Shotokan Karate at 340 E 71st St New York NY 10021     Phone: 1-917-855-7582      Email:

By John Mullin
Article Source

Q1. Please tell us a little about yourself.

I was born in London in 1963 and have lived abroad since the mid-eighties; first in New York then Tokyo followed by 2 years in Paris. Now I am back in New York.

Q2. When did you start Karate and why.

I started in the early seventies because, like many, I became intrigued with the martial arts and then saw a report on the television about the premature death of Bruce Lee and got swept along with the mania that prevailed then for anything to do with, not just Bruce lee, but all Asian arts. At the time the KUGB (Karate Union of Great Britain) had a huge membership and I joined a dojo in Essex run by its secretary Charles Naylor and his wife Dot who was in charge of the kids and was a formidable disciplinarian.

Q3. Would you please talk of your experience of training in Japan and what it's like being one of the select few to graduate from the legendary JKA instructor's course?

Actually, I hadn't planned to stay as long as I did in Japan and, were it not for several moments of chance, I may have come back after just a few months. I did feel, however, that from the first day, when I was introduced to the man who would remain my sponsor for the duration of my stay, that the timing was right; doors opened in my path conspiring to enable me to live my dream which was to be a part of the JKA system of instructors, although I didn't admit that to anyone back then.

At that stage I was fortunate in some respects because I had no introductory letter inviting me directly into the instructor's class as some foreigners had had before me. I say fortunate because those who had entered under such circumstances simply were not ready for the day to day life in Japan outside just training in the dojo; the cultural adjustment is too huge and the 2 years I spent in the regular honbu class and the Hoitsugan, making friends, learning the language and adapting to Tokyo and the training methods were invaluable.

No non-Japanese had entered the instructor's program for several years and I was told it would be impossible as the Japanese were feeling that foreigners were just not right for it.

My close friend, Leon Montoya had been palmed off with unexplained rejections for years. Only my immediate senpai Tamang Pemba from Nepal had passed and been able to keep his status previous to me - any others either did not do the complete course or, like an unfortunate Canadian, were ignomiously expelled.

Since then, apart from myself, only Leon has graduated (he is now concentrating on his own business in Tokyo) and Walter Crockford from Canada who, if he reads this, I'd like to hear from as I've heard no news since he graduated and returned home in the mid-nineties. Since its inauguration 40-odd years ago, there have only been about 100 graduates in the instructor's training program and the fact that only 5 of these have been non-Japanese may surprise a few who may have read numerous reports to the contrary.

However, the lifestyle a kenshusei (instructor candidate) must endure is a horrible one. He must train in the instructor's class everyday of course; he is obliged to join his senpai (plural) for any other class at their whim either in the honbu, at another local dojo or at their university where he'll be regarded with extreme suspicion by the heavy clique of its members; he must clean the bathrooms and toilets each week; he must travel as his senpai's lackey to weekend events around the country; he is expected to know everything from day one or suffer their ridicule and scorn; he must write reports in Japanese on subjects ranging from choku-zuki to the relationship of Karate to society; he must fight everybody during the periodic dan tests whilst making sure all the forms are smoothly passed from one desk to another, and, unless he is smart and invents a fictitious work schedule, he must never lose to anyone but his senpai in competition, he must drink obscene amounts of alcohol during the evening while lending an ear to his disillusioned senpai.

Everything in life is dependent upon circumstances and, if one's circumstances are not spot on, it is easy to imagine how 3 years of kenshusei would stretch one way beyond simply their karate ability.

In my case, I suppose my circumstances were a combination of a natural stubborn streak, the fact that I was aware of myself being a foreigner with a chance and that, not only did I have a certain amount of sponsorship (meaning I hadn't got to teach English, sell paintings on the street or work late nights in smoky bars), I had a number of wonderful friends and students and felt quite at home in Tokyo. I was, of course, also training as much as anyone possibly could. Without any of these elements the thought of doing kenshusei makes me wince.

Q4. Could you tell us more about the training.

Basically, relentless is the word that springs to mind. In the regular student's classes, although there would be occasional lessons composed entirely of a single technique, more often than not the instructor would make an effort to do something interesting; not so the instructor's class.

Day in and day out the routine would hardly vary and it is worth noting this paradox of the instructor's class. The more complex and advanced the things the instructors could accomplish with ease were in direct proportion to the monotony of their daily training and the time and energy focused on the simplest and most pure of basics.

The traditional culture of learning in Japan is to accept ones lot and to plod away knowing that time will pass and, if one is sincere, development along the predetermined course of existence will occur at the appropriate pace.

This is why very few Japanese teach per se. They will just nudge one in roughly the right direction, which is fine if one has decided to devote the majority of one's time to training but hardly ideal for almost the entire modern world.

As a fresh kenshusei, a certain amount of ability has already been established. Of the Japanese, the new recruits would generally be former captains of one of the top 2 or 3 universities that had won the All-Japan's and any foreigner would have been of international level.

However, upon entering the program even choku-zuki becomes sneered at and, far from encouraging one's efforts, the objective seems to be to make one quit. It's taken for granted that you are a tool for the things that the senpai wants to practice and if that means being clubbed with a dozen counters during ippon-kumite or having to stand at the front of the line for 20 minutes while everyone drills in with gyaku-zuki then who is the kenshusei to complain? The training wouldn't vary, injuries were disregarded and excuses were out of the question.

However, I must say that from day one wherever I would go in Japan I was introduced as a sensei and, with very rare exceptions, accepted totally as such. And, as for my ability, during tournaments or jiyu kumite for the tests, instead of worrying about winning or losing, my only concern would be if my senpai approved of the way I'd behaved and how decisively I'd dominated my opponent.

Retrospectively these things might seem lacking in importance but then they were the only rewards in a life spent trying to improve so I wouldn't get too much verbal abuse or suffer too many damages.

Things improved dramatically in my third year for several reasons. Two kohai arrived, for a start. For the preceding 8 or 9 months Maeda who had begun with me was often hospitalized, leaving me the lone trainee. I was worn out and suffering from a fair deal of damage that wasn't healing making me wonder if I wasn't stupid to continue.

I also had the confidence knocked from me. My kohai obviously eased a great deal of the pressure especially during my senpai's victim hunting sessions but also, very importantly, I had started teaching much more and was getting some essential positive feedback from the students which was a tremendous boost.

By the spring of '94 I graduated, my own dojo was growing and the sun appeared to start shining again: I swear it had been constantly overcast for 3 years.

Q5. Why did you leave Japan?

I left Japan in the spring of '98 initially to go back to England and face the real world. I'd been gone too long and started to worry that I might not be able to cope without the protection that a special place in Japanese society as a "sensei" was allowing me. I also found myself questioning the integrity of relying on a sponsor to pay the bills and how complicated it might get if I wanted to start making my own decisions.

On top of that, although I was happy having my own dojo and teaching at the honbu, there was nowhere to go in the karate world because all was dictated by seniority and I'd already reached a ceiling beyond what was considered appropriate at my age by having my own dojo in the middle of Tokyo. I was also getting restless with the endless meetings that, although obliged to attend, was allowed no voice in.

Europe seemed to offer me much more scope. America was also attractive but at the time family matters meant that Europe and specifically London would be better. As it happened, out of the blue I was offered a very interesting job in Paris that I couldn't refuse and that also gave me the opportunity to confirm whether or not I could do anything other than karate.

Q6. What are your current plans?

A year ago was rough for me personally and, although the dojo I was teaching in was quite rewarding in many ways, I wasn't content living in Paris. I had to ask myself exactly what I wanted to do and where. The only true answers I could give myself were respectively Karate and New York.

For any grand change in life circumstances will never appear perfect so I just started telling people I was moving in order to commit myself and get the wheels in motion. I knew I had a place to stay in NY (thanks John!) and, now I've got my own place here, for the first time in a long while I'm keen to settle in for a few years. I'll still teach courses around the country and in Europe but will also use my own dojo for, not only my own training, but also for small specialist classes or one on one classes. Beyond that I'm not especially ambitious.

Q7. What is your current status with the Japanese karate leaders such as Yahara sensei, Asai sensei and Abe sensei?

As you know, the politics in Japan during my stay were volatile to say the least but that's a whole other article. However, I have to say I found that probably the most deeply disappointing discovery of my life was finding out the extent of the pettiness and insecurity of some of the JKA instructors.

Until the end of '90 I had a superb relationship with all of them and suddenly I was expected to choose one over another. Having lived in England, New York and then Japan I had the luxury of being close to several great ones but conversely could not claim to be THE student of any one of them.

Therefore, unlike almost everyone in Tokyo, I was obliged to make a painful choice and could not justify it by simply having a history with one particular instructor. I still feel the resentment of having to make that choice. Hopefully we can all learn from past experiences and last year I found myself in a very similar predicament when, after the JKA court case was pursued no longer and went in favor of the Nakahara group, Asai sensei, Abe sensei and Yahara sensei split and I was pressurized into choosing once again.

Living abroad made it easier for me to take a step back and try to maintain a certain neutrality or involved detachment. It's not easy; I regularly make diplomatic phone calls to them all, but for the time being I would rather not burn any bridges than align myself strongly with one over the other. This way I hope to be able to practice my apolitical principles and introduce these instructors to all my friends in the karate world and help everyone continue to learn and establish new relationships.