The Kyokushin Karate Roots of Michael Jai White

Kyokushin karate — the fighting art founded by Mas Oyama, a man who battled live bulls, occasionally lopping off their horns with his knifehand strike — has a reputation for toughness, including full-contact sparring with minimal safety gear.

But that never scared off Michael Jai White, a lifelong martial artist and actor who’s part of the Victory Dojo & Fitness family. In fact, Michael Jai White has always enjoyed the physicality and discipline of the art, calling it his “savior.”

“I had a lot of angst growing up, and martial arts just felt natural to me,” said Michael Jai White, who holds black belts in seven styles. “I enjoyed fighting when I was a kid. I used every excuse I could to fight.” He began studying shotokan karate at age 7, then switched to kyokushin under Shigeru Oyama.

The latter was the art in which he received his first black belt while still a teenager. He hopes Victory Dojo — located in Burbank, California — will do for today’s youth what his kyokushin dojo did for him. To that end, when he’s in town during breaks from his busy schedule, he’s helping mold it into a school that emphasizes character development as well as physical skills.

And this month, Victory Dojo celebrates the 50th anniversary of its headquarters’ founding.


Michael Jai White Takes You Inside the Kyokushin Karate School He Calls Home When He’s Not Working in Film and TV

Learn about the genesis of brutal tests such as
the 100-man kumite in this FREE download!
History of Karate: Inside Mas Oyama’s
Hard-Core Kyokushin Karate Conditioning Program

“Our school is very basic and very traditional — the way we train is the way they’ve trained in Japan for the past 50 years,” said Michael Jai White, who joined the venture as a “spiritual partner” with his teacher, Brian Bastien.

The headquarters dojo was founded in 1964, according to Robert Christophe, head instructor at Victory Dojo. Brian Bastien opened his Victory Dojo branch at the Burbank YMCA, but he was forced to move because the staff wanted to eliminate sparring from his classes. “We’re a fighting style,” Brian Bastien said, “so without fighting, it’s just like dancing.”

When Michael Jai White isn’t acting, directing or writing screenplays, he’s at the school teaching clinics in techniques and weapons. His message is simple: The discipline required to succeed in the martial arts transfers directly to the world outside the dojo.

“Discipline has helped me in all facets of my life,” he said. “You can pretty much do anything if you have discipline. When you push yourself, you realize you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.”

After hopping from career to career, what Michael Jai White set his mind to was acting. He worked with Jean-Claude Van Damme on Universal Soldier in 1992, then starred in Tyson, Spawn, Black Dynamite and both Why Did I Get Married? movies. Among the newest notches on his belt are an appearance in The Dark Knight and the role of leading man and director for Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown.

But like a true karate master, Michael Jai White downplays his fame.

“I’m not a celebrity in my school,” Michael Jai White said. “That quickly goes out the window when you’re sweating together. It’s more about the fact that I’m a 230-pound guy who hits hard. I think that supersedes celebrity.”

White obviously takes his martial arts seriously, which is precisely what he conveys to his students. “If you’re trying your best, if you’re pushing yourself, I don’t care if you’re athletically gifted or not — it’s the effort you put out,” he said. “As long as you do that, I have respect for you.”

October-November 2014 issue of Black Belt magazine featuring kyokushin karate black belt and martial arts movie actor MIchael Jai White.







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Kenji Yamaki Speaks on Surviving Mas Oyama’s 100-Man Kumite

Kenji Yamaki, author of Full-Contact Karate: Advanced Sparring Techniques and Hard-Core Physical Conditioning.Kenji Yamaki is one of only 14 people in the world claimed to have endured the 100-man kumite — the ultimate test of martial arts mastery devised by Mas Oyama, the founder of kyokushin karate.

If you weren’t on-site to witness that event, you may have seen Kenji Yamaki in 1989’s The Punisher portraying a member of the Yakuza. Or you may have seen him on both the May 2011 and the February/March 2014 issues of Black Belt magazine.

Of course, you’re most likely to find him teaching at his Yamaki Karate dojo in Torrance.

It is from that school in Southern California that we interviewed Kenji Yamaki for the special-features section of his best-selling two-DVD set Full-Contact Karate: Advanced Sparring Techniques and Hard-Core Physical Conditioning regarding this topic of the 100-man kumite.

Kenji Yamaki spoke candidly about what happened to him, offering us — and viewers of his two-DVD set — a vivid first-person account of pitting his will and body against staggering physical and mental punishment.

Modern Karate Master Offers His Account of Surviving the 100-Man Kumite

How Kyokushin Karate Master Kenji Yamaki Endured the 100-Man Kumite

Kyokushin karate techniques master Kenji Yamaki during photo shoot for Full-Contact Karate DVD set.

Kenji Yamaki is a big man — even in the United States. His arms are like legs, and his legs are like tree trunks. He’s soft-spoken and smile-prone off the mat, but the minute he dons his gi, that demeanor fades fast.

Warming up, he moves like a Bengal tiger, his muscles rippling as he alternates between dynamic stretches and shadowboxing sequences. His fighting combos often start with simple, direct power punches, which he likes to follow up with a knee to the face or body, or an elbow to the head.

As he loosens up, he starts putting more power into his moves. He delivers his body punches and thigh kicks with a forward momentum that often overwhelms his opponent and drives him backward. He apparently loves leg sweeps, which he uses to good effect at the most unexpected times.

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Make 6 Types of Karate Moves Work Properly!

All in all, the techniques aren’t too surprising for a kyokushin alumnus; what is surprising is how devastating they become when they’re launched from a man as massive as Kenji Yamaki.

All that skill would be impressive in any human being, but the stoic nature of the middle-aged master makes him one of a rare breed. Ask him a question, and he looks off into space for a moment before constructing his answer. He’s a man of few words — a throwback to the 1950s or ’60s when karate instructors were more about action than they were about convincing the world they’re the toughest fighters on earth.

Kenji Yamaki Demonstrates Two Karate Moves From His Full-Contact Karate 2-DVD Set

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Kenji Yamaki — The Late 1970s

A junior-high school student named Kenji Yamaki is the victim of incessant bullying. Although the Japanese boy is taller than virtually all his classmates, his thin build — caused in part by his anemia — marks him as a target and leaves him unable to fight back. “I was very weak,” he says. “Everybody tried to attack me.”

On three occasions, he contemplates suicide, actually climbing to the top of the tallest building he can find and steeling himself for the death leap.

Kenji Yamaki Timeline — 1980

Somehow, Yamaki makes it to 15. Despite standing nearly 6 feet tall — meaning he’s a veritable giant in Japan — the boy weighs only 120 pounds.

One day, the spindly teen spies a kyokushin karate school near his home in Kawasaki. “At that time, karate was booming in Japan,” he says. “I learned that kyokushin had a reputation as the strongest karate, so I went to the dojo.” He signs up for lessons immediately.

Kenji Yamaki Timeline — The Early 1980s

The youth glides up through the ranks of kyokushin. The techniques come easily to him, and he makes them work flawlessly in kumite, the hard-core, bare-knuckle sparring for which the art’s renowned. “I decided to quit thinking about suicide and become the world kyokushin champion,” he says.

As all martial artists know, being a kyokushin champ means fighting. He hones his edge in the ring, and the bullying diminishes. “It stopped completely after one year,” he says. “I have always respected kyokushin, and at the time, I was grateful to have learned it,” he says.

Kenji Yamaki Timeline — 1985

Kenji Yamaki earns his first-degree black belt at 20. A year later, he places third at the All-Japan Karate Tournament. Over the ensuing decade, he places in the top 10 at the prestigious event and its big brother, the World Karate Tournament, every year. He’s discovered his raison d’être.

Kenji Yamaki Timeline — 1995

The man is now 30. Although he triumphed again at the 26th All-Japan Karate Tournament last year and at the World Karate Tournament this year, he continues to eschew the fame and fortune that normally are thrust on Japan’s top athletes.

Instead, he vows to test his mettle by undergoing the 100-man kumite, a traditional test of combat skill that entails waging empty-hand war against one opponent after another until each bout yields a victor. “It was the hardest thing I ever chose to do,” he would say later.

Kenji Yamaki Timeline — March 18, 1995

Kenji Yamaki battles his way to his 70th opponent at the Kyokushin Headquarters in Tokyo. The last few matches have taken their toll, however. Starting with opponent No. 71, he becomes a punching and kicking automaton. He has no memory of half his final 30 battles, yet he soldiers on to the end.

The ordeal takes three hours 27 minutes. Afterward, officials tell the karateka that the tally is …

Learn 3 Kyokushin Karate Kicks From Kenji Yamaki

The power-vs.-speed debate has raged in martial arts circles for decades. As soon as a rapid-fire striker convinces you that speed is the key to victory, along comes a powerhouse prodigy who’ll bend you back toward the other extreme.

But now there’s a newcomer from Japan who’s set up shop in the Los Angeles suburb of Culver City, and he just might settle the debate once and for all. His name is Kenji Yamaki, and he was one of the top kyokushin karate competitors in Japan. He recently started teaching his own style of knockdown karate, which he’s dubbed yamaki-ryu.

Having come from a system made famous by Masutatsu Oyama’s murderous striking techniques, Kenji Yamaki favors an arsenal laced with kicks that are frighteningly powerful and lightning fast.

Kenji Yamaki Demonstrates Two Karate Moves From His Full-Contact Karate Techniques 2-DVD Set

If you were to watch the 6-foot-2-inch heavyweight walk into a dojo, you probably wouldn’t believe he can move and kick as rapidly as a bantamweight. His heavily muscled frame looks more like a linebacker’s than a kicker’s, yet as soon as he stands to demonstrate a move and places his instep against my ear with blinding speed and incredible precision, I’m a believer.

History of Karate: Inside Mas Oyama's Hard-Core Kyokushin Karate Conditioning Program

When I ask about his trademark moves, he points the conversation toward the three most basic leg techniques of karate: the front kick, round kick and side kick.

It’s been said that Kenji Yamaki, who appeared with fellow kyokushin alumnus Dolph Lundgren in The Punisher (1989), has an uncanny ability to make the ordinary become extraordinary. The advice outlined below is his offering to the readers of Black Belt who are looking to make their own foot techniques extraordinary.

Kyokushin Karate Technique #1: Mae Geri (Front Kick)

The mae geri, or front kick, is Kenji Yamaki’s favorite. He insists it’s the most versatile leg technique in the martial arts, and once you see him demonstrate it, especially when he uses it as a counter, you’ll agree.

Kenji Yamaki kyoksuhin karate front kick techniques.
The foundation of the front kick is built on properly chambering your kicking leg. “The positioning of your knee is the key,” Kenji Yamaki says. “From a standing position, you have to be able to chamber your knee as high as possible, and that’s what gives you the luxury of options in terms of where and how you place the kick. If you bring your knee up high, you can kick at any height. But if you chamber your leg weakly and only bring your knee up slightly, your mae geri will be limited to the waist or lower.”

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To illustrate his point, Kenji Yamaki asks me to walk with him to a clearing between tables in the coffee shop where we’re meeting. He proceeds to break down the movements of the technique and perform them in slow motion, maintaining perfect balance as he delineates his concepts.

With his knee held high and close to his chest, he slowly extends his foot to my chin. Re-chambering his leg tightly with his knee high, he extends his foot to my solar plexus. After bringing his leg back to the chambered position, he slowly pushes my front thigh backward. “All three kicks were the same mae geri with the same chambered position but with three completely different targets,” he says.

If you set up your front kick properly, distance is irrelevant, he claims. Now, some karateka may get their kicks “stuffed” by an opponent who knows how to close the gap and refuses to allow enough distance for the karateka to accelerate his foot.

“That’s a problem only for a fighter who has a slow and low chambering motion,” Kenji Yamaki explains. “If you chamber rapidly and bring your knee up very high and close to your body, the mae geri is very useful. A spring is only as useful as the degree to which it is compressed, and a kick is no different. That’s also part of the reason I like to use the ball of my foot when I do mae geri. It gives me greater reach and more extension through my opponent.”

The beauty of Kenji Yamaki’s front kick lies not only in its versatility but also in the way he employs that versatility. A high and tight chambering motion again comes into play because it sets up your opponent’s defensive reactions. If the other man responds to your knee lift by pulling his leg back, you can fire a knockout high front kick. If he reacts by tilting his head backward, you can plant your foot in his midsection or bury it in his thigh.

To boost the impact of your kick, …