Ryusei Karate-Do: A Personal Perspective

An article by Peter Giffen, Shihan, Head of Ryusei Karate Canada

Reproduced with the kind permission of Peter Giffen, from the Ryusei Karate website.

What I recall about my early training with Ken Sakamoto is how serious, almost obsessive, he was about practice. The year was 1979 and the 29-year-old was a direct disciple of Tsuyoshi Chitose, the 10th-dan master and founder of Chito-Ryu karate. When I would wake to train at the 6 a.m. class, in the little dojo in the backyard of O-Sensei’s house, in Kumamoto, Japan, Sakamoto was usually out there before me, working hard.

One day I would go outside and find him in a handstand on his knuckles, seeing how long he could hold the position. On another, I would find him kicking a makiwara. I thought there was something unusual about his front kick. I realized that he was striking the makiwara full force with the tip of his big toe. He explained that this was a technique perfected by the old Okinawan karate men. By concentrating all the power on the small surface of the toe tip, he was striving to acquire the ability to pierce an opponent’s rib cage and then into his lung. I don’t know if he could ever do such a thing, but I was impressed that he would train himself to this extreme degree.

Hanshi Ken Sakamoto, Supreme Instructor Ryusei Karate International

Besides forging his outer body, Sakamoto strove equally hard to cultivate his internal energy, or ki. His favorite kata then was Sanchin, which has its roots in Southern Shaolin kung fu styles and develops external and internal power through dynamic tension and special breathing. 

At night, we might go out after training for beer and sake and a meal of yakitori (Japanese kebab) or a local specialty, basashi (raw horse meat). He would explain between cups that he was “chasing the technique of 0-Sensei.” In other words, he wanted to follow in the footsteps of the master. 

Training Under O-Sensei
Sakamoto began following O-Sensei’s footsteps at the age of 20, in 1970, as a member of Japan’s Self Defence forces. He had already studied sumo, judo, jukendo (fighting with bayonets) and aikido. Sakamoto must have been quite wild when he was young. I remember him telling a story of a martial arts instructor whose technique he thought was no good. Sakamoto challenged him to match and knocked him out.

In any event, Sakamoto (who was born and raised in Chiba) started studying Chito-Ryu karate in the Self Defence forces and was introduced to O-Sensei. After meeting the master, he realized that this was the martial art he wanted to devote his life to.

Sakamoto became a uchi deshi, or live-in apprentice at the hombu dojo, beside O-Sensei’s son, Yasuhiro. (Sakamoto married one of O-Sensei’s daughters and became part of the family.) Each day he would learn under O-Sensei and then practise extensively on his own. Not only would he and Yasuhiro learn the standard items of the Chito-Ryu curriculum, they would also be taught other kata and different versions of kata. (For example, O-Sensei taught an extended version of Kusanku, sometimes called Kusanku Dai.) They also received strong training in kobudo (the Okinawan art of weaponry) and bunkai (the applications of kata techniques). 

Some of these “extra” kata O-Sensei taught were “koryu” kata. That is, they are ancient kata from Okinawa, pre-dating the modern karate styles. They include Tensho, Unsu, Seichin and Hoen.

At the same time, Sakamoto became very interested in karate’s roots in Okinanwa and the Chinese martial arts. After kempo or todi, as it was called in Okinawa, was imported from Fujian, China, from the South Shaolin Temple, in the 18th century, it merged with local martial arts traditions, call “ti,” as in Shuri-ti and Naha-ti.

“Todi,” or China Hand eventually became known by the Japanese characters’ other pronunciation, “karate.” Then, in 1930s, the first character of the name, “China” was replaced by a character, with the same pronunciation, for “empty” or “void.” So “China Hand” (todi) became “Empty Hand” (karate). Among the reasons for the change was to downplay the art’s Chinese origins to the Japanese, who were very nationalistic at the time. And the change was more than name deep. Today’s karate, with its straight lines and dependence on muscular strength, is often far removed from the soft, flowing Chinese kempo, with its circular moves and reliance on internal strength.

However, some aspects of todi or kempo can be seen in Chito-Ryu, in kata like Ryusan, in the koryu kata taught Sakamoto and in the Chitose “family” kata called Gung Fu no Kata. Parts of this last kata imported from China were often demonstrated by O-Sensei in public. The kata, with its soft, flowing open-hand movements and complex breathing is reputed to be 45 minutes long and supremely difficult to master.

At the same time, Sakamoto-Sensei began to wonder why some of the Chito-Ryu kata were so brief. “As I mastered forms like Ryushan and Tenshin,” he recalls, “it seemed to me that these kata were too short, that something was missing. And I found a lot of things that I couldn’t understand. For example, Tenshin is for advanced practitioners and shihowari is for beginners. Both teach you how to defend yourself and counterattack, dodging aside, but what was the difference between them? Tenshin does not seem long enough to demonstrate its important features. Other kata, like Chinto and Rohai, are also short and seem inferior to the similar forms of other schools.”

On many occasions, Sakamoto questioned O-Sensei directly and indirectly about these and other matters pertaining to the kata. Eventually O-Sensei told Sakamoto, now that he had mastered these kata he should finish them the way he saw fit.

He also recalled other words from the master: “O-Sensei used to say to the leaders of Chito-Ryu, ‘I have taught you the first half, but not the second.’” So Sakamoto set out to learn the missing second half of Chito-Ryu.

The Founding of Ryusei Karate-Do
Sakamoto continued his research and practice, even after O-Sensei died in 1984, developing his own approach to Chito-Ryu. Then, in 1997, he decided to start his own organization, so he could teach according to his insights. His group is called Ryusei Karate-Do. “Ryusei” means Dragon Spirit. According to Sakamoto-Sensei, the term was coined by Tei Junsoku (the “Saint of Nago”), an 18th-century Confucian scholar from Okinawa who made trips to China, bringing back books on Chinese science and philosophy. It is an honorific title for the bujin or warrior who seeks after truth. 

Overview of the Ryusei System
In setting up the system of Ryusei Karate, Sakamoto-Sensei has been criticized by some Chito-Ryu karateka for changing the kata he was taught by O-Sensei. He responds, “Inheriting the Chito-Ryu tradition does not mean sticking to the old formalities. It means that we, living in this world now, should try to create our own skills and philosophy, and make them available to the world through our performance. If we suppress the new movement to technical innovation because we don’t want to tamper with tradition, what would happen? I have no doubt that Chito-Ryu would stagnate and be ruined.”

Sakamoto-Sensei classifies the kata of his system into four groups: Basic, Kei-I I, Kei-I II and Koryu. The basic kata are Seisan and Niseishi, and are performed pretty much as they are in traditional Chito-Ryu. Kei-I I kata are inspired by the moves of animals and Kei-I II kata express human emotions.

The following comes from a poor translation of Sakamoto-Sensei’s description of his system. I apologize for not doing his words justice. I will have the translation redone when time and money permit.

Basic theory of the Kei-I Kempo
In our world, there are five kinds of spirits that are symbolized by wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Everything, animate and inanimate, is brought into being and given form by means of one of these five spirits. A form has both yin and yang (negative and positive) aspects.

When the positive (yang) met the negative (yin), with these five spirits in harmony, “I”(meaning, mind) was born to become “form.” Then the road to be followed by human beings was made: “Kendo” for men and “Kondo” for women. Finally, this famous definition was developed: “Ten” (Heaven) is the big cosmos (Daiten), and “hito” (people) are the small cosmos (Shoten).

Animals got a partial measure of “ki” (spirit) and “ri” (reason, logic), whereas human beings got the full measure of both. Animals, who only received partial ki, can live harmoniously with the “law of the nature” given by Heaven. The human beings, on the other hand, who got full ki and ri from Heaven, are completely ignorant of how to make good use of the ri. Human beings have to study more about ki from the animals, who know the “law of the nature,” and they must investigate more about the ri, as well as the “law and logic of Heaven” (governing all animate and inanimate things).

The meaning of Kei-I originated in the “Five Yin-Yang (Negative-Positive) Samskara” theory, which explains the growth and change of all things in the world.

Go-Keiken and Purposes of Training

1. Ryu (dragon)-ken—heart & mind
2. Ko (tiger)-ken—bone
3. Hyoh (panther)-ken—muscle & power
4. Ja (snake)-ken—spirit
5. Tsuru (crane)-ken—energy

Kei-I Kata I
1. Bassai(moves of a snake, Taikyoku-karate Kata no. 1) 
Having an exquisite spirit and an extraordinary character, snakes are very energetic creatures that can make sharp turns. It is said that when two snakes fight, they radiate heavenly spirit. The snake corresponds to the yang in the kidney of a man’s body, and is one of Kan in eight Ka of I Ching (Classic of Changes). Using the snake moves, you can train your waist to make quick moves, because the positive and negative Samskara merge with each other during the actions. 

2. Chinto(moves of a hawk)
The hawk is an aggressive animal that can see any movement of its prey. In a body, this bird can bring up the yang (positive) spirit in the kidney towards the head. As an alchemy book says, “It goes up to the head through the spiral cord.” If your Ken is right, the true energy comes back to your brain with the yang spirit and strengthens your eyesight. 

3. Sochin(moves of a bull)
More than any other animal, a bull respects justice. It corresponds to the spleen in a body. If your Ken is right, you can have a completely determined will. One of our karate pioneers said, “If you have an honest will, your mind will be right. If your mind is right, you will get a powerful Ken through proper training.” 

4. Tenshin(moves of water spiders)
Among all the water insects, the water spider can move its body with the utmost freedom. In a human body it is symbolized by the liver, and can calm a troubled mind. If your Ken is right, you can make your bones and muscles strong and keep your muscles flexible. This is “to follow the logic of Heaven.” 

5. Rohai(moves of crane and heron, Taikyoku-karate Kata)
The objective of this kata is to boost our energy. The harshness of technique is hidden in the elegance of each move of this kata. It symbolizes the first move of yin spirit in a body. With this kata you can get the power of your lower limbs to come upwards and make the spirit in your head go down. If your Ken is right, then you can radiate the real spirit from your body and limbs. 

Kei-I Kata II
The following kata, part of Kei-I Kata II, can engage our feelings as well as our mind.
1. Sanshiru(Emotional Kata)
This kata nourishes feelings of joy and happiness, and can absorb the real spirit of the earth into your body. (Note: Sakamoto-Sensei performs the kata as if he were drunk.)
2. Kusanku(Lyrical Kata)
This kata encourages and expresses feelings. It is also called “moving Zen.” 

Koryu Kata
1. Ryushan
“Ryu” means “dragon” and “shan” means “mountain.”
2. Tensho
3. Unsu
4. Seichin(includes the movements of a monkey)
5. Hoen(a primitive kung fu form)

In addition to these kata, Ryusei Karate-Do includes training in bunkai, such as Niseishi, Henshuho and Nage no Kata, and weapons: kon (bo), sai, tonfa, nunchuku, kama, sansetsu kon, hidden weapons and others.

The Future
In his personal training, Sakamoto-Sensei is still trying to master the Koryu kata. “I am practising Tensho, Unsu, Seichin and Hoen so I can demonstrate them at tournaments and other gatherings,” he says. “I am not yet advanced enough so that people can get much from my performance. But I think watching me strive to go a little higher may give them some indication of what the traditions of koryu karate are. I should also say that I am far below the level of skill where I can give my inner power to students, as O-Sensei used to do. But nothing will be gained if you don’t try.”

To promote and teach Ryusei Karate-Do, Sakamoto-Sensei holds monthly instructor clinics, special camps and three annual events: an eastern Japan tournament, a western Japan tournament and an Enbukai. The Enbukai is an elaborate demonstration of martial arts techniques put on by the Ryusei students. The Enbukai also may include other types of cultural performance, such as Japanese dance, and demonstrations by Chinese martial artists.

A few years ago, Sakamoto-Sensei took a trip to China, travelling through the province of Fujian and elsewhere. He did exchanges of techniques with martial artists at Shaolin temples and other venues, and was excited to find many similarities between his approach and theirs. 

Sakamoto-Sensei’s study of the old Okinawan and Chinese roots of Chito-Ryu karate are leading to this next great venture: attempting to master O-Sensei’s complex Gung Fu no Kata. “The majority of Chito-Ryu shihan approach this kata as if it were something sacred,” he says, “or a special Soke kata that is only passed by inheritance to family members. But this is a mistake. My understanding is that a serious karateka who aims to attain true karate can rise to the challenge of this kata. Why did O-Sensei perform this ‘secret’ form of koryu karate so many times in public, without trying to hide it at all? I think he was trying to say through his techniques, ‘Look at my moves and my form carefully. See what you can catch. Study more and come up here.’”