Grandmaster Hirokazu Kanazawa

This text is an excerpt taken from the book, “KANAZAWA, 10th DAN – Recollections Of A Living Karate Legend – The early years (1931-1964)”,with kind permission from Dr Clive Layton, and Hanshi Mick Randall MBE

Who in the world of Shotokan karate has not heard the name, Hirokazu Kanazawa? No, let me broaden that question: Who in the world of karate, irrespective of style, has not heard of the name “Hirokazu Kanazawa?” for it is a name that has almost become synonymous with an entire art form. He is, quite simply, the most famous karateka alive today.

It would be sufficient to say that Master Kanazawa holds the highest black-belt rank currently bestowed by the Japanese upon any martial artist. If we then added that, despite it being true that the era of karate’s popularisation is now over, the master nevertheless spends at least six months of each year away from Japan, travelling the globe teaching the 2.4 million students in the one hundred and six countries that go to form the Shotokan Karate-Do International Federation, to which he is chief instructor, so that the deep spirit of karate can be imparted, it can readily be appreciated how his fame has come about. Incredibly, the SKIF is now, it is believed, operating in more countries than the Japan Karate Association.

However, Master Kanazawa’s fame does not rest solely on his seniority or on the number of students within his association today, though clearly these are indicative, but on a series of contributory factors, essentially personal, but also historical, that have made the above possible. Terry O’Neill, for example, wrote in the mid l970s that Kanazawa was “often cited by experts as the man who has come closest to achieving perfect technique … [and that] From an aesthetic viewpoint, the karate of Kanazawa has no equal…” But this technical prowess was not God-given, it was the result of a single-minded determination that has not waned in fifty years.

Another of the master’s notable attributes is his ability to communicate, which may be seen as a combination of his high intelligence and the love he has for an art that he has chosen to share. Vernon Bell, the founder of British karate, reflecting back to 1965 recalled that Kanazawa’s “teaching ability was so profound that even the simplest of individuals, just by copying, just by following, repeating, could feel what Kanazawa was teaching.” Certainly, Kanazawa always could, and still can, draw the very best from a willing pupil.

And the demonstrations! Master Kanazawa is, in the author’s considered opinion, not only the finest exponent of conventional tameshiwari that the world of Shotokan has ever produced, but he lays claim to a strange and unique ability in the martial arts, an ability that defies the known laws of science, at least as the author understands them, in that he can reputedly board-break and brick-break selectively in a stack, with either punch or kick. Clearly, all in all, there is something very special indeed about this man.

As one might imagine, Master Kanazawa’s karate lineage is of the first-order. A student, and later vice-captain of the infamous Takushoku University dojo for four years, he was taught by the founder of Shotokan, Gichin Funakoshi, and by Master Masatoshi Nakayama, Chief Instructor of the JKA, as well as by numerous other seniors, including Hidetaka Nishiyama and Teruyuki Okazaki. In 1956, Kanazawa was one of only three selected to enter the newly instigated one-year JICA Instructors’ Courses. Then, in 1957, at the first JKA All-Japan Championships, he won the individual kumite title despite having entered the competition with a broken hand. The following year, he won both the individual kumite and kata competitions, becoming the first JKA Grand Champion, a feat that has only been repeated five times since. In 1961 he was posted as JKA Chief lnstructor to Hawaii, returning in 1963. In 1964 he studied briefly on Okinawa, and in 1965 he came to Great Britain.
It is just before the trip to Europe that this book ends, for the story of 1965-1966 is told in great detail in Volume II of the author’s Shotokan Dawn, which is currently in press, and, The Kanazawa Years details personal reminiscences of Michael Randall MBE for the period 1965- 1968, which covers the master’s residence in Britain. Master Kanazawa then taught in West Germany for two years, acting as coach to the European team at the world championships in Mexico in 1968, before returning to Japan to take up a dual post – Principal Director of the lnternational Section of the JKA, and as a Director of the JKA. During this time he also taught at Musashi, Kanto and Kitazato universities. He was coach to the JICA team for a number of years, and successfully took the world championship title in Paris, 1972.

In 1978, following political problems and what seems like a very acrimonious split from the then JKA, Master Kanazawa returned to Japan as a matter of honour, having originally intended to take up residence in Canada. Despite considerable family pressure to move to North America, he was determined to stay in Tokyo as the unfortunate and derogatory word jomei had been banded about concerning him. Alone, he said he felt like a kitten compared to the might of the JKA tiger. Resolute that others were not going to determine his future, and feeling that truth would prevail and that a great test was before him, he formed SKI, essentially, from nothing. “My approach to students was to say, ‘The door is open, but I’m not inviting you in. Come if you want to.’ I never canvassed students, never poached them from other dojo or associations, especially not from the JKA.” Class will tell, and the rest, as they say, is history – a history recorded, albeit often very sketchily, in martial arts magazines of the last twenty years or so.

Since that time Master Kanazawa has spent his life teaching and building up the federation he is justly proud of, and which contains, according to the master, a staggering estimated one hundred thousand black-belts worldwide. Indeed, so great now are the numbers within SKI that a new computer system has had to be installed (away from the dojo because the sweat of students is affecting the workings). The greatest personal tragedy came with the premature death of his dear wife of fifteen years, Harue, aged forty-four, from cancer, in 1988. They had three sons, Nobuaki, Daizo, and Fumitoshi, all of whom attended university and all of whom have studied karate. Indeed, Nobuaki is the SKI World Kumite Champion, and Nobuaki and Fumitoshi met in the finals of an SKI open tournament in Japan in 1998, so the tradition continues. “Now,” Master Kanazawa says, “karateka, all over the world, are my family.” Today, he still resides in Japan, with SKI’s headquarters being at 2-1-20, Minamikugahara Ota ku, Tokyo 146-0084. His current rank of judan was awarded in April, 2000, while the master was attending the SKI World Championships in Bali, Indonesia. Such is his notoriety, an internationally recognizable figure, that in a number of countries, especially those with unstable political situations, the master is accorded VIP treatment, and it has not been unknown for him to have a military escort from the airport.

If one saw Master Kanazawa and had no idea of just who he was, or what he did, I believe that most observers would instinctively appreciate that here was someone of great depth and hidden strength. If one was fortunate enough to meet him socially, then one would discern a dignified, well educated and well-mannered Japanese of good bearing, where one’s initial observations of depth and strength would undoubtedly be confirmed. His posture and quietly assured composure are, without doubt, a consequence of his hard and continuous training through half a century. This practise has resulted in an astonishing physique, one that has given rise to comment by just about everyone who has seen the master in the changing room. Master Kanazawa’s body is truly something to behold, an inspiration, for despite being seventy years of age, he is an anatomical chart of honed sinew and muscle that a karateka half his age would be proud of.

It may seem surprising then, given the remarkable nature of the man, and the seemingly endless stream of superlatives used to describe him, that no authoritative book has been written chronicling the master. Despite having being approached on a number of occasions by writers on karate and publishers around the world, the master never consented to make the time available, and all that could be gleaned had to be picked from the patchwork of material covered in interviews in martial arts magazines, and from brief biographical information from books and the master’s numerous technical works, many of which have been pirated in countries where some of the populace seem to have scant regard for the notion of copyright. There was clearly a need for such a book as, Kanazawa, 10th Dan. In traditional karate fashion, the master wanted to entrust this form of his legacy to students he knew, and those with a proven track record. The author had known the master for twenty-six years when interviewing commenced, and the publisher of this book, Michael Randall MBE, 9th Dan, trained with the master on the very first lesson he gave in Great Britain in April, 1965, so an atmosphere of understanding and trust was apparent throughout.

Karate-Do is a Way of life, and, as such, must reflect and balance all life’s moods. If happiness can rise above sadness, when normality prevails, then surely we have chosen well. Terry O’Neill wrote more than thirty years ago of Master Kanazawa: “He is the perfect specimen of the type of person the art of karate can develop there will never be a finer living example of what karate at its highest level really is. The present author concurs whole-heartedly with this sentiment. Kanazawa’s life has been one of dedication, striving and sharing – a life where the very limits of human ability and understanding have been stretched.