Anyone who explores the wide range of karate written material online will have heard of Jon Keeling. He is the man behind the famous and very popular ‘Hoitsugan Seminars’, which brings together those who have lived and trained at the Hoitsugan, Master Nakayama’s personal dojo, to put on a world class collection of seminars. Jon Keeling himself of course also lived in Japan, studying personally under the Master himself, and Kawawada Sensei at the Hoitsugan. Read the first part of this interview to get an insight into Jon Keeling’s experiences with Mori Sensei, Nakayama Sensei, and Kawawada Sensei and his efforts with the ‘Hoitsugan Seminars’ and what will hopefully be a global Charity event – Kick-a-thon. Part 2 of this interview will follow in the new year- Shaun Banfield
(Shaun Banfield) Can you please tell us how you first got started in the Martial Arts?
(Jon Keeling) In my early teenage years, my older brother and I spent most Saturday afternoons watching Kung-fu shows on TV. We were both relatively small and weak and dreamed of being able to do what we saw on these shows. One day, when I was 15, I accompanied my mother when she went to pick up my younger sister from the local sports club. While my mother and sister had a chat, I watched a Karate class in progress in the front racquetball court. On the way out, my mother noticed my obvious interest in the activities on the other side of the glass wall and asked me ‘Do you want to try this?’ And that was the very simple beginning to what has become a major passion in my life.
That was September, 1982. By the time six months went by, I had trained in almost every beginner class that had been available at that dojo (5 times/week) and had watched enough of the advanced classes to have memorized 7 or 8 kata (I got in a little trouble showing another white belt how to do Bassai-dai between classes one day).
After I was allowed to attend the ‘advanced’ classes, I took part in two classes, 5 days/week. I eventually got my first job at the sports club where our dojo was located, as a janitor. I performed all my cleaning duties as though they were tasks assigned to me by Mr Miyagi, of the Karate Kid movie that had just come out. I started helping teach beginners off to the side while the regular beginner classes where taking place and would train as much as possible, adding Friday night treks to New York to train with Mori Sensei as soon as my mother allowed it (I was 16 when I started those trips with other members of our dojo). I couldn't get enough. If there was a tournament or a camp, I was there. And I spent nearly as much time in self-training as at the dojo.
After less than 3 years and well over 1500 hours in the dojo, I passed my shodan in July, 1985, at the age of 18. I made up my mind that summer that I would postpone my higher education and instead travel to Japan to further my training.
Little was I to know at that time that I was still just in first-gear, relatively speaking...
(SB) What was it that caught your eye so much so that you have made it your path in life?
(JK) What initially sparked my interest and what has kept me going with such passion over the years are not necessarily the same...
As with so many others who have done karate for a long time, my goals and focus in my karate activities have changed over the years. I began wanting to be able to defend myself and also because it just ‘looked cool.’ But after a while it became an obsession. It was a challenge that I knew I could never master. And as I trained with the intention of trying to master the physical movements as best I could, I eventually figured out that there was more to it than just the physical. I was developing mentally, emotionally, spiritually... I was developing as a person.
After high school, I moved to Japan and immediately felt inadequate. Looking around and seeing how much more skilful the other students were - not to mention the instructors - I focused again on the physical. Several years later, back in the US, I began to focus on teaching more but it was still primarily a purely physical journey for me and remained so until sometime in the early 1990’s.
Returning to Japan for work after completing my university degree, I could not train at the dojo as often as I wanted to (I worked 70+ hours each week, almost never finishing in time to get to even the latest class at the dojo during the week). So I did a lot of self-training and thinking about techniques, strategy and also how to teach.
Today, at 40 years old, with severe arthritis in my hips, I cannot train as I used to nor as I would like to. But I still have the passion for karate, as I know that it can help us on so many levels, not purely the physical. And I hope to instil some of this passion in my students and others whom I meet during this fantastic journey known as Karate-Do.
(SB) You mentioned that you would make trips to train with Mori Sensei in New York. Can you please tell us about your training with him, and his style and approach to Shotokan?
Mori Sensei has always been very focused on the basics. Low stances, basic techniques, low stances, posture, low stances, basic kumite...Did I mention low stances? When in front stance, we used to aim to have the thigh of our front leg in front stance be parallel to the floor. While this may not have been very practical, it made our legs strong. After I first arrived in Tokyo following years of focusing on low stances, I raised my stance height to match those around me and discovered that I could move fairly quickly!
I returned to the US after 3 years in Tokyo following high school. I chose to begin my university studies at the State Universities of New York at Stony Brook, based largely on the fact that Mori Sensei taught the karate classes there.
I moved away from New York after a year and then a couple years later moved back to Tokyo, this time for work. After I moved back to the US again, I trained with various groups for a while until I finally decided to open my own dojo. I decided to affiliate with Mori Sensei's group, even though they had almost no affiliated dojo outside of the eastern half of North America. Part of the allure of Mori Sensei’s SkdI, as compared to other affiliation options, was that he treated the members of his organisation as a family.
I have had Mori Sensei out several times to administer dan exams. I was very pleased to see that his teaching style had changed over the years. Although he still puts a lot of emphasis on low stances and repetition of the basics, he has been more creative in the last few seminars he has conducted while here.
But, as with almost everyone I know who has spent a lot of time with Mori Sensei, his physical abilities and teaching skills are not what I most like about him. I do not recall the last time he gave me any advice that helped me in my training. But I can think of several things he has said to me that have had an impact on my teaching or my life as a whole. As with so many other people, I think of him much like an older uncle who doesn't try to make friends with you by giving you candy but rather tries to put obstacles in front of you to help you build character through overcoming these challenges.
(SB) You have already mentioned that you initially spent a period of 3 years training in Tokyo. This is a subject we want to delve quite deeply into, but can we please start by asking where you trained in Tokyo and whom with during your time there?
I trained with basically all the JKA Honbu instructors. I lived at the Hoitsugan Dojo's dormitory during these three years and trained there 6 days/week, 7:30-8:30am. Until Nakayama Sensei's passing in April 1987, he taught Mon/Tues/Wed, unless he was not in Tokyo. He spent about 1/3 of his time away, either touring the country or overseas, teaching at various dojo. Kawawada Sensei taught Thu/Fri/Sat. At the beginning of this time in Tokyo, I would train 6 days/week at 10:30-11:30am at the Honbu and again in the evening there, for a total of 15 hours/week. There were very few Honbu instructors that I never had a class with. And I also attended a few camps and classes at other dojo. But with the range of instructors at the Honbu, I did not feel much need to search elsewhere.
When I returned in 1992 for work, I added training at Aoyama Gakuin University on Saturday afternoons for several months to see what university training was like and to be able to say ‘I did it.’ The training there was not as fierce as at some of the other universities, where most of the top players were missing their front teeth. Aoyama was known for its kata competitors. But they were still into hard training! There was almost always some blood mixed with the sweat on the floor of the dojo following our 2 ½ hour training sessions. Several other non-Japanese were there at that time as well. I am glad to have done it but would not have traded training at the Hoitsugan and Honbu for it.
I would say that the 'toughest' training I had was at the Hoitsugan. This was a group of people who had travelled from all parts of the globe to train at The Source. We not only pushed each other to see who could stand highest on our little 'mountain' but also pushed each other in defiance of the oppression we felt as 'outsiders'...We pushed each other so we could collectively show the Japanese that we were worthy of being there with them and deserved their respect as equals.
Nakayama Sensei welcomed us to train with him at his personal dojo and he put a lot of effort into teaching us. And we wanted to show that we would honour him by giving 100%. When our instructor did not show up to teach us, the senior student would lead the workout. Most often, this was Vildosola (Rene) Sensei, who is now a very senior JKA representative in his homeland of Chile. He lived in Japan for several decades. Other times, classes were lead by Montoya (Leon) Sensei, originally from Colombia, who graduated from the JKA Instructors Course at Honbu in the mid 1990's. And quite a few times, training was lead by...me. We also had a few guest instructors show up at different times. I have a funny story about one of them...
(SB) Please do tell us this funny story!!!
(JK) It was the summer of 1986. I had returned to the US for the first time since my arrival in Japan nearly a year prior. I had two stopovers on the flight to Tokyo from my hometown 2 hours outside of New York, so landed more than 24 hours after I departed, on very little sleep. It was raining terribly when we flew in. While waiting for the express train to depart from the airport, I heard an announcement in Japanese and then all the passengers grumbled and rose to get off the train, everyone looking anxiously at each other. Someone informed me that there was a mud-slide covering the tracks on the way to Tokyo and the express trains would not run that evening. I followed several others on a long, disorganized trip from one local train to another, a couple buses and then finally the subway in Tokyo. All the while, I lugged around a set of large, heavy suitcases that were getting drenched. I finally pulled my luggage along the street from Ebisu station toward the Hoitsugan, as the storm showed no signs of letting up. Approaching the building at 11pm on a Sunday, I could see that it was covered with scaffolding all around its six stories. I dragged my baggage into my small dorm room and headed downstairs to the bathroom within the dojo (we had no bathroom in the dorm itself). As I walked in, I noticed that there were several scruffy-looking Japanese men getting ready to sleep on blankets spread across the dojo floor, obviously the construction workers from the countryside who were working on the building. I bowed quickly on entering the dojo, as I always did, visited the bathroom, then went to exit the dojo. As I was bowing on my way out, the largest of the construction workers looked at me and asked me what time class would take place in the morning. My Japanese wasn't very good at that point. Regardless, I was in no mood to be extra-polite to this construction worker, obviously just wanting to know what time they needed to clear out in the morning so we could use the dojo for its intended purpose. So I just said ‘7:30’ and we nodded to each other and I turned and went off to my room.
I awoke the next morning, excited to be training again with Nakayama Sensei. I got to the dojo and started warming up with everyone else. Then, instead of Nakayama Sensei, we saw a guest instructor emerge from the small office in the dojo. It turned out that the owner of the construction business was Tabata Sensei. This was the man who had asked me eight hours prior what time class started. He proceeded to teach a fantastic class. And he was a complete gentleman, treating us as though we were his close friends. What a surprise this 'construction worker' turned out to be!
(SB) If we discuss your training at the Hoitsugan Dojo for a moment. The Hoitsugan was Master Nakayama’s personal dojo, with a dormitory for visitors to reside in. You mentioned that Nakayama Sensei would regularly teach there if he wasn’t away travelling. Can you please share some of your memories from the Hoitsugan and possibly shed some light on the specific details that Master Nakayama imparted?
(JK) Where to begin...? So many memories... As for Nakayama Sensei's teaching style, it apparently changed quite drastically over the years and I know that it definitely changed somewhat depending on where/whom he was teaching.
During at least his last couple years, almost every class he taught contained kihon, kata & kumite practice. During the kata portion, he would usually pick two kata and explain their relationship. More often than not, this would be one Heian kata and one 'brown belt' kata, such as Heian Yondan and Kanku-dai. He would explain during the more advanced kata that if you want to make it better, practice more of the basic kata that is related to it, as the 'fundamental principles' of the advanced kata were contained within the basic kata. Sometimes we would practice kata such as Kanku-sho, paired with Kanku-dai for that class. During kumite, he would stress the basics again, but reminding us that we had to make use of distance and timing.
In addition to the training, I have many memories of Nakayama Sensei from outside of class. After he travelled overseas to teach and then returned to Tokyo, we would often hear stories of his adventures following the next class he taught at the Hoitsugan. He would tell us about flying in a small plane above the mountains of Canada. Or that everyone in South Africa is a giant!
I have many stories and have heard so many stories from others who have spent time at the Hoitsugan over the years. I am not sure if you are aware that I have been compiling stories to release in the form of a book. I already have many stories but am holding out for more. I have been in touch with several dozen people who have spent significant time there from the Hoitsugan's beginnings in 1972 up to the recent past. Of course many of these people are 'Hoitsugan Seminars' instructors. Some are very well-known and some very talented individuals are almost completely unknown. We are all committed to continuing Nakayama Sensei's legacy.
(SB) So many people who trained at the Hoitsugan mentioned that there was something special about the place, something intangible. How would you describe the atmosphere there?
(JK) This was Nakayama Sensei's private dojo. It was a very special place for him. We were his most personal students; even more so than the senior instructors at the JKA. So many people had come to train at this place. With that kind of background, there was no way it could have NOT felt like a special place.
Imagine walking along the streets of Tokyo. There are many large, modern buildings. But the majority of buildings are still relatively plain. You walk down a small street lined with non-descript buildings. You stop in front of a 6-story concrete building that has obviously been there for several decades. You see a stairway going down to the mailboxes for those living in the apartments above. Descending these stairs, you see there are more stairs to the right of where you are standing. You walk down about 25 steps, turn the last corner and see an open door. You remove your shoes and place them on one of the musty yet clean shelves on your left and walk toward the darkness on the other side of the door. You reach around the corner and turn on the lights as you bow and enter the dojo. With the lights on, you can see that you are now in a special place. The room is not extremely large. But to think that you are almost two stories below the street level in a building constructed in Tokyo in the 1960's (think "earthquake central"); ANY room is intriguing. This dojo seems so out of place in downtown Tokyo that some native Tokyo residents may not believe it even if they saw it. It has all the traditional components, including the miniature shrine, various calligraphy, photos, a makiwara in the corner... This is what a dojo is SUPPOSED to be like. The Hoitsugan feels like "home," and has been home to many of us over the years.
(SB) The Hoitsugan is now being run by Kawawada Sensei, am I correct? Can you please tell us about him and his karate, and does he adhere closely to the teachings of Nakayama Sensei?
(JK) Yes, Kawawada Sensei began teaching at the Hoitsugan in the mid-1970's, a few years after it opened in 1972. I had never heard of him when I arrived in Japan for the first time in 1985. I was immediately impressed with his physical abilities. But I was impressed with the abilities of dozens of people back then. A few weeks later, the JKA All-Japan Championships took place, following the next day by the 1st World Shoto Cup. At the All-Japan's, he tied for 3rd in kumite. In the Shoto Cup, he won first in both kata and kumite. It was not simply a day for Kawawada Sensei to be proud of his accomplishment, but for Nakayama Sensei as well. Nakayama Sensei had taken him under his wing, offering him a teaching job at the Hoitsugan when the young Mr Kawawada was having medical problems. Kawawada Sensei had just gone through a series of serious operations within the year leading up to the 1st Shoto Cup and was apparently not expected to do well in competition, having gone through various complications. But just as Nakayama Sensei recovered from being covered in an avalanche while leading a skiing expedition so many years earlier, Kawawada Sensei fought against the odds and won.
The teaching styles of Sensei's Nakayama and Kawawada were very different. But they both cared about the idea of the Hoitsugan and the students who showed they were serious about learning the art that they had committed their lives to.
Kawawada Sensei is a brilliant instructor. He impressed me immensely as an educator. He never led training using ‘test basics,’ as is so common in most JKA dojo. He was very innovative. He rarely taught the same class from one day to the next but tied together a similar concept through several days in a row. Then he would move on to another concept and you would not have a repeat class for months, sometimes years. I would encourage anyone with the opportunity to attend a seminar with Kawawada Sensei to do so. I still get people coming up to me sometimes to thank me for bringing him over to conduct seminars in California in 1991. He has left quite an impression on some people, me included.
(SB) Having spent this time with Sensei Nakayama, you must have been given quite an explicit insight into his thinking and approach to karate. You mentioned that he would discuss the relationship between kihon, kata and kumite. Would you please elaborate on this for us?
(JK) Just as he would explain the relationship of one kata (such as Kanku-dai) to another (such as Heian Yondan), he would sometimes point out that we should think of the (kumite) applications to kata movements or that we should make sure we utilize our kihon in kumite. Kawawada Sensei actually brought this to an even higher level.
(SB) You also mentioned that you trained at the JKA Honbu Dojo. How did the training there differ to the training at the Hoitsugan and who took most of the classes there?
(JK) The great thing about the JKA Honbu dojo is that there has always been a HUGE number of very qualified instructors leading classes. So you could train with 10 or more instructors in a given week. After a while, I figured out which instructors I liked the best and tried harder to make it to those sessions. But for most of the first three years, I trained each morning in the 10:30am class there, no matter who was teaching, following the 7:30am class at the Hoitsugan. The 10:30am class was a little ‘tougher’ than the evening classes usually were. Instructor Trainees also frequently attended these classes, getting a warm-up before their noon Instructors' Class. So your partners in kumite were often quite good in these classes. Nonetheless, Hoitsugan training was usually harder.
I recall a time in early 1988 when many of us staying at the Hoitsugan had not attended the 10:30am class for a while. Or if we had, it was just one or two of us at a time. One day, we decided we would all go. As soon as we walked in, you could see the excitement start to build among those already in the dojo. As we emerged from the locker room, the feeling seemed to build further. Everyone kiai'ed loudly in class
and one of the Japanese students told me with a smile after that the class hadn't been the same without us.
People outside of Japan these days often spend much time & money going to a seminar or camp with someone such as Tanaka Sensei or Ueki Sensei as the guest instructor. When you have a camp with 2 or 3 such instructors, most people seem to think this is such an amazing opportunity. Now imagine training with Sensei's Ueki, Takana, Osaka, Imura, Kurasako, Kawawada, Omura, Ogura and Imamura, all in the same week! Although the names have changed somewhat over the years, you can still today train with 10 or more instructors at the JKA Honbu dojo in Tokyo in a given week.
(SB) So which Instructors at the Honbu particularly stood out for you? Technically or as good instructors?
(JK) When I first started training in Japan, I just trained as much as I could with whoever was teaching at the time. I rarely checked the schedule of instructors that was posted on the wall of the dojo. I just enjoyed training, no matter if it was in kihon, kata or kumite, technical or just non-stop repetition. Nowadays, I would probably not be so interested in some of the training sessions we had in the mid-1980's. Sensei's Imura and Kurasako, among others, were known for their insane basic repetition training. We would do hundreds of the same technique, such as yokogeri or sanbonzuki. Or sometimes we would spend have the class doing ‘kata guruma,’ handstand pushups and other strengthening exercises. Back then, I really enjoyed the challenge, as I knew it was making me stronger. But now I realize that such training sessions did not require much real ‘instruction’ These people were acting as coaches. Not that this was a ‘bad’ thing. But they were not really ‘teaching’ us anything. Sure, we learned how to deal with pushing our bodies past what seemed like its natural limits. It may have helped my development. But I no longer feel it helps me, personally, the way it probably did when I was an 18-year-old shodan.
(SB) During your time spent in Japan you must have made quite a strong bond with fellow visitors. Can you please tell us about the people you met there and are you still in close touch?
Sensei's Osaka and Kawawada were (and still are) very technical and I think I enjoyed their classes the most even back in the 1980's. When I moved back to Tokyo for work in the 1990's, I had very limited opportunity to get to the dojo, as I worked 7:30am-9:00pm or so most weekdays. So when I could get away with leaving the office ‘early,’ I would try to plan it such that I would get to classes taught by Sensei's Osaka or Naka in a 7pm class. Kawawada Sensei did not teach much in 7pm time slots at that time but I went to the Hoitsugan every Saturday morning. Ogura Sensei has also among my favourites.
(JK) I have met some amazing people while in Japan, both Japanese and non-Japanese. I am in touch with several dozen people who have trained in Japan. I am particularly focused on those who trained with Nakayama Sensei while there and/or at the Hoitsugan dojo. Many of them are instructors for the Hoitsugan Seminars for which I am the primary organizer. Some of them are no longer involved in Karate but I still try to keep in touch as best I can. The list of people I have met during my time there and/or am in touch with now is very long and if I tried to name them all it would be a long list and I am sure I would miss someone.
(SB) Jumping ahead in time, but related to this present line of discussion, you now run the very popular ‘Hoitsugan Seminars’ Can you please tell us how this came about and tell us about your experiences running these groundbreaking seminars.
(JK) Toward the end of my stay in Japan (the 1992-1997 portion), I had been sending emails to 20 or so Karate friends back in the US, updating them on various events such as tournaments, special dojo events, etc. One of the recipients of these email updates, Mr John Mullin (now Chairman of the WTKO), a senior of mine from Mori Sensei's dojo in New York and also a former Hoitsugan member, responded to one of my emails to say that he liked my writing style and suggested that I consider writing a book about training/life in Japan. That planted the first seed...
Thinking about it, I realized that although I myself did not have enough to fill a book independently, I knew plenty of others with whom I could collaborate to produce a very interesting book about training in Japan. I spoke with Kawawada Sensei about this idea on my next trip to Japan in 1998. He said it sounded like a good idea. On another trip in 2001, I spent hours with Mrs Nakayama and researched photos and documents of Nakayama Sensei’s and conducted an interview with Kawawada Sensei. I obtained records of who had been Hoitsugan members since its founding in
1972. Then I embarked on a mission to contact as many of them as I could.
So the book project came first. It is still in the works; over half complete at this point. When it comes out, it will be the ‘new Moving Zen.’ I have collected writing submissions from about 15 past members at this point and plan to have over 25 by the time it is done, plus information about the Hoitsugan, plenty of pictures and interviews with instructors (I have already interviewed Sensei' Kanazawa and Kawawada specifically for this book).
I was contacting people all around the world to get more information on who trained when, what they are doing now, etc. I formed an internet discussion group for us. Old friends became reacquainted and new friendships began to form.
I trained at the dojo of a few Hoitsugan alumni and a few of them came to my dojo and taught as guest instructors. I posted periodic emails to the group to remind them that if they ever wanted to visit northern California to let me know and I would arrange seminars for them to teach. A few people responded that they might be interested at some point. I also mentioned an idea to have a reunion in Tokyo in 2002 to mark the 30th anniversary of the Hoitsugan. This did not work out but got some discussion going about a potential large reunion.
In November 2003, one of my old Hoitsugan friends (Sensei Aaron Hoopes) told me he would be coming through San Francisco (I live just south of there), on his way from the US east coast to Australia, in a few months and was wondering if I might be interested in hosting him as guest instructor. About a week later, another friend (Sensei Leon Montoya) told me he would be travelling from Tokyo to South America within the next few months and wondering if it would make sense to arrange a stopover in San Francisco to meet up. I quickly sent out a few emails and made a few calls and by early December I had decided that there was no way that we would NOT have a reunion!
I polled the group on December 12, 2003, regarding potential dates and if people coming would be interested in teaching while here. The responses poured in... By the end of December, I had set the dates for February 19-22, 2004. Once I had more details organized, I started letting the public know the plan. It was a TON of work organizing this event. But it was definitely worth it.
Details from the inaguaral Hoitsugan Seminars event are here:
Everyone in attendance that I spoke with agreed that this was one of the best (for most, THE best) karate event they had ever experienced and that they must continue somewhere, sometime...
In 2005, Mr Michael Berger, Mr Glen Michel and I (with some help from Mr James Yabe), put together Hoitsugan Seminars II, in southern California:
It was another success. We had even more instructors and an increase in participants. Everyone again agreed that these must continue.
I started asking other Hoitsugan alumni who might be interested in hosting the next set. There were a few close calls, including the idea of having one in Bali, Indonesia. But we could not seem to get one organized. I was too busy with my day-job, family, dojo and the Tokaido business (I am a Partner in www.tokaidojapan.com), to organize another one by myself. So we postponed and had another ‘near miss’ a few months ago when we almost got Hoitsugan Seminars III going in New York. We decided instead to have the set of seminars in NY take place next September, with another one in northern California to take place first, in March, 2008. I now have a new job that involves much less time and stress. And I have recently become ‘maritally independent.’ So a few months ago I became determined to restart various Karate projects that I had put on hold the last few years, as well as begin some new ones. Making sure the Hoitsugan Seminars continue is now one of my top karate priorities. And those who have attended one or both of the first sets will, I am sure, be happy about that.