Thoughts from Japan
By Way of Introduction...
Thoughts from Japan
By Way of Introduction...
by David Hooper, Ph.D.
Whenever I pick up a Martial Arts magazine and find an article or column about one or another aspect of karate, my first instinct is to skip straight to the end and find out who it is who is giving us the benefit of their insights and wisdom. Indeed, the first time I was asked to write something for a British publication (an article that I have to confess was considered somewhat controversial by the then karate establishment, and resulted in my subsequent expulsion from the association of which I was a member), the editor had the foresight to add a brief appendage, giving my "credentials." As it was, there were still a considerable number of subsequent inquiries as to who this Dave Hooper was (or thought he was), writing so critically about much of the karate in Great Britain, especially when numerous of his countrymen had already proved themselves formidable competitors at international level: a British team had previously won the World Championships, proving once and for all that the Japanese were not as invincible as everyone had once thought. "And anyway," some of them asked, "what's Dave Hooper ever won?" - as if this might have lent credence to the article, or at least helped me to justify my position. So, let me right at the outset lay my cards on the table, and give a little of the background which led to my involvement in karate, and in particular, training in Japan.
When I first took up karate as a schoolboy in England, in the 1970's (a time when the great Kung Fu craze was just getting under way), it was purely by chance that it was a Shotokan club that I first joined. At that time in the UK, clubs were springing up at an alarming rate - the entrepreneurial spirit evident all over the country as numerous enterprising individuals jumped on the bandwagon, clearly recognising a good thing when they saw it. That's not to say that there weren't some good, genuine clubs around, but as the cash registers went into overdrive, and the punters still kept rolling in, there were simply not enough experienced teachers to go around. Like a game of Chinese Whispers, the original source of much of the instruction - a handful of Japanese instructors from the Japan Karate Association (JKA) in Tokyo - became almost unrecognisable by the time it had filtered through the system. And whilst David Carradine, the star of the popular Kung Fu television series, kept armchair enthusiasts enthralled with his slow-motion, choreographic displays of combat and his philosophical words of wisdom, back in the real world, the Japanese sensei that did appear on the scene from time to time, lived up to their reputation for inscrutability, and left most of the foreigners simply to get on with it.
In hindsight, it was not so much that they weren't interested. There were practical difficulties involved (no matter how adept at karate the Japanese instructors were, even they could not be in more than one place at once). Moreover, there were vast cultural differences, a lack of mutual expectations (from teachers and students), and formidable language and communication barriers, all of which needed to be overcome. It was, therefore, perhaps not surprising that misinterpretations and misunderstandings occurred on both sides.
An additional problem was the lack of direct contact with Japan. Back in Tokyo, the JKA itself seemed to be unconcerned about what went on outside of Japan. Admittedly they had sent representatives abroad, but once out of the country, those instructors were left largely to their own devices. As far as the average, Japan-resident JKA instructor was concerned, he knew very little and (in some cases, certainly) cared even less about what went on in the rest of the world. After all, what did it really matter? Karate was still Japanese. If foreigners wanted to have a go, fine; if they wanted to establish foreign dojos, well that was fine too; and if they were really so concerned about the colour of their belts, then even that was easily solved. None of it really mattered - it was all happening a long way from Japan and, by implication, didn't have to be taken too seriously. Even when the Japanese domination in competition began to come under threat, the attitude still persisted: competition is, after all, just competition - in terms of real karate, the JKA had nothing whatever to fear.
I, meanwhile, had been coerced into joining this karate club in South East London: twenty students were required to get the club off the ground, and I was roped in by a good friend in order to make up the numbers. In a fairly short space of time I had become rather hooked. Nearly eighteen months later I made up my mind to go to Japan to train - the result of my first encounter with Osaka Sensei1. He had been invited to London as a guest instructor on a special course. Within ten minutes of being in his class, I realised that here was a totally different level of karate. It was this karate that I wanted to learn, and this was the person I wanted to learn from. I informed him at the end of the session that I would be coming over to Tokyo as soon as I had finished high school. Osaka Sensei smiled politely, not understanding a word of English, and then smiled again when I repeated everything a little louder. However, when I arrived at the JKA Honbu (the headquarters of the Japan Karate Association) about one year later, Osaka Sensei was the first person I met and I was convinced he remembered me.
There had been many people in attendance at that special karate course and all had trained with Osaka Sensei. I fully expected at least half a dozen of them to have made their way to the JKA by the time I'd got there. After all, it had been so obvious - nobody back in the UK, as far as I could see (with all the experience and confidence of a very mediocre yellow belt) was doing karate anything like Osaka Sensei. When I eventually arrived, however, I seemed to be on my own. Not only was it a shock to find that no other Englishmen had got in ahead of me, but it was an even greater shock to realise that any who might have been contemplating a visit had already been beaten to it by a small contingency from France. Four French dan-grades were already well-entrenched at the JKA: I could already see that training here was going to be far worse than I'd previously imagined.
I practised regularly, six days a week, for the next year and a half, and was awarded my shodan before returning back to the UK, to begin a three-year undergraduate course at university. In order to maintain the level of training to which I had become accustomed in Japan, I ran a club at the university in Wales. During this period, I was introduced to Kawasoe Sensei2, who had fairly recently gone to the UK to teach. He agreed to be responsible for grading my students at the university club, and periodically, we would travel the 250 miles down to London to practise at his own dojo - a dojo that was straight out of Japan.
Apart from a brief visit back to Japan in the summer vacation during my first year as a student, I had to wait until graduation before I could return to Tokyo and resume my training at the JKA. This second stint in Japan lasted for the next four years, during which time I was invited to train at the infamous Takushoku University Karate-bu (club), from which many of the JKA instructors (Kawasoe Sensei and Osaka Sensei included) had graduated. I was also a member of Nakayama Sensei's private dojo (The Hoitsukan dojo) for a couple of years, in addition to continuing my training at the JKA.
I took my sandan under Nakayama Sensei in the summer of 1985, and then returned to the UK for another three years where I completed a Ph.D. in motor-control and learning, also at the University of Wales. During this period, I once again ran the university karate club, but much more on the lines of Takushoku's training regime. It was encouraging to realise that contrary to everything I was told on my return, British students were, in fact, quite receptive to this style of training. They didn't require a watered-down or compromised form of karate to keep them interested. "You're not in Japan now, Dave" was a comment levelled to me on several occasions by other westerners teaching karate, but as far as our training at the university club was concerned, we might just as well have been.
In 1988 I left Britain for the last time, and came back to Japan to live. I am currently working full-time in one of the major universities in Tokyo. As for the karate - well, I'm still rather hooked on it.
Since those early days when the JKA first sent representatives abroad, much has changed, not only in Japan, but worldwide. The JKA itself, at least in political terms, is in serious decline. As I've implied, in many ways, they have only themselves to blame. Had they made some attempt from the beginning to retain some element of direct supervision and control over affiliated organisations around the world, the situation might now be very different. As it was, they appeared complacent and indifferent to anything outside of Japan - a reflection in part, no doubt, of a supremely confident and assured sense of their own superiority, and a well-deserved reputation that eliminated any need for them to have to sell themselves. And perhaps also, a reflection of the very nature of the Japanese character: Japan is an island country with, many would argue, still very much an island mentality. For all its recent attempts at internationalisation and integration in, for example, the field of business, such concepts are inherently alien to the Japanese and remain elusive. Indeed, xenophobia scales new heights in this country, and is a primary source of frustration for any gaijin (foreigner or, more literally, outsider) attempting to infiltrate any aspect of the culture.
I am convinced that Nakayama Sensei, the former head of the JKA, had become seriously concerned about Japan's relative isolation, during the latter years of his life, and the great disparity in standards that was becoming increasingly apparent. He realised that what happened outside of Japan did, in fact, matter, because ultimately, the reputation and, indeed, the very name of the JKA was at stake. He had just arranged another trip to Europe with this in mind when his untimely death, just a few years ago, plunged the JKA into turmoil. His death was untimely because what I believe was his vision for raising and maintaining standards across the world and re-establishing the JKA in authority, was not to be realised. In fact, the very opposite occurred. In place of greater conformity and unity, there was further fragmentation and discord, with even the JKA itself unable to remain immune from political in-fighting. The result today is a JKA Honbu split into two distinct factions, and a host of organisations around the world whose links and affiliations to "The JKA" (whichever one that might be) are more tenuous than ever. There are still many groups, clubs and individuals eager to use the name of the JKA as a badge of recognition and authenticity. Many, however, would be surprised at how far removed many of those same groups, clubs and individuals are from each other in terms of their practice of karate.
Let me say in defence of the JKA that the issues that have resulted in this sorry state of affairs have little, if anything, to do with karate itself. Both factions have world-renowned instructors whose philosophies and teaching methodologies are completely consistent. Instructors from both sides do karate that is easily identifiable in Japan as JKA karate. As high-ranking karate-ka, they deserve and command great respect in this country, and display levels of performance and ability that are unsurpassed. Just what it is that makes JKA karate so distinctive within Shotokan, I shall leave for another article: suffice it to say that it is JKA karate that I'm interested in, and it's JKA karate that I would like to see understood, promoted, developed and practised.
If I have given the impression at all in this introduction of being in any way anti-Japanese, that is certainly not my intention: the very opposite is true. I am, however, disappointed that the JKA took so long to wake up to what was happening around the world, and by the time it did so, it was in no position to do much about it. Britain, which I suspect was similar to many other Western countries, readily embraced karate, and with what to my mind was still a relatively superficial understanding of the art, quickly decided that they had no need for the Japanese. What, after all, could the Japanese have left to teach the World Champions? What indeed!
It has been over twenty years since I first came to Japan and in many ways, the actual training itself has changed relatively little. In subsequent articles I hope to consider what changes have taken place, and what the situation currently is, here in Tokyo, as far as I see it. The views I express in these pages are, of course, entirely my own, and whether my opinions are favourably received or otherwise, I trust that they will be regarded as, at least to some extent, informed opinions. I make no apologies for what will become evident as a total lack of impartiality when it comes to the JKA and the style of karate that it represents. And if future issues are controversial, then I trust it will result in some worthwhile discussion and debate.
When Nakayama Sensei was alive, he advocated a constant re-examination and re-evaluation of karate in terms of both its physical practice and its underlying philosophy - a process of continuing appraisal and reflection on what is done inside and outside the dojo. Many Shotokan groups seem to lack any clear direction. Those who have looked to the JKA for their lead in the past have, on occasions, been left out in the cold. The JKA is, however, much greater and more significant than its physical structure. It represents a way of karate. Whatever problems it has as a political entity are secondary. JKA karate has developed and matured to a point where it will survive, regardless of what happens to the JKA itself. Whilst I certainly have no reason to suspect that the JKA as a political force will ever become insignificant, I doubt whether it will ever again have the opportunity or potential to influence and oversee the development of karate worldwide, that it once had (more's the pity). Nevertheless, the continuation and development of JKA karate will only come about outside of Japan if all those individuals who wish to align themselves with this way continually refer back to the source - the JKA in Tokyo, and its instructors abroad who represent it. (Some of those representatives may, of course, head groups and organisations that have no actual political affiliation to the JKA, but, nevertheless, practice JKA karate.) As a starting point, perhaps we would all do well, instructors and students alike, to follow Nakayama Sensei's advice.
On the front of Nakayama Sensei's original JKA Kata Series of video tapes, that were produced to accompany his Best Karate books, he wrote these words:
This completes my system that I finished once in my life with all my enthusiasm.
Nakayama Sensei's karate is JKA karate. It is the karate that was first introduced to the West; it is the karate that was, and is, held in such high regard in Japan; and it is the karate that is still practised at the JKA in Tokyo.
1. Osaka Sensei is a senior instructor at the JKA Honbu. As well as previously holding the title of JKA national kumite champion, he has won the All Japan and World Kata Championships a record nine consecutive times. It is no surprise that Nakayama described him as:
"... a karateka whose basic techniques are penetrating and whose kata are of the first rank."
He is currently also the coach to the renowned Takushoku University karate club, which was recently officially reopened, after being shut by the Ministry of Education for several years, owing to a death of one of the students.
2. Kawasoe Sensei, a previous winner of the All Japan University Championships, is a sincere and dedicated karate instructor whose level of skill and technical ability earns him the highest respect, not only in Japan, but around the world. He is currently the head of the United Kingdom Traditional Karate Federation and is based in Great Britain.