NORMAN ROBINSON 8th Dan
JAPAN KARATE SHOTOKAI SOUTH AFRICA
South Africa is renown for producing some of the finest, toughest and most determined karateka in the world. It has a history of excellence. Here we have an interview with one of South Africa’s pioneers. Norman Robinson’s father pioneered judo in South Africa. It was only natural therefore that Norman would also follow suit and practice Judo, excelling thoroughly under his father’s tough regime. It was at a Judo competition however that he first met Stan Schmidt, who he would become good friends with and together began studying karate from books.
Here in this very interesting interview, Norman Robinson JKS, speaks about his early experiences in Judo, bringing Sensei’s Shirai, Kase, Kanazawa and Enoeda to South Africa and his time in the JKA Instructor Class. He shares stories of his matches with Sensei Tanaka, his training with Sensei Enoeda, his experiences with Master Nakayama and his loyalty to Asai Sensei.
In this excellent interview, you will gain insight into one of the pioneers of South African Karate. – S. Banfield 08
Many thanks to Sensei Robinson for his time and to Alan King for helping collect the photographs.
(Shaun Banfield) Can we please open the interview with a somewhat predictable question; can you please tell us how you first started on your ‘Way’ in the Martial Arts?
(Norman Robinson) My father pioneered judo in South Africa in 1930. He had 8 children, of which there were 5 boys and 3 girls. I was the youngest. The reason for me getting into the martial arts was that in generations passed, what your father intended for you to do, you did. There was no other way. So my father and all his boys did judo whether they liked it or not.
(SB) Your father was a very famous and senior Judo instructor. Did this family background give you a good footing in the Martial Arts do you think?
(NR) As a young boy, I think I was relatively soft and really did not want to do martial arts. I actually wanted to be a doctor, but I had no choice. And from being a soft young boy, by the time I was 19, my father had turned me into an aggressive fighting machine. I travelled throughout the world practicing and competing in judo events wherever I went.
(SB) And looking back, how do you think this background in judo affected your fighting in karate?
(NR) Let me say on the outset, as one would say in a cliché – judo and karate go together like a “hand in a glove”. Because of my judo background, I am a natural close-quarter fighter. And always find working with karateka who do not have any background in any of the other martial arts, don’t like close-quarter fighting and become very tense and are very easily put down because of this.
(SB) You achieved your 1st Dan from Sensei Enoeda, can you tell us about this experience?
(NR) My first meeting with Stan Schmidt came about at a South African judo championship where I competed and then took on all the champions from lightweight up as part of the show. Sebastian Hawkins, an ex-student of my father then challenged me to take on about ten of his club members. I duly threw them all. One of the challengers happened to be Stan Schmidt, who was training with Hawkins at the time. After the tournament, Stan approached me and we became friends. We initially learned karate out of a book “Mas Oyama Book of the Five Pinan Katas”. In 1963 we were put in touch with JKA Tokyo via the Japanese Consulate. In 1965 we brought four instructors to South Africa, Kase Sensei, Shirai, Kanazawa and Enoeda Sensei. They were here for 6 months from April to October. I trained 3 times a day and achieved my Shodan on the 4th October 1965. These 6 months were very memorable for me.
(SB) What was the training like would you say at this time, and what was it like training with these superb teachers? Would you share some memories that you have from this time in your training life?
(NR) Regarding the four sensei’s who came to South Africa, all were specialists of some kind in their own way. But I spent most of the 6 months training, from April to October 1965, with Enoeda Sensei. This was three times a day, when I was working in the motor trade so it was early morning, I used to run to the dojo in my lunch time and run back after, and always get into trouble for being late, and again after work. This went on 5 days a week. One memorable occasion we were doing a line kumite, and only 1 technique, which was oi-zuki (stepping punch). Enoeda was not happy with the speed, pace and aggression that we were showing, so he got against the wall and with me, told me to attack him with the above technique. Every time I attacked, he blocked and pushed me back. He kept saying “more power, more speed, more strength”. He got me so frustrated by about the 8th attack that I decided I was going to run him right through the wall, which is exactly what he was building me up for. I moved in very aggressively and very fast, he side stepped me on the block, spun me around and threw me into the wall, and then just laughed at me. That memory will stay with me for life, amongst many others. We had a weekend in Durban with Kase Shihan. He worked us 2 to 3 hour sessions on the Friday. We went out with him drinking on the Friday night – Stan, myself and a few other karateka who were staying in the dojo with Kase Sensei. He kept us up until 5am drinking. Then, at 6am sharp, he got us back on the mat and drilled us again throughout Saturday. This procedure was follow through Saturday night as well – the man had a cast iron constitution and incredibly quick hands. I had a few training sessions with Kanazawa and none with Shirai Sensei. There were no incidents other than good training.
(SB) Would you mind telling us about your early visits to Japan and possibly share some stories or memories from these trips?
(NR) The instructors’ class at the honbu dojo in Tokyo comprised of 20 Japanese instructors. During the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s their training time was midday to 2pm and sometimes longer. Most of the times that I stayed in Japan, it was only Stan Schmidt and myself that were allowed in and so you can imagine we were all like lambs to the slaughter. The training was hard and the Japanese instructors loved to hurt us whenever possible. One incident from 1970, I had spent 16 weeks in Japan along with Stan Schmidt. I was going for 3rd Dan (Sandan) and the day of the grading was a Sunday. I got to the dojo at 12 and eventually got onto the floor at 5pm. My nerves were shot, I was exhausted from tension, having watched two days of heavy contact and karateka having their teeth knocked out, their noses broken, and many other injuries. So, when it was my turn, there were 6 of us grading for 3rd dan, I was the only Westerner. I did Sojun for this grading and the kumite, I fought 2 of the Sandans that were grading with me, and 3 Nidans, who came at me like Kamikaze’s. I broke the one’s nose and knocked the other one’s teeth out because they were coming at me so hard. If you know the Japanese system, you face a senior instructor of 4th dan or higher and in this case, it was Mr Tanaka. I was the third person on with a senior instructor, and I had witnessed the two before me who also went up against Tanaka. After playing cat and mouse with them, he took them by the coat and kicked them with a roundhouse kick to the head knocking them both out. So, when it was my turn, I was not there to prove myself, and was supposed to offer him no resistance. But, as it happened, he grabbed me by the lapels, so I knew he was out to put me down. I pulled him in close, he then tried to pull me over his knee and just out of natural reaction from my judo background, I slipped my leg out and pulled him over my knee. We both fell to the floor, whereby I got him in a scarf hold (the Japanese term is Kesa-Gatame). I had him trapped, so he started hitting me on the back of the head with his free arm. I then leaned over and put a strangle on him – at this point I knew I was in serious trouble with the Japanese seniors, so when they tried to pull me off, I would not let go. Until Nakayama Shihan shouted at me to let go. We then stood up and I could see Tanaka wanted to kill me more than anything else in the world. But to our good fortune, Nakayama knew there was going to be a blood bath, so he stopped it there and then.
Out of the 6 that graded, only myself and one other Japanese passed and he was commonly known as Baba. We became very friendly thereafter. There was another occasion when Tanaka and I had a confrontation. This was in 1988 and after a two hour gruelling session, he asked me to stay after the class and we had a 45 minute kumite session with some hard contact. Stan Schmidt witnessed this and we traded blows. At one point I happened to catch him with a very good sweep – I got him up in the air and he fell flat on his back. He got up and came back at me very hard. At the end of the sessions after our showers, he was sitting chatting to Stan, and I came up to them, and the very words he said to me “Norman, you are monster”.
(SB) How did training in the Instructor’s Classes differ would you say to the other classes taking place at the JKA Honbu?
(NR) There was no comparison. Trying to compare ANY training with the Japanese instructors’ classes, these people are 3rd dan and above, and once they are accepted into an instructors’ course, which at that time took 3 years to qualify for, you were treated like a soldier would be in the army. You were told what to do, when to do, how to do, you were belittled, humiliated, beaten and generally treated like a lap dog. So you can imagine, no other training could compare.
(SB) South Africa has produced some legendary karateka, yourself, Stan Schmidt, Malcolm Dorfman to name a few…what do you put this down to would you say?
(NR) Let me put it to you this way, Stan Schmidt and I pioneered JKA Karate in South Africa. In the late 50’s there was nobody doing karate, other than a few Japanese coming into the Natal or Cape Ports and sailors who practiced various styles, and come to the gyms and teach a little bit. I think because Stan and I represented JKA from the beginning, we became household names throughout South Africa. I doubt if that can ever be repeated. I am sure there are karateka of South Africa that are very highly skilled, probably better than both Stan and I, but will never get to be known in the karate fraternity like Stan Schmidt and Norman Robinson.
(SB) Following the split within the JKA you decided to follow in the path of the JKS. Do you mind me asking why this was the path you chose?
(NR) On the 15th April 1987, a great master and a very personal friend, Nakayama Shihan, passed away. And at this time, the JKA Honbu Dojo was probably the strongest organisation in Japan and throughout the world. I was very privileged to have trained with them from the 60’s up until today. Within a few years of Nakyama’s passing, there was great dissention within the organisation and the instructors split into two factions.. Asai Shihan was the Chief Instructor. This lasted until 1991 and at this time I became very friendly with Asai Shihan. At the time of the split, the two factions practiced at the Honbu Dojo at the normal midday instructor training time, in the same dojo but in two separate groups. I was approached by Asai Shihan via Yahara Sensei to be Chief Instructor for Asai’s group. And as I am sure you know, they were in court for the next 10 years over the ownership of the name of JKA which Asai’s group lost over a technicality in 1999. Hence, JKS was created and inaugurated on the 1st April 2000. And as I had showed my loyalty to Asai Shihan, I then followed this new organisation. But let me say that JKA is universally known as a style, so this is what I practice and it is all that I am expert at.
(SB) You mention your relationship with Master Nakayama. Can you tell us about your training and time spent with him?
(NR) As I said earlier, I was in Japan for 16 weeks in 1970, and training for Sandan. I was fortunate enough to be able to go to the 7am morning class where, on many occasions, it was just me. So I used to get a personal lesson from him. I then used to go to the “foreigner’s class” which was 10h30 to 11h30 daily. The level of karate was far too low for me to get any real value. So I approached the dojo head instructor, Shoji, who promptly refused me. A couple of days later, after training, I was walking around Ebisu and bumped into Nakayama. He invited me to have coffee with him and during our chat I told him my dilemma, and asked if it was possible that I could train in the instructor’s class. He duly said to me, “Okay Mr Norman, Monday starts”. I went to the dojo and joined the class. Shoji Sensei glared at me and during that session and the following day, when it came to any kumite’s none of the Japanese would work with me – in other words, I was completely ignored. But then on the Wednesday, which was the day that Nakayama took the instructors class, he asked me to stand up. He introduced me and asked them to make we welcome. Immediately thereafter, I was accepted by everyone and had to put up with the hard court. As you know, instructors’ class was called the “hornet’s nest” and believe me, every day when I was going to training, my stomach was in knots, never knowing what was coming my way.
(SB) Can you please tell us about the split? You were obviously a part of the JKA for a long time, was it a difficult decision leaving an organisation you were a part of for so many years?
(NR) It was very difficult to see a great organization falter, but loyalty is extremely important to me and I had no choice but to follow Asai Shihan.
(SB) Following the split, did you lose contact with any of your JKA peers or seniors?
(NR) If you are asking about South Africa, other than being on a friendly basis with regard to greeting or meeting at All Styles Tournaments, that is as far as our communication goes. They seem to not want their members to associate with JKS in South Africa.
(SB) You describe Master Asai as ‘Your Mentor’. Can you please tell us about your relationship with him, and possibly share some stories with us that you have of him?
(NR) First of all, my mentor is Nakayama Shihan. After his passing, as I stated, I became very friendly with Asai Shihan. And yes, I regard him very highly and have great admiration for him. His style of karate was unique and very few could emulate his level of karate. He introduced 10 new katas into the JKS system other than the normal 26 Shotokan Katas. There are lots of little incidents that I would like to cover at another time as we did some videos in South Africa with him. There were some technical and comical events that came out of them.
(SB) Would you be happy to share these memories with us?
(NR) Shihan Asai and Toro Yamaguchi, I brought to South Africa in 1992. Straight from the airport, I had organised a film outfit to shoot over the next 2 days, the 5 heians and tekki 1. I used Asai and Yamaguchi. We spent the first day with 3 cameras in a studio and the second day we spent the entire day outside shooting at Zoo Lake. Mr Asai was showing the bunkai, which is application of Tekki. After the uchi-uke block he applied a close punch which is ura-zuki (close punch) to my throat, I was in jeans and a t-shirt and that little man had so much power, that he sent me reeling back and a few feet behind me was a cement dustbin, which I promptly fell into. Well, you can imagine, Asai and Yamaguchi could not contain their laughter. Throughout that whole day, whether it be Asai or Yamaguchi, there were two of us that were taking all the blows. They were all hard, we were tired and sore by the end of the day, but we managed to complete the 6 katas in 2 days. I then spent the next 2 weeks going around the country.
One other little incident was in Cape Town, high up in a hotel. The balcony would not have been more than 3m wide by 1m long, so with Mr Asai and I on that balcony, you can imagine, it was very confined, he gave me an hour-long workout. He exhausted me during this time just doing unbelievable repetition work in a static position – spinning, turning, and shifting. It was unbelievably exhilarating.
(SB) Master Asai developed many of his own techniques. Can you please talk us through some of them and explain how this has influenced the karate you now practice?
(NR) I think the best way to describe Shihan Asai’s system of teaching is that we have evolved the JKA system into a more efficient application of skill and technique. In contrast, when I see JKA at tournaments, they appear to be traditionally static in movement and strong in focus. This is a personal observation and I am talking generally not regarding the top JKA instructors.
(SB) Why do you think this is?
(NR) Firstly, I am making this observation by the competitors that enter All Styles tournaments, and my feelings are that when Stan Schmidt was at the helm, their technical level, namely kata, was of a high level. This was because Stan is the only Westerner that I regard as a Shihan. We spent many years together and believe me he was very creative and had wonderful skill. So with the break up of the so-called legends of JKA Karate, there has been nobody to rise to that level and I think this is why they have become a little bit more stagnant. Let me reiterate, I have a great regard for JKA, they are a big organisation, and strong. I am purely looking at the refined technical level of form and focus.
(SB) Can you explain the ‘Crooked leg’?
(NR) First let me say, from my first visits to Japan, whenever we were doing front stance, particularly, most of the instructors used to say “straight back leg, straight back leg”. But watching them, practicing their kihon kata and kumite, the back leg was always bent, so they did not practice what they preached. But they had a lot more flow to their movement. Without going into a lengthy technical discussion, the “crooked leg” (bent back leg) allows one to maintain your perpendicular posture and to move onto your opponent without having to bend in any direction, whether forwards or backwards.
(SB) Were there many examples of things being practiced differently to how they were being preached would you say?
(NR) Let me put this in a nutshell. When I trained at the honbu dojo, the Japanese were always drumming into you “straight back leg, straight back leg”. And all of them, whether it was kihon kata or kumite they all worked with a bent back leg, which as you know I call a crooked leg. So this is what I mean we have evolved into a smoother more continuous form and focus than before.
(SB) How different would you say your karate is today to how it was during your younger years with the JKA.
(NR) Let me say regarding the kumite, the 60’s and 70’s was hard. There was lots of contact, which the modern day karateka would not put up with. I do not believe that the modern day karate man is as tough as they were in those times. The difference for me is that we have more relaxed speed and snap with faster focus while continuing vibration and movement with other parts of the body. So, in a nutshell, I would say we move faster, show form and focus and flow more.
(SB) Why is the modern karate man not as tough today do you think?
(NR) Let’s talk about people that join karate clubs. I think with the young people today, they spend more time with computer games, watching TV and generally do not have the physically prowess and are not exposed to much physical contact as they used to be. Other than rugby, most school sports are not contact sports.
(SB) Can we please ask, what is your favourite kata and why?
(NR) My favourite kata was Niju-shiho. The reason being that it has flow, speed, good form and as a younger man I took pride in my stance work, particularly back stance and shuto’s. I enjoyed the feel and pace of the kata. I used this kata for 4th, 5th and 6th Dan gradings, failed with it for 7th and did Chinte for a re-grade.
(SB) In the past you have used the kata Empi in order to teach the importance of avoiding un-necessary movements. Can you please tell us what the most common un-necessary movements that are present in kihon karate?
(NR) Empi kata has the quickest limb-speed of all shotokan katas. To apply this kata effectively, you need a great deal of snap and focus. The main point on all the punching and blocking is that the elbows must lock and snap rapidly. To achieve this, you have to limit your upper body movements to almost a static action. Movement of the shoulders is an obvious sign of excess movement – it’s not necessary. Empi started me on the road to eliminate body movement and create more speed and efficiency throughout kihon kata and kumite.
(SB) Do you have any exercises that our readers could use to eradicate such un-necessary movements if they too suffer from the same problems?
(NR) One example when moving forward is that in oi-zuki and gyaku-zuki that your shoulders should lock at the same time as the hip. What I mean by this is that the shoulder, hip and arms should focus simultaneously. Over-extending the shoulder, whether it is step punching or reverse punching, will lead to leaning your body over the hips and weakening the impact point. It also makes it difficult to retreat, which leaves you vulnerable to counter attacks. Similarly, I control the hips to a great extent throughout kicking techniques to avoid over extension and to retain impact. This is hard to explain without demonstrating or in picture form.
(SB) You stress a ‘Go Forward’ attitude to your kumite. Can you please explain the significance of this both technically and from a budo point of view?
(NR) When the Japanese face an opponent, they believe in sen-no-sen which means attack-the-attack or surprise-the-surprise. If you back up in a real kumite situation, your opponent has a psychological advantage whereby he grows stronger and you grow weaker. If you retreat you surrender the initiative and momentum to your opponent. if you “engage” your opponent by moving into him, you cut down his time to think and multiply his techniques on you.
(SB) Is pre-emptive fighting, attacking first before they get an opportunity and example of sen-no-sen?
(NR) No it is not an example of sen-no-sen. For example, pre-empting a technique is when you throw a reverse punch and lean forward before stepping, this is what you call pre-empting (strike before move), which I do not advocate. Because you are throwing your body too far forward, and if not successful, are wide open to an attack.
(SB) In your article ‘Some thoughts on applied psychology in combat karate’ you talk at length about the mental approach to combat. You comment that you project an element of doubt in your opponent’s ability. How do you achieve this?
(NR) Firstly, you must be a full-out training man, and I am talking about 365 days a year, and a man who believes in heavy repetition and body conditioning. When you have built yourself into this hard-core physical ability, you have belief that whatever you apply will work, whether it be blocking or attacking. And this instils fear in your opponent as he recognises your confidence and your attitude.
(SB) You also describe the two roles adopted by many fighters as an ‘Aggressor’ and a ‘Waiter’. Can you please describe these, and do you think being able to adopt both traits will enhance your ability to beat an opponent?
(NR) In answer to this question, we have to discuss whether we are in a real-life situation, or in a contest (shiai). In the case of contest karate, you can move your opponent around to frustrate him and seize the opportunity when he gets desperate, to attack. When faced with a real-life situation, when your opponent may have a weapon like a knife, a bottle or a stick, you may have to be evasive and wait for the opportunity to take the advantage. Again, if you don’t have belief in yourself and your skill, negativity and hesitance sets in, meaning that you are avoiding out of fear rather than moving your opponent to where you want him.
(SB) To psychologically get the upper hand over your opponent it’s important to dominate the opponent. One example of this is to dominate the opponent by dictating some of their movements and where they go in relation to you. Can you tell us about some of the most important elements of dominating your opponent?
(NR) To have a psychological advantage, your opponent has to recognise your superiority, and when this takes place, and his lack of self-belief sets in, he will submit to your superior attitude and ability.
(SB) Boxing has been described by many as one of the most efficient systems of fighting, but karate does not tend to be held in such high esteem with regards to efficiency against a violent attack. Why do you think this is?
(NR) Firstly, this sort of attitude no longer exists. I think boxers were doing full contact and most karateka, other than hard-core, natural fighters, do semi contact fighting and don’t get tested. But as you know, the modern-day martial artist has to do cross-training utilising strikes and kicks, take-downs and grappling. And I believe today these fighters are far superior to boxers as they have many more weapons other than their hands.
(SB) Do you think karateka should pay attention to receiving a degree of heavy blows to the body in order to condition the body?
(NR) Yes, karateka should do various forms of conditioning. Not only in their punching and kicking against makiwari, or bags, but there should be various degrees of kumite. What I am saying is that you set programmes where you do a lot of contact work and lots of hard kumite. But I would recommend this only to the hardened and experienced karateka as one cannot absorb punishment every day.
(SB) In which direction do you see the JKS heading in the future?
(NR) Let me talk about JKS SA. We are a very close and harmonious organisation, whereby all the top instructors work hard at developing JKS. We have highly skilled people that dedicate a lot of their time to developing the skills of this organisation. Our standard of karate, I believe, is very high level and can compare with anyone in the world. With regard to JKS in Japan, I don’t think I have to say much, other than that we have Kagawa Sensei that heads up that organisation. His name alone signifies the high level of karate skill in JKS Japan. He is the coach for All Styles in Japan that compete at the WKF World Championships.
(SB) Can you tell us about your experiences with Sensei Kagawa?
(NR) In most of the years that I have trained with JKA, Kagawa was a junior to me. So, during dojo training and at that time he had to keep his place, so I did not have a great deal to do with him. But, in saying this, I watched him and he was one of the best kickers I have ever seen, and believe me, I have seen a lot of top Japanese skilled kickers. He can kick you with a roundhouse kick facing you nose to nose, try and imagine that. He is a very powerful, humble and great karateka and a gentleman.
(SB) Where do you see your own research and training heading in the future?
(NR) Most each and every workout I do I am always trying to create new ideas and new angles of efficiency. And I know it is going to get a lot better.
(SB) Can I just say a huge thank you for this opportunity to speak with you and may we wish you and JKS SA every success in the future. Thank you!!!!