Quo Vadis, SKIF? Strategy Desperately Needed

The picture shows the emblem of the SKIF with the word future and a question mark.

How will the Shotokan Karate-Do International Federation (SKIF) evolve after the sad passing of Hirokazu Kanazawa in December 2019? Will SKIF maintain its position as the second biggest Shotokan association in the world? In which direction will and should Kancho Nobuaki Kanazawa and Shuseki Shihan Manabu Murakami lead the organization? An analysis by Dr. Christian Tribowski

The unexpected passing of Soke Hirokazu Kanazawa on December 8 was one of the saddest events in the Shotokan year 2019. It shocked the whole karate world. Even beyond that, practitioners of other martial arts expressed their condolences. The Shotokan community fell into deep sorrow and mourning. It lost one of its greatest mentors, instructors, minds, spirits, and charismatic leaders. Without a doubt Hirokazu Kanazawa belonged to the most influential figures in Shotokan karate in the 20th Century.

SKIF after the death of Hirokazu Kanazawa

While the Shotokan world mourns, SKIF has been hit by the passing of Hirokazu Kanazawa. It lost its founder and figurehead. His loss has torn a huge whole into the aura of the organization. Since its establishment in 1978, SKIF has become one of the largest Shotokan organizations in the world. According to SKIF, 130 country organizations are affiliated combining several million members. But its leadership centered on Hirokazu Kanazawa.

Such a system also dominated the JKA under Masatoshi Nakayama. However, JKA learned its lesson in the aftermath of the passing of the supreme leader. Several groups of high-level instructors claimed the leadership over the organization. They all saw themselves as the rightful heirs of Nakayama, and they were ready to fight for it.

The turmoil erupted because Masatoshi Nakayama did not declare an official successor. Thus, a legal dispute broke lose that took almost ten years until it finally got settled. Several renegade associations emerged and the JKA lost a huge portion of their best instructors and branches.

Today, the JKA has a much flatter hierarchy, integrates many more characters, and does not focus solely on one supreme leader. Masaaki Ueki is surrounded by a huge group of capable instructors that all play a valid role in the success of the association.

SKIF: Succession Secured

Hirokazu Kanazawa, on the other hand, observed the self-destruction of the JKA in the 1990’s. He established his own organization ten years earlier. But he learned from the JKA experience.

On April 5, 2014, SKIF held a special ceremony in Tokyo where Hirokazu Kanazawa officially passed the leadership of the association to his son Nobuaki and Manabu Murakami, his longest disciple. Both belong to the most talented and successful karateka of their generations. Since then, Nobuaki Kanazawa holds the title of Kancho (director). Manabu Murakami has become Shuseki Shihan (chief instructor). Together they manage the organization. Both have known each other for several decades, and have even fought against each other during world championships.

A legal dispute about the succession of Hirokazu Kanazawa, which could damage and lead to a collapse of the association, seems more than unlikely.

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The Field of Shotokan and why we need a strong SKIF

Yet, the future of SKIF and its position as the second biggest Shotokan association worldwide is not secured. The loss of the figurehead has damaged the aura of SKIF. Many members came for Hirokazu Kanazawa. But will they stay for Nobuaki Kanazawa and Manabu Murakami?

This question is open. But both must find some valid answers. Because currently SKIF builds together with the JKA the center of the traditional/budo karate field. This center helps to stabilize Shotokan especially against the powerful and growing faction of sports karate represented by the WKF. But it also keeps Shotokan dynamic. Because both associations wrestle and distinguish from each other like in a market oligopoly.

The competition increases due to the abundance of smaller associations, which surround and challenge them in the periphery. Some of them offer slightly different approaches to Shotokan, other organizational structures, or charismatic and highly skillful chief instructors. This leads to a healthy competition within the field of Shotkan karate and members can choose which association suits them best.

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The picture shows the currently karate/Shotokan landscape. The SKIF builds together with the JKA the center of the traditional/budo Shotokan field. They are opposed to the WKF, but are surrounded by several other Shotokan associations in their periphery.
The picture shows the current karate/Shotokan field. Note: Due to the high amount of smaller Shotokan associations we could not all accommodate, if you think that your association should be in the picture, please write us an email.

However, SKIF has now considerably been weakened. And in the upcoming years it will face some serious external and internal challenges. If the leadership of the association will not manage to deal with these challenges, SKIF might migrate from the center to the periphery. The consequence for the Shotokan community would be not desirable. Because the JKA would then become – like the WKF – a monopolist. Its position would be weaker than its sports karate counterpart, but it would still could highly influence and dominate the field of traditional/budo karate. Therefore, a strong SKIF works as a corrective and is hence highly desirable. But the future of the association is open and it will depend on the management how they cope with the future challenges.

The Five Challenges for SKIF

What are these challenges? SKIF has to face five internal and external trends and drivers in the upcoming years:

  1. Changing Global Karate Environment and Need of Strategy
  2. Founding Instructors of SKIF About to Retire
  3. The Need for an Instructors Program
  4. Media Visibility and Presence
  5. USP: What Distinguishes SKIF?

1. Changing Global Karate Environment and Need for a Strategy

The global karate environment has changed considerably since the 1980s. Sports karate dominates the public perception and attention. It is going to debut at the Olympics – at least for one event. However, due to the attention and money the WKF will generate through this event, it will put the traditional/budo field of Shotokan under pressure. The WKF will define the future of karate, mainly driven by fun, entertainment, competitions, media needs, and customers/viewer interest. Budo and values play a minor role in the WKF system. Thus, it will also attract plenty of young karateka and offer them something traditional/budo associations have not managed to deliver: public recognition and fame as well as income and a career.

JKA already positions itself as keeper of the traditions

Under such circumstances traditional/budo karate organizations must develop strategies how to position themselves. The JKA markets itself as the keeper of the tradition and as the “only independent karate entity legally and officially recognized by the Japanese government as an association of members (Shadan Hojin) for the promotion of karate.” Through its large group of instructors, who constantly travel the globe, it manages to be present in all their member countries on a regular basis. Through this the JKA manages to maintain strong ties into the countries. Instructors like Tatsuya Naka have also created a high media visibility and popularity to promote the JKA.

Many Karateka came for Hirokazu Kanazawa

The popularity of SKIF in the past stemmed from the popularity of its figurehead, Hirokazu Kanazawa. Many karateka entered the association to learn from him, because of his charisma, wisdom, and personality. But now after his death the question arises: What will they stay for?

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Attentive observers have already noticed that some national SKIF teams already compete at WKF events. So, for some young SKIF karateka the WKF does not seem to be off-limits. As mentioned: It offers them many attractive and lucrative opportunities. Hence, the erosion of the member base has already started within the younger generations.

SKIF strategy desperately needed

Thus, SKIF needs a strategy to cope with the changing global karate environment and how to react to the popularity of sports karate. However, the leadership of SKIF has not presented such a strategy since it entered office in 2014.

That is the reason why we want to know from SKIF directly what their strategy will be. In October 2019, The Shotokan Times inquired at SKIF. We wrote an email to Nobuaki Kanazawa and Manabu Murakami about the official strategy of the organization. We posed several thoughts. However, we never received an answer neither from the management nor from the SKIF HQ. We can only speculate what that means.

However, high-level SKIF instructors and Manabu Murakami have organized the Takudai seminar series in Germany in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Here they brought together Takushoku University Karate Club alumni from different associations to teach an open seminar. That initiative might indicate that SKIF is about to join forces and to collaborate with other associations stronger in the future in order to strengthen the traditional/budo Shotokan community. The Takudai Club seems to be a good vehicle for such exchange because it links instructors from the whole spectrum of Shotokan. But the problem: Nobuaki Kanazawa did not attend Takushoku University. That raises the question which role he will play within this collaboration? In addition, SKIF is not going to organize a fourth Takudai seminar in 2020. Has this initiative stopped?

The silence of SKIF and the lack of a visible new orientation of the association forces us to make the conclusion that a strategy is needed. Without a strategy SKIF might migrate to the periphery, which weaken the traditional/budo Shotokan community as a whole.

2. Founding Instructors of SKIF About to Retire

The need for a strategy becomes even more relevant because of the upcoming generational change in the leadership of national SKIF branches. Important, charismatic, powerful, and well-connected instructors in Europe, the stronghold of SKIF, like Shiro Asano (England), Akio Nagai (Germany), Masaru Miura (Italy), and Rikuta Koga (Switzerland) are about to retire. All of them are in their 70s and 80s.

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As “founding fathers” they built and established the association alongside Soke Kanazawa. Thus, SKIF will lose these important pillars when they retire. Together with them, many resources, knowledge, and connections will leave.

Therefore, the question arises: Who will follow them? Fortunately, SKIF has very talented and engaged national chief instructors and presidents like Stephane Castriques from Belgium and Tony Racca from Switzerland. However, the karate background and connections of an instructor, who has been educated at a Japanese University karate club and later attended an instructors program, is hard to match.

At the same time, JKA and JKS flood the globe with weekend seminars by Japanese instructors. Associations like KWF, WSKF, FSKA, JSKA etc. also compete with their Japanese instructors for the attention of the Shotokan karate public. The loss of the “founding fathers” of SKIF will considerably weaken the association oversees.

3. The Need of an Instructors Program

The void, which will emerge in the upcoming years in Europe, could be filled with young instructors from Japan. But that requires a prerequisite: young instructors. Unlike the JKA or JKS, SKIF has not set up an instructors program. Currently, only six instructors including Nobuaki Kanazawa, Manabu Murakami, Ryusho Suzuki, Shinji Tanaka, Fumitoshi Kanazawa, and Daizo Kanazawa are listed on the website. Occasionally, Hiyori Kanazawa teaches Shotokan karate oversees.

The JKA, on the other hand, employs 25 instructors in the honbu dojo in Tokyo. Through their instructors program the organization has a constant influx of highly qualified karateka that it can send abroad.

Why SKIF has never established a similar program is beyond my knowledge. An organization with “several million members” could (and should) create such an educative infrastructure.

The negligence of the past might block future developments. According to insights from SKIF officials, the travel volume of Manabu Murakami exceeded 300 days per year. As chief instructor he must maintain a high technical standard among the members within the global federation. Therefore, his position requires traveling and constant education of its members.

However, such a high amount of travel-time comes with costs. His absence makes it impossible to set up an instructors program and to educate young instructors in the honbu dojo. As a consequence this leads to a dilemma that a German proverb captures nicely: “I have no time to build a fence, because I have to catch chickens.”

To strengthen the association in the upcoming years an advancement of the instructors group and the implementation of an instructors program is recommended.

4. Media Visibility and Presence

Another way to resolve this dilemma would be a higher media visibility and presence. Hirokazu Kanazawa understood the power and necessity of media like books and films to spread karate and to convey his style of Shotokan. He wrote at least eight books, which all became breakthroughs in the teaching of karate. In addition, he produced several educational video series about Shotokan. His sense of the visual dimension and presentation of Shotokan was splendid. In this regard he followed Masatoshi Nakayama, who also understood the importance and opportunities of media for the spread of Shotokan karate.

Today, Tatsuya Naka follows the in footsteps of Masatoshi Nakayama and Hirokazu Kanazawa. He gained a huge audience through his performances in several popular karate movies like Kuro Obi (2007) and High-Kick Girl (2011). Together with Fuyuhiko Nishi, the owner of Kuroobi World Media, he has produced a myriad of educational and entertaining Shotokan videos. Therefore, Tatsuya Naka has become the public face of Shotokan karate.

Unfortunately, neither Nobuaki Kanazawa nor Manabu Murakami show significant engagement with media. Neither of them has a considerable social media channel. The official SKIF facebook channel seems to be abandoned. Most media promotion of SKIF comes from the national branches. They are active in social media and beyond.

Luckily, SKIF has Hiyori Kanazawa. She has shown considerable activity and interest in media visibility. She runs a solid Instagram channel and seems to have a sense for the necessity of promotion. For instance, she produced a video, which shows from a female perspective her understanding of Shotokan Karate. She also gave The Shotokan Times a comprehensive interview about her life and vision of Shotokan.

Today, however, social media and an excellent internet presence must become a high priority for every organization – it is mandatory. Both determine the visibility and hence the success of an association in the competition of attention and public perception.

5. USP: What Distinguishes SKIF?

The final challenge SKIF has to face, is its “Unique Selling Point” (USP). What distinguishes SKIF from other associations? Why should somebody join or stay in SKIF?

Every company, every club, every party, every association, and every rock star must find an answer to this question. Some members might stay because of pure loyalty. But others need legitimate reasons and arguments in order not to leave. The passing of Hirokazu Kanazawa could have created a reason to reconsider the membership in SKIF. Other reasons like the lack of strategy, the upcoming retirements of other founding fathers, the low visibility and engagement in media by the leadership could cause some to reconsider, too.

Therefore, SKIF has to position itself and distinguish its portfolio from the other associations. One proven way to do that would be a joint book publication by Nobuaki Kanazawa and Manabu Murakami about their understanding and vision of SKIF Shotokan. A video serious could support such activities.

In comparison to the JKA, for example, SKIF offers a different concept of Shotokan that can be observed in their approach to kihon. While the JKA has deliberately streamlined its technical repertoire and focuses on combinations with maximum 3 to 4 techniques. SKIF still offers the whole versatility of Shotokan. That means long combinations with several changes of direction and the whole set of techniques Shotokan. The same can be observed during a comparison of SKIF and JKA kihon and jiyu ippon kumite.

For both approaches one can find valid arguments. And the practitioners should decide which path they want to follow. But before they can decide, the associations have to make clear what kind of path they offer.

A Strong SKIF Needed

This analysis has shown that the unfortunate passing of Hirokazu Kanazawa has created several challenges for SKIF in order to hold its position in the center of the field of Shotokan. From a systemic perspective and for the individual Shotokan practitioner it would be beneficial if SKIF recognizes this challenges and starts to find appropriate strategical solutions. A strong SKIF offers more advantages for the global Shotokan karate community than a weak one.

2 Comments

  1. An interesting piece of observation!

    However, its a bigger problem than that of where is the SKIF going?

    The factor of natural growth (where 3rd dan students fly the nest and start their own regional groups) was not approached. This factor causes further peripheral fragmentation filling the marketplace or field further with organizational choice and too often diluting standards as a result.

    Also to add to the equation are the great number of organisation hoppers, who hop from group to group in search of numerical Dan advancement at a „crossroads point in time“ like this.

    This new crossroads and these additional factors may be detrimental to the status of quality, hard hitting and respected Budo reputation that „SHOTOKAN KARATE-DO“ has held among other styles of Karate.

    Albeit begrudgingly held by other styles, the Shotokan style because of people like Kanazawa has always been the model that others aim to achieve.

    While „Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery“ may well be true, we should have been warned when shito ryu bucked up their presentation skills 12 or so years ago!

    Cast your mind back 15 years when Shotokan Kata was taking 1st 2nd 3rd place spots at all major events, but the very adaptable shito ryu style took onboard the qualities that made Shotokan stylists win the majority of events. Now we are in a situation where Shotokan Kata has been competitively side-lined by shotokan facsimile shito ryu Kata.

    The stealing of Shotokan’s clothes has not just yielded more trophies to shito ryu and others but it has increased their membership and their worldwide spread.

    So this crossroads is more important than what will happen to the SKIF!
    Its a case of what will happen to Traditional Shotokan Karate-Do and its Karate-Ka as a result of Kanazawa’s passing

  2. Thank you for this article. There was a lot of interesting views and good information.

    I had some lessons with Mr Kanazawa and double graded with Mr Asano. However because of locations I also had some lessons with Mr Enoeda and double graded with him and Mr Tomita. Currently I am training with Mr Cole who leads the SSKA a breakaway group from the KUGB when Mr Enoeda was alive. I also teach but have not been successful in acquiring a large following. I have a small dedicated group who simply like training with me.

    I find that in 2020 the attitude towards Shotokan karate is different to how it was in the 70s when there were fewer choices of organisation for selecting your training. Now days there is a lot of choice. It also means there are lots of variations in the syllabus available. In some ways this is good, it helps with the evolution of the Shotokan, in other ways it is not so good because there is a diminished direction about what is a standard way for Shotokan training. None-the-less I continue to enjoy practicing and teaching Shotokan and we have some fun discussing the detail variations we can find on the internet.

    Your article implies a desire for standardisation and illustrates the dominance for this standardisation direction from the SKIF and JKA. Not to mention the direction of the WKF. Where ever the jockeying for a leadership position ends up amongst these powerful organisations and the smaller ones you have on your diagram I will continue to practice in the spirit I remember from Mr Kanazawa, Mr Enoeda, Mr Cole and the various other Shotokan instructors I worked with over the years. Interesting article and thank you for it.

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