Malcolm Dorfman Sensei
Over the past couple of months, Shaun and I have made some fantastic friends. One such friend is Robert Sidoli, who has provided continued support for our project since it began. On behalf of The Shotokan Way providing us with an EXCLUSIVE inteview, Robert Sidoli has interviewed the legendary Malcolm Dorfman. Please enjoy these inspirational words as much as we have. Thank you Robert…
(Robert Sidoli) I believe that you studied Judo as a teenager prior to starting karate. Has this training assisted you with your karate?
(Malcolm Dorfman) All Japanese Martial Arts, if done in the true traditional way, instill in one an understanding of Budo. This was my introduction. Of course on a physical level the throws and groundwork techniques added to my arsenal of ‘empty hand’ weapons, especially in dojo kumite and for what may be needed in a street confrontation. Throws today seem to be gaining ground in the shiai situation, especially in WKF. This understanding of Judo assists me in incorporating throws in training shiai competitors.
(RS) Why did you start karate, and why in particular Shotokan?
(MD) As a young boy I always had a desire to be strong and able to defend myself and the martial arts kindled my interest. Hence my participation in judo round about 12 years of age for a while and a return to judo at about 16. Genuine karate was new in South Africa at that time and I watched Stan Schmidt taking a class at the University, chatted to him and commenced soon after. Initially I did both judo and karate at the same time but it was not long before I realised I was better at karate than judo so the transition to only doing karate took place a year later. Doing Shotokan was circumstantial. Had it been Goju at the University, I may have been a Goju karateka today.
(RS) You achieved Springbok colours for Karate, and I believe were part of the 1st South African international Team to tour abroad circa 1970. How did you feel gaining a place on such a prestigious team?
(MD) To represent one’s country is always a great honour and especially as a young karateka trying to excel and prove myself, it was at that time, the most exciting achievement that had happened to me.
(RS) I believe you went on to captain that team. Which notable matches do you recall from your 8 years or more representing your country?
(MD) Risto Krishkila was the European JKA Champion in 1978 when the German team came to South Africa. He came on brimming with confidence in his bout against me. Three waza-ari from three strong gyaku-zuki by the end of the bout and his confidence had disappeared. That win helped South Africa defeat Germany. Later that year I fought Billy Blanks (Mr Tae-Bo) in the USA vs. SA series. I remember catching his leg from one of his fanciful kicks and turning him upside down before scoring on him. Everybody in the SA team was very apprehensive about going against Billy and Tokey Hill, so that gave my teammates a good psychological boost for the series. But there were many little incidents in different bouts in that decade that remain in my mind. These are merely a couple of examples. An amusing bout (now, but not at the time) was in the series against the USA when SA had beaten the USA in Johannesburg 6-4, the USA had beaten SA in Durban 6-4 and the score in the third and final test in Pretoria was 4 bouts each with one draw with one final bout left to decide the whole series. I came out to fight my USA opponent. A few seconds later, I was up by a waza-ari. He then moved in on me and I hit him with possibly the best gyakuzuki I had ever done – perfect timing, distancing, relaxed kime - everything to the book. I went back to my line knowing that I had done it for my country. I looked up and to my amazement he suddenly collapsed. The ominous ‘Hansoku’ seemed so loud. I had broken his sternum and just lost the whole series for South Africa with that one technique. That bout I never forgot and my team mates never let me forget it either.
(RS) Was there ever a Senior Japanese sensei resident in South Africa? If not, how did you function as a group, and how did the seniors become so world-renowned?
(MD) There was never a resident Japanese instructor and this was a blessing in disguise. The majority of Japanese instructors suffocated their western senior students with restrictions, especially with regard to finance, the western seniors’ own grading examinations and the right for them to hold grading examinations. We were left to develop our South African organisation our way while still having access to Japanese instruction by bringing out top Japanese instructors or going to JKA Honbu Dojo in Japan. By doing the latter, our top seniors became well known to all the Japanese instructors as opposed to only being known, like most western seniors, to their own resident Japanese Sensei. Furthermore, by being left to our own devices, we tended to research scientific training methods, thus developing a strong brand of karate, which soon became known to the rest of the karate world. As a group, the S.A. seniors needed to band together to progress and we grew from strength to strength.
(RS) What prompted you to visit Japan for extended visits so early in your karate career?
(MD) I had a thirst for knowledge and realised that while the South African seniors who started before me were really strong and motivated, their standard was nowhere as good as the top Japanese instructors and nor did they have the knowledge of Nakayama Sensei, Shoji Sensei and the like. There was only one route left for me – JAPAN.
(RS) You trained regularly in Japan in the mid 1970’s up until the fragmentation. Did you train solely at JKA Honbu or did you get to see other dojos as well?
(MD) Even after the fragmentation I trained regularly with the Nakahara JKA till 1993 and thereafter with the Asai JKA till the formation of the KWF. The majority of my training was at Honbu Dojo in Ebisu, but I trained many times at Tanaka Sensei’s Shokukan Dojo and in fact represented Shokukan at two All-Japan Championships. I also trained on occasion at Nakayama Sensei’s Hoitsugan Dojo in the mid-70s. There were other dojos where Tanaka Sensei took me to train, but I don’t recall their names.
(RS) What was it like in the Hornet’s Nest (the JKA Instructor’s class) as I believe you trained many times there as a guest?
(MD) You had to be part of it to understand both the fear and the pride that was in my mind. It was an experience that will remain with me forever and that made me have what I believe is true Budo spirit. Those who did not experience these classes and those who faded and gave up, lost out on being part of the greatest training system in the history of traditional Budo karate-do.
(RS) Was it normal for visitors to be allowed the distinction of training with the Instructor’s class?
(MD) You earned the right by your attitude and ability in the general class that preceded the Instructor’s class. If you impressed you got an invitation, but it was rare.
(RS) As a visitor to Japan do you believe you were treated the same as the Japanese students?
(MD) In general , the answer is no. But I was fortunate to make really good friends with Yoshimasa Takahashi Sensei who was Tanaka Sensei’s sempai (not to be confused with Shinsuke Takahashi, the Japanese sensei in charge of Australia). He treated me so well and introduced me to Tanaka Sensei who was to become a great friend. These two senseis made a huge difference for me at Honbu in the early days. But the feeling that the ‘Gaijin’ were second-class members was very obvious by the contemptuous attitude of so many high-ranking JKA senseis in those days. Nowadays, with so many splits in the organisations, westerners are treated better. I am of the impression that the KWF of all the mainline JKA-style organisations is the least Japanese dominated and westerners receive better treatment and recognition than in the other organisations. From what I gather, JSKA may have a similar outlook towards westerners as KWF.
(RS) Who did you train alongside in the Kenshusei classes when you visited Japan.
(MD) The ‘Who’s Who’ of JKA karate. In the 70s and 80s, Senseis like Ueki, Oichi, Tanaka, Tabata, Abe would lead the classes of young instructors of my age like Yahara, Mori and Kasuya. Each time I was there, a new crop of youngsters would be there like Omura, Imura, Kagawa, who today are important senseis in their own right in the mainline JKA style organisations that have come about.
(RS) What made you keep going back to Japan, year after year?
(MD) At the risk of sounding masochistic, I realised that the harsh physical treatment I received at Honbu dojo was what would benefit and develop me into the type of karateka I wished to be. The ambience of training at Honbu was so motivating. I felt I was in the heart and soul of karatedo. The beauty of the Japanese culture was also a stimulating factor beckoning me to return.
(RS) Who in karate has had the biggest influences on you, both personally and karate?
(MD) Most of all Tanaka Sensei. He was my mentor for 19 years. Nakayama Sensei and Nishiyama Sensei had a great influence. In South Africa of course there was Stan Schmidt who put me on the correct path some 40 years ago and continued to do so for several years.
(RS) I have seen a photograph of you taken in a private kumite training session with Tanaka sensei? Would you tell us what it was like to be able to train so intensely, one to one, with this great master?
(MD) The initial emotion is fear tempered with pride that I was so privileged to have this attention focused on me. But I knew that if I showed weakness this would be taken as a sign of disrespect and lack of appreciation. He expected me to fight with all I had. I most certainly did, and this must have pleased him, because he repeated this one-on-one many times. I learned so much from him, not only technically and strategically, but also about fighting spirit. In Copenhagen one time, we walked out of the dojo after forty five minutes of non stop kumite behind locked doors and had to walk down the passage that led from the dojo to the dressing rooms. The passage was full of students waiting for their class. Both Tanaka Sensei and I had so much blood on our Karate-gi. The students were in absolute shock at our appearance. I was sore all over and I’m sure he was too.
(RS) You forged an extremely close relationship with Masahiko Tanaka Sensei. Please tell us a little about Tanaka the man, and what it was like training with him?
(MD) Tanaka Sensei was my hero when I was younger. For me he was the Samurai that epitomised Budo in karate. I wanted to be like him. He showed me such kindness outside the dojo and such harshness when I faced him in the dojo. He embodied the real meaning of hard and soft in karate. Sadly when I left the Nakahara JKA he felt the need to break our contact and the loss of this close bond and friendship we had is the one and only regret I have in having left the JKA.
(RS) Did your relationship with Tanaka Sensei assist you in any way with the Kenshusei students, or were you seen as a challenge?
(MD) Tanaka Sensei had a Samurai approach to karate. He never nursed or protected me in the dojo in any way. In fact it was quite the opposite. He wanted me to develop along the same lines as he practised himself. However, our friendship was noted by others and those who didn’t like him then automatically didn’t like me. There were always two rival groups at Honbu dojo. At Tanaka Sensei’s Shokukan Dojo, his very jealous top student Nakamura hated the attention Tanaka Sensei gave me and was petty and spiteful wherever he could be towards me. Fortunately this did not affect me in any way other than being an irritation. In Denmark, a few of Tanaka Sensei’s senior Danish members resented Tanaka Sensei attitude to me. Being his friend had both pros and cons, but the pros certainly outweighed the cons by far.
(RS) Was there ever a social side to your Japanese visits? Perhaps another way to ask is did you ever socialise with the likes of Tanaka, Imura, Kagawa et al. or was it a closed shop?
(MD) Of course sometimes I was invited to go with a group of instructors to a restaurant or to go drinking (I don’t drink, so I was nicknamed ‘Mr Orange Juice’). Several instructors over the years took me out for dinner on occasion. After a championship or seminar we would socialise, drinking, joking etc. But with Tanaka Sensei it was very different. I would be invited to his house and he would make a barbecue. My wife Janis and son Shane (as a young boy) would accompany me, and our two families would have a really warm social evening. Tanaka Sensei was resident in Denmark in the late 70s. When we went on gasshuku to the nearby Island of Bornholm, I would share a room with him and we would talk late into the night. In Copenhagen, I would be invited to dinner in his apartment whenever I was there. Japanese generally do not invite you to their home unless you have a close relationship. In Tokyo, I was greatly privileged to be invited on several occasions for tea to Nakayama Sensei’s apartment (above Hoitsugan) and recall some interesting conversations with him. Mrs. Nakayama was always so hospitable.
Part 2 of this Interview In the Special Christmas edition…