The Modern Day Karate
Copyright Ė Marc Wickert
(previously published in FIGHT TIMES magazine)
Ashihara Karate was developed in 1980 out of the necessity for a style of Karate that would be effective in todayís society. It was founded by Hideyuki Ashihara, who trained in Kyokushin Karate for twenty years, before formulating the more street-orientated discipline of Ashihara, which counter-measures Kyokushin techniques. Shihan Hideyuki was renowned for his ability to avoid an opponentís head-on striking power, by moving to the opponentís blind side, and counter-attacking. Hideyuki called this system of combat, where defence and offence are combined, Sabaki, which he documented in the movie "The Strongest Karate".
In 1979, Hideyuki departed from Kyokushin Karate to pursue his contemporary style of Karate, and, in 1980, opened the New International Karate Organisation Ė Ashihara School, establishing himself as Kancho (headman). Sensei Yoshitsugu Suzuki was one of Hideyukiís most senior students and made the transition to Ashihara with Hideyuki.
"At a young age, I took up Kyokushin, but at fifteen, our whole Kyoto club made the change to Ashihara Karate to support Hideyuki Ashihara and his new style, because we believed that Hideyuki realised some of the limitations of Kyokushin. The moves were too regimented; its practitioners mainly just moved forwards and back, facing their opponent head on - like the King in a chess match. Whereas, in Ashihara, we tend to move more like the Queen, moving in circular motions, and attacking from all angles. We also incorporate a lot of deflecting the attackerís strikes and ground-fighting," says Suzuki.
Before Hideyuki died in 1995, he realised his adolescent son Hidenori Ashihara was too young to become the new Kancho. So he called together his most loyal students, such as Sensei Suzuki and Shihan Yuasa, and asked them to help guide his son until he was old enough to become Kancho. Today, Kancho Hidenori is twenty-three, and because of their respect and admiration for Hideyuki, his men still remain loyal to Hidenori.
Australian 5th Dan Karate instructor, Bill Wakefield, remembers being in Japan in 1995 for a Shotokan Karate tournament, when, due to the turmoil of the Kobe earthquake, his team of twenty students was desperately searching for a place to train. "We travelled all around town, and there were plenty of places that taught martial arts, but the dojos were run in a very close-knit manner, and did not welcome outsiders. Then I saw an Ashihara poster on a pole, so, with our team all dressed in their Australian uniforms, I took them to the Ashihara gym that night, and asked the black belt instructor if we could train with them. Fortunately, he told us we could.
"All through the class, the Ashihara instructors were making phone calls, and then Sensei Suzuki came down to welcome us to the dojo. The phone calls continued throughout the class, and there was a constant stream of black belts walking in and out of the hall. The Japanese didnít speak much English, and none of us spoke Japanese, but at the end of the lesson, I asked if we could take them out for a drink to show our appreciation and they said, ĎYes. Yesí."
On walking outside, Billís students discovered a motorcade of ten cars parked in the road, with a black belt behind the wheel of each car. The Australians were then taken out for dinner, but were not allowed to pay a cent towards the bill. The next morning, the Australians woke up to find the ten-car motorcade waiting for them again. This continued every day for three days, with Billís team training, dining and sightseeing as guests of the Japanese Ashihara practitioners. One evening, Bill was told that Kancho Hideyuki would be dropping by the dojo the next day to pay the Australian team a visit. Realizing what an honour this would be, Bill had his team of twenty students exercising in their full national uniforms, while they waited for Kanchoís arrival.
"There were black belts walking into the hall all the time, and we were expecting Kancho to be dressed in a tie and jacket. I was running our team through a stretching routine, and this guy was standing there in jeans and a T-shirt, watching us. Then Sensei Suzuki said, ĎBill, Kancho is hereí. And I kept stretching, and then Iíve gone, ĎOh no. Itís Kancho!í because he was so relaxed, and it hadnít occurred to me that this guy in the jeans and T-shirt could be Kancho.
"Sensei Suzuki said he had never seen Kancho dressed so casually before. Kancho had made the trip especially to meet us, and it was a mark of respect that he was treating us as friends. He ended up training with us all day, and took us out for dinner that night with all his senior students. And we were the first westerners, outside the Ashihara system, to train with Kancho. It was such an honour," says Wakefield. Through attending their classes, Bill was also impressed by the Japanese studentsí dedication to their martial arts. In the beginning, he asked the instructors how long the lessons would go for, only to be told, "Maybe one hour". However, Bill and his students would rarely walk out of the dojo in less than five hours. They would also look on in disbelief, as Sensei Suzuki kicked suspended bags of rocks and sand to toughen his shins, before kicking through two blocks of ice - each a cubic foot thick.
The Japanese Ashihara instructors were very impressed by the Australian teamís standard of training and dedication to martial arts. When Sensei Suzuki visited Billís classes in Australia, he presented three of the Australian students with black belts in Ashihara.
Today, the bond between both groups continues to grow. Although Billís students still practise Shotokan Karate, he teaches Ashihara-style Karate to his senior belts. And when Sensei Suzuki brings his instructors to Australia, they are happy to train in Shotokan techniques.
"I start teaching Ashihara to my students from brown belt level. By the time they are black belts they are well into Ashihara, because I think itís an excellent way to introduce them to a true fighting system. Taking nothing away from Shotokan, itís a beautiful martial art, but itís a sporting system, and I donít want to damage or harm the Shotokan way by bastardizing it. I adhere to the traditional method of teaching Shotokan, and then when my students get to their brown belt, and they actually understand the philosophy and history of martial arts, I teach them Ashihara. They are then going into a new system altogether, which is a fighting system, as opposed to a sporting system."
Ashihara classes are street-oriented and everything the students do during training involves moves that are included in their katas. The art includes handwork, thigh kicks, elbows, takedowns and submissions. But the body evasion is the true secret to Ashihara. When Ashihara exponents are defending against strikes they donít move away from the attack, but move around it, and take their opponent down whilst putting the opponent off balance. "It doesnít matter where in the world you go to study Ashihara, the warm-ups are always the same. They believe in starting from the feet and working up the body, so it begins with ankle rolls, leg rolls, and finishes with neck exercises.
"The warm-up is followed by a kicking routine, and then a break after fifteen minutes. They have a break every fifteen minutes because they believe in keeping the students focused and clear-headed throughout the class. Then they go into partner training where they will practise a single technique for fifteen minutes to ensure the technique is absorbed, rather than rushing through a series of drills," says Wakefield. Partner training is very important in the Ashihara system, and after training with one partner, students then have to defend against two and three opponents, learning to position one assailant in the way of another, to enact a multiple-attack street scenario.
Suzuki hopes to introduce his style of Karate into the schools of Japan. At present, a variety of martial arts are being taught in a few schools by private security companies, but these classes are becoming more rare. Suzuki would like to see the practice of martial arts return to all Japanese schools. "Many people in the western world are unaware that the incidence of violence in Japan has increased dramatically in the last five years. There are more cases of assault, theft and muggings occurring. And people are regularly being murdered while travelling on our trains. "By practising martial arts, students donít just learn self-defence Ė they also learn discipline and respect. The trouble on the streets is being caused by people who are unoccupied and lacking in respect," says Suzuki.
Sensei Suzuki visited Australia in July 2001, to promote Ashihara here, with the intention of returning in the near future to open dojos throughout Australia, New Zealand and the Cook Islands. "Many people in Australia are already incorporating Ashihara techniques in their martial arts routines, but by bringing our senior instructors here to run the academies, people will be able to study the art first-hand. We will also have exchange students travelling between Australia and Japan, on a regular basis," says Suzuki. "With the Ashihara schools opening in Australia, and Kancho Hidenori and Sensei Suzuki coming here to oversee their operation, martial arts in Australia will benefit enormously," says Wakefield.
Sensei Suzuki bench pressing.
THE RETURN OF SENSEI SUZUKI
© Marc Wickert (previously published in Fight Times)
Previously in Fight Times (Volume 8 Issue 6) Sensei Suzuki had stated that he would be returning to Australia with the intention of cementing his friendship with Australian martial artists, and to develop a network between Australia and Japan as part of an international promotion of Ashihara Karate. True to his word, in May 2002 Yoshitsugu Suzuki was back in Australia, accompanied by two of his elite students, Sempai Kondo Tetsuo and Dai Sempai Darin Henry. Suzuki also brought news with him that Kondo Tetsuo would return in October for a 12-month period to promote Ashihara in Australia and New Zealand.
"In the spring of 1995, we first met Bill Wakefield and other members of the Australian Karate team in Japan, and they invited us to visit them in Australia. Since then we have travelled to Australia often, and they have returned to Japan many times. After these journeys, and seeing what Shihan Bill has accomplished, we have established a great friendship and network. And I decided that I wanted to see if I could pursue my dreams here as well. "So four years ago, I came back to determine if I really could achieve my goal. At that point I decided I really wanted to establish an exchange network between Australia and Japan. Many people here know about Ashihara, but they don't know the true, undiluted style from Japan," says Suzuki.
Ashihara Karate was initially developed by Kyokushin Karate exponent Hideyuki Ashihara, who saw what he believed to be an Achilles Heel in the regimental movements of Kyokushin. Hideyuki produced a hybrid style of self-defence that was street oriented and worked for all students, regardless of their size.
When Hideyuki passed away in 1995, he relegated the position of Kancho to his son, Hidenori, under the guidance of his top Black Belts, of whom Sensei Suzuki and Shihan Yuasa are included. "Kancho Hidenori Ashihara had the system bestowed upon him by his father, whereas Sensei Suzuki, Kondo Tetsuo and Darin Henry all chose the Ashihara way. At such a young age, Hidenori had the option of walking away, but chose to make Ashihara a way of life. The decision took a lot of courage," says 5th Dan Bill Wakefield.
The aim of Ashihara is not to break a student's spirit but to build the
student's spirit. Its instructors believe there is no point in a person going
to their dojo to avoid a beating on the street, and then being beaten up in
the dojo. "There is no intimidation in our gyms," says Kondo Tetsuo.
"A novice starts lessons at white belt level and is introduced to a less
Ashihara was designed to be a complete martial art that would be street applicable. Its practitioners are adept at grappling, should the necessity arise, but the style is formulated so that a conflict would be terminated long before a horizontal situation could develop. Kancho Hidenori is open-minded and has earned the respect of all his students. Because Ashihara was intended to be an art that evolved through necessity, he often calls his senior students together to discuss improvements or changes to the style.
Hidenori's father toured extensively, taking part in a lot of tournaments to see what was effective in various martial arts. He did boxing, and incorporated whatever worked effectively into his style. He added many of the take-downs from Aikido, and the shin-kicks and leg-checks from Muay Thai. In a street fight situation you have to utilize whatever you can," says Darin Henry of Des Moines, Iowa who now lives in Japan and is a disciple of the Ashihara system.
"There weren't any UFC or Pride tournaments in the mid-60s, so Kancho
Hideyuki would challenge experts in any discipline to see what was practical.
From his experiences he developed a system called Sabaki, where defence and
offence are combined whilst fighting an adversary from an angle, rather than
locking horns head on. He learnt much from observing sumo
Sensei Suzuki intends returning to Australia later this year and hopes to be accompanied by Kanch Hiednori Ashihara.