Edmond Otis is a highly knowledgeable karateka, who has trained for almost forty years. Apart from his deep knowledge and years of experience, Edmond Otis is a man with a friendly and open personality, and he works incredibly hard at promoting Shotokan. He travels the world teaching, spreading the word, whilst juggling a family, a successful organisation, and he also managed to fit in time to film the highly successful ‘Essential Shotokan Series’.
Sarah Amos: I would just like to say a big thank you for willing ness to provide us with an interview.
Edmond Otis: That’s no problem; can you tell me a little bit about your site, what your plans are?
SA: Yes of course, we simply want to produce a very useful resource for Shotokan karateka. There was often a time, like many people, where my self and many members of the team would want to learn more about karate, and we were constantly reading, and seeing what other people were doing in the world of karate. We simply hope to create a place were answers can be found, and not just one persons idea of an answer, but a wide variety of people’s answers. We want to create it totally free of political bias.
EO: Well, I think that’s fabulous. I wish you great success, and I hope you exceed your hopes.
SA: Well thank you very much, and we truly appreciate your support, for its other peoples views being presented that will make this site a resource for everyone.
EO: Well I will try and give you as much help as I can.
SA: Could you please tell us how you started Shotokan Karate, and what your early experiences were?
EO: I started training in 1967, when I was twelve years old. In the United States, I didn’t see any other kids doing karate; I was the only one I saw for a while. I started out with a club with Nishiyama who was in Los Angeles. I wasn’t very good at the beginning but I trained a lot, but when I was seventeen I moved to riverside California, and got more involved with Nishiyama Sensei directly and also his senior student at that time, a man named Ray Dalke. I have trained consistently since that time. I have to say; it took me a while to get the ‘knack’ of it, because there weren’t any kids at that time. I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but it took me four times to get my brown belt, my third kyu, I just kept failing. It took me four times to get my shodan, I was horrendous. But then, something seemed to click. I trained a great deal, and I got my nidan three months after I received my shodan. And then I got my sandan in 1978, which was about two or three years after I relieved my nidan. I was competitive; I competed a lot in the United States. You know, we experience a lot of the same things as you do; the politics of Shotokan Karate is so strange. It’s really so unfortunate. I think when Nakayama sensei passed away, the instructors were so hesitant to let people train with each other and it’s still that way. It’s really very silly. I’m not quite sure why that is. I think Nakayama sensei was a good force for keeping people a little bit humble, keeping people together, but yet not allowing them to explore themselves. I think the day of JKA Karate, as being the most important thing is long gone because we have lots and lots of people who have a lot of experience. I think that’s good; I think the more interaction the better. Still, I see among my friends and my peers that they are afraid or unwilling to go and train with one group or another, and for the life of me I can’t imagine why that is. People stay with their instructors for a lot of different reasons. I have a lot of students who have been with me since they were seven or eight and I encourage them to go and train with as many different shotokan instructors as possible. If they go see somebody who’s good, they learn something, but if they see someone who isn’t as good they realise and feel lucky they have it good where they are. But they’re not going to stay with me because I do the best class. Do you have children?
SA: No I don’t
EO: I have a thirteen year old boy now, and he comes home ever now and again and he says ‘I wanna go over Johnny’s house, I’ve been invited over for dinner’. It would be so silly for me to not let him go over there just in case he likes that family better than he likes our family. I don’t understand it. I believe in 1984, senior members in the United States, I was still competing then, I wasn’t that senior. But Okazaki’s most senior student who was my instructor Sensei Safar and Ray Dalke formed something known as Ajka the American JKA Karate Association. And it was an in independent organisation, practicing JKA style shotokan. I think we were the first group to brake away, continuing to practice the style without trying to control everybody else. And that’s where we are now.
SA: With all the people you trained with early on, what did you take away from them?
EO: One of the things that I learned most, at that time our dojo was in direct competition with Nishiyama’s dojo, and I learned that you don’t have to be Japanese to practice karate. Karate is a human art, with Japanese origin. But the principles we find in karate you can find in a variety of cultures. You know, the self-discipline, integrity, and the work ethic, the need to better yourself. But that is a cross-culture. But for a long time, I saw people who had a distorted view, and I don’t believe it’s the Japanese’ fault, it’s just a distorted view. Anyone can do good karate. I would say that that’s what I learned most. The essential element of the shotokan style is that we really have no style. Shotokan Karate is very simple, very basic. I always say ‘there’s nothing better than good shotokan, but nothing worse than bad than shotokan’. Because if you don’t have good fundamentals, and you don’t practice the basics then you’re in trouble, because we don’t really have a lot of gimmicks to fall back on. Shotokan is very simple. It’s not very fancy, not very elaborate. You walk out, you bow, you do your kata and you go home. There’s not a lot of elaboration about it. That’s the beauty of it. That’s the simplicity of it. It really forces us to be good, you really need to be able to do those techniques well, and practice a lot. This style is very fundamental, but I also feel it’s very practical. In a real self defence situation, and I’m not just talking about in karate, I’m talking about in law enforcement and in war, if something happens the only thing that guarantee’s your survival is how good your fundamentals are. If you are a doctor working in a war zone or in an emergency room, and somebody comes in, you need to get their heart pumping, you need to do that immediately; you need to do something right away. You don’t get distracted. I thing good shotokan karate is designed from good, effective self-defence, but only if we really train hard. So I learned that. I’m heavily involved in working towards keeping shobu-ippon competition distinct from sanbon or WKF competition. I think we learn something crucial in that. We are involved with the revised WUKO, which I like very much because it’s open to all organisations and it has specific shobu-ippon rules. It doesn’t have to be controlled by one particular organisation. We have very good friends in other associations, very good relationships with Sensei Yahara with a wide variety of groups. We’re focused on keeping shotokan as effective as possible.
SA: In interviews I have read with you, as you have already mentioned, you state that you feel that many shotokan groups don’t pay adequate attention to understanding the basics of karate. Do you feel karate is improving or do you feel we are stepping backwards?
EO: I think we took a really bad turn; I want to point out that everyone has a different point of view, but I think shotokan stylists took a not really productive turn when we turned and focused our attention towards kata bunkai. Again, I understand the different points of view, but when I was learning what Nishiyama taught, but I truly believe that Nishiyama with his views was the architect of what we think of as JKA Karate. If you look at the research, Nakayama was a wonderful senior instructor – brilliant, wonderful personality and a great motivator. But if you look deeply into the methodology and teachings of all those years ago, it was Nishiyama who really identified the need for understanding the principles of the dynamics. I think we need to continue to practice that. We learned that kata is very important; they are the heart of karate, because there’s nowhere to hide behind them. You know, if you go out for a drink with your pals and someone jumps out on you, you don’t think to yourself, huh, today I will do Tekki Shodan. Self-defence does not work in that way. When I look at other art forms, what the kata’s do is they teach a certain physiological, psychological principle on how to move our bodies. So the four fundamental kata’s for example Bassai Dai, Kanku Dai, Jion and Empi teach noticeably different principles. And it is the principle that is the most important element. They teach different body dynamics, different tempo, different rhythm, different strategy, and again you’re not going to do empi, you’re not going to do Kanku-Dai in a self-defence situation. I think also what the kata do, if you train seriously and deeply enough the kata help you develop a psychology or attitude for the kata that you carry across. You pick up a different emotional tone in Bassai Dai than in Empi. It’s like if you play music, a piece of classical music can make you happy or sad, because by playing the music your body experiences different rhythms and different attitudes, because its evocative to you. My feeling is once we get past the fundamentals, we practice different katas to learn a different way of moving and a different way of using our bodies, different rhythm, different muscle dynamics, but also they teach us the different attitudes that we need when we are in a self defence situation. Sometimes you need to be tedious and heavy and going on like Bassai Dai. Sometimes you need to be quick; sometimes you need to have a different range. For example hangestu teaches you an attitude of stalking your opponent so you’re always in absolute control of your opponent. At the same time, nijushiho and unsu may teach you something different. I personally see the katas as being very valuable, but of least value is the fact that they have different technical applications. Really, all that is, is basic sparing. Our goal hopefully is to be spontaneous with our techniques. It’s like language, if you learn a second language, you learn phrases like ‘where’s the bathroom’, but your goal is to become fluent. Karate is no different. We learn basic techniques like vocabulary, and then we learn different ways of putting them together. Then we learn a basic exchange. But the goal is to express ourselves, and to express yourself you need to be spontaneous.
SA: I have to say, you have a very imaginative way of explaining your theories, I’m very fascinated!
EO: Well thank you
SA: Since you’re involved with WUKO, and you believe in shobu-ippon, how do you feel about modern karate being somewhat sportified?
EO: To be honest, I think it’s fine. It’s just different. I think I’m one of few people on the face of the earth who is glad that karate did not get accepted into the Olympics. Fundamentally, the principles of the Olympics are wonderful, I have a lot of students who are athletes. The model of the Olympics, what is it ‘faster, harder, higher’, while the fundamental principles of the martial arts are more about becoming deeper and more precise and doing more with less. I appreciate the different types of competition, for they produce wonderful athletes, but I like shobu-ippon. But also, the truth is, shobu-ippon takes a high calibre referee, takes high calibre judging. Difficult because there are less points to score, so you’re allowed to make more mistakes, you’re allowed to take more risks. One thing we’re working on with WUKO is this that this whole translation of a killing blow is a little bit false. It isn’t that one technique is going to kill somebody; maybe it might if you’re lucky. But a shobu-ippon point awarded is because every aspect of the fighters being is committed to that point. Physical, mental, emotional. Everything is for that point. Complete commitment. That’s Budo in its purest sense. I think that teaches a lot, it allows you to spar a lot harder, and I don’t think it’s as fancy. I have a lot of athletes myself who do both types of competition, but I think its fine. In the world, I think there are two types of karate. There’s Shotokan, and there’s not Shotokan., and in Europe there’s a lot more Shotokan than there is here. In Great Britain, there’s an excellent level of Martial Arts, and the reason is that there is a large population, who are very serious in a small area. It’s harder to do a lot of bullshit. It’s harder to be phoney there, because everybody knows ‘what’s up’.
SA: Although there does seem to be a lot of classes that advertise ‘fast track yourself to a black belt’ and earn yourself so much money, which is a bit dangerous.
EO: Fortunately, I get to Europe pretty often, I just came back last week, AJKA International has many groups in Europe, and I just came back, we had an instructors class over there and there were around 120 sandan’s and above in from Hungary and Germany. This week I’m going to Berlin to teach with my instructor Sensei Safar and some others. We encourage as much exchange as possible. I think also, Shotokan and traditional Martial Arts presents something that is very needed right now. One thing that I’m noticing, as you probably are too, that we are very blessed to have technology, but the problem is that technology is all about making things simpler, so you don’t have to spend as much time focusing on something. But now students are finding it hard to pay attention to something for a long period of time. Short attention span prevents you from thinking about anything very deeply. You can get a lot of superficial things done, but a limited attention span prevents you from going very deeply into any subject. Traditional training is very important.
SA: Isaka Sensei is renown for his slow motion training, and there is also much research and training taking place with rubber inner tubes etc. Do you invest in such so-called modern training activities, or do believe simple makiwara training is useful enough?
EO: I think supplementary training is important. Nishiyama was using rubber inner tubes thirty years ago. I think there’s always been supplementary training. I believe what we practice is a very modern form of Shotokan karate, the way we look at the techniques. But I think supplementary training is always helpful. But the bottom line is the quality of the techniques. But then again, running is supplementary training, as is push-ups and knee hops. But one thing that makes karate, especially shotokan so special is the idea of using the all body parts together, so large body parts reinforces small body parts, power reinforces speed, momentum gives you power and movement. It’s about using your body as a unit. It’s about physical synergy. Karate is a synergistic art. I think one thing we have to be careful is not for example to do too much weight training, which tends to isolate parts of the body. There’s also much talk nowadays about core training such as palates. Everything comes around in different places, and core training is what karate is all about. I just did a big lecture for a group of palates instructors, and how like karate it’s the same principle, and how the body works as a unit. I think supplementary training is excellent, I certainly do that, but I don’t think we spend enough time hitting things. By not doing so, we can’t see what works and what doesn’t. But I also think the ability to control your technique is incredibly valuable. In my dojo, I really encourage a lot of control of strong techniques, because I think we fool ourselves if we just hit each other a little bit. If you’re going to hit each other, you need to hit each other a lot. But if you only learn to hit each other a little bit, you’re teaching your body a mistake, it’s more effective to control you techniques, but generate as much force, and then spend time hitting bags or makiwara boards. But coming back to the Olympics, Judo got into the Olympics in 1964, before that, Judo was very popular. It was popular in the way that karate is popular. There were manners and etiquette, but now it’s been lost because it’s a sport. Now, it’s a lot less popular than it was, because it only deals with elite athletes, because they want results. They are looking for people who are best suited to Judo; in the same way basketball looks for people best suited for basketball. I would be cautious of that. I was relieved it didn’t get into the Olympics.
SA: We’ve read that you’re a family man, and you still travel the world teaching karate. How do you manage to juggle such as stressful workload?
EO: I try to keep my travelling down. I’m quite good at compartmentalising. I do some other things as well. I consult with organisations and I do some psychology training. This has been a very busy season for me, but I try not to travel more than once a month. Like I said, I have a thirteen year old and a seven-year-old son, I’m married, and I have a lot of wonderful students who help me. I feel very fortunate because I have students who are grown men with their own families who have been with me since they were seven. I’m very fortunate in that way. Everything I do in one way or another I tend to see as a massive project. I’m pretty practical, I’m pretty realistic, because at fifty one, I can’t train the way I did when I was twenty five. It turns out to be counter-productive. As we get older, I think we can still train hard and dynamically. The mistake is to train hard five times a week, three times a day. When I was in my twenties, I lived at the dojo. I’m a reasonably good parent now, but I would have been a terrible parent in my twenties. But when you’re an athlete you’re selfish and narcissistic as you should be right? (Laughing) It’s all about ‘Me, me me’. I was fortunate not to have gotten married for a long time after that. Although I am still a little narcissistic, as any good karate instructor is (Laughing) as you have noticed no doubt.
SA: One question we are asking everyone, as a running theme through all of our interviews is what is Edmond Otis’ favourite kata and why?
EO: In shotokan, we are very fortunate; at least in the way we teach it. In a lot of styles, encourage you to do a lot of kata equally. But what I encourage my students to do is to pick a body of one or two kata’s and we learn the other kata’s as well. But the one or two are the ones we are married to. Those are the ones that we hopefully know intimately. But like any intimate relationship, they know us too! Your kata will see your strengths and your weaknesses, just like your husband or girlfriend will. I think my favourite kata, which I’ve been doing for a long time is nijushiho. I think my second favourite is sochin, and just lately, I’ve started to appreciate hangetsu. But my favourite is nijushiho. As I said, I failed shodan many times, and I was doing Bassai Dai for my grading, and my instructor at the time said why don’t you try nijushiho. Everybody did nijushiho for shodan, but he told me to give it a try. And I was successful. Later, when I took my nidan, I did nijushiho again, for good luck. And I still get a lot of pleasure doing it. I like the rhythm of it; I like the way it makes me feel. I think it suits my personality, but I’m not quite sure what that means.
SA: What is your understanding of zanshin, and how do you apply it to your karate?
EO: I think all of the principles that we identify with in karate, are what we identify with in real life. There’s nothing special or unique with karate. Some people when they do karate try so hard and hold themselves differently than they would naturally. And the truth is, a good martial artist will not do this, it shouldn’t make you different than normal, but just better than normal. Posture is still normal for example. But when we look at something like focus, where the idea is ‘how much shock, how much force can I generate to a specific surface area in a short a period of time as possible’. But we do this all of the time. If you chop wood, you hold the axe in your hand, and begin to chop, and your body naturally experiences focus. If you hit it wrong, the axe vibrates in your hand. If you do it correctly, your body collapses around it, and you’re able to make your body dense. In a way, this is very productive, because shock actually leaves your body. But to me, zanshin is about being calm and comfortable enough to make your technique finish naturally, and then move on. Kind of like a reduction of anxiety. When we talk about focus or kime, its very possible we’re talking about what we call in the States ‘being in the zone’. Have you heard of that?
EO: Well, about twenty years ago, sport psychologist’s started talking about ‘being in the zone’, which basically means that you are so immersed in the activity that you lose awareness of past and future. You’re not doing the activity for the result, but for the exhilaration and satisfaction of the moment. It’s very meditative. Psychologically and physiologically, that is the one experience that the body craves most. Your body craves the feeling of being in the moment. Because if you think about what’s going to happen, that’s just anxiety and stress. If you worry about what happened or how good you were, that limits you and it makes you stumble. But if you’re in the zone and you’re so immersed in the technique, when you’re done with it we’re able to move on to the next technique.
SA: If you could give one piece of advice to our readers, what would it be?
EO: That’s a good question. I think to be balanced. You need to have the same expectations of others that you have of yourself. Some people who teach the martial arts are very critical of others, whereas they are not of themselves. Other people are very self critical, but they give a lot of other people a lot of slack. If you’re going to be harsh on others, you may as well be harsh on yourself. If you’re going to be judgmental, then do that to yourself. If you’re going to be easy on others, then don’t be neurotic and be easy on yourself as well. I think that would help in the dojo, both students and instructors.
SA: I would just like to say that this was a fantastic interview. I have thoroughly enjoyed talking with you, and our readers will undoubtedly really appreciate your opinions. Thank you so very much.