Keigo Abe is one of the world’s most senior shotokan instructors. When I trained with him for the first time a few years back, I was informed by those close to him that his practices and teachings were some of the closest to the late Masatoshi Nakayama.
In 2011, Mostafa Pakzad got in touch with me concerning an interview with Mohammed Bahrami. Several months later, after many months of work, Mostafa presented this interview with the JSKA leader of Iran. – Shaun Banfield 2012
(Mostafa Pakzad) Firstly may we say a sincere thank you for agreeing to this interview?
(Mohammad Bahrami) I thank you too for having me interviewed at The Shotokan Way magazine which I know is a very credible source of information and news on Shotokan karate. It is good that such as mine are made available on an international level for the benefit of karate practitioners worldwide.
(MP) Could you please tell us a little about your early days in karate? What made you begin training in 1974?
(MB) I first did wrestling for two years. At that time I happened to watch a Bruce Lee film and the actor’s power and self confidence impressed me so much that I decided to learn martial arts. Karate happened to be the closest martial arts to me and I started training under my first teacher Sensei Sharifi. He taught me discipline in addition to karate which I used in all aspects of my life.
(MP) What were your first impressions of karate?
(MB) My first impressions were that it is a complete sport and it immediately became part of my life. I also noticed the repetitions in movements and their importance in the learning process.
I also found that karate produces a sense of power and self confidence and you always notice your own weak points through karate. I noticed a person has many weak points.
The discipline in the classes impressed me and the humility of the experts who had to sit and wait for permission to enter the class taught me humility.
(MP) Are there any lessons that were particularly memorable to you?
(MB) When I had first earned my black belt, I intentionally beat someone up during training since he had done the same to someone else. This put him in hospital for two weeks and immediately after that I learned that I had made a mistake and that karate is not for revenge and is meant to cause peace of mind.
I learned to exercise and use physical and mental control through my karate due to this lesson.
(MP) I understand there was a period of 8 years where you were unable to travel due to war. Where did you train during this time? Who did you train with? Would you care to share any stories from this time in your life?
(MB) In 1984 we had our last trip outside Iran before the war. We went to Maastricht as the national Iranian team. I was a member of the team and saw my own potential in these competitions. I took part in individual kata and kumite. After this competition, I intensified my training and tried to take part in competitions abroad, but this was not possible due to our problems with getting visas. However, we had many internal competitions in this period and I also travelled to Japan on my own for JKA competitions.
(MP) And what were your experiences in the JKA competitions?
(MB) I found out that the Japanese are mainly hand fighters and I therefore used footwork to win competitions. Japanese have fast hands and fight very fast in one straight line. I learned that I must not be scared in these competitions and this caused me to move forward and win many times.
I noticed that whether the Japanese win or lose, they respect the referees decision and are always polite to the referee. When they are hit, they never show signs of pain and try not to show themselves as being weak in competitions.
They supported me and were good friends to me.
(MP) Are there any bouts that stand out in your mind?
(MB) Yes, one which took only five seconds! This was during the 1989 Tokyo Championships and I was fighting Naka Tatsuya. He took third place and I managed a knock-out with a kick to the face. Naka is currently a very good JKA coach and has also made great martial arts movies recently.
It was his pride which made me win since he neglected the fact that I needed to be good enough to get to the final stages. This made him unfocused and made him lose. A quick start and finish.
(MP) In 1989 you took a silver medal in Tokyo. Who did you have to fight in the final?
(MB) Unfortunately I do not remember his name. I even tried to ask people I thought might know his name in Japan, but it was such a long time ago and no one remembers. I only saw him that one time in the final.
(MP) You were a part of the Tokyo Team. How did this make you feel? Who were your team mates?
(MB) The team consisted of the top eight karate ka. The team mates I remember are: Naka (from Japan), Noda (from Japan) and Rene (from Chile). I felt very proud and honoured to be a non-Japanese national and yet to have made it to the Tokyo Team.
Other team members were surprised to have me on the team. I learned that anyone can get to that position through effort. We trained at least five hours each day.
(MP) Who would you say has been your toughest opponent in your competition experience?
(MB) In my opinion none of my opponents have ever been tough as such. It has always been my own errors during competitions that have caused me to lose.
Each competition has its own conditions. When you are with a fighter whom you know well, for example his positive and negative points, this helps you think well in competitions.
My aim is that my stress is not felt by the opponent. I try to avoid errors such as doubting when to attack and when to defend which will take the moment away from me.
One must remember the opponent always has two hands and we must therefore be more alert and make better use of our skills.
It is also important not to allow the opponent to focus on you and you should therefore always try to distract him. One must not let the opponent be in a good condition by constantly moving. It is important to keep a good distance with the opponent. Do not give them the distance they want, but have the distance you want.
(MP) You are a very successful competitor. What do you attribute your success to?
(MB) I would attribute my success to my self confidence and constant presence in competitions in Iran. After the eight years of war I had the additional motivation to compensate for the time I was unable to compete. It was also important to me to show Japanese karate ka my own and the Iranian style of karate practice.
It is important to be in constant training. When I trained with my own students, I always looked at them as real opponents and this gave me a lot of practice.
Another important factor in my success were my coaches: Abe sensei, Yahara sensei, Naito Takashi sensei and Kagawa sensei. I knew they were watching me during competitions and this motivated me a great deal. I benefited greatly from the teachings of my famous Japanese teachers.
(MP) Would you care to share any memories or stories from your time training with such amazing teachers?
(MB) I know these masters well and I have found out that they are all humble and hard working. It was their encouragement to me as a foreigner which caused me to improve. After my All-Japan wins they became very fond of me. They all emphasized more and more training as a means to greater success. One training which is particularly memorable to me is kicking practice with metal slippers with Abe Sensei.
(MP) You have been a very successful coach too. How do you keep your team focused and motivated in their training?
(MB) I do this through friendship and their trust in me. I keep the team focused by persistence in training. I have understood the fighting ground well and I transfer this to my team. I also wanted my students to participate and do well in competitions I myself was unable to attend during the war years.
(MP) How does your experience in competition aid you as a coach?
(MB) It is not unless and until one has personally experienced the various aspects of competition that one can advise others on how to perform. You need to have knowledge of the tatami, know about mental stresses in competitions, know how to connect to the referees, how to communicate with your coach during bouts, know how to control your opponent and only then is one able to transfer this knowledge to the competitor one is coaching.
(MP) I understand you were the Iran champion in both Kata and Kumite for 10 years. What are your most memorable moments from this time?
(MB) I found my best karate friends in that period. I always tried to increase my number of friends. I won competitions in which my rivals had no doubt about my superiority and were therefore happy to lose. This also made them become friends of mine.
I was never satisfied with the particular medal. I also never compared one competition with previous ones and assessed it based on its own set of circumstances. This enabled me to maintain my position for so long.
(MP) I understand you are a student of Abe Sensei. How did you meet Abe Sensei? What is it about his karate that inspires you?
(MB) As soon as I started karate in 1974, Abe sensei came to Iran for a Japan Karate show. Abe sensei became JKA contact for Iran at that time. This made him travel to Iran often and I had the pleasure to meet him and gradually work more closely with him. I went to Japan 20 times and to his house. Abe sensei invited me to courses. I love him like a father.
What inspires me about his karate is his technical strength, the fact that he was JKA Chief Instructor, his great students and his humility. He generously spent time on all of us from Iran.
(MP) Were you present for the show in Japan?
(MB) The first time I saw a group of Japanese masters was in Iran in 1974. This included kata and kumite. I was a beginner and this was very interesting for me and motivated me to continue training and go and see these masters from close up. I therefore started training in Japan from 1981 and I gained a better experience of what it was like to train with these masters.
(MP) If so, what are your memories of this show?
(MB) What I saw was a reality which was even more impressive than what I had seen in the movies. This was mainly during the Jiyu-kumite.
During the Iran show, I watched Abe sensei’s sword show which was excellent. I also watched a great team kata. I had never seen team kata before.
There was also the two-person fighting show which started with the opponents seated and turned into what seemed like real fighting. The fantastic performance by Abe sensei and Yahara sensei motivated me.
(MP) You have been training for 35 years. What keeps you going back to the dojo?
(MB) Love of karate. Karate is a part of my life. Also my students. Karate is a life in itself for me. My best friends are from the dojo. We are a large family across the globe.
I enjoy transferring my experiences to my students and working on making champions out of them. My students’ interest to learn from my experiences is also very motivating for me.
(MP) What is your favourite kata?
(MB) Gojo Shiho-Sho, because I have become champion with it many times. I feel it very well.
The breathing in this kata is good and I enjoy its wave form with up and down movements and moves in each direction. It also has a sense of tranquillity and involves both hand and foot techniques.
This kata requires a great deal of boldness to perform properly. It is also a long kata with many important techniques. One needs strong legs for having good stances. I have felt and tested this kata very well and it is therefore my favourite.
(MP) What do you think makes a good instructor?
(MB) In my opinion a good instructor goes to the dojo with pleasure, plans the day’s work in advance and does not let outside matters affect his teaching.
A good instructor must be able to analyse his students well. He must be able to motivate his students for the next training session by making them feel that part of the session is waiting to be done then.
He should be able to make his students have hope for gaining higher belts, becoming champions (their age permitting) and to be able to transfer their knowledge to others.
He must also be able to spot students who are more interested in karate-do and help them use this in their personal life. Such students look to karate for gaining tranquillity, confidence and mental and physical control.
(MP) What role does competition play in your dojo?
(MB) The only aim of competition in my dojo is the improvement of my students. In my opinion competition is good as long as it does not harm friendships.
Iran karate is of a high standard and the country has many dojos. Many karate competitions are shown on TV for all ages and this motivates students of karate to want to become champions. They compare themselves to and compete with their fellow students. We also assess students’ progress based on their attention to etiquette and encourage them to take part in many competitions which makes them eager to compete.
(MP) What advice would you give to people beginning karate?
(MB) My advice would be to follow karate as an art and not as a weapon. To think of it as a philosophy involving faith, perseverance, character building, honesty and control of body and mind. In my opinion a good coach should make his students have these as the aims of their karate practice.
I encourage beginners to ensure constant attendance of their classes and pay careful attention to the basics of karate.
They must strive to respect the classes they attend and to like their coach and have a good relationship with him since this affects the learning greatly. Students must pay attention to what their teacher tells them since he is keen to see them improve. It is also important to try not to get injured in the early days since this may put the student off karate.
(MP) How do you see your study of karate progressing in the next five years?
(MB) I am 53 years of age right now. I plan to continue my trainings under Abe Sensei as usual and as long as I can do this I can go for my 8th Dan at the right time, which is due in five years. I also plan to hold training sessions in Europe during this time.
I hold the position of senior head coach of the national Iranian karate team and am also the Chairman of the national technical committee. This means I have to hold many technical seminars and always keep myself up to date.
(MP) How did you find the performance of the Iran team you took to the recent Asian Games in China?
(MB) This was a strong team and we got good results. The team members obtained high scores in each kumite and showed a strong presence.
The team gained first position in men’s team kumite for which we got past Jordan, Kazakhstan, South Korea and China.
(MP) Thank you for your time, we hope to speak to you again and wish you and your students success.
(MB) I am glad to have been given the opportunity to express my views and share my experiences with TSW readers.
I hope this will be useful for karate-ka of all levels. It has been a pleasure to speak to you and I wish all your readers success in their pursuit of karate practice.