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) You have also enjoyed a friendship with Sumi Yoshikazu Sensei (Chief instructor of the Karate Union of Australia). He was a student in Funakoshi Gichin’s time. What has he brought to your karate?
(Jan Knobel) Sumi Sensei really opened my eyes. He showed me, without him knowing it, that you cannot force your body into something that the body does not like. Sumi Sensei was a little man and used, in his karate, an enormous amount of power. If one is young, then this should not be a problem. The problem starts when one is getting older. He showed me that process and for that I am grateful. I knew I had to change my karate. Technically Sumi Sensei may not be that good, by that I mean he was more like a worker than a technician. But again, his background was JKA and he had been Shirai Sensei’s assistant, so Sumi Sensei was tough and very powerful.
(TSW) You have also recently been working with Yokota Kousaku Sensei in Europe, and travelling with him. Could you enlighten us as to what that mission is?
(JK) Yokota Sensei is the chief instructor for JKS America and representative of Asai-Ha USA. We met through the WJKA channels, and we found out that we had a mutual interest; namely Asai Sensei’s karate. We started contact through email and eventually I decided to invite Yokota Sensei to the Netherlands. Mainly to learn more about Asai Sensei’s karate. More or less a private invitation. In the process he gave a two-day gashuku and I learned that we were kindred people. After, we had long conversations, and we decided to continue the legacy and start promoting Asai Sensei’s unique way of karate. So we started to exchange knowledge and in the process we became friends. I am honoured and happy that I can call Yokota Sensei my friend. We share a lot of memories and knowledge, the way it should be. Let us say that he and I, we are on a quest.
(TSW) Tell us more about Yokota Sensei?
(JK) Asai Sensei alike. First time I saw Yokota Sensei and talked to him and saw his karate, I really believed that Asai Sensei had reincarnated. Exactly the same moves, attitude, posture and open mindedness. As for his karate, I can be short. Asai –Ha from beginning to the end. Flexible, strong and lasting. What you see is not what you get, but even better. No nonsense. As a man he is very open minded and very nice to talk with. He agreed with most of my thoughts and then tried to explain what, in a similar situation, a Japanese instructor would think. I learned a lot off him about the Japanese way of thinking. As I said before, we had long conversations and we started to respect each other and became friends. Although he is very much related to JKS we still have a close contact. We discuss techniques, katas and global Shotokan. We learn from each other. I am his student and he is my teacher, he is my student and I am his teacher. The way it should be. The way we all should, the way Asai Sensei had in mind. Yokota Sensei understands this perfectly and that makes him different and amiable.
(TSW) You have been involved in the creation of various Karate friendship societies such as WJKA (World JKA Karate Alliance), the ISKDA, and the SKDUN. It seems these groups have been able to work together in relative harmony for competition purposes. Is this the way forward?
(JK) Those organisations work together and accept each other. I am involved in all these organisations and I think it really works, it is the way forward. I like to believe that there is an urge to work together. The main part in these organisations is that there is no Japanese involvement, and fights are immediately solved in a meeting.
(TSW) How do you view competition in the whole scheme of Shotokan, from early development until today?
(JK) If we stick to the traditional way of competing, I see no problem and Shotokan will survive. If we go the WKF way, then I believe it is the end of the competitions we know. Too much sport. E.g. Asai Sensei always emphasized that competition must show reality without ‘being real’. So fight your kata or kumite as a real fight. Nowadays it is performing a show without expression, fighting or surviving instinct. On the other hand I believe there are no “greats” anymore (as in the old days), too many organisations, too many greats, too many champions, so at the end everybody claims to be great or the greatest.
(TSW) By traditional ways of competing are you referring to Ippon Shobu as a set of rules or another factor?
(JK) I mean the Ippon Shobu as the traditional way of fighting and thinking. The killing blow is what we were told and it should be told again. Comparing to the point system nowadays, karate has become a game of table tennis.
(TSW) You say “Asai Sensei always emphasized that competition must show reality without ‘being real’. Can you expand on your understanding of that?
(JK) What I mean to say is that Asai Sensei always explained to me that you enter the fighting area with the mind of a warrior, fighter or samurai. You fight like those warriors, but at the correct moment, you control the attack or defence. He had this strange saying: “Mind over body, body over mind” meaning that the mind controls the body and that the body sometimes controls the mind. The mind says go for the kill and the body controls the techniques. It is nothing secret or mystic, actually more common sense.
(TSW) Do you think Karate should ever be included in the Olympics?
(JK) No, absolutely no. Take Tae Kwon do for example. Karate almost succeeded. But what is left? Nothing. No unity, no Olympics. We keep trying, but how long must we go on? Must we give up traditional karate and start with sports karate? Believe me, the older I get, the more I understand the meaning of karate. In the meaning of the word karate, the word ‘sport’ is like a virus. It kills the art. Practicing karate means to me - a constant battle against sickness, old age etc. Not sport. How many people think like me and they have to face the sports people and unite? If we want this then the governing body must think of two divisions, the sports division and the traditional division. In that case it could work.
(TSW) Is this not what Nishiyama Sensei was advocating? Dento (traditional) karate and the sport karate, two separate entities, but able to both be included in the Olympics?
(JK) It was not only Nishiyama who was advocating this, also Asai Sensei had the same feelings although he gave Nishiyama the credit. They knew what was going on. They felt it. Look at the in-fights so many famous Sensei had and what has happened. They could not agree so they split. Nishiyama and Asai Senseis were visionaries. If our generation can stop the fights and get all Shotokan groups together, we can succeed in what they advocated. So why not try, just in honor of these two great karate teachers?
(TSW) Would you like to see one governing body world-wide and if so what is your ideal of such an organisation?
(JK) Wishful thinking that it is. One governing body, yes that would be nice. But believing in fairy tales is also nice. Yes of course I would like to see one organization that acts as the governing body. I was raised with soccer, so I know. My idea is this, let us first start with a unified Shotokan group. There is now only one ‘legend’ left after Nishiyama Sensei died. It is us westerners who call them ‘legends’ but actually it could be said that they started all the in-fights and created the splits and separations. So now, in my opinion it is up to our generation to start making peace with each other. Also the Japanese teachers have to get involved in the process. When that succeeds then it could be possible to expand it globally with the other styles, groups and organizations. I hope that time will come but I do not think I will live to see it happen.
(TSW) In recent years Shotokan organisations have splintered due to various reasons. Do you feel it has strengthened or weakened our art?
(JK) It pretty much weakened the art in one way. If we could have stuck together, then Shotokan would have been the greatest art/organisation in the World. It was, in my opinion, in the Nakayama days! On the other hand, the splits might haven given an opportunity for “lesser known” instructors to develop their style. It is my belief that we should have stuck together to avoid Shotokan becoming sports karate. Nowadays karate is all about money. A lot of the ‘young’ Japanese teachers have had the same teachers as us ‘oldies’, but they charge insane prices to impart their knowledge. So what makes them better? What makes them ask for so much money for training? Training that we can give everyday in our own dojos.
(TSW) Are you saying that western instructors are able to provide a better service?
(JK) I believe, I know, there are better Western Instructors whose know-how is far greater than some of those young Japanese “Karate Gods”. Okay their karate maybe good, but their spirit, and ideals are not so good in my view. They must start realizing that they largely live by the grace of the Western karateka. Westerners have had to develop themselves, and as far as I can see, they have done so - with success. We must open our eyes and stop fighting the fights that have been started in their country. Fights that should not affect us! They still look at us as people who can be tilted from our money. I have to say that in the last decade no teacher has totally awed, impressed, or amazed me with their training. I think the western seniors are equally capable of teaching traditional karate. I am not denouncing all Japanese karate-ka, just stating a view that they charge so much money for things that can be taught equally well by Westeners.
(TSW) Are you suggesting that western karate-ka should evolve and move away from Japanese associations?
(JK) No, but I find it unbelievable that an organisation in Japan can decide for me whether I can invite a teacher, or not, to any event I host. How can someone stop me in affiliating to “His” organisation, just because I looked outside it? Why can’t I become a member of different organisations in order to practise with all or any famous teachers? Why do people claim they are the best yet are afraid to let people in? Many still let them rule us. This kind of attitude, to me, is weakening Karate.
(TSW) What are the strengths and weaknesses for karate in having so many diverse organisations?
(JK) I do not believe there are any strengths. Now we have too many ships with too many captains - with only one goal and that is making money and not in promoting the art. What makes soccer so strong, what makes, to stay with martial arts, Judo so strong? One organisation that rules the world policy. Judo is Olympic, soccer is, so why can’t we unite forces and work for one organisation? With too many organisations the art is losing credibility. Many organisations became the laughing stock in the art because they pull all kinds of tricks to get people in or out. I have heard of people who have been expelled from their organisation for not “obeying” the rules. In the early days you would commit suicide if you got expelled, nowadays you pick up your agenda and call one of the other hundred organisations. They may even give you a higher grading and welcome you with open arms.
(TSW) I would like to ask you about your vision for karate, particularly, Shotokan in the future. Is there anything that karate-ka can do in order to cross the political/association boundaries and function/exist together in more harmony?
(JK) Western people should force our ‘leaders’ to start a dialogue in order to start working together. The pie is big, so all of them can have a piece; before there is no pie left. We should start making decisions relating to karate. Everybody wants to belong to a ‘big’ Sensei, but why? I was a loner for 15 years and I still love and practise daily my karate, so what is more important? Belonging to a controlling organisation and spending or wasting a lot of money in relative unhappiness or doing karate with real pleasure?
(TSW) Returning to something you said earlier. You said “… Shotokan would have been the greatest art/organisation in the World. It was, in my opinion, in the Nakayama days!” Can you further elaborate your thoughts please?
(JK) To us JKA Nakayama was the elite. One had to belong to that group or your karate was not the real thing. In those early days there was only one Shotokan group that had a right to exist and that was Nakayama Sensei’s JKA. We had respect for him and the organisation; we would do anything to be a part of the JKA. This has now changed.
(TSW) What influence do you feel Westerners, either instructor course graduates, or long standing karate-ka as yourself will have on the future of Shotokan?
(JK) If the majority does not accept the westerners as their teachers, then I do not believe there will be an influence. It is all about acceptance. If I tell students how to practice a technique, and those students start arguing after a gasshuku with a Japanese teacher, then I better pack my things and move on. As I said before, there is an attitude of ‘if you’re not Japanese, you know nothing’. We first must change that attitude by changing ourselves. Start drawing one line. Start practicing together and start making agreements. If I must believe the internet we have so many experts, so get them together and start a dialogue. If I read this magazine, I am astonished about the knowledge that is published. So much knowledge and it is all kept private. Yokota Sensei and I we have started to share our knowledge. Japan and The Netherlands! Who is next? Then and only then we can have influence in the future of Shotokan.
(TSW) Of course Japan is largely responsible for the initial global spread of Shotokan. Do you believe that it is still the ‘centre of excellence’ for Shotokan?
(JK) No absolutely not. Just as the UK is not the centre of soccer anymore. We must be realistic; Japan’s karate is as good, or as bad, as our karate is. Look what happened in Judo and Aikido. The Western world took over. Our teaching methods and teaching abilities are far better then the eastern way of teaching. Even Japanese teachers will admit this. I am not looking at the way the Japanese practice karate. I am convinced that the western know-how can easily be compared with the Japanese know-how today. Okay agreed, they have the history, but is history not the past too? If we want to preserve our art then we must combine forces with or without Japan. Stop being scared and speak out.
(TSW) Possibly more westerners practice Shotokan due its spread globally than Japanese. Is there even a need for Japan to control technical standards today?
(JK) They pretty much try too, although I believe that it is more money related. If you look at the fees they charge nowadays then I really believe that it is only for the money and not for the art. Looking at the gashukus they give, I would say “what technical standard” ? If karate would be a war then Japan is losing. The old Guns had the know-how, technical ability and were not arrogant, the young Guns have less know-how, less technical ability and a lot of arrogance. For that we pay and we leave our own Western experts in the cold. The old rule still counts, “if you’re not Japanese, you do not know karate”. Asai Sensei did not do it for the money, I will not go into detail, but believe me he several times saved my financial ass. Now show me a Japanese teacher who is teaching only to preserve the art and not teaching for the money. If you can not then we all should control the technical standards.
(TSW) What does your self-training consist of?
(JK) I have a variety of training schedules. Daily, I get up at seven in the morning, take my bike and drive to the forest. In the forest I do my karate training for 2.5 hrs. Kihon, makiwara and kickings, using a dead tree as target. Than I start doing Kata about 32 out of 64 kata. After I have finished my karate training I go pick up my 86 year-old dad to do 30km of speed cycling. This cycling we do every day, six days a week and not looking at the weather, just to keep my father fit. Then in the afternoon I will speed cycle about 35 km with high speed alone to keep up my condition.
Day two,I do the same but then I take the other 32 kata. Normally, day one is all the Shotokan kata including Heian/Tekki kata and Meikyo Nidan. Day two will be Asai Sensei kata’s including Taikyoku’s 1-6.
I practise this schedule six days a week. Even during my holidays I will find a way to practise. Sunday is a day of rest, then only in the morning I do a 2.5 hr squad training, for the rest of the day I am busy preparing my teachings in the dojo or a gashuku.
(TSW) How many kata do you practice regularly?
(JK) At the moment 64 and still looking for more. Yokota Sensei and I, we want to keep Asai Sensei’s karate alive and in doing so we try to find back all of his katas to index them and to learn them.
(TSW) What is your favourite kata and why?
(JK) Nice question, one to really think about. Unsu and it always will be. It fits me and now that I am getting older and the quick moving and jumping is getting worse, I sadly have to say goodbye to “my Unsu”. But my mind and body will always love Unsu. Nowadays I practise Gojushihodai/sho a lot, but they do not give me the satisfaction as Unsu does and did. Unsu is more challenging.
(TSW) Do you practice any oyo or bunkai?
(JK) I do not like regulated karate. Bunkai and oyo is good for beginning karateka. The older you get the more options you have in performing bunkai. So most of the time I leave it to my higher student’s own fantasy what to do with Bunkai. I try to work with the “what if “ option. I do not like the saying “He did the wrong attack so that is why I could not do the Bunkai properly” I hope you know what I mean. Scenarios is too much movie, too choreographed.. I have my idea about a technique and somebody else has another idea, so leave it open. No strictness and rules in bunkai.
(TSW) Shotokan is famed for its O-waza, its long distance techniques. Yet so many of our kata also show techniques of much shorter range (the Ko-Waza). As an example if we look to Tekki we can easily see Ko-waza, and punches and strikes that we rarely see in general kihon practice in many dojos. If we are not careful some of our waza may become Shotokan’s forgotten techniques. Do you have any comment on this?
(JK) It is sad but true. If we could and would understand the traditional way of teaching, then this would not cause any problem. When I was taught a kata by the “old guns”, we started with doing those techniques in kihon. When the kihon was completed, we did the kata. After the kata we practiced the techniques in kumite. Simple as that. To understand a book, you first must read the pages, after reading the pages you know the book. After knowing the book, you can tell the story. Nowadays we start telling the story without knowing the book. We do our “favorite” techniques and by this I mean the techniques we really manage, other techniques we do not manage we leave behind. So in the event one is a “guru” or an “expert” and as a student you practice with that teacher, one will never learn the real Shotokan techniques. Shotokan will become a book with torn pages. I myself practice my kata everyday, I am reading the book. Now I start understanding the kata and I start using its techniques in kumite. This is how it should be and should be taught. Here comes the genius part of Asai Sensei’s karate. All those so-called lost techniques can be found back in his katas.
(TSW) You won second place in one World championships placing behind Nagaki Mitsuru. The next opportunity to gain a title was in Greece in 1996. Tell us about your preparation for that event, and the feelings you had whilst competing.
(JK) After that second place I really started thinking that my karate was getting better. I was never convinced of my own technical ability and to be honest I still have that feeling. After that the real preparation started. At that time I was my own teacher. A lot of mirror working and trying to change what I did not like what I saw in the mirror. My best student at that time was my partner, co student and teacher. Everyday and I mean everyday I did spend time in my dojo doing kata, I had to beat that champion the next time I would compete again. In Greece I almost failed, too much confidence and maybe my mind was too much focused on my opponents than on my performance. I had to redo a kata against a Japanese competitor, luckily I won, and that gave me a place in the finals. I could do “my Unsu” and that made me a World Champion.
(TSW) Do you still compete? If so, why?
(JK) It is not always my decision, I still like it, but the time to retire is always there. Sometimes I could really do without entering a competition. I recall. A friend once entered me in a championship in Scotland without me knowing it. Also last year my wife suddenly called me out during the WJKA World Championships. She had entered me in the kata division, without me knowing it. So I competed and became first. I am 58 yrs now but I still like to compete. It is in the genes. I like the challenge, not the showing off, but looking if I still can do it; challenging, testing myself and my karate, even against ‘younger guns’.
(TSW) Where will you be in ten years time?
(JK) Ask me again in ten years, but I hope I still will be a pain in the butt of many “tigers”. I have two examples in my life, my father and Asai Sensei. My father still works out to keep himself fit as Asai Sensei did until he died. I like to workout, it is my life, and so in ten years I hope I will still be around, alive and kicking. To say it with Asai Senseis words: “Let‘s face it, step by step”.
(TSW) We are coming to the end of my questions. You credit the majority of your karate to Miyazaki, Kase and Asai Senseis, but you have kept an open mind by training with all you can find; assimilating from them, to gain a larger understanding of Shotokan. Is this a good thing? Do these Senseis not see you as being disloyal?
(JK) How can I be disloyal to these Senseis. If you mean Myazaki, Kase and Asai Senseis. Simple they are dead, so there can be no disloyalty, they cannot address me for that anymore. Actually they urged me to seek for more; they urged me to look behind the façade. No, to them I feel no disloyalty. They have my deepest respect and no matter what people tell me about them, the respect will always be there. If you mean today’s Senseis I do not care, that is their problem. I will sleep anyway. As I told you before, I do karate my way. It is my ass, my decision. If they do not like it, I move on. If they do not want me, just let me know. My Senseis, and I mean all 3 of them, taught me one very important lesson. Respect starts with respect. By training with other teachers I show those teachers my respect and they should respect me for that. On the other hand, I am still learning. I am still not satisfied with my karate. My body is getting older, this process is unstoppable, but I like to have a hand in the way how to get old. So yes if I see a teacher whose teaching I like, I will practice with him. Open minded, yes why not? The days that I can be ordered around have been long passed.
(TSW) Before we close can you share a funny karate story or memory with us?
(JK) Out of many, this one I have to share. Asai Sensei, my wife and me we were walking in Amsterdam. At that time the streets were pretty crowded, so we had to watch out were to walk. Asai Sensei was waving his camera and really walking like a tourist, unaware of the criminal situation in Amsterdam. At a given moment I saw a man wearing sunglasses walking straight towards Asai Sensei. One could see that he had something in mind. I did not know if Asai Sensei had noticed this so I wanted to warn him. Just before I could warn Asai Sensei the man tried to bump into Sensei in order to steal his camera. What happened was hard to see, but Sensei turned around that guy very quickly, grabbed his spectacles and walked on happily and whistling. The guy that tried to rob him stood there with his mouth wide open, stuttering: ‘but, but, but, he has my spectacles’. That was the first time that I saw the Asai move in reality. Of course we gave the guy, after a “friendly” warning, his spectacles back.
(TSW) This has been a heavy interview so let’s close on a non-karate note. In this photograph Asai Sensei and Kagawa Sensei are in your garden viewing something. I know that you are an avid Bonsai/Japanese gardener. How did they perceive your efforts?
(JK) They are both looking at my Kois. Kagawa Sensei was interested in the moss that was growing on the rock beside the pond. Asai Sensei was telling him were he had seen the moss before. Kagawa Sensei was very interested in gardening and farming, he could spend hours in my garden, just looking and comparing with the gardens in Japan. They gave me some suggestions and even Kagawa Sensei offered me to educate me in Japanese Gardening in the event I should come over to Japan. Time and money at that time kept me from going. Still feel sorry about that.
(TSW) What does gardening, and looking after Bonsai give you?
(JK) Gardening gives me rest and peace, that is what I should say but reality is not so mystic. I love my garden, I have fixed it the way I liked it, but I have to maintain it. So it became a must. Like my karate, I started it, I like it and I have to maintain it. It became a must. The gardening is like the moves in kihon, it is your basic. After the basic you do the kata or nursing the Bonsai, very carefully. Keeping the whole garden in perfect shape is your kumite. So gardening and karate, to me it is the same. You start it, you maintain it, you finish it. Simple as that.
(TSW) Knobel Sensei thank you so much for your candid responses. It has been a pleasure talking with you and sharing some of your experiences.
(JK) Thank you very much for taking time and letting me do my story. Just for the record and for the critics amongst us. These are my thoughts, my feelings and my memories. Many people must have experienced my Senseis in another way and those are their memories. These are mine and are not open for criticism.