by Rachael Reiko Murakami
Q1: Quite often we hear how things were very different years ago in this country, how was it when you first got involved in the Fighting Arts ?
Well I was born in 1956, and the Martial Arts (MA) were at that time still a very mystical and an exotic form of fighting art in this country. To put things into perspective, Gichin Funakoshi only died on April 26th 1957 and the JKA worldwide expansion was no more than a hopeful plan. The British Karate Federation had just been formed 1956-1957. Attitudes in society have altered greatly since I started to study the MA, and today, the non participating general public (an outsider of the established MA fraternity) I feel, do not, look at the MA in the same way as people used to. They have been corrupted by the instrument which served the MA so well in its popularisation and allowed it to grow to where it is today, I refer specifically to the film industry. Over the years they have distorted the publics view and perceptions of the MA.
The public now have such a wide choice of sporting activities to participate in. And all sports have greater accessibility and affordability to the general public these days, than when I was a youth. Sadly MA arts classes today are merely just another activity choice for the public to participate in. However, MA was looked upon and treated as a lifestyle choice more than a sporting pass time in the early days and not wishing to sound like some gung ho, old timer, but training was a more brutal and more readily accepted as a brutal and austere activity in the early days. I’m not for a moment advocating it as a prerequisite to ensuring or maintaining a degree of seriousness of purpose in its practice or as a method of achieving high technical standards, I’m just saying how it was at that time.
In the early days, MA were nowhere near as popular, nor were they taken for granted. Most MA’s were practiced by serious enthusiasts of an older average age, some clubs were run by yellow belts students in the church / village hall. MA were just not that readily available those days unlike today and sadly there was still a hangover of a prevalent post war anti Japanese feelings in some parts of society.
Q2: So how and where did you start your training ?
My study and practice of the fighting arts started with boxing at the King Street junior school. We took things very seriously indeed, although we hardly had any equipment to speak of. We would box stood on those brown harsh coconut mats that resembled a flat scrubbing brush and they really did feel like one too, especially when ones bare knees came into contact with them. They were also used for other activities elsewhere in the school, so two kids per mat were nominated to transport them, because of their weight we would have to drag them to position them in the hall every time we needed them for boxing. And the cloud of dust generated from those heavy mats as we flopped them into position, well; the dust cloud was enough to choke a horse or clog the lungs of any would be young athlete. The gloves were a similar horror story, not only were they a scarce commodity and very old, but they were those huge brown leather gloves approximately 3 times the size of the hands that were flapping around inside them. It took all of ones strength to lift them as tiny juniors. The only bonus was that as a junior we were always listed to fight first. This meant that the inside of the gloves were still dry, assuming that it was warm weather and they had dried out from the day before. In other words, as you progressed if you were an older boy then you would have to fight at the end of the training session and the gloves had been used by at least 6 other people before you that day and in winter they were wet, smelly and sweaty. The lumpy uneven gloves were filled with the now outlawed, horse hair, as a padding, and as the age of the gloves were considerably older than we were, then the leather had worn so thin that the spiky horse hair inside them would often poke through the wafer thin leather, we were more in danger of being speared in the eye with the rogue horse hair than we were of making a knock out blow on our opponents as our hands didn't fill the gloves adequately. This lead to bare knuckle sparring that was frowned upon but without enough equipment and set training times, then we had next to no choice. Looking back we didn’t feel hard done by, simply as we knew no better in those days.
Then I had Judo lessons whilst I continued with my Boxing. The Warrington Judo Club was based in Loushers Lane Warrington. In reality it was a wooden draughty shed type of a hall, but to us kids the Dojo was a mystical space. The club had a great reputation and had been established since 1952. It was the first time I had seen a matted area with a canvas covered canopy for practice. Although Judo was very different to boxing and equally enjoyable, there were quiet mutterings from some students, in both the Judo and Boxing camps, that there was something called “Karate” out there. It already had a following but it was trying to firmly establish itself here in the UK. It was supposed to be an exciting blend of kicking punching and throwing. So as kids, we speculated in the inevitable comparisons of which is "the best fighting art". However, it took me my training life time, to appreciate that the valuable knowledge I gained during my Boxing and Judo study were not time wasted but were an alternative climbing route to reach the same mountain peak. Also that each and every MA in their own right, hold many secret gems and individual characteristics that are very effective in the hands of a dedicated and diligent practitioner. While the less than objective, over zealous partisan claims made by some enthusiasts of their chosen fighting art are still common place, it would in reality, be erroneous to make the rash claim that any MA is "The Best".
Q3: When did you first become involved in Karate ?
It was in 1965 that I first saw KARATE. I was 9 years old, which was way too young in those days to be considered to start training, as the acceptable age was considered to be around 16 years old by most of the clubs. There was a demonstration and training session run by Vernon Bell at the Liberal Club in my home town and he had a 22 year old young man with him, a brown belt, by the name of Andy Sherry. Bear in mind that this was not Shotokan Karate, but was Yoseikan Karate, under the direction of the British Karate Federation, this was before the split and the foundation of the KUGB in 1966. At that age, I didn't understand about and frankly wasn’t interested in styles, politics, organisations, nor did I realise that I was watching the man who in 1966 would introduce the JKA instructors Mr Kase, Mr Kanazawa, Mr Enoeda and Mr Shirai to this country, I refer to, Vernon Bell, who later would rightly be known by many as the father of British Karate. I did know however, that I loved what I saw and I was in awe of and so excited by it that I just had to know more. I continued to follow it, when I heard of any events within travelling distance that would allow someone as young as me to be there.
Q4: So what did you do then ?
Well as I was too young for regular karate lessons, and on the rebound, I went to a Wrestling club run by the great, Ted (Legs) Betley, he held it in the annexe of the local Victorian swimming baths at that time. Remember that things were not so well publicised or talked about in those days, so much so, that to my great surprise when I started wrestling, I didn’t realise that there was a young man who trained there who went to the same school as I did, he was a much senior student to me, and he would later turn professional at the age of 16. He held a long career in the sport, and later became a World Champion Wrestler, Steve (wonder boy) Wright. He was a fast, clean wrestler of high technical ability and he was one of Ted Betleys top fighters. I enjoyed the wrestling very much but there was something missing for me.
Q5: Did you give up your interest in Karate at this time ?
No way! As Karate was always there in my mind and was my true passion, ever since the day that I had seen that first Vernon Bell demonstration. Karate was in short supply locally, so much so that I remember having to travel by bus as a child all around the North of England, upon receiving the slightest of whispers that there was a Karate demonstration or even for the smallest chance to see more of this Karate. I fondly remember, regularly discussing and swapping details with my close friend the late Chris Finch about people and places that were holding a Karate session, people like Vernon Bell Yoseikan, Terry Wingrove, Harry Benfield, some of the sessions were exactly like today, some held great validity to ones search while others were less so.
Q6: Was Chris a contemporary of yours ?
He was slightly older, but yes we were both very enthusiastic Karate devotees who were simultaneously searching for the right fighting art at the same time. Chris practiced Karate until he later discovered Aikido, which was after he had a period of flirtation with jujitsu, but he never lost his passion and interest for Karate. Aikido was the perfect blend for him to go alongside his chosen career as a physical-therapist. He managed to elongate my competitive Karate fighting days by several years with his healing skills. There was one major drawback however, of a visit to his clinical practice and that was during the treatment session, when I was on his treatment table, immobilised and totally at his mercy, I was subjected to the animated reruns of fights and training sessions that we had both experienced “when we were younger men“.
Q7: You sound like you tried many different fighting arts when you were younger ?
Looking back over at what I thought was a rather nomadic period of existence at the time, I now acknowledge that I was gaining a wealth of experience and skills from various fighting arts in my early years in pursuit of the right MA for me . I didn't realise that I would go on to utilise that knowledge in my Karate study and teachings later. It has also made me more appreciative of the valid input that can be gained from the study of other MA.
Q8: How did you get involved in Shotokan Karate your chosen Martial Art, the one that you are best known for ?
I had been training and travelling around the region for sometime, looking for any demonstrations or open sessions at clubs that would allow younger students to attend. I didn't know at the time but I was experiencing various styles and in the presence of many of the top instructors of the day. But I did know that I was merely filling in time until I reached an age where a club would accept me as a fulltime member. During that time however, there was little opportunity unlike today for younger students, as the average Karate-ka was so much older then than today. In the meantime a local club had started up but they had a strict no child membership policy. I understand that this child exclusion policy may be viewed as a strange concept these-days, when some clubs are now actively seeking and accept students as young as 4 and 5 years old, (which is something that I still have strong views upon); but that was the way it was then, (and on many occasions since I have had reason to think "thank god for that policy!"). Anyhow, as enthusiastic teenagers my cousin, a good friend of mine and myself, all enrolled for Shotokan Karate lessons locally. This was very early in the 1970s, when the KUGB were them-selves still young, having formed in 1966 and as they were the only available Shotokan game in town, we immediately signed up. The club was itself in a period of transition and was about to come under the full time instructional guidance of its founder, Roger Spencer, who was then a newly graded Brown belt. Roger was not so tall but he was very strong indeed, he was an exceedingly determined and powerful Karate-ka, who formed the club when he was a yellow belt and at that stage he used to invite brown belts down from other clubs to instruct, this was not unusual for that time. He ran the dojo adhering strictly to the JKA principles of the 3 K’s, KIHON, KATA, KUMITE. The training was very prescriptive, yet it was a highly beneficial grounding and was the best preparation that any Karate student could ever wish to acquire. The intensity was high impact and there was absolutely no room in the schedule for anything less than 100% concentration, perspiration and commitment during those training sessions, and for that, I am genuinely and truly grateful to Roger for. Kime and speed focused heavily (no pun intended) at the club, after one had reached brown belt. Ikken Hisatsu definitely was the aim, and I can still remember being impressed by the speed of Roger’s gyaku-tsuki and his ability to switch on the Kime! Instructors such as him, all around the country, were the true backbone of Karate-do and were instrumental in a big way in the development of Karate in this country, as a result of their raw enthusiasm, dedication and love of the art. As the interest of my cousin and friend waned, they both dropped by the wayside but my hunger seemed to increase exponentially. The club had a strong traditional theme with a no competition approach but I was hungry to experience this aspect of Karate. By this time I was old enough and had passed my driving test which meant that I was then able to get around the country and train with many more people. This new found mobility had another bonus for me, as I was able to drive myself to venues nationwide when visiting Instructors came over from Japan. It was much easier for me to gain further access and experience.
Q9: I have heard you say many times before, that "the person who is the most innovative is the man who borrows from the most sources!", so was that the basis for your "have GI will travel" approach to your studies ?
Yes sort of, but always remember that "there is no one man who has all the answers to another mans questions!" I got involved in Karate in a period when even the most basic of equipment, like karate suits were difficult to buy locally, unlike today, and there were no videos or dvd's and the internet had not yet been invented. I found one of the disadvantages however, of travelling around to all those clubs and renowned Instructors, was that it sadly, made me very aware of the political nature of the Martial Artist! Looking back, some experiences were quite hostile and were straight out of a Kung Fu movie scene. Nevertheless, I was personally prepared to put politics aside, and I continued to learn from as many sources as I could, as I increased the depth and width of my knowledge base. It was during that time, that I had become to admire greatly, the contrasting qualities of both Mr Kanazawa, who was the JKA's representative here in the UK and the KUGB's chief instructor. Along with his assistant who would soon become his replacement Mr Enoeda. Mr Kanazawa with Mr Asano who was an assistant JKA instructor to the KUGB had formed the UK Branch of Mr Kanazawas new group, in Nottingham in 1974. Of course, the circumstances surrounding the split from the JKA, to start his new group, the SKI organisation, depending upon which camp one was listening to, differed immensely, but no matter what version of the story one wants to believe in, it didn’t alter a jot to the obvious outstanding ability of Mr Kanazawa’s and Mr Enoeda's Karate skills and that’s all that mattered to me. As a member of the K.U.G.B, and therefore the J.K.A at the time, I must admit, that soon after the S.K.I split, I quickly learnt that it was for the best for me if I did not wear a karate suit or belt that carried the JKA logo on it, when I was visiting an SKI dojo, as initially it presented its own challenges, as one would be a self nominated target for the evening, until they got to know you better, of course. I gained greatly from this journeyman approach to my Karate study and I was fortunate that at the Warrington Shotokan Karate Club, my Home base my regular training club, that training with other clubs was not frowned upon and that I always had a firm base to return to.
Q10: Politics tend to get in the way these days in many MA, was it the same then ?
I'm afraid so, and ironically, history has just continued to repeat itself, for example the acrimonious split of the KUGB from the JKA after the death of Mr Enoeda. Nowadays, politics in karate is prevalent and politicians worldwide are as highly strung as any finely tuned violin, so with so many groups too many to mention from around the globe that are laying claim to the JKA name, it was hardly surprising that law suits for ownership of the JKA brand after the death of Mr Nakayama were being thrown about. This in turn lead to further splits even from within the ranks of the high ranking Japanese satellite groups themselves. There is a palpable under current of hidden resentment that is bubbling up through the inscrutable public Zen face, between some rival organisations today as they try to bolster their membership, to the point that some groups don’t in practice encourage inter organisational cooperation. It seems to be that every decade or so there will be a new outbreak of organisational splits by the new generation of instructors who are coming of age. This isn’t to say that more organisations is a bad thing, but, I must highlight if no inter organisational communication or interaction takes place then often some of the original concepts and techniques may be lost or differ slightly each time a split takes place as a result of the Instructors personal preference and their differing opinions on interpretation. Whilst splits of course, spoil the Utopian ideal of maintaining the original concept of training under one Shotokan banner, Instructors make decisions that are based on what is best to allow themselves and their students the freedom to grow and follow the path that is of most interest to them at that time. That’s why some groups strictly practise Karate as a traditional form of MA, while others focus only on the sporting / competitive aspects and some are merely interested in presenting Karate as a way to keep fit and as a means of self defence. The worst misuse of a resource and example of how petty politics in the MA is an irrelevance, a totally unnecessary evil, is the systematic undermining of other Karate-ka and or organisations in the related media and nowadays on the web. I believe that people who participate in this behaviour have been nicknamed as Trolls. A few years back there was a handful of bitter and twisted politicians in positions of prominence whose aim seemed to be to raise their self esteem, their profile and membership upon the back of unjustly being abusive towards other organisations, individuals, opinions and methodologies that differed from their own view. But isn't the freedom to choose which route to take, upon the very interesting journey of MA study, the thing which makes the MA such a fascinating pursuit and gives it its worldwide appeal. By now I shouldn't be, but even last week, I was surprised to see how things seems to have got worse, when I read a barrage of ongoing derogatory comments, all made by the same person . This lone assassin seemed to manage to have a controversial and diametrically opposed opinion on every single topic that was in a particular publication. He managed to argue with at least 10 different article authors from around the world, who collectively covered the complete spectrum of philosophies within Karate. This deplorable display was brought to my attention by one of my senior students. Totally confused he asked me, "surely if the 10 authors represent all of the approaches, then how can 1 person argue with everyone?". I laughed and paused for a moment and replied, "if his aim is to appear as being Mr knowledgeable, then the self acclaimed go to guru has failed, as he has shot himself in the foot". It is my firm belief that in the future, organisations will down size and clubs will return to the ways of the past, and therefore avoid being trapped by the negatives of the current organisational model . I believe they will follow the model adopted by the Shotokan Karate Union.
Q11: Tell us a little more ?
The Shotokan Karate Union model is based on being a consortium, it's a coming together whilst retaining independence, a coalition of like-minded members worldwide, who are free to run their own affairs with zero political interference. This allows them to follow the path best suited to their specific needs, yet at the same time they are in communication with others who are willing to share ideas in a non hostile, non competitive atmosphere, where they don't fear to express their opinions and understanding of their studies with other coaches. Because the Shotokan Karate Union does not have a designated Chief Instructor, they have senior members and a Director of Coaching; therefore, there is no political jostling for position. The consortium was a concept that was the aim at the foundation of the organisation, it seems to have worked very well thus far as we have past our 25th anniversary. When we were founded 1985 we started a few projects, 1: "Project 2000", which was a 15 year plan for the organisations advancement. 2: "The Coaching Award Scheme". Both of which were successful and far surpassed our expectations. We have members worldwide even in your home city in Japan, yet we still retain regionalised control over the day to day running of affairs.
Q12: What are the biggest changes you have experienced ?
MA have changed for sure but the world has changed too. People in general today seem more impatient and require instant , guaranteed and tangible gratification from the MA. They demand success not in proportion to their efforts but in return for their membership dollar. And it is this short sightedness, this materialistic attitude change, which is of most concern, as some organisations that have observed the shift, are capitalising upon it by diluting or as in certain cases even ditching altogether the traditional ways, merely as a business strategy for attracting more members. It's the move towards trends such as this that are detracting from and depriving new starters today from experiencing the true benefits that MA practice has to offer. Since that first exposure to Vernon Bells Karate demonstration in 1965, my conclusion has taken me a life time to arrive at and it is that, the study of the MA is a life long endeavour. It is said that the destination is of secondary importance to the experience of the journey itself and therefore, my belief is that, "Shotokan Karate is the everyday study in pursuit of technical excellence and self improvement". Whilst Karate, Society, Attitudes and Ourselves have all developed, changed, grown and simply got older, and as none of the aforementioned variable elements have stood still during those 45 years, then the understanding of and mastery of any MA can only be described as a constant ongoing and changing struggle, a journey. But one that has been most beneficial to me personally in so many ways, none more so, than through the experiences I have had and the good friends worldwide that I have made during my long journey.
Q13: So what is next for your journey ?
Oh dear ! ask me something easier ! I plan to continue with my personal study and face the challenges that Karate throws one everyday, and as a result of recent personal events, I have had my enthusiasm to revisit neglected areas of study rekindled. I have started a couple of projects that I intend seeing through to completion, which will keep me quite busy .
Having studied with you for many years, I would like to thank you for your patience and for your frankness in this interview and I look forward to hearing more details of the projects that you are working on in due course.
It has been a pleasure Rachael, you're very welcome. On a personal note may I wish you well for the birth of your first baby, I hope afterwards that you will return to your Karate study. As you have a wonderful talent and you would be greatly missed.
by Steve Redburn
It’s really great to catch up with you Sensei, for part 2 of the interview that was started by Rachael Reiko Murakami in (August 2010) Issue # 40:
Thanks for taking the time out to do it with me.
Your welcome Steve, how is that broken arm healing?
Its on the mend thanks, the plaster comes off next week.
Q1: In part 1 of the interview you mentioned that as a young boy that you travelled around your region for sometime, looking for any demonstrations or open sessions at clubs that would allow younger students to attend; what was that about?
Well simply because at the time we had no other options as Karate was in short supply locally and we were too young to join a club, it just wasn’t so easy to find a club that was interested in taking a 9 year old boy, because there wasn't the same amount of opportunities then, unlike there are today for younger students.
My good friend used to have KOA, Karate and Oriental Arts magazine on regular order and it was a life line to the would be martial arts enthusiasts of the day, such as we were. It had information in it, of events and contact addresses to write to, and we did write, so that we could be kept informed of any events that were upcoming and being held locally to us.
We were prolific letter writers and I can only just imagine what the recipients must have thought of the barrage of mail that they were receiving from these two young lads who were constantly asking for information. Remember that this was 20 years before the internet was invented so no email and instant replies those days, we would have to wait weeks but I still remember the excitement of getting the replies that had useful information on events.
When I receive mail nowadays from people who are asking questions what many Professionals would view as mundane enquiries, I always try to recall of how eager that I was to get started and therefore I always answer all of my correspondence personally and insist that anyone connected with the Shotokan Karate Union must never ignore any genuine enquiry.
The KOA magazine was produced by Paul Crompton who featured people in those early days who were "real people" by that I mean that they weren't the polished finished article, they wore gi's that hardly fitted them and we as kids felt that our goal of becoming karate-men was an achievable aim. But the magazine also featured what we thought of as the more exotic, in other words people who looked like karate gods even in those days, people like Mr Kanazawa and Mr Enoeda.
I remember one issue had a photo of Mr Kanazawa on its cover and he was performing a breaking technique on what seemed to me at that age, to be something the thickness of half a tree trunk, he was being observed by Lee Marvin the actor. I was so impressed by this powerful image that I remember having to mention its effect on me to Mr Kanazawa when I first met him, when I was a youth.
I also mentioned it again to Mr Kanazawa many years later when I was interviewing him for a magazine; he said that he remembered me as a youth being excited by it. I added that I believe his photo was my inspiration to experiment with tamashiwari many years later in the 80s, he smiled knowingly and looked at my knuckles and jokingly said "no damage done then!".
At the time the KOA magazine cost the princely sum of 3/6d which is the equivalent of 17 pence in today’s money, but when my pocket money was only 2/6d a week, therefore, my friend and I used to share the cost and we would swap the magazines between us after reading them from cover to cover.
Armed with the details of these events chris and I would take the train and more often than not it would also involve taking a bus to the venues that were situated all over the region as we were both far too young to drive. This went on until we were old enough to be accepted into our first fulltime training dojos, that’s why some people exaggerated a little about their age and they gained their dojo membership earlier, unfortunately we only looked our age and we had to wait.
Q2: That does sound like a true labour of love especially to people who are reading this and are new to karate?
Yes the average age of the bulk of club members was considerably higher than today; there was a hard core of members at most clubs that were in their mid 20s and the higher grades seemed to be in their late 20s early 30s.
My first fulltime training dojo had a strict no child membership policy. I think today that the same age group are more attracted to MMA training than karate nowadays, and that is why many clubs have more juniors when compared to seniors in their ranks.
I saw a local club in the press recently advertising, that they accept students from as young as 4 years old. Whilst I understand the benefits of a junior feeding programme to bring through karate educated students into the adult ranks, and how it gives them a head start on their adult training career. But 4 years old, come on! That is bordering upon being no more than a cheap baby minding service, twice a week for mum and dad to go to the pub.
Q3: You said your first fulltime training dojo was run by a yellow belt?
No, I said my first full time training dojo was founded by Roger Spencer, who was a newly graded Brown belt when I started training, but you are correct, he was indeed a yellow belt when he was encouraged by Charlie Naylor to start the club. He did however, regularly invite brown belts to instruct at the club until he achieved brown belt status himself. That was not an unusual state of affairs for the period. OK to put things into perspective, Roger started his Karate-do practice as did I when Vernon Bells BKF was the only Karate-do group available. That was until Andy Sherry et al as Brown Belts broke away from the BKF to form their own organisation, the KUGB in 1966 and it was later the same year after the break away that Andy Sherry was awarded Shodan. There are many examples of Instructors who are famous high ranking heads of associations today that were encouraged to start a club when they were at the rank of yellow belt in those early days, and many satellite clubs were started by enthusiasts merely as a means of them getting someone to do extra training with on the nights that they were not at their own regular training dojo. This was not an impediment at that time to the learning process as Roger faithfully passed on to his students the fundamental grounding in Karate-do that he received, as Roger passed the majority of his Kyu grades under the watchful eye of Mr Enoeda. I am still very friendly with Roger who is now retired from karate but we often reminisce of when we were training together and when we chat he recalls interesting anecdotes of a couple of his contemporaries who also started their clubs when they were also yellow belts.
Q4: Again it sounds a strange concept to start a club at yellow belt just for extra nights training as there are so many options for students these days to train every night if they so desire.
That’s right, I know exactly what you are saying but without instructors such as Roger and those enthusiastic people who were situated all around the country, then karate would not be as readily available to the many as it is today. Those classes were run by instructors who were operating on high octane raw enthusiasm, and they displayed their dedication and love of the art with a passion every time they put on their gi's.
Yes today there are more opportunities for students to train everyday of the week if they so desired but equally there are more instructors out there, who merely look upon their students as financial units and they offer their extra classes as an opportunity to gain further revenue from their financial units. But when I started, students were being taught traditional karate-do by traditionalist karate-ka using traditional methods, in damp church halls and to be fair the facilities were minimal to non existant, things were not run on a commercial basis; yet the clubs thrived, as they were a group of like-minded people and there was a very strong sense of belonging, in my experience no one was treated as a financial unit, we were brothers in arms on a journey together.
Q5: You have trained with many of the highest ranking experts, sadly many who have passed away now and you have also trained with instructors from numerous styles of karate over the years, what benefits have you got from the whole experience?
It wasn’t easy, because in the early years, as there weren’t so many associations to choose from and it was frowned upon, it was an unspoken taboo if one decided to go outside of ones own organisation to train with other high ranking instructors.
If anything is a definite improvement in today’s world of karate, then this is it. I refer to training with other instructors and organisations; today it isn’t as frowned upon as it used to be. However, there are of course some organisations that hold firm to the idea of "it is not permitted to train with other organisations" and if you do its an act of disloyalty.
This attitude change has been long overdue and is welcomed greatly in my opinion. When I said that "there is no one man who has all the answers to another mans questions!" what I exactly meant was that you should look around and gain from the experience of the many, rather than just learning from the one source.
Yes I have been exceedingly fortunate to have gained access to and experienced from many sources around the world, too many individual names to name here, and you are correct I have seen many changes and trained in a wide variety of venues in this country ranging from small village halls, sports venues like crystal palace to purpose built luxurious private dojos; and abroad at venues such as state of the art national sports centres, and at the old J.K.A H.Q. in Ebisu which was a converted bowling alley and in the restricted basement area that was the old S.K.I. H.Q. in Yotsuya, I've trained at really tiny dojos in Japan where space is at a premium, ive even trained at one dojo that was in the middle of an agricultural area, outside Izumi city Osaka, which was surrounded by rice fields but the training atmosphere there was surprisingly terrific, however, the weather was very humid indeed, so much so that part way through the session they would slide open the side walls of the dojo and reveal that you were among the crops and you could hear the frogs and insects in the fields.
I have never forgotten the courtesy that I was shown by the many over the years, and that is why I intend on continuing to pass on what I have learnt with the same open door policy and that is why the Shotokan Karate Union has many of its members who hold dual membership and these members are free to discuss and demonstrate their methods and equally they are welcome to learn from other like-minded karate-ka who have had a different source of their input. The Shotokan Karate Union runs all of its seminars and training sessions regionally so that people need not travel to get instruction and they are guarenteed an environment where they can train in safety and where the non judgemental approach is the norm; of course anonymity for our members with dual affiliation is also guaranteed.
Q6: What do you mean by anonymity?
Well as I explained earlier that sadly even in this day and age there are still some associations that insist on 100% loyalty from its membership to their association, and as a result they forbid their members from going outside of their association for instruction, grading, competitions and they discourage any contact whatsoever. That is why the Shotokan Karate Union offers dual affiliation membership with grade recognition and membership anonymity guaranteed if required; as we openly encourage all of our members to make links with and participate in inter organisational communications. Over the next decade or so there will be an explosion when many junior instructors will follow the current trend of flying the nest and running their own smaller groups. They will however, have to be careful that they don’t isolate themselves, because with isolation comes the unhealthy by-product of a loss of maintaining ones own educational advancement and then traditions and the traditional values suffer, through the over diversification and personalisation of the style. So then, in planning for the future the Shotokan Karate Union still feels that our open door policy is for us, the only way to go!
Q7: Tell us something about your comment, that you "got involved in Karate in a period when even the most basic of equipment, like karate suits were difficult to buy locally."
Yes I know it makes me sound like a dinosaur but it’s true, this was before the Bruce Lee boom period of the mid to late 1970s, when even karate suits were difficult to source locally. There was only one sports shop in the town that sold them and then they only got them in to order, that’s why you would see people starting their first karate class wearing a second hand judo gi, this was simply because judo was much more popular than karate at that time, especially as it had recently gained entry into the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and therefore, the judo gi was more easily obtainable. When we started training we turned up for our first class, with one of us wearing a poorly fitting second hand karate suit and the other two of us wearing karate suits that were hand made by my mum. She made them from a flimsy lightweight white cotton material and it was cut using a refashioned pyjama pattern. Unfortunately, on the first occasion when we were practicing jodan kicks, the gusset split on my trousers allowing me to unceremoniously display my credentials to the rest of the class. It is very funny looking back at it now, but very embarrassing at the time for a self conscious young man. I am still friendly with Ian a contemporary of mine, although he has retired from karate now, he was a couple of kyu grades above me, when we started training and he was and is a renown no nonsense tough guy locally. Recently we were together watching a video of karate that was filmed in the 1920s; in the video the Okinawan karate-ka were all wearing nothing more than skimpy loin cloths and as we got around to talking about how things had changed over the years in so many ways since we trained together, I asked him did he recall the incident when my home made gi split? He did remember but he answered, "that was nothing!” Then he told me the story of his first lesson, how he was from a poor family and while he was keen to join the club he didn’t have any sports kit or access to a karate suit so for his first lesson he was reduced to wearing his underpants that looked like sports shorts. And as we continued watching the 1920s Okinawan's, he said that, when he started karate that he knew nothing of the ways of karate-do and when Roger our instructor paired him up with a partner for kihon kumite practice, he put his head down, ran in and tried to rugby tackle his opponent, that was until his underpants slipped down in the skirmish. Now that’s what I call embarrassing, it made me feel so much better about my embarrassing experience. Yes equipment was difficult to source but after the Bruce Lee boom period, shops started to stock karate suits but not the belts, so we were forced into dying our belts after each grading. My old brown belt started out life as my white belt. In thosedays there was only white, yellow, green, purple and brown belts, which was more in line with the Japanese system. I found it in a box a few months ago and all the memories came flooding back. When i passed my green belt I remember dying it the darkest shade of bottle green, this was pure vanity of a young man so it would look as close to being black as a green belt could. The first time it was worn we had a really hard sweaty session and the dark green dye run all into the material of the white gi. My Instructor laughed and sarcastically commented "it looks much greener now than it did before."
Another supply shortage at the time was study resource. One member of the club was a very popular member because he had a copy of Henri Plee's book "Karate: Beginner to Black Belt" which for us, was the holy grail, and it was looked at by all of the members after every training session to see if we could learn something extra, that book remained the goto book, until we discovered Nakayamas' shotokan specific text "Dynamic Karate" which was and still is a great piece of work.
Q8: What did you mean in part 1 of the interview when you said about it being a politically hostile time?
Quite so and while some experiences were totally politically orientated and were generally undertaken to gain and maintain their market share, other experiences however, were quite physically hostile and as I said they were straight out of a Kung Fu movie. Like in any environment there were some people who were professional and earning a good living from there activities then there will always be a politicising and an undercurrent of self protectionism to maintain what they have worked hard to build.
I remember an incident when a club instructor from a no nonsense Okinawan style of karate, came to call on us one summers evening at our dojo. He is no longer with us but his reputation lives on in many circles. While we always had an open door policy to other styles of karate and their stylists, this was a totally outragious display of macho behaviour. I know now when I relate it to you that it will sound like a joke of pure cliché but it is exactly as it happened. We had a visit from a very hostile person who kicked the door open and began to call out across the class in the direction of our instructor. The visitor was making loud assertions of how his style was the hardest in the world and how that; and I paraphrase for effect; "this town isn’t big enough for the both of us!” Laugh? Well we did, at his gunslinger approach and his cliché vocabulary. Our instructor calmly left a brown belt in charge of the class while he went outside to discuss the situation with this chap, he highlighted to him how it was unwise and poor etiquette for him to come down to our dojo trying to humiliate him in front of the class. It was a short but decisively well punctuated discussion and once the ambulance staff had taken care of the unwanted semi recumbant visitor, our instructor came back into the dojo and normal coaching service was resumed.
Another incident was when a one time training associate of mine came to my club uninvited, and he brought with him his senior student as backup. Inline with convention and as he out ranked me by a full 6 months, and upon his personal insistence, I allowed him to take the class for me, which freeed me up to train in the line. However, at the end of an uninspiring session, he demanded with menace, yes demanded, that he was given the whole of the nights training fees. However, we were a medium sized not for profit club and giving him the nights training fees was an impractical suggestion, so to cover his petrol and time we settled on me giving him a set fee for his impromptu instruction. I thanked him and made it clear that he is welcome at the club anytime but we couldn’t afford to finance him when he arrives unannounced. This seemed to fall upon deaf ears as the next training night he turned up again, and again with his senior student in tow as backup. He decided that on his second visit the theme of the session would be 100% dedicated to as he put it "real life kumite practice", whatever that wassupposed to be? The class started with a line out and when I noticed that my lower graded students were getting a rough ride from him and his student, I therefore, called out "stop now!" So he he reacted by asking all the class to sit down and they were told that they would be privileged to watch an exhibition by him, one where he would be performing real life kumite techniques which were all to be delivered at maximum speed and with no control, and he went on to say how I was to be the lucky person who he was going to demonstrate these techniques on. Well that was HIS plan! I however, didn’t subscribe to his plan. He stepped backwards in kamae-te but after that things didn't go exactly as he planned it, as I launched a pre-emptive attack and put to bed his would be punishment beating or should I say his exhibition as he phrased it. He was so totally shocked that he had to withdraw from the class immediately and put his senior student in to take his place, who was reluctant to do so as he received an abrupt rebuttal by me of his unwanted advances. Afterwards I immediately called an end to the session allowed the students to leave and left the two of them with no doubts whatsoever, that if they were ever passing by my club again, then that is exactly what they should do "carry on and pass it bye" as they were not welcome.
These sort of examples of angry outbursts were not everyday common place, but they were however, too frequently replicated in the early days and they are one of the reasons why I personally have no time whatsoever for politics in karate, it's why I have a non hostile approach towards other organisations and their members. It is also why the Shotokan Karate Union has since it was established in 1985 attracted members from the majority of the mainstream organisations.
Q9: When you said that personal events made you reassess certain aspects of your own karate study. Was this the hardest period for you of your Karate career?
I think everyday of the first 45 years of my study were possibly the hardest period; but after that 45 year teething in period it just seemed to get real easy ! But seriously, yes the period you refer to was indeed a difficult period for me on a personal level, as the loss of two loved ones affected me more than I ever imagined. I feel that if it hadn't have been for the ever constant in my life, my personal karate training regime, then I think that I may not have got through what was a very tough period. There was a positive to come out of this period of personal reflection, as it led me to reassess the more neglected areas of karate practice, the analysis of ones kihon and I found great solace in its systematic practice, simply because I could see day by day the benefits of it, in the execution of my basic technique, there was a genuine sensation again of personal advancement. And this seemed to boost my resolve in my personal life.
Q10: What projects are you involved in at the moment?
Well at the time of the first part of this interview, and as a result of personal events in my life, I had turned to my karate practice for solace and as a result I had my enthusiasm and resolve boosted after revisiting the more neglected basic areas of my karate study. Rekindled by the experience, I introduced the theme to my students at club level, they seemed to enjoy it and benefited from the practice too, so much so that I was being asked by club instructors at an association level to visit their clubs to cover the same subject matter. It wasn't anything glamorous, it was purely the dynamics of basic technique, the nuts and bolts mechanics of correct technique delivery. It seemed to be the reason why this aspect of basic training was enjoyed so much by the students was because they were being distracted by the latest trend, of "collecting new kata!". This situation could only be described as an unhealthy preoccupation with "collecting new kata!" By that I mean there are a vast array of relatively new kata that were becoming the in vogue collectable; these kata have entered on to the radar of the mass ranks of Shotokan Karateka for various reasons. Evolution and innovation isn't a bad thing in itself, however, when students are neglegent by learning the established 27 core kata of the Shotokan system at a superficial level, so that they can tick them off on some sort of mental checklist, only to put them into cold storage and rush past them to cram in and expand their collection with another one of these new kata. Likewise, there are some sport karate-ka who are collecting kata from other styles of karate, other than their own style. Again not a bad thing in itself, however, not before gaining proficiency in the performance of the kata from their own style. When collection over proficiency, quantity over quality was the preoccupation, then this was when it became a problem. It was leading to a noticeable downward spiralling of standards in the understanding of and the performance of the 27 core shotokan kata. It's seemed that it was becoming more desirable for some students to say that they "KNOW" 50 kata, than it was for them to be able to say that they can perform well and understand the 27 core kata of their own styles. So having noticed this undesirable trend, the Shotokan Karate Union set about refocusing the attention of its members, towards the more thorough and diligent practice of the 27 core kata. The aim was to get the students to appreciate that they don't really "KNOW" 50 kata! They merely have a nodding acquaintance with them! When they analysed how many kata that they could confidently say that they really knew, it was only then that they realised that "collecting kata" is fine and it does indeed expands upon ones appreciation of your own systems kata, but not if it comes at the detrimental cost of neglecting their own Shotokan systems 27 core kata. This short lapsed period of incorrectly focused direction had to be addressed immediately, before it became an endemic problem, and therefore, we corrected this issue by refocusing our efforts upon improving our performance through the daily study of the dynamics of basic technique.
Q11: What are the 27 core kata?
The 27 Kata that are at the core of the Shotokan Karate Union Grading Syllabus, are : Kihon Kata, Heian 1 2 3 4 5, Tekki 1 2 3, Bassai dai & sho, Kanku dai & sho, Enpi, Jion, Jitte, Jiin, Hangetsu, Wankan, Meikyo, Sochin, Chinte, Gankaku, Nijushiho, Unsu, Gojushiho dai & sho. Kata from other styles are taught purely for interest as an extention to the official syllabus, and generally they are taught by guest specialist coaches, from that style.
Q12: What other projects are you involved in currently?
Well the refocusing of our efforts upon improving our performance through the study of the dynamics of basic technique, led me to being asked to produce a short series of breakdown articles on the topic, and of course you are aware of those aren't you? As you were my UKE in many of the photos!
Yes I was and I found it a very interesting experience, thanks for inviting me to do it.
Just remind me, wasn't that when you broke your arm?
Yes it was, but not during the photos for the karate! I slipped over getting into my car during all of that snow that we had.
Didn't you tell your wife that you did it blocking a powerful kick?
Well yes that was my secret until now!
I better wrap the interview up now before you expose all of my little secrets. Thank you again Sensei for the interview
You are welcome Steve, and until next time Good Luck and Good Practice to you and all of the SKU Members.