"Straight shooting from the hip"
Jan Knobel is a well known karate-ka and sought after instructor in The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Latvia, Romania, Italy, plus to a lesser degree South Africa. Whilst actively supporting his Sensei Abe Keigo’s JSKA (He currently holds a 7th Dan and presides on the JSKA Shihan-kai) he is equally involved in the promotion of his own forward thinking organisation the World JKA Karate Alliance.
Jan Knobel will not be known by the majority of the readers of this website, but his viewpoint may strike a chord or cause contemplation and debate.
His first foreign teacher was Miyazaki Sensei and his assistant Sawada Sensei. They made such a big impression on him that Jan committed himself fully to Karate. It started for him as a hobby and became a lifestyle and his living. After a period of teaching karate at a local sports school, Jan started his dojo in 1983. The dojo was, and still is, called UMO, meaning feather. This crest was a description of Jan's character and lifestyle, done by his former Japanese teacher Sensei Miyazaki. Miyazaki Sensei thought the feather in the air is swift and uncontrolled, attached to an arrow the feather directs and controls the arrow. This he thought was Jan's character, happy and fun, but straight to the point and honest. Jan thought Sensei Miyazaki describing him this way was a great honour. The two feathers, one black and one white, crossed, remains the symbol of his dojo.
He has trained alongside and interacted with many of Shotokan karate’s great karate-ka, both Western and Japanese. He has also been privileged in sharing deeper relationships and friendships with very senior Japanese Senseis, which makes his personal outlook more appealing.
Known as a ‘straight shooter’ or ‘one who says what he thinks’ Jan leaves people in little doubt as to what he feels, even to the point some think him brusque.
He was the instructor to some well known karate competitors in the European Shotokan scene such as Robin Huijer, Anil Soekdew, Ferdi Boudier, and of course his sons Anthon and Jan (Jr) Knobel. These competitors have gained medals and final placings in events such as the Gichin Funakoshi World Cup, JKA Asai World Championships, KWF European Championships, and more recently the Japan Shotokan Karate Association World Championships in Manchester 2008.
Jan Knobel is a married man with three children, and shares his profession between karate and Caribbean property management. – TSW 08
(The Shotokan Way ) Jan, when did you start karate and why?
(Jan Knobel) First I’d like to thank you for taking time to interview me. As you know, most of the time I like to keep a low profile and leave the interviews to the “experts’’and “paper tigers”. I like to see myself more on the practical side than the theoretical side of karate.
I started practising karate in 1973 after seeing (of course) a Bruce Lee movie. It impressed me so much that this had to become my sport. Secondly I had to do some sport after my father, a great soccer trainer, saw me playing soccer and denied in public that I was his son. I was that bad! When I came home after that game he politely asked me to hang my shoes into the willows. So I decided then to start kicking people instead of balls!!!
(TSW) Who was your first Japanese karate Sensei? Tell us about his training please?
(JK) Miyazaki Sensei was my first karate Sensei. His way of training was hard, vicious but fair. You liked to be trained by him, because he gave you the satisfaction of having trained hard. His kicks were famous and killing. His memory was like a computer. Once he had seen you, he would remember you and tell you that either yes or no, you had or had not improved your techniques. I had the honour to do my shodan and nidan exams with him.
(TSW) We know Kase, Shirai, Enoeda and Kanazawa Senseis were the first into Europe. Many readers on The Shotokan Way may not know of Miyazaki Satoshi Sensei as he passed away in the early 1990’s (1993) and was possibly focused more in Benelux countries. Tell us more about him and his karate, from your perspective.
(TSW) Miyazaki Sensei was a quiet man, more like a real samurai. Did not speak much, never told stories, and his performance was of a humble and very shy man. His eyes looked straight through you and without him saying anything you still would believe him. He was the chief instructor of Belgium and he was the one who organised the yearly international gasshuku in Gent, Belgium. He managed one year to invite the whole Japanese team to come to Belgium and included Senseis such as Nakayama, Iida, Shirai and Kase. On my request he asked Nakayama Sensei to make calligraphy for the Dutch karate magazine called Taiko. Miyazaki Sensei’s karate was straight and very strong. His techniques clear and without show. The karate he did was his - he owned it. With exams he was strict, no fooling, and he would remember you when you came for a re-exam. I know that the success that the Belgium team had in those days was thanks to him. A perfect teacher, coach and samurai. He taught me my Unsu and in those days Sochin. He knew how to motivate, explain, and force you to reach beyond your own possibilities. I learned from him how to teach and motivate my own students. When Sumi Sensei saw my karate for the first time he could tell that Miyazaki Sensei had been my teacher. I still find this a great compliment. Occasionally Miyazaki Sensei was invited to come to the Netherlands to teach. Arrogant as the Dutch are, our “leaders” believed and made us believe that they themselves could do a better job. That made me decide to start travelling abroad to visit several gasshukus to practise with the “Old Guys”.
(TSW) Miyazaki Sensei came out of the same mould, the kenshusei, in the same year (1961) as Ueki, Enoeda, and Kisaka Senseis. Was he equal to these greats?
(JK) In those days he was equal to Enoeda Sensei; believe me he was. Their performances were different. Enoeda looked more like a tiger on the hunt; Miyazaki looked more like the hunted but with the knowledge that he would survive the tiger.
(TSW) You say Miyazaki Sensei had murderous kicks. Did you ever receive one? Were you ever fortunate enough to engage in any kumite activity with him?
(JK) There must be some photos from when Miyazaki Sensei treated me with a kick, so yes I have received one and I survived. It felt like a punch that kept lasting with a nice black spot on my stomach and one on the back after I had landed. Hard, but nice. Only a few people I know can/could kick that way.
(TSW) What part of Miyazaki Sensei’s karate do you continue forward today?
(JK) His kicking? No actually all of his basics. My strict kihon is his. People who have known Miyazaki Sensei, and see my karate, will tell you I was his student, so it is still there. Okay Asai Sensei added a lot, so did Kase Sensei, but the basics belong to Miyazaki Sensei.
(TSW) Did you ever know Nakayama Masatoshi Sensei?
(JK) I had the honour of meeting Nakayama Sensei two times in Belgium. On one occasion he drew the name ‘Taiko’ for me on a piece of paper and the latter time he did the calligraphy. At that time it was a normal happening, now I look at it as a great honour. He introduced the “Tradition” in Belgium. The tradition is a get together on Wednesday evening with a lot of drinking and a vicious warming up on Thursday morning. Miyazaki Sensei started the training and of course the drinking first.
(TSW) How does that training compare to that we see nowadays?
(JK) Nowadays training is a “walk in the park”. In those days we got broken, beaten and exhausted. Every day, every hour. In Belgium for one week, five hours a day, six days a week. In the afternoon we sat alongside a big pond to cool off our feet. Walking was killing, training was like dying (or we thought we would die), but we loved it. Nakayama Sensei had introduced the “Tradition”, he made it tough. The first time the Japanese team and Nakayama Sensei came to Belgium the gasshuku became the first International recognised JKA gasshuku. That Thursday, after the get together on Wednesday, they (Japanese teachers) made us do 1000 kicks left and right legs. Punches until your arms dropped from the shoulders. Push ups, repeat until the alcohol had left the system. Actually after the first time we started looking forward to that day. How crazy can you be? We did a lot of “Koshi waza” at that time; nowadays it is more “Kuchi waza”. I did this every year for ten years long. Each and every training with Nakayama Sensei’s JKA instructors was hard, lasting, and tough. Giving up was not an option, you did not even think about it. “They” made me the teacher I am nowadays; I will try to keep that line. That is why I keep my body in shape to be able to compete with my own students.
(TSW) Are you saying we talk the talk in karate today, but do not walk the walk?
(JK) Exactly that is what I mean. More talk than training. Most of the trainings nowadays are more like sitting down and listening - sometimes to crap. The other day I had a gasshuku with some other teachers and I heard people say to each other: “When is Sensei Knobel teaching, because then we can really practise again”. No ego tripping - just emphasizing that people want to train and not to talk and sit down. We pay to learn, we do not pay to listen to stories or crap.
(TSW) Was the training then, more ‘Kihon centric,’ or ‘all round’ i.e. Kihon, Kata and Kumite in equal measures?
(JK) Kihon was more used as warming up and to get an idea what was going to happen. Maybe out of 2.5 hrs something like 30 minutes. Then a lot and I mean a lot of kumite. All sorts of kumite, but actually just a small part was actual jiyu kumite. We always ended with kata, say about the last 30 minutes. Not just for a rest but actually meant to squeeze the last bit of energy out of your body. I recall my first JKA training in Belgium. Man how happy I was when they started with kata, now I could take a break. Man how broken and exhausted I was after the kata. The next trainings we started praying and hoping that the Senseis would forget about the kata.
(TSW) Apart from Nakayama Sensei you mentioned Iida, Shirai and Kase Senseis. Iida Norihiko Sensei is perhaps more famous to Western Shotokan karate-ka because of his featuring in the Go No Sen section of Nakayama’s Best Karate Kumite 1 (Book 3). Tell us about your experience of his karate?
(JK) I trained with him twice. The first time I saw him he made such an impression on me, that I do not think that I will ever forget that. To me, at that time, he was big, bold and full of energy. Yahara Sensei and Kagawa Sensei now make me think of him. To me he was Mr. JKA himself. His teaching (actually all their teaching) was the same.
What you saw was what you could expect. I have been to trainings with Yahara Sensei and Kagawa Sensei and sometimes they really acted fast, strong, and vicious. Iida was doing that all the time. The second time I trained with him he was more technical, but then again I was in a higher group with the black belts. Mind you the trainings up to brown belt was basics, basics, and at the end basics. Black belts got more info and technical (very hard) training.
(TSW) Comparing Iida to say Shirai or Kase Sensei, was there a difference due to the era of training they emerged from?
(JK) Absolutely not. They all were the same to us. So no matter what teacher you had, “The JKA line” was followed. No exceptions, later on, after Nakayama Sensei died, Kase Sensei changed his karate. I refused that way of karate and stuck with JKA (Asai Sensei).
(TSW) I hear you also had a strong relationship with Kase Taiji Sensei. What was he like, in your view, both as a karate-ka and as a man?
(JK) Kase Sensei was like a father, or a granddad. Very nice and strong man, friendly and kind in mind, hard as concrete in body. A no nonsense karate-ka in the dojo and a very entertaining man outside. We had long talks with him and he always told us stories of the beginning days of karate. He really took time for this kind of entertainment. In my opinion it was a family thing. When visiting Japan and living in his house for 3 weeks we really got to know his family. His father at that time was sick, but his brother, sister in law and his mother took really good care of us. Him and Asai Sensei, I miss them a lot.
(TSW) So you were invited to Kase Sensei’s house in Japan. Was this common for him to do? Did you receive any tuition from him at the house?
(JK) I do not know if it was common. I believe that several other karateka have also visited his house. I know that his house was next door to that of his parents and it had a little dojo in the backyard. We were allowed to use it and it was like working in a shrine or temple. Pretty impressive. Kase Sensei was not present at that time, so his family took care of us. His brother made sure that we had our trainings in the JKA honbu dojo, with Abe Sensei, and a famous university in the neighbourhood of the old Honbu dojo.
(TSW) I believe you graded to Sandan with Kase Sensei. Tell us about that examination and the feelings you had.
(JK) Ha ha, no feelings. Anger, relief and happiness. We started on a Friday afternoon. Worked throughout the evening until ten o’clock and we failed (that’s what we thought). Saturday all day training, Sunday suffering and training. We wanted to give up because we felt it had no use. Sunday evening he called the four of us and promoted us to sandan. The toughest grading I ever did, but satisfying. His aim was, not to give up at any time. He gave an example with the following. He was in a fight in the early days and somebody attacked him with a knife. After asking us what we would have done he told us that he had blocked the attack with his arm. He explained why this dangerous move by saying:
“Better lose arm, than lose life”.
(TSW) Can you recall who the other three on the grading were?
(JK) Digging real deep. Jaap Smaal, Peter Wewengkang and Peter van Hooijdonk if I am correct.
(TSW) Where do you see Kase Sensei’s position within Shotokan, globally and within Europe?
(JK) Globally I have no idea. At that time there was hardly any international contact. Mind you travelling was poor, no internet, phone too expensive and it was the beginning for us so no international connection. Our “leaders” who had the connection kept it quiet - maybe so nobody could take over. In Europe he was ‘the man’. He is seen as the first Japanese teacher who introduced karate in Europe. Look at him as the ‘Godfather of karate in Europe’. He did what Nishiyama did in the USA. Kase was ‘it’, even when we organised gasshukus with him and Enoeda Sensei, Kase was still the grandmaster. Picture this - during one training Sawada Sensei attacked with oi tsuki chudan; Kase Sensei blocked with soto uke and broke Sawada Sensei’s arm. Man - a legend was born! In those days he was a welcome guest in the Netherlands and the rest of Europe. He spent a lot of time in Belgium and it increased after Miyazaki Sensei died. I believe he was one of the first Japanese Senseis who spend a lot of time in Czechoslovakia.
(TSW) I have heard or read that Kase Sensei involved himself with both the JKA and Nihon Karate-do Shotokai (thus able to exist in harmony with both) due to his loyalty to Funakoshi Giko. As a result his karate shows elements of both Shotokai and JKA. Would you say he was a JKA karate-ka as opposed to a ‘Shoto’ karate-ka? What are your thoughts on this? Do you not think that even in that day and age he had his ‘own brand’ or ‘own way’?
(JK) Definitely he had his own style or brand, they all did. Just like you and me and all the other instructors who have their own brand. But the basic was JKA, his karate was JKA with a touch of Shotokai. I even believe that his karate nowadays is called “Kase Ha” karate. I think we all have some elements in our karate which are not strictly ballroom, but in my opinion those elements complete, or maybe better, our personal way of karate. What Kase did nobody could, what Iida did nobody could, what Asai did … the same. They all had their personal brand. Copying them was foolish, finding out your own way was clever.
(TSW) Did Kase Sensei teach his famous Hen-te waza and open hand techniques in that era or on your gasshukus?
(JK) I trained with Kase Sensei for more then 10 years and he always started with his open hand techniques and at the end we did the Hen-te waza. I still practice them and only for the reason that these techniques are also Asai Sensei’s favorites. It teaches you to relax and withhold the power until the end of the technique, when needed. Hen-te is more the tension –relaxing - tension stuff, as you perform the techniques on one side. So yes, he always started with his favorites.
(TSW) Did you ever hear him speak of the great masters Funakoshi Gichin and Giko?
(JK) When he was talking about Senseis Funakoshi Gichin and Giko he always had “wet” eyes. He knew Funakoshi Gichin, of course, but his real teacher was Giko Sensei. Of him he spoke nothing but good. More like Funakoshi Gichin was “Papa Funakoshi” and Giko Sensei his brother. In the stories he told us he sometimes mentioned Giko Sensei and we always got the impression that there was a special bond between Kase Sensei and Giko Sensei. Kase Sensei always faded away a little when he had mentioned him as if the memories came back. Knowing Kase Sensei’s family I am convinced they were samurai. I have seen his dad, who was a teacher, his brother Taime and his mother. Yes definitely they could be samurai.
(TSW) You still practice a kata called ‘Heian Oyo’. Is this from Kase Sensei’s influence? And what exactly is this kata?
(JK) Heian Oyo kata and Tekki Oyo kata are indeed from Kase Sensei. They exist of the major points of the 5 Heian and 3 Tekki. They are really fun and it makes you start thinking karate instead of performing. I still practise them everyday in order not to forget them and because it is really relaxing. The major points are connected together and in performing it is confusing. For example you start with Heian nidan on one side and then next move to the other side which is Heian sandan etc. Embusen is the same as the Heian. Same goes for Tekki kata. Later on Shirai Sensei changed some techniques.
(TSW) Compared to organisations such as the JKA, or the more mainstream well-known Shotokan associations, what do you recall as the differences in the karate of Kase Sensei? Did his karate change or evolve during your time under his guidance?
(JK) Actually no, Kase Sensei’s karate was strictly ballroom (JKA) until I left him and moved over to Asai Sensei. He was a small, strongly built man. He had and used a lot of power especially in his karate. His kicks were low, although Yoshitaka Sensei was his teacher, he always told us that he would follow the line set by “Papa Funakoshi” as he called him, with respect.
(TSW) You also formed quite a strong relationship with Asai Tetsuhiko Sensei during the 1990’s. What was he like as a man?
(JK) In the picture we celebrate his birthday, the cake was specially made for him.
He was and is my “Karate father”. From the first day I met him until the last day, I felt a connection with him. He stayed with my family several times and he was always joking and playing with my sons. Picture this - Asai Sensei sitting in a comfortable couch with two little boys on his lap and watching cartoon network, then almost killing me because I interrupted him? That was “my” teacher. In the dojo he kicked me, threw me and hit me hard but fairly. He was flexible like a rubber band, moving like lightning, but always ended with a funny remark or joke. He enjoyed life, he enjoyed shopping with my wife saying that “compared to shopping, he had no business with me”. I do not pretend that I knew him as well as I hear other people say they know him. I have my memories about him and it makes me smile. One thing is for sure, if he had not had come into my life, my karate would never have been what it is today. He pushed me and my sons and for that I am grateful.
(TSW) Tell us more about your relationship with him?
(JK) We shared some private moments which not many people know. For example my father went to visit him in the middle of the night to get JKA NL affiliated. He was invited into Asai Sensei’s house, paid the money and was brought to the train station to go to the Airport. All that time Asai Sensei did not touch the money. We got affiliated and since then Asai Sensei named my father “Father Oranda” out of respect. During an Asai Sensei visit to the Netherlands, in the middle of the night he called me and said “Jan Sensei pick me up, I want to go to your home” Even though HQ had forbidden me to take him in my house. He did not care, he wanted to be with us.
(TSW) You are portraying Asai Sensei as a caring, normal man. Do you have any funny stories about him?
(JK) You know Asai Sensei once escaped from a gasshuku in Switzerland to visit me and my family in a tent camp in the neighbourhood. Nobody knew where he was. We had a barbeque and he took a nap in one of our tents. On return to his Hotel we saw that everybody was in panic looking for Sensei. So he guided me to the back of the Hotel saying: “Nobody needs to know”.
(TSW) Do you have any other memories of him?
(JK) I once had an argument with a gasshuku organiser in front of Asai Sensei; about one of my students who could not pay for a training. After explaining to Asai Sensei the situation, Asai Sensei took the money out of his own pocket and paid for my student, just saying ‘No more’. This is Asai Sensei as the human, the father. You know the first time I ever sensed that Asai Sensei was sick was one time in Antwerp. When we visited Antwerp he panicked. He could not see anything anymore, his vision was gone. After a while he regained sight, but looked very worried. He asked me to keep it quiet.
(TSW) Any other anecdotes about Asai Sensei?
(JK) Some people will remember the meeting in the Netherlands during the 3rd European Camp. Few will know that when I took Asai Sensei to the Airport, he crashed his fists on my dashboard out of anger. He was shouting “stupid, they are stupid, we should stay together without fights’“. At that time, seeing him so angry, I believed all the stories Kase Sensei had told about him. Now I am stepping on toes, but he really liked the idea and the concept of the WJKA. He told me so in private.
(TSW) Asai Sensei is a legendary karate-ka, who is credited with devising new kata or resurrecting many kata that were unknown in the mainstream Shotokan school. What is your understanding of these kata? Do you practise any of them? If so why?
(JK) To understand Asai Sensei kata’s, you must understand your body. Most of the kata are flexible and swift. They look like kung fu kata. But if you learn to accept them and understand them then you will learn that these kata are in my own expression “age kata”. Meaning that each kata trains and addresses the problems of getting older in every age. E.g. I have a shoulder problem so I practise one of Asai Sensei’s Kata that trains my shoulders. It works and I feel good about it. For every age there is a kata. In my opinion the man was a genius. So yes I practise them a lot. At the moment about 30 out of 62.
(TSW) Did you receive any private tuition from Asai Sensei? If so can you share some of that experience with us?
(JK) Really private as in private? Not really. Getting up at six o’clock in the morning every day, no matter what kind of weather, doing 26 kata, push ups, kicking and makiwara training, if you call that private training? Then yes. At that time Asai Sensei did not practise those strange kata. He did the real Shotokan stuff as we use to do. The old JKA stuff. A lot of kumite, we did. Some kata, we did. Every day, we did. The strange part is that this kind of practising I still do already for many years. That is his influence and that is what he taught me. Do not give up, keep practising, try to become perfect in your own eyes. Do not mind what others think of your karate, especially when they do not practise themselves. Explore your own body and start listening to it.
Part 2 Follows in the next edition