Sarah Amos has been lucky enough to interview Paul Herbert Sensei, who is a JKA 4th Dan. He is a former English, British and
International Karate Champion.
Sarah Amos: Could you please tell us how you started karate?
Paul Herbert: I started training back in February 1984 with a really charismatic instructor named Christopher Iron. He was a likeable and comical guy but he was also very tough with it - he was originally from Wado-Ryu and a student of Tatsuo Suzuki Sensei. The choice of Karate itself was really a compromise, as my mum hadn’t wanted me to join a boxing club. A friend of my dad had started Shotokan a few months earlier and suggested it as an alternative. Even now I can still remember my first lesson and how I was taught by a brown belt and spent an hour in front stance moving forward and back. I didn’t enjoy it one bit, so how I’m still knocking about two decades later I don’t know (laughs).
SA: As a student of Master Enoeda for many years, what kind of influence do you think he had on your karate?
PH: Like many Karate-ka, I discovered that Enoeda Sensei had this natural ability and aura to him that made you achieve things that you didn’t know you could do. He could make you push harder than you ever thought possible and I believe that when you’re consistently training under those circumstances, you cannot help but improve both technically and mentally. That was certainly true in my case. I believe that Sensei looked beyond the techniques of Shotokan and forged a strong spirit and tenacity in his serious students. There is an old adage that says ‘when the body suffers - the spirit flowers’, that always reminds me of training in Sensei’s classes, along with reminding myself that what didn’t kill me would make me stronger!!!
SA: Do you have any anecdotes about Enoeda Sensei that you would like to share with our readers?
PH: I have many stories from over the years and some are very personal, but one that always makes me smile goes back to my first trip to Japan in 2000. After an evening class at the JKA honbu, I was approached by an older Japanese karate-ka who asked me in broken English who my Sensei was and where I was from. When I told him that I was from England and that I was a student of Enoeda Sensei he let out a booming laugh, slapped my back and immediately proceeded to remove what seemed like all of his front teeth. `Awww Enoeda Sensei – we were young men, very, very good punch!!!’. When I returned to London, I relayed the story back to Sensei one evening in the ‘Old Coffee House’ pub, and after numerous feeble denials he reacted with a wry smile and finally proclaimed ‘Hai, maybe true. Many, many people block with face when I was younger man’.
SA: You were a very successful competitor, nationally and internationally. What was it like, not simply fighting for your squad or you country, but also fighting for Sensei Enoeda? Was this a great honour?
PH: It was an incredible honour to represent Sensei’s dojo and I was lucky to compete alongside some great karate-ka, but for all its merits I always felt it held an added pressure than competing for just another dojo. Not only were you competing against some of the best teams at home and abroad but you also had the responsibility of ‘doing the boss proud’ and preserving his reputation as it were. This is why I feel that competition Karate is very healthy and of real benefit as it can contribute towards the process of building spirit and character. It takes you out of your comfort zone and places you in a situation where you can either go and hide in a corner or step up to the plate and perform. In terms of international competitions, I’m fiercely patriotic and consequently competing for England also bought with it those valuable pressures. I loved representing my country and I was lucky enough to represent England, and on a couple of occasions Great Britain at eighteen international competitions. Seven of those were JKA European Championships and my final competition was the JKA World Cup in Tokyo, Japan.
SA: What other memories from your competing days would like to share with us?
PH: I can say hand on heart that I only ever got it wrong once when representing Sensei’s team. It was to a tremendous competitor and experienced karate-ka in Randolf Williams of the KUGB. My defeat by ‘ippon’ in the British team final (my first) effectively lost us the match but it was the greatest learning experience I had during my competition career. At the time I was devastated, totally inconsolable but Sensei who himself must’ve been disappointed was fantastic with me. His words and advice turned a real negative into a huge positive.
The reason I mention such a bad memory is because without it my greatest memory wouldn’t be quite as special, and plus I also believe it took me to the next level as a competitor. My most memorable tournament fight took place in the team final of the KUGB British Championships in 2003. Not particularly based on my individual performance but more for its significance and the circumstances which surrounded it. Enoeda Sensei had passed away just weeks before the championship and as his personal students we just wanted to win it for him. I think the happiest I ever saw Sensei was when his dojo was successful and never more so than at the KUGB nationals.
All day I had fought second in the three-man but prior to the final I asked Craig Raye (Budokwai Coach) to put me last in the fighting order. I felt that the final could come down to the last match and that if it did I wanted to take on that responsibility, and perhaps selfishly I wanted to exorcise some personal demons that remained from the defeat to Randy a few years before. As it happens the final was indeed drawn 1-1 going into the third fight. The finals of the KUGB nationals are special at the best of times, the NIA arena is cloaked in darkness with just the fighting area illuminated by bright spotlights and the whole spectacle is watched and refereed by many of the most senior karate-ka in British karate. On this occasion a giant memorial portrait of Sensei was looking over everyone in the arena. To walk out, fight and win the deciding match for Sensei’s dojo on that day was simply awesome.
Other highlights from my competition days would have to be everything I won as part of the Marshall St squad, Sensei presenting me with my first England badge in ‘95, lining up for England against Japan at the World Championships in Tokyo and becoming the 2004 and first-ever JKA national kata champion in England.
SA: Nowadays, you train under Sensei Hazard. How do you think he has changed your karate, and what are the main things he has taught you?
PH: I would like to think that Sensei Hazard has made me a far more intelligent Karate-ka, added a little more fluency and practicality to my techniques. Something that is very important to me is that Dave Hazard and I shared the same mentor in Enoeda Sensei. In that sense, training with him has provided my own development with continuity and a natural extension to that Enoeda legacy.
As I said before, Enoeda Sensei instilled spirit first and technique second in his students but without being at all disrespectful, in the years that I was with him he didn’t always provide that much technical explanation. Nevertheless when he did, it would always be a real gem that would completely enlighten you. However, Dave Hazard was exposed to that side of Sensei for over thirty years.
Sensei Hazard now has me thinking a lot more about what I’m doing, or more precisely about everything I’m doing and how. He has a phenomenal Karate mind and can instantly pick up on points to improve you as a Karate-ka. Those gems of information that he received direct from Enoeda Sensei and also Master Nakayama for that matter, are now passed on to me in almost every training session.
SA: Apart from these great men, who else have you had the privilege of training with, and what did they bring to karate that was so impressive?
PH: I have been very fortunate over the years to train under many of the top Japanese instructors. From the top of my head I can name Kanazawa, Yahara, Tanaka, Osaka, Ueki, Kawawada, Tsuyama, Tabata, Mori, Isaka, Ochi, Imura, Sumi, Tomita, Imamura, Kurasako, Naka, Shiina, Tabata, Aoki, Kawasoe, Naito, Mitsuoka, Kawasaki, Watanabe and Ohta. The two that really stood out above the rest for me would be Mikio Yahara and Yoshiharu Osaka. Yahara Sensei for the 100% commitment behind every technique he executes and his total Budo attitude. And Osaka Sensei for his technical excellence and teaching style, his Karate requires no verbal translation – you only have to watch as his body and technique alone says it all.
I’ve also trained with dozen upon dozens of western instructors and I couldn’t even begin to start naming them all. Sensei Andy Sherry is an amazing Karate man, a great role model and motivator who was without question the right man to lead the KUGB forward after Sensei’s death. I’ve also been inspired by other great Sensei’s like Terry O’Neill, Ticky Donovan , Billy Higgins and also by the younger instructors like Aidan Trimble, Frank Brennan, Ronnie Christopher, Richard Amos and Craig Raye, all exceptional Shotokan Karate-ka.
SA: Naturally, training under all of these great instructors, who have a very good Budo attitude, how does it make you feel when you see where karate is heading today, with the lack of etiquette and manners that seems to be breeding?
PH: I guess I’m lucky that the clubs and associations I train with and teach for, are primarily traditional groups. I personally associate this loss of etiquette with the WKF brand and sport Karate scene, so I find it quite easy to ignore it and can easily turn a blind eye. If I do attend an England squad session for extra training, then I can accept it for what it is and not allow it to bother me too much. Of course it would be ideal to keep the traditional elements of Karate alive within the sporting side and I really hope that this can still be achieved. As instructors, I believe it is our responsibility to ensure that our own students display these qualities and a good budo character wherever they train and in whatever environment they compete.
SA: How many times have you trained in Japan now, and what was it like training at the home of Karate? What is different about Karate in Japan, and karate here?
PH: I’ve been to Japan twice now and on both occasions I enjoyed the experience. I trained there originally in 2000 where over the course of 3/4 weeks I took as many classes as I could at the old JKA Honbu in Ebisu. The training was very basic and each class meticulous. The classes were small in numbers and the senior Sensei who taught during the majority of my stay was Osaka, Ueki, Kawawada and Imamura. They were all unexpectedly attentive and I think the fact I had a hand written letter of introduction from Enoeda Sensei had a lot to do with this.
When I returned in 2004 as part of the JKA England squad, I trained at the new JKA dojo in Koraku, which despite being an amazing purpose built building, just seemed to lack the ambience and aura of the previous Honbu. On this trip I was also fortunate to train a few times at the infamous Takushoku University. Training at the Takudai was very special to me as this was the dojo where Enoeda Sensei started training back in 1953. The training there was very intense and spirited, far more so than at the JKA itself. One of the classes at the Takudai was lead by Tsuyama Sensei and it was a very hard three-hour session, physically it was probably the toughest I experienced in Japan.
Generally the physical training I experienced there was no different to what I was doing back in the UK. If anything, it was simply more basic with far more repetitions of each technique. The biggest flaw with Karate in Japan is that nobody seems to ask questions about what they’re doing - everything is just accepted and done. Although the end result in most cases is nice looking technique, I think you have to question the level of understanding involved by those doing it. I think that during my visit in 2000 I created an aura of it all being a bit mystical which looking back was a little inane really. I definitely grew in confidence from training in Japan and looking back I’m pleased to have been there, but a dojo is a dojo wherever it is in the world - you’ll only ever get out what you put in.
SA: As a successful instructor in your own right, what are the main things you emphasise in your teachings?
PH: I obviously try and import as much technical information as I can when I teach, as correct technique will bring longevity to an individuals Karate. However, if I emphasise one thing I would say that it’s the importance of correct attitude and spirit. I do not mind if a student cannot perform a certain technique, or apply a theory as long as they are giving 100% and are taking enough on board to work on after the session. Individuals who study Karate as Budo need to understand very early on that fights are generally not won or lost by good or bad technique, but won by the individual with the strongest mindset and spirit. If you cannot give 100% in the dojo, you’ll never be able to give it outside. This attitude shouldn’t just be applied for Kumite either. It is just as important to have in Kihon and Kata training – spirit must always be kept at the maximum level.
SA: With such pioneers as instructors, you have a strong foundation in karate. What are you now researching in your karate to take karate to a new level?
PH: I’m far from accomplished enough to take Karate as a whole to a new level but my aim is to develop my own Karate to a new level. If I can achieve this then I will be very happy and hopefully be a credit to my instructors.
SA: What is Sensei Paul Herbert’s favourite kata and why?
PH: You know, I really couldn’t tell you. If you asked me this question every few weeks you would probably get a different answer each time. Sensei told me that Master Nakayama believed you should have three personal kata. One that suits your body type, one that negates your body type and another kata to use for conditioning. Using that template, the kata I utilize are Sochin for, Enpi or Unsu against and Hangetsu to condition.
At other times my mood dictates which kata I practice. It was actually really interesting last year when Richard Amos was a guest at my dojo as he taught one of the ‘Asai’ kata called Suishu (Water Hands). I’ve continued to study this form and I find it a great alternative and freshener if I ever want a break from the standard Shotokan kata.
SA: How would you describe the concept of ‘kime’? There are many conflicting opinions, from standard Shotokan and members of Shotokai such as Harada Sensei. But what is Kime to you, and how do you apply it to your karate?
PH: I do not believe that ‘kime’ is anything extraordinary. To me, the concept of kime is combining the correct breathing to each defined technique or group of techniques. Yes, Kime can simply be thought of as the process of contracting muscles to prevent us damaging our joints when we perform kihon-waza and kata. Nevertheless, I feel that too many Karate-ka neglect the correct breathing when performing this and become heavy and robotic as a result. This ‘stiffness’ then becomes detrimental to all areas of their karate and fully apparent when they come to actually applying techniques. When striking a target, I combine the correct breathing with the application of shock, vibration and recoil. The difference between the two can be compared to being hit by an iron bar and being hit by an iron bar on the end of a chain. On its own, muscle contraction results in a heavy thud onto the target surface but combined with breathing the result is loose, whippy and causes shock into and through the target. The second can only be achieved with correct breathing - so this is the essence of Kime.
SA: How have you modified your karate to suit your body type?
PH: Well I’ve finally given up trying to modify my body to suit Karate so something had to give (laughs). To be honest, I think it’s vital that everyone modifies the basic template of Shotokan to fit his or her own body types. For me this is an essential. Personally, all I do is analyse the karate of people I admire and try to understand how they achieve what they do. Not by concentrating on the end result or aesthetic appearance, but by stripping that away and by understanding the mechanics of their movements. I then try and apply those raw fundamentals to my own frame.
I don’t believe the objective of Shotokan was to turn us all into genetic karate clones. Sensei Hazard describes Shotokan brilliantly as being like a suit of clothes that fit everybody differently – you take the template and apply it to what you have both physically and mentally. You only have to look at all the great Shotokan masters to see how one can adapt that basic template to achieve different results - all of these karate-ka studied the same style of but all are/were completely unique in their application.
SA: In your personal training now, what is the main focus of your training?
PH: Striving for effectiveness I guess. I work hard on impact training and also applying techniques, or segments of Kata against a training partner. This is really what I consider my basics to be now. I no longer train religiously week in, week out in classes that have me marching up and down the dojo practising kihon-waza. A lot of the time I only really do this when I’m teaching at my own dojo - I use instructing as the opportunity to manage my own kihon-waza. I think people need to understand that marching up and down the dojo is only going to make them better at doing just that. I think the greatest flaw with many Shotokan karate-ka is that the majority of their training time consists of line work and consequently they become conditioned to only doing techniques one certain way. I believe you need to be continually revising how your training and that the emphasis and ratio must shift from kihon-waza to functional application the higher you progress.
SA: What would you pinpoint as the weakest part of karate in 2006?
PH: Technically, I think I’ve touched on it in my previous answer. I believe that there is a lack of personalised development in senior grades. By that, I don’t just mean from the point of view of karate-ka not modifying the Shotokan template to suit their body-types but actually the way there are training in general.
In many Shotokan groups, good karate-ka are not encouraged or even worse still, not allowed to evolve their Karate to be their own. This reflects a possible insecurity in their instructors but also naivety in how the individual themselves choose to train. They go to the dojo and they spend an hour or so doing karate the way they’ve always done it. The foundations for their technique were dug years ago but they continue to just put foundations on top of foundations. You then have senior graded Karate-ka with nothing more than foundations – some so deep that they’d be in danger of drowning if it rained. Kihon-waza is not the be all and end all of Karate-do. Yes it’s important, but it’s only the base on which everything else is built - After a certain level, you need only to maintain it and not continually rebuild it.
Away from the technical aspects of Karate, I feel the weakest area is the politics involved. I often wonder to myself how many of these Karate politicians ever suggest everyone bringing a Gi along to the next meeting. With all these ‘senior’ instructors involved at the top of associations and governing bodies, wouldn’t it be a wonderful excuse for them all to train together eh? Sadly the karate-ka ego seems far too fragile for that, and the level of paranoia involved never fails to amaze me. I’m lucky that I’m part of an association that always puts the Karate first and who trust me to run my own dojo the way I want to. I have dealt with plastic Karate-ka many times in the past and in every case, the pedestal that they beg to be placed on has always turned out to be made from sugar.
SA: Where do you see your karate going in the future, and where do you envision yourself being in thirty years time?
PH: Behave!!! In thirty years time I’ll be sixty-two and I don’t even want to think about that (laughs). I’m very happy with the direction in which my Karate is evolving under Sensei Hazard. I’m sure this will continue and lead me to the ‘next level’, hopefully a combination of healthy living and good technique with enable me to train until the day I drop. If I can motivate and inspire some other Karate-ka along the way then that would be a fantastic bonus.
SA: I would just like to say a huge thank you for allowing us to interview you, and I’m sure that our readers will love reading your opinions. Thank you.
PH: Thank you Sarah. It really has been a pleasure to answer your questions and I’d like to take this opportunity to wish The Shotokan Way and everyone with involved with it lots of success for the future.