I bring to you an interview that has been in my archive ‘waiting to be published’ folder for quite some time. I pulled the interview out for this edition for a very specific reason. After recently returning to the UK from Germany, where I attended the 19th SKDUN World Championships (to which Mr. Saito is ‘Director for Development’) I thought this could potentially be an interesting time to use the interview. A student of Senseis Maeda and Shoji, here within this interesting interview, Sensei Yasuyoshi Saito, 8th Dan speaks about his past, his present and his future. A re-occurring theme emerges throughout the interview, that of ‘commitment’; perhaps a mainstay of ‘traditional’ karate. I have tried my best not to edit the interview too much, to try and retain the phrasing of Mr. Saito in order to try and keep within his personality.
Sincere thanks must go to Mr. Colin Putt (Chief Referee - SKDUN) for helping bring this interview to fruition. I would also like to pass on my gratitude to Julio Torres for his support with this effort. Mostly however, I would like to thank Mr. Saito for kindly giving his time and effort to our magazine. – S. Banfield
(Colin Putt) Many thanks for being so willing to give this interview. You are in Hungary to the 17th SKDUN Gichin Funakoshi World Championships, can I ask if you enjoy your trips to events such as this?
(Yasuyoshi Saito) I enjoy these kind of events providing they are run similar to our SKDUN, but even the SKDUN needs to achieve continuing growth of status further afield outside of Europe, I am happy with my position as Director of Development and would actively encourage more countries who feel frustrated at the growth of “sport” karate as opposed to Budo karate (Shobu Ippon) South America, Carribean and Asia, this would make it a truly World Tournament, you know, there are around 700 World Championships, how can this be ? We need to get back the strength of karate and elevate the status again to what it used to be.
(CP) Is there still a major international interest in shobu-ippon competition, when WKF Sport Karate is popular and becoming more influential?
(YS) I consider there will always be an interest, National and International, in what is referred to as ‘Traditional’ Karate Tournament, as demonstrated through shobu-ippon rules. It is important that the rules are simple so that competitors and spectators alike understand what is happening. The officials must act professionally; the Chief Judge must be in control. If the Chief Judge is no good it destroys the standing of the competition – professionalism is the way forward, that will mean no mistakes.
(CP) What needs to be done do you think, as a united international effort, to bring karate back home to its traditional roots?
(YS) People misunderstand ‘Traditional’ it means not changing and practising that way for a minimum of three generations. Constantly changing is no good – everyone making their own changes. For karate to be ‘Traditional’ it must be possible to return to a reference point back three generations. This is the meaning of ‘Traditional’ in many things outside of karate, a ‘Tradition’ is handed down – baking bread, furniture making – it is all the same. Instructors need to accept responsibility for preserving the past, first perhaps they need to understand what is ‘Traditional’.
(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, and what made you start karate as opposed to Kendo or Judo?
(YS) Actually I did start Judo when I was little, but the idea did not really suit my feeling of a Martial Art. I heard of Karate and started training karate in 1964. I was not aware of a style at that time. My friend did “Karate” so that is what I did. In 1965 I was fortunate to start training with Shoji sensei and other notable JKA Instructors in Shotokan. Shoji sensei was very technical in his approach. In the early period of my training, while I was very low ranking I went to a JKA Tournament and was so impressed by the physical energy of the senior competitors, how fast they were, how high they jumped. It was the first time I had seen karate this way, and these early impressions are still with me.
(CP) Do you have any fond memories of those early days in your Karate.
(YS) I really enjoyed the very physical sessions and sometimes (many times) the pain that accompanied the training. This encouraged me to develop my Karate.
(CP) As mentioned, your main sensei was Hiroshi Shoji sensei, a formidable teacher with a reputation. Could you please tell us a little about him, was this experience a lot different from your early years.
(YS) Shoji sensei was a good leader, we followed his teachings to the letter. Shoji sensei was very humble, he did not feel the need to be always above everyone else and allowed a degree of informality outside the dojo when we would go to his house or have a drink together. Sensei was not the sort of teacher to say that you were good or that sort of thing. Rather, he would push you to be better and have more understanding.
(CP) Do you have any stories of him, or fond memories of him that you could share that could illustrate his character?
(YS) My first sensei was Maeda sensei, he introduced me to Shoji sensei, in Saitama Prefecture. Maeda sensei would visit Shoji sensei’s dojo, so I went too. I did not know at that time what a great instructor Shoji sensei was, it was only later that I became aware that he was a JKA Champion, what that meant and how fortunate I was.
(CP) And what were the most important things you were taught by him on a technical level would you say?
(YS) I remember his insistence on correct technique. He was particularly good at explaining and demonstrating the correct way – length of stance and distance covered. I remember Tekki Shodan over and over again, endless on occasions – he would call yame and then immediately ‘again’. Repetition of good strong technique was always emphasised.
Today I continue that way, repetition of correct technique to enable the body to remember – 200 times every day minimum, for six months to make improvement. Kata, minimum 50 times, but not fast.
(CP) And how about from a philosophical and spiritual perspective?
(YS) Philosophical and spiritual considerations should not form part of early training. Knowing the Dojo Kun does not help your karate. Attitudes and an appropriate behaviour are the responsibility of parents, schoolteachers etc. A Dojo Kun is for the sensei.
I believe the student need four things: - Money, Time, Trust and Commitment. This may appear a little direct and against the generally accepted ethic of ‘Traditional’ teaching; however today they are necessary in karate, as in any sport for success.
Money: - necessary to hire a good coach and support the appropriate training programme and good equipment.
Time: - top sports people, musicians etc practice daily, two or three time a week is nothing.
Commitment: - There must be a commitment from the student to train, to be a champion, a will to succeed, a target, and be prepared to work towards it. There can be no excuses.
Trust: - You must look for a good instructor that you believe will give you that success. Each student must have correct commitment when they start training, a goal to aim for, they may not make champion, but they must make the best they can.
Many people quit because they lose trust or do not have a good instructor. Most quit because they are no good; good sports people or musicians practice more, they never quit. It does not matter from what background the student comes; good people practice more - never quit. There are no excuses they look for the best equipment and coaches.
Money – time – commitments – trust: - People seeking to be the best search for the best way to achieve it – Harvard Law School, Oxford University – not the nearest and most convenient.
(CP) What is your feeling about the hierarchical structure of karate, which sometimes some instructors exploit and take advantage of? What are the positive and negative parts of this do you think?
(YS) There is and has to be a social structure in all cultures and societies, and Japan is no different. What is important is not to abuse position in the social structure. In the past it has been used as an excuse to beat people, which cannot be right. All must work together within whatever social structure exists.
(CP) Could you share some stories or memories that you have from your younger days, as readers would love to hear them I have no doubt.
(YS) My fondest memory was from the JKA prefecture competition as a Nidan in 1968, achieving 3rd place in team kumite, the following year in 1969 we were in the finals, sadly the team got 2nd place, but as an individual, fighting man to man in the Budokan centre stage, that is an experience you never forget.
(CP) What year would this have been, and who were your fellow team mates?
(YS) My fellow team members were Yamamoto, Nogami Takahashi, and Chiyoma.
(CP) Do you have any other memories of your competitive experiences that you could share with our readers, perhaps bouts that were particularly tough and challenging?
(YS) Competition was competition; individual fights some I won, some I lost. I had a short competition career while I was very young. At 23yrs (1970) I left Japan to take-up a teaching career.
(CP) It’s been said that the karate that took place in the Universities was far more brutal and intense than other ‘normal’ clubs. Do you agree with this statement and if so, why do you think the Universities were this way?
(YS) I have no extensive experience of university training. I did not go to university, only visited for courses or competitions. I think the stories of hard training and beatings, was an attempt to identify it as ‘Traditional’. ‘Traditional’ was perhaps an excuse for the type of training. They were probably more brutal for the sake of pride, not necessarily producing better Karate-Ka, it was more of a challenge in these institutions, they thought the harder they treated people, the more would drop out, and those that remained were proud of their position. Hard training is fine and correct, but never motivate through bad personality or vanity, all karate in those days was hard but maybe with different motives.
(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?
(YS) I think they only have a need to win, so they concentrate on what they think is their strength, not Karate “feeling”. All competitors should consider Kata and Kumite as an equal strength and an opportunity for improvement and understanding. I think this sport attitude will have a negative effect on the overall development of “real” Karate.
(CP) Who were the successful competitors around during your time competing? Can you tell us about their competitive style?
(YS) Pre 1970, Ochi, Ueki, Oish, Iida sensei were the calibre of competitor, they were very professional.
(CP) And who would you say had the biggest impact and influence on your competitive career?
(YS) Everyone had an impact, for instance, Mr Ochi was very dynamic and Mr Iida was a very patient fighter, Mr Oish was very fast and Mr Ueki was very fast and a sharp kicker, they were all good to study.
(CP) And who would you say had the biggest impact and influence on your Budo karate?
(YS) Karate following Budo (Japanese Way) must not be confused with sport. Sport is about winning, budo is concerned with how to defend or kill. Sport is about who reaches further – is the winner. Sports have etiquette; the bow is part of etiquette and a personal thing, to me not my opponent. The bow is my etiquette, not for someone else.
(CP) Many advocate a mental state of ‘Mu’ when engaged in kumite. Do you agree with this? Mu – in Japanese is dead things; does not exist in lifetime.
(YS) Yes to a point, you need to find a good technique and the mental state will follow, this applies to all Arts and sports.
(CP) And how does the mindset differ do you think between kata and kumite?
(YS) I think it should be the same mindset, however, the balance changes as you get older, and that is why it is so important for good technique and deeper understanding.
(CP) When you left Japan, you travelled and taught in many countries, they all have distinctly different cultures and ways of life, how do you integrate the JKA way into these mindsets and what were the biggest challenges.
(YS) First, the JKA taught in many countries, students always follow the individual sensei ways, but Master Nakayama set the standard, this is what we should follow. The biggest challenge is finding students who are willing to commit and follow, take ownership of a dojo by commitment to it in all ways.
(CP) You later moved to the USA, what were your motivations behind this move?
(YS) The USA is a big country and there is room for good technical Instructors, there were no Instructors (JKA) in Miami, so here I am.
(CP) From 1972-1992, you were a part of the ISKF. Can you please tell us a little about this time in your life?
(YS) When I was at ISKF, I met many great Karate-Ka, and I consider myself very lucky for that experience. So twenty years later I became independent, because I had matured and wanted to try it on my own. Organizations are great because they bring people together, but everybody has an equal opportunity to grow.
(CP) And do you have any fond memories of your time with ISKF that you could share that could give us a glimpse into your experiences at this time?
(YS) In 1976, during the American two hundred year (Bicentennial Celebrations), I participated at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, along with Sensei Mr. Ueki, Tanaka, and others, as a Japanese team. We celebrated with a tournament.
Also ISKF would sponsor a National Tournament, brought great competitors, and other Sensei to do demonstrations.
(CP) And what prompted your decision to depart company with ISKF?
(YS) I had matured during my time at ISKF and desired to try and have my own organization, creating Japan Karate-Do International.
I am now very satisfied and full of hope, because as I travel all over the world, I have the opportunity to meet great Karate-Ka.
Since then, I have joined the Shotokan Karate-Do of United Nations (SKDUN), and they are an International organization with sixty member countries. My position with SKDUN is that of “World Director for Development”. Shotokan is one organization and it should be rightfully so that everyone is together to bring about the best Karate and Karate-Ka champions.
Master Funakoshi started one “Shoto” Kan System and it would be very nice to remain all together, and that is my hope.
(CP) Can you please define ‘Zen’ for our readers and tell us how ‘Ki’ is closely linked into this concept?
(YS) A quote from the Zen monk, Daisenen. “Scrubbing, sweeping, pulling weeds, wood chopping, Daisenin will willingly accept your labour of love if you wish to have a taste of practical Zen”. The tea ceremony is indicative of Zen for Karate, help for other people. Karate – Ka who are motivated by self or consider a spiritual self will always look inward, we are strong and look to be humble, care for others, and this is a doctrine for Instructors.
(CP) So to be a true karateka, your aim is to serve, is that accurate would you say? Can you please elaborate?
(YS) Karate is not about other people, it is about your self improvement, same as any other sport, or art, and in that manner you are serving the greater good, good Karate. If your Karate is good, that is good enough.
There are many roles, but there should be one commitment to serve in that role. The title Sensei means that you are fully committed to serving people. In other sports or arts, greatness in players is a result of great and committed instructors, coaches, and teachers.
(CP) How important is kata to you and your karate and why?
(YS) Kata is almost the basis for Japanese society, for instance, the tea ceremony is a kata, flower ceremony is a kata, cooking etc, and you cannot separate Kata from life.
(CP) Kata is the most traditional training method, but do you think it still has relevance to karateka in today’s society?
(YS) Absolutely, you cannot separate this thinking from Budo. Kata is the start and finish.
(CP) And how important and relevant is kata bunkai to you? Do you think it’s essential?
(YS) Bunkai is the meaning of Kata, it demonstrates the “soul and feeling”, without it, Kata and Karate has little meaning, it demonstrates understanding.
(CP) What is your favourite kata and why?
(YS) Unsu is favourite, but sadly I am not good at it, but all Kata is special, difficult to feel a favourite, liking and doing is significantly different. I now believe that Kanku Dai is the most important Kata, It envelops the soul, spirit and feeling overall. ALL shodan should really study this Kata
(CP) How do you incorporate the teachings of Budo into your everyday life? What are the finer points you stress most significantly?
(YS) People do not understand that Budo is a Japanese cultural development. During the Samurai period, Budo meant bringing commitment and service, devoting your life to family, territory, and the Shogun.
The fundamental s of Budo is “Hitono Shi Awase”, it is my commitment to provide happiness and security.
That is why the Samurai had to be strong, to be able to serve, because if he was weak and lost, his family, territory, and Shogun - he could not protect.
Budo is life. Tournament and Budo do not go together, because in tournament there is one winner and one loser. In tournament, it is very important to follow the rules, and most important is the Chief Judge. In Budo, if you loose, then you are dead.
(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?
(YS) It is OK for business but do not mix the feeling of UFC as a business with the traditional Karate as a “way”, the two are totally different, like American football and English soccer.
(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?
(YS) Nakayama sensei said that if we start in the Olympics it would mean one country, one vote with regard to how Karate would be seen, therefore we will lose the traditional way to a “democratic vote of many ways” therefore we run the risk of losing the “original way of Karate-Do”.
(CP) What do you think are the most important benefits for people practicing karate?
(YS) I think the health benefits, especially as you get older, it is the mental health and the physical health that develops together, the Kiai is indicative of the spirit of mental strength as well as the explosion of physical health, you need to start younger, as you get older it gets more difficult, not impossible just more difficult.
(CP) You now teach at your Miami Dojo, in Florida 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?
(YS) I think that continuity and continuance of training is so important, to quite is to fail. The dojo is the beautiful place, it develops and flourishes with the support of the students and diligent training, and it develops people in mind and body.
(CP) You travel and teach a great deal. What are the most important things you stress when visiting dojos, and what are the strengths and weaknesses you witness in most clubs you visit?
(YS) Commitment is so important, many people do not understand the depth of Karate, first of all, practice is just that, just practice with little understanding, many people just teach repetition, they should teach 1st technique, slowly, take time, then speed up and try changing position etc. A lot of students have bad habit, mostly because their Instructors have shallow depth and understanding so how can they pass on correct “way”. People say things like “Kime”, Sen no Sen, Go no Sen etc without actually understanding themselves, they should not philosophise without knowledge, it is misleading to students and leads to false ability.
(CP) You mention that people often just teach repetition. Is repetitive training as harmful as well as useful do you therefore think?
(YS) Many people do not understand and just practice. They say fast, strong, but their practice could have bad habits and it would be wrong. Technique is most important. Lots of people do not know the meaning of technique.
If you have good technique, no matter which sport, golf, tennis, or art, then as you get old, you are still great. Technique is acquired by having good instructors and not learning mistakes. Technique can be described as a “Textbook” performance.