Archive for the 'yahara' Category


Samurai in Shirokanedai

Excellent article by Paul Kallender-Umezu from the Metropolis Magazine


Mikio Yahara fights to keep the spirit of budo alive
By Paul Kallender-Umezu

TOKYO — There’s something special in the Barbizon 25 building in Shirokanedai, and it’s not just Mario Frittoli’s modern Italian restaurant, Luxor, where the melodic c*i*k of glass against glass, crockery against cutlery, and the murmur of conviviality are the sounds of a typical Saturday afternoon. Instead, go down to the basement and put your ear to the door for the thwack of a leg swiping through the air, or the smack of flesh against wood and against flesh, and sudden, heart-stopping shouts — the sounds of the pursuit of the killing blow.

Inside the spotless dojo there stalks a figure clutching a long “shinai” (training stick). When he kicks, he tears up space. His punches are thunderclaps. He barks, and a dozen black-belted men and women fly at each other. It’s impossible not to be affected by his presence. He walks into a room and heads turn. He’s a panther that will rip you to shreds. The knuckles on his hams are covered in layer upon layer of scar tissue. Arms with iron rods for bones and muscles of knotted wood jut from the sleeves of his blood-stained uniform. The jaw is that of the Terminator. And the eyes? The eyes are knives.

There is also artistry here. The man talks about “unsu,” or “cloud hand,” perhaps the most beautiful and challenging of traditional karate kata, the patterns of movements used to show mastery of technique. In “unsu,” the performer instantly switches from an artist of graceful, flowing movements to a human pile driver, and the kata is defined by a leap and feline twist that ends in a sprinter’s crouch. In hundreds of demonstrations, this man was “unsu,” and “unsu” was his. With it, in 1984, he became world champion, and of it, he is the undisputed master.

This man is Mikio Yahara. As a trainee instructor, he was so poor he’d drink bottles of water flavored with salt, soy and sugar to fill his stomach. Born in Ehime Prefecture in 1947, the fourth brother of a family of local samurai, he rose through the old Japan Karate Association (JKA) to become arguably the most gifted fighter of his era. This was the man who taught Yukio Mishima karate. Fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto is both his pupil and the chairman of his karate organization. And now, at 59, he is his own master and commander, but still the enfant terrible of his generation.

Would-be karate assassin

Legends surround Yahara. In fact, he’s still making headlines. This April, Gekkan Karatedo, Japan’s most respected traditional karate magazine, in an article entitled “The Return of the Legend,” published 22 pages of stories and photographs of him as blood-splattered warrior, as Adonis, and as a would-be karate assassin, dispatching people with kicks to the head.

Yahara is introspectively philosophical, describing the meaning of budo and karate, and his concept of death: “You never know, someone may come to this dojo to try to kill me. So be it. When I take that fight, I will be prepared to die. Yahara means ‘no escape.’ I will throw one killing attack. That is definite. That is the only way.”

Yahara is a born fighter. His childhood, he recalls, was hyperactive, chasing wild dogs and always ready for a fight. His uncle was a local kendo master, his brother a karate expert, and his mother’s family descended from pirates. His youth was spent, he says, hitting the stone pillars of the local shrine, whose garden was his first dojo.

Diagnosed with a heart condition at 13, he was told to stop, but, instead, secretly joined the local judo club to vent his passions. From the beginning he was different. As a high-school boy he was already battling university students in street fights, a sign of what was bloodily to become. “I could have joined a local ‘bancho’ (gang),” he says, “but I was always a lone wolf.”

At 18, he was given a map to the JKA Honbu Dojo (headquarters) and packed his bags for Tokyo. In those days the JKA, under Masatoshi Nakayama, “was the Mecca of world karate, its masters stars in their own right,” he says. He pounded his way into the JKA’s creme de la creme, the Instructors Course, just out of Kokushikan University, and it was then that the roller coaster really began.

Eating lamb “Genghis Khan” at a trendy grill in Meguro, he recalls some of his more memorable scrapes: “One day we had a rough session, the ambulances started lining up. Five people were hospitalized, and I was responsible for three.” Then there was the time when he turned up to a competition with a stab wound in the stomach and fought anyway. Or when he performed unintentional dental surgery on a knocked-out opponent: “My fist was stuck in his mouth and there was blood everywhere. I put my foot on his chest to extract my hand and when I went to the bathroom to clean up, I found one of his teeth still embedded in my knuckle.”

By the time Yahara was in his mid-20s, he was already turning heads. A taste of the early Yahara can be caught in “The World’s Strongest Karate,” an old black and white video treasured by aficionados in which he’s seen leaping through the air, like something from “The Matrix.” Yahara says he has great respect for the other fighters of his era, but video archives on the website of his organization, the Karatenomichi World Federation (KWF), show him striking opponents at will, knocking them out, and, perhaps most memorably, banging one down with an astonishing kick to the head while Yahara was on the floor. A look at videos of the 1970s and ’80s shows him developing what was called “Yahara Karate,” an extraordinary ability to turn almost any situation into an opportunity to clock his opponents.

Maybe it was the pirate’s blood in him that made him too hot to handle in his younger days, he says. Because, while Yahara to this day exudes power, it’s not the power to repel; it’s the power to attract. His dojo is friendly and full of a mix of karate athletes, beginners, and plenty of non-Japanese, expats and English teachers, mothers and kids.

Up close, Yahara is charming, witty and self-deprecating. When he finishes teaching, he mucks in with everyone else to clean the dojo. And despite his huge haul of medals, Yahara’s competitive career doesn’t concern him at all. “Competition is a game for taking points,” he says. “My goal has always been different. My karate practice is always to prepare for a real fight.”

So what about those real fights? His personal security company, International Security Service, keeps in its records a television segment from NHK’s “Ohayo Nihon” morning program about 15 years ago, in which Yahara knocks the living daylights out of Norio Kawasaki, his KWF successor, on camera in front of an audience of millions.

Once beat up 34 yakuza in parking lot

Yahara the enforcer is unabashed about stopping yakuza gangs extorting his clients. “They are like leeches. If you start showing weakness, they will not let you go,” he says. Facing death threats, he used to move house regularly. But his work got really personal just over a decade ago, when he single-handedly beat up 34 local “chimpira” (low-rank yakuza) in a parking lot.

One afternoon in Shizuoka, stopping by a convenience store with clients he was providing unofficial security for, he found a gang of chimpira waiting in the parking lot. He asked his clients to lock themselves in the car. He sensed trouble. Lots ensued.

“I heard my clients shouting, and saw them on my car bonnet. I knew if I backed down, I was finished,” he says, giving a blow-by-blow account, beginning with making sure he didn’t kill the first guy in line by deliberately hitting him with a palm strike. “I bounced the next one off the bonnet, and he squealed like a squashed frog. That was a sign for all of them to attack all at once. But it was very hard because there were still 30 left and I was 47. If they grabbed me, it would be the end.” There was a lucky escape when they pulled out clubs, he admits, one flashing past his eyes. “When I kicked him in the stomach, he doubled up like a prawn,” Yahara recalls.

With the casualty rate mounting, a character in a red leather jacket attempted to ram him with a car. “I could see his crazed, bloodshot eyes through the windshield,” he says. But he missed, and they fled.

“I tried to chase them, but my I realized I’d also been bare footed and my feet were cut to ribbons. I sank to my knees.”

End of story? Not quite. Enter the local don, with his greased-back hair and olive green double-breasted suit and toting a gun, squaring up to him on the quayside for Act II the following day.

“He said, ‘It seems that my men are real pussies,’” recalls Yahara. “He lit a cigarette. ‘I came to talk because I don’t want this ending up taking your balls. Some of my men are in the hospital. I want you to pay their fees.’”

No chance. “My answer was, ‘I would rather fight to the death than pay you,’” Yahara continues. “He put his hand inside his jacket and I knew it was a gun, but at that moment the police came, and he relaxed. ‘I’ll see you around, ni-san,’ he said.”

Yahara’s conclusion: “I set out to clean the rubbish out of the system, and fortunately, so far I’m not dead.”

Real fights are always close to Yahara’s thoughts, and so is death, not least the death of traditional karate. Sitting with the KWF, of which he is chief instructor, and watching him in action, it seems like he exists in another dimension to today’s karate stars.

Yahara has turned his body into a beautiful sword. When he moves, he is a machine; when he attacks, his techniques start and finish so fast your can hardly see them. Watching him whip a back-fist, smashing blocks of hardwood from just 30 centimeters away, his speed and power is simply shocking.

When asked just what karate is, the hoarse whisper that is his conversational tone stops. He dives within himself. The eyes nail you. And then comes the answer:

“The definition of karate is to be prepared to risk your life in a fight to the death. Because of this, every single action and motion must be ‘ikkyoshu,’ ‘ittousoku:’ a single strike of the hand, a single strike of the leg. With each single motion, you risk your life.”

Yahara’s karate — the linear, efficient “shotokan” style he demonstrates — is in stark contrast to the styles of the contemporary fighting competitions. Where does his power come from? “From ‘kihon,’” he says, referring to the fundamental movements that harness the power of the entire body. These are the roots of original karate, taught half a century ago, but which are now, he says, being forgotten.

“Karate’s concept is how to fight without having a weapon. So what do you do to fight against those with weapons with only your flesh and blood? You have to transform that flesh and blood into iron, in both your body and your technique,” he says. “The usage of your body in ‘kihon’ motion is using the joints and muscles to create compression and expansion. You have to deliver your inside potential energy into the level of energy to break your opponent. The theory behind the movement is something you have to study and practice to make your body move naturally, following that theory. That’s KWF karate.”

Yahara’s point of view, he says, represents the true legacy of karate. In a world dominated by TV extravaganzas and commercialism, Yahara’s philosophy feels like a breath of fresh air, his passion a tonic for those who seek the beauty of budo in karate. His stance is open to debate within the karate world itself, owing to philosophical splits that opened in the JKA more than a quarter of a century ago. But whether or not you agree with him, nobody who has fought Yahara would dare doubt his power, skill or samurai heart.


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December 2022


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