In April 2007, Shaun Banfield of The Shotokan Way was lucky enough to conduct an interview with one of the foremost authorities in British Karate. Now living in the US, Sensei Morris continues to be a leading figure in his field, running his own organization Kissaki Kai and taking Traditional Karate to new heights. He also has been busy teaching in Police Academies in a number of countries and heads the Law Enforcement Training Services International organization.-Shaun Banfield 2007
(Shaun Banfield) Can you please start by telling us a little about how and why you first got started in karate?
(Vince Morris) I didn't originally intend to start in karate, as it had never even been heard of when I started training. At the age of about 9 or 10 years I began training in Judo. My first judo instructor was a European silver medalist, Dennis Penfold, and it was a very tough dojo near the Portsmouth docks and received visits from naval and merchant seaman, including many Japanese judoka.
When I was about 15 I ran away from home to London to join a Rock and Roll band and tried to continue my judo training with a well-known judoka, who had just returned from some years training in Japan, Charles Mack. However, when I arrived at his dojo, it was to find that due to an injury he had received just before he returned to the UK, he was not teaching judo, but a new art to me, karate. He had also studied this at the JKA and been awarded nidan. So there I was, a judoka of some years experience suddenly immersed in Shotokan karate. Some time later when I went to Nottingham University I entered Asano Sensei's dojo, where I remained until he asked me to leave.
(SB) So you began your Martial Arts training in Judo. Has that had any major impact on your karate?
(VM) As I said, my first years of training were strictly in judo and it has been a great help to me. Initially in the timing of my footsweeps, but in the last 20 years or so it has been an inestimable help in analyzing and understanding the bunkai of kata. For example it enabled me to see, where there were many throwing, striking and locking techniques, which, without the judo background, I might not have recognized.
(SB) You are a long-term student of Asano Sensei. How would you describe his classes when you were first introduced to his karate?
(VM) My first words would be: 'frightening', 'very, very hard' and 'confrontational'.
Asano Sensei, not long out of Japan, tasked with establishing a strong honbu dojo, taught in exactly the same way he had been taught at Takushoku University and the JKA. He had established an awesome reputation in Japan as a fighter, twice winning the Japan all-student championships and twice being made captain of Takushoku. He was a big man – bigger than me, and the first time I met him, he knocked me unconscious with a mawashi geri to the head. That seemed to set the pattern for the next few years.
The atmosphere of his training sessions – especially the Friday night class, was so intense, that many of the black belts changed their mind about training when they heard sensei's footsteps and hid in the toilets until he went down to the dojo. Some would even wait in their cars in the parking lot and when they saw sensei's car arrive, they would drive off.
Personally, I dreaded every Friday night and I knew sensei would take me out for kumite and keep me out there until I became asthmatic and almost unable to move. Of course, I could have asked to stop or I could have simply stayed away, but I did neither, because if I would have done, he would have beaten me.
(SB) And how was his extreme approach viewed by his seniors and peers do you think, and have you witnessed this kind of extremity elsewhere in karate?
(VM) Hmmn, that's a difficult one as I have no way of knowing what goes on in other people's heads. But from observation it seemed to me that Asano Sensei was always somewhat distanced from the majority of other senior Japanese instructors; he appears to have been very much the loner. I certainly believe that Enoeda Sensei established just as severe a regime in the early days. It is my belief that as these instructors were pioneers in a new country they had no option but to develop a dojo full of strong fighters, who would establish their reputations. So at least initially they were very little concerned with those that fell along the way.
(SB) How do you think Asano Sensei instilled fighting spirit in his students? What were the main methods he used?
(VM) Did sensei Asano instill fighting spirit in his students? Yes, indeed, in some, but he broke many others on the way. How did he do it? He did it by continually refusing to give an inch in his training. If you turned up in the dojo you were expected to give 100% each and every time. He forced you to make the mental and physical commitment to keep going through anything. Perhaps this is why, in my 63rd year, I'm still training.
(SB) Who else during your early training years inspired you apart from Sensei Asano?
(VM) Nobody inspired me. I was simply challenged by my weaknesses. Of course there were many people I admired in the martial arts, and still do, but I was always well aware that I was me. I could never be another Bruce Lee or a replica of Asano. The challenge was (and still is) to be the best Vince Morris.
(SB) You enjoyed a successful competitive career, who were your major peers during your competitive years?
(VM) I wasn't that successful, I was lucky to be in teams with some extremely good members (Aidan Trimble, Mick Hufton, Roy Harrison and Paul Mead over the years) and we either won or were runners up in quite few championships. I was also never the most technically gifted fighter. I was simply very aggressive and won many times with foot sweep and snap punch techniques.
(SB) As someone very interested in Kata, was kata always of such high importance to you even during your competitive years?
(VM) No. I found it repetitive (obviously) and I saw no purpose to it, except as stamina training. It seemed to bear no relationship at all to what we did during the rest of the class. It would irritate me if (as a logical thinking person, at this time teaching at university level and with many years of karate experience) I was supposed to find the answers to my questions by just training harder! Asano sensei would often castigate me for asking too many questions.
It became a gradual dawning awareness through training with sensei and many other high ranking Japanese instructors that they had no answers to give. As few, if any of them had anything more than a rudimentary grasp of what the katas were actually teaching. Sorry, if this upsets anyone, but this is the truth. In fact, when Asano sensei did the first videos of his katas, he astonished me by going through all of the major ones first slow then fast and at the end turning to me and three others (Roy Harrison, Paul Meade, Aidan Trimble) and saying 'you do the bunkai.’
As a researcher, I was puzzled by the paradox of the weight of importance placed on kata by the old masters such as Funakoshi and the little relevance that kata seemed to have in normal training.
(SB) Is it because of this paradox that you have devoted so much time to making kata better understood?
(VM) In one way yes, of course. Master Kenwa Mabuni, probably the most knowledgeable kata exponent to have ever lived, stated in 1934: "In karate the most important thing is kata. Into the kata is woven every manner of attack and defense technique. Therefore kata must be practiced properly, with a good understanding of their bunkai."
This was a puzzle, because at this time in my own training, if anyone had suggested looking at kata as providing techniques of self-defense, they would simply have been laughed at. The fact is kata, as I said before, seemed to have no relationship to kumite and I felt the need to solve this riddle.
Once I had begun to understand the depth of knowledge contained within the kata, then, to continue to train almost blindly, ignoring this knowledge, itself became nonsense.
(SB) You have also written a great number of books. Have you always been an avid writer?
(VM) No, I've always been an avid reader and in the university environment one has to be able to write effectively, but many years ago I felt like a voice in the wilderness when I tried to reveal the importance of bunkai in kata to a largely unbelieving world. However, to me the martial arts need to be built on the bedrock of truth and reality and I believed that I had something important to say.
(SB) It is very clear through looking at your written works that you are very interested in kata application. When applicating karate kata, what do you think are the most important principles to keep in mind?
(VM) My views are probably so well-known here, that this could become boring. The fact is kata reveal principles through techniques. The techniques themselves are almost of secondary importance, which is why you can frequently find the same principles being demonstrated in different kata by different techniques, thus exemplifying master Funakoshi's statement, that if you understand one kata, you understand them all.
However, saying that doesn't help, if you do not know what the principles are and how to apply them. This is exactly the same as having to know and apply the rules of grammar in order to speak a language correctly. Realizing this, I analyzed and wrote a book about the rules of combat; Principles, which apply in any armed or unarmed confrontation and which need to be understood and applied in order to make the techniques effective.
Some of the principles of combat are:
- Awareness, distraction, optimum positioning, understanding the enemy (physically and mentally), unbalancing, using the vital points, never stopping until it's over, never giving away intention, never fighting at the speed of the enemy.... the list goes on.
Being aware of the rules, however, is not the same as being able to apply them. For that you need to fight from a different stance and from much closer range than most karate-ka are used to and understand that the variety of techniques available are much more varied.
(SB) You mentioned the importance of understanding the enemy both physically and mentally. What do you think are the most important things to understand about your opponent?
You cannot isolate just one element as being more important than any other. It is necessary to consider a whole range of aspects. For example, the weight, size and strength of the attacker, with or without weapon, drunk or sober, evidence of drugs, number of attackers, availability of help, your own mental and physical condition. Then we come to more particular matters, such as: Is the attacker right or left handed? ... the list goes on.
(SB) In what ways do you think the mental state of your opponent is important, and can you give us an example of how you can exploit the opponent’s mental state?
The mental condition of anyone attacking you is of course important as it can determine the ferocity of the attack. Therefore it is vital to assess the mindset of the assailant prior to the attack as it may serve to help you decide the levels of force necessary in your defence. For example, a staggering drunk will not require the same level of violent response as a raging, homicidal crack addict. A point to remember is that in the Rules of Combat we emphasize the use of distraction techniques before counter-attacking. This could be done in many ways from shouting to spitting, kicking, slapping, asking the time and so on. If you are going to get just one chance to survive you need to weigh the odds in your favor any way you can.
(SB) You also mentioned optimum positioning; can you please tell us a little more about this and what examples can be found in kata?
(VM) Basically you can be either inside the attacker's arms or at 45 degrees to his centerline on the outside of either his left or right arm. The latter (outside position) is the better position to be in simply because it makes it impossible for him to hit you. The techniques from the outside therefore can be aimed at arm, leg and side-of-the-head points from which it is easy to bring the attacker down and control (and handcuff) him. This 45 degree move is frequently found in the kata.
Sometimes, however, it is impossible to gain the optimum position and because of the inherent dangerousness of being in range to be struck by any or all of the attacker's weapons, it is extremely important that your response stuns or disables the attacker immediately. This (inside position) demands faster, more powerful techniques right from the beginning than does the outside position and is frequently typified by multiple strikes: Opening moves of Heian Nidan, Nijushiho etc.
(SB) And which of the above do you think are the most neglected in many Shotokan classes you have witnessed?
(VM) All. (that’s a joke). It's not my place to tell others what they are doing wrong. I simply want to offer them the chance to see for themselves and make up their own minds, but anyone reading this can ask themselves, how much of this do we do in our own training?
(SB) With Sensei Aidan Trimble you wrote the ‘Karate Kata Applications’ Series. Aidan Trimble is a very popular karateka and instructor. What is it about him that makes him so popular and made you want to work with him?
(VM) Aidan is a brilliant karate-ka. He came to Asano's dojo at a very young age and immediately impressed me by his tenacity. He turned out to be one of the most physically gifted karateka I have ever known, plus he is a very nice man and I'm proud to call him a friend.
(SB) You are the Chief Instructor of Kissaki Kai Karate-Do. What are the primary principles behind this organisation, as it is not a standard run of the mill group, am I right?
(VM) It certainly isn't run of the mill and frankly, it isn't for everyone. The basis of Kissaki-kai sounds quite simple; it is to put back all the powerful and effective techniques that sports karate took out. In practice however, this means completely revising the methods of training to move away from the commonly perceived Japanese type training with the emphasize on zenkutsu-dachi and ju-dachi and into a much closer ma-ai (fighting distance).
It also means doing away with 5-step sparring, which only teaches you to go back in a straight line (a cardinal error in real life!) and 3-step sparring, in exchange for fast attacks from within touching distance. In one sense it means that although it might be satisfying to kick over someone's head, it is no longer necessary to do this in order to be effective in combat. This means that the participatory life of a karate-ka is lengthened as an older martial artist can be equally as effective as a young one in a face-to-face situation.
The variety of techniques in Kissaki-kai that are actually practiced is much greater. It is necessary to practice elements such as choking, joint locking, throwing and vital point striking, which are simply not catered for in the sporting system, but which are fundamental in a complete martial art.
(SB) I have read that there are 5 fundamental principles of combat. Could you please talk us through this?
(VM) These are not principles as you call them, but aspects of training:
1. Ne-waza - Groundwork, grappling
In Kissaki-kai we do not uphold the principle of taking someone to the ground in order to fight them. Our groundwork is posited on the understanding that sometimes – like it or not – you end up on the ground and we teach the fastest possible ways of getting back on your feet again. In order to do this, naturally, it is necessary to understand groundwork locks and holds in order to be able to escape from them.
Much of what we teach in Kissaki-kai is related to real life. We teach various law-enforcement agencies, police academies and special forces, where reality governs everything. For example after more than 12 years of experience and a parliamentary investigation the country of Belgium has incorporated many of our methods and techniques into their Police Training Manual. We have had to field-test what works and what does not. It is very difficult for an officer encumbered with holstered pistol handcuffs, spare ammunition clips, radio, baton, etc. to move effectively in a prone position. Therefore it is vital that a downed officer regained his or her feet as quickly as possible.
In terms of civilian self-defence, you may well be the best MMA fighter on the block, but
you may never see the boot that kicks you or the knife stuck into you by the attacker's friends as you are subduing him on the ground. As a final thought – you have to get up sometime. What's your attacker going to do then? Two weeks ago a young man stopped an assault on two elderly ladies in New York. He thought it was all over & turned away to return to his car when the attacker ran up behind him & stabbed him in the back, killing him instantly!
2. Nage-waza - Throwing techniques
These are absolutely vital providing one follows the rules of combat, the most important of which is: Don't try to throw anyone before you have hit them.
There are countless examples in the kata and in real life when the ability to throw hard and fast is called for. In fact, in an early edition of his published work, Master Funakoshi included a number of throwing techniques, interestingly different from the usual type of Ju-Jutsu or Judo throw. However, I was always told by my instructors not to throw as I was supposed to be practicing karate.
In WUKO competition karate the rules have been changed to actually now award points for good throwing techniques, which is a great step forward.
3. Atemi-waza - Vital point striking
Atemi-waza means simply the art of striking, but in Kissaki-kai we are very discerning of the choices of strikes we make and the areas in which we strike. In other words, just snapping out chudan gyaku zuki to the mid-section is not good enough. In fact it will frequently have no effect whatsoever, whereas a judicial strike - with say ippon ken - to a vulnerable area would be much more effective.
4. Shime-waza - Choking techniques
Many examples of these can be found in the kata and in real-life situations many officers have confirmed the effectiveness of these techniques in ending situations without causing injury. Knowing how to apply them and how to escape from them is vital to a full understanding of a complete martial art.
5. Kansetsu-waza - Joint Locking Techniques
All kissaki-students have to have a rudimentary knowledge of joint locking and manipulating techniques, especially when dealing with attacks of lower levels of violence on the one hand, and against weapon attacks on the other. Invariably higher level defenses can include atemi-waza followed by kansetsu-waza and ending in nage-waza or shime-waza with various atemi-waza being applied throughout.
Not having any of these elements in your defensive armory necessarily weakens your response.
(SB) You mention Shime-Waza, is there much attention paid to this in kata, and can you please give us an example?
(VM) Well for an example, Heian Godan includes a classic version of Ippon Seo-nage (shoulder throw) into Juji-jime (cross strangle) with your knee on uke's abdomen. You can't get much clearer than that. There are also a number of other kata, which include a crossed arm push-pull movement, which is often signifying Okuri-eri-jime (sliding collar choke) and there are many others.
(SB) One of the five is the understanding of Atemi Waza (Vital Point Striking). Are there many examples of attention paid to this within kata, if so would you care to share some examples please?
(VM) First you must understand that the martial arts were not originally open and available to everybody as they are today. There is a long and well-understood history of secrecy and of the secret parts of the martial art only being handed over to the senior student after many years of training. It is not surprising therefore, that kata don't simply point to a vital point and say 'kick here'. However, each student that trained consistently with the master would always be taught at the highest level to target vulnerable areas. Evidence of the point charts is easily found in many martial scrolls.
Every kata and every defensive technique within the kata increases its effectiveness by utilizing vulnerable areas of the human body. How could it be otherwise?
Take for example the opening moves of Nijushiho. The attacker seizes your right wrist with his left hand and goes to punch you in the face with the right. One application for the opening move is that you stab the attacker in the throat with the left spear hand, invoking the withdrawal reflex whilst at the same time raising the right hand, which brings his LU5 forearm point into the right place to be struck with the pull-back of the spear hand, thus releasing your right fist to punch into his torso, bringing his head forward into your left elbow strike. Knowing that CV22 is a vulnerable point on the throat and that LU5 will not only release your fist, but jerk his head into your elbow, would make it nonsense not to use it. And this is only one example.
Interested readers could check out some of my books and DVDs for more information.
(SB) You are committed to spending much time researching Pressure Points. What are your reactions to martial artists who claim to be able to knock out others without actually touching them, and other such wonders?
(VM) I think they are shameful! Pseudo-martial artists attempting pseudo martial arts, wearing belts awarded by mirrors, living in a land of dreams. I don’t think any one of them has actually been in a real fight in their lives.
Anyone at one of my seminars, or in one of my Dojo knows full well that we train against full-power attacks. Anything less (except in the learning stage) is just stupid. It is ‘hands-on’ training practically all the time.
One of my gimmicks – if you like – is to give out a baseball bat and invite anyone to hit me with it as hard as they can, or, to throw their best and hardest punch at my head.
I’m still here!
This isn’t self-aggrandizement, but to show that if an old guy like me can do it, then so can anyone!
There will always be those who need to believe in magic. The first good punch to the head usually clears this up.
Most martial artists, however, are not stupid, and when they come to a seminar I make it clear to them that they must judge for themselves.
What I teach is based upon science - anatomy and physiology, plus psychology. Then add the rules of combat, plus the distilled knowledge of centuries of combat contained within the Kata, and finally add sweat, perseverance and stress to develop fighting spirit.
Out come good martial arts.
(SB) As well as understanding the dangerous effects of delivering blows to these acu-points are you also interested in them for their healing properties?
(VM) I do not subscribe to the acu-point theory of Ki or Qi as being important in Kyusho Jutsu as my forthcoming book (The Truth about Pressure Point Fighting) will make clear.
In essence, there are perfectly understandable physiological and anatomical reasons why manipulating the vital points is of fundamental importance to getting the most effect from any given waza. There are many, who seek to surround themselves with an air of mystery and knowledge by claiming an understanding of mysterious forces traveling through invisible meridians; the truth is, the human body reacts in predictable ways to sensory input and understanding these ways can be used in a martial sense.
The only evidence available of the beneficial effect of acupuncture lies in the relatively narrow field of the alleviation of pain and this can be attributed to the release of endorphins in the body and to the pain-gate theory, where a little pain can mask out a greater pain.
In saying this, I fully realize I contradict some of what I was teaching 15 years ago. In my defense, I have never stopped researching and studying and testing, and the fruits of my experience are there. I have learned more since then and it would be dishonest of me to continue to propound beliefs which I no longer adhere to. I try to tell it the way it is – at least the way it is for me.
(SB) Have your opinions changed on many other things would you say?
(VM) Yes. When I began my post-graduate course, I taught Anglo-Saxon for a year whilst the professor took a sabbatical. Before he left, he warned me to look out for those students getting ready to graduate who still held the same opinions as when they began their 3 year course: "They're the ones who have wasted their bloody time!"
The search for what is true remains constant, but opinions should change as knowledge increases.
(SB) How can Shotokan clubs develop their karate to be more effective on the street do you think?
(VM) Join Kissaki-kai. (That's another joke by the way).
In essence, it doesn't matter whether your style is Shotokan, Shukokai, Wado-Ryu or add your own name here. What needs to be addressed is the concept of reality in training. There are some things you must do. For example when training, always start from touching distance.
This also mean less emphasis on sparring, even though sparring should not be done away with completely, because it does give practice in dealing with fear, getting hit and the general turmoil of combat. As an aside, there are karateka that say 'we do not do kumite', but that is not the same as saying 'we train correctly for real combat'. It is always possible to make what you do more effective, if you keep an open mind.
Look critically at whatever bunkai you are currently doing to see if it follows the rules of combat and does not rely on dojo compliance. If you are one of the groups that rely mainly on Kyusho Jutsu, assess whether your skill levels are good enough to even deliver these Kyusho techniques in the face of a really hard attack.
I just got back from a seminar in Canada, where one of the responses from a veteran of some 30 years training was, that it is good to see that it is possible to still learn something new. So, without wishing to be a salesman, I would ask anyone interested to simply look at the later DVDs and books and better yet, attend a Kissaki seminar so they can make up their own minds as what to take from it to make their own art more effective. I can say no more than come and try for yourself.
(SB) What is your favorite kata and why?
(VM) My favorite kata is Tekki, because like me, it's short but powerful. (Another joke).
Tekki / Naihanshi is full of wonderful, fast, explosive and efficient defensive waza and an understanding of this kata is critical in terms of real self-defense.
(SB) Can we just say a huge thank you for this opportunity to interview you, and we wish you every success for the future!
(VM) It is my pleasure. Just let me add that I have only touched on the points you have raised, there is much more that that I could add, but essentially I would encourage all who are interested to make up their own minds and not to be distracted by wishful thinking!
My own favourite phrase is: “Do it to me!”
Finally, good luck to you and the web site, which I think, serves a very important function.
Anyone wanting to contact me or get the regular free kissaki email newsletters can do so by emailing or through the website at www.kissakikarate.com
Vince Morris 8th Dan May 2007 USA.
Many thanks to readers of the project for submitting suggested questions.