AN INTERVIEW WITH KEIGO ABE SENSEI
By Thomas A. Casale
I’d like to thank Richard Amos for translating for Abe Sensei and I.
Without his assistance this interview would not have been possible.
Abe Sensei was born on October 28th 1938 in the town of Iyoshi in Ehime prefecture on the island of Shikoken. When he was 15 years old (1953) he began his Karate training at his middle schools Karate club. He was taught by an Okinawan Sensei from Toyama Sensei’s lineage of Shito Ryu Karate-Do.
When he was 18 years old (1956) he was accepted into the famous engineering program at Nihon University in Tokyo. He moved from his small town to the big city and began his college education. He also began training at the J.K.A. Honbu Dojo with a young and very powerful Sensei named Masatoshi Nakayama.
Casale: Sensei, my questions will be about a variety of topics, but before we start I want to sincerely thank you for taking the time to do this interview. It is very important to us.
Abe: It is my pleasure. I will do the best I can to answer your questions.
Casale: Did you ever have any exposure to Funakoshi Sensei ?
Abe: No, he passed away before I got to Tokyo.
Casale: What was Nakayama Sensei like as an instructor ?
Abe: Nakayama Sensei was very serious. He trained us very hard and always encouraged us to not only train hard, but to intellectually study what we were training. He stressed understanding ourselves and being good human beings.
Casale: Did you have any other Sensei’s besides the Shito Ryu instructor as a child and Nakayama Sensei ?
Abe: I would “ONLY” call Nakayama my Sensei.
Casale: Could you share 1 or 2 fond memories you have about Nakayama Sensei that may not be too well known ?
Abe: laughing Nakayama Sensei was asked to be in the James Bond 007 movie “You Only Live Twice." Due to previous commitments, he was unable to go, so he asked me if I would go in his place.
Naturally I was very excited and I did it ! I got paid $3,500 for two weeks work. Now this was the mid 60’s and the average Karate instructor was making maybe $100 per month. I got paid more than the top Samurai actor in Japan and it was one of the best experiences of my life. All thanks to Nakayama Sensei.
Nakayama Sensei also had a very artistic eye. He loved doing artistic photography. Some of his work was even exhibited in professional art galleries.
Casale: Did you ever study another form of Budo besides Karate-Do ?
Abe: Yes. I have also been practicing Iaido for 30 years.
Casale: Do you teach Iaido ?
Casale: What benefits have you derived from your training in Iaido and how has it effected your Karate ?
Abe: In Karate training you can’t kill your training partners. In Iaido, everything you do is with the intent of cutting and killing the opponent. Training with this intent raises your spiritual awareness and appreciation of life. Modern day Karate has lost the “Ikken Hisatsu Spirit."
Casale: Do you think that Sport Karate is destroying the spirit of Karate-Do ?
Abe: This is a deep and interesting question. It’s important to have a balance. The true path lies in a balance between Training Karate for health, Training Karate for Sport and Recreation and Training Karate for Budo (Karate for a life and death self defense situation). Technically these things are very different. You must not mistake the true path as being only one of these aspects of Karate. Training Karate for health will allow your body to defend against illness and you will live a longer higher quality life.
Real Budo Karate training for self defense will have ramifications of serious injuries to you and your training partners. You must be very careful in Budo training. Besides, you should never have an occasion to use Karate in a real situation anyway. You should develop the intuition, character and ability to avoid a fight. Training Karate as Budo has little to no application in our society. Avoiding a fight is the best self defense. If you lived in a time of war where hand to hand combat would be used, your training would be drastically different. Lets hope this never becomes necessary.
Sport Karate Training allows you to develop without serious injury, to a physical level not possible before. The attitude in your training is most important. If the spirit of Karate-Do is being destroyed, it is happening because of people and attitudes, not because of sport competition. No matter what you are training, you should always train with the idea of becoming a better human being.
Train to understand your strengths and weaknesses. Train to be a good, honest and trustworthy human being. Train to perfect your character. This is the spirit of Karate-Do.
Casale: Sensei, it is a common belief that Funakoshi Sensei was against the concept of “Sport Karate”. I know you said that you didn’t train with him, but to your knowledge, what were Funakoshi Sensei’s feelings about Sport Karate ?
Abe: This is a difficult and controversial question. Nakayama Sensei often spoke of Funakoshi Sensei. To my knowledge, Funakoshi Sensei was not the type of person to give an opinion like this in a non-diplomatic way.
He understood that our Karate would grow and change. He understood that it would be influenced by many people and many things. Because he had this insight, he chose his words carefully.
So I really don’t know what his feelings were. Maybe it’s best to say they were unknown. Funakoshi Sensei always said that the perfection of one's character was the most important thing. I think this should be our concern.
Casale: How was Karate training different before the introduction of Ippon Shobu Sport Kumite and Kata Competition ?
Abe: Naturally competition rules greatly influenced our training. Before Ippon Shobu all we did was Kihon, Kata and Yakusoku Kumite. Everyone became so good at body shifting, blocking and countering that the engagement would seem to go on forever. People, especially senior grades, would get frustrated and would start to throw dirty shots. Also, people would get very angry if they were hit by a lower grade and start to cheat. Like they would call Jodan, then throw MAE GERI !!!
Many times the engagement would end up going to the floor and become an angry rough and tumble, almost like a real fight. Ippon Shobu brought a cleaner and less frustrating structure to our training. It allowed peoples technique to grow and develop in a more natural way.
Casale: Ippon Shobu Kumite was conceived while you were training and teaching at the honbu dojo with Nakayama Sensei. Were you involved with the creation of Ippon Kumite in any way ?
Abe: Yes, I created the original rules for Ippon Shobu competition. The rules were made to maintain the Budo concept of killing the opponent with one perfect decisive blow. In order to score an Ippon, representing the opponent's death, a technique had to be exceptional. Naturally an opponent could also be killed by two excellent, but less than perfect blows (Waza Ari).
Ippon Shobu teaches the Karateka to maintain a heightened awareness and superior concentration because there are no second chances when your life is on the line. We need that intense mental and emotional pressure to remain in the correct frame of mind. Traditional Ippon Shobu Kumite also helps to promote and maintain a high international standard of technique.
Casale: Sensei, is it true that your family comes from a Samurai bloodline?
Abe: Yes. My grandfather's grandfather (about 140 years ago) was a Samurai and a master of Jujutsu.
Casale: Would you recommend cross-training in another form of Budo ?
Abe: In the old days the Bushi (warriors) would train in maybe 18 different arts out of battlefield necessity. They would punch, kick, throw and practice bone breaking and sword techniques on the corpses of their enemies. Although this sounds barbaric, it allowed the Bushi to have a true understanding and "feel" for what their techniques and weapons could really do to a human body. They would also employ the use of many different weapons on the ground and from horseback. So, yes I would recommend cross-training. You should be familiar with many different arts.
Casale: Would the different principles of the different arts promote confusion or conflict in the student ?
Abe: If a Martial Art is being taught properly, all the essential principles should be the same and compliment each other. There is only one human body. When I say become familiar with many arts, I don’t mean to practice Shotokan on Monday, Goju on Tuesday, Jujutsu on Wednesday, etc… etc… I mean that you should have an open mind to exploring principles, techniques and training methods taught in other styles. Study the Budo with an open mind.
Casale: Would you recommend that Shotokan Karateka study some of the original Okinawan versions of our Katas and some other Okinawan Katas that are not found in Shotokan ?
Abe: Absolutely Yes ! This is very important. Very Important! The study of Okinawan Katas is a must for the advanced Shotokan Karateka. It will allow you to see and better understand the evolution of our modern day Kata. It will give you insights otherwise not possible to attain.
Many techniques we do have not changed much in the last 40 years, but in the 40 years before that Karate changed greatly. This is why we need to study the old Okinawan Katas. These Katas are like a window to our past.
We didn’t even have Mawashi Geri before World War II. Nakayama Sensei introduced Mawashi Geri and Miyata Sensei (Who was Kohai to Nakayama Sensei) helped to develop it. Both Nakayama Sensei and Miyata Sensei were know to have an extraordinarily powerful Mawashi Geri.
Casale: The modern versions of the Katas we practice now are very different from the original Okinawan versions. How do you feel about all these changes ?
Abe: With respect to the meanings of the Katas, the changes were not good. With respect to the human body, the changes were very positive. Nakayama Sensei was the first to do scientific research on Karate and Kata in particular. His discoveries and insights allowed him to develop our Karate into what it is today. Through training in Nakayama Sensei's Karate he continues to teach us all.
Casale: Sensei, you said, “With respect to the meaning of the Katas, the changes were not good.” Can you please explain this?
Abe: Yes, of course. The Katas were originally designed for Budo. Kata was a library of techniques to incapacitate and even kill the opponents. Remember, the origin of many Kata and techniques were Chinese and China was involved in many wars.
These fighting methods eventually found their way to Okinawa and Okinawa was involved in wars. Remember, it was all hand to hand combat there were no laser guided smart bombs back then. Killing was face to face, done by the hand of the warrior.
Think about the reality of it. They fought for their lives among the dead bodies of their friends. There was screaming, blood and killing all around them. This developed a mental focus in the warrior that is indescribable and most probably unattainable unless you were in the terrifying reality of hand to hand, face to face warfare.
The techniques found in Kata came from actual battlefield experience where killing and killing quickly was necessary. But the war of today is different than the war of the past. And we are not battlefield warriors who kill on an almost daily basis.
Funakoshi Sensei developed Karate into a “DO” as opposed to a “JUTSU” (an Art and Philosophical Way of Life as opposed to only fighting techniques). Funakoshi Sensei modified the Katas to be more physically demanding and more focused on body dynamics and beauty. This allows the student to focus on defeating his most dangerous modern day opponent, himself.
This transition from Jutsu to Do was also necessary to bring Karate to the Ministry of Education in Japan to be taught in the schools. This allowed Karate-Do to grow and eventually be practiced my millions of students as it is today.
So in Karate's transition from Jutsu to Do, something was lost, but something much greater was gained. The Budo is still in our Katas anyway. If you train hard and study deeply, you will find that most of the original principles and techniques are still alive and well. They just look different.
Casale: Obviously the use of weapons had a profound effect on the formation of our Katas and we see many photos of Funakoshi Sensei using weapons. Did he teach Kobudo at the Shotokan ?
Abe: I’m not sure, but I believe so. He died before I got to Tokyo. Nakayama Sensei taught self defense against weapons.
Casale: Are there philosophical lessons taught and represented by the physical techniques of Kata ?
Abe: Yes. The deep practice of Kata is linked to interpreting opponents and reading and understanding human beings. You must also understand the relationship between Kihon, Kata and Kumite. The mental focus and image training taught in serious Kata training will help you to anticipate the thoughts and movements of others and will bring a greater focus to your life in general. You must study this very hard for a very long time.
Casale: When should students learn Bunkai ?
Abe: They should begin Bunkai training as soon as possible. Students should learn Bunkai as they learn and train the Kata.
Casale: O.K. Laughing Sensei, This is a topic of many interesting discussions. What is Ki ?
Abe: Laughing Ahhhhh, Tommy…This is a very difficult and broad question. Ki is indescribable. It is inexpressible. Those who give a long detailed precise explanation of Ki have no idea what they are talking about. They are making it up. All I can say is that Ki is an energy. It deals with relaxation, breathing, timing, balance, and ones intention. Weather all this adds up to Ki or not, I cannot say. Ki is a combination of many things working in harmony together.
Casale: O.K., I know you said it’s indescribable, but maybe we can look at examples of Ki. We hear stories of Aikido’s O-Sensei Ueshiba throwing people across the room and knocking them down without even touching them. Have you ever seen or experienced anything like this?
Abe: One can redirect energy and intention. If done properly, this redirection of force has a very powerful and dramatic result. But I do not believe it is possible to knock a person down without touching them.
Casale: Can you describe your personal development of Ki ?
Abe: Up until my late 30s I was only physical strength, speed and power. But after that I developed a “lightness of touch” where everything, especially Kumite became much easier for me.
Casale: That’s a very interesting way of wording your feeling… “A Lightness of Touch." What do you think of Tai Chi Chuan for a Karateka ?
Abe: I think Tai Chi is excellent. It teaches power through relaxation which is very important for a Karateka to understand. Most Karateka do not appreciate the power of relaxation. People would have more powerful technique and a more powerful life if they learned to relax more. I do Tai Chi exercises in my own training. It is very beneficial.
[Note to the reader: If you watch Abe Sensei's technique, it has a very relaxed quality to it. There is a slight vibration in his hand at the end of every technique.
I had the opportunity to assist Abe Sensei in teaching a couple of seminars while he was here in New York. I was his uke for demonstrations of Bunkai and the explanation of technique dynamics.
When Abe Sensei hit me, it felt like his hand weighed 500 pounds. His punching and striking techniques have a very relaxed and heavy, yet snappy, quality to them. The only time I felt anything like this was when I was pushed by the late Master of Tai Chi Chuan, Zhang Lu Ping. I put my hands on his arm and with a “gesture” I was lifted about two feet off the ground and propelled backwards about 8-10 feet into a wall. It was incredible.
Abe Sensei hit me in the ribs and abdomen a few times and I could literally feel the force “traveling through” me. Yet with all this power, there seemed to be absolutely no effort on his part. In my opinion, this fantastic power generated through "Masterful Effortlessness" is an excellent example of true “Ki”.]
Casale: Funakoshi Sensei said, "Low Stances are for the beginner and high stances are for the advanced." Yet, advanced students are never encouraged to develop power and technique from a high stance, by training in a high stance. Advanced students are even penalized in gradings and competitions for having a higher stance. How do you feel about an advanced Shotokan Karateka adjusting to a higher stance and using vibration, as in Okinawan Karate, as opposed to a low stance and using a large rotation?
Abe: This is a very good question. I understand what you mean. These things (vibration from a high stance) are in our training. You must study and look for them. We practice moving from a high stance when we do drills that require you to begin from a Shizen Tai (like the beginning of Sanbon Kumite) then shift into a stance to block and counter. In this training you start from a high stance.
You don't really need to practice a high stance because it's much easier than a low stance. Everything depends on the situation. You should use the appropriate stance for what is happening at the moment.
In a fight, height will naturally vary. Tai Sabaki (Body Shifting) is better from a high stance because higher stances provide more mobility than low stances. Lower stances provide more stability because of their shape and the low center of gravity.
Because the situation should dictate the height of the stance, a Karateka must be able to generate power from a stance of any height. Power from vibration only comes after a person is an expert at generating power from rotation in a low stance. This is because vibration is a much smaller movement. This is one of the reasons I advocate Shotokan Karateka practicing Okinawan Katas as well.
We must borrow and understand lessons from other styles. We must understand how they make power. One can generate great power from vibration, if they understand proper body dynamics. Again, this type of short vibrating power takes many years to develop.
Casale: How important is inside or outside knee tension in stance training.
Abe: Laughing Ahhhh…. A funny thing comes to mind… A common mistake among Shotokan Karateka is that they over-exaggerate the need for their stance to have a “bow-legged” look. Yoshitaku Funakoshi (Gichin Funakoshi's son) was slightly bow-legged and students at the time wanted their stance to look like their Sensei’s stance, so they started pushing their knees out too much.
You should have outside pressure on the knees in outside tension stances and inside pressure on the knees in inside tension stances, but you should not force your knees into an OVERLY-UNNATURAL POSIITON. You'll develop knee problems. There must be appropriate outside or inside pressure exerted on the knees so you will have both stability and mobility in your stances.
Casale: Sensei, How old are you now and how often do you train for yourself?
Abe: I am 63 years old and I train four or five mornings per week. I do Karate and I some weight training at the gym.
Casale: Do you have a dojo in Tokyo?
Abe: I teach in a sports center. I have about 200 students.
Casale: Do you have an organization?
Abe: Yes, My organization is called the Japan Shotokan Karate Association. The J.S.K.A. is about a year old now and doing very well.
Casale: Sensei, I mean no disrespect by asking this question. Please understand that I ask you this in the interest of the Karateka who may want to join your organization. What makes your organization different than all the others? Why should people join your organization?
Abe: Unlike most leaders of Karate organizations, I do not want my organization to grow very large. Very large organizations mean very large problems. I want a smaller organization where I can be an active part of everyone’s life and a high degree of quality can be maintained. At this point there will be no representatives. I want to avoid any type of political tension. I’ve had enough of that for 10 lifetimes. All instructors and dojos will be directly affiliated with the J.S.K.A. in Japan.
I understand the needs of Karateka today and I am doing my best to build a non-political atmosphere of friendship and good will. We have a modern open-minded approach and we welcome anyone who wants to train hard, study deeply and has a desire to be an active part of our Karate family.
Casale: Sensei, I'm done with my questions. Is there anything additional you would like to say to the readers?
Abe: Just a final thought. It is my hope that we can come together in sincere friendship and work well together. We should do our best to avoid the out of control, power hungry people who have stopped developing. Please remember to have a feeling of openness and understanding of one another. Keep your focus on the idea that Karate-Do is for your development as a human being. This will allow you to be a truly honest and successful person. In this spirit, you’ll touch the life of everyone you meet in a positive way.
Casale: Sensei, thank you for your time and wisdom. There is much here to think and meditate on. I truly appreciate your time and patience.