Tetsuhiko Asai

In the past not everybody could do Karate in the standard way, particularly after the war, there was a closed-off mentality, a physical hardness in karate, aiming primarily to build spirit, rather than effective martial arts technique. Many people in Shotokan had, and still have, closed minds thinking this is the only way to do karate, and this permeates throughout all the aspects of their training.

Tetsuhiko Asai

Tetsuhiko Asai was one of the most unique masters to come out of the Japan Karate Association (JKA). Nicknamed “Kaminari-Arashi” meaning “Thunderous Storm”, he was a Shotokan Karate practitioner that infused other martial arts such as White Crane Kung Fu into his personal style. He was described by Kenneth Funakoshi, a former student, as an “Instructors Instructor”. He also held 2nd Dans in Judo, Jukendo and Kendo and a 3rd Dan in Jodo.

Asai was born on 7 June 1935 on the island of Shikoku, Ehime Prefecture, Japan. He was the eldest of five boys and four girls. His father, a policeman, taught in Judo and Kendo.

In the 1950s he attended Takushoku University where he joined the university’s Karate club. At the club, his instructor was Masatoshi Nakayama, with whom he forged a lifelong bond. Some of his gradings were conducted by Gichin Funakoshi. Some of the notable names that he trained with at the club included Hirokazu Kanazawa, Hiroshi Shirai, Keinosuke Enoeda and Takayuki Mikami.

In 1958 Asai graduated from Takushoku University. At the suggestion of Nakayama, he enrolled in the JKA Instructors Course (Kenshusei).

1960 saw Asai take part in the 4th All Japan Karate Championships where he finished joint third in the kumite event. The following year he became the tournaments third-ever Grand Champion. He won the kumite event against Hiroshi Shirai, who would become Grand Champion the following year. In the kata event, he came 2nd to Takayuki Mikami, the previous man to hold the title of Grand Champion. In 1963 he won the kata title against Toru Iwaizumi.

Asai graduated from the JKA Instructors Course in 1961, alongside the likes of Katsuharu Kisaka, Masaaki Ueki, Keinosuke Enoeda and Satoshi Miyazaki. That same year he met his future wife, Taiwanese actress Chen Hui-zhu (Keiko), who was working for a film company in Tokyo.

In 1965 Asai visited Taiwan on route to his first JKA assignment in Hawaii. This was his first visit to Taiwan where he met his wife’s older brother, Chen Hong-Zong, who was an exponent of White Crane Kung Fu. Having martial arts in common, the two men soon became good friends and started exchanging martial techniques. Asai started learning Kung Fu from Chen. Chan and his students eventually became students of Asai. He taught them the basics of Karate for a month, practising before and after work.

Asai arrived in Hawaii in 1966, following his visit to Taiwan. As the JKA’s new Chief Instructor for Hawaii, he became the third JKA instructor to teach in Hawaii after Hirokazu Kanazawa and Masataka Mori. He enjoyed his time there, extending his visa to over four years. Just as he had done in Taiwan he spent time investigating other martial arts been practised. When his time was up, Kenneth Funakoshi was appointed the Acting Chief Instructor of the Karate Association of Hawaii.

In 1969 Asai returned to Taiwan where he remained until 1973. Although based in the city of Taichung, he travelled around the island with his wife and brother-in-law demonstrating and teaching Karate. He even appeared on Taiwanese television where Chen Hui-zhu translated his words into Chinese.

In what was to become a golden era in Taiwanese Karate Asai opened ten dojos on the island. Karate proved to be a very popular pastime. Many tournaments and demonstrations were held. He also arranged for Japanese instructors to come and teach at various locations on the island. Known as the open “Father of Taiwanese Karate”, 80% of Taiwanese Karate practitioners can trace their Karate roots back to Asai.

In 1971 Asai arranged for his mentor, Masatoshi Nakayama to come to Taiwan. While there Nakayama conducted a number of courses where he taught and demonstrated his Karate.

In the March of 1973 Asai established the Chinese Taipei Karate-Do Federation.

Asai’s continued success led to some unwanted trouble in Taiwan. Unfounded allegations were made of him being pro-communist and using Karate as a recruitment tool for the Chinese Communist Party. Although these allegations were proven to be untrue, student membership fell. The allegations eventually led him to leave Taiwan. He returned to Japan where he became the President and Director of the Futami Tsusho Co. Ltd.

While running his company Asai was still heavily involved in Karate. In 1976 he helped coach the Japanese National team. The following year he travelled to China, Hong Kong, and America to conduct training courses on behalf of the JKA.

In 1978 Asai had two books published, “Asai Tetsuhiko: Jitsugi Karatedō 1: Kihon Kata” and “Asai Tetsuhiko: Jitsugi Karatedō 2: Sentei Kata”. Both books are rare and have become collectors’ items. He also produced two videos in 1997: “Asai Tetsuhiko: Karatedō Jōkan” and “Asai Tetsuhiko: Karatedō Gekan”.

Nakayama’s 11-book series, “Best Karate” was published in 1979. The books feature some of the top JKA instructors demonstrating kihon, kata, and kumite. Asai featured in the following books:

  • Book 3 – Kumite against Yoshiharu Osaka and also kumite against Hirokazu Kanazawa.
  • Book 7 – He demonstrates the kata Empi.
  • Book 10 – He demonstrates the kata Nijushiho.
  • Book 11 – He demonstrates the kata Meikyo.

In 1983 Asai assumed the role of JKA Technical Director.

Asai’s mentor and friend, Masatoshi Nakayama, died on 15 April 1987. This was a great loss to the JKA and the world of Karate. Nakayama’s death led to deep divisions within the JKA. Nobuyuki Nakahara, a Tokyo businessman, had become the new Chairman of the JKA. Some instructors like Asai disagreed with this new appointment. This led to a split into two opposing factions within the JKA. The Nakahara faction included Maasaki Ueki, Yoshiharu Osaka and Masahiko Tanaka. The Matsuno faction led by Asai, included Keigo Abe, Akihito Isaka, Mikio Yahara and Masao Kagawa.

The rift between the Nakahara faction and Matsuno faction lead to a ten-year legal battle as to had the right to use the JKA name. In 1999 the Japanese High Court awarded the JKA name to that Nakahara faction.

In 1999 the Matsuno faction, that had now left the JKA, splinted into the following groups:

  • Japan Karate Shotokai (JKS) led by Asai
  • Japan Shotokan Karate Association ( JSK) led by Keigo Abe
  • Karatenomichi World Federation (KWF) led by Mikio Yahara

In 2000 Asai founded the International Japan Karate Association (IJKS) and also the non-profit organisation, Japan Karate Shotorenmei (JKS). Also that year, the 1st East-European Asai Cup was held in Moscow, Russia.

Always looking to push the boundaries of Karate and personal development, Asai founded the Japan Wheelchair Karate-do Association in 2001. He also developed 10 wheelchair kata and kumite routines that were designed for disabled, elderly and able-bodied practitioners. In September of that year, the 1st World Shotokai Karate-do Championships and Wheelchair Karate-do Championships were held by the JKS.

On 7 February 2004 Asai was made an Honorary President of the Russian National Far East University in Vladivostok. This was in recognition for his contribution to the development of education, science and culture. He was presented with a pocket watch.

Asai underwent liver surgery on 10th February 2006. Later that year in June, he returned to Taiwan where he reunited and celebrated his birthday with some of his former students.

On 15 August 2006 Tetsuhiko Asai died from heart failure aged 71 years. He was survived by his wife Chen Hui-zhu and their daughter Hoshimi. A funeral was held on first on 1 September at the Gokokuji temple in Tokyo. More than 2000 people attended.

In 2006 Asai was posthumously awarded the rank of the 10th Dan after his death. Masao Kagawa, a former JKA Grand Champion, was asked to lead the JKS.

After Asai’s death, the leadership of that IJKA had passed his wife. However, following a year of respect after Asai’s death, an IJKA congress was held in Budapest, Hungry. Sadishige Kato was asked to lead the association.

In 2013 the Asai Shotokan Association International (ASAI) was established by Kousaku Yokota, a former student of Asai. Yokota wanted an association that taught Asai’s style of Karate.

Tetsuhiko Asai, although small in stature was a true giant of Karate. He believed first and foremost that Karate is a martial art. He also believed that to improve a karateka needed to have proper technique, proper timing and control one’s body. A master was a very unique and dynamic style of Karate, his legacy lives on through students such as Kousaku Yokota, Jan Knobel, and Andre Bertel.

Author: Patrick Donkor

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