We are presenting you Kenji Yamaki, one of the best Kyokushin Karate fighters in history. Kenji Yamaki was born on August 18th, 1964 in Yokohama, Japan. As a weak and anemic junior-high school student was the victim of incessant bullying, considering suicide. Kenji would not even be born, if not courage of his brave mother… At the age of 15 he joined the Kyokushin Jonan Branch, the dojo was run by Tsuyoshi Hiroshige, who had a reputation for creating world champions. Yamaki earns his first-degree black belt when he was 20 years old. In 1995, year after the death of Sosai Masutatsu Oyama, he took the challenge of the 100-man kumite and not only survive, but emerge with an 83% victory rate. And then, he won 6th World Open Karate Tournament in the same year. Kenji Yamaki is also an actor, you may have seen him in 1989’s movie „The Punisher”. Yamaki lived in the USA, but now you can find him teaching in his dojo in Tokyo, Japan. Kenji Yamaki is a living example of the transformative nature of Kyokushin.
Autobiography of Shihan
Translated by Masaya Honda
2. A Strong Child
3. Middle School Hell
4. Encounter with Kajiwara Manga
5. You Want To Fight?
6. Starting Karate
7. On My Way to Shibuya with Iron Clogs
8. Getting Started in the Kyokushin Jonan Branch
9. The Days of Training
The striking sound of the taiko drum echoed throughout the stadium indicating that the match has started. In our fighting stance with our arms closed tight, Kazumi started to slowly advance towards me. I threw a left front kick and a left roundhouse back kick, but Kazumi avoided the move with a backstep and countered with a left low roundhouse kick. The stinging sound of his kick hitting and deflecting off of my thigh reverberated through the air. The energy behind his kick was much more powerful than the time I faced him at the 26th All Japan Championship. The impact and sharpness of his kick was at the level of perfection.
Kazumi’s plan was to release a low roundhouse kick at the moment he stepped in towards me. As soon as he advanced forward, I punched his chest to keep my distance. Kazumi reacted swiftly and swayed his upper body back to absorb and weaken the punch, then countered with left and right low kicks. His attacks have rhythm and are perfect. Kazumi is the type to show his true form in the later half of the match, so it could be troublesome if he gains momentum. I sent Kazumi flying out of the arena with a double left front kick. Something that I have been polishing and preparing for this world championship. Despite him being knocked out of the arena, he stepped back into the center of the arena with his usual poker face as if nothing happened.
The 12,000 people watching this match from the big stadium began to cheer by powerfully stomping their feet. The energetic atmosphere intensified as the crowd began to cheer louder. “Kazumi, I am so grateful to be able to fight against you” I truly meant that from the bottom of my heart.
Three days has passed since the start of the 6th World Karate Championship Open Tournament on November 13, 1995 in the Tokyo Gymnasium. The final championship has started at 6:13pm. My opponent, Kazumi was a junior student at the Jonan branch who I taught since the day he joined the dojo during high school. As a result, he recognizes all of my strengths and weaknesses. He is not an opponent that can be taken down by a simple trick. After 15 years, I finally decided that this last championship will be the last fight of my career. I wanted to fight with everything I got with no regrets.
2 years ago, Kazumi was the youngest All Japan Tournament champion with his attacks and his defensive maneuvers still working together flawlessly.
Observing his results at the past All Japan Tournament with his 1st place winning and two 2nd place winnings, he demonstrated a consistent level of strength. His round house low kick is so irregular, others cannot even replicate his own unique technique.
He raises his knee as if he is going to deliver a middle roundhouse kick, then with his flexible knee joint, he slams down with the instep of his foot. His kicks are as powerful as a lead flail. In addition to the power behind his kick, he is able to adjust freely to match with the opponent’s movement, allowing him to hit the vital points of the body accurately.
The amount of power he puts into the low roundhouse kick is no doubt the strongest in kyokushin karate. The conventional low roundhouse kick is as if you are vigorously swinging around an iron pipe, hoping that one hit will do a considerable amount of damage. His low roundhouse kick on the other hand is distinguishable from the conventional low roundhouse kick in that it is accurate and has an incredible amount of destructive power. A similar analogy would be carpet bombing and pinpoint attacks. In addition, his 180cm tall, 97kg body weight is built with muscle made by rocks which makes him strong against hits.
His persistent ways of coming in close to low kick me was countered by my front kick, which increased the distance between us allowing me to low roundhouse kick back at him. This increased distance prevented him from using his low kick, which forced him to change his tactics to a left right middle roundhouse kick followed by seikenzuki using his weight. His ability to cope with any attack from anyone with his flexibility is his strength.
But, this World Tournament, my front kick has been improving as the tournament progressed. I made sure to keep distance between Kazumi at all times. I started with a left right front kick followed by a diving punch to the center of his chest, then released a left roundhouse kick. Kazumi used swift stepping to move to the left to dodge my attacks.
I had a secret plan that I thought of before the tournament. I thoroughly simulated the tactics involved in the plan and practiced hundreds of times. There has to be a chance that will appear during the 3 minute match. If I miss the chance, there won’t be a second chance. I was waiting for that chance to come by low kicking and punching.
Suddenly, Kazumi’s left knee raised up. “It came!” His speedy middle front kick approaches my body. I side stepped towards him, exposing the left side of my body, then at the same time with my left arm, I sweeped his foot to the side with a circular motion. His vulnerable body was exposed. At this moment, I struck at him with a right hook. Using my waist and concentrating all of my power to my fist, I nailed his left rib. The stinging feel of the deflection after the punch penetrates back to my shoulder. I heard the sound of him losing his breath. “It worked”. His movement abruptly stopped.
I always had confidence in my right hook. I have sent countless numbers of fighters to the hospital, but no matter how much power I have behind these single attacks, eventually the opponent will recognize my attack. As for me, I went downhill after I won the 21st All Japan Tournament when I was 25 years old. There was a rough time in the past when my attack rhythms were out of place and I began to miss my opponent with my right hook. When my single attacks didn’t work, I would make my opponent vulnerable first, then proceed. This was my new right hook.
After Kazumi took damage from my right hook, he began to counter with a rain of punches. I didn’t mind the punches so I front kicked, then I low roundhouse kicked him followed by a lower hook.
He seems to have panicked, repeating front kick attacks desperately. I calmly blocked his kick with my left arm, right hooking him with all of my weight the second time. After getting hit the second time with such power, it looked as if Kazumi’s movement stopped. “It’s working” I stabbed his halted body with my front kick. *Thud*, his upper body raised along with the sound. I right low roundhouse kicked, threw a chain of punches, then I right low roundhouse kicked him while he was standing still with his feet aligned. Kazumi could not bear any longer and stepped back with a painful expression after my winning attack.
“I won”, I was certain I took the match when the sound of the loud bang of the taiko drum struck. The 3 minutes that passed during the match felt extremely fast. Without thinking, I clenched my fists and made a victory pose. We both faced the front and we waited for the final judgement. The audience made a stir when out of the total of 5 flags, the judges lifted up two flags showing a tie and two white flags that represented me. The head judge… raised a flag and it was the color white! I am the World Champion! I have reached the top of the world!
I walked up to Kazumi and shook his hand. I noticed him looking down biting his lips in frustration. Kazumi challenged himself to his limits through his blood shedding training just to take part in this tournament that only exists once every four years. Yes, just the same as me.
I made my way down to leave the arena and I shook hands with Shoukei Matsui, the head of kyokushin karate. My friends from the Jonan branch and my students from the Mizonokuchi dojo came to see me. Without thinking of saying “Hey, don’t cry it’s embarrassing” I found myself crying as warm tears dripped down my face. This was my first and last tear that I shed in karate. This was the glory I lived for. I wanted to become the strongest and face the people who looked down on me. With this only mindset, I joined kyokushin. Since then, I continued to train up until today at the age of 31. The life I dedicated to karate and its moments started to flashback in my head.
A Strong Child
In the year of 1964 on August 18th, I was born as the second son in Hiyoshi, a small part of the city of Yokohama in the Kanagawa Prefecture, to Matsuo who is my father that worked at a printed circuit board manufacturer and Yoshiko, my mother. I was a large baby weighing at 4,500 grams when my mother gave birth to me at the Kanto Rosai Hospital. My mother was at the state of life or death after she gave birth.
Back then, my mother’s height shrunk from 160cm to 155cm due to a severe decay of the bone. Giving birth took a lot of her stamina, which put her life at risk. Knowing that it was her decision to choose whether it was either the baby that lives or her own life, she ultimately chose to give up her life to save me. At that time if my mother chose to give me up while I was still in her belly, I would not exist in this world. I strongly feel that a person’s destiny is mysterious.
I am truly thankful for my mother’s readiness to exchange her life for mine. Fortunately, my mother was not affected in anyway. I ended up becoming a strong child.
When I was in preschool I chased down a soccer ball that rolled into the street and was hit by a speeding truck, which sent me flying 10 meters away. The people who witnessed the accident thought I died, but I got up and said “I am going home to eat bananas” as I proceeded to walk. I was not injured in any way, so I did not go to the hospital. It was likely that I was born with a body that is robust.
In elementary school, I was a young boy who enjoyed to play rather than studying. After school, I tossed my backpack on the ground and I ran around like a dog. I was so inspired by Bruce Lee’s movies that I watched at the theatres, that I handmade a nunchaku with PVC pipes. I was a class clown that entertained my classmates by swinging it around half naked while saying “Acho!”. Having many friends, elementary school was fun and peaceful.
Middle School Hell
However, when I entered middle school my destiny changed drastically. It all started from my hair style. I changed my long hair from elementary school to a sporty buzz cut. My 3 years older brother Takahito gave me an advice a few days after I started middle school, “Why don’t you add edgy shaves in your forehead? That would go well with the sporty buzz”.
Now that I think about it, it was probably a joke, but I believed it because I was gullible. My brother gladly held the razor and started to shave my forehead. The result was awful with unbalanced areas. “It’s not looking right yet”, my brother said and kept on shaving. As a result, the shaved edges kept getting deeper until it resembled a lightning mark starting from my forehead to the back of my head. “It looks great, Kenji” my brother said nervously.
Next morning, when I arrived at school I was the center of attention. It is hard for you to imagine this, but at the time I weighed 40kg and was above 160cm. My friend used to say, “If there ever was a tournament for the skinniest person, you would definitely win”. I was a freshmen who was as skinny as a stick bug, but still had a shave that is crazier than what a yakuza would have. During the morning assembly, everyone took a quick glance at me and looked at each other and laughed. If there was a hole, I would bury myself inside it to disappear from the embarrassment. Afterwards, I was called into the school faculty room where the teacher was holding a black marker waiting for me. Yes, he filled in the shaved areas with a black marker and angrily yelled “Shave your entire head by tomorrow!”. What happened already happened and there is nothing I could do. Being the spotlight at the school, I got attention from the “bad” groups in all of the grades in school.
The middle school I entered was known for its violence in the neighborhood. Students would ride motorcycles around the school yard. This crude school was filled with bad students that were scattered all over and would even push teachers back by grabbing on to their collars.
A few days later, five to six students varying from 1st and 2nd year took me to the gymnasium to lynch me saying they will give me a punishment. I was punched on the jaw and they kicked my stomach. I couldn’t handle it and fell down. Even though my height was above average, I did not have any experience in fighting so they kicked me as if I were a sandbag and could not do anything other than to take the beating.
They said to me “You don’t have the guts to go with your edgy shaving on your head”, and walked away, but even moments later I was still crouched in the same position. For your common 12 year old boy, they were horrifyingly violent. I remember crawling back home with bruises all over my body and my school uniform torn up.
But, this is not even the intro to the hell-like daily life I went through. My overly big sized body with the inability to resist the bullying made me an easy prey to the group. I had my face punched and my allowance taken from me in the bathroom on a daily basis.
There was an incident where I was kicked from the back all of the sudden and rammed into a wall causing my forehead to get cut. There were also humiliating moments such as getting spit on and having my pants and underwear taken off in front of girls.
Of course, I couldn’t focus on my studies. My grades during elementary school were average, but slowly went downhill. It felt like I was going to middle school just to get bullied.
You are most likely wondering why I didn’t show some resistance towards the bullying or why I didn’t talk to a teacher. But, I couldn’t do anything since they told me “If you ever tell your parents or the teacher, we will kill you”. Even if I did try to resist, I would not be able to fight against a group of middle school students that were used to fighting alone. I feared I would actually be killed if I made the wrong move. There was an unbelievable incident where the teacher gave the group a warning and was hit with a broom, resulting in the teacher being sent to the hospital by an ambulance. The teachers at the school pretended to not see the blatant bullying at the school. I would feel ashamed if the families knew I was getting bullied as well. Actually, I would fear if the situation got as big enough to where the families were aware of it, that the bullying might escalate as well. In the end, I had to give up everything and just endured it. Imagine someone forcefully driven into a blind alley in pitch black darkness not knowing what to do, but waiting for something to solve the problem. This is what getting bullied was like.
School bullying is a major issue in society because of the suicide incidents that occur. Even if the Ministry of Education stepped in, I don’t think they would be able to solve the issue. Bullying is a lot more devastating to children than what most adults think, and their suffering is extremely deep. Even if I was shown as a victim of bullying on the local newspaper, it wouldn’t be strange.
Encounter with Kajiwara Manga
While the cruel bullying continued everyday, my personality gradually changed. In elementary school I was a bright student with many friends, but I changed into a soft-spoken person that rarely used my mouth. I was always in a dark gloomy mood, constantly looking down at the ground whenever I walked. I thought “Why am I the only one that is going through this…”, I even cursed my own fate. Before I entered middle school, I was picturing myself being involved in clubs, having many friends, and possibly even a girlfriend. But, that rosy middle school life that I imagined it would be shattered into pieces and disappeared. For the time being I joined the baseball club, but the group of guys always had a evil look shining down at me so it wasn’t enjoyable at all.
I kept thinking to myself “How do I get myself out of this hell-like daily life.” There were many times of me going up to the top of the building to jump off because of how everything was.
One day, an opportunity arose. It was at the time when I arrived home feeling depressed from a typical day of getting punched to the swelling face. Suddenly, a manga caught my eye. Now that I think about it, this was the moment that changed my life. I unintentionally grabbed the manga and started to read it. The title was “Niji Wo Yobu Kobushi (Rainbow Fist)” written by Kajiwara Ikki and the illustration by Tsunoda Jiro. It was based on the original series “Karate Baka Ichidai (Karate Master)”, where a young weak kid with no sense of movement turns into a person with god-like strength through karate training. I read this vigorously, and even cried. I thought “If I start doing karate, maybe I can become stronger too. Maybe I can finally get away from this hell…”.
Thanks to my older brother who loved martial arts, there was a pile of other martial arts related manga other than “Niji wo Yobu Kobushi.” I started reading “Ashita no Joe (Tomorrow’s Joe)”, “Karate Baka Ichidai” and “Judo Sanka (Judo Anthem)” one after the other. I felt like I saw a light of hope within the darkness.
Being inspired by the Kajihara manga, I wanted to join karate as soon as I could. Since there was no dojo close to me, I sent an application to the judo club at the school. It was an easy idea to join the club instead of doing karate and because of this, I ended up leaving the baseball club in a half of a year.
With the desire to be strong and to be able to look down on the guys that gave me a hard time, I trained hard. However, there was no way I could be strong like in the manga. Even though I started doing judo, I still could not be brave enough to confront the guys, so the bullying continued. Although a small step, I started to grow a bit of muscle. When I entered middle school, my weight was too low for my height. I was also anemic so it wasn’t anything unusual that I collapsed from time to time during morning gatherings at the school. All of this went away ever since I started judo.
My favorite technique being the “tomoenage”, which is an overhead throw. The feeling of flinging a person away from the back was satisfying. My height exceeded 170cm by the time I began second grade of middle school, and the continuation of my training showed its effect. I improved to the point where the teacher that came down to teach from the Kodokan told me “You are the one most worth watching”.
When I am being hit by the group of guys at the school, thinking that I can beat them up someday helped relax me.
You want to fight?
However, there was an unbelievable classmate that was in the same judo club. His height did not even hit 160cm, but the seniors looked at him as a superior figure. There was a rumor that he does Kyokushin Karate and was a relatively quiet person, but he was extremely strong when it came to a fight. His nickname was The Kyokushin. The group of guys that bully me could not even lay a hand on him. He always walked with confidence with his head high. He was a hero for all of the male students at the school and on top of that, he was popular with the girls. There were girls that acted like fans screaming around him.
I envied Kyokushin and I started thinking of me beating up the group of guys with my fist.
Then, there was an incident that decided my life with no exaggeration. It was in the Spring of my third year of middle school. I always quoted that I want to be strong man like a prayer to the Buddha and became an enthusiastic fan of “Karate Baka Ichidai”. I was especially into Ashihara Hideyuki, the man that was called the “Kenka Juudan”. The part when the character offers to fight with a strong quote “You want to fight?” was really fascinating.
Someday I will be able to use this cool quote as well. When I had free time, I would start kicking the straw dummy that stood in the yard with my iron clogs with my own style. With this kind of activity happening everyday, I began to gain more confidence in Tashou Judo. I thought to myself “I should start fighting” with an odd sense of obligation to fulfill this duty. As the days passed, this feeling grew strongly and the day I was going to bring this into reality finally came. Of course, I tried being the admirable Ashiwara Hideyuki in the game center as dusk approached when he would say “Who shall it be?”. I looked for a possible opponent while I had both of my hands in my pockets in the dark game center. I made myself look as ominous as I can by slightly closing my eyelids. This should be the first fight that marks the start of the fight training. I wanted to challenge someone that seemed like a bad person. Even Ashiwara acted violently towards the Yakuza and punks. Then, I spotted two high school students with regent styled hair playing the Invader game on one of the arcade machines. I approached them slowly and tapped them on the shoulder. They both looked back at me with a sour look and said “What?” I strongly braced my cowardly feelings and replied with a light tone “Hey, you want to fight?”. They stood up with their furrowed brows and stared at me fiercely, grabbing me by the collar, “Who do you think I am, huh? Are you underestimating me, huh?”.
Just like Ashiwara would do, take down the opponent with an unconcerned face. Ashiwara came into my mind. I am going to kick his groin and wait for an opening on his body where I can do a Osotogari, a Judo throw move. Then suddenly, I felt a dull pain at the back of my head. “Bring it on! I will kill you!” they shouted.
I heard the echoes of them yelling at me with anger while I was on the floor. The guy that grabbed me by the collar kept kicking my hip and back, while the other picked up a stool from the floor. I thought about what just happened to me with my muzzy head. “Oh, I was hit by that stool…” I realized. The chair swung down gradually, and at the same time I heard a ‘smash’ sound, something funky smelling spread on to my face. Shortly after, I began to lose consciousness and my vision start to fade away into pure white. I thought to myself “After all, I guess judo is useless”. I dragged my beat up body back home while thinking about starting karate. The nosebleed that flowed down stained my face that was swelled up like a basketball. I understood this later, but at this time I had completely broken my nose and this injury became a gloomy shadow that stuck with me throughout my karate career.
At any rate, my admiration to become a stronger man grew significantly after I suffered from this miserable defeat in the street fight. I don’t have any business in judo where I can’t attack someone if I don’t grab them. In order to learn the technique of defeating an opponent in the blink of an eye with one attack, I joined the Kyokushin Karate Yokohama Dojo. At the time, my height was 175cm weighing at about 60kg. I was still on the thinner side, but because of my past experience with judo I had a thick physique.
However, I found this karate dojo to be very disappointing. Normally, middle school students are supposed to be directed into the section where they specialized in training young boys, but I lied about my age and joined the general group. It was set in my heart that I wanted to become stronger as soon as I can. The small dojo was packed full of newly enlisted people possibly due to the karate boom that happened at the time. On the very first day of practice the instructor asked if anyone wanted to participate in kumite (sparring) and I raised my hands willingly, but as a result I was viewed as a cheeky figure. The instructor told all of the beginners to sit facing the wall so that we didn’t know that we would be going against brown and black belt students. I was punched and kicked till I fell unconscious over and over again. Each time I hear the echo of a cold voice “Stand up. You wanted to spar right?” I was forced to stand up only to get punched again. I was punched fiercely right in the abdominal area, and I felt increasingly nauseous. Now that I think about it, I believe the instructor wanted to lessen the overwhelming amount of people in the dojo by warning all of the newcomers.
Even after that, whenever I went to the dojo, the harsh training continued. It may have offended some since I was tall in height and had sharp eyes. If it meant that I was going to get stronger, I didn’t mind enduring it and putting in effort. However, for a karate expert to be sparing with me for fun was something even a person like me that lacked rudimentary knowledge about karate, could not agree with. This was the same as bullying.
I stopped going to the dojo after a month later and I didn’t regret it at all. In the current state of the karate world, there are coaches that believe harsh training is one of the key ways to get stronger, but I don’t think so. Especially when beginners are given an unreasonable guidance. That itself will make them dislike karate. As for myself, being a young student with talent, I found it was a common occurence to be disgusted by the behaviors of some of the upperclassmen, and quit karate altogether. There is nothing more painful than going through training that I can’t agree with because it won’t make me stronger.
In fact, during this time I challenged Kyokushin who was in the same grade as I was to a match. He was someone I had admired, but also was a giant obstacle I needed to overcome. It was an odd sense of duty I needed to accomplish before I graduated middle school. He accepted my challenge with pleasure and told me “If you are my opponent, using just a sword hand with my right hand is more than enough”. The match was held during lunch break in the corridor of the school under Kyokushin rules with people watching. I was swallowed up by him from the beginning. Despite being taller than him, he looked unusually taller when the match started and I stood paralysed in front of him. Even then, I still attempted to kick and punch with courage all of which ended up completely missing him. In contrast, he hammered one to my shoulder and sides with his sword hand without any reserve. This match was completely one sided in the end. I was told by the audience that “You are 100 years too early to challenge Kyokushin.” In the crowd another said “For you to challenge someone like Kyokushin with everything you had is appraisable.” Despite the more positive comment I had received, in my mind the feeling that I needed to get stronger grew immensely. I desired real strength, so I decided to join the Kurosaki dojo which was ran by Kurosaki Taketoki sensei to do kickboxing. It was the dojo that was in a scene in the popular manga called “Shikakui Janguru (Shikakui Jungle)”, which was published as a series in the Shounen Magazine, a weekly published comic book. However, both of my parents were against of me going to the dojo. They were most likely worried for my future because of my karate craze while people around me were studying for entrance exams.
Even though my mother scolded me with a sigh “What are you thinking?” whenever possible, there are probably a few parents in this world that would be able to understand if their child were to say “I want to become the world’s strongest man.” I kept my mouth shut and continued to go to the dojo after school.
Of course my parents won’t approve of paying monthly fees and on top of that the dojo was located in Sugamo, which is in the Tokyo area specifically in Toshima ward. This meant that going to the dojo by train would have taken an hour and a half. A complete trip would have been a little over 3 hours. Since I would be going from Kawasaki city, the travel expenses would be through the roof.
As a result, I began to work early morning at a newspaper delivery company which allowed me to make the necessary money to pay for the monthly fee and travel expense. After school, I left my classmates that were studying for the exams and headed to the dojo. As for me, becoming a strong man was much more important than going to college or thinking about my future career.
I might have been desperate to restore my pride that I lost from all of the persistent bullying. I thought that if I do not become strong, there would be no meaning in living my life. My 15 year old self lacked the common sense that one should pursue a higher level education and get a good job.
However, the Kurosaki dojo did not live up to my expectations after going through countless hardships. They made us practice only the one-two punch and did not bother teaching us anything else. The coaches there were Japan’s top class kick boxers, but one time I asked the coaches if they are going to teach us anything other than the one-two punches. They replied with annoyance “The one-two punches are the most important. Shut up and keep doing it!”. At the time, the dojo itself was made to train kick boxers so they probably thought I was too young considering I was a middle school student. I ended up leaving the Kurosaki dojo after 6 months, but the experience was truly hard to come by.
Fujiwara Toshio, an ace in the kick world in Japan, publicly practiced in front of the reporters while getting ready for the title match.
“Hey you, come up on the ring”.
The group of reporters were in a hurry and wanted a sparring picture, so they chose to use me while I was practicing in the corner of the dojo. It was probably due to my large build, so they thought I would be able to demonstrate power through the picture. Yes, despite being a middle school student, I was able to spar with the legendary Fujiwara Toshio.
Of course, Fujiwara did not know that he was facing against a middle school student. The sparring gradually got intense because the reporters wanted a picture that showed power in the sparring, and Fujiwara was fired up since this happened just before his match. Even though I was wearing headgear and 16 ounce gloves, Fujiwara’s punches and kicks were unbelievably strong. He would restrict his power just before he hit me, but I still felt the physical shock waves travel into the core of my body. If I were to compare the pain, it was similar to being hit hard by a steel rod. I thought that if Fujiwara was serious, it would be an instant death from the rupture of the internal organs. Anyways, I couldn’t see his kick at all because of its unreal speed. I only heard the sound of the air being sliced and I was perfectly hit. I was gasping for air and sank down in the end, but despite the spar, I was unexpectedly happy about being able to actually feel one part of Fujiwara’s strength. At the same time, I felt that the experience let me know that my road to becoming a strong man was distant and harsh.
On My Way to Shibuya with Iron Clogs
I stopped attending the Kurosaki dojo at around the same time as my middle school graduation. Although I advanced to high school education, I ended up dropping out in a month because of how boring the classes were. You could say I was still young, but I thought “If I have the time to be sitting in front of a desk, I would rather be doing squats.” I just didn’t want to waste any of my time, but of course, my parents were completely against it. I wasn’t satisfied about continuing to study just for the reason to advance to high school.
I understood that this part of me was damaging to myself, but I couldn’t settle things only half way through. It was either you do it or you don’t do it, as if there are only two options, white or black. I am sure I was troublesome to the people that surrounded me including my parents and siblings, but I believed that if I got stronger, it would open my life. The only way to part ways from being bullied and looked down upon was not by studying, but by following the karate path.
“In martial arts, legs are a fundamental principle”.
Based on the knowledge I obtained from Kajiwara Ikki’s manga, I made it a daily routine to do hindu squats since I was a third year in middle school. I started out doing 50 hindu squats, gradually adding 5 more reps each day and by the time I graduated, it was normal for me to be able to do 1000 reps with ease. As a result of doing squats everyday drenched with sweat, my thighs quickly grew larger and my physical fitness was improving.
One day, thinking that “You are not a martial artist without mental strength”, I went to the city of Shibuya for mental training. I wore my favorite iron clogs… of course, I was the center of attention in the train. I heard whispering and laughter around me, but I encouraged myself by telling myself to not get confused, and continued to look outside the window without showing any concern. However, it was not too bad on the train. The problem was when I got off of the train station. Walking in the streets with the iron clogs will of course make noise. I was making disturbing noises as I walked around Shibuya through the crowds, but I was originally a shy person. Being constantly stared at by the public, I became extremely embarrassed and ran inside a department store. This was a big mistake. The ceiling above the store inevitably echoed the sounds of the iron clogs even more. The loud lightning strike sounding iron clogs attracted customers and employees in the store. This was the limit… I couldn’t handle it any longer. My face was bright red in embarrassment while I took off the iron clogs and held them with both of my hands. Yes, I threw away my shame and reputation and ran far away from the store bare feet. Thus, concludes my all too soon, “Iron clogs training”.
Getting Started in the Kyokushin Jonan Branch
On June 1st of 1980, I joined the Kyokushin Jonan Branch. It was about 2 months after I graduated from middle school. Actually, the Kyokushin guy happened to come to this branch and right about the same time he graduated high school, he converted to traditional karate. Since he was my biggest rival to me, I didn’t want to go to the same dojo as him. However, since he transferred to a traditional karate dojo, it didn’t matter. Being a kid that was bullied, I probably did not exist to him. Anyways, I didn’t want to fail choosing a dojo ever again. Overhearing Kyokushin saying that the Kamata dojo is capable of making anyone strong, so I listened and visited.
This is when I witnessed the power of Kyokushin Karate with my own eyes. The dojo was holding a promotion examination on this day, and there were kumite sessions when I entered the dojo. There was a student that was struck by a roundhouse kick straight to the face right in front of my eyes, which made the striking sound that a damp cloth would make if it were whipped. I witnessed him twitching after he fell down unconsciously to the floor, and it was at this moment I knew I was going to join the Kyokushin Jonan Branch. I didn’t back out after what I saw, but instead I decided to enlist.
When I received my brown belt, Hiroshige Tsuyoshi master told me “After what you witnessed, you didn’t think one bit about quitting?”.
I answered “I thought that the guy that initiated the kick was cool, so that gave me motivation to be just like him”.
Hiroshige master had a point. On that day, there were four to five other visitors just like myself that were at the dojo to see if they wanted to join. However, not a single one of them ended up joining after what they witnessed. I strongly believed that by learning Kyokushin Karate, I would be strong no matter what. By the way, the person that led me to join the Jonan Branch, Kyokushin, became a traditional karate champion for two years in a row after graduating high school.
My biggest hero at the time was President Oyama Masutatsu, the man that is said to be able to take down an ox with his bare hands. Perhaps he was more of a man above the clouds, an almighty God. The Earth’s strongest karate, the Kyokushin dojo… terrifying to say the least, and the unimaginable training. Thinking about this naturally made me tremble with excitement.
However, when I actually joined, the expectation that I had slowly started to fade away. Hiroshige master had silver rimmed glasses with the gentle eyes of a kind person. The seniors were also careful and thorough when guiding the students. The amount of practice we did was also not a shocking amount. The basic training of kicks and punches were over after ten reps each. The first dojo that I attended was really different in that the amount of kicks we had to do were at least 100 reps. The dojo also had a harmonious feel to it and quite honestly, I was let down because I questioned if this type of environment will make me stronger.
The way Hiroshige master taught us was outstanding though. He taught us in a simple way that any beginner would be able to understand the techniques. Almost as if a dry sponge were to absorb all of the techniques like water. You could say it was like a brilliant work of magic. The secret of the Jonan Branch in producing powerhouses was to make karate feel like an exciting addiction while training. It may be a bit presumptuous to say, coming from a pupil of Hiroshige master, but I believe there is something prominent in nature that Hiroshige possesses as a leader. He made sure to explain the interesting aspects of karate to the beginners. The people that wanted to become stronger were belt training took part in the special practice sessions that were offered before noon, where Hiroshige master would lead them to do hard training. Even when lessons were done, individuals were encouraged to stay late at night to train for themselves. The word, discipline, is a word that best describes this dojo.
A bit off topic, but when I was a middle school student, I heard of a legend. It was said that there was an unbelievably strong person at the Meguro High School. He had consecutive victories under his belt and was able to KO five to six people in sparring. Although he was 165cm in height, there was a rumor that he was able to make a hole in the ceiling at the gym with his kick. I believe his name was Midori… yes, the man that became the world champion, it was the rumor of Midori Kenji.
At the time I first joined the Jonan Branch, there was a person that wanted to confirm this rumor with Midori Kenji, when he was a brown belt. He asked “Is it true that you made a hole in the ceiling at a gym with your kick?” The conversation ended with Midori responding with a tired face “There is no way I could ever do that. It’s not like I am a ninja”. However, he never denied rumors that involved fighting.
I almost never missed a day at the dojo because I found Hiroshige master’s teaching method to be really engaging. But, because of the bullying I went through during middle school, my personality was dark and I was becoming an introvert. I rarely engaged in conversations with my surroundings, but I kept a sharp look to prevent people from underestimating me. I think I was a fairly weird student at the time. At the dojo I only said “Osu” and that was enough to get around, so being the poor talker I was, I found this to be convenient.
Throughout time, I was promoted from white to blue, yellow, green, brown, and then black. At my first examination that took place 3 months after I joined, I leaped from blue belt to yellow belt. I was then able to smoothly progress and earned my green belt after another 3 months.
The Days of Training
After advancing to colored belts, the beginner friendly type of training changed dramatically. We were continuously doing training that included movement, what we call “ido-geiko” in sequence with combination attacks with mitts. It involved us endlessly moving around the dojo until there were pools of sweat on the floor. And above all, the sparring training became more serious. However, I was already over 180cm in height and when it came to sparring with similar leveled students, I was able to overwhelm them with my stamina. The problem was my seniors.
I was hated here as well because I was reasonably large in build, silent, and antisocial with a nasty look in my eyes. When sparring in the dojo, if you say “mairimashita” which means “I give up”, the higher level students will stop attacking, but I almost never spoke. Even if I was sparring against the higher level students, I absolutely hated to give up unconditionally. Of course because of this, I was looked at as an impertinent guy. It is not an exaggeration to say that the weapon of a Kyokushin black belt is the flesh within the body. The ability to snap compressed wooden bats with a kick, and break two stacked blocks with a fist. These all-out punches and kicks all come flying at you with a growl, 10 times or 20 times. In the dojo there were higher level students that never listened to a word I said, and there were ones that said “You bastard!” with an aggressive attitude during sparring. At any rate, I stood out from others and was a disliked figure in the dojo.
After being promoted to brown belt, I was warned by Hiroshige master. He told me to go more lightly when sparring against the lower level students. Cutting off here, I take good care of the students that are below me. I did not have any memory of using unnecessary amount of strength when sparring with the lower level students, so I replied with an unexpected feeling “Osu, I have been going lightly…”.
But, this was not actually the case. From the beginning, I was always experiencing all-out sparring with the higher level students. I was never familiar with “light” sparring. I thought I was doing light sparring, but before I knew it, I was doing all-out sparring. Afterwards, Hiroshige master looked and told me “Yamaki, seems like you never experienced light sparring before”.
Light sparring was something that was unknown to me. An honest story, unlike fights, professional sparring in a fighting arena where you can’t run really scares me. Probably, only the ones that experienced this before will understand. I don’t know if I can put it like this, but it is the kind of fear that will make me urinate. In order to deal with my fears, I wildly rushed recklessly. There was a time when I was an yellow belt, where I KO’d a black belt and two brown belts consecutively with a rear kick. Doing 1000 squats a day has cultivated the leg power that allowed me to possess horrifying kicks without me knowing it.
People often bring up talents, but I think I truly have a talent for karate. I was able to master skills most of the time by being taught only once. It was a breeze to roundhouse kick the opponent on the side of their head, and to rear roundhouse kick the hat off of someone. I was also able to hit the desired area within 5cm to each other with a Kyokushin wheel kick.
However, when it came to my mentality it was a whole different story. At the time, I worked at a diner as a waiter, bentou store, and a gasoline station while I attended the dojo. But, I always had trouble with every job I had. The people I worked with while doing part-time jobs were mostly college students, which I never got along with since they were a group of people that like to have fun by messing around. On top of that, I would brag about how karate is my actual occupation to hard working regular employees everyday, and so I was most likely an intolerable person to them.
“Nowadays, what are you going to do when you dropped out of high school?”.
“What is the point of getting stronger by doing karate. Life isn’t as easy as you think.”.
When people would tell me these, I would get offended. I always let my anger do the work by knocking them out with a punch because of my poor communication skills. Having experienced only about 20 part-time jobs has to be rubbish. In any case, karate and the desire to get stronger was all that was in my head.
There was a time when my father could not bear to see me so deeply invested into karate. He asked one of the managers at the company he worked for to try to hire me as an employee. This company was a large security company where the headquarters was located in Fukuoka prefecture. Just for my sake, the company president and officer came over to my house to recruit me as part of the management. The salary was unbelievably good at the time, and it was like a dream story since I had no educational background. But, I did not hesitate even once and quickly declined the offer. My parents, the president, and the officer were all surprised.
I was told “There will never be such a good offer. You are going to regret this for the rest of your life”. Since I wanted to become stronger and did not care for money, I did not regret this at all. I betrayed everyone’s anticipation and hope, and as result, my parents did not listen to a word I said for a while.
Source: FB/YamakiKarate (published in 2018 and 2019, in 15 parts).
Part 1: 2018.06.16 – Autobiography of Shihan Kenji Yamaki 1
Part 2: 2018.07.01 – Autobiography of Shihan Kenji Yamaki 2
Part 3: 2018.07.15 – Autobiography of Shihan Kenji Yamaki 3
Part 4: 2018.07.29 – Autobiography of Shihan Kenji Yamaki 4
Part 5: 2018.08.19 – Autobiography of Shihan Kenji Yamaki 5
Part 6: 2018.09.09 – Autobiography of Shihan Kenji Yamaki 6
Part 7: 2018.09.23 – Autobiography of Shihan Kenji Yamaki 7
Part 8: 2018.10.14 – Autobiography of Shihan Kenji Yamaki 8
Part 9: 2018.11.11 – Autobiography of Shihan Kenji Yamaki 9
Part 10: 2018.12.02 – Autobiography of Shihan Kenji Yamaki 10
Part 11: 2018.12.23 – Autobiography of Shihan Kenji Yamaki 10
Part 12: 2019.01.13 – Autobiography of Shihan Kenji Yamaki 11
Part 13: 2019.02.03 – Autobiography of Shihan Kenji Yamaki 12
Part 14: 2019.03.03 – Autobiography of Shihan Kenji Yamaki 13
Part 15: 2019.04.03 – Autobiography of Shihan Kenji Yamaki 14
Shihan Kenji’s Yamaki official website: www.kenjiyamakikarateclass.com.