Tom Kompier over the years quickly established an internationally respected name and reputation as yet another fine Western Karateka and Instructor. As a member of the KUGB – Karate Union of Great Britain – he trained with the likes of Sensei Enoeda, Frank Brennan and Bob Poynton and later moved to Japan, which developed his karate even further. Whilst there, he trained regularly with Kagawa Masayoshi Sensei at Osaka University where he studied, and later at the JKA Headquarters and in the JKA Instructor Class where he trained with the likes of Richard Amos, Senseis Yahara, Abe, Isaka, Asai and Kagawa – Shaun Banfield 07
(Shaun Banfield) Could you please just tell us a little about how you got started in Shotokan Karate?
(Tom Kompier) As a child my posture was not so good, so my GP advised me to do some martial art to improve my physique. I did something similar to karate for about a year. Then later, when I went to university, I wanted to join some university sports club and remembered how much I had enjoyed the kempo I used to do. So I joined the university karate club, which happened to practice the shotokan style.
(SB) Am I right in thinking that during your time at CUKC you were a part of the KUGB? How do you feel your time there prepared you for karate outside of the UK?
(TK) CUKC was and still is a KUGB club, so yes, I too was a member of the KUGB. In fact I graded to shodan under Enoeda Sensei. I was lucky enough to be able to train in the Central Region’s Squad under Frank Brennan, and I received instruction from a variety of KUGB instructors during my time in England. There was no special way in which KUGB karate prepared me or did not prepare me for karate outside the UK. However, I learned a lot from its various instructors.
(SB) Who of the instructors in the UK, both in and outside of the KUGB, really impressed you?
(TK) I remember that seeing Ota Sensei perform kata in Crystal Palace was sensational, he was so smooth. Of course it goes without saying the Enoeda Sensei made a lasting impression as did some of the “red triangle” instructors I came across on KUGB courses. Frank Brennan was very inspiring and Bob Poynton impressed me. He was the grading examiner at Cambridge, so I saw him quite regularly.
Ronnie Christopher was active as a competitor still and agreed to come to Cambridge a few times to teach. Besides being a great fighter, he was also extremely supportive. And someone that impressed me because he was continuously looking for new approaches to his own karate and had great form was Sean Roberts. He also agreed to come to Cambridge to teach a few times and was the first instructor to point out the importance of squeezing (tightening the muscles on the inside of the leg) in front stance to me (as opposed to pushing the knee out over the front foot).
Now that was an eye-opener, even if it seems so obvious and straightforward now. But let’s not forget the guys I was training with on an everyday basis. We were looking for new ways of training, discussing technique constructively, to become better individually and as a team. And lastly, in recent years I taught besides Aidan Trimble at a few courses and I am sure he would have impressed me had I trained with him back then, for he still does now. And of course there is also Scott Langley, who I did not meet in the UK, but came to know in Japan and is now a very promising instructor based in Ireland.
(SB) During your time with CUKC did you train with Enoeda Sensei? If so, what was it about him that attracted visitors from around the world to experience his karate?
(TK) Yes, in fact CUKC had a very good relation with Enoeda Sensei. We were lucky enough to have him teach a few times per year at the club, and we also visited his house once a year with the squad. Besides that there were obviously courses that I participated in, like Crystal Palace, at which he taught. Enoeda Sensei had immense charisma and the ability to make you train just that little bit harder. We loved his spirit.
(SB) In University you studied Japanese. Was it always your intention to learn these skills to work and live in Japan, or was it simple coincidence that you would eventually go to live in Japan?
(TK) There was no connection between me studying Japanese and me studying karate. However, without the language I would never have been able to attend the JKA instructors course, nor would the opportunity have presented itself. On the other hand, I did not go to Japan to study karate, rather to study archaeology at the University of Osaka. It was there that I started training under Kagawa Masayoshi Sensei, the older brother of Kagawa Masao Sensei, and he eventually introduced me to Naito Takashi Sensei, the general secretary of the Asai-faction of the JKA.
(SB) What do you remember of Kagawa Masayoshi Sensei, and how are the Kagawa’s in their approach?
(TK) This question is very broad. Moreover, over the years Kagawa Masao Sensei has obviously developed his teaching. I do not know how Masayoshi Sensei is, for he is nowadays often teaching in Sri Lanka and I have not seen him since I left Japan in 1999. He was a small man, but he won the All Japan’s notwithstanding the year after Enoeda Sensei did. He was very fair to me and had me as an assistant instructor in his dojo to teach the kids. Fantastic, over 20 black belts extremely well behaved 8 to 12 year olds with immense potential. He was very powerful and taught, as many Japanese do, by example more than explanation.
Kagawa Masao Sensei can probably in all fairness be called one of the most successful karate instructors and coaches in contemporary Japan, if not the most. Not only is Teikyo University, where he is head coach, one of the strongest karate universities in Japan, but he also coaches the All Style Japanese team. He explains more than he did in the past and his movement is amazing.
(SB) Can you please tell us about Naito Sensei. What was he like as a man and as a karateka?
(TK) Naito Takashi Sensei can be seen depicted as the brilliant young instructor assisting Yahara Sensei in the Best Karate series Kumite 2. Eventually he had to give up karate due to illness, but after the split in the JKA became heavily involved again as General Secretary. As a student he had been All Japan Student Champion in kumite, and as kenshusei he came third in kata at the All Japan’s. Nakayama Sensei was not joking when he wrote that he had a bright future. He is a man with an open and internationally oriented mind, a workaholic with a fantastic personality. I stayed at his office for a month the first time I was in Tokyo to train at the honbu dojo, sleeping on the couch. Later he supported me for the 2 years as I trained as a junior instructor. To me he is an example in hospitability.
(SB) What was your first impression of karate in Japan, did you feel ‘Shell-shocked’ at all?
(TK) Like I said my first training in Japan was under Kagawa Masayoshi Sensei in Osaka. I was not shell-shocked, but there was one day a week, Thursday, when the instructors from Osaka would train together and it was there that I was knocked about regularly. Training was intensive and interesting, but the basic idea was not that different.
(SB) You mentioned that you got knocked about regularly. Many people have said that they experienced some brutality there. Do you think it’s excessive at all, and do you think this kind of treatment hinders or encourages learning?
(TK) Training was serious in Osaka (we are still talking about Osaka here, not the headquarters in Tokyo) and I did receive some knocks. Very few were uncalled for or not in the course of training. I remember being knocked out in gohon-kumite. Clearly I had not been blocking, partly due to the unwritten rule in my training up to then that you should not hit jodan, even if the block was bad, so I never had to really make sure the block worked. There was also a technical difference. People actually stepped and punched simultaneously, allowing less preparation time than I was used to. I would say that this certainly helped me with my karate.
Karate also was no game of tag. I participated in a tournament in Osaka and was knocked off my feet in my first fight with a kizami-zuki. It was a hard hit. I thought I was going to be saved by the referee and that my opponent would get a warning. Of course he got ippon. Everybody laughed about my disappointment and of course I deserved to lose that fight.
Lastly some people do get hit excessively because they break the rules. I remember well that one day we were sparring and I was sparring with Kagawa Masayoshi Sensei myself. As I explained, he was a tiny man, so it was easy to kick jodan against him and in fact I did. I caught him off guard and slapped his face with my foot. The whole dojo went dead-quiet. I knew right there and then that I had crossed a line and that each and everyone there wanted to put me in my place. Masayoshi Sensei just smiled and nodded and let it pass. I did not mean to offend him, of course, but that was not the point. By doing what I did I offended everyone there and I knew it; the shock must have been very obvious on my face. He saved me from serious punishment that time.
Overall I think the training in Osaka was hard, nasty at times, but not unfair and it did not hinder me, on the contrary, it encouraged me.
(SB) Who were your main tutors during your training at the JKA, and how did they influence you?
(TK) During my time in Osaka (1.5 years) obviously Kagawa Masayoshi was a great influence. Later in Tokyo at the JKA headquarters I was taught mostly by Abe Sensei and Kagawa Masao Sensei, and also by Isaka Sensei, Yahara Sensei and sometimes Asai Sensei. However, I have also been influenced heavily by Richard Amos. When I was in the instructors’ program he was still in Japan and training as a full instructor in the instructors class. Although the senior Japanese instructors individually have all given me many ideas, Richard stood out in his logical approach to understanding karate.
(SB) You then managed to get into the infamous Instructors Course. How would you describe this period of your life – both in karate and in your normal life?
(TK) It was a difficult period, both in karate and in normal life, or rather, I had no normal life. Having been on the course has given me a lot, but it also has taken a lot. I learned a lot and it changed me, both mentally and physically. However, I have no regrets. Having been on the course has taught me many things. I had good experiences and I had bad experiences and these have changed my views on people, life and myself. That in itself makes it important to me. However, war may have similar meaning to other people, and it would be crazy to say that a war experience would be important for everyone to experience.
(SB) Experiencing both training on the Instructor Course and before that just as a normal student, how did the treatment you experienced differ?
(TK) Training on the instructors course cannot be compared to normal training, they are so very different. It has to do with fear, with the inability to control your life, finding yourself subject to other people whims and being subjected to violence. As a normal student you can always stop training, whenever you like, you are in control, but not so as a junior instructor.
(SB) How many days per week was the Instructor Classes, and who were your main instructors at this time?
(TK) Training was five days a week, with additional normal classes on Saturday, and I often trained on Sunday with Isaka Sensei. Besides, there were other classes, regular JKA classes or university training. I trained 2 times a week at a Japanese university too. The instructors were the ones I already mentioned.
(SB) What did the everyday training consist of?
(TK) Mostly kihon, generally followed by kumite and finished with kata. Nothing more and nothing less.
(SB) How did your karate mentality change during this time? How did your karate change?
(TK) Repetition and simultaneously being able to constantly check your form against the very best slowly changes your own karate. As far as mentality goes, I am not sure I was happy with what the system made me into, but I definitely became very focused when fighting and I do not talk just about competing, but also generally in the dojo environment.
(SB) Was it at this point in your Karate career that you met Richard Amos?
(TK) I met Richard already very early on, while I was still living in Osaka and went to train at the headquarters dojo for a month. He had already graduated by then and was a popular instructor at the honbu.
(SB) You mention that he has a logical approach to understanding karate. What are the main things he taught you in regards to biomechanics?
(TK) I do not want to go into certain details, because I do not think that is the point. You can read his articles for that or attend his courses. What was important is the way to approach karate, to try to understand the logic of the use of a certain body part over another, a certain move or application over another. I think I will have missed the point if I would talk about this specific movement or that specific body use, because I would just be repeating things. That is no good. An approach should help you to think by yourself about related problems or unrelated problems, to develop yourself beyond the point where you are today. What we should look for is a hermeneutic circle or rather spiral. You apply a principle, it leads you onto something new, which in turn influences your understanding about yet something else, which eventually makes you rethink the original principle and on and on. By being critical himself, his teaching hopefully stimulates others to rethink what they are doing. Being critical on the verge of being obnoxious is part of my own being, so maybe I am predisposed to his approach ;-).
(SB) Would you describe your karate as a mix of different instructors’ influences or did you strictly follow one instructor and his principles and ideals?
(TK) A mix, and I would like to add “of course” to that. Because we all are individually different and have different bodies, following just one instructor will lead to disappointment, for one can never be exactly like that person. There is an underlying structure that is similar and that we should learn, but thereafter we should freely develop and influences from different people can help with that. I am no different.
(SB) During your training at the JKA, you experienced the methods of very different karate instructors who all probably teach karate very differently. How did you as the student apply such a wide and different amount of knowledge into your own karate?
(TK) I just tried to apply what I was being taught to my own karate and to evaluate whether the principles were sound. But even when sound, some things work for one kind of body, but not for another. It is trial and error, basically.
(SB) Were there any principles that your Japanese instructors taught that you with a western body could not apply?
(TK) No. I find the idea that westerners move differently, because they have different bodies an easy excuse. Clearly some of us are not flexible enough to do certain things, but so are some Japanese. There are enough westerners with great form and technique that it will be hard to emulate. Clearly Kagawa Sensei has a very special body, allowing him to do great kicks, but likewise Frank Brennan has a flexibility few of us can copy. I have seen several stiff and very “western” style karate people turn into very clean “Japanese” style karateka after training for a year at a Japanese university. It is the kind of training, rather than the body. Yes, on average the Japanese have shorter limbs. But do we ever hear judo people complain that they cannot compete against the Japanese, because Japanese have a lower center of gravity? Or in gymnastics, can we not win medals because the Asians are more flexible? There are of course things that no body should do, Asian or Caucasian or whatever, things that go against the anatomy and sport science. This has nothing to do with racial differences, but with a faulty understanding of proper technique or body dynamics. There are good instructors and bad instructors anywhere that can lead students onto a path where they will end up damaging themselves, both in Japan and outside Japan.
(SB) These days you are renown for your karate knowledge, and your reputation is highly respected. Why do you feel that you have been so respected in the way that you have?
(TK) I am not quite sure what you want to ask and the question makes me feel uneasy. I basically try to work on my karate and while doing so; I have come across difficulties and found some solutions that seem to work for me. I try to inform other people about them, so that they may profit, like I have profited from others. But we all need to work these things out ourselves as well. Whenever I teach I get most satisfaction out of training together with people. Training should be reciprocal. And of course my insights have changed with the years. I would probably not want to repeat what I taught to my fellow students as a brown belt and maybe I now have short-cuts to offer, but on the other hand, maybe what I taught back then was in fact helpful and necessary for me to work on at that stage of my own development.
(SB) Do you think it’s most rewarding when you figure things out for yourself rather than being spoon-fed all of the knowledge?
(TK) No-one can be spoon-fed karate. At least, I doubt it and I still need to meet the person that reads a book about karate and could do it, or an excellent karateka that did not change his movement over the years to become so good. It is difficult to become good at karate if you train with an idiot of an instructor all your life. Clever students will probably one day go somewhere else. But even in the dojo of a great instructor you will find many average students. The point is that the seeds must fall into fertile soil. For some knowledge to be useful, other knowledge must already be present sometimes. But even then, if it is all knowledge that we receive, how do really outstanding karateka come into being? Clearly some geniuses can go beyond what they were taught and set a whole new standard.
I do not know what will be the most rewarding. I found great happiness sometimes when I thought that at last I could do something or understood a certain point, sometimes due to working something out myself and sometimes because I was given this one pointer that tipped the scale. But mostly karate has been frustrating and still is, because there is still so much I cannot do or do not understand. Try train with true genius and you probably experience feelings of exasperation. Asai Sensei would leave me awe-struck and training with Steve Ubl can also be rather unnerving!
(SB) You also competed at a high level. Am I right in thinking you fought Shane Dorfman competitively. Do you enjoy the competitive element of karate, and why?
(TK) Yes, Shane and I fought several times, it was always exciting. He is a strong opponent. I used to enjoy the competitive element very much, but it is not important anymore now. Maybe I have lost the edge. On the other hand, the focus that made me win I talked about before also came between me and my teaching sometimes, so maybe it is also a good thing to be able to let that go.
(SB) Is there a different attitude to competition in Japan to here in the West?
(TK) That is difficult to answer. At the headquarters competition was important, in that you should not lose, but more important was in what manner you win. There are glorious ways to lose and lousy ways to win. The etiquette of competition is more important in Japan than anywhere else, I guess.
(SB) What is your favorite kata and why?
(TK) I used to do nijushiho for a long time, but recently I did gojushiho-sho and gankaku in competition. I have also done sochin, but that was no success, it does not suit me well. But I selected these kata because for competition you just have to. I try to do all shotokan kata equally in training, without preference. I have no favourite, although I do not really like Wankan, but maybe that is just ignorance ;-)
(SB) Can I just say a huge thank you for this opportunity to interview you. It’s been a pleasure and may I wish you every success for the future.
Many thanks to Barak Oserovitz for use of the photographs.