"Beyond the Instructors Course"
Interview with Scott Langley
It’s hard to write about Scott Langley without mentioning that he has completed the famous JKS Instructors Course in Japan. Since he has written quite extensively about his time at the Honbu Dojo (and is currently writing a book about his experiences), I thought it would be interesting to find out what his life has been like since graduating and returning to Europe.
Q1 When did you begin training?
I first started Budo when I was five with Jiu Jitsu at the World Jiu Jitsu Federation Honbu dojo in Liverpool under the instruction of Prof Robert Clark 8th dan. I was very young and had no idea that I was training at such a famous place. However, I only trained there a short time. My family left Liverpool and moved to West Yorkshire. I started training at a KUGB club (I think) when I was ten years old. And then a year or so later we moved again to North Yorkshire and I started training with Howard Milson a 5th dan with Kodokai, the organisation Kato sensei headed. So, since I was very young I have never trained anything other than Shotokan.
Q2 Why did you go to Japan?
I first went to Japan in 1993. I had taken a gap year between school and university, had three part-time jobs, and worked all year just so I could afford to go to Japan for three weeks. It was supposed to be the fulfilment of a dream, but it just made me want to go back again. Then when I was at university Kato Sensei would talk about me going to Japan and even doing the Instructors course! So when I graduated from University it was like that was what I was supposed to do. I didn't have to put much thought into it. It was what had always been planned.
Q3 Did you ever get to train at one of the "Karate Universities"?
Yes. I trained quite often with Teikyo University. That is the University Kagawa Sensei teaches. Those guys are pretty brutal. A lot of them are on Karate scholarships, so unless they produce results they are out. I also did their gasshuku. Seven days with six hours training per day. It was physically and mentally the hardest thing I have ever done.
Q4 How about Okinawa, did you ever get there?
No, I haven’t. However, next April the JKS will have our World Championships in Naha, Okinawa. We will be taking a team there and I am really excited about going. It was one of the places I had always wanted to visit whilst I was in Japan; I just never had the time.
Q5 Would you say you do a very modern version of Shotokan?
I don't know if I do a modern form of Shotokan. I think I just take a modern, bio-mechanical approach to our very old style. However, that said recently I have been very interested in learning more about other styles. For such a long time Shotokan has concentrated on the hanme-shomen approach to generating power. In other styles they concentrate on, for example, the wave motion approach to generating power from the hips. Some styles really emphasis the anti-twist with shoulders and hips or the use of absorption from an opponent to generate power. These phrases may be meaningless to Shotokan practitioners, but for other styles they are the foundation of their power, like our hanme-shomen. Therefore, why can’t we use them in our practise? So I have been very interested in trying to look at how these ideas can be added to our system. Ultimately we are all working with the same raw material, our bodies, so any extra knowledge can only help. Plus, by practicing these points, it is possible to see greater depth in our existing Shotokan kata.
Q6 How many kata do you know and what are your favourites?
I know about forty-five kata. And my favourite?.. I like Sochin and Unsu. I also like Suishu (Water Hand), which is a sister kata of Unsu. However, usually my favourite kata is one that I happen to be practising at the time. I am very fickle when it comes to kata.
Q7 How would you describe your own Karate and its objectives?
That’s a difficult one! Maybe other people are best able to describe my karate. I think I am awful... Well that’s not quite true. I have moments of thinking I am awful and moments of thinking that maybe I am not that bad. During the times I think I am awful, I use that feeling to push myself and make myself train harder. And during the times that I feel not too bad, I use that energy to pat myself on the back and give myself enough sense of achievement to keep on going. That sounds a bit manic, but my life isn't manic, I just use the moods that I am in, in the best possible way. Its about finding balance in my life. My objectives?.. I want to be the best in the World! But will settle for being the best I can be. I have always done karate with that in mind. Again balance!
Q8 How do you teach?
I teach thematically. I very rarely do I do Kihon (up and down basics). I have only been teaching professionally for four years, so it has been a bit of an experiment. Even with low grades, I will take an idea (usually one that I am working on myself at the time) and try to make exercises that focus on that specific point/theme. I then try to apply it to certain kihon waza, kumite and kata. So I almost never do, for example, combinations that are used in the grading syllabus. Instead what I try to do is teach my students how to use their bodies more efficiently. Thankfully, the experiment has worked. I now have several Shodan and 1st Kyu students and they are all of a good standard. Most of them will never be the best in the world, but they are certainly the best they can be and they make their Karate work as they understand how to use their bodies.
Q9 What advice would you give to Karate ka who want to improve?
To relax! As I mentioned before, I have been teaching professionally now for four years. Since returning from Japan I have been lucky to have been invited to many dojo throughout Europe and farther a field and the overwhelming problem I have seen is stiffness. What I mean by this, is not lack of flexibility, but karate ka having too much tension, especially in the shoulders. Ask anyone about kime and they will tell you that it is for a split second at the end of a technique; however the same people very rarely put this into practice. People want to feel strong and so initially tense all their muscles when performing a technique. This is a natural thing, but through training people should learn that tense muscles have the opposite effect. They inhibit the flow of power and reduce the speed of the technique. We should only make tension/kime at the moment of impact.
If we look at the WKF fighters, they move at incredible speed because they are relaxed. We can argue that some fighters are too relaxed and lack certain power, but that is not an argument against relaxed movement, it is an argument against lack of kime. We should all aim to move in a relaxed way like WKF fighters (of course, maybe not in the same manner as some of them), but then add the finishing kime at the split second end of the waza. In Japan this type of thing is taught all the time, but in a very subtle way. The nuances in the language are often lost when translated into English and I think this was a contributing factor for a whole generation of karate ka in Western Europe developing stiff karate. People often excuse this discrepancy by implying that the Japanese are somehow physically different to us, but I believe this is twaddle. I have green and purple belts in my Dojo who do karate like any similar grade throughout the country, except they are relaxed. The only tension they make is at the end of their technique (kime). This aspect of karate is definitely nurture, rather than nature!
Q10 Speaking of relaxed natural karate brings us to Asai Sensei, who sadly died in August, was he the major influence for your karate?
I think it is fair to say that Asai sensei inspired me, rather than influenced my karate. Often Asai Sensei talked well above my head, but I know that my karate has been heavily influenced by, initially, Kato sensei and then Kagawa sensei. Both these sensei have been heavily influenced by Asai sensei, so I suppose indirectly I have been too. Mind you, I think up to until I was on the Instructor’s Course I just did karate as I was told to do it, as anyone wishing to learn karate should do. Then, when I was on the course, we were given a chance (certainly the later part of the course) to find our own way. At that point it was possible for me to think about how my sempai and sensei could influence my karate. At that time I took a lot from Yamaguchi sensei. In my opinion he is the best karate-ka in the JKS at the moment. He moves like Kagawa sensei and hits like Asai sensei. Kagawa sensei is so solid and when he hits you, it is like being hit by a sledge hammer. Asai Sensei was so light, but when he hit you, it was like being cut open with a knife. Yamaguchi sensei is a mixture of both hard and soft and when he hits you it is like being hit by needles. I always wanted to do karate like that. Incidentally, about two months ago I was sparing with Koike sensei, a sempai of mine who is living in Switzerland. Afterwards he said that when I hit him, it was like being hit by needles. I was very happy!!!
Asai sensei, however, was inspirational. His vast knowledge of kata gave him a seemingly unlimited array of techniques. I tried to learn as many of these kata as I could. Unfortunately, with his death I think a lot have been lost forever. A story that perfectly epitomises how inspirational Asai sensei was is when I had to do a photo shoot with him. The biggest martial arts magazine in Japan is called “Karate-Do” Every month they profile certain instructors, they come to the dojo, do an interview and take photographs with the normal canvass backdrop. I had previously done photo shoots with Inada, Tsuchiya and Matsuzaki (after they had won the World Games (kumite and kata respectively) and JKF National Championships) and Kagawa sensei. On those occasions it was simply a set up. I would attack; they would defend with their favourite technique. However, with Asai sensei it was very different. He didn’t want the canvass backdrop, he told the cameraman that he wanted to move about, but when the guy asked what he was going to do, Asai sensei replied “I don’t know yet”.
I paired up with Asai sensei and was told just to attach – anything! What followed was 30 minutes of jiyu kumite… with Asai sensei. The cameraman quickly dispensed with the tripod and followed us around the dojo. I was told not to hold back, so I didn’t. I was 28 years old and just about to graduate from the instructor’s course. Asai sensei was 67 years old. However, by the end of it I was black and blue and exhausted. Asai sensei, in his normal, jovial manner, not a hair out of place and without any outward sign of having exerted himself, called it a day. The cameraman was ecstatic. He had got all the photos he needs and looking at the article now (I will always keep a copy) all the photos look pre-arranged. They were not and those 30 minutes were truly inspirational.
Q11 I always thought it would have been amazing to have trained under Funakoshi Sensei. Is there any one you would have liked to train with ?
Yes, of course, Nakayama Sensei. I have recently heard (directly and indirectly) a few stories about Nakayama Sensei from people who were at the Hoitsugan when it first opened. It seemed that what he taught at the Hoitsugan and what was taught at the JKA were quite different. I would have liked to have seen those differences for myself. I know that Koike sensei is studying many aspects of Okinawan karate. He is trying to reconnect the links between Shotokan (which for a long time has gone down the competition route) to the original forms. I think the way that Shotokan has developed the bio-mechanical approach to karate is great. It has made us one of the strongest forms in the world. However, it has had its price. We have lost many aspects of the old style (e.g. the absorption aspects of Hangetsu or the anti-twist/wave hip action in Bassai Dai). There is no reason why we cannot reclaim these neglected aspects of Shotokan. I believe Nakayama sensei still taught these ideas at his personal Dojo.
Q12 Do you have your own Dojo and how often do you teach?
Yes, I opened a full time dojo in August 2006 in Dublin. My Club had reached a membership of over two hundred and we really needed a full time venue to facilitate the numbers. I teach Monday to Thursday, three, sometimes four classes per day. I can not commit to week end classes as I am away teaching courses so much, so my senior grades teach at weekends.
Q13 Being a full time teacher what sort of training do you get to do for yourself?
I train three or four mornings a week and do the same routine as we did on the Instructor’s Course in Japan. I have a group of third and fourth dans who train with me and we really push ourselves. It is very basic, but tough and it shows up all our faults and bad habits. I like to think that the type of training that we do in the mornings purifies my technique. Without it, I can feel my bad habits starting to creep back.
Q14 As a last question, now that Kagawa Sensei is the head of the JKS can you tell us something about him?
I think Kagawa sensei needs no introduction. He is a legendary technician and fighter and is now the head of the JKS and also a senior coach for the JKF. Under his guidance, competitors like Nagaki, Inada, Tsuchiya and Yamamoto are consistently winning WKF titles. However, beyond competition Kagawa sensei is one of the greatest instructors I have had the pleasure to train with. He is a great communicator and very generous with his knowledge and time. He has something to offer to everyone, whether they are world class competitors or average Joe Bloggs at the local dojo. And he instinctively knows what the students need and when then they need it. I remember teaching with Kagawa sensei in Norway shortly after I had left Japan. I was talking with him about this being the first time in my karate career that I didn’t have an instructor to train with daily. He told me a story…
Kagawa sensei was training in the instructor’s class for ten years whilst Nakayama sensei was still teaching there. He was a member of the National Team and a rising star in the JKA. He never missed a class, had already graduated and everyone knew he was going to be something special (he didn’t actually say “everyone knew he was going to be special”, I am paraphrasing!). In all that time, the ONLY moment Nakayama sensei said anything to him was one day practicing Tekki Shodan, Nakayama sensei told him to pull his hikite hand back more. In fact Nakayama sensei never actually spoke to him; he just pointed at Kagawa sensei's hand and mimed to pull back more. Kagawa sensei still clearly remembers the moment and cherishes it dearly.
Kagawa sensei went on to explain that we do karate for ourselves, not for our instructor’s approval. He treasured the input from Nakayama sensei, but that was not why he trained. He then continued to explain that what the Instructor’s Course gives us is self-sufficiency. It teaches us firstly that we train for ourselves and secondly how to train ourselves. And with the story, Kagawa sensei helped me see the way forward. Maybe many instructors would have tried to imply strong ties with old masters, raising their own importance, but not Kagawa sensei. He is who is his and has no need to pretend otherwise.
Since that time I took on board what Kagawa sensei was trying to tell me and have been told and I feel that my karate has continued to grow because of this approach. Like I said, he is a great instructor and knows exactly what the student needs and when to share that knowledge with them.
Scott sensei, thank you for your time and good luck for the future.
Sincere thanks to Herminder Singh for allowing us to use the photographs of Scott Langley