Of American Karateka, Sensei James Field is one of the most senior and experienced. With a very successful reputation and career as a competitor for many years, he captained the US International Karate Team, he is many times National Collegiate Champion, two-time National Grand Champion, two-time Pan American Champion, US Representative to the Olympic Games in Mexico and medalist in the 1976 World Tournament. As one of the first four Americans certified as JKA Instructors, Sensei Field has a lot of knowledge, so we were eager to speak with him. This interview is a combination of an interview Sensei Field did with Holly Forsyth with my interview integrated throughout. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as we at TSW have. Shaun Banfield 07
(Shaun Banfield) Could you please tell us a little about how and why you first started karate?
(James Field) I was rehabilitating from a football injury. A good friend suggested that karate would make my knees stronger. He had trained in Japan and told me to look for a place with an instructor named Nishiyama.
(SB) So was Nishiyama Sensei the first person you trained under?
(JF) No. I first trained in Hawaii under one of Mr. Kanazawa’s students for about 7 months. I found Mr. Nishiyama’s dojo by accident while riding my motorcycle past it. I stopped to check it out. I saw pictures of Mr. Kanazawa displayed on the wall, so I decided to try training there.
(SB) You have experienced the teachings of many Masters living in America, including Nishiyama Sensei, Okazaki Sensei and Yaguchi Sensei. How do you reflect back on the fact that you have trained with such world renown Masters?
(JF) I feel very fortunate. I also feel that this experience gives me an advantage in understanding karate by having 3 different perspectives. Each had different applications, though similar explanations.
(SB) Do they differ at all in their approaches and in what ways?
(JF) I think that Mr. Okazaki and Mr. Yaguchi teach more of the budo aspect. Budo can be used in competition. Mr. Nishiyama calls his teachings traditional, but it seems more like sports karate to me. Mr. Okazaki and Mr. Yaguchi gave more application training. You would learn a technique, and then practice it with a partner. Each one had his own way of teaching individual techniques.
(SB) In what ways do you believe Nishiyama Sensei’s was in fact more of a sport karate than budo karate? Has it always been this way with his teaching or it has it become this way over time?
(JF) Mr. Nishiyama had us do more tournament sparring. Mr. Okazaki and Mr. Yaguchi emphasized application of techniques. They were always this way.
(Holly Forsyth) Who influenced you most in Karate?
(JF) Two people: Takeshi Aoki and Yutaka Yaguchi. Aoki was a senior Nidan when I was a brown belt. He encouraged me to continue and was very inspirational.
Mr. Yaguchi was my instructor. He had no prejudice about him. If you liked karate then he would teach you. I wanted to be like him in many ways. He was kind to people. He’s the type of person that would give you his last penny. When my mother passed away, he was the only one to console me in a meaningful way.
(SB) As you have stated, Yaguchi Sensei was your instructor. Technically speaking, what would you say was so great about him as a karateKa, and also as an instructor?
(JF) Yaguchi Sensei is technically very good, just like all JKA instructors. He was easier for me to communicate with. He is a very approachable person. Mr Yaguchi is technically a very diverse person with a great depth of understanding. He can teach a small person or large person to excel with whatever talents they have individually. If you like karate, he likes you and will teach you.
(SB) You mentioned that there was no prejudice with Yaguchi Sensei. Have you ever experienced prejudice of any sort with any instructors you’ve ever trained under, or other karateKa?
(HF) How has karate changed you?
(JF) It changed a belief: Through teaching I learned that karate is for everybody, not just athletes and competitors. Everybody can get something out of it, unlike football. And you can do karate forever – it’s an individual thing.
To me, outside of my family, karate is the most important thing in my life. If not for karate I would probably be in jail or dead. It took me away from the thugs I was hanging out with. Karate made me the person I am today.
(HF) What do you enjoy most about karate?
(JF) I love teaching. It’s rewarding to see improvements in individuals. I loved competition when I was in it. Now I get the same thrill watching my students compete.
(HF) What’s the best advice you have for improvement in karate?
(JF) Just do it. The biggest problem that everyone has both new and old students is doing things their way. They need to forget everything they think is and just listen to what the instructor says and just do that, that day in that class – practicing as if with tunnel vision. Everybody thinks their way is better.
Keep training, there are so many more levels to karate, and they usually take a little longer than you think to reach them.
(SB) In the 70’s you spent time in Japan. Where exactly did you train whilst in Japan and who taught there?
(JF) I trained at the hombu dojo and at the hoitsugan with Master Nakayama. Instructors rotated at the hombu dojo. All the ranking instructors taught. Training was 5 days a week, 3 times a day, sometimes 4.
(SB) Whilst on the Instructors Class at the Hombu Dojo, who were the main instructors who taught at that time?
(JF) All the ranking instructors taught.
(SB) Do you remember any specific session from the instructors class that you could tell our readers as I’m sure they’d love to hear about them.
(JF) These are personal experiences that I’d rather not share on this public a scale.
(SB) How did the classes at the Hoitsugan differ to those on the Instructors Course?
(JF) The Hoitsugan had regular classes with Master Nakayama. The regular classes there consisted of almost all foreigners. I trained in these as well. The instructors classes were very serious. They were the elite of the elite, and you’d better be serious too. Regular classes were serious, but there was a big step between the regular class and the instructor’s class. In the instructor’s class, the students were the future instructors of the JKA and they were dead serious and did their very best all the time. The spirit of the group was very high when they were all together. You would get a lot of lift out of being with them, like being pulled into a tornado. It made you want to try harder and be better.
(SB) And who were your peers in some of the classes, and in what ways did they influence your experience of karate in Japan?
(JF) a) The word “peer” means equal to me. I certainly don’t consider myself equal to anyone there. The instructor trainees were very good. Some were former all-Japan and all-collegiate champions. Some of the people I trained with (that is, we were in the same class) from the 70’s to the 80’s were: Mr. Tanaka, Mr. Osaka, Mr. Ida, Mr. Yahara, Mr. Yano, Mr. Yamamoto, Mr. Sakata, Mr. Ogata, Mr. Kagawa, Mr. Imamura, Mr. Isaka and Ms. Abe. There were many others.
B) I realized that people training in the U.S. didn’t train a quarter as much as they [the Japanese] did. I realized that we have to train as much or more to catch up. Most Westerners that go to train in Japan figure all they have to do is fight. But they don’t fight using karate techniques. That’s the point.
(SB) How would they fight, and who would you say impressed you most?
(JF) They would use a lot of roughhousing, wrestling you to the ground, trying to out-muscle you. A lot of techniques would just be swinging. The Japanese would use a lot of form and control and wouldn’t turn into wild gorillas like the Westerners. I don’t understand the other question- do you mean what Westerners impressed me or what Japanese?
The person that impressed me most in the US was Mr. Frank Smith. I think he was the best American karate person ever in this country. In Japan, there were many great karate-ka when I was there, too many to pick just one.
(SB) As a very successful competitor you have collected many titles and trophies. How did your experiences of competition influence your approach to Karate-Do?
(JF) I found that in order to conquer the title of kata champion it took a lot more work than winning at kumite. You really have to work at perfecting your techniques. You can cover mistakes in technique in kumite, but in kata every little technical point is important. In kumite, you have one opponent coming at you from one direction. You “just” need to figure out how to defeat that opponent’s attack. But in kata you have multiple opponents attacking from multiple directions. You have to be exact in what you do.
(HF) What are the most memorable trips you’ve taken for karate?
(JF) Three events stand out in my mind: When I won my first Pan American Championship, when I won my first collegiate championship and when I participated in the World Tournament in Cairo, Egypt.
(HF) What happened at the Pan American Championships?
(JF) The Pan American Championship was in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Although the US team had won team kumite, all my teammates had lost out in the individual events, leaving me fighting with the Brazilian Champion, Ugo Aregone. The crowd was roaring. I beat him. The crowd roared louder. Then I beat the current World Champion Luis Watanabe, also from Brazil. I was Grand Champion [Winning 1st place in both kata and kumite].
The trip ended up all right. I was actually made an honorary Okinawan [I even have a certificate], because the Okinawans claimed that no one except an Okinawan could do techniques the way I did them. It was very complimentary.
(HF) What stands out about your first Collegiate Championship?
(JF) This was in San Diego, California. Again, my team had lost and I was the only one left competing. I had actually won everything I had competed in that year, but for some reason did not feel confident about that tournament. I was up against Yamagami, the All-Western Collegiate champion from Japan, and I beat him. I must have been really lucky that year. He was really nice and invited me to come to his school.
(HF) What about Egypt?
(JF) Well, that was quite a different experience. President Anwar Sadat personally invited me to participate in the World Championship in Cairo, Egypt. He paid for my whole trip. I lived in a castle, had my own private trainer and was chauffeured by a Lieutenant General! I was the only one invited from the United States. Unfortunately, I unknowingly drank the water and got very ill. I didn’t think I would be able to compete, but I put on my gi and tried anyway. It was a huge tournament and somehow I got 3rd place in both kata and kumite. I had to be hospitalized when I got back home.
(HF) Why did President Sadat invite you?
(JF) I don’t know why I was invited. Apparently they had been studying films of me. I’ve never seen these films but I heard about them once when I won a US Championship. Afterwards a person came up to me and said, ‘Everyone knows you for your front kick. We’ve been studying films of you, but tonight you beat everyone with different techniques. Why didn’t you use your front kick?’ I admitted to him that I had been competing with a fractured ankle and couldn’t kick, but my favorite technique was not front kick, but whatever worked for a particular opponent in a particular situation.
(SB) You are well known for being one of the first four Americans certified as a JKA instructor under the American Instructor Training Programme am I correct?
(JF) Yes, I was told that I was the 4th.
(SB) Can you please tell us about your experiences as a trainee instructor before passing? Who taught most of the classes at the time and what did the sessions mainly consist of?
(JF) Instruction in the U.S. was evenly divided between Mr. Nishiyama and Mr. Yaguchi. I spent 6 weeks at a time in Japan, visiting every other year between 1966 and 1987. There I trained in the instructor’s training, regular training, and I was assigned to train in the Hoitsugan for kata with Master Nakayama where I was the only private student.
Training consisted of basics, basic combinations, kumite, and academics. We had to write papers on 43 different subjects. It was very difficult.
(SB) What were the main things Nakayama Sensei emphasized in your private Kata sessions with him, and what kata did he work on with you? Could you also please share some fond memories of Nakayama Sensei with our readers?
(JF) We worked on all the kata. The one that stands out the most was heian godan because we worked so long on it. His emphasis was the correct timing of each kata and small points like exact eye and hand positions. Small points were very important. He told me stories about himself when he was a little boy and times when he was practicing, but these are private stories. Sorry.
(SB) Would you care to share any memories from your time in the Instructor Programme with us?
(JF) Let’s see–Mr. Yaguchi would spar with you ‘til you were dead. He was the most educational person I ever dealt with. He was so much better than me, he would tell me things as we were sparring. He would say what technique he was going to use and where he was going to hit me with it and then do it, and there was little I could do about it.
Mr. Nakayama was a real perfectionist. I remember one time he had me practice Heian Godan for two hours and I never even got to the first kiai.
What was special was that I really learned what karate is and learned to appreciate it. I learned to see it as budo–which is so much more than sports karate and sparring. I learned this from Mr. Yaguchi and Mr. Okazaki. Unfortunately, ninety percent of Americans think karate is just sports karate and sparring.
(SB) And what would you say was the biggest significant improvement you made as a technical instructor from that time in your karate training?
(JF) Truly understanding techniques and their application.
(SB) You spend a great deal of time teaching in and out of America. Do you enjoy this lifestyle of teaching, and in what was is it rewarding?
(JF) I enjoy it very, very much. What I enjoy most is when people say that they have gained a lot of knowledge from the way I teach or do things.
(HF) What about your travels after you became an instructor?
(JF) Strangely, I find the same people wherever I go, just with different names, but people are great wherever I go.
I met a real godfather in Italy. We rode in his car and other cars would stop for us to pass by. He would stop his car in the middle of the street and go into stores where people would fawn over him just like in the movies. He opened a huge restaurant, which was closed, just so our small party could eat there. He presented me with a key to the city of Corado, but didn’t need to use it, as I was treated as a celebrity just by following him around.
(HF) Were you treated as a celebrity in other places?
(JF) I did live TV interviews in Antigua and Dominica as well as Downtown Fresno! I was written up in Newspapers and Magazines in Italy and Norway. And I’m always treated well in Japan.
(HF) Any other reflections?
(JF) You know, I was born very poor, I yet I have been able to travel the world due to karate. I see the importance and difference karate makes in the lives of people and feel fortunate to help be a part of that change. I always wanted to be known for doing something special and now I feel I have accomplished this through karate. I feel I am a very lucky person.
(SB) Coming back to your competitive interests, as we have already discussed, you were a very successful competitor. How did you make the transition from competitor to coach? Smoothly or did you get itchy feet to get back on the tatami?
(JF) I have never had itchy feet. Once I opened a dojo and began teaching, my sensei [Yaguchi] said to me, “The most important person in the dojo, James, is the student.” From that day, I put my efforts into coaching students. I get just as much thrill from my students winning as when I won. Sometimes it’s even more rewarding, as I might have more than one student competing and I can see what they are doing right or wrong and can correct them almost instantly and I understand what my instructor experienced with me.
(SB) What skills that you developed from your competitive years have you now seriously promoted with your competitors? Any skills or methods you found worked well that you still practice with your competitors today?
(JF) Timing is the most important skill. The idea of working toward a perfect technique in any situation is very very difficult. The dojo kun says, “endeavor’” and so you just have to keep going and keep trying with this in mind. There are no secret techniques. What works for one person doesn’t always work for another.
(SB) And what do you think is the key to effective coaching, what makes a good coach?
(JF) A good coach needs to know his competitors/students. You need to understand their strong and weak points, their psychological make-up, their personality, what motivates them, what depresses them. With some people you have to understand their personal life as well. You can’t treat everyone the same.
(SB) What is your favorite kata and why?
(JF) I have two favorite kata. First, Heian Godan, because I spent so much time learning it with Master Nakayama. I realized that I had never done it right in my life. Now I hate to watch people “ruin” it.
I also like Nijushiho. When I perform it, I have a real feeling of fighting. I feel as if I’m in a small area being attacked by a group of people. I feel that I must put my opponent on the ground so I can face the next one.
(HF) In 2001 you passed an exam for 7th dan. What do you believe at the outstanding characteristics of people who passed this test?
(JF) I believe people of this level have dedicated their lives to the study, practice, teaching, physical applications and mental understandings of the art. They have come to understand the essence of karate after many years of study. The actual definition in the ISKF Handbook is ‘Nana-dan: Individuals who have devoted mentally and physically into karate-do training and attained high level expertise morally and technically’.
(HF) Did you ever believe you would reach this rank?
(JF) Never. I only had two goals: one was to black belt someday and the other was to maybe place 3rd in the National Championships. Everything else looked too hard.
(SB) Can we just say a huge thank you for this opportunity to interview you!