Masatoshi Nakayama: The CEO of Shotokan Karate

By Patrick Donkor and Dr. Christian Tribowski

Masatoshi Nakayama was a unique personality in many regards. However, no person has done more to expand Shotokan karate around the the World than him. As a long time student and anointed successor of Gichin Funakoshi he carried along the legacy of the grandmaster. As foundeer and chief instructor of the Japan Karate Association (JKA), Masatoshi Nakayama oversaw the expansion of Shotokan Karate. It has been growing from an art practiced only in Japan to an art practiced all over the global by a diverse range of people.

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Masatoshi Nakayama: Early Years

Masatoshi Nakayama was born in 1913 in the Yamaguchi Prefecture, in the southwest of Japan. Until today, Yamaguchi and the Japanese southwest has been bearing powerful figures in Japanese politics and economy. Shinzo Abe, Japans present prime minister, was born into a powerful political family, which originated from Yamaguchi Prefecture. Thus, it is no wonder that Nakayama´s social pedigree was upper-class. He came from a family descended from the Sanada samurai and steeped in the martial tradition. His grandfather and father were accomplished Kendo instructors.

Being from a medical family, Nakayama they expected him to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, he loved Chinese culture and secretly took and passed an entrance exam for Takushoku University, the premier university for those wanting a career in the foreign service. As a result he entered Takushoku University in 1932.

Masatoshi Nakayama (Source: JKA)
Masatoshi Nakayama (Source: JKA)

First Encounter With Shotokan Karate

In a twist of fate Nakayama mis-read the timetable for attending a kendo class and instead found himself in a Karate class. Karate was still a fairly new martial art in Japan. However, Masatoshi Nakayama was intrigued and stayed to watch the class. He thought since having a background in kendo and Judo he would find karate easy. So, he decided to come back and try the next lesson. In that lesson he came to realize just how difficult karate really was. He began his training under Master Gichin Funakoshi and his son Yoshitaka. Evetually, it became a lifelong love affair with karate.

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Travel to China, Experience with Kung Fu, and the Time After World War II

During his university studies, Masatoshi Nakayama traveled to China as an exchange student. There he advanced his studies in Chinese language and history. While in China he continued his karate practice and even taught a few classes. In addition, he came into contact with Kung Fu training under several masters. His main teacher was Sifu Pai, with whom he studied a Northern Kung Fu style. Northern style Kung Fu is characterised by having long stances, deep punches and high flashy kicks. Under Sifu Pai, Nakayama learnt taisoku uke (pressing block with sole of foot) and reverse roundhouse/hook kick (ura mawashi geri). Both of these techniques were eventually incorporated into the Shotokan syllabus with the permission of Gichin Funakoshi.

Masatoshi Nakayama together with senior students of Gichin Funakoshi demonstrating Shotokan Karate.

During World War II,  Masatoshi Nakayama remained in China working as a translator. In 1946, he returned back to a Japan devastated by the war. He tried to get in contact with some of Funakoshi’s senior students. However, many of them had been killed during the war. Moreover, Master Funakoshi’s son, Yoshitaka, had also died from tuberculosis. However, Nakayama showed first management and leadership skills. In 1947 he managed to gather senior students, who survived the war. They resumed their training under the watchful eye of Master Funakoshi.

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Masatoshi Nakayama and US Soldiers

In 1948, Nakayama and other senior students of Funakoshi gave a karate demonstration to personnel stationed at the U.S. Air Force Base at Tachikawa. The participantes received it well. As a result, he traveled around Japan giving demonstrations and teaching karate to the Americans for the next couple of months.

With the permission of Master Funakoshi, Nakayama and some of the other senior students formed the Nihon Karate Kyokai – Japan Karate Association (JKA) in 1949. Master Fuankoshi was named as Chief Instructor with Nakayama as Chief Technical Adviser.

Nakayama demonstrating self-defense.

In 1951, the US Air Force sent Air Force personnel from the Strategic Air Command (SAC) to learn various Japanese martial arts. Karate belonged to them. This encounter became an important learning experience for Nakayama. The Americans asked a lot of questions and wanted to know the theoretical background for performing techniques in a particular way.

In an interview given to Black Belt Magazine (November 1982), Nakayama said:

It immediately became apparent to me and to Master Funakoshi that if we were going to teach the Americans, we would have to provide a theoretical basis for our art.”

So under Master Funakoshi’s instruction Nakayama began an intensive study of kinetics, physiology and anatomy. The idea was to provide a scientific grounding to karate and the body dynamics it incorporated.

Masatoshi Nakayama with US officials
Masatoshi Nakayama with US officials

The Formation of the JKA by Masatoshi Nakayama

After the War, Nakayama also began to working on the establishment of a Shotokan associations. Together with the senior students he gathered after the War he formed the Japan Karate Association. The official formation of the organization took place in 1948. Among his peers were Shotokan enthusiast and later high-level instructors like Teruyuki Okazaki and Hidetaka Nishiyama. However, Gichin Funakoshi played no decisive role in the formation of the organization. Instead, he became chief instructor and oversaw the karate education. Nakayama, however, took the responsibility for the management.

Masatoshi Nakayama proved at this time to be a skillful manager and visionary. For him it became clear that only a formalized and structured association had the power to spread Shotokan karate. His education at Takushoku University had a huge influence on this judgement. Trained to become an oversees public servant he understood the necessity of good organization and governance. In 1955, the members of the JKA elected Masatoshi Nakayama head of JKA.

Establishment of the Instructors Program

In 1956, Nakayama formulated the JKA’s Instructor Program with the help of Teruyuki Okazaki. The program followed the design of an intensive one year karate course. Among the first graduates of the course were Takayuki Mikami and Hirokazu Kanazawa. Apart from the intensive karate practice, students received a theoretical grounding in karate. They also learnt kinetics, physiology and anatomy. In addition, the course required them to learn key principles of other fighting systems. Many of the graduates of the program traveled around the globe later. Their aim was to expand the JKA’s brand of Shotokan.

Masatoshi Nakayama with Teruyuki Okazaki
Masatoshi Nakayama with Teruyuki Okazaki

Development of Competitions

Nakayama believed if Karate did not incorporate some form of competitive element, like Judo or Kendo, then people would lose interest in karate. With the permission of Master Funakoshi, Nakayama started looking at ways of adding a competitive element into Karate. He explored many avenues, including having competitors wear a form of light amour, similar to Kendo practitioners. However, this still resulted injuries.

Eventually, after much deliberation Nakayama decided on a set of rules for competing. He believed that competitions should not be about winning, thus keeping the ethos of Master Funakoshi’s principles. Moreover, he believed that competition should be another part of one’s training, helping to build one’s character.

Some months after Master Funakoshi’s death in 1957, the first ever JKA All Japan Karate Championship took place at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium. Hirokazu Kanazawa won the kumite titlle and in kata Shoji Hiroshi succeeded. The event proved such a success that it takes place annually.

Masatoshi Nakayama Developed the Foundation of Karate Teaching

Today’s karate education has been highly coined by Masatoshi Nakayama. From the 1950´s onward, he developed a the modern method of teaching karate. His deep and wide knowledge of physiology and kinetics as well as didactic and methods of education helped him to set up a general scientific trainings system. As a result, every aspect of Karate like physical and mental development, self-defense sports etc. can be taught within this system.

In 1965 he published “Karatedo Shinkyotei (A New Method For Teaching Karate-do)”. In English it is published as “Dynamic Karate”. This work by Nakayama details much of the knowledge he gained from his studies in kinetics, physiology and anatomy. It is his opus magnum and a must-read book for any serious martial artist. It gives scientific explanations on how certain techniques work and illuminates the physic behind the Shotokan.

Masatoshi Nakayama explaining Hangtsu.

Masatoshi Nakayama and his Students

Nakayama guided the JKA through its difficult early days. Through his hard work the JKA made it into one of the biggest and most respected Shotokan associations in the world. Many of the students trained by Nakayama describe him as a tough but fair teacher. Some of his most able students heave become famous masters in their own right. Some of Nakayama’s most notable students, many who can be seen in his “Best Karate Series”, include:

Masatoshi Nakayama with JKA Instructors
Masatoshi Nakayama with JKA Instructors

He Kept Teaching Despite a Horrible Accident

In 1971, Nakayama an accomplished ski instructor, was caught in an avalanche, which almost cost him his life. At first doctors thought he would die, later changing their prognosis to him never ever being able to walk. However, Nakayama made a full recovery and resumed his active schedule traveling around the world and conducting various courses and seminars in karate.

Masatoshi Nakayama: First 9th Dan

Master Nakayama became the first living master to be awarded 9th Dan. He continued to travel around the world giving courses and seminars to members of the JKA associations he helped create, until his death in 1987 aged 74. After his death JKA awarded him posthumously the rank of 10th Dan.

Following his death, internal politics saw many of the top instructors breaking from the JKA to form their own associations. This shows how well respected Nakayama was, that these conflicts did not happen until his death.

It can be argued that no one has done more to promote the growth of Shotokan karate around the world than Masatoshi Nakayama. As a true institutional entrepreneur he developed the structures of modern Shotokan karate, expended its influence far beyond Japanese boarders, and educated a myriad of excellent and successful instructors. He create a system, which can be learnt by each and everyone. As theorist and intellectual he published several groundbreaking books which led to deeper insights into Shotokan. Like no other he had a vision what Shotokan could be and how it could change the life of people. He kept the organization together although he surrounded by strong hotheads, who all wanted their own stake. Masatoshi Nakayama was the CEO of Shotokan, who steered the art into the water of success. His legacy will always be one of excellence.

3 comments

  1. Hello, I don’t know much about Masatoshi Nakayama so I liked that short biography. I knew about him staying in China for some time and suspected he of course have had some contact with Chinese martial arts if just witnessed it being performed.
    So the info on him actually learned some in China is interesting. Is there more information about this, and more exactly where/what region in China he was located in. Thanks!

    T.Rick

      • Yes I suspected Manchuria was where he was stationed. Surprised he learned the ‘Ura Mawashi Geri’ in China, especially back then. Ok Manchuria borders to the Korean Peninsula and there there is somewhat claimed that the high flying kicks of TaeKwon Do comes from an ancient Korean kicking MA, of course that kicking could have found its way into Manchuria too. Talking TKD, Shotokan is supposed to be that ones main inspiration.
        I lived 10 years in Dalian, Liaoning Province(part of Manchuria). Martial arts with a long tradition there are Tongbeiquan, Tanglangquan(praying mantis), Shuai Jiao(wrestling), and Wudang ‘Sword’, non of very high kicking.
        But Kendo, Karate(Kyukushin) and TKD has been around for a while too. The place is still influenced by the Japanese(many companies there) also there is an big Korean population.

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