I recall about my early training with Ken Sakamoto is
how serious, almost obsessive, he was about practice.
The year was 1979 and the 29-year-old was a direct disciple
of Tsuyoshi Chitose, the 10th-dan master and founder
of Chito-Ryu karate. When I would wake to train at the
6 a.m. class, in the little dojo in the backyard of
O-Senseis house, in Kumamoto, Japan, Sakamoto
was usually out there before me, working hard.
One day I would go outside and find him in a handstand
on his knuckles, seeing how long he could hold the position.
On another, I would find him kicking a makiwara. I thought
there was something unusual about his front kick. I
realized that he was striking the makiwara full force
with the tip of his big toe. He explained that this
was a technique perfected by the old Okinawan karate
men. By concentrating all the power on the small surface
of the toe tip, he was striving to acquire the ability
to pierce an opponents rib cage and then into
his lung. I dont know if he could ever do such
a thing, but I was impressed that he would train himself
to this extreme degree.
Besides forging his outer body, Sakamoto strove equally
hard to cultivate his internal energy, or ki. His favorite
kata then was Sanchin, which has its roots in Southern
Shaolin kung fu styles and develops external and internal
power through dynamic tension and special breathing.
At night, we might go out after training for beer and
sake and a meal of yakitori (Japanese kebab) or a local
specialty, basashi (raw horse meat). He would explain
between cups that he was chasing the technique
of 0-Sensei. In other words, he wanted to follow
in the footsteps of the master.
Training Under O-Sensei
Sakamoto began following O-Senseis footsteps at
the age of 20, in 1970, as a member of Japans
Self Defence forces. He had already studied sumo, judo,
jukendo (fighting with bayonets) and aikido. Sakamoto
must have been quite wild when he was young. I remember
him telling a story of a martial arts instructor whose
technique he thought was no good. Sakamoto challenged
him to match and knocked him out.
In any event, Sakamoto (who was born and raised in Chiba)
started studying Chito-Ryu karate in the Self Defence
forces and was introduced to O-Sensei. After meeting
the master, he realized that this was the martial art
he wanted to devote his life to.
Sakamoto became a uchi deshi, or live-in apprentice
at the hombu dojo, beside O-Senseis son, Yasuhiro.
(Sakamoto married one of O-Senseis daughters and
became part of the family.) Each day he would learn
under O-Sensei and then practise extensively on his
own. Not only would he and Yasuhiro learn the standard
items of the Chito-Ryu curriculum, they would also be
taught other kata and different versions of kata. (For
example, O-Sensei taught an extended version of Kusanku,
sometimes called Kusanku Dai.) They also received strong
training in kobudo (the Okinawan art of weaponry) and
bunkai (the applications of kata techniques).
Some of these extra kata O-Sensei taught
were koryu kata. That is, they are ancient
kata from Okinawa, pre-dating the modern karate styles.
They include Tensho, Unsu, Seichin and Hoen.
At the same time, Sakamoto became very interested in
karates roots in Okinanwa and the Chinese martial
arts. After kempo or todi, as it was called in Okinawa,
was imported from Fujian, China, from the South Shaolin
Temple, in the 18th century, it merged with local martial
arts traditions, call ti, as in Shuri-ti
Todi, or China Hand eventually became known
by the Japanese characters' other pronunciation, karate.
Then, in 1930s, the first character of the name, China
was replaced by a character, with the same pronunciation,
for empty or void. So China
Hand (todi) became Empty Hand (karate).
Among the reasons for the change was to downplay the
arts Chinese origins to the Japanese, who were
very nationalistic at the time. And the change was more
than name deep. Todays karate, with its straight
lines and dependence on muscular strength, is often
far removed from the soft, flowing Chinese kempo, with
its circular moves and reliance on internal strength.
However, some aspects of todi or kempo can be seen in
Chito-Ryu, in kata like Ryusan, in the koryu kata taught
Sakamoto and in the Chitose family kata
called Gung Fu no Kata. Parts of this last kata imported
from China were often demonstrated by O-Sensei in public.
The kata, with its soft, flowing open-hand movements
and complex breathing is reputed to be 45 minutes long
and supremely difficult to master.
At the same time, Sakamoto-Sensei began to wonder why
some of the Chito-Ryu kata were so brief. As I
mastered forms like Ryushan and Tenshin, he recalls,
it seemed to me that these kata were too short,
that something was missing. And I found a lot of things
that I couldnt understand. For example, Tenshin
is for advanced practitioners and shihowari is for beginners.
Both teach you how to defend yourself and counterattack,
dodging aside, but what was the difference between them?
Tenshin does not seem long enough to demonstrate its
important features. Other kata, like Chinto and Rohai,
are also short and seem inferior to the similar forms
of other schools.
On many occasions, Sakamoto questioned O-Sensei directly
and indirectly about these and other matters pertaining
to the kata. Eventually O-Sensei told Sakamoto, now
that he had mastered these kata he should finish them
the way he saw fit.
He also recalled other words from the master: O-Sensei
used to say to the leaders of Chito-Ryu, I have
taught you the first half, but not the second.
So Sakamoto set out to learn the missing second half
Founding of Ryusei Karate-Do
Sakamoto continued his research and practice, even after
O-Sensei died in 1984, developing his own approach to
Chito-Ryu. Then, in 1997, he decided to start his own
organization, so he could teach according to his insights.
His group is called Ryusei Karate-Do. Ryusei
means Dragon Spirit. According to Sakamoto-Sensei, the
term was coined by Tei Junsoku (the Saint of Nago),
an 18th-century Confucian scholar from Okinawa who made
trips to China, bringing back books on Chinese science
and philosophy. It is an honorific title for the bujin
or warrior who seeks after truth.
of the Ryusei System
In setting up the system of Ryusei Karate, Sakamoto-Sensei
has been criticized by some Chito-Ryu karateka for changing
the kata he was taught by O-Sensei. He responds, Inheriting
the Chito-Ryu tradition does not mean sticking to the
old formalities. It means that we, living in this world
now, should try to create our own skills and philosophy,
and make them available to the world through our performance.
If we suppress the new movement to technical innovation
because we dont want to tamper with tradition,
what would happen? I have no doubt that Chito-Ryu would
stagnate and be ruined.
Sakamoto-Sensei classifies the kata of his system into
four groups: Basic, Kei-I I, Kei-I II and Koryu. The
basic kata are Seisan and Niseishi, and are performed
pretty much as they are in traditional Chito-Ryu. Kei-I
I kata are inspired by the moves of animals and Kei-I
II kata express human emotions.
The following comes from a poor translation of Sakamoto-Senseis
description of his system. I apologize for not doing
his words justice. I will have the translation redone
when time and money permit.
of the Kei-I Kempo
In our world, there are five kinds of spirits
that are symbolized by wood, fire, earth, metal
and water. Everything, animate and inanimate,
is brought into being and given form by means
of one of these five spirits. A form has both
yin and yang (negative and positive) aspects.
When the positive (yang) met the negative (yin),
with these five spirits in harmony, "I"(meaning,
mind) was born to become "form." Then
the road to be followed by human beings was made:
"Kendo" for men and "Kondo"
for women. Finally, this famous definition was
developed: "Ten" (Heaven) is the big
cosmos (Daiten), and "hito" (people)
are the small cosmos (Shoten).
Animals got a partial measure of "ki"
(spirit) and "ri" (reason, logic), whereas
human beings got the full measure of both. Animals,
who only received partial ki, can live harmoniously
with the "law of the nature" given by
Heaven. The human beings, on the other hand, who
got full ki and ri from Heaven, are completely
ignorant of how to make good use of the ri. Human
beings have to study more about ki from the animals,
who know the "law of the nature," and
they must investigate more about the ri, as well
as the "law and logic of Heaven" (governing
all animate and inanimate things).
The meaning of Kei-I originated in the "Five
Yin-Yang (Negative-Positive) Samskara" theory,
which explains the growth and change of all things
in the world.
Go-Keiken and Purposes of Training
1. Ryu (dragon)-kenheart & mind
2. Ko (tiger)-kenbone
3. Hyoh (panther)-kenmuscle & power
4. Ja (snake)-kenspirit
5. Tsuru (crane)-kenenergy
Kei-I Kata I
1. Bassai (moves of a snake, Taikyoku-karate
Kata no. 1)
Having an exquisite spirit and an extraordinary
character, snakes are very energetic creatures
that can make sharp turns. It is said that when
two snakes fight, they radiate heavenly spirit.
The snake corresponds to the yang in the kidney
of a man's body, and is one of Kan in eight Ka
of I Ching (Classic of Changes). Using the snake
moves, you can train your waist to make quick
moves, because the positive and negative Samskara
merge with each other during the actions.
2. Chinto (moves of a hawk)
The hawk is an aggressive animal that can see
any movement of its prey. In a body, this bird
can bring up the yang (positive) spirit in the
kidney towards the head. As an alchemy book says,
"It goes up to the head through the spiral
cord." If your Ken is right, the true energy
comes back to your brain with the yang spirit
and strengthens your eyesight.
3. Sochin (moves of a bull)
More than any other animal, a bull respects justice.
It corresponds to the spleen in a body. If your
Ken is right, you can have a completely determined
will. One of our karate pioneers said, "If
you have an honest will, your mind will be right.
If your mind is right, you will get a powerful
Ken through proper training."
4. Tenshin (moves of water spiders)
Among all the water insects, the water spider
can move its body with the utmost freedom. In
a human body it is symbolized by the liver, and
can calm a troubled mind. If your Ken is right,
you can make your bones and muscles strong and
keep your muscles flexible. This is "to follow
the logic of Heaven."
5. Rohai (moves of crane and heron, Taikyoku-karate
The objective of this kata is to boost our energy.
The harshness of technique is hidden in the elegance
of each move of this kata. It symbolizes the first
move of yin spirit in a body. With this kata you
can get the power of your lower limbs to come
upwards and make the spirit in your head go down.
If your Ken is right, then you can radiate the
real spirit from your body and limbs.
Kei-I Kata II
The following kata, part of Kei-I Kata II, can
engage our feelings as well as our mind.
1. Sanshiru (Emotional Kata)
This kata nourishes feelings of joy and happiness,
and can absorb the real spirit of the earth into
your body. (Note: Sakamoto-Sensei performs the
kata as if he were drunk.)
2. Kusanku (Lyrical Kata)
This kata encourages and expresses feelings. It
is also called "moving Zen."
"Ryu" means "dragon" and "shan"
4. Seichin (includes the movements of a
5. Hoen (a primitive kung fu form)
In addition to these kata, Ryusei Karate-Do includes
training in bunkai, such as Niseishi, Henshuho
and Nage no Kata, and weapons: kon (bo), sai,
tonfa, nunchuku, kama, sansetsu kon, hidden weapons
In his personal training, Sakamoto-Sensei is still trying
to master the Koryu kata. I am practising Tensho,
Unsu, Seichin and Hoen so I can demonstrate them at
tournaments and other gatherings, he says. I
am not yet advanced enough so that people can get much
from my performance. But I think watching me strive
to go a little higher may give them some indication
of what the traditions of koryu karate are. I should
also say that I am far below the level of skill where
I can give my inner power to students, as O-Sensei used
to do. But nothing will be gained if you dont
To promote and teach Ryusei Karate-Do, Sakamoto-Sensei
holds monthly instructor clinics, special camps and
three annual events: an eastern Japan tournament, a
western Japan tournament and an Enbukai. The Enbukai
is an elaborate demonstration of martial arts techniques
put on by the Ryusei students. The Enbukai also may
include other types of cultural performance, such as
Japanese dance, and demonstrations by Chinese martial
A few years ago, Sakamoto-Sensei took a trip to China,
travelling through the province of Fujian and elsewhere.
He did exchanges of techniques with martial artists
at Shaolin temples and other venues, and was excited
to find many similarities between his approach and theirs.
Sakamoto-Senseis study of the old Okinawan and
Chinese roots of Chito-Ryu karate are leading to this
next great venture: attempting to master O-Senseis
complex Gung Fu no Kata. The majority of Chito-Ryu
shihan approach this kata as if it were something sacred,
he says, or a special Soke kata that is only passed
by inheritance to family members. But this is a mistake.
My understanding is that a serious karateka who aims
to attain true karate can rise to the challenge of this
kata. Why did O-Sensei perform this secret
form of koryu karate so many times in public, without
trying to hide it at all? I think he was trying to say
through his techniques, Look at my moves and my
form carefully. See what you can catch. Study more and
come up here.