentally, so I have always encouraged the evolution of these techniques and methods into a format that is tailored to specifically suit that person. Research and innovation is a continuous pursuit, as it is in most aspects of life, and the martial arts are no exception.  This is reflected in Kanbu Kai’s name where the kanji [Japanese written characters] can be interpreted as ‘martial research’.

Would Kanbu Kai ever compromise on any of its practices to keep the art alive for the next generation?
Kanbu Kai’s philosophy is based on the fact that for something to remain relevant it must remain effective. By default, compromise of practices usually means that effectiveness decreases, implying that karate risks becoming irrelevant.  I have always stated my opposition to compromises that have been made for tournament fighting and for women and children.  That said, the reverse can also be true that if no compromise is made, you will not attract students and the art form will naturally die in any case. If Kanbu Kai’s new leaders can think of innovative training methods that do not compromise effectiveness for entertainment or social inclusion, then why not? Again, I would emphasise that traditional martial karate is a brutal fighting art that is not intended to be enjoyed by the masses.

With so many years of martial karate training under your belt, what do you consider your masterpiece techniques?
In my fighting experience, only the Kanbu Kai side-kick and three continuous hits in half a second with one hand are techniques that can be relied on to defeat a larger, stronger opponent. Both are high-level, ‘fourth dimension’ techniques that require serious training and dedication to master. The side-kick is extremely effective at stopping larger, stronger opponents from charging, stalling their momentum, breaking their balance and providing the perfect set-up for an instantaneous kin-geri (testicle-kick). A dedicated young student can be taught to deliver an effective side-kick in two or three years. For many of these young students, the challenge of mastering an entertaining kick for spectators is a rewarding bonus. Three continuous hits in half a second is a very effective technique when striking larger, stronger opponents; however, it is only effective when delivered to the jingchu (front of the face, not side or back of head). This technique usually takes 10 years or more to master as it must be preceded by kata and makiwara mastery. Once struck in this manner, a larger opponent is sufficiently shocked and off balance, allowing a perfect set-up for an instantaneous kin-geri.

There are few shortcuts to success in traditional martial karate, with kata and makiwara being essential ingredients for the vast majority of these techniques.

Read more martial arts interviews.