(Shaun Banfield) Could you please start by telling us a little about how and why you started training?
(Bill Burger) When I was fourteen a friend of mine was a brown belt in Shotokan and I went along with another friend to give it a go. From the first lesson I was hooked. That was in 1979. My instructor then and for the first 16 years of my karate career was Malcolm Phipps. We did the usual mix of kihon, kata and kumite and were keen on competition. Malcolm’s clubs did pretty well in competition at the time and he produced a number of World, European and English champions so the dojo was a pretty challenging place to be as well as being a great atmosphere.
(SB) And what was Malcolm Phipps like as a karate teacher?
(BB) Malcolm was always very enthusiastic which was very infectious which in turn led to significant success on the competition circuit – particularly in the mid ‘80s.
(SB) Did you compete a great deal during your early training career?
(BB) A fair amount. I did reasonably well in association competitions and my best was third in the EKC men’s senior kata in 1983. The win I’m most proud of was our association (Malcolm’s Seishinkai) shield which was a competition where you had to compete in both kumite and kata with scores aggregated so you had be good at both: I came first in kata and second in kumite to win the shield.
(SB) Considering the current path you follow, do you now see the purpose, benefit or importance for competition?
(BB) Definitely, competition for me wasn’t so much about the winning although that was very important to me but it was about the motivation it gave me to train hard. The same goes for grading. Competition and grading give you a clear goal to work towards and allow you to make measurable gains in ability. The grading system in particular is very clever. Not only does it set down clear goals for each step on the way to the overall objective to be a black belt but it also allows each person training to see what they should look like and the skills they should have along the way by looking at the other people training with various coloured belts. I think after 2nd dan the system starts to fail and the goals become less clear and end up being “more of the same” which is demotivating for many people which I think is why we see so many people giving up at this stage. This is particularly true if for your motivation you have relied on the grading system to support you. As you get to brown belt and above it is important to start to take responsibility for your own motivation so that you don’t get caught in this trap.
(SB) During your time with Malcolm Phipps, who did he expose you to outside of his dojo and what did you learn from them?
(BB) Malcolm was pretty unusual at that time in that he regularly brought in instructors from other associations so we trained reasonably regularly with people like Kato. Malcolm and I also ran the association newsletter, which eventually turned, into “Dojo Magazine” which led to me getting invited to train on all sorts of courses with other instructors and occasionally with other styles.
(SB) You mention Kato Sensei, how would you describe him and his karate?
(BB) I really liked training with Kato. His movement was very cat-like, very relaxed and he really had his biomechanics sorted out. What I really liked about his lessons were that you had to do some brain work in that everything would seem to be disparate and not fitting together – then he would do something in the last 10 minutes of the lesson and you’d get that moment of realisation as everything fell into place and you realised what the underlying theme was. Many people never really got that about him and as a consequence really missed out on the message. He was also pretty direct – I remember once on a big course in Hemel he had picked me out to demonstrate applications with him and I had a moment of poor control and punched him on the nose when he was deliberately unguarded – it was sort of controlled but it did squash his nose a bit. I had that moment of “ooops – that was a bad mistake to make” before he punched me back on the nose – fortunately his control was better than mine but it did make my eyes water!
(SB) You are famous for your popular book ‘Five Years, One Kata’. Can you please tell us what prompted you to begin this venture?
(BB) I reached a point in my training and my work where I couldn’t get to a dojo regularly. So I could only really train at home on my own so I decided to study just one kata for an extended period like the old masters did. I wanted to see what it would be like and so I set myself the objective of doing it for one year. Well the year went by and I carried on and two years turned into three, then four and people started asking me what it is was that I was doing – most people can’t comprehend studying just one kata for so long. I only ever had five minutes to explain it to people so I never managed to get across what it was that I was doing. Add to that that I’d never really thought about how to pass on what I was doing and I got to the point where enough people were asking that I thought I’d better write it down. So I just sat down and wrote the book.
(SB) Did you ever experience any points of frustration and the need to stray and study other kata? Or were you practicing other kata with your main focus being your kata of choice?
(BB) I really only practiced the one kata (although every couple of months I’d take a couple of hours and quickly run through the 26 Shotokan kata and a couple of others that I’d picked up along the way – just to keep them in my head). When you practice one kata a key distinction that you have to make is that you stop practicing the performance of the kata and start practicing the content. It is really important to understand the difference. As we go through the grading syllabus in Shotokan we tend to just practice the performance of the kata without paying much attention to the content. Sure, we look at some bunkai here and there but it tends not to be a big part or even an official part of the syllabus. That means that we tend to concentrate on what our instructors and grading officer can see rather than concentrating on the correct visualisation of the applications. This isn’t unreasonable when you consider that you cannot grade anyone on what is going on in their head – you just don’t know. You can only grade people on what you see. The same applies for competition you can only judge on what you see.
Unfortunately this really misses the crux of what kata is as a training tool. The essence of kata is as a visualisation tool. Visualisation is difficult to teach and impossible to test and the shame is that the grading syllabus and the competition rules steer karateka away from these key kata tools.
So most of my time was taken up initially getting to grips with what the applications for each movement may be. At that time I was reading around and being influenced by people like Rick Clark, Patrick McCarthy, Vince Morris and Peter Consterdine and I was putting those key principles into my kata. As I made various discoveries I would adapt what I was doing. One of the key things that I found out was the importance of having “whole kata integrity”. What I mean by that is that all of the applications must work together to form a reasonably complete fighting system rather than being a disparate set of applications that only stand on their own. Once I’d discovered this I started refining my applications and throwing out those that duplicated others in the kata. For example, if I had two techniques that dealt with someone grabbing my lapel with their left hand then I’d discard the least workable application and use that movement in the kata for something else.
Another concept that I brought in to what I was doing was that of measuring the quality of the applications. The idea really came from a phrase that Patrick McCarthy was fond of using which was that techniques should be “simple, brutal and effective”. I took this a step further and added a whole bunch of other measures for example the degree of pro-action, the maintainability of the technique, whether it would work under the influence of adrenaline and so on. Using measures like this really helps to filter out the reasonable techniques from the not so good.
I also developed quick and easy ways to come up with applications for particular movements using pretty straight forward thinking processes. All of this and more is documented in the book.
(SB) You mention ‘the maintainability of the technique’. What do you mean by this?
(BB) This is a measure of how much practice is required to keep an acceptable level of competence. If it is a high maintenance technique then you have to invest considerable time learning it and then considerable time practicing it to keep your skill at a sufficient level that you could apply the technique. Techniques that are closer to natural, instinctive movements are normally lower maintenance. Techniques that are complex or require fine motor skills are high maintenance.
(SB) You also say you explored the influence of adrenaline on the application. How did you explore this, through experiments, if so what types of experiments did you use?
(BB) If you look at what the effects of adrenaline are you can readily identify what characteristics a technique has to have in order to minimise the effects of adrenaline. So that’s the theory, then you have to verify it in practice which means you have to be in the environment where you could get hurt. I had a great training partner (David Margree) and we would pad up to a reasonable level and try out the techniques – of course you simply can’t go 100% like this but you do get a feel for what will work and what won’t.
(SB) Are there any methods of training one’s ability to visualise correctly that you have learned or developed?
(BB) Yes. Actually, the heian kata can be used effectively to start developing a good level of visualisation for simple techniques. The essence of it is to be able to picture your opponent to a sufficient degree of detail so that you properly recreate a given scenario. It can be helpful to use an opponent first and pause the action at various points to set in your mind all of the points of reference of the opponent’s body. It is then easier to picture without the person there.
(SB) Has this deep study made you empathize with the disciplines of the older Masters of Karate? What were the hardest and most rewarding parts of this journey?
(BB) That is really hard to say. We all have a romanticised idea of what the old masters of karate used to do. The fact is that we actually know very little about their practice of karate. There is virtually no contemporary written record and very little reliable oral tradition. Karate has changed and continued to change with each decade. Many people say that they are practicing and teaching karate exactly the way they were taught. Clearly, this isn’t entirely accurate and our practice of karate changes significantly over the years as we learn new things – and that is how it should be.
If the karateka of the 1870s practiced the way I believe they practiced (i.e. practicing the contents of fewer than five kata) then I guess you could probably say that I have a pretty good insight to their training methods – but I may be way off the mark – who knows. All I can say is that I think I have a pretty good understanding of how kata can be used as an efficient training tool.
The hardest parts of the journey? Difficult to say, when you look back it all seems pretty easy. I guess the most difficult thing is to maintain the motivation to train alone. The most rewarding part is that the book seems to have had such a wide spread and positive influence on senior karateka. It is very flattering to know that so many people have read the book and commented favourably on it.
(SB) Has this study of kata in any way enhanced your understanding of kumite? Would you say you were a better fighter now?
(BB) Without a doubt it has enhanced my understanding of kumite. The first key piece of information is to understand the objective of kumite (I’m talking about standard karate kumite here ranging from basic one step, through to dojo sparring). In a karate setting we rarely question the fact that we spend all our time learning to fight against other karateka with rules that are actually quite specific to the dojo. If your objective is to go through the grades or win competitions then there is nothing wrong with standard kumite practice. However, if your objective is self defence then kumite trains you in many of the wrong skills. Clearly there is some overlap but largely the skills are not optimised for self defence. From my research I believe that the techniques in kata are designed for civilian defence scenarios against the common instinctive acts of violence that everyone can readily identify. So am I a better fighter? Well I’m definitely worse at standard karate kumite because I don’t practice it, I’d think it unlikely that I’m any much better in a toe to toe brawl and I’d like to think I’m better at dealing with common self defence scenarios.
(SB) So would you say the kata are easily applicated to suit what you call ‘Instinctive acts of violence’, and could you give us an example?
(BB) Yes most movements in kata can be seen in this light. See picture sequences 1 and 2 for an example. Here we see a movement from Gojushiho kata. A typical instinctive act of violence would be for someone to grab your lapel with his left hand and punch you with his right. Some movements in each kata deal with these instinctive (and / or cultural) fighting acts and others are designed for the chaos of the middle of the fight and some are designed for finishing. I go into a fair bit of detail on this in my book explaining the instinctive acts and analysing all of the movements of the kata to show how they can be used and how their variations can be used.
(SB) Controversial question here, how well do you think karate as a fighting system stands next to the other fighting systems such as Boxing, ju Jitsu, kickboxing etc?
(BB) They all are optimised to follow the constraints that their creators put upon them. i.e. they all have rules that are different and within those rules the fighting systems evolve. So whilst you may think that they are all fighting systems they actually all have different objectives and constraints. Then you try to compare them and you can’t – what rules will you have in place? You can’t say no rules because there are always rules you just can’t always see them immediately. So I don’t think the question is controversial it is just a non-question. Also often when people compare fighting systems they put up the top people from that system. Quite simply those people would be good fighters whatever system they study. If you want to make any meaningful comparison then you should take a good number of average students from that art and pit them against average people from another art. That would give a more representative comparison.
(SB) Can you please tell us exactly what you think the purpose of kata really is, both historically and to you the karateka?
(BB) I hope that the two are the same. Historically, I feel reasonably sure that the purpose of kata is to provide a mnemonic, a memory tool, for practicing a comprehensive fighting system which has been personalised to the individual karateka. There are some competing theories as to what kata is for example Nathan Johnson has put forward a theory which is interesting and is clearly well researched and could be correct. I think my theory is reasonable too and there is really no way to be certain. For me personally, kata is my karate as I believe it was for karateka prior to the Meiji era in Okinawa. The kata provides a structured tool for the practice of all of the techniques and a platform for the advanced visualisation skills that are required to make kata a worthwhile training method.
(SB) Having explored kata application to such a great extent, how important do you feel the rhythm and timing of the kata are to its application? How significant is the rhythm and timings found within kata?
(BB) The rhythm and timing are characteristics of the performance only and have nothing to do whatsoever with the application. Rhythm in the performance of kata is something that links the movements together. Movements in kata are not designed to be used sequentially – the only use of the sequence is to make the movements easier to remember to ensure a complete training regime. However, when applying the movements of kata this is done as the situation dictates not in a predetermined sequence. Therefore rhythm has absolutely no relevance to the application. Timing is also of little relevance as in practice you have to using timing unique to the situation you find yourself in and if you have only practiced one way of using timing you won’t be able to adapt when you need to. No, timing should be practiced in relation to your opponent and you have to ensure that your timing is ahead of his and uses a broken rhythm.
(SB) The performance of kata is a very profound experience if practiced with the correct mental approach. Can you please tell us exactly what frame of mind you are in whilst practicing your kata of choice?
(BB) The key word in your question is “performance”. It is really important to understand the distinction between performance of the kata and practice of the contents of the kata. I rarely perform the kata all the way through – trying to impart this understanding to karateka is really pretty difficult – most people just don’t get it. My understanding and practice of kata is radically different to standard contemporary karate. Having said that the mental attributes that most karateka have can be readily converted to kata centred karate practice – you just have to be mentally flexible enough to accept the different way of thinking. The frame of mind depends on the objective of your practice but typically if you are practicing fighting you need to have an aggressive and determined mindset. That is not to say that there are not benefits from practicing the performance of kata it is just that they are different from the defensive objective of kata training.
(SB) So do you think the different katas teach us different mindsets and mental approaches to fighting, for the mindset, and obviously content, of sochin is very different to lets say Gankaku?
(BB) The mindset is only different in terms of the performance of the kata which in my view is of no relevance. The mindset in any kata should be the same – determined aggression. The content of any kata is essentially the same as others. Funakoshi says this in a number of places if I recall correctly. He mentions that if you know one kata you can readily understand another kata.
(SB) What do you think is the reason for the many slow movements in kata? There are many theories, but what’s your take on the slow movements in kata?
(BB) Yes there are lots of different theories. My view is that it is more to do with the performance of the kata than the application. The application happens at the speed dictated by the circumstances. Slow movements at parts of the kata I think are useful as part of the overall mnemonic but I don’t really see much purpose beyond that.
(SB) May I ask, up to this point in your training, what kata have you studied in such depth?
(BB) I started with a fairly standard version of Gojushiho Sho kata from Shotokan. When I wrote the book I had studied only that kata for five years hence the title “Five years, one kata”. Over the period of time I made some changes so whilst it is still reasonably recognisable if I were to perform it all the way through it has diverged from the standard. In the book I show both the standard movements and my movements. The book was published a few years ago and I’ve been continuing with the study since then. It is my belief that you really only need one or two kata and those should be tuned and adapted to suit your own preferences.
(SB) So how much time do you now spend on kihon training, or does this take place primarily during your kata training?
(BB) The karate I practice is kata centred training. I only do kata (not the performance but the content), practicing the applications of each movement and the methods of linking them together to solve scenarios. For example I don’t stand and do repetitive single kihon drills like I used to when I was full time Shotokan. For example when I was training for my third dan I’d get up early every morning and do kihon in sets of 50 or 100 for about an hour – I was really into that type of training then and I really enjoyed it. And I agreed with people who had been training for ten years and would say things like “my gyaku zuki is still not 100% and needs more work”. Now I take the view of “how perfect does it have to be – its just about hitting someone.” If it takes so much practice shouldn’t we be finding something that takes less time and effort. So, I tend not to practice kihon in the conventional sense although I do obviously repeat movements in order to build a level of competence and to maintain that level.
(SB) In your studies, which kata in particular pay close attention to pressure and vital points? Could you give us an example or two?
(BB) Every single technique you do should target your opponent’s most vulnerable targets. That’s just common sense. Typically in Shotokan we aim for three vital points – the groin, the solar plexus and the throat. We maybe add a few others such as the temple, the side of the neck and the kidneys. However, the body clearly has other vulnerable targets which can be attacked. In each and every technique we perform we should be mindful of what the target is and we should be able to picture in our minds the degree of destruction that we are causing with out technique. It is unfortunate that vital points have been mystified over the last 20 years so that many people “don’t believe in them”. You might not believe in the mystic part of it but everyone with an ounce of common sense knows that some parts of the body are weaker than others and that you should try to aim for those weaker areas. Unfortunately many vital point experts like to use the Chinese names for the points which I think us ultimately unhelpful leading many people to assume that you have to use pinpoint accuracy to make them worth while. I prefer to use the “just hit here” terminology which is more pragmatic and is much clearer in terms of showing people that you don’t need to be hugely accurate.
One thing that I don’t really understand from the Shotokan community is that many people say that you can’t hit a moving target with such accuracy but then they go on to train to do just that and with a high degree of control and success.
(SB) Are there any myths about kata that you would like to dispel, for there are enough myths out there and you must have encountered enough of them.
(BB) I think the biggest one is the fact that kata is used only for performance in most dojo in the world. Most people practice just the performance and don’t practice the content. Another one that I think should be considered is that different kata are for different purposes. I don’t agree and explain why in the book.
(SB) Who would you say have been your biggest inspirations?
(BB) Rick Clark is certainly my main mentor and has been since about 1992. I’ve learnt an enormous amount from him and I’d certainly recommend that people take a look at his work and learn from it. Patrick McCarthy was a big influence too. Two key people have been Steven Webster and Gerry O’Dea. Both are members of Rick Clark’s group and good friends. Gerry is currently training with Tony Blauer – you should take a look at what he is doing as he has some really great material. Gerry is one of the only people in the UK who is doing this type of work at the moment.
Prior to all of the above I really liked training with the Shotokan greats. Kanazawa was a great favourite of mine and I also really like Shirai for the way he moved.
(SB) Why was Kanazawa a favourite of yours exactly?
(BB) I think you can tell a lot about a karateka by the way they move. Kanazawa just moves well – simple. His movement is quite different to just about any karateka you ever see. There is a soft suppleness to it but with a very hard edge. I also like his teaching style. Shirai has a different way of moving, I was always impressed by his ankles they were very flexible and it seemed his movement came from there.
(SB) Anyone you would have loved to have trained with but didn’t get the chance?
(BB) Nakayama would be a key one. I think he was pivotal in Shotokan’s success. In the seventies and early eighties it was not so easy as it is now to train with other groups. My regret is that I didn’t just ignore the politics, get off my backside and go to a Crystal Palace course when he was teaching.
(SB) What would you say is your favourite kata and why?
(BB) Well obviously I’d have to say my version of Gojushiho but I also like most other kata for various reasons. I actually like the simple pleasure of practicing the performance of the heian kata which I’ve started doing again fairly recently – just for the pleasure of moving in that way.
(SB) Apart from being an introduction to Shotokan kata, what do you think is so important about the Heian katas, technically speaking?
(BB) The Heian kata are an introduction to karate and are designed to be relatively simple in terms of their length and pattern. However, they are derived from other kata and as such contain common movements and can therefore be applied. The fallacy is that some kata are more difficult than others. That is roughly true if you are talking about the performance of the kata – for example a turning jump is more difficult than keeping your feet on the ground but in actual fact Unsu is not really that much more complicated to perform than Bassai Dai or Heian Nidan.
I’d love to get the opportunity to get a trained dancer who knows how to move and see how long it would take to teach them a basic kata and an advanced kata. My bet would be that it wouldn’t be appreciably different for them.
(SB) Can we just say a huge thank you for this interview, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed hearing your views and we wish you every success for the future.
(BB) Thank you. It has been a pleasure and please do keep up the good work at The Shotokan Way. It is a great resource for the karate community.