Kyokushin with Legal Head Punches?

Genki Izumisawa of Kyokushin-kan (left) defeats Shoichiro Tanaka of Kurosawa Dojo.

Kyokushin-kan All-Japan Weight Category Tournament, April 29, 2007

This was a first for the Kyokushin world. This weekend's Kyokushin-kan All-Japan Weight Category Tournament showcased a new set of official tournament rules for select Kyokushin-kan weight category tournaments only. Punches and elbow strikes to the head were legal for the first time ever in a Kyokushin tournament. Kancho Royama and Vice-Kancho Hiroshige created this new system of rules to correct damage done to Kyokushin as a form of budo karate when head punches were made illegal to win broader popularity for the style. At this time there is no intention to completely replace existing Kyokushin rules with the new ones. These new rules are, rather, intended to be supplemental. Their purpose is to improve certain aspects of Kyokushin fighting technique that are neglected in the standard system of rules.

We included the uppermost photo on this page because it's so dramatic, but we would ask you to compare it to this one (above, Yohihiro Yamada, left, vs. Naoso Mori.). The first photo (top) shows how much work we still have to do in the future, as neither fighter in this exchange of blows show a correct understanding of how to avoid each other's punches. They definitely show a lot of heart, but they're also failing to set sufficient distance to protect themselves from punches to the head. In this second photo, above, note the stance of the fighter on the right. Although he's turned his head away to avoid the punch, he's positioned himself at a more realistic distance (and in a more realistic stance), given the danger of the incoming punches. You'll read below how Kancho emphasized that this was a great start but that our fighters still have a long way to go before they get used to this new dimension of Kyokushin tournament fighting.

These rules will be applied only to certain WEIGHT CATEGORY tournaments (which are comparatively safer than open tournaments), yet are intended to influence the fighting style as a whole. If fighters develop the awareness to protect their heads from punches during these specialized tournaments, bad habits that have become commonplace in Kyokushin tournaments (such as fighters failing to cover their heads or faces because they know their opponents won't punch them above the collarbone) will start to fade away, even in open tournaments, where head punches will still be prohibited.

Takaaki Tagawa (left) vs. Manabu Iwata in a semifinal lightweight match.

Kancho recently cited a hypothetical situation in which a boy, who has practiced Kyokushin Karate since he was very young and has already received his black belt, comes home from school with a black eye and a swollen lip, having lost a fight at school. His father asks, "What happened? Why weren't you able to protect yourself? Couldn't you use your karate?" But the boy responds through tears of frustration, "I tried, but the other boy punched me in the face and I didn't know how to defend myself!"

Kancho said that he doesn't want to be the leader of a karate movement that would allow such a situation to occur. He reminds us that Kyokushin karate is meant to be budo karate. This means that we must train with the mentality that each block and each strike may be our last if we fail to execute them correctly. Accordingly, tournament fighting must be seen as one training method intended to improve our ability to defend ourselves from life-threatening attacks. Yet with ANY rules that limit what techniques we are and are not allowed to use in the name of safety, tournament fighting begins to differ from real-world situations.

Member of the Kyokushin-kan Executive Committee including (from right) Kancho Royama, Fuku-Kancho (vice chairman) Hiroshige, Council Committee Chairman Shigemutsu Hagiwara, Honbu-Chief Koyama, Vice Honbu-Chief Okazaki, and International Committee Vice-Chairman, Jose Millan.

Notice the demonstration below performed by Kyokushin-kan world kata champion, Masahide Ishijima (left, with tonfa). We are proud to be introducing traditional weapons training to our instructors and asking them to share these techniques with their own students. Japanese karate evolved from traditional Japanese weapons forms (mostly after it became illegal to carry swords in Japan). It is important to understand these basic forms, and thereby to gain a deeper understanding of our karate (empty-handed) techniques.

Pay particular attention to the difference between the type of combat simulated below and the modern karate tournament. Both fighters in a modern-day karate tournament fight, go home to have dinner with their families, and wake up the next day to train for their next tournament. In real-life situations, however, where weapons are involved, one fighter forfeits his life and the other one, if he's lucky, might escape injury. There is no second chance in the real self-defense situation. It is therefore also that we are introducing basic weapons training : to emphasize the fact that in budo karate there is no second chance. Whether using a sword or our bare hands with blows aimed at the head, we must train with the mentality that every blow and every block could be our last.

Demonstration performed by Shihan Masahide Ishijima and Sempai Kim Hyeun Jun.

It's not necessary, Kancho says, for all of us in Kyokushin to fight with full-contact blows to the head all the time, or even often. It is, however, absolutely vital that a "consciousness of protection from upper body strikes to the head" is reincorporated into Kyokushin karate in order to regain elements of Kyokushin that were lost once tournament fighting became so popular.

Yoshihiro Yamada (right) vs. Naoso Mori in a quarterfinal middleweight fight.

Asked what he thought of the weekend's tournament, Kancho said that he was pleased because it was "a good start". Of course, he said, this group of fighters has no experience with this type of fighting, so the frequency with which some of the fights came to resemble brawls was fairly high. However, the fighting finesse of Kyokushin also showed itself in many situations. (It was beautiful to see, for example, when fighters were so intent on punching their opponents in the head that they failed to protect themselves from kicks and were knocked out with high kicks as a result.) The level will increase quickly, Kancho said, year by year. "This weekend's fighting is not, of course, what I'd like to see eventually," he said, "but it was a great start, and the fighters can be proud that they were among the first to muster the courage to try."

Naoso Mori (left) vs. Ryosuke Shoji in the middleweight semifinal.

When asked what was the most important point to express on our international web site concerning the weekend's event, Kancho replied, "A page has been turned in the history of Kyokushin Karate. It is the dawn of a new era, when Kyokushin will start to reclaim its superiority over other fighting styles that were allowed to pass it by in public opinion during the past decade. The page as been turned to start a new chapter in the story of Kyokushin, and there can be no reversing the positive changes that will begin to unfold as a result."

Daisuke Akiba (right) vs. Jun Ihara in a quarterfinal fight of the middleweight division.

It's important to note (below) the gloves that we created for use in these tournaments (gloves will only be used for head-punch tournaments). Thus far Kyokushin tournament fighting has been a bare-knuckle style, and of course any real-life self-defense situation will be bare-knuckle. It's imperative, however, Hiroshige Shihan reminded us this weekend, to think about the safety of the fighters. Because Kyokushin Karate has developed into one in which only the fortified parts of the body are legal targets, Kyokushin has developed unmatched blow-for-blow power in the martial arts world. The padding on the fronts of these gloves will protect the fighters from serious injury while allowing them to close their fists tightly when punching. (Boxing gloves have a foam core and boxers are prevented from closing their fists tightly. Boxing gloves are therefore not suitable for karate fighting).

Middleweights Shun Shibuya (right) vs. Jun Ihara in the semifinal.

The next step (next year) will be to legalize grabs, reversals, and throws. The fact that the insides of the fighters' hands are bare will allow them to grab their opponents freely, as in real-world fighting situations. Although there will be a couple of further steps in the evolution of this set of rules, ground fighting of the type that has become so popular in the gladiator-like fighting styles of the day will never be allowed, since such fighting is only realistic in real-life situations in which we have to defend ourselves against only one attacker. If we find ourselves facing multiple attackers in a self-defense situation -- as is so often the case -- we can't wrestle with all of them at the same time. For budo karate, therefore, it's essential to learn how to defeat our attackers one by one with single, devastating techniques.

Genki Izumisawa (left) vs. Shoichiro Tanka in a quarterfinal match of middleweight division.

Genki Izumisawa of Kyokushin-kan (left) defeats Shoichiro Tanaka of Kurosawa Dojo.

Jun Ihara (left) vs. Daisuke Akiba.

Ryosuke Shoji vs. Yoshihiro Yamada in the middleweight final.

Middleweights Shun Shibuya (right) vs. Jun Ihara in the semifinal.

Naoso Mori (left) vs. Ryosuke Shoji in the middleweight semifinal. (two photos, above and below).

Honbu Chief Koyama (referee below) here indicated the knock out as Takaaki Tagawa (above left) defeats Genki Izumisawa in the lightweight semifinal.

Yoshihiro Yamada (left) vs. Naoso Mori in a quarterfinal middleweight fight.

Takaaki Tagawa (left) vs. Yusuke Nakagawa in the quarterfinal of the lightweight division.

Manabu Iwata (left) vs. Hiroyuki Takikawa in the quarterfinal of the lightweight division.

Over 800 kyokushin-kan members competed this weekend in adult male and female, senior male, and junior boys' and girls' divisions (both kumite and kata). The adult male division however -- the only one in which head punches were allowed -- was limited to eight fighters per weight category. Additionally, the heavyweights were separated into light-heavy and super-heavyweight in the name of safety. See above eight, eight, four and four fighters from left to right, light weight to super-heavyweight. Last year's champion Fuji Yusuke here recites the fighters' oath during the opening ceremony.

One of five mats jam-packed with kids during the opening ceremony of the children's tournament. Note the second mat in the background.

Safety is always the top concern. All junior divisions wear protectors as shown above.

Last year's All-Japan Champion Fuji Yusuke (above) won his first fight by decision but was prevented from continuing to the super-heavyweight final due to a broken cheekbone.

Shown here is one proud example of why it's necessary that we at Kyokushin-kan never cease to find ways to improve the karate that we teach. The children, of course, are the world leaders of the future, and if we get it right and make them the best they can be, the world will be a better place.