Launched in September of 2006, The Shotokan Way has rapidly established an impressive reputation as one of the leading Shotokan Karate resources on the World Wide Web. I recently had the pleasure of meeting and training alongside the creators of www.theshotokanway.com and thought that it would be a great idea for visitors to the site to discover who was behind this impressive new project. Shaun Banfield and Emma Robins are two of the most honest and nicest people that you will come across in the sometimes sceptical Karate world, and it was a pleasure for me to sit down and put this interview together. I hope you enjoy what they had to say as much as I did – Paul Herbert, December 2006.
(Paul Herbert) First things first, could you guys start by telling the readers about your training backgrounds in Wales and what initially got you both interested in Shotokan Karate?
(Shaun Banfield) I initially started karate in 1992 basically because my cousin Sarah at the time had shown an interest in karate, and since we were brought up together more-or-less like brother and sister, it was only natural that I also started training. I started my training under the KUW (Karate Union of Wales) headed by Mike O’Brien, with my instructor being Jason Ashcroft, and it was through the KUW that I was given exposure to the likes of Dave Hazard and Aidan Trimble. Mike O’ Brien I remember was a frightening character and to a six year old scared the living daylights out of me. Now I look back, I feel he had a strong presence, an aura that many Chief Instructors just don’t have.
(Emma Robins) I started karate in 1995. I had moved to a new town and at the time I was very shy, so when we had a leaflet posted through our door advertising the local Shotokan club, my Nan thought it would be good for me to make some new friends. I started training under Lynette Mahoney – who was part of the KUW – but after around a year the club numbers lessened until there were just two of us. The club closed, and I began training in the same club as Shaun, and the rest is history!
(PH) Something I’m always interested in hearing about are Karate-Ka’s grading experiences. Could you tell me about your Sho-dan gradings? And were your present at each others?
(SB) I remember being eight or nine, thinking to myself that there were only three things in the world that I wanted. 1) For my family to live forever 2) To win the lottery 3) To get my black belt. I don’t think I’ll ever achieve the first two, but I did get my black belt, and to be honest, it wasn’t as life changing a thing as I’d expected. I didn’t feel any different; my karate wasn’t any better because I had a black belt around my waist and I wasn’t magically as tough as I wanted to be. I do look back on it with fond memories though, as I did my Shodan under Mike O’ Brien, and it was a sweaty grading that took place after the monthly Brown and Black Belt Course. Emma never attended my gradings, although I was present for her Sandan Grading, and boy did she work hard. She put the blokes to shame! (Laughing)
(ER) My Sho-Dan was a terrifying experience to be honest. I hadn’t long joined a new association before I was ready to take my Sho-Dan, so I really didn’t know what to expect. I did my Sho-Dan two months early if I remember well, and I remember thinking that it must be because I was more than ready, so I got a little bit relaxed about the whole process, then had a rude awakening when the grading arrived! There was a 2-hour brown and black belt course before the grading, and we were warned not to slack off! Then I had about 30 minutes of Kihon, I had to perform all my Heian Kata, Tekki Sho-Dan, Bassai Dai and Jion, and then I had to perform Jiyu-iipon kumite with one of the seniors. It was hard work, but I’m pleased to say I passed first time! I never got to see Shaun grading but he did watch me in my most physically demanding grading, my San-Dan. I was a real state when it finished. It was actually on my 21st birthday, so it was a double celebration when I passed!
(PH) Having both competed in the tournament side of Karate, Is this something you enjoyed and will continue to participate in, or was it something that simply served a purpose at the time?
(SB) When I initially started to take competition karate seriously in 1999, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I felt the real benefits of this type of discipline in my karate. There weren’t regular squad training sessions, so most of my training for kumite took place in normal lessons, but I did dedicate many weeknights to my kata training. Since no one was there to assist me, I’d set up a camera in my garage and train that way. Looking back now however, I do feel that aesthetically I improved a great deal but I don’t think I placed adequate attention to the attitude required for kata performance, something I now think about a great deal. I’m not entirely sure that I’ll go back to competing now though, I kind of feel like that ship has sailed and it doesn’t hold the same importance or interest that it once did. Although I don’t think I peaked competitively, and I wonder how much further I could have gone, I do feel like my heart lies in dojo training, and to compete successfully especially today you need the heart to train specifically for competition, something I don’t have the inclination to do. Maybe some point in the future things will change, who knows…?
(ER) I was a latecomer to the world of competition, and hated it. I was terrified for days leading up to any tournament. Getting up and competing, both in kata and kumite was a traumatic experience for a long time! Looking back, I wonder how or indeed why I stuck with it! But I’m glad I did because eventually I learned to love competition for what it was. I loved the adrenaline rush of standing and waiting to see which colour flag would raise. Competition holds so many great memories for me, but unfortunately, just as I was getting into the swing of things a knee problem kept me out of training for quite a few months. Now that I can train again I will be returning to competition simply because I love it. It sounds cliché but it doesn’t really matter to me whether I win or not. Competition is a chance for me to perform, and being a drama teacher, that comes easy to me! (Just kidding) But seriously, I just enjoy the rush, and if I place, that’s great, but if not, then that’s fine too. One of my fondest memories is competing in the Gichin Funakoshi World Open, and not placing, but performing Empi the best I ever had.
(PH) Did you see the introduction of WKF rules and a push for Olympic recognition as a positive or negative move for Karate?
(SB) In all honesty, positive or negative, it doesn’t really make all that big a difference to me. Like all big decisions, there are going to be both positive and negative ramifications, and Olympic recognition is no different. I have to say, I competed for a while under the WKF system and I found many of its principles to be good for karate and I personally found it relatively simple to have a different approach to karate whilst in the dojo to that in competition. I do tend to think that some rules that have been introduced ‘dumb’ down some elements of karate, but if you enjoy sanbon competition for what it is, then that is ok. I don’t like some of the flashier dramatisations of kata that are present for aesthetic appeal, as I think this again dumbs down the kata, but this is not to say that the athletes who do it this way are not talented, because they clearly are, but it’s just not for me.
(ER) I think the main problems with something like the Olympics for karate is that there are too many people all having different views as to how karate should look for the Olympics. For example, I was having a discussion with a Senior Instructor about karate in the Olympics and it was then that I found out initial plans to have karate-ka compete wearing little red and blue shoes and head guards. Now obviously I understand why Olympic officials would want this protection for competitors, but I feel like it would just be taking us that one step further away from karate and martial arts.
(PH) Like myself, you travel around a little nomadically and train with many different instructors within many diverse associations – ‘have Gi will travel’ as they say! As visitors to so many different dojos, what have you observed as being both the strongest and weakest areas of Shotokan students in this country?
(ER) Well, to be honest I haven’t experienced much karate outside of the UK, so I can only comment on what I’ve seen here, and it seems to be a case of two extremes that contradict each other. The strongest part about British karate from my experience is the sense of welcome we get, no matter where we go, or how long we’ve had to travel, there’s always a friendly face at the end of it. So many people are willing to accommodate others and I think that’s something we should be proud of. It’s all well and good having fantastic technique, which many British karate-ka have, but we need the attitude that comes with it and not just a good spirit in the dojo, but a good attitude outside of it too.
That said, I think one of the worst things I’ve seen is the arrogance that seems to come in the box with black belts. I have to stress that this arrogance is definitely in the minority, but it is there. It’s unfortunate that you can walk in one dojo and be met with a sea of smiles, but also met with one face that just looks you up and down and wonders how they can prove that they are so much better than you. It’s not the competitiveness that bothers me; it’s the arrogance, needing to judge everyone else in a gi. Just let us train, and concentrate on yourself. That’s what I say.
(SB) I think Shotokan Karate here in the UK is very strong. No better or worse than in Europe, America or anywhere else in the world. And for me, I have to agree with Emma. We see some outstanding karateka, with great spirit, technique and attitude, and this is a really positive thing. But the arrogance is a problem, not just in karate I’m sure, but in all Martial Arts and sports, and this is no way beneficial to anyone and certainly does not breed an environment where the good Karate can flourish. I was in Australia a couple of years ago and I walked into the room and was met by a Master 1st dan and he was simply so full of himself that I never returned for the next class. He had devised a special way for his students to bow to him, including a chant and synchronized humming, I didn’t know what I’d let myself in for. That’s just one example of a bad class, but I experienced many other great karate clubs over there, and it just goes to show that you get good and bad everywhere.
(PH) Over the years you must’ve trained with many instructors who have impressed you technically, but who have you found to really have that ‘special something’ and why?
(SB) We’ve experienced the skills of many excellent karateka, and I personally try and take a bit of their magic and inject it into my karate, not that you’d tell sometimes ha ha. For me personally though, it would have to be Sensei Hazard that has inspired me most. The first time I trained with Sensei Hazard was when I was seven, and he was teaching Bassai Sho, and I remember being totally inspired by his technical skill and motivational ability. I was seven, so that just shows the kind of impression he made, and since that time I’ve trained with him many times, but this past year we have trained with him more than anyone else because he never fails to deliver and if I can inject the smallest amount of his skill and knowledge into my karate then I’ll be happy.
(ER) I always try to take away as much as I can from every instructor we ever train with, but Sensei Hazard always seem to be able to teach me that little something special. There are so many occasions already that Sensei Hazard has said something that has immediately changed my karate. It’s such an amazing thing, to be able to see karate the way that he does, and it inspires you to think in such a different way about your own karate.
(PH) Without naming names and playing one instructor off against another, have you ever heard two completely contradicting theories from two-respected Karate-Ka? If so, what was the subject matter they differed on so much, and finally what were your own conclusions on that subject?
(SB) I think no matter who you train with, whether it’s two instructors from two very different organizations with very different ways of thinking, or two instructors from the same organization, you will always find minor differences in their approach. This I don’t necessarily think is a bad thing, because it’s only natural to find the way that best suits you. The only time this becomes a problem is when you do things that are not exactly healthy for your body, and over the years I’ve done many things that have not been all that healthy, things I now try and eradicate in my karate. I think the biggest contradiction that still exists even today regards the physical act of kime. There were obviously two different theories with Nakayama and Egami concerning the relaxation and contraction of the body’s muscles at focus, this I’m sure is one contradiction that many people have struggled with, and it’s very difficult to find out exactly what is the correct way. Question is, is there a correct way? Or just different ways? I tend to agree with the latter, and I just tend to do what feels best to me.
(ER) I agree with Shaun. I can think of hundreds of examples, having had one instructor teach one way, and then train with someone who does things differently, but more often than not the differences are small and personal, and it is one instructor’s way of making karate work for them. I think the problems arise when instructors start believing that their way of doing things is the only way, full stop. As an instructor, I think it is important to understand that even if you are taught exactly the same as the person standing next to you, then your technique will still be different, as will your explanation of this technique. As long as the correct reasoning for each technique is there, and your way of karate is a healthy way, then there shouldn’t be too many problems.
(PH) The signature ‘Shotokan Way’ question – Do you each have a favourite kata? And if so, please give the reason for your choices.
(ER) Easy. Gojushiho Sho or Empi. Both actually. I love Gojushiho Sho because some days I perform it and it just feels right, but other days I just can’t get it. So many things feel wrong. But when it does feel right, I’m happy. I love Empi because it’s one kata that will always let me know if I’m training hard enough. Sometimes, if I’ve been a bit lazy I’ll perform it and I get it all wrong. The whole kata just sits badly on me and shames me and my laziness, whereas other days, when I’ve worked at it, it flows so nicely and smoothly and I know the hard work was worth it.
(SB) I go through phases. Some months I’m in love with Jion, other months it’s Bassai Dai, other months it’s Empi. I tend to get wrapped up in one kata and that obsession will last a couple of months and during this period I’ll read as much as I can about it, I research as many different ways of performing it, I look into applications and try and develop my own; but at the same time I practice all the kata as equally as I can. I’d probably say Unsu was my favourite from my competition days, a kata I still practice quite often. Right now though, I’d say Hangetsu or Jitte is my most practiced kata. No doubt it’ll change in a couple of weeks, as they all go around in a carousel getting equal attention in due course.
(PH) I know that you would both like to visit and train in Japan. Does this suggest that you feel the link to Japan is still very important for western students? Do you think that this kind of experience/exposure makes for a more knowledgeable Karate-ka?
(SB) Emma and I are making plans for a trip to Japan yes, maybe for a short trip, but we’re also considering the possibilities of spending an extended period over there. I don’t really believe that karate in Japan will be any stronger than anywhere else in the world, because globally, karate is very strong in the technical sense right now. I do believe however that experiencing the cultural ways of Japan will certainly influence both my approach to training and my mindset. Karate comes from the East, so to understand its roots and attitudes will undoubtedly have an effect on the way I think about karate. This I hope will not only make me physically better, but also mentally stronger.
(ER) That’s true. I think the level of karate will not be all that different, but I think the approach to it will be. It will be interesting to see how attitudes differ over in Japan, with it being the birthplace of modern karate. I personally have always been a bit of a ‘traveler’ and have always loved seeing and experiencing cultures other than my own, and so obviously having an interest in karate makes me want to experience the Japanese culture first hand. As Shaun said, it’s a different culture there, and an experience of this culture will develop me, not only as a karate-ka but as a person too.
(PH) This year the Shotokan community has lost a great Karate-Ka and pioneer in Tetsuhiko Asai, and in recent years we have also witnessed the passing of other Japanese sensei in Enoeda, Kase and Tabata. Now with only a few instructors remaining from that Japan Karate Association ‘Golden Era’, where do you see the future of Shotokan heading?
(SB) These men as you say were pioneers and to a great degree had a huge part to play in the way we practice karate today and will do so in the future. I do think it’s a very good thing to remember however that these great men created great students who will endure to take their Sensei’s teachings to the next generation. This is the case with Enoeda Sensei I believe. You look at the strong following he created, and now there are instructors such as Hazard, Sherry, Brennan, and many others following on the legacy onto their students. In this way, these great Karate-ka will never die. On the flip side, things are changing, both in a positive and negative way; but I tend to keep my head down, study the art as best I can and simply enjoy it.
(ER) I think we’ve just got to trust that the next ‘Golden Era’ is upon us, and although we loose greats such as Asai and Enoeda, there are also people who have the same goals as those sensei, and will carry karate forward.
(PH) Shaun, could you elaborate further in how you feel that ‘things are changing’ both good and bad?
(SB) I think from a positive side, the technical proficiency of karateka is better than ever, and this is total credit to the great instructors who impressed such a degree of knowledge upon a generation, resulting in skill and ability being raised to another excellent level. On the negative side of the coin, I wonder if karate is really about karate anymore with certain people. There are a lot of people who exploit karate for whatever reasons, and I don’t just think that’s in the modern chapter of the Shotokan book. I just think some people have forgotten what karate is all about.
(PH) The Shotokan Way - Now this must be a complete ‘labour of love’. How long was the project in the making and what was the initial inspiration behind it?
(SB) I’d say the project was probably in preparation about eight months before it was launched in September 2006, and it was during this period before the launch that we started to build our ideas. After advertising for support several months before the launch, we enlisted the help of Sarah Amos who took care of the PR of the site, just emailing people and making people aware that the site was coming soon. We were always aware that her support would be short lived though, as family and work commitments dictated that it would be just until we were up and running properly, and now it’s just Emma and I who take care of everything. We initially started this resource because I think there are so many critics of Shotokan and even more misunderstandings about it. This online magazine, which it’s now being referred to, was created to give Shotokan practitioners a place where they could come and celebrate the art in a totally non-political space where everyone can contribute. Coming back to the misunderstandings within Shotokan, I remember years ago being totally shocked that the K.U.G.B or any other organisation did kata differently to me. I was thinking ‘They’re doing it wrong’ and of course they weren’t they were just doing it differently, but this was just one example of how many people can be misinformed and mis-educated about what’s beyond their dojo doors. This is something we’re trying to combat, and we’re just trying to expose others to what other ideas besides their own are out there. Therefore if they know alternative methods, they can try them out and find out what works best for their personality and body type…not a revolutionary idea really, we’re just giving it an environment to exist.
(ER) Shaun and I had a disagreement over the meaning of a certain idea, and so I went online to see what I could find. I was incredibly shocked that there was actually very little information available, and I thought it would be helpful if there was some kind of space specifically for Shotokan resources. The site began simply as a hobby for Shaun and I. It took quite a long time to prepare the site, firstly because neither of us had any web experience and then because we kept thinking of new things to add! A friend of ours referred to the site as a ‘research project’ and that really is a perfect description of what we are doing. We just want to provide somewhere for people who practice the art to come and share experiences and ideas. We want to encourage opinion and a sense of open-mindedness, and create somewhere that hopefully, in the future, will have content that everyone can learn something from.
(PH) So far, what have been the biggest rewards along the way, and have you had any surprises, both good or bad?
(ER) The biggest reward really is the massive support we are getting from others. The site really does rely on the input of so many people, and it’s just so fantastic that so many people are so willing to help us. Never in a million years did we expect the response that we have been getting. It sounds horrid, but sometimes it’s easy to only see the negative sides of this art, but the site has highlighted to me that there are so many people out there who are in this for all the right reasons and some. We really could never thank everyone who’s helped us enough. Touch wood, there have been no bad surprises yet, and fingers crossed, there won’t be.
(SB) The rewards have been immense, and despite the work being quite heavy at times, it’s definitely all worth it. I would probably say the most positive thing we have taken away from the project so far is the friends we have made. The likes of yourself Paul, Robert Sidoli, Ged Moran and many many others, not to mention the wonderful karateka who organise the events that we attend. We’ve been made to feel very welcomed, and this is the nice side of karate. The success of the site though cannot solely be pinned down to just Emma and I, because we’ve received a great deal of support and generosity from many people – the likes of Ged Moran for being so giving with his resources, Robert Sidoli for his efforts to get us access to many great interviews, and of course yourself Paul for your help in promoting us and helping organise some great interviews. The people we’ve interviewed also, very senior instructors who have been so happy to help and everyone who has provided us with articles, reviews and everything else. Without these people, the site would be far more boring (Laughs), and we are eternally grateful.
(PH) If you had the chance to interview any Karate-Ka for the website, either alive or dead, who would it be and why?
(ER) Mine would be Nakayama Sensei. I would love to discuss with him his aspirations for karate and how he felt the ideas he used affected karate. There are so many questions I would have loved to ask him, and just to hear it from himself would have been a huge honour and experience.
I think I would have liked to have had the chance to speak to Enoeda Sensei too. I’ve heard so many incredible stories about Enoeda Sensei, as an instructor, as a karate-ka and as a person. I would have enjoyed the chance to meet him and learn something from him personally, and I think he would have had so much to say.
(SB) I would have loved to experience Shotokan directly from Nakayama Sensei, and to interview him would have been such an education. From a totally selfish point of view though I think it would have to have been Asai Sensei or Kase Sensei. Having never been lucky enough to train with either of them, but having read so much about them and their approach to Shotokan, there would have been so many questions I would love to have them answer. Asai Sensei’s fighting style was simply mesmerising and clearly so effective and Kase Sensei was so rooted and strong. Either of these great karateka would have been fantastic, or both if I can be greedy.
(PH) What has been the single best piece of advice each of you have ever received within Karate?
(SB) This is a difficult question to answer, but I guess the best piece of advice I’ve been given is to just enjoy karate. I think that’s excellent advice, as I feel privileged to train and develop my skills and feel good about it in the process. With the chaos of the world right now, I think it’s great that I can just throw on a gi, train, and just enjoy it. This is just so fulfilling and it makes me smile when I’ve finished. How great is that!
(ER) Not so much a piece of advice as a tip. Sensei Chico Mbakwe taught a Welsh Squad session that I was attending a few years back and he told me to perform Shuto-Uke in front of a mirror. He told me to perform a perfect Shuto-Uke, which I then did. He then pointed out about fifteen errors in my technique, and told me that I shouldn’t look at my techniques as a final performance, but as lots of little performances. It changed the way I looked at my karate, and from that day
forward I saw my training – both technically and mentally – as having a journey that was more important than the destination. I’ll forever be grateful for that single hour session.
(PH) Guys, thank you for sitting down and giving the visitors to the website an insight into what you are both all about. Just finally, are there any points or subject matter that you’d like to comment on that I neglected to ask you about?
(SB) Not neglected to ask, but I just thought I’d mention that having trained along side you, and having ‘talked karate’ with you, I would like to just thank you personally for being a part of this project with us. You’ve inspired Emma and I to no end, and it’s been a pleasure getting to know you! Thank you Paul