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Budo Karate vs. Sundomei


Mas Oyama often repeated, “Kyokushin karate is not dance karate! It’s not kenka (brawling) karate! It’s BUDO karate!” What on earth could he have meant by this? 

In order to understand fully, it’s important to understand the division that Mas Oyama’s Kyokushin created between “sundomei” karate in Japan (Shotokan, Shitoryu, Wadoryu, Shitoryu, and others) and what become known, after Mas Oyama’s time, as “full contact” karate (Kyokushin karate and all of its many derivatives).



The classic fighting posture of the Sundomei karate tournament.


Mas Oyama’s synthesis of Kyokushin was responsible for the most dramatic shift in the development of Japanese Karate that has ever occurred. Genchin Funokoshi’s Shotokan Karate was a highly stylized form, based in kata and bunkai. In competitions, practitioners fought to show better technique, but had not yet learned the kind of destructive force introduced by Mas Oyama. Mas Oyama, the “God Hand” they would come to call him in Japan, trained his hands and feet to break stones, and tear the horns off of raging bulls, and when he applied this power to his human opponents of the Japanese karate establishment, he broke them, and he was shunned as a brute. As hard as it might be for us to comprehend, when the young Mas Oyama first fought in existing karate tournaments in Japan, he was disqualified for being too rough. He would break the bones of his opponents, and the karate establishment would disqualify him for hitting too hard. It was therefore that Mas Oyama created Kyokushin, and began, at Oyama Dojo in a small dance studio behind Rikkyo University in Tokyo, teaching a new generation of Japanese karate students what he believed to be the only form of karate reminiscent of true Japanese Budo.



Stills from Mas Oyama’s famous bull fights. Mas Oyama, frustrated because he could not fight human opponents in Japan who could beat him.


After all, one key tenant of Japanese Budo (the “Martial Way”) was the Bushido (“Way of the Samurai”) mentality in which the practitioner reduced all the struggles of life, and hence the struggles for better behavior in life, to a sense of do-or-die by the sword. Since, for the Samurai, life could end at any moment, Samurai endeavored to live a pure life of proper behavior, and without this “closeness to death,” Mas Oyama believed, true Budo Karate does not exist. Of course, there were hundreds of years of Japan’s Samurai history that were peace-time years. There were hundreds of years, therefore, in which Japan’s warriors were living by the code of the samurai, a code so strict that they held correct behavior to be as valuable as their own lives, in which there were NOT, however, actual loss (or personal sacrifice) of life. It was during those years of unification and peace in Japan that Bushido (the “Way of the Warrior”) joined hands with Zen Buddhism, Art, and Confucianism, and Samurai came to follow the warrior’s code to purify their lives and their behavior, even in times of peace. Mas Oyama’s recognized, however, that if karate wasn’t at some point lethal, i.e. if practitioners didn’t risk life and limb at some point during their training, or at least train with that mentality because their role models were (the most serious of adult competitors), the establishment karate of Japan necessarily fell short of true Budo.

For Mas Oyama, the Japanese karate of the establishment was “dance karate”, there was no power, it was not dangerous, it was not, therefore, grounded in Japan’s warrior code.

Of course, there is no question that Kyoushin’s early years were not very pretty. Comparing the technical ability of modern day competitors to the technical ability of many of the Kyokushin competitors of the first world tournament (1975) is like comparing apples to oranges. Early Kyokushin tournaments where not as pretty in a technical sense, and to the Japanese public, they were considered dangerously violent. As Kyokushin karate roared to international popularity, however, the karate establishment in Japan, the “sundomei” karate practitioners fearing that they were being outclassed, began to label Mas Oyama’s Kyokushin as “kenka,” or “brawling,” karate. It is a derogatory term, meaning uncouth.




“But it’s not,” Mas Oyama was still regularly preaching in Tokyo in the early 90′s. “Kyokushin karate is not dance karate [i.e. not like Shotokan karate], it’s not kenka karate [i.e. not the karate the Shotokan folks would have you believe it is]; it’s Budo Karate [i.e. THE only acceptable karate, because it's the only one that embodies Japan's historical warrior code].”

If that’s the case, therefore, it might be important for us to ask why it is that Kancho Royama, and his Kyokushin-Kan, are working now to re-introduce and/or refine elements of karate (such as kata and bunkai) that we largely associate with the sundomei karateka of an earlier era? For many of us, Kyokushin has come to mean punching bags and sparring partners, and a sense of kata that they’re merely something different, some kind of exercise that we have to learn for promotion, but that otherwise have little meaning in terms of fighting.

Let’s look at training methods that we associate with what Karate was before Mas Oyama founded the Kyokushinkaikan, and what training methods we associate with the modern era of Kyokushin. The easiest contrast to illustrate is the makiwara (or sandbag) vs. the punching bag. Mas Oyama’s generation, and Kancho Royama’s , trained by striking hard surfaces (makiwara and sandbag), but many of our later tournament-era generations trained by using soft surfaces (punching bags and kick-mits). Mas Oyama’s generation focused on striking the body’s vulnerable parts (head, face, groin, neck), whereas our tournament-era generation focused so heavily on the body’s enforceable targets (thighs, abdomen, chest) that it almost forgot how to defend itself from head punches. Mas Oyama’s generation focused on bunkai and kata and “the science” of the art, from which “the self-defense” of the art was simple by comparison. Our generation focused on the “self-defense” of the art as a derivative from the “sport” of tournament competition, often at the expense of kata and bunkai, which is the art’s core “science.” Mas Oyama’s generation incorporated the spiritual, and the energy-training of Zen and Chi, where our generation focused on the physical of the punching bag and the body building gym. Mas Oyama endorsed training more hours per day than one sleeps. Our generation trained, in many cases . . . well, a lot less than that. Mas Oyama’s generation was lethal . . . our generation is much less so. One was defined by the Budo-ka, the other by the sportsman.

Now, one should not panic. All of our training with kick-mits, punching bags, barbells and sparring partners is all valuable too, and yes, of course, that’s where Mas Oyama wanted us to go, too. Mas Oyama’s Kyokushin in the 1990′s was also Budo karate, particularly in the realm of never-quit determination and spirit. Don’t misunderstand that point. The important point to consider, however, is that different times require different methods to keep the art at the front of the curve. Consider the following example:

One instructor outside of Kyokushin-kan in the US, who had been a student of one of the 1st world tournament era Japanese greats to introduce Kyokushin to America, tells how when his teacher broke from Mas Oyama in Japan, he started de-emphasizing training with long, deep stances, and based all of his karate on the shorter fighting stance. After all, none of us use the long stances in kumite, right?

Interestingly students of that great fighter from that earlier era began to wonder why they weren’t developing such great technique like their teacher had, and it occurred to at least this one student that even though long stances weren’t used in competition, the great skill that their teacher had while fighting (control of balance and footwork) came from his training, in the dojo, in deep low stances when he was still with Kyokushin. Here is an example in which a great practitioner of an earlier generation whose foundation was in deep stances, became a champion without them, and then, therefore, propagated a style of karate in which he didn’t push what had been part of his own art’s foundation. 

Kyokushin, arguably became the world’s strongest karate during its boom to popularity in which a new generation took shortcuts to win competitions that had rules (like no head punches), but lost some degree of what had made Mas Oyama lethal. Consider how the tables have turned:

In the 60′s and 70′s full-contact was revolutionary, so it could defeat the existing karate in Japan. But how about now? Isn’t it the case now that full-contact is the new status-quo? Of course it is! Kancho Royama and instructors of Kyokushin-kan are NOT endorsing a return to sundomei karate. They are just recognizing that full-contact is the new internationally accepted norm, but also recognizing that it is one that has become blunted by shortcut training methods associated with sports competition. They are simply asking, where is the lethality that Mas Oyama intended?

Kancho Royama and Kyokushin-kan instructors are NOT, therefore, endorsing regressing karate to an era that preceded what Mas Oyama brought to the world of karate. Rather it is the exact opposite. They are relying on the fact that there is no going back. They are just endorsing bringing back what Mas Oyama studied originally in order to break the mold of what was that earlier era’s status quo. In other words, that era’s status quo had to be broken to move the art forward. Does it not make sense that this era’s status quo might likewise have to be broken to bring the art forward again?