Shinji Akita, born in Gifu, Japan and former graduate of Takushoku University, trained under the likes of Matsuda and Aragane Senseis during his younger years, and later Sensei Tsuyama at Takudai whilst at University. Here he trained alongside the likes of Murakami Sensei (SKIF) and Naka Sensei (JKA). In this interview he talks about these experiences, and goes on to discuss his time spent with Kawasoe Sensei in the UK, training with Master Kanazawa and his thoughts on ‘Shime’ and ‘Kime’. Many thanks to Sensei Akita for his time and photographs- Shaun Banfield
(Shaun Banfield) Can we start by asking how you first got started in the Martial Arts?
(Shinji Akita) My hometown is Gifu (Seki) in the middle of Japan with many mountains. Historically there were many battles in 15th century and Seki is a town famous for producing Katana and I was brought up with all these historical and traditional surroundings aspects. I think I was influenced by this background.
I was also influenced by Bruce Lee films which was very popular at the time, but I was always interested in the Martial Arts.
(SB) You were born in a beautiful part of Japan, and you have said that the mountains were your dojo. Can we go back and ask about your childhood in Japan?
(SA) The distance from my house to school was 3 miles, and the field, river and mountain was beside the path. As a child I was always distracted by nature and fascinated by what was happening in there. On the way to school I was checking the secret spots. On the way back home I was always spending time to discover all those secrets. In the river I was always after the fish and trying to catch them, in the mountain I was after snakes and in the field there were so many different kinds of animals and insects, and catching wild animals is not easy so I was always thinking of new tactics at school in order to catch them.
(SB) In hindsight with your experience, do you think there are any similarities between nature and the Martial Arts?
(SA) I think so. We learned from the nature and the nature is our Sensei. We cannot differentiate between the two.
(SB) Like so many, you started in the Martial Arts studying Judo and Kendo. How did you then go about starting karate?
(SA) Judo and Kendo was in the school curriculum, which I enjoyed, but there wasn’t a Karate class. I always wanted to learn Karate and I found a Karate Dojo when I was at 11.
(SB) During these early years of training, you studied under Matsuda Sensei and Aragane Sensei. Can you please tell us about your time training with these instructors? Could you share some stories from your early years?
(SA) The dojo where I started Karate was where Matsuda Sensei, Aragane Sensei and some other Karate-ka – who graduated from Takudai Karate club - were training at the time. They were often training for JKA national championship and were the winners of the team event at the time. I should say the training was very tough and hard then for my grade.
Beside this, Matsuda Sensei was always kind and nice personality, looked after all young students and he is the one who invited and introduced me to Karate and his Dojo.
Aragane Sensei had just come back from Germany, where he had stayed for 2 years teaching Karate. He had also nice personality and was always very funny and we enjoyed listening to his stories about his experience in Germany and Europe. I was very fortunate that I started and met great Karate-ka from the beginning.
(SB) What kinds of stories would he tell?
(SA) All sort of things, about the culture, people he met, beautiful places he visited and BEER!
I think it was the time when Kanazawa Sensei left JKA and SKI was formed. He was telling us what was happening then in Europe but as I was a young boy I did not understand much. Now I know what he was talking about.
(SB) You then went to Takushoku University in Tokyo. Can I just ask, what did you study there?
(SA) Yes, my main subject was commerce/business
(SB) You also joined Takudai Karate Club, at Takushoku University studying under Sensei Tsuyama. Training there must have been tough, can you tell us about the training?
(SA) Ok, let’s start with the training program that we experienced.
Training was everyday except Sunday, twice each day. Morning session started at 6 am start with light stretching then running for 3 miles. We stopped at the field or at the temple for a sprint. We would then sprint up the stairs at the temple, which was murder. We often become sick from this!
Then another 2 miles back to the dormitory and started Makiwara training for 30 minutes. Breakfast then we went to University to study.
Afternoon session started at 5pm. We spent good 30 minutes for warming up/stretching then move on to basic training, up and down for 40 minutes. After short break we did Kihon Kumite, Gohon Kumite first (5 attacks), Ippon Kumite (1 attack) and then Jiyu Ippon (1 attack semi free). We were almost killing each other at these basic Kumite exercise. Last 1 hour was usually Kumite for tournaments and power training at the end, so in total we did 3 hours training and we did this for 4 years.
Training program was always the same, it was never different, but I did learn so much from this training.
Yes, it wasn’t easy. May be I should say it was very tough!
(SB) That’s a tough training regime, did it ever get too much and too hard?
(SA) It could have been too much but I developed something very important and valuable that I wouldn’t have gotten from easier training. To be honest I always wanted to give up and escape from the place!
(SB) And what was Sensei Tsuyama like? Can you share some memories and stories that you have of him?
(SA) He was about 50 years old then and you could feel his energy and power. Some time he faced us in the Dojo doing Kumite and we just couldn’t move in front of him. He didn’t say much in the dojo or outside, he used to talk to us with his eyes. He enjoyed spending time with us and his influence on our karate was great.
(SB) When we interviewed Sensei Murakami, one of your colleagues, he said that training under Sensei Tsuyama was very tough indeed. Why has Tokushoku and a few other universities got such tough karate clubs?
(SA) Takushoku University is one of the oldest universities in Japan and all those universities were rivals and always competing each other at the championships. That made us stronger than any other universities. And I now believe Tsuyama Sensei’s presence and training method was a very important aspect.
I just remembered something else. We used to visit other university Karate clubs and also they visited us once a month. It was just like going to the war and was like the war in the Dojo. But we were always friends after the training.
(SB) What is it about them that has made them internationally known places to train?
(SA) It was because of our university’s principle (founding spirit) and many graduates went out of the country, I think this made us known internationally.
I introduce some part of clip from the principle we learnt
“……The world needs people whose perceptions are based on a shared awareness of people as fellow human beings living together on the same planet. This sentiment is echoed in the words of the Takushoku University song: “I will not discriminate by colour of race or border of place……”
You can read more about the university from: http://www.takushoku-u.ac.jp/english/about/spirit.html
(SB) Was there any un-necessary brutality would you say?
(SA) Whatever happening there was how it was and it is difficult issue to talk about and I don’t want to make a comment for this question.
(SB) While at Takushoku you trained alongside some very talented karate, some like Naka Sensei who teaches at the JKA Honbu and Murakami Sensei who is also famous in his own right. Can you tell us about training alongside these excellent karateka?
(SA) I said earlier, we were killing each other… What I mean is challenging each other and it was the way to improve our skill of awareness. A little loss of concentration could cost you your teeth or possibly life. There was no compromise in between in the dojo… But it was great to train with these elites to keep up your standards. Outside the Dojo we were always great friends and still are.
(SB) Did the fear of losing your teeth teach you to always be mentally switched on? Is this something that has stayed with you in your karate and do you think a fearful atmosphere in a dojo can help enhance the development of karateka?
(SA) Every instructor creates different level of fear in the Dojo and every students feel different level of fear in the dojo. Fear could make the mind focused and enhance the development of mental strength. Fear is not always good and it could make people weaker. But when you overcome the fear, you develop the confidence and turning it into strength.
(SB) After finishing University, you then decided to travel to the UK to train under Sensei Kawasoe? Did you ever consider doing the JKA Instructor’s Class?
(SA) I did not think to go to the JKA Instructor’s Class after finishing university because of the decision I made travelling to the UK.
I thought of completing the JKA instructors class after 2 years of stay in the UK and going back to Japan, but I am still here after 20 years of my stay in the UK.…
(SB) Why did you decide to follow Sensei Kawasoe?
(SA) I haven’t mentioned about this person, but Kato Iwao Sensei was main instructor at the Dojo where I started Karate in my home town and he was the instructor of Matsuda Sensei and Aragane Sensei. Kato Sensei and Kawasoe Sensei trained Karate at Takushoku University Karate club together. They were close friends since.
One time, Kawasoe Sensei and his students from the UK visited us in Gifu when I was a student and I was impressed about his Karate and I also enjoyed meeting all those British people.
After this occasion, I wanted to train with Kawasoe Sensei and I was interested to see and learn about different cultures and also I thought of teaching Karate abroad. Kato Sensei introduced me to Kawasoe Sensei later on again and I made this decision and made an arrangement to come to the UK.
(SB) Can you please tell us about your training with Sensei Kawasoe, and the things he taught you?
(SA) Some of great instructors don’t say much... He was one of them and he gave me opportunities to feel and experience what we all need for further development. He made me work always at the edge of my maximum. Some times I manage to cross the border but most of the time I was staying in this side. What I want to say is he increased my ability, power and speed to do the techniques. Training with him made me also deeper understanding about mind and body.
Another important aspect, watching his action… my opinion on his techniques is that they are most ideal and some people describe perfect technique for Traditional Shotokan Karate and I wanted to be as close as possible to how he performs.
As I said he did not say much in the dojo but he was always sending lots of information to us.
(SB) You mentioned that training with Sensei Kawasoe made you deeper understand your mind and body. How important is mental strength and training in karate do you think?
(SA) Very important and it’s all related. Training makes you physically stronger. When the body get stronger you feel more confidence and also mentally get stronger. When you mentally get stronger you can push more and work harder. And it will relate to you life style. It will relate and affect your relationship with your family or at work.
When you work at the edge of your limit, your mind and mental strength at the time changes your performance. From an instructor point of view it is important to make a class where students can focus on what they do during the class.
(SB) One thing Sensei Kawasoe is famed for is his tremendous kicking ability. Did he influence your kicking ability at all?
(SA) Yes, of course. We like something beautiful. His kicks were really art and outstanding. Please don’t get me wrong here but this is just the way I describe.
(SB) You say that Sensei Kawasoe was always sending lots of information to you in his classes. Can you please tell us about the type of things he taught you? How did his approach differ to what you had previously experienced with other Instructors?
(SA) We used to kick a lot in his class. 100 each leg and each technique, Mae-geri, Yoko-geri and Mawashi-geri were quite normal with Kawasoe Sensei’s class. Some instructor’s spends time going up and down doing basic techniques. Some instructor spend time doing lots of arms techniques. Some instructor spends explaining what it is about. After all I think they are talking same things. They are teaching us to develop and strengthening the core, Japanese describe as “Hara” or “Seika Tanden” Training method or approach could be different but they teach us the same thing.
(SB) Can you tell us, from your time spent with Sensei Kawasoe, what is the different between kime and Shime?
(SA) You need “Shime” to have “Kime”.
“Shime” means to tighten. For Karate contracting muscles or could be the tightening of someones neck. “Kime” A moment of finishing techniques by contracting some muscles and deliver the techniques accurately to the target. “Hara” is very important key to make “Kime” on your Karate techniques
(SB) Who else did you train with in the UK?
(SA) I meet and train with Kanazawa Sensei most of the time when he visits to the UK. Training with him is very important for me as it’s re-tuning “the balance” that I loose… like taking the car to get serviced so I can fix some of the problems I occur. Last 20 years of my stay in the UK, I had opportunities to train with Nishiyama Sensei, Kase Sensei, Shirai Sensei, Ochi Sensei and Asano Sensei at courses.
I have been also visiting Germany often to teach and train. Over these years I met and trained in Germany with those famous JKA Instructors from all over the world such as Okazaki Sensei, Mikami Sensei, Stan Schmidt Sensei and some of the young instructors…I have also met and trained with very good European Senseis too.
(SB) Sensei Kanazawa’s karate is highly based on harmonising the body accurately. Can you tell us about Sensei Kanazawa and his influence on your karate?
(SA) I was studying his technique and I knew something is different and so special. I didn’t understand what it was for long time. One day I realised it was the balance of his stance and technique. I thought this was based on harmonising the body. Then I realised he had a very strong core…
We often work on just techniques to improve power and speed. Without harmonising our body you wouldn’t have neither of them. I think harmonising and balance is very important fact for Karate and also for our life in general. He harmonises our mind and body and us all together and the world.
(SB) You mentioned you trained with the likes of Nishiyama Sensei, Kase, Ochi and Asano. What were the most important things you learned from these people?
(SA) Energy. They all have very powerful energy inside and charisma. As a younger Karate-ka they surprise me where those energy and power come from.
(SB) How do you compare karate in the UK to karate in Japan?
(SA) I find sometime people in general uses physical strength. This could be cultural things but this is very important factor for learning Karate or any other sports. Some people say Japanese people could be more supple than European people in general but where to focus on your body and then how to use your body is very important for practicing to improve.
(SB) You run the Takushinjuku Dojo. What does that stand for?
(SA) It comes from 3 characters “Taku” “Shin” “Juku”
“Taku” means pioneer. I took this character from my university.
“Shin” means truth, genuine, real. I took this character from my name.
“Juku” means school or a place to study.
“Juku” The place where “Shin” Shinji Akita myself teach what he learned from “Taku” Takudai Karate Club. Does it make sense? But it means more than this. I named this to create a place where bring people together. As I describe earlier on about my university and the song “I will not discriminate by colour of race or border of place……” I think it says everything here.From always hard work but “Harmonising” is biggest part of Karate for me too…
(SB) You also travel and teach. Can you tell us about your experiences travelling and teaching in different countries?
(SA) I learned a lot from travelling and meeting people from all over the world and this developed my Karate style.
It made me realise that I was so small and I knew nothing. This changed my attitude and made me continue training and learn further. People from different countries have different culture back grounds, different characters and different languages but we are all human. Karate makes no gap in between…
(SB) What is your favourite kata and why?
(SA) Once it was Gojushiho Sho.
Reason why I simply trained for this Kata for many years and felt confident to perform it. Few times I think I managed my mind and body got together through doing this Kata.
I now like Gankaku. It does not mean I can perform well. I would like to train and master this Kata till feel this is my favourite Kata.
(SB) Can we just say a huge thank you for this interview and may we wish you every success for the future.