World Traditional Karate Organisation
Richard Amos started his training in the KUGB under Charles and Dot Naylor, and competed for England Squad. It was his travel to Japan however that seems to have marked one of the most significant developments in his karate, eventually embarking on the JKA Instructor Course in April 1991.
Today, Richard Amos is the Chief Instructor of the World Traditional Karate Organisation (WTKO). Regular readers of The Shotokan Way will know that upon launch of the site in 2006 we interviewed Richard. With TSW in its infancy however, and reading the interview with the hindsight of a little more experience, we felt there was so much scope for exploration. Therefore you could describe this interview as the sequel as its predecessor laid the foundations, from which this interview could be developed. For this reason, it could be enjoyable reading the two interviews back to back. This interview however, is a standalone entity that I personally thoroughly enjoyed conducting and enjoyed reading in its completion. It also has given us at TSW the opportunity to possibly look at how Richard’s karate has developed forward over the last four years.
In this new Exclusive interview, Richard Amos discusses a range of issues. He speaks in more depth about the “invisible” divide within the JKA during his time in Japan, his relationship and experiences with the likes of Mikio Yahara, Keigo Abe and Tetsuhiko Asai and realities of life in and out of Japan. From a technical perspective he discusses the need for a personal training regime, the mechanics of karate technique and the influence of Steve Ubl.
Whilst many aspects of this interview have been touched on briefly with Richard both by us in 2006 and by others, I feel this interview helps paint a vivid picture that I wanted to study. This eight thousand word voyage is both educational and insightful, and I know you’ll find the gems within. Enjoy! – Shaun Banfield 2009
Questions, and conducted by THE SHOTOKAN WAY
To read the 2006 Interview with Richard Amos, click here
(Shaun Banfield) Can we start by saying thank you for this opportunity to interview you?
(Richard Amos) You’re welcome and well done for creating such a comprehensive website.
(SB) Thank you very much! You initially started your karate journey within the KUGB, under Sensei Charles Naylor and his wife Dot. Can you please give us an insight into your training with them?
(RA) This was back in the early 70’s, I was 10 and karate (well for me anyway) was something to be in awe of. Dot had this stern no-nonsense Northern approach with the kids and Charlie was in the upper echelons of the association. They were both very authoritative and I continued to be in awe and didn’t dare put a foot wrong.
We were all pretty scared of Dot as she called us little buggers and kept talking about what Enoeda sensei would do to us if we were in his class.
I trained exclusively with the Naylors until I was about 16 or 17, apart from the occasional visit from Enoeda sensei (with whom the Naylors were very close). I then started attending all the KUGB courses and there was a lot going on, what with the Crystal Palace training camps, the Southern region Squad training and the junior KUGB team training. We had at least 3 or 4 competitions a year then as well.
I would say that those first years with the Naylors were very effective in instilling the idea that, if you do nothing else, relentless kihon still meant you were doing proper karate. We did nothing fancy in class but several of the young ones such as myself and the Turner brothers were all on the England squad at a time when the KUGB was pretty strong in terms of Shotokan karate world-wide and, specifically, the JKA.
(SB) In April 1991, you embarked on the JKA Kenshusei, and you have in the past said that there was almost an invisible divide between the two groups. Was the karate being practiced on both sides quite different, as the Asai faction had some truly unique characters?
(RA) The divide was invisible but it was certainly there!
Asai sensei only taught every few weeks and those classes were extraordinary. 90% of the rest of the time was pounding up and down kihon, which actually was not much different from what I’d been doing all those years before with the Naylors. Of course the criteria was higher but the main difference was the motivation to blend in; and a pride in not slacking while the other group was training a few feet away. The other so-called Nakahara group did an identical warm-up and a not dissimilar class to ours.
I did feel however that we had the edge in terms of instructors committed to pushing the limits. I greatly admired Kawawada and Osaka sensei’s classes for their technical excellence but they weren’t dauntingly tough. Asai, Abe, Yahara and Kagawa though? Ask anyone who’s been in their classes as a paying student and you’ll get the idea of what happens when you want to be one of them.
(SB) Was there much, or any interaction between instructors from the two groups? What impression did you get of their relationship, as at one stage in time they must have been a united entity?
(RA) Interaction? Very little. Maybe the occasional nod of acknowledgement but even that was rare. Somehow, we on the Asai sensei side, felt innocently accused of something heinous and could never understand what was going on when the Nakahara guys gave us dirty looks.
We’d get more sullen looks in the office as we entered in the morning for class. Occasionally, however, Yahara sensei might clap someone on the shoulder such as Izumiya sensei and ask why he’d not greet his senpai properly. Yahara had the nerve to do this and would get an embarrassed and squirming osu from whoever he picked on.
At tournaments some of the younger guys were totally free from this attitude as if they were as in the dark as we felt we were. People like Imamura, Naka and Taniyama remained as natural and friendly as they’d always been.
(SB) Were you ever able to train on the ’other side’ so to speak, with the likes of Osaka, Tanaka and Kawawada etc?
(RA) After I began the instructor’s class in March 1990 I never once more trained with those on the Nakahara side. Prior to that, for more than two years, I’d attended everyone’s classes throughout the week in the Honbu in Tokyo. Most frequently with Kawawada (several times a week in the Hoitsugan too), Tanaka, Ueki, Ogura, Shiina, the list goes on.
However, from the moment I joined the instructors class there was an unwritten law that meant it just wasn’t appropriate to join another class under an instructor who wasn’t my direct senpai. All over Japan I experienced a sudden deference to my new status and I simply followed the lead of my own senpai and took it in my stride. I was an instructor at the Honbu and there was no pretending otherwise.
In recent years I have joined a few classes here and there to train of course and to once more get the student’s perspective. It’s refreshing to have someone else come up with the content and not nearly as tiring as teaching!
(SB) Prior to you, there had only been one western karateka to have completed the programme. Why was this do you think?
(RA) I’ve written before about this somewhere I think but it’s a fair point. There were of course many, many top-notch Western instructors involved in the JKA instructor’s class over the years since the 60’s. I’m thinking of people of the calibre of Stan Schmidt and Dave Hazard. They obviously have the level and it’s not for want of ability that they were never officially promoted as Headquarters instructors.
For anyone doing the instructor’s programme, it becomes more about assimilation and adaptation, about balancing character and philosophy, and about having just enough ambition.
It’s not my place to talk about anyone specific so I’m generalising here, but training in the instructor’s class and being a kenshusei (a sort of apprentice) is not the same thing.
It’s virtually impossible in my opinion to be given a letter of introduction and then to enter directly into the class and expect to merge with the system for 3 years until you graduate.
Knowing the language is pretty key. Being committed to living in Japan, and living day to day not considering the future is also important. Knowing exactly when to say osu and when to tell a white lie in order to escape the boozy parties is important too. And you have to be winning tournaments or no one will respect you.
These combinations all have to be right to stay and continue for a 3 full years. Also, I did my kenshusei just as the JKA instructor’s class was split so although my senpai were intimidating there were fewer of them!
(SB) It has been said that there are profound differences between the Japanese and Western Cultures. The west tends to question orders, whilst there is the implication that this is not naturally the way in Japan. How did you adapt into the Japanese culture for such a long time considering your western heritage?
(RA) I think one does whatever it takes if you can set your heart on something. I’d grown up wanting to be like Enoeda sensei or Yahara sensei (I’d only read articles about the latter) and was hugely inspired by historic tales of heroism in the face of adversity. Being born in the 60’s I’d say we had it easier than at any other time in history and so I felt this might be the only chance I’d have to experience whatever the greats had; whether that was Yahara in his battles with Yano or Shackleton in the Antarctic.
I found (and still do) Japanese culture fascinating but I didn’t kid myself I was one of them and generally opted out of doing anything much with my senpai outside the dojo.
(SB) The training, you have said, was more basic as the more advanced you became. What were the main points of emphasis, and how were they developed?
(RA) Most of the emphasis was simply in getting it technically right with very little deep analysis. As I felt I was never getting it right, I was lead to do lots of solitary pondering on the whys and wherefores of each technique.
In class there always seemed to be too many repetitions to get on with to waste on analytical commentary and of course we were all a pretty high level, doing things we were familiar with for years.
My thoughts at the time were mostly to save energy during the hundreds of repetitions just in case Kagawa or Aramoto fancied some extra kumite after the class. The by-product of this is efficiency of technique, but I wasn’t conscious of that at the time.
Retrospectively, I think the repetitions and the absolute need to keep something in reserve gave me a sense of mental detachment from the technique, allowing it to flow more naturally. This in turn gives the intellect a chance to strategise and technique evolves to a deeper more visceral level.
(SB) You mention that you felt you were “never getting it right”, which led to “lots of solitary pondering on the whys and wherefores of each technique”. Do you feel your deep knowledge of kihon came from being given thorough explanations whilst training, or were you almost left to figure things out for yourself? What was the process of teaching you most commonly experienced?
(RA) The general sense I felt during the classes was that I had a spotlight on every one of my many errors and this was the basis of all the “teaching”. Nothing was really spoken of or explained, just a pervasive attitude that implied I was hopeless. From this I was forced to figure things out myself. Of course discovering things for oneself can be considered as the best way to truly learn something.
(SB) And how would you describe your approach to teaching, and why have you adopted such an approach?
(RA) I would describe my approach to teaching as the exact opposite of what I’d received in Tokyo. Unless a student is wiling to commit himself to daily, punishing training with no end in sight there’s no way that person can achieve a high level without specific guidance.
There’s also no point in me propagating the harshness of the instructor’s class in the Western world where I’m either teaching students who have jobs in NYC or I’m teaching for a limited number of hours as a guest instructor elsewhere. I very much want students to benefit from my own experiences: not to actually have them have those same experiences. I’m also not a fan of a certain approach that requires the student to simply take the teacher’s word for it. I like to back up my key points with layers of argument in support of them.
(SB) How important is it do you think to develop a personal training regime to assist your dojo training regime?
(RA) By personal training I assume you mean weights, running, etc? All these things done intelligently can certainly be beneficial and things like push-ups and sit-ups I do in the hundreds with my students.
Supplementing my karate though, I personally prefer to take simply a general health approach. Apart from gently running a few times a week I try to do as little as possible that’s physically demanding outside the dojo. Between 3 and 7 hours a-day of karate is sort of enough in terms of demanding movement for the body!
Being able to fit in some rest is also very important and I’m trying to add yoga into my health regimen as well to learn more about breathing and relaxing.
In general I feel that Karate movement done properly is enough to not only build strength but to also maintain the body’s optimum levels of health. Not only that, nothing else will build technique better than the actual practice of that technique. Why sit on a bench and do leg extensions when one can isolate the same muscles in conjunction with the rest of the linkages in the stomach and hips with mae-geri? The thigh muscles might not necessarily get bigger quickly but the ‘feel’ of the movement, its synchronicity and the timing that comes from that is improved and the technique gains subtlety. I often ask students if they prefer to have subtle, refined karate or sheer strength. No one has preferred the latter!
I do appreciate that younger competitors do not have time on their side and need these training regimens and supplements to gain power as quickly as possible though and, while limited for the long term, is a necessary option.
(SB) You have spoken about the experience of being on the Kenshusei, and how you would have to clean the toilets etc and be at hand to your senpai. Did you ever feel resentment, or feel demeaned at all?
(RA) You can’t really let those thoughts creep in for longer than the split second when you think your senpai is a prat. Those things are just like being in the army I suppose where you try to make yourself feel superior in some way because your senior is part of the system, and you of course swear never to be like them.
Thinking about it now I suppose you could say that it certainly brought you down to earth if there were any delusions of grandeur from joining the elite!
(SB) And what about the treatment you must have experienced…did you ever experience any physically brutal treatment at all? Do you consider such treatment abuse or a part of the path?
(RA) It felt like they’d taken the maxim “spare the rod, spoil the child” to its furthest degree as we surely were not spoiled! I wouldn’t say I was abused but had my character been different I might have thought so. If on occasion one felt sorry for oneself it has to be remembered that this was a choice one made and could walk away from at any time.
(SB) Was the programme a psychological battle more than solely a physical one would you say? Can you please explain?
(RA) Nothing like this can be solely physical and karate itself has to have a balance between the physical and the mental as does anything in life.
The psychological aspect is pretty influential in terms of coping with some of the intensity. I developed (or perhaps had, to some extent anyway) an ability to not harbour anything or let emotions stew to the point where I’d be affected beyond the class that day. I didn’t socialise with these guys or immerse myself in Japanese culture too much either. Instead, I became more interested in history and English literature, which gave my mind something other than martial arts to ponder in my free time, and gave me a sense of how insignificant any of my problems were in the great scheme of things.
It’s impossible to simply train yourself to be physically strong enough to smash through the system, as the key to almost everything lies in the state of the mind. The idea (and the ideal) of living in the moment springs to mind. At any point you are totally there but you do not linger in the past or worry about the future.
(SB) Did you ever have moments where you thought that you could not take it anymore?
(RA) At the midway point of the 3-year kenshusei apprenticeship, I began getting headaches. They came at the end of every week and, although I never gave it a second thought during class, for a while I couldn’t bear the thought of getting hit in the head. During that summer I seriously began to wonder if my stubborn-ness to continue wasn’t a foolish hubris. In September of that year I got pole-axed by Kagawa after class and had a dozen stitches over my eye.
I then had tangible evidence for myself if I wanted an excuse to justify the thoughts I’d been having of quitting. Strangely, it had the opposite effect.
(SB) Why did it have the opposite effect do you think?
(RA) Hmm, I’m not sure. I guess it’s a personality thing.
(SB) Can you please tell us about some of the other karateka on the instructor program at the time, the likes of Kawasaki?
(RA) The year before I joined, Kanayama graduated and he’d have been the last of the unified group before the big split. I then joined with Maeda (who is now my assistant in my dojo in New York); two years later came Kawasaki and Yamaguchi; a year after that Tom Kompier and Koike.
Eiji Maeda was always quiet and not really an aggressive competitor but he had a terrific body for karate: broad-shoulders, massive leg muscles and very flexible. He has ankles that bend like my elbows do! We went through a fair bit together and I asked him 3 years ago to consider coming to NY and joining me in my dojo here. I’m fortunate in that he agreed and he’s been here for two years now and is building a reputation as a very giving instructor.
Kawasaki is my age and so joined the course far later than usual at 29 years old. Not many at that age would be able to stand the pace I don’t think, but Kawasaki was made of great stuff. We were buddies from my first year in Tokyo as were both fans of Yahara and, indeed, Yahara gave him a job so he could become a kenshusei and still work. Kawasaki is the consummate hard worker and he slogged away and always had a smile outside training times.
Yamaguchi was a big talent and a great competitor, fortunately he was my junior. That meant we could have long sparring sessions after class often for 20 or 30 minutes and be able to escalate the intensity without things getting out of hand. We also competed together at a pretty high level and I fought him in some of my most rewarding competition experiences. I know he’s travelling and teaching a lot now and, rightly, has a good following of admiring students.
Tom Kompier and I were destined to become friends, or actually more like brothers. He had a hell of a time when he joined the class as, although he spoke excellent Japanese, he’d basically arrived in Tokyo and went straight into the kenshusei program without fully grasping what these characters were all about. His karate is pretty strong but his personal circumstances hadn’t time to settle down in Tokyo before he left for Europe prior finishing the course, when he got an excellent offer to teach in Switzerland. He’s back in Tokyo now and, although working full-time for the Dutch embassy, still teaches at the Nihon University and trains as hard as ever.
Koike was a good solid guy with a sweet personality. I asked him to take over my dojo in Tokyo when I left in 1998, as he was keen to actually teach and spoke English quite well even then. He has since been in Europe for nearly 10 years, living in Switzerland then Italy. I believe he’s about to join Scott Langley in Ireland which would be a very smart move as Scott is doing some excellent work there.
(SB) You also eventually taught at the HQ yourself. How did it feel being a part of such a wonderful list of instructors?
(RA) Of course I was aware that this was a great privilege. However, the JKA had been split for sometime by then and so this sense was dampened a little by the knowledge that the association was not what it once was.
(SB) When teaching there, were you always seen as an equal to your Japanese counterparts – due to your successful completion of the Kenshusei – or were you considered an outsider at all?
(RA) Travelling around the country it occasionally grated that I was introduced as Richard-san while my juniors were introduced as xxxxxx-sensei, for example, but that was rare. By and large I was totally accepted, especially if I was giving a class.
(SB) Whilst at the JKA Hombu, you developed close relationships with many instructors. One such instructor was Mikio Yahara. Can you please tell us a little about your training with him, your relationship with him and possibly share any stories that you may have of him?
(RA) Well, I grew up reading Fighting Arts Magazine and if ever I saw a picture of Yahara he was always in the air, utterly committed and looking so dynamic. When I went to Japan I hoped to have at least some contact with him, as I was inspired like many others by those black and white images.
I joined his class and he immediately singled me out and I became part of his inner circle of young guns like Kawasaki and Yasuoka who had been his students from their university days.
Training with him was more about containing your nerves than anything else and the kumite was always desperate as many in the class wanted to impress him.
I think he was too intelligent to be fooled by the obvious ones who cheated to get a cheap shot in. I’d do all the drills to the letter and I think he liked that. Kawasaki was my age and spoke a little English so when I first arrived I guess he became my first Japanese friend: he worshipped Yahara and was his closest student. We went together to all the Yahara gasshuku and training sessions in Yokohama University and did many demonstrations with him. Any time Yahara needed someone it was either Kawasaki or me and I loved it. In those early days I was living in Spartan conditions at the Hoitsugan and subsisting on omelettes and ramen. Whenever we had a trip with Yahara it was always an adventure ending with fine dining and being driven home in one of his snazzy cars.
The best kumite experience I ever had was while Yahara and I were waiting for a photographer to do a magazine shoot. The photographer was late, and we started warming up. I took a few hits of course but it was sublime, with both of us smirking at each other after some great exchanges. I’d seen him hurt people but he never got nasty with me in that way.
Yahara would treat people during kumite as if they were as good as he was. Most people cowered and were humiliated but I’d spent enough time to know what he liked, and that was to look him in the eye and pretend you were him. This made for very agile kumite and lots of near misses. Unfortunately not all of them missed, but he immediately and sincerely would apologise. I didn’t mind as we were enjoying ourselves and the energy was buzzing.
(SB) Another very important person to you was Tetsuhiko Asai, who had a big impact on you…would I be correct in this assumption? Can you please share your memories of him, and any fond anecdotes you may have?
(RA) Asai sensei was magnificent in so many ways. We didn’t see him all the time at the dojo because he travelled so much but everything he did struck me by its originality and beauty. His classes, as many know, were virtually impossible but always fascinating and cultivated a freeing up of any restrictions or limitations.
We knew that he was at the core of the JKA’s political machinations somehow but I took him on face value and he was completely charming, brilliant and funny too.
I once had a 5-hour car drive with him and he talked non-stop giving advice and telling stories on everything from how to stop a thug in an alley to how to choose a wife.
It is only Asai sensei, his lessons and images, out of all the instructors in Japan, whom I find myself now frequently recalling. And occasionally I get rewarded by little hints that I may be heading towards understanding what he was driving at.
(SB) And how about Keigo Abe? What influence did he have on you, and could you please share some stories you may have of him?
(RA) Abe sensei was more responsible than anyone else for the instructor’s training so I did more hours of training under him than anyone else in Japan I suppose.
In addition, on Mondays and Fridays I would go to Kondo sensei’s dojo in Ochanomizu where Abe sensei would teach on those nights.
The training was unforgiving and relentless and Abe sensei was quite dispassionate during class, which was quite different from Yahara and Asai sensei who were much more flamboyant in their way.
Abe sensei though gave us the tools we really needed and couldn’t care less about anything other than the harsh realities of forging strong technique.
In private though his character changed from someone rather austere and uncompromising to someone willing to share stories and listen with respect to any question.
He’s been terrible ill recently and it’s a testament to his strong will that he continues to honour his commitments to his members around the world.
(SB) From my own experience training with Abe Sensei, I have noted that he stresses the A-B part of the A-B-C stages of movement, for example in zenkutsu-dachi (drawing rear leg to the front leg). Why is it so important do you feel to get this early part of the movement done with speed?
(RA) I hadn’t thought of him as emphasising the A-B part as you say but, recalling some of his drills, yes you are right.
I do things in a different way but I have a very heavy emphasis myself on the beginning of the technique. To explode in the beginning of a technique is to create the environment in which that technique will have a chance. You could say the same about anything in life. If you begin well and commit fully, the project or relationship or whatever will have a powerful foundation. Contrastingly, beginning hesitantly and half-heartedly is not much good for anything. That sounds obvious but many, many people lumber into a movement and finish it with all the speed and power they can muster. Unfortunately the end of the technique is when it’s finished, over. Everything happens in the middle and the middle is created by the way we begin.
(SB) How would you compare karate in Japan to that practiced elsewhere? Is the focus different at all would you say?
(RA) I think the nature of the Japanese character is more stoic than many other places I have visited. There’s an acceptance of instruction that is both very good because the instructor doesn’t have to always explain himself, but also limited for exactly the same reason.
Another big difference is a profound and genuine humility. The Japanese find ambition distasteful generally and in the dojo where freeing the ego is of course a great virtue, this can be even more pronounced. Of course many non-Japanese can be humble in the dojo but it’s not deeply part of the culture that’s been bred in over hundreds of years.
Having this humility means that it’s taken for granted that the instructor knows far more than the student so the teaching is accepted. Any lack of understanding must be the fault of the student in not fully grasping what has been imparted.
Rightly or wrongly, instructors in the West have to work much harder than their Japanese counterparts.
(SB) So were questions discouraged would you say or was it simply not in the nature of the students to raise the questions?
(RA) Japan and, by association, training in a dojo in Japan is very much an environment of conforming. There are many unwritten laws that we must be sensitive to in order to be successful there and one of them was knowing when it was appropriate to ask a question.
During the Mon, Tue, Weds & Fri instructors classes there was no way it would have be acceptable to question: the pace was simply too intense. However, on Thursdays we would have Isaka sensei lead the class and, in his inimitable fashion, the whole thing was in very slow motion. We would run through all the Shotokan kata and the pace was such that it felt fine to ask anything we chose. I should say anything I chose as no one else asked but me. I’m sure it wasn’t resented and many of the seniors were quite pleased to discuss their perspectives. We actually had some proper debates based on those questions and I personally looked forward to those Thursdays.
(SB) Karate can at times become a little too focused on form, becoming focussed on the postures and positions – making things look correct without the inside, correct feeling. How do you feel about this, and how do you work to achieve the correct feeling?
(RA) This is more a question of experience and cannot really be taught: by definition it must be felt. One must go through the process of learning shapes (which can be laborious) but then those shapes should be transcended which might take decades. Ultimately though, remember that form should follow function.
In a previous question we spoke about the Japanese acceptance of the teachings. If you tell a Japanese that he/she has to ‘feel’ the technique and not simply copy it they might be confused but will endeavour over time to grasp the idea. The average Westerner will most likely ask “well, how do I feel it?” We need to be patient. It’ll come one day.
Analysing the value of techniques by using them in kumite drills, or by visualising them in kata and kihon helps this process.
But moving from the lower belly and constantly trying to use the ground is the key. The emphasis being from the floor via the legs and through the hips takes away upper body tension, which in turn gives one a ‘feeling’ rather than just a shape.
(SB) As briefly touched on, movement starts from the ground upward. We are constantly hearing about ‘Hip powered movement’ however. Can you please explain the essential link between the feet-knee-hip relationship during effective movement?
(RA) This is a little beyond the scope of the written word but, in a nutshell: pretty much all karate movement must be driven from somewhere. If that somewhere is not strongly rooted then we’ll not go very far or very quickly. I often try to find what’s wrong with something and then do the opposite. If you do oi-zuki from your shoulders for example, you basically pick up your body and plonk it down again, there is none of the essential squeezing and driving, and for a lot of the movement you won’t be in gear either, just a sort of lump that’s in neutral. Not much control there or power.
So, to oppose the wrongness of that, we must adhere to the ground and stay in gear; we must draw the moving leg forward with the squeeze of our inner thighs; draw the hikite back with the squeeze of our armpits & lats; draw the punching out with armpit & chest. In other words we’re must use all the underneath bits and not the ones on top.
(SB) You left Japan in ’98. After adapting to the Japanese culture, and living there for ten years, how did you feel going back to Europe, and then New York? How did you acclimatise back to life outside of Japan, was it hard?
(RA) I was offered a job in a Japanese company in Paris after I had decided to leave and this made things very much easier for me. Some of the senior staff had been my students in Japan, which meant I hadn’t severed all ties too abruptly. It was also a proper job, so I immediately was able to have financial independence. The job didn’t work out as I knew my calling was definitely karate. But it certainly was nice to finish at the end of each day and not give work a second thought and be free.
Living through karate as I do now and did before however, the lines between work and everything else become very blurred. I’m rarely ‘not at work’.
Someone wrote a magazine article recently about professional karate instructors not being able to see past the next payment from their students and not being able to develop their karate because of teaching too much. It was very critical of professionals and in my opinion utterly stupid and myopic. There are some dubious instructors who might live that way of course, but my full-time professional karate friends have so much to offer. Being committed to teaching, training and, in between, studying and writing about karate creates a perspective beyond that which very, very few others can hope to achieve. It also consumes an incredible number of hours that there can be no time for another job. My friends who are professional karate instructors literally live and breathe their art. That, by definition, creates a unique and valuable viewpoint.
(SB) When establishing your WTKO Organisation, what were your primary objectives?
(RA) There wasn’t an objective back then in 2000 particularly, other than to distance ourselves from politics and not be told what to do by others purely because of their seniority. Between us we also had an awful lot of experience.
(SB) In forming the WTKO, did you keep close ties with those you came to be close with whilst in Japan (Instructors and peers alike)?
(RA) I did indeed maintain a lot of contact in the early years and felt I needed to explain why I was involved in the WTKO and not in one Japanese group or another. After a few years, as the WTKO took off and my responsibilities grew, not least my getting a green card to be resident in the US, it became clear where my future lay.
The official Japanese approach is often that, personally, things are as always but there is certainly an inference that “if you’re not with us, you must be against us” in terms of affiliation to an organisation.
I believe the only philosophical approach is that we are all in the same Shotokan world regardless of affiliation. I wouldn’t dream of not allowing someone to train in my dojo or of not encouraging anyone who is a member of my group to seek valuable training elsewhere.
Going to Japan these days I’d rather seek out an unknown instructor to practice with and avoid the politics that accompany so many of the groups based in Tokyo.
(SB) And how did you come about working with John Mullin? Can you please tell us a little about him, and what he brings to the WTKO?
(RA) I’d lived in New York for a couple of years between 1986 & ‘88 prior to going to Japan and had trained a lot with John Mullin then who I admired for his relentless training regimen and his love of the art.
We stayed in touch of course and he was the first person I spent time with when I arrived in New York in September 2000.
He’s quite reserved and I think I was a catalyst for him taking the WTKO to a more public level, which lead him to organise tournaments and form a proper structure. For some time John had this entity called the WTKO so he could hold events outside the jurisdiction of Mori sensei and the JKA. He’d been very active since the early 60’s and, rightly, felt that he could contribute more than just showing up to the occasional “instructors” class but having no say in the running of the group.
We train together whenever we can and I’m looking forward to him retiring this year so we can get him to travel more and he can develop other areas of his training that time for now does not allow.
(SB) You spend much of your time travelling and teaching at your WTKO branches throughout the world. From an International point of view, what are your goals and your approach in attempting to standardize all of the groups who are a part of WTKO?
(RA) Raise standards yes, if that’s what you mean, but there’s no attempt to strictly standardise the groups who are affiliated to the WTKO. This is because criteria are always changing based on the deepening understanding of principles of technique and/or philosophy. There must be evolution in anything remotely related to art otherwise something dies. Hopefully I can bring to those I associate with, some of the incremental refinements I’ve been working on in my own dojo and through my own experiences as a professional.
Everyone can get bogged down with routine and so if I can inject some new inspiration and energy to keep everyone motivated I’ll have done my job.
Seeing a wide variety of good strong karate-ka also feeds me with new ideas and is grist for my mill – always important.
(SB) On the credits of your excellent ‘Shotokan Mastery’ Series, you name Steve Ubl as one of your instructors. Can you please tell us when and how you first met?
(RA) I first met Steve about 5 years ago after receiving a phone call from someone who was hosting him in Florida. The guy asked me if I would come down and train with Steve and offered to pay my expenses to boot. This was too intriguing so I went and met him. We did this weekend in Orlando and I was very, very impressed.
(SB) And how did you develop your close relationship with him, as he is listed as Technical Director of your WTKO am I correct?
(RA) Yes, he is technical director. We felt we had to offer him an important position to reflect somewhat our respect for his ability. I try to bring him to New York once a year and I have travelled with him on seminars around Europe.
(SB) How has he influenced your karate or your understanding of it? Can you please give an insight into your relationship?
(RA) Steve has something that is extremely rare. A combination of intelligence and physical ability, coupled with an obsessive attention to detail and great patience. He is at once both unorthodox yet completely pure in technique; has great humility but absolute confidence in what he knows to be right.
He has definitely influenced my karate and inspired me to continue with some ideas on which I needed some confirmation. Since Asai sensei, no one has excited me to the possibilities of what might lay ahead in my karate more than Steve.
(SB) You suggest that Steve Ubl’s karate is both ‘unorthodox yet completely pure’. Can you please elaborate on this and explain a little further as to how his karate is different to the ‘orthodox’?
(RA) Steve’s karate is only unorthodox in that it has left convention behind. But the roots are totally orthodox, it’s just that he has truly lived his technique and it has become him.
Karate is an art and we must recognise it as such. Should artists refrain from expressing themselves? Of course not. There is a base that we refine, which on the surface is the same for all of us, but the work we do outside formal class time should be full of experimentation. Steve (and I’m sure many others I don’t know so well) spends a lot of time tweaking ideas and what emerges is unique to him/them. It’s very refreshing for me to spend time with top-level guys like Steve who all do different things now but have come from similar roots.
(SB) Both Steve Ubl and yourself place huge emphasis on movement from the centre. You have said in the past that the brain is the “mental intelligence and the hips are the physical intelligence”. Can you please elaborate on this for those readers who may not have trained under you?
(RA) Shaun, this is one of those questions that come from the Western perspective we spoke about earlier. There are times when there should be no elaboration, the comment should be taken at face value and understood through experience and trust in the idea.
(SB) Many of the greatest karateka I have seen have the ability to control and relax the exact muscles necessary to effectively deliver their technique. They almost possess a hyper sensitive fast twitch. How important is it do you think to develop the fast twitch muscles?
(RA) During a trip to England I saw a program on the TV where they were trying to scientifically prove that an athlete could be born with fast twitch muscles. They did a fairly convincing job of proving it too!
I do think some people have natural sharpness and others might have a natural smoothness: there are all types. The effectiveness of a technique lies far more in timing and perception I believe, which can give the impression of amazing speed. Again this sensitive timing can also come from experience and switching off the thought process.
(SB) A complex issue many also have difficulty grasping is the use of the back muscles, lower back muscles in particular. Can you please explain a little about the role of the back muscles in movement and how they can be used more effectively?
(RA) There should never be any strain in the back of course but we must remember how powerful the muscles are in it - and those muscles are meant to be used.
In whichever direction we’re going we must drive necessarily from the ground. To avoid inertia giving us a sort of whip-lash, we must use our abs when we go forward, use our obliques when we shift to the side and use our lower back when we step or shift backwards.
That’s why the entire waist of the martial artist must be developed.
The back should not be used to keep us upright though. I see a lot of people putting strain in the lower back by having too long a stance and arching their back to give an impression of straightness. This is false and is tied into their whole approach to movement, that is, forcing things to conform to a certain superficial shape.
The pelvis is tucked under the torso, not the shoulders pulled back over the buttocks.
Seeing trainees (and sometimes instructors too) have deep stances that they’re not flexible enough for, then forcing their torsos into an upright position, whilst sticking their backsides out and keeping their heel on the floor, makes me take the whole class back to step one of the fundamentals….and sometimes I can’t move on from there, but spend hours convincing the stubborn ones to get smart about the logic. This is where I favour the Socratic method and start piling on the whys and wherefores.
Using that body part but in a thoughtful intelligent way, feeling it working and listening to it is very important.
(SB) As students of the art, our own thoughts and understanding often transcend what we have been taught by our teachers. In what ways do you think you have evolved in the time since you left Japan?
(RA) Well, since I’ve left Japan I have hopefully matured in many areas but importantly I’m not doing karate to please anyone anymore. The intensity was so great in the instructor’s class that one spends ones whole time trying to make the seniors give some sort of acknowledgement to our efforts, however grudgingly.
Moving to NY has also been influential. I’m much more open now to other arts and styles and whatever I can take from them only adds to my Shotokan practice.
(SB) What is the difference between Budo and Bujitsu do you believe, as I know many senior instructors insist that there is a significant difference between the two? And how would you describe your karate?
(RA) There’s a lot of interpretation on this and articles (possibly even books?) have been written on the subject. The nature of the Japanese language also means it open to interpretation but my understanding is that the jutsu of Bujitsu (the spelling comes out jutsu without the suffix) refers more to technique and the michi of Budo (michi is the reading of ‘do’ without the suffix) refers to the life path.
Asai sensei used to say his karate was more Bujitsu than Budo, which is again open to interpretation. Did he mean his karate was technique in its pure form or was he simply claiming not to have followed a philosophical path of lifelong development using karate as a tool for enlightenment?
Based on that idea I would have to say I’d be kidding myself if I claimed to be practicing true Budo. I do in fact have a life other than karate and cannot claim such purity of mind and body that perhaps a true budoka should exhibit.
(SB) What does your current training regime consist of?
(RA) I’m fortunate in that I have a bunch of private students with whom I can experiment and train alongside, I also have a great assistant in Maeda sensei who I bounce ideas off and spar with as well as practice iaido with. I do try to take Sundays off but from Monday to Saturday I’m active in the dojo, teaching or training for anywhere between 3 and 7 hours, which is certainly enough.
I’ll run a little (no more than a couple of miles) a couple of times a week and try and stay calm amidst the craziness of New York the rest of the time.
(SB) Can we please say a big thank you for this opportunity to interview you. May we wish you and WTKO every success for the future!
(RA) It’s a pleasure and thank you for testing me with some interesting questions. I wish you continued success with the website!