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The following is a brief overview of the early life of Masutatsu “Mas” Oyama.
The founder of Kyokushin, Masutatsu Oyama, was born Choi Yong-i on 27 July 1923 in Gimje, Korea, during the long period of Japanese occupation. As a young child, Oyama enjoyed fighting and watching others fight. In 1938, he emigrated to Japan and studied Okinawan Karate under Gichin Funakoshi, eventually gaining 2nd dan. Later, Oyama also trained under Yoshida Kotaro, a famous Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu/Yanagi-ryu Aiki-jujutsu master, from whom he received his menkyo kaiden – an older form of grade, a scroll signifying mastery, from Kotaro. This scroll is still on display at the Honbu dojo in Tokyo.
Also, upon the advice of his mentor and a member of the National Diet, Matsuhei Mori, around this time the young master took his Japanese name, Masutatsu Oyama, the name he would use for the rest of his life. After World War II, Oyama began his training in Goju Ryu karate under a Korean master in Japan, So Nei Chu, who ran a dojo in Tokyo along with the renowned Goju teacher, Gogen Yamaguchi. He would finally attain 8th Dan in Goju Ryu Karate. Another influence from the Goju school was Masahiko Kimura, although also an assistant karate instructor at the karate dojo Oyama trained at, Kimura was primarily a famous champion of judo who defeated Hlio Gracie. Kimura encouraged Oyama to take up judo so that he would have an understanding of the art’s ground techniques. Kimura introduced Oyama to the Sone Dojo in Nakano, Tokyo, where he trained regularly for four years, eventually gaining his 4th Dan.
It was after this time that Oyama first retreated into the mountains for one of his well-known solitary training periods, yamagomori. He completed two such retreats for a total of almost three years of solitary training in accord with the ascetic traditions of many of the great warriors of Japan through the centuries. During this period of isolated training, Oyama engaged in intense shugyo, or spiritual discipline. In the early 1950s, Oyama traveled to the USA visiting 32 states.
Founder of Kyokushin Karate, Masutatsu Oyama.
In 1953, Oyama resigned from Goju ryu and opened his own independent karate dojo, named “Oyama Dojo” in Tokyo, but continued to travel around Japan and the world giving martial arts demonstrations, including bare-handed challenges. His first ‘Oyama dojo’ was a vacant lot in Mejiro, Tokyo. In 1956, Oyama moved the dojo into the ballet studio attached to Rikkyo University. Oyama’s own curriculum soon developed a reputation as a tough, intense, hard-hitting, and practical style which he named “Kyokushin” in a ceremony in 1957. As the reputation of the dojo grew, students were attracted to come to train there from Japan and beyond and numbers grew.
In 1964, Oyama moved the dojo into a building he refurbished not far from the ballet studio at Rikkyo. Oyama also formally founded the “International Karate Organization Kyokushinkaikan” (commonly abbreviated to IKO or IKOK), to organize the many schools that were by then teaching the Kyokushin style. This dojo at 3-3-9 Nishi-Ikebukuro, in the Toshima area of Tokyo, remains the world headquarters for one of the current Kyokushin karate factions.
1964 to 1994
After formally establishing the Kyokushinkaikan, Oyama directed the organization through a period of expansion. Oyama hand-picked instructors who displayed ability in marketing the style and gaining new members. Oyama would choose an instructor to open a dojo in another town or city in Japan. The instructor would move to that town and usually demonstrate his karate skills in public places, such as at the civic gymnasium, the local police gym (where many judo students would practice), a local park, or conduct martial arts demonstrations at local festivals or school events. In this way, the instructor would soon gain students for his new dojo. After that, word of mouth would spread through the local area until the dojo had a dedicated core of students. Oyama also sent instructors to other countries such as the Netherlands (Kenji Kurosaki), Australia (Shigeo Kato), the United States of America (Tadashi Nakamura, Shigeru Oyama and Yasuhiko Oyama, Miyuki Miura) Brazil (Seiji Isobe)and Great Britain Steve Arneil to spread Kyokushin in the same way. In 1969, Oyama staged the first ‘All Japan Full Contact Championships’ which took Japan by storm and Terutomo Yamazaki has become the first champion. Also in 1975, the First Open Full Contact World Karate Championships. Occasionally, world championships have been held at four-yearly intervals, although under the current confusion of self-proclaimed representative organizations, there are up to five so-called “world championships” claiming to represent Kyokushin.
Upon Oyama’s death, the International Karate Organization (IKO) splintered into several groups, primarily due to conflict over who would succeed Oyama as Chairman and the future structure and philosophy of the organization. As a supposed will was proven to be invalid in the family Court of Tokyo in 1994, any claim to that will indicating the true intention of Oyama was nullified. Before his death, Oyama named no one as his successor although many now claim to be the rightful leader of his organization. One of these, a young and skilled student of Oyama’s named Akiyoshi Matsui claimed that he personally owned the intellectual rights to all Kyokushin trademarks, symbols, and even the name Kyokushin. However, the Japanese legal system subsequently ruled against Matsui in this matter (as he had nothing at all to prove his false claim), returning the ownership of Oyama’s intellectual property to his family. To this day, Matsui and his followers continue to claim he is the successor although this claim is backed by nothing but the hearsay of a handful of (coincidentally) Matsui’s business partners and followers.
The only organization that remains loyal to Oyama’s original Kyokushin Honbu Dojo (school) and Oyama’s family (who inherited Oyama’s intellectual property) is the IKO Kyokushinkaikan based at that dojo, identified as the IKO Sosai (see ).
Existing as a single organization under the leadership of the founder, Mas Oyama, the Kyokushin organization, after the Master’s passing, broke down into various groups, each claiming their own authority as representing the original Honbu. Many of these groups use identical names or minor variations thereof. As a result there is much confusion and political (and legal) rivalry between the groups.
Various other organizations have stemmed from Kyokushin and teach similar techniques but go by different names. Also, numerous dojos throughout the world claim to teach a Kyokushin curriculum without formal connection to the organization. Although difficult to quantify, it is conjectured that the number of students and instructors involved in learning or teaching the style or one of its close variations around the world is significant and numbers in the millions.
Oyama’s widow died in June 2006 after a long illness. According to the Japanese legal system the Custodian of Oyama’s intellectual property and legacy is the youngest of his daughters, Kikuko (also known as Kuristina) who now operates the original IKO Honbu.
Techniques and Training
Kyokushin training consists of three main elements: (1) technique, (2) forms, and (3) sparring. These are sometimes referred to as the three “K’s” after the Japanese words for them: kihon (technique), kata (forms), and kumite (sparring).
The Kyokushin system is based on traditional karate like Shotokan and Goju-ryu, but incorporates many elements of combat sports like boxing, Muay Thai and kickboxing in kumite. Many techniques used in Kyokushin Karate are not found in other styles of karate.
In this form of karate the instructor and his students all must take part in hard sparring to prepare them for full contact fighting. Unlike some forms of karate, Kyokushin places high emphasis on full contact fighting which is sometimes done without any gloves or protective equipment. This apparent violence is tempered because bare-handed punches and strikes to the head are not allowed. This reduces the risk of both immediate and long-term head injury. Whilst knees and kicks to the head and face are allowed, owing to the nature of these techniques, injuries that are rare and cause long-term brain damage, common in boxing and kickboxing, are virtually non-existent. This makes the Kyokushin style of training very popular amongst professionals.
In the earliest Kyokushin tournaments and training sessions bare knuckle strikes to the face were allowed but resulted in many injuries, thus students were forced to withdraw from training. Oyama believed that wearing protective gloves would detract from the realism that the style emphasizes. Therefore, it was decided that hand and elbow strikes to the head and neck would no longer be allowed in training and competition. Furthermore, many governments don’t allow bare knuckle strikes to the head in sanctioned martial arts competitions. The vast majority of Kyokushin organizations and “offshoot” styles today still follow this philosophy.
Technically, Kyokushin is a point and circle style, incorporating a successful blend of the linear techniques of the powerful Shotokan karate and the more circular movements of Goju-ryu with its strong Chinese influence. Shotokan and Goju-ryu were the two styles of karate that Oyama learned before creating his Kyokushin Karate. However, Oyama studied Shotokan for only a couple of years before he switched to Goju-ryu where he got his advanced training under his primary mentor, So Nei Chu. These influences are reflected in Kyokushin where the training and kata for early ranks closely resembles Shotokan but gradually becomes closer to the circular techniques and strategies of Goju-ryu the higher one advances in the system.
Kata is a form of ritualized self-training in which patterned or memorized movements are done in order to practice a form of combat manoeuvering. According to the highly-regarded and best known Kyokushin text, “The Budo Karate of Mas Oyama” () by Cameron Quinn, long time interpreter to Oyama, the kata of Kyokushin find their origins as follows:
The northern kata stems from the Shuri-te tradition of karate, and are drawn from Shotokan karate which Oyama learned while training under Gichin Funakoshi. Some areas now phase out the prefix “sono” in the kata names.
Taikyoku sono ichi
Taikyoku sono ni
Taikyoku sono san
The Taikyoku kata was originally created by Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan karate.
Pinan Sono Ichi
Pinan Sono Ni
Pinan Sono San
Pinan Sono yon
Pinan Sono Go
The 5 Pinan katas, known in some other styles as Heian, was originally created by Anko Itosu, a master of Shuri-te and Shorin ryu (a combination of the shuri-te and tomari-te traditions of karate). He was a teacher to Gichin Funakoshi.
Bassai-dai (only used in one kyokushin organization)
Sokugi Taikyoku sono ichi
Sokugi Taikyoku sono ni
Sokugi Taikyoku sono san
These three kata were created by Oyama to further develop kicking skills and follow the same embu-sen (performance line) as the original Taikyoku kata.
The southern kata stems from the Naha-te tradition of karate, and are drawn from Goju Ryu karate, which Oyama learned while training under So Nei Chu and Gogen Yamaguchi.. Two exceptions are “Tsuki no kata” which originates from Seigokan goju ryu where it was created by Seigo Tada under the name “Kihon tsuki no kata”, and the Kata “Yantsu” which originates with Motobu-ha Shito ryu, where it is callen “Hansan” or “Ansan”.
Tensho and Gekisai was originally created by Chojun Miyagi, founder of Goju Ryu karate.
Tsuki no kata
Naihanchi (known as Tekki in Shotokan) (only used in one kyokushin organization)
The kata Garyu is not taken from traditional Okinawan karate but was created by Oyama and named after his pen name, which is the Japanese pronunciation of the characters , the name of the village (Il Loong) in Korea where he was born.
Several kata are also done in “ura”, which essentially means all turns are done spinning around. The URA, or ‘reverse’ kata were developed by Oyama as an aid to developing balance and skill in circular techniques against multiple opponents.
Taikyoku sono ichi ura
Taikyoku sono ni ura
Taikyoku sono san ura
Pinan sono ichi ura
Pinan sono ni ura
Pinan sono san ura
Pinan sono yon ura
Pinan sono go ura
Sparring, also called kumite, is used to train the application of the various techniques within a fighting situation. Sparring is usually an important part of training in most Kyokushin organizations, especially at the upper levels with experienced students.
In most Kyokushin organizations, hand and elbow strikes to the head or neck are prohibited. However, kicks to the head, knee strikes, punches to the upper body, and kicks to the inner and outer leg are permitted. In some Kyokushin organizations, especially outside of a tournament environment, gloves and shin protectors are worn. Children often wear head gear to lessen the impact of any kicks to the head. Speed and control are instrumental in sparring and in a training environment it is not the intention of either practitioner to injure his opponent as much as it is to successfully execute the proper strike. Tournament fighting under knockdown karate rules is significantly different as the objective is to down an opponent. Full-contact sparring in Kyokushin is considered the ultimate test of strength, endurance, and spirit.
Also known as Goshin-jutsu, the specific self defense techniques of the style draw much of their techniques and tactics from Mas Oyama’s study of Dait-ry Aiki-jjutsu under Yoshida Kotaro. These techniques were never built into the formal grading system, and as kyokushin grew increasingly sport oriented, the self defense training started to fall into obscurity. Today it is only practiced in a limited number of dojos.
Kyokushin Karate Belt Order
red 10 & 9 KYU
Light Blue 8 & 7 KYU
Yellow 6 & 5 KYU
Green 4 & 3 KYU
Brown 2 & 1 KYU
Black All DAN grades
Colored belts have their origin in Judo, as does the training ‘ gi’, or more correctly in Japanese, ‘ dgi’ or ‘Keikogi’. In Kyokushin the order of the belts varies in some breakaway groups, but according to the Honbu of Oyama, the kyu ranks and belt colors are as follows:
White Mukyu (lit: “no grade”)
Orange 10th Kyu
Orange with one stripe 9th Kyu
Light blue 8th Kyu (Oyama made it LIGHT blue to represent the flowing element of water)
Light blue with one stripe 7th Kyu
Yellow 6th Kyu
Yellow with one stripe 5th Kyu
Green 4th Kyu
Green with one stripe 3rd Kyu
Brown 2nd Kyu
Brown with one stripe 1st Kyu
Black 1st Dan and up
Each colored belt had two levels, the second being represented by a stripe at the ends of the belt. The white belt however, does not represent any level and is only meant to hold the ‘gi’ in place. As such, the white belt is used by practitioners who are not yet graded. The belt system under Mas Oyama followed this order since the 1960s with the exception of the orange (red) belt, which was incorporated only in the last year of his life, replacing the earlier used white belt with one and two red stripes for the same kyu grades.
Whilst some groups also use red belts for high dan grades, it is not the norm and Oyama himself did not follow this practice in his dojo or organization, always wearing a wholly black belt himself.
There are many ideas of how the belt colors in the martial arts came to be, some more romantic than others. One quaint tale says that students of a karate school would be given a white belt. The students’ belts would gradually become stained darker from use and eventually a person who was of a high standard and who had trained for a long time would then have a black/brown/dirt colored belt. This is an inspiring way to encourage students to train harder, and might have its basis in truth since martial arts practitioners as a general rule don’t wash their belts after training. However, no evidence exists of this, so there is no hard and fast rule according to the Japanese and romantic notions of the belt containing the training spirit and hard toil of years of training are generally invented in the West. The tradition of only sparingly washing the belt is more likely based on the more practical reason that belts tend to lose their color if washed too often.
Perhaps the most widely read and respected interpretation of the fundamental psychological requirements of each level is found in the book, The Budo Karate of Sosai Masutatsu Oyama, written by former interpreter to Sosai Masutatsu Oyama, Cameron Quinn. Kyokushin karate has a belt grading system similar to other martial arts. The requirements of each level vary from country to country, some far stricter and more demanding than others. For example, in some countries in Europe, the grading for each level requires the student to complete the entire requirements for each level up to the rank being tested. So the student attempting first degree black belt will do all the Orange belt requirements, THEN all the blue belt requirements (including repeating the orange belt requirements) and so on. The free fighting (kumite) requirements for first degree black belt also ranges from ten rounds to forty rounds, depending on the region, usually at a very high level of contact and with no protective gear other than a groin guard and mouth guard. It is not so much the number of fights but the intensity of the effort that defines the grading. Some areas don’t even have formal gradings per se, instead presenting the student with their new rank in training after the instructor feels that he/she has reached that level and is capable of all the requirements.
The belt assigned to each student upon commencing training is a white belt. With each successful grading attempt the student is awarded a kyu ranking, and either a stripe on his current belt or a new belt colour altogether. Grading, or promotion tests, include calisthenic and aerobic training, kihon (basics), ido geiko (moving basics), goshinjitsu (self defence), sanbon and ippon kumite (three and one step sparring), kata (prescribed series of movements/forms, sometimes described as a form of moving meditation), tameshiwari (board, tile or brick breaking) and kumite (contact free fight
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