(Shaun Banfield)Hi there, thank you for this interview. Could we please start by asking how and why you first started Shotokan karate?
(Sean Roberts)I was born and raised in England but my family moved to Hawaii in 1975. This is when I started karate at the age of 9 at the Karate Association of Hawaii (Kenneth Funakoshi’s school). My teachers were Eugene Watanabe, Bill Louch, Lynn Asaoka and Eddie Villenueva. I am still in contact with Eugene Watanabe. Lynn Asaoka’s son is now one of my students.
(SB)Can you please tell us about your first encounters with the KUGB, what are your memories from your early training?
(SR)My family moved back to England in 1977. We found Bob Rhodes’ dojo on Tempest Road in Beeston, Leeds. He was my instructor for many years.
(SB)As a student of Bob Rhodes for many years, how would you describe him and his karate, and in what ways did he influence you?
(SR)Bob is a great teacher. He has produced many excellent students and many champions. He has a gift for pacing his classes so that students get a great work out and develop good spirit. He is innovative and no two classes are ever the same. His students become versatile. He is unbelievably strong and down to earth. I was very lucky to have Bob Rhodes as my sensei.
(SB)Did you spend much time training with Sensei Enoeda?
(SR)I trained with Enoeda Sensei and Andy Sherry regularly as part of the KUGB National Squad. I also attended his ‘Special’ courses at Crystal Palace and sometimes visited his Marshall Street dojo. Enoeda Sensei was charismatic and inspirational and knew how to enjoy life. He could make you do more than you thought that you could do. He was a great man and his passing is a sad loss to the world of karate.
(SB)Who would you say were your peers during your days with the KUGB and who of your peers ‘kept you on your toes’ so to speak?
(SR)The classes at Bob Rhodes dojo included Randy Williams, Nick Heald and Matthew Price. The KUGB national squad included Frank Brennan, Ronnie Christopher, Jimmy Brennan, Gary Harford, Ian Roberts, Randy Williams, Miles Draper, Ronnie Cannings, Dean Hodgkin, Elwyn Hall, George Best, Karen Findlay, Julie Holdsworth, and many others. The KUGB is a remarkable organisation with many fine instructors and many dedicated students.
(SB)Competitively you have a fantastic record, as 8-times British Champion, 3 times European Champion and two times gold medal winner with the England team. Looking back now, do you still have to pinch yourself at how much you achieved?
(SR)It is not the medals and titles, but the experiences that I have had, the things that I have learned that are important. I am lucky to have had such great teachers as Enoeda Sensei, Andy Sherry and Bob Rhodes and, more recently Shihan Akio Minakami. And I have been lucky enough to have trained along side such enormously talented team mates. Because of these experiences, I have developed a passion for karate. It is a wonderful Martial Art and a life long pursuit.
(SB)You have produced a video’ Inspirational Karate’ with Ronnie Christopher, which received excellent reviews. How did this come about, and what were the most important things you wanted to put across with this video?
(SR)The idea was conceived and produced by Lawrence Elcock and Linden Huckle, who are friends of Ronnie Christopher and mine. They wanted to produce a high quality instructional video that included the entire syllabus from white belt to black belt. Lawrence invested a considerable amount of time and money into this project. I think that he can be very proud of the result. It uses high-tech camera work and editing that makes things very clear for the viewer. Inspirational Karate has recently been transferred to DVD format and is available to buy from Ronnie Christopher’s website www.karate-training.co.uk
(SB)You are currently living in Hawaii. What took you to that part of the world?
(SR)Apart from the obvious benefits of living in a tropical island paradise, my mother is originally from Hawaii. I moved to Hawaii with my parents in 2002. I now teach karate and yoga at the University of Hawaii and I opened a dojo (www.hawaiikaratedo.com). It is rewarding watching the students develop and I have some wonderful support from my black belts.
(SB)And what was the standard of karate in Hawaii when you first went there?
(SR)There is a lot of good karate in Hawaii. Perhaps because of Hawaii’s geographical location between Japan and the United States, many famous karate instructors have spent time here. The history of karate in Hawaii is well documented on Charles Goodin’s excellent website http://hikari.us/
My first teacher Eugene Watanabe tells me that the first Shotokan instructor in Hawaii was Kanazawa Sensei who taught here for two years in the early 60’s before travelling to the UK. He was followed by Mori Sensei who also taught for two years before moving on to New York and then Asai Sensei taught here for five years.
(SB)Does yoga work well with your karate?
(SR)Yoga definitely complements karate. Yoga makes you more flexible and can help you to recover from injury. It makes you more aware of your body and mind. Both karate and yoga require you to be present from moment to moment – not to be distracted.
(SB)More recently you have spent much time studying Phd in Biomechanics. How has that influenced your understanding of karate?
(SR)The tools of biomechanics are high speed motion capture, force plates and EMG that measures electrical signals in muscles. The University of Hawaii has a Human Performance Laboratory with state of the art equipment. We are currently looking at studying karate techniques. There are many explanations of how to move. What is also clear is that the human body is very complex. It will be interesting to see what we find out.
(SB)Has your teaching actually changed because of your new understanding of biomechanics? If so, in what ways?
(SR)I believe that people construct their view of the world based on their own complex life experiences. Two people can look at the same thing and interpret very different meanings. Also, one person will see things differently over time as their context changes. My belief is that there is no one, fixed, optimal technique. Karate is complex. We are always exploring and learning. Karate is interesting this way.
I have been heavily influenced in recent years by my instructor Shihan Akio Minakami (www.minakamikarate.com). He is an 8th Dan with the Hayashi-ha Shito-ryu kai however I feel that his teachings are not about so-called style. He always says that a kick is a kick and a punch is a punch. It is not the style that is important; it is the person’s level.
Shihan Minakami talks about natural movement and natural thinking. He says that karate movements are like a whip. He uses gravity and co-ordination that efficiently and effectively transfers momentum around the body. This favours skill over athleticism. He is 59 years old and moving better each year. I find his karate fascinating. Learning from him is a process of “aha” moments. It is a great feeling to suddenly understand. This type of understanding is more than knowledge. Like learning to ride a bike, suddenly you get it and you have an “aha” moment. Then you practice a while more following your intuition and sooner or later you will have another “aha” moments. My experience is that the more you practice, the more discoveries you make.
(SB)What is your favourite kata and why?
(SR)In my dojo, in addition to Shotokan katas, we practice other katas that I have learned from Shihan Minakami including Anan, Heiku, Chinto, Matsumura Ha Rohai, Seipai, Seiunchin, and Yamani-ryu kobudo. My favourite kata changes over time as I figure things out. I enjoy practicing kata. They are like puzzles that teach us how to move and how to feel. Shihan Minakami says that his teacher Teruo Hayashi told him that karate should not be like a young pine tree that is straight and tall. It should be like an older, intricate, weather-beaten tree close to the ocean that has ‘taste’. This way, karate is more than competition. It is a beautiful Martial Art.
(SB)Can we just say a huge thank you for this interview, and we wish you every success for the future!