Sakamoto-Sensei Down Under

In January 2005, following a serious dispute with the Chito-Ryu Sohonbu (Headquarters), the membership of the Australian Chito-Ryu Karate Association elected to separate from the International Chito-Ryu Karate Federation and pursue independent research into the technique and legacy of the founder, Dr Chitose. This was a serious and tumultuous decision, as many of the voting members had given decades to the study of Chito-Ryu. For myself, after some 15 visits to Japan to the ICKF headquarters, I felt a loss of direction. And though I could no longer remain in the organization, that in no way diminished my passion to spend a lifetime learning the art that O-Sensei passed on.

In March, I travelled to Japan to meet Sakamoto-Sensei, the son-in-law of O-Sensei, and the headquarters uchi deshi, or full-time live-in student, at the time of his death. Sakamoto-Sensei had a legendary reputation for rigorous and dedicated training, and his technique was considered extraordinary. When O-Sensei died in 1984, Sakamoto-Sensei departed the honbu in deference to the new Soke, Yasuhiro Chitose, son of the founder. He moved to Tokyo and began to build his own association, which became Ryusei Todi, and dedicated his life to the pursuit of the knowledge and technique of his teacher.

In 1994, Sakamoto-Sensei was invited to return to the honbu and take up the position of international secretary, but left in 1995 after voicing his concerns about the direction the Chito-Ryu method was taking, and what he perceived as a lack of drive to sincerely strive toward the higher understandings of todi, or ancient Okinawan karate-do. I had trained with him in 1994 and 1995 on my annual training visits to the honbu, and was amazed by his innovative teaching and outstanding technique. In March, 2005, I travelled to Tokyo to meet and train with Sakamoto-Sensei, and I was immediately impressed and inspired by both his technique and the level of excellence of his senior students. I invited Sakamoto-Sensei to attend the annual training camp of Chitokai in Australia, so that he could meet the Australian students and, I hoped, accept a more permanent association with our Chitokai group.

Developing Internal Power
Accompanied by Sakai-Sensei, Sakamoto-Sensei attended the Broken Bay training camp. Although senior students had been preparing for some months to learn some of the Ryusei variations of the standard Chito-Ryu kata, all students were stunned by the sheer relaxed power and practical understanding that Sakamoto-Sensei demonstrated. Sakamoto-Sensei believes that the essence of O-Sensei’s technique lies in the development of three components of internal power: hari (expansion), shiburi (squeezing or wringing to create tension) and neri (the kneading of the tanden). These components are necessary, along with tame (the surface tension of neri) to produce spontaneous power from the tanden, which he refers to as “hakkei.” To this end, Sakamoto-Sensei has developed unique exercises to develop the correct flow of energy, or ki, utilizing many years of exploration of kiko, or Chinese qigong.

Finding the Essence of Kata
Another feature of Sakamoto-Sensei’s interpretation of the Chito-Ryu method is the importance he places on the unique features of each kata. Bassai, Chinto, Sochin, Tenshin and Rohai represent the particular fighting essence of different animals, and as he taught the characteristics of each kata, Sakamoto-Sensei emphasized the importance of raising one’s consciousness to a higher level in an effort to grasp the essence of the kata. He was concerned with the current trend in martial arts to learn a great number of kata, but to perform each in a similar fashion, rather than seeking to find their individual essence. Bunkai was demonstrated at two distinct levels. First Sakamoto-Sensei would demonstrate the basic form of a bunkai set, such as Henshuho, then show the technique as it would be applied with a realistic attack, usually from reverse punch, with both attacker and defender starting from fighting stances. He stressed that the applications were his own understandings, and that students should seek to find the realistic attack responses that suited their own level of insight.

The camp was meant to feature several of the instructors of Chitokai, but students were so impressed by Sakamoto-Sensei’s technique, and by the clear and patient instruction of his assistant, Sakai-Sensei, that all sessions were taught by them. A feature of their training was the early morning sessions, where students joined in several preliminary exercises to promote ki flow before standing in meditation (ritsu zen) for 20 minutes. Students of all levels were amazed by the strong feelings of energy and wellbeing that the sessions promoted. Variations of standard Chito-Ryu kata were explored, and particularly the reasons for those variations, as Sakamoto-Sensei sought to draw students into reflection of the purpose of each kata and the particular skills that it promotes.

Following the camp, Sakamoto-Sensei traveled to Newcastle, where he and his family enjoyed several days of sightseeing, including a dolphin cruise, visit to a native animal farm, vineyards tour, lake cruise and Sayonara Party at a Japanese restaurant overlooking Newcastle harbour. Sakamoto-Sensei also conducted morning training at 6.15 a.m. daily for black belts. After exploring the animal kata of Chito-Ryu, Sakamoto-Sensei introduced the senior forms that explored the different dimensions of the human mental state – Sanshiru and Kusanku – coached the correct method for practice of Sanchin kata, and concluded, on the last morning, with a remarkable demonstration of one of the koryu (old tradition) kata

Discussing the Future
One evening, shortly before Sakamoto-Sensei’s return to Japan, I was discussing the future of Chitokai with sensei. He believed that I was ready to make my own way in my research into the method that O-Sensei had developed. I disagreed, as I believe that I need a mentor who knew O-Sensei, and that after witnessing Sakamoto-Sensei’s technique, that there was a great deal to learn from him. After consideration he said that he would help, and we solemnly shook hands on our new relationship, which we agreed to develop carefully and without haste.

Sakamoto-Sensei has agreed to a group affiliation with the Australian Chitokai membership, and has allowed the Ryusei name to be included on the new Australian Chitokai crest. A master of the art of shodo, or Japanese calligraphy, Sakamoto-Sensei was kind enough to offer a variation of the kanji for Chitokai to reflect our desire to distinguish ourselves from the previous Chito-Ryu organization. We had discussed several possibilities, but we settled for characters that describe our group as a river of learning (water is the giver of life to the earth, as blood is to the body) that flows to the ocean, just as all who strive to master the martial arts are but travellers on a greater river of learning that stems from ancient times. Implied in this is the sentiment that we cannot claim to own martial arts knowledge, nor can we claim uniqueness of technique over other groups. We can merely strive as best we can to catch the technique of our teachers and to pass it on to others. We added to the crest, to indicate our bond with the Ryusei Todi movement led by Sakamoto-Sensei, the characters for Ryusei, meaning Dragon Spirit, the after death name given to O-Sensei.

The membership of Chitokai in Australia can look forward to a new future, where research into the ancient Okinawan martial way, of Todi, can be conducted with the guidance of an outstanding mentor in Sakamoto-Sensei. With strong following in Canada, Japan and the United States, the ACKA looks forward to joining the international fraternity of those who seek to pursue the study of Ryusei Todi.

—Brian Hayes, Renshi, Chief Instructor
Australian Chitokai Karate Association