In May 2009, Emma and I travelled to Guildford, UK, to train on the JKA Spring Course. Teaching on the course was Y. Osaka, Y. Ogura and K. Sawada. Sensei Sawada is an instructor of the JKA residing in Belgium, is much loved by his students and was appreciated by everyone in attendance of the course. The first session I took with him consisted of Bassai Dai. He met the class with smiles and was eager to explain technical details. Upon my return home to Wales, I made it my objective to try and get an interview with him.
Here in this interview, read about this karateka’s experiences in Japan training under the likes of Iida Sensei, and his experiences training and fighting amongst a variety of talented karateka. He speaks about his time in Belgium, assisting Sensei Miyazaki – who he describes as his role model – and also Sensei Kase. He also touches on the journey that took him back to Belgium after leaving for some time. Shaun Banfield 09
Many thanks to Jorge Andrade Silva (Helped by Manuel Estevens) for conducting the interview on behalf of TSW, and Andrew Upton for revising the text.
Many thanks to Red Pepper Images for use of their photographs, and Sensei Sawada for providing his rare, archive photographs.
Questions by THE SHOTOKAN WAY.
(JAS) Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for our online magazine, Sensei. I am very much looking forward to hearing your thoughts!
(KS) My pleasure.
(JAS) You were born in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Would you mind telling us about your early childhood there?
(KS) I lived in a little village. We had no train, only a bus and this only ran three times a day. It was located in the countryside between the Sea of Japan and the mountains. We had a few weeks, three or four a year, when we could play by the seaside or swim. Winters were tough and lasted from November until April. We swam and dived without aqualungs to find and collect abalone shells that we later sold to sushi restaurants in the region...That gave us a bit of money to spend. We played on the strands of rocks by the sea (we have no sandy beaches) and in the winter we went to the mountains and skied and walked in the snow. Perhaps because of this we naturally developed very strong hips and legs.
(JAS) You first started karate whilst in high school, isn’t that right? Who did you study under during this time?
(KS) My older brother went to study in Tokyo and for a time he practiced Goju-Ryu at the University. When he came back home he showed me how to do a tsuki... At the time, a cousin of ours was already practicing karate in our high school (he was a brown belt). Both exerted a big influence on me.
My teacher was Mr. Ibata Joko, who was a graduate from Taisho University. His life was very meaningful. He was a master monk by profession like his own father, who himself lived in a temple. At the same time, he would teach in high schools around the area where I lived and that’s how I met him. When you ask me about how I started karate, I look back and I realize we all start at a certain point that is quite “unique“ and we follow a certain direction until the present “now“... For me this was always very meaningful.
Ibata Sensei was also captain of the University karate team. At the time, Iida Sensei was just starting out at Taisho University. Everything that happened then was like the first stage of a cycle. There was a certain continuity because Ibata Sensei was the same age and was in the same class as Miyazaki Sensei, you know...when I think of this today I find it very significant and very interesting...Ibata, Iida, Miyazaki, Sawada...
(JAS) Can you tell us a little about the karate training of your high school days?
(KS) It was complicated at the beginning. I already told you that where I used to live, we had only one bus three times a day. Sometimes I finished training late and I would miss the last connection and then I had to walk the four kilometres from the Terminus Station to home...In the summertime it was okay, no problem, but during winter, with the snow, the cold, the rain and the wind...sometimes it was very difficult.
The training itself was not that hard. Karate was one of many sports we could choose from. We trained three times a week. University karate was a totally different matter.
(JAS) Can you tell us about your University experience and tell us what you studied there?
(KS) I studied American Literature but I spent my time practising Karate. I wasn’t a very good student.
Taisho University is renowned for its Studies on Buddhism. Most people who want to prepare to become temple masters go and study there. To learn Buddhism you have to know Kanji characters and that is very hard; your western alphabet with only twenty six letters is much easier for me... and back then the thought of going abroad hadn’t crossed my mind yet. I don’t know why I took American Literature, because at that time it didn't provide much in the way of opportunities job-wise, but I always liked studying languages. I wasn’t a good student, but what I learned helped me along the way...
(JAS) Whilst training at Taisho University, you trained under the world famous Sensei Iida. Can you please share some of your memories from that time with us?
(KS) We usually start University at around the age of eighteen and we continue until twenty-two. Our physical condition at that age in terms of speed, reflexes and power is at its peak. As you know, a Karate team has five members or competitors. Well, Iida Sensei would “invite“ each one for a five minute round of jyu kumite, one after another, easily 25 to 30 minutes of free sparring non-stop. Iida Sensei was very strong and mentally very tough. His karate was always known for the very strong “pressure“ he imposed on opponents and for his defensive skills. We were young and we had spirit but we could not attack him. He was very impressive. Before he started his JKA Karate he had practiced Judo and Kobudo and “old style“Jujitsu. Time and again we would find ourselves flying after a Tobu Nage and crashing against a wall...and then “normal“ training would continue for another two hours. For him, it was like warming up. He had recently won the 1st Japan Karate All Style Championship.
Back then, we could work on and learn different techniques from other styles and Federations. Nowadays, we have so many competitions but almost everybody is from the same style.
(JAS) And what was the training like under him?
(KS) Like I said, Iida Sensei had practiced Judo and Kobudo and he knew how to fight and how to defend. Normally when we talk about karate, we only think about attacking techniques and not so much about defense. He showed us that the difference between the two things is much more important.
(JAS) How would you describe Iida Sensei’s approach to teaching? Was there any harshness, would you say?
(KS) In that period if you were part of a karate team, training would always be very harsh. I think it has to do with certain traits of Japanese culture, too. Representing your University was a big thing for us. Having the University name emblazoned on our clothes made us very proud. We all tried to win and bring back good results and team spirit was high. Iida Sensei was like that, too. We all felt the same. We had to fight against strong teams.
I knew the Shotokan masters from Takushoku University, Tsuyama Sensei, Nakayama Sensei, of course, and they had some very good competitors of our age like Kawawada Sensei and Omura Sensei that we had to try and beat... and we did sometimes. I fought many times against Omura and Kawawada.
When Iida Sensei came to our dojo the adrenaline started flowing immediately because they were always very strong and very sharp.
(JAS) Do you have any striking memories or stories from your time training at Taisho University?
(KS) There was a director at our Karate club who was a teacher at the University, Mr.Takayama, who kept telling us: “I want you to use only one word, ‘Champions’ and not two (runners-up?”. With a “two word“result, no reason and no permission to celebrate or party...We were not “authorized“to come second and, if that happened, we had to cut our hair very, very short...Back then, we thought that being at the University somehow meant having much more freedom; we didn’t have to wear a uniform and we could try out different hair styles, but not for karateka. You see, Iida Sensei was already a “professional“ temple master, so he always wore his hair very short...
(JAS) Sensei Hayakawa also taught at the University didn't he? Can you please tell us a little about him?
(KS) At the time, Taisho University’s karate club had three instructors: Iida Sensei; his number two, Hasegawa Sensei, and Hayakawa Sensei as number three. We had a very good structure. Iida Sensei was like our “father“; his second in command (Hasegawa Sensei) fulfilled the “mother’s function“and Hayakawa Sensei acted like our “older brother“, but he was the most dangerous… (He was very famous because he had a devastating gyaku tsuki and the spirit of a tiger). He used to put each of his students in front of a line of ten opponents and make them spar non-stop while rotating in two-minute rounds, one after the other and this could last up to twenty minutes. He stood behind the “victim“, armed with a Shinai in order to “control“his movements and performance. If he went forward or sideways it was OK, but if he went back… I let your imagination do the rest! But he was a great karateka and in fact, through this type of training, we learned automatically how and when to do tai sabaki, without having to think about it, without the need for “logical thought“. He was a great character. Sometimes we organized little parties and he would impersonate Charlie Chaplin and crack jokes - he'd have us all in stitches!
(JAS) Whilst at the University, you became the club’s team captain. Who were the other members of your team?
(KS) From 1971 until 1974, Tsuyama Sensei was Nakayama Sensei's assistant at Takushoku University. He used to say that our team was the hardest to beat, the strongest team. Their team kept changing and some years they were good, some years not so good... Our team members were: Nakanishi, who had a knack for winning points when we really needed them. He was a tall guy with long arms and legs who was good both at kumite and kata. Then there was Nagano, who had superb leg techniques and was notorious for his “kamikaze spirit“; Hiyoshi, who was very good technically; Asano who also had great leg techniques, and was good at both kata and kumite and Sawada, who you must know by now…we made a very good team.
(JAS) During your period as team captain, you had some impressive competitive results, didn't you? Which competition stands out as your most memorable?
(KS) I'd have to say the All-Style Japan University Championship, which took place in 1973 in Osaka. We reached the finals and had to face the team from Kyushu University. We won some fights and we lost some. The final score was a tie, 2.2 vs 2.2, so we had to choose a fighter to try to break the deadlock. We chose Nakanishi. He managed to execute a very good kizami zuki. Two corner judges gave him an ippon, the other two corner judges waza-ari, that is to say the four corner judges gave him the advantage, but the central judge wouldn't agree because he thought there had been excessive contact. The result was hansoku make and we lost the final. We were vice-champions (runners-up?), much to the chagrin of our club director. No party afterwards in Osaka, we were instructed to leave immediately for Tokyo. No party, no rest. We had to return the same day.
After that the Chairman of the Universities Federation said that the technique should have been awarded an ippon and that started a discussion about the points system and the competition in general, because at the time we still had the shobu ippon rule. So, the question was: what is an ippon?
(JAS) And who would you describe as your most challenging opponent?
(KS) Without any doubt, Omura Sensei (JKA Thailand). We found ourselves facing each other many times, either in team kumite or individual competition. I remember one particular individual competition in the Kanto region (Tokyo plus nine prefectures). It’s quite a big region and today there can be anything up to 400 participants or more. To get to the final you had to fight six or seven bouts. In the final, facing me, stood Omura Sensei. We would each score point after point and then hikiwake, the other would tie the match and I don’t know how many times it happened, perhaps six or seven. The fight would end and we had to start all over again, time after time, but in the end I won. Omura Sensei was a very good fighter.
(JAS) After graduating from University, you were appointed as Sensei Miyazaki’s assistant. Why were you chosen to become his assistant?
(KS) In 1973, Miyazaki Sensei took the Belgian team to Japan to participate in a Gasshuku training in Nagasaki. He asked Iida Sensei to provide him with an assistant, with one eye already on the future. Next year Mr. Devos, President of JKA Belgium at the time, went to Japan and made contacts with a view to signing a contract. Iida Sensei asked Nakayama Sensei from the JKA Headquarters to give his formal permission for me to come to Europe.
(JAS) In what year exactly did you leave Japan for Belgium to become Sensei Miyazaki’s assistant?
(KS) On the 21st of March 1975, already in possession of my Taisho University degree, I landed in Paris and from there I travelled to Belgium. My first contract was for two years. Nakayama Sensei had given us initial permission for two years, but don’t forget that this was the time when Bruce Lee was starting to make a name for himself and the popularity of Martial Arts and of Karate shot up. I ended up staying ten years before returning to Japan.
(JAS) Can you please tell us a little about Miyazaki Sensei, as I have heard he was quite a remarkable character?
(KS) In Japanese culture there is a very strong oral tradition. Our grandparents, for instance, were forever telling us that unless you made yourself financially secure you were a good for nothing. But there’s also the idea that unless you become some sort of a celebrity, you don’t exist.
It's money versus self-realization; and then you have people who are on a mission to do whatever they can, either teaching or doing whatever it takes to help others become better both as individuals and as members of society. Miyazaki Sensei was like that. He was a man of few words; it was a trait of his character. We always had to pay close attention to him and to his attitude to understand what was going through his mind. Communication worked very much at an “eye to eye“level. He was not the kind of master who would chat about things, far from it.
(JAS) Do you have any fond memories or funny stories about him that you could share with us?
(KS) After I had been in Belgium for some time I had to go and teach in Arlon, in the south of the country. Miyazaki Sensei took me to Brussels Central Station, taught me how to buy a train ticket and made me buy a timetable, studied it with me and asked me to memorize all the train stops of this two-and-a-half hour trip between Brussels and Arlon, so I wouldn’t end up stranded in Luxembourg... Miyazaki Sensei was like that, always trying to find the most practical and effective way of doing things. Generally speaking, he gave you the direction, he decided what was needed and then he left you on your own…
(JAS) And as his assistant, what was your role exactly? Can you give us an idea of how you interacted with him?
(KS) When I was already in Belgium, Karate was still under the Judo Federation. You could say it was one part of the Judo Federation. Miyazaki Sensei thought that Karate and Judo should be completely separate. So it was important to decide what should be done to make Karate completely independent from Judo. He established contacts with the Belgian Authorities with a view to creating a Karate Association. That was the main reason why he needed someone - to assist him in that task of developing Belgian Karate. In 1975 we had UBK, but as you know, there are different Belgian Language and Political Communities, so we had UFK (for the French speaking south of the country and WKV (the Flemish Karate Association). We concentrated our efforts on the national/federal activities and also worked at the provincial level, organizing four important national courses each year: Namur (in Flemish, Namen), Genk, Brussels and Knokke.
(JAS) What were the most important things you took away from your experiences with Miyazaki Sensei?
(KS) The importance of being patient. In the face of adversity and difficulties he was always very patient and tried to find the best way of doing things. I think that there is a striking similarity between Belgium, with its political problems, and certain traits of Miyazaki Sensei’s character. In any situation, there are at least two ways of doing things. Nothing is easy and it’s almost always very complicated. It requires patience and that was something Sensei had in abundance. When you can’t act immediately, you have to learn the importance of waiting for the right moment and for the best chance in order to succeed. He always made his decision and acted in the best possible way. In Belgium, it was difficult to stay neutral, but he managed to do it gracefully, listening to everybody, working with everyone involved, never forgetting that his mission was to contribute to the development and growth of Belgian Karate. Miyazaki Sensei was accepted, among other reasons, because he was a patient man. Kase Sensei himself came to Belgium for six months but he found living here extremely difficult.
(JAS) I have heard a story about Sensei Kase breaking your arm. Would you please tell us about this?
(KS) As I told you before, I arrived in Europe on the 21st of March 1975. I arrived at Orly Airport and Miyazaki Sensei was there to meet me. We then paid a formal visit to Kase Sensei and had a small meal, prepared by Kase Sensei’s wife. It was the first time I had met Kase Sensei. From then on, whenever he needed an assistant, I would help him.
Kase Sensei was small, but he had immensely strong arms and legs. He was the only person I knew who could break a brick or a stone while it was lying on the floor or on a surface. He had incredible speed and strength. His hands were very powerful. One day I was assisting him while he demonstrated kata Chinte’s first movement and that was when it happened…
(JAS) How much interaction did you have with Sensei Kase and how did he influence your karate?
(KS) Kase Sensei was a pioneer. He went everywhere, Europe, South Africa, some Arab countries also...
I spent three months at JKA Headquarters in Tokyo and I studied kata with many high level instructors such as Osaka Sensei, Kasuya Sensei and Yahara Sensei. We always went through different kata applications. I later realized that Kase Sensei’s applications were the most effective. He had trained alongside Yoshitaka Funakoshi Sensei and he always prized effectiveness above all else, and tried to emulate “real fighting“. All the Sensei who taught at the Headquarters were exceptional, but Kase Sensei’s approach definitely was inspired by “old-style real life karate".
(JAS) In 1984, am I right in thinking that you returned to Japan? What was the reason for this?
(KS) In December 1984, I decided to return to Japan. I had spent ten years as Miyazaki Sensei’s assistant. Over those ten years, Belgian Karate grew and grew and reached a very high standard, with excellent international results. I felt that my job as Sensei’s assistant had ended and I had to think of my children’s future. Staying abroad would hinder their ability to read and write Japanese kanji correctly, as they are difficult and best learnt when you’re young. My wife and I thought that everyday things like reading a Japanese newspaper were important, and everybody knows that Japanese is not the easiest of languages. So we decided to go back to Japan.
(JAS) You returned to Belgium following Miyazaki’s death, but what did you do until then back in Japan? Did you teach while you were there?
(KS) After returning to Japan we went to live in Yamanashi Prefecture for six years, where we could see the famous Mount Fuji. I had the opportunity of working for those six years in the administration at Tsuru-City Hall. I continued to teach karate to children, including my son and daughter. I never stopped teaching in Secondary Schools and I also was frequently invited to referee University Karate Competitions and to work with Student federations. Then I left the City Hall and went to work for a private company. Those were times of prosperity and I suggested we should import European cars. Lots of people wanted to buy and drive Jaguars or Mercedes...but then came the economic crash. I sold a few expensive cars then, with all that money sloshing around, but sometimes you felt you ought to be careful...
(JAS) In what year did you return to Belgium?
(KS) I returned to Belgium on the 25th of August 1993. Please bear in mind that Miyazaki Sensei had passed away on May 31st. I attended his funeral ceremony and it was very difficult for me.
(JAS) Why you decided to return?
(KS) After Miyazaki Sensei passed away, the Belgian head and Iida Sensei asked me if I would consider coming back to Europe. It wasn’t an easy decision, because my family and I were already well established in Japan.
Under Miyazaki Sensei’s leadership we had managed to build a structure for Belgian Karate, and this amid much rivalry and under strong political pressure. We had managed to impose our JKA style of karate in Belgium. And the agreement I reached with our Belgian counterparts was that I would try to continue Sensei’s work. For various reasons, some people disagreed and left our organization. The choice was either to split up or keep working together. You know, after Sensei’s passing, in some way I kept "talking" with him, trying to find out what would be his opinion about this or that...and I finally decided that I should agree to be the new “head” of Belgian JKA karateka. But I still had to negotiate all this with my wife, who had stayed in Japan with the kids. We finally decided that the family should come back to Belgium, but until August 1994 I was on my own and I can assure you that financially it wasn’t easy.
(JAS) What has been the most prominent impact of Sensei Miyazaki’s passing? How did you feel following his passing?
(KS) From what I have already said, you will have understood by now that Miyazaki Sensei was a role model to me, and not only in terms of Karate. That‘s why I can accept today that there are always different points of view. I see real value in the possibility of working together while at the same time allowing everybody to express their own opinion. His "presence" is very much still alive and I always try to think what his take on things would be. Like I told you, Sensei was a man of few words and sometimes this can prove to be very useful. It's almost as if I can still hear him speaking "inside my head"...
(JAS) You are currently Chief Instructor of Sawada Academy. What is your goal for the JKA in Belgium?
(KS) My idea is that there is a cycle, a rotation. Can you see it? It all started with Ibata Sensei, then Nakayama Sensei, then Iida Sensei, then Miyazaki Sensei and then Sawada. I can’t possibly break it down. It’s not just about karate or JKA Shotokan Karate. It has to do with life itself; it’s a path and I’m very proud to be a part of it. Of course, I decide things but somehow, when I started with Ibata Sensei, the decision to live this life was already made. You have the “now“and you have the “then“and everything is connected and this has to do with what I feel is my duty here in Belgium. The different parts of my life are deeply connected and I feel I have a special relationship with this country. My goals are related to the Sawada Academy, of course, but they are larger and greater because I feel that I have to give something back to the Belgian people. Japanese and Belgians are different, and my job also involves working towards even greater cooperation, and not only in terms of Karate. Some schools now include karate among their activities and this was always one of my projects, so I’m happy. I like to work with Belgian people. Karate has reached a very high level in this country and I want to help to take it even higher. I think I understand what it takes to get there, and it’s not only the technical side of things that counts. Working with children is very important, the education part plays a decisive role and to be able to do everything that I have in mind I cannot act alone, I need the cooperation of others in this country.
(JAS) What is your favorite kata and why?
(KS) When I was a young competitor, both in individual and team Kata contests, I loved to do Kanku Sho because of its speed and sharpness, but now, having lost some speed (laughs!), the age factor, you know... for exams or qualifications I do Nijushiho, a shorter kata with lots of contrasts that I really enjoy exploring.
(JAS) Can I please say thank you for your time and willingness to share your experiences with us. May we wish you all the very best of luck for the future.
(KS) You are welcome and the same to you.