Andre Bertel - The Legacy of Tetsuhiko Asai’s Karate Continues
There is no denying that Andre Bertel Sensei is the best Shotokan karateka to have come out of New Zealand. His competitive record and technical skillhave simply remained unsurpassed in this country. This is clearly a resultof his extensive training in Japan, and more importantly, the influence ofhis late teacher, the legendary Tetsuhiko Asai. The young 6th Dan was Asai Shihan’s most prominent non-Japanese student, and is unanimously recognised as the world’s foremost expert on Asai style Shotokan kata. Besides being Asai Shihan’s only kiwi pupil, founder and chief instructor of JKS karate in New Zealand, and holding an A Class International Instructors License, Bertel also conducted several revealing interviews with the master. In December of 2005, he conducted Asai Shihan’s last international interview, which was published in the March edition of Shotokan Karate Magazine. In this issue, Asai Shihan made extensive references to his terminal health condition, and his desire for his students, to keep his unique blend of karate alive. Andre Bertel is certainly an important instructor in this process and this was verified by Asai Shihan himself, in this final interview. Now living back in Japan, Andre is still just as dedicated to the preservation of Asai Shihan’s karate, and is also continuing his daily self-training, following the disciplined example of his late teacher- Lyall Stone
(Lyall Stone ) Why did you start karate?
(Andre Bertel) I turned five years old, and my mother forced me to go. She wanted me to become a strong person, both mentally and physically. I hated karate initially; in fact I despised going to the dojo for years.
(LS) At what point did you begin enjoying your training?
(AB) Karate became fun for me when I was formally asked to take my shodan-shinsa in 1986, I suddenly realised that I’d actually achieved something. Opposite to most people, after passing my shodan my interest grew, as I felt I was exposed to more interesting things. I was so enthusiastic that I travelled to Japan many times, including for my nidan, sandan, yondan and rokudan examinations. Each time I completed an intensive three-month training stint. Every trip to Japan further reinforced my passion for karate. That was because I loved the challenge of regularly competing against world champions and kenshusei. Discovering that I could always match such people, giving them a hard time, and on some occasions, dominate them in serious dojo kumite, was very uplifting.
(LS) Do you think you were better than them?
(AB) I have huge respect for all karateka who train themselves seriously here in Japan, and around the world. And this is regardless of style and organisation. Being better depends on perception and secondly result, depending on what you are talking about. At a technically high level, I don’t think anyone is better than anyone else in karate, only different. It is like saying that Steve Vai is a better guitarist than Eric Clapton. It really depends on individual artistic preference, that is, in the case of kata performance. In regards to kumite and kata application, there is no way to compare, because then, if we are serious martial artists, we have take into account rules, or no rules. We would then also have to consider all of the different fighting arts, styles of karate, street brawling, and so forth. There are too many variables. If we are just looking at karate, then we are dreamers. Sadly, so many people in traditional karate are, hiding behind dan ranks and organization brand labels. Fighting is fighting, regardless of style, or no style. The survivor, or less damaged, is the one who is better. This was Asai Sensei’s kumite philosophy, so it is easy to see that his karate was going in a different direction, to the present day JKA, and JKF/WKF. I would like to add here that I am not implying that these respective organizations are inferior, merely different in their focus.
(LS) Were you interested in achieving high ranks in karate?
(AB) Not really, all of my dan grades above nidan were by invitation from Asai Sensei, which to me, has more value than passing the grade itself. I didn’t want to test above yondan, but was literally forced to by Sensei. As a result, I didn’t have to pay the registration fees. Fortunately Asai Sensei really took me under his wing, probably because he knew that I just loved karate training. I can say here that Sensei just hated politicians, and often just graded people to high ranks, who weren't worthy of a shodan in Tokyo. He said to me several times ‘no one cares about dan anyway, especially if a persons technique is no good.’ So essentially Asai Sensei killed my personal desire to progress up the dan ladder. In saying that, I did get my licenses up to A Level Instructor, B Level Examiner, and A Level Judge. My instructor and examiner licenses were all awarded to me, assisting Sensei at various seminars and dan-shinsa. Also via question and answer sessions, which would sometimes go on for over three hours, and include me having to demonstrate the in-depth breakdown of Kihon techniques, and how I taught them. I only did written examinations and clinics for my four judge examinations. All of these qualifications were important, not so much for myself, but for my dedicated students.
(LS) You won 17 New Zealand National Championship titles in both kata and kumite, what is your advice for upcoming competitors?
(AB) Don't concern yourself with results, just train hard, do your best, and have fun! If you don't find tournaments to be enjoyable, don't bother with them. I retired from serious competition when I found I no longer found it fun, and more importantly, discovered that it was limiting my technical development. Insofar as results and management is concerned, karate competitions and titles are just too politically driven, to be taken seriously. On a positive note, for some karateka, they can be excellent motivational tools, for increased frequency, and intensity of training. If that is the case for people, they should go for it! My favourite saying as a competitor was always ‘Lose Magnificently’, which I stole from the book by Vince Morris, ‘The Karate Manual’, as a kid.
(Shaun Banfield) What are the most important aspects do you stress when teaching kumite, and do you have any recommended training methods our readers could use to further their development of kumite?
(AB) When teaching kumite I stress avoiding techniques, which won’t work in a real confrontation, and of course, this depends on the individual. I have advanced students select a handful of manoeuvres and recommend they practise them every day. Karateka should practise striking techniques with full power on a target, and as much as possible, with an uncooperative training partner. I also emphasize finishing opponents with a choke, joint dislocation, or break. This I believe is consistent with kata application, and can ensure a finish. If there is more than one opponent, or weapons involved, this can also help you to barricade yourself. From my private training with Asai Sensei I know 100% that kata is jissen-kumite, and the drills I was taught were rather eye opening. Karate can be real, but unless we make our kumite training useful for the real world, we are only fooling ourselves.
(LS) What attracted you to Asai Shihan’s karate?
(AB) Probably my attraction to Asai Sensei’s karate was the fact that, like me, he too was small, and had to innovate different ways to make his karate work. He could not fight big guys square on, so he would deal with them via unorthodox footwork, jumps, body shifts such as ducking and spinning, and unpredictable counterattacks. By modern European standards, I am a small guy, weighing around 70 kilograms, and 175 centimetres tall, therefore Asai Sensei’s style was ideal for me. The other thing that attracted me to Asai Sensei’s karate was the alternative uses of energy, in particular the use of junansei (softness) to transcend muscle power.
(SB) You mentioned the alternative use of energy, ‘In particular the use of softness to transcend muscle power’. Can you please tell us and give us a deeper explanation of this concept?
(AB) It is rather simple to explain, but very hard to physically refine, for long practising Shotokan karateka, who as Asai Sensei often said, ‘perform constipated karate’. As you know, this impact is derived from joint power, as opposed to muscular strength. The best way to explain this is to use your imagination. Visualise your arm, and imagine all of the muscles and fat hanging off it. Only think of your bones and joints moving it, and naturally swing your arm through the air. With a little bit of experimentation, you will realize, that the more joints you utilise in this basic action, the more power you will make. Try snapping out your shoulder, elbow and wrist in a smooth whipping action. Obviously, the more relaxed you are, the more whip like speed, you will have. This applies to all techniques, standard Shotokan basics included. I think that Hideto Tsuchiya’s magnificent Sochin kata is a perfect example of this. Asai Sensei once said to me ‘Tension at the end of techniques is not required, and is nothing more than pseudo-science’. I will never forget that, because afterwards in his hotel room he very quickly beat me in a game of chess. Always imagine your joints as a seven jointed Chinese whip, or nunchuku, whether punching, kicking, striking or blocking.
(LS) What are your favourite karate techniques?
(AB) I’m particularly fond of muchiken-waza, and also of shihon nukite, and tsumasaki geri. My favourite targets are areas such as the eyes, throat, temple and back of the neck. I don’t have a favourite trajectory. Sensei trained me extensively to not have a setline of attack on a target. The advantages of this are pretty obvious in varying circumstances. Defensively I utilise many ducking and dodging techniques, again a huge influence of Asai Sensei. It comes back to the old saying ‘If you can’t be hit, you can’t be hurt’.
(LS) Do you believe Asai Shihan was the best?
(AB) I don’t believe anyone is the best. It depends on what each person wants from their karate. Certain philosophies, techniques, and personalities of different instructors, appeal to different people. I really followed Asai Sensei, as I liked his karate way the most, and as a result, he took me under his wing. I was very fortunate to be a personal student, but that came from my own desire, to improve myself. Sensei loved karate, so my enthusiasm was infectious for him. He often said that he saw himself in me, as a young man. So much so, that he would regularly say things like, ‘Andre, you are an obsessive karate-man, like I was in my youth, but was I better?’ and then chuckle away to himself. My main instructor was not Asai Sensei, my main instructor was, and still is myself. If I said anything else, and Sensei was still alive, he would scold me big-time.
(SB) I recently watched a video, on the infamous ‘You Tube’ of you being kicked by Master Asai. I was truly inspired by the flexibility and power, particularly in his kicks. He taught a great deal about ‘Soft joints’. Could you please explain a little about this aspect of his karate, and how do you apply this to your karate?
(LS) From my experience, no one compares to Asai Sensei in regards to karate softness. Even Koichi Hirota referred to him as ‘the man made of elastic’. I’m not trying to make Asai Sensei like some sort of god, but he truly was incomparable in this regard. The other great JKA Shotokan masters were famous for other special points. Junansei was Asai Sensei’s specialty, and he technically maximised it. His suppleness was karate specific, so his body was different to a say a yoga expert, or gymnast. The difference being, that his joint flexibility was purely to harness and deliver maximum impact with his techniques, regardless of target, or trajectory. The application of softness in my karate means I can fluidly move in any direction, and deliver any technique from any angle, from the ground, standing or jumping. Asai Sensei referred to this definitively as the ‘three styles of karate’. Actually this is a very deep topic, and needs plenty of physical explanation. I will try and write some articles soon, outlining Sensei’s special junansei exercises, such as Kihoyuragiso sono ichi and Kihoyuragiso sono ni.
(LS) You left Asai Shihan before he passed away. Why?
(AB) Sensei was not well, and recommended that I follow my own way. His constant message for me was ‘Junpu mannpan’. He suggested that I train with Masters Yahara and Osaka, among others. The dojo, which effectively employed me in New Zealand, joined the KWF, based on a committee decision. So I taught there until I came back to Japan. That worked well, as Mr. Yahara was one of the masters Asai Sensei told me to seek out.
(SB) How different would you describe these two legends (Master Asai and Master Yahara) in their approach to Shotokan, and how difficult has it been balancing two very influential instructors ideals into your idea of karate?
(AB) I am not qualified to answer this question, as I have had very limited exposure to Yahara Sensei’s karate.
(SB) From my time spent with the excellent KWF guys here in the UK, there’s a huge emphasis on the way the hips work by Yahara Sensei. Can you please tell us about this?
(AB) Mr. Yahara’s utilisation of the hips is extreme. He is looking to coil and release as much explosive power as possible. His karate is undeniably lethal, pure bujutsu. I could clearly see the influence of Asai Sensei on him.
(LS) Who has been your most influential karate instructor?
(AB) As I said before, the most important instructor for all karateka is themselves. You can spout off big names, but at the end of the day, only you, can make your karate work for yourself. Dan ranks, qualifications, titles, student numbers, photos with famous instructors, and affiliations to Japanese organisations, are all irrelevant. What really matters is your own training and technical skill. This is dependent on how much you study, and train yourself, I am not talking about teaching classes here. If you have a real passion for karate, you will be your main sensei, and regularly engage in self-training.
(LS) Is there any aspect of training you believe is counterproductive?
(AB) In my view, too much sun-dome training is highly counterproductive. Regardless of what anyone says, karateka must train to follow through with their attacks, as much as possible. It is essential to do plenty of full-power impact work, as opposed to just punching into thin air.
(LS) What is your favourite kata?
(AB) It constantly changes, but this week’s focus kata is Sochin, complimented by Gojushihodai. I’m also learning a lot from Junro-shodan, Seiryu and the Joko series at present. When it comes to kata practice 50% depends on my training targets, and the other 50% on my artistic feeling. My training circulates, but certain advanced kata consistently find themselves in my regime. My tokui kata are currently Tekki-sandan, Gojushihodai and Kaminari-arashi. To me, the three Tekki win hands down, when it comes to practical self-defense applications, so there is always a Tekki amongst my
(SB) Master Asai practiced some 150 Kata. What do you feel are the benefits of practicing kata outside of the so-called ‘Standard 26 Shotokan kata’?
(AB) Possibly no benefits, just preference! The real question is ‘Why do people practice karate?’ Nowadays, above self-defence, I primarily train for my enjoyment, and I like doing Sensei’s kata. If you want to limit your kata training, and follow standard Shotokan-ryu, why not just practise the 10 mandatory kata, and just one or two tokui kata? I have so much fun in my self-training, as I have a huge library to go through. I generally stick to a very standard training regime, but having 89 kata gives me a huge amount of variety. One tangible advantage has been in kumite, where I’ve consistently applied techniques from various kata, which my opponents cannot defend against. I’m pretty pleased if I can improve my karate, and simultaneously have more fun training. To me that is the benefit of going outside of the standard 26 Shotokan kata.
(LS) Where is your karate going at present?
(AB) 2007 like every other year means more training, studying and teaching. Currently I'm really enjoying my self-training, however, like everyone, there are times when training everyday is a real effort. In saying that, what daily routine isn't in our lives? My feeling about karate has not changed since the mid 80’s, it really is my way of life. This year I’m hoping that more dojo, and karate associations from around the world, invite me to take seminars. I've been lucky to have taught karate here in Japan, the United States, Europe, Australia, and in my home country New Zealand, so I hope to continue doing this. I think that many people want to learn Asai Sensei's kata, so I want the opportunity to share more of them. People seem to like my courses, because I don't make them into endurance events, nor do they contain stale content, I make sure everything is refreshing. I have never made it to the United Kingdom, so that is certainly one of my goals. It is such a shame that politics and egos, stop some people from hosting me.
(LS) Any advice for the readers of this interview?
(AB) If you are sick of your karate training, don’t stop, I believe this is where you are making your biggest improvements. It is natural to have highs and lows in your training, but the lows are where, if you keep striving to improve, you will gain the most from your karate. Offering lip service about the benefits of karate as a self-discipline is a lie, when we don’t fight our way back up the mountain. A real karateka, regardless of their busy life schedule, and daily condition, makes time to self-train. This is the example Asai Sensei left us, even when battling terminal illness, and is what comprehensively defines the discipline of karate.
(LS) Any final comments?
(AB) Yes, don’t forget International Asai Memorial Day, on August 15th. The First Anniversary of Sensei’s passing. Complete your 1000 gyaku zuki and 1000 mae geri with vigor, keeping Asai Sensei’s determination in your mind. I’ll be concluding by going through all of the kata, that Sensei taught me, and prayer.
I wish everyone the utmost best in their training, and thank you very much for the request, and opportunity, to do this interview.
(SB) On behalf of myself and everyone at TSW, can I say a huge thank you for taking the time to do this interview for us and may we wish you every success with the future.
Questions by Lyall Stone and Shaun Banfield of TSW