Last year, Colin Putt (UK) accepted my request to conduct an interview with Toshiaki Namiki on my behalf for THE SHOTOKAN WAY. Having met Sensei Namiki in France two years ago, I was eager to bring him and his story to our readers around the world.
Some of you may not be as familiar with Sensei Namiki as you may be with other more prominent Japanese instructors. His reputation and the respect he commands from all he encounters and teaches for however speaks volumes.
Toshiaki Namiki has a fascinating story and background, one of training under an array of significant names- from Masahiko Tanaka to Masatoshi Nakayama, training alongside the likes of Mikio Yahara and other renowned names. Having studied within Nippon University, he amassed an impressive array of competitive titles and experiences. In 1978 he made the move, upon Master Nakayama’s request to go to the USA to start a JKA group.
This interview gives a full, and detailed insight into this karateka’s fascinating story in karate. I hope you all enjoy and find it educational and fruitful. –S. Banfield 2011
Questions by THE SHOTOKAN WAY and Colin Putt
(Colin Putt) Many thanks for being so willing to give this interview. You are in England for a few days, can I ask if, do you enjoy your trips to the UK?
(Toshiaki Namiki) Yes, I enjoyed my trip to the UK. I had seminars in Plymouth and London and went sightseeing with my wife in London.
(CP) This may sound like a bit of a predictable question, but an important one I think to start the interview. Can you please tell us how you first started your martial art career in your youth?
(TN) There was a time in high school when I could not help my friend when he was getting bullied by other classmates. I decided to get stronger so I can help him. This is why I decided to study martial arts.
(CP) You have, in the past, stated that the ‘samurai spirit is engrained in the Japanese people from a very young age’. Can you please give us an insight into how this is embedded early on into the life of a Japanese child?
(TN) There is a misunderstanding in regards to having Japanese children embedding the samurai spirit at a young age. The fundamentals of the samurai spirit and discipline (kodomo no shitsuke) for Japanese children are completely different. In my opinion, the samurai spirit is clearing transcendence levels in strict budo training (physically and mentally) after many years. Once that level is cleared, there must be more training, discipline and studying. You then start to understand a little about the samurai spirit.
(CP) Can you please tell us about your early karate training, prior to going to Nippon University, possibly sharing some fond memories or reflections?
(TN) I started studying martial arts seriously when I joined the karate club at Nippon University. There was one reflection I remember during my time at the karate club.
Budo training is about technique, endurance, and spirit. Actually, budo training at the karate club was just training the spirit and working on techniques for many hours. There was no time to think about the spirit and having guts. The only thing that was on your mind was training, getting strong and winning tournaments. However, there will be a time where you reach your limit. I wonder, after all this training, why can’t I advance? Why do I lose in matches? I started to question myself. I realized, for the first time, that I was being close-minded and just focused on training. This was not the way to go. I couldn’t continue to train this way. I had to start over, retrace my footsteps, and spend time to change my way of thinking. I began to understand what worked and didn’t work. I fixed my mistakes and used my knowledge and skills to improve myself. This helped me create new ideas for my spirit. As I grow older, I begin to understand this even more.
(CP) In 1967 you enrolled in Nippon University. What did you enrol to study?
(TN) I studied agriculture and veterinary science at Nippon University and I wrote my thesis on the American food industry. I also read many books by Peter Drucker. This developed my interest to move to the United States.
(CP) Upon enrolling, you joined the University karate team am I correct? How was the training different to what you had experienced in your childhood?
(TN) There is a big difference between training now and training in the past. The training in the past did not have any information books, video, DVDs, and instructors. You learned karate from the sensei and sempai. After that, you had to study on your own and to create your own original techniques. The sensei taught for a few times, so it was important to be focused during these trainings. I practiced what I learned many times to make it my own technique. One technique required practicing at least 1000 times to start to master. I believe this type of training is important. However, training now is very different. Now, students can access high quality information from many sources such as textbooks, videos, and advice from instructors. This is information overload. Students now seem to pick and choose techniques and do not have enough knowledge and skill to make it their own technique. It also doesn’t help if you don’t understand your skill level and just try everything, especially not mastering certain techniques. As time passes, karate training seems less interesting and students leave. The important point is the instructor’s skill level. The instructor must recognize the students’ personalities and adjust the training. I believe this is very important.
(CP) Who was/were the main instructors teaching at Nippon University at the time? Could you please tell us a little about him/them?
(TN) During my first year at the karate club, the instructor was Sensei Hyogo Abe. The second year instructor was Sensei Masahiko Tanaka. After I graduated from university, I stayed at the karate club to help the new students. I also studied under Sensei Tanaka for 9 years until I moved to the United States. I also studied under Sensei Ueki, Sensei Oishi, and occasionally with Chief Instructor Masatoshi Nakayama at JKA.
(CP) Could you share some stories or memories that you have from your university days as readers would love to hear them I have no doubt.
(TN) My team gained places at the 25th, 26th and 27th Tokyo Karate Tournaments. My teammates were Mr. Takeshi Naito (JKA Italy instructor) and Mr. Mikio Yahara (KWF Chief Instructor). The other two members were from a different organization. Before the tournament, I was talking to my teammates. All of the sudden, Sensei Takeshi Oishi told me to represent our group and conduct the salute for the opening ceremonies. Usually we practice the salute, but there was no time. I did my best and saluted for my group. Everyone was nice and said I did a good job. It went well, but I still felt that I made a mistake.
I also remember having a dream of moving to the U.S. after graduation and teaching karate. This became a reality when the JKA Chief Instructor, Masatoshi Nakayama, told me to form a karate group in the U.S. This was in 1971, when the U.S. economy and life was difficult due to the Vietnam War. I ended up moving to the U.S. in 1978.
(CP) It’s been said that the karate that took place in the Universities was far more brutal and intense than other clubs. Was this your experience and if so why do you think the Universities were this way?
(TN) This is my experience being in the karate club. I worked hard and aimed of being at the top when I was in the karate club. In budo, second place has no meaning. Basically it meant you were the loser. The mentality was only winning. Of course, the Japanese university karate level is a very high so you couldn’t train at the same level if you wanted to be successful. You had to put all your effort in the training. The students had pride and worked hard to advance to the next level. If someone who was not familiar with karate was observing the training, they would probably feel troubled and not understand. The karate student is used to the training so they do not feel different.
(CP) During your time at Nippon University, you experienced a successful and enjoyable competitive career, am I correct? Could you please give us some detail about some of your highlights?
(TN) 1969 East Japan University League Tournament, Kumite -2nd Place
1969 All Japan Karate Tournament University Division, Kata-1st Place
1970 All Japan Karate Tournament University Division, Kata-2nd Place
1975 All Japan Karate Tournament, Kumite-3rd Place
25th Tokyo Karate Tournament, Team Kumite-1st Place
26th Karate Tournament, Team Kumite 1st Place
27th Tokyo Karate Tournament, Team Kumite-1st Place
Japan Karate Association World Tournament-2 appearances
(CP) You competed in both kata and kumite categories. Which did you enjoy the most and why?
(TN) A martial artists once said, kumite is where you discipline yourself so you can use your will effectively by (1) Setting up the opponent’s target point (2) Controlling the distance between the opponent (3) Use the best technique (4) Concentrating on the shortest path with maximum power (5) And winning the point.
In my opinion on kumite, if you perform the perfect technique, you should be able to get a wazari or ippon. I try to be aware of the corner judges’ positions when I am in a match. I try to finish with one technique without wasting too much energy. It is easier to be successful in kumite with your efforts compared to kata where the judges make the decisions. This is why most of the energy is focused on kumite.
In my own opinion on kata, the judges can have different ideas of strength, speed and application, based on their position. This can affect the score greatly. At world tournaments, one technique can have a different score based on where the Referee is standing (or your position to the corner judge). Even though there are four corner judges, the participant can’t control how the judges view the technique. This is not a perfect system, and emphasizes the importance of consistent teaching and examination for Refs / Judges, this is happening in the SKDUN.
I prefer kumite.
(CP) Today, it has become more common for competitors to favour either kata or kumite, and it’s becoming less common from competitors to compete in both disciplines. Why do you think this is and what will be the impact of this on karate competition?
(TN) Participants want to win at tournaments. Most participants do not have enough training time. So how can they be successful? There are instructors that teach students “tournament training” so the students can win. These instructors and students think the goal is winning. For example, in kata, some students do not understand the applications of the opponent distance control and eye position. This makes it difficult to obtain a high score in kata tournaments. For kumite, there are students that only think about winning. There is no respect for the opponent and the feeling of just returning blows. There is no control with tsuki and keri. That is why there are many accidents/injuries and attitude problems. This problem also occurred in the past. The karate instructor should plan ahead (long-term) and make technique check points and have students use these at tournaments. They shouldn’t worry too much about winning. I hope this can be used as a way to teach the students.
(CP) Who were the successful competitors around during your time competing? Can you tell us about their competitive style?
(TN) During my time, JKA Instructors Mikio Yahara and Takeshi Naito made the biggest impression on me. I was very impressed by their styles. Although we were from different Karate clubs, we often practiced together before tournaments. By training with my friends, I was able to compete more effectively by understanding three key points. By applying the techniques I learned from practice to competitions, controlling my spirit and feelings, and reacting to opponents in my natural stance, my friends helped me to expand upon these points and do well in Karate.
(CP) And who would you say had the biggest impact and influence on your competitive career?
(TN) The person who had the biggest impact on my career was JKA Chief Instructor Masatoshi Nakayama. Also, when I graduated from Nippon University Karate Club, Senior Senpai Masahiko Tanaka also inspired me throughout my karate career. They both taught me so much and I am very grateful for everything they had done for me.
(CP) Many advocate a mental state of ‘Mu’ when engaged in kumite. Do you agree with this?
(TN) Yes, I agree. ‘Mu’ and ‘Mushin’ mean you do not think about anything and you drive out negative thoughts from your mind, which is what the Samurai used to say. During fights and competitions, if you constantly over-think and worry about your technique, your stance or if you will win, you will most likely lose with this mind set. In Japanese “kokoro ni kagewo shojiru” means you have lost your way, and which will lead you to lose your fight. As soon as you face your opponent, you have already begun your fight with them. There is no need to think of a strategy or over-thinking, you must clear your mind and calm yourself down. In Japanese, “maaiwo tsu meru” means you close in on the distance between you and your opponent then your body instantaneously reacts. At that point, it will determine who will win or lose. In Japanese, “kokorowo ashino shitae shimaru” means to relax your heart, clear your head of any thoughts, and “shizentai”. “Shizentai” is the borderline separating if you fail or succeed.
(CP) And how does the mindset differ do you think between kata and kumite?
(TN) Generally, there is no difference in the mindset between kata and kumite. In karate, kata, kumite, and kihon must all be equal like the sides of an equilateral triangle (Trinity). This way of thinking is called “shin gi tai” in Japanese or Trinity (equilateral triangle). That is why there has to be an even balance between the three Karate practices. This is the principle difference in thinking that distinguishes sports from Budo.
(CP) Upon graduating in 1972, you were named chief instructor of the university karate club. Why were you selected for this role do you believe?
(TN) After I graduated, my goal was to become a JKA Karate Instructor. As I answered in an earlier question, I went to America to teach Budo and see my limits in how far I could go. I appreciated the opportunity to go to the US by JKA Chief Instructor Masatoshi Nakayama. I intended to go to as soon as I graduated, however the state America was in during the 1971 Vietnam War prevented me from going. I waited until the situation in the US improved, and in the meantime taught at the Nippon University Karate Club. In January 1978, I finally left for California State to help spread Karate.
(CP) In 1978 you moved to the USA. What were your motivations behind this move?
(TN) Yes, that is correct. As I explained in another question, I moved to the US on January 30, 1978. One of the reasons I decided on America was because my Father worked for the Japanese Embassy in China (Manshu country). Because my Father worked internationally, he urged me as a child to travel around the world and experience new things. His advice influenced my decision heavily. After I graduated from Nippon University, my new dream was to travel around the world and teach Karate.
(CP) Whilst there you taught karate and self-defence as a part of the university curriculum. How well received was this and how did you go about setting up karate within the university curriculum?
(TN) At the University of Southern California (USC), I had many students. One of them was Jeff Shimoyama. He was majoring in medicine at the time, but he came to me for advice. He could not pay for his tuition to go to school and asked what he could do to raise money. Because we applied to set up a Budo and self defence course at USC, the school offered Jeff a full scholarship as my assistant. This was the first Karate and self defence classes ever offered at the school and Jeff continued to teach the classes until he graduated with an MD in medicine. Even now, he teaches Karate and medicine at Venice Beach in Los Angeles, California.
(CP) Can you please define ‘Zen’ for our readers and tell us how ‘Ki’ is closely linked into this concept?
(TN) “Zen” is such a broad concept it is difficult to explain in terms with how it is related to ‘Ki”. It is difficult for me to explain “Zen” and “Ki” when I am not an expert at it.
(CP) How important is kata to you and your karate and why?
(TN) Kata is never constant because there can always be a different number of opponents for each match. This is to resemble reality more closely because fights in real life may not always be a fair one-on-one match. The most important points about Kata is that it is a routine, it uses techniques application, there is an attacking and blocking course, and the distance between you and the opponent (maai). These points in Kata must be practiced over and over again. It is also important to keep your body moving smoothly but must not be performed only as a dance.
As you practice Kata, you must keep in mind your spirit, distance from your opponent, the course direction you will take, eye position, and step position. A Kata tournament is the competition of “kime”, which means expressing a perfect stance. If you follow and abide by strict rules, exert your best efforts, and respect your opponent, you can learn to seek perfection of character.
(CP) Kata is the most traditional training method, but do you think it still has relevance to karateka in today’s society?
(TN) I have answered in previous questions that Kata training is of course very important. But it is also important to look at Kata from a different point of view, which will change the way you view it. Although Kata is very traditional and has remained using the same methods, it may still have relevance in today’s society by breaking out from using the same techniques to bring new ways of thinking. Kata now has predetermined steps. But I suggest stepping outside from the current concept of Kata and re examining how Kata can be used in a different style and its technical application can be used in a different way.
(CP) And how important and relevant is kata bunkai to you? Do you think it’s essential?
(TN) Of course, kata bunkai is very important. The kata bunkai for beginners and advanced students for the same kata cannot be viewed as the same. Students must understand the kata bunkai for their level. This means that they have to master the kata bunkai for their level before trying the advanced kata bunkai. For example, the kata Heian Shodan, the application, technique, timing, and distance are different for the beginner kata bunkai and the advanced kata bunkai,. The advanced students must use a high level of applications for this kata.
(CP) What is your favourite kata and why?
(TN) As you get older, your kata preference changes. When I was younger, my favourite kata was Bassai Dai. When I was in my 30s, my favourite kata was Jitte. When I was in my 40s, my favourite kata was Nijushiho. When I was in my 50s, my favourite kata was Sochin. Did you figure out why these katas are my favourite? These kata are very similar. It is best to pick a kata that is a good fit for your body, speed and power. Also, your favourite kata and the kata you perform at tournaments are not always the same. The referee and judges see if the participant understands the kata and select the right kata for their body type. This can affect the score at tournaments.
(CP) We live in a society today in a time where the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Champion) and such are very popular. What impact is this having do you think on traditional martial arts?
(TN) Traditional martial arts and UFC are not in the same foundation. It depends on what level we want to compare traditional martial arts and UFC. For example, are we comparing by popularity? Or fighting (who wins or lose)? Or training career? Or the participant’s life span? We can’t compare between traditional martial arts and UFC. If you take away budo or UFC from a person who retires from the activity, what is left? What is the person going to do? Which has more value in the person’s life? If you think which is more important to you in life, you start to understand the difference.
(CP) Karate has famously failed in its most recent bid to get Olympic recognition. Do you think this is a positive or negative thing for traditional karate?
(TN) The conclusion to my opinion is that the Olympics is a sport-based competition. Since karate is budo, of course it is better that karate is not part of the Olympics. This is because budo is not sports. The spectator who does not understand the budo aspect does not see the intention or potential of a technique.
(CP) What do you think are the most important benefits for people practicing karate?
(TN) All shotokan participants know the benefits. They are training and learning from these rules.
1. Seek perfection of character
2. Be faithful
4. Respect other
5. Refrain from violent behaviour
Sensei Gichin Funakoshi compiled the Dojo-kun (dojo rules).
(CP) You now teach at your Redmond Dojo, in Washington State. With the pupils who attend on a regular basis, what are the most important things you stress to them in their development as Martial Artists?
(TN) There is a slight difference between the understanding of American budo and European budo. America is a sport-based country. The participants, even the parents, have a sports-minded understanding. Even if you explain the budo spirit in America, most parents do not understand and still view it as a sport. However, the understanding in Europe is different. Europeans can understand if you explain Japanese traditional martial arts. The instructor teachings in both areas are very different.
(CP) You travel and teach a great deal. What are the most important things you stress when visiting such dojos, and what are the strengths and weaknesses you witness in most clubs you visit?
(TN) I will explain briefly what is important in my seminars. Firstly, I do not do the same seminar at each dojo. For example, with one technique, I would explain from one angle. After we master from that angle, I will explain the technique from another angle. The most important component is to have the students understand the different rhythm and timing for this technique. Also, with the opponent distance and step combination in mind, I explain how to adjust to the next technique.
For the second question, I would like to explain about etiquette. During regular training, most instructors explain techniques with the physical and mental components. Etiquette is important in the mental component. However, at tournaments, some participants forget etiquette. For example, at kumite tournaments, when a participant is hit, sometimes they get too excited and forget the etiquette, and try to hit back right away without giving respect to the opponent. Another example, some participants complain right away to the judge or referee. There are some participants that do not fully understand this basic etiquette. The instructor is also shamed when participants display lack of etiquette and deeper understanding.
(CP) Who would you say has had the biggest and most profound impact on your karate career and development?
(TN) I learned “Go” and “Jyu” from Masahiko Tanaka and Hirokazu Kanazawa.
(CP) If there is one piece of advice you could give to a new karate-ka, what would it be?
(TN) Be sure to understand the rule and manner. Also, be sure you clear each technique before you advance. Take plenty of time to train each technique and visualize how to adjust if you are attacked from any angle (360 degrees).
(CP) If there is one piece of advice you could give to an experienced karate-ka, what would it be?
(TN) Life and karate training are very similar. You cannot give up, have patience. Wait and be aware of chances. If a chance comes up, you must be aggressive and take it as your own. You must have a strong spirit.
(CP) If you could change anything you have done in your past karate, what would it be?
(TN) No, I would not change anything. I was able to get confidence and have now taken more responsibilities from karate.
(CP) Is there anything I have neglected to ask you that you would like to discuss with our readers?
(TN) No, I think you have covered many areas.
(CP) Can we please pass on our gratitude for this opportunity to speak with you, and may we wish you the very best for the future.
(TN) Yes, thank you very much. I wish you luck in the future too.
Thank you Sensei Putt for conducting the interview. Because my English level is not perfect, some of the answers may not have been answered fully.