This interview with Pemba Tamang, one of the first non-japanese instructors to complete the JKA Instructor Class, tells the story of his arrival in Japan to learn ‘real’ karate. Six years after arriving in Japan, studying under the likes of Senseis Asai, Osaka and Yahara, he enrolled in the JKA Kenshusei. Here he talks about the experiences of being taught by such a ‘powerhouse of teachers’ , the training in the course, the split within the JKA and the road he now follows. Many thanks to Masumi Fuji for helping organise the interview and Stuart Kirby for kindly conducting the interview on our behalf and putting our questions to Sensei Tamang.- Shaun Banfield 08
(Stuart Kirby) Can we please start the interview by asking how you were first introduced to the Martial Arts and what was it about karate that initially drew you?
(Pemba Tamang) When I was young, I simply wished to be a strong man and joined a Karate club near my home in Darjeeling when I was ten years old.
(SK) What then drew you to Japan to train?
(PT) After about 8 years at the club, I became the best fighter, and in my small town, everyone respected me for this. However, I realised that the Karate we were learning wasn’t the real ‘way,’ and felt insecure and not true to myself for gaining admiration from all the towns people, but not really practicing true Karate. So I decided to learn ‘real’ Karate in Japan and flew to Narita when I was 19 years old. I couldn’t speak any Japanese and knew no one in Japan. I didn’t know where to go when I arrived at Narita Airport, and I had no idea about which dojo to train in. I felt anxious and worried that I had made to bold a move by coming to Japan, but after I settled and did some research, I found the JKA.
(SK) Who took most of the classes while you trained at the Hombu?
(PT) It was a rotation of several instructors such as Asai, Abe, Ueki, Tanaka, Osaka, Yahara, as well as other JKA instructors.
In retrospect, I was so lucky to be taught by such a powerhouse of teachers.
(SK) Six years after arriving at the JKA Hombu, you then enrolled in the JKA Kenshusei. Can you please tell us what drew you to enrol?
(PT) Originally, I thought I would go back to my country after I took the black belt, but through hard training everyday, I slowly began to realise that there were bigger dreams than just gaining a black belt. Watching all the top instructors inspired me to join the kenshusei, though after seeing them train, I was very afraid to join. Also I was 26 years old, which was seen as being quite old at that time. Usually students were recruited from universities, but Yahara and Asai Sensei acknowledged my application to take the course, so I took the exam under Nakayama Sensei and other JKA instructors.
(SK) What kind of classes took place in the Instructor’s class? Would you give us an idea of the type of classes you experienced?
(PT) It is not easy to explain. Training was deeper, harder and more detailed. Each technique was broken down for us to understand, and we were physically conditioned so our bodies were able to do what we were being taught. Repetition was taken to extreme; in normal classes we would do 20 but in the kenshusei it would be something like 200. Emphasis was also placed on studying techniques in a more academic way, to understand the theory behind the action. Kumite was particularly tough, I felt like “a sandbag” and I was blooded almost everyday. This was done to highlight our weaknesses in kumite, but also to build our spirit and accept the emotions that are associated with fear. Everything I had previously learnt from six years of training at the JKA felt like nothing. I remember standing in the shower at the end of training day feeling lucky to still be alive. When you have the likes of Yahara and Tanaka sensei sharpening their skills on you, as well as exposing your weak points, I don’t mind admitting, it was mentally and physically terrifying. Sometimes I would wake in the morning and hope something had happened to the dojo, so we wouldn’t have to train. (laughs… I think, he’s joking)
(SK) And who took most of the sessions in the Instructor’s Class?
(PT) In the first year, Shoji, Asai, Ueki, Tanaka, Abe and sometimes Nakayama sensei. In the third year, Osaka and Yahara joined.
(SK) Many who have trained in the Instructor’s class have commented on the intensity of the training. Did you ever experience any kind of harsh treatment or brutality?
(PT) I think to overcome the emotions of fear you have to face some brutality. Even in regular training you can catch or be caught harshly by a “ controlled” punch or kick to the face, and anyone who has experienced this understands how brutal that feels. Fighting with highly skilled instructors whose techniques could quite literally destroy you, is like prodding a tiger who has already eaten. Though prod too hard, and you could become dessert.
(SK) You spent time studying under Master Nakayama. Could you please share some stories and memories that you have of him?
(PT) When I first entered the hombu dojo, I saw Nakayama sensei on only ceremonial occasions. He had a private dojo with sleeping facilities, where he taught the instructors and foreigners. I first met him at my kenshusei entrance examination, and from there, met him only on special occasions. A year later, after another examination we had a party for the new kenshusei. I was given the responsibility of seeing Nakayama sensei home that evening. When I said goodnight, I had no idea I would be the last person to see him before he entered hospital and died. I feel very lucky and honoured to have spent that time with him, especially being able to join his special New Years Eve training he did every year.
He taught us many great things, but he really showed me that having a small body wasn’t a disability. That it can still be powerful, as well as quick. His karate was very dynamic, and he taught me how to use my hips. At the time I was too young to understand, but now I understand what he was saying about hips. As a young man I wanted to kick and punch, I didn’t realise the importance of the hips.
(SK) What would you say were the most important things you took away from the instructors class? How did you as a karateka change because of it?
(PT) In the Instructor’s classes we worked very hard as a group, to build a high standard with our karate techniques. We were able to see top sensei using their techniques at the highest level of perfection. It was for us to try and imitate their amazing skills, but of course this is not easy. Working together, our goal was to achieve a high standard across all techniques, but as we began to reach this, we were then encouraged to specialise in one or two techniques that would maybe one day become our own trademark techniques.
Physically, we trained around 3 to 4 hours a day, so over the three years I saw great change in my body in terms of flexibility and power. Due to this kind of intense training we were able to progress at a faster rate, to reach a level of proficiency that would have probably taken a life time, had we been training under normal conditions of three or four hours a week.
(SK) And how as a teacher did it change you?
(PT) It made me a more analytical teacher. I could look at my students and see their weak points. I also learnt that a lot of my students mistakes were a result of their characters, around 20% of the mistakes they made were related to their character, not their physical ability. I realised that the best way to get a student to improve their technique was to make them understand the essence of the technique, to understand the result of their current action, and how it would feel if they made just the smallest of adjustments.
(SK) Looking back, as one of the very first foreigners to have graduated from the Instructor’s course, why do you think so few foreigners have completed it?
(PT) I think growing up in my hometown helped prepare me for the harsh realities of the course. I grew up in a physically demanding environment which made me stronger mentally and physically. Not to say that other foreigners didn’t come from difficult backgrounds, but maybe they didn’t spend their childhood bringing water and firewood to the house, living in extreme climates and avoiding wild animals. I guess I grew up hungry, and you have to be hungry to complete the Kenshusei course. Also, three years in Japan as Kenshusei is physically and mentally tough, but also there are a lot of other distractions. Of course you need to earn money to survive, the language is very difficult, and the culture may seem strange to some people.
(SK) You then started teaching at the JKA Hombu. Can you tell us what it was like actually teaching in the place that you had studied for such a long time?
(PT) Even though I trained for 8 years in my country, I started from white belt when I came to Japan. I never expected to become an instructor at the JKA headquarters. I felt quite humble because I was teaching some of the students that I once trained with in the regular classes. My senior told me, that I am now a professional, and must think like a professional, so my uneasiness passed and I concentrated on becoming a better teacher.
(SK) As a teacher there, you must have experienced many foreigners yourself from around the world visiting the Hombu. Would you personally say that there is a difference in standard between the Japanese students and the foreigners you taught?
(PT) Japanese students have very good basics; they concentrate more on basics, and are not as impatient to move on to the next technique or kata. Foreign students have a lot of power and strength, which is sometimes a disadvantage because they don’t know when to relax within the technique. They often know more techniques, but they don’t try hard enough to master the basic things, like dynamic hip movement. With a higher mastery of hip movement, they could apply this to new techniques as they progress. I guess it’s only natural to want to learn new things; grade higher, learn beautiful katas and flying spinning kicks, but this is often at the expense of good basics.
(SK) You were teaching at the JKA also during a very tumultuous time, the infamous split. How difficult was it being there during this period of time?
(PT) It was very difficult; when I was a Kenshusei, I was very proud to be a JKA instructor. A year after my graduation the very organisation that I aspired to be part of split into two, forcing students and instructors to choose.
(SK) You then chose to follow Sensei Yahara within KWF. What was it about Yahara Sensei that drew you to his group?
(PT) Yahara Sensei is undoubtedly one of the most skilful men in Karate. I learned many things from him. When I first decided to join the Kenshusei Course Yahara Sensei supported my application and approached Asai sensei, who made my request to Nakayama sensei. He also helped me a lot when I graduated and became a JKA instructor. There is a saying in Japan, “giri ninjo,” which means friendship and debt of gratitude.
(SK) And why did you decide to follow your own path?
(PT) “Renshu” in Japanese, means to practice. But after many years of practice you reach a higher state of practice called “shugyou,” which means never ending training. This is where you really go inside yourself and the technique. To try and find the true essence of the technique, to try and touch that level of perfection that years of study and focus allows you to reach. I guess what I’m trying to say, is that like any art you are trying to reach a certain level, to be enlightened by your skills, I felt that my best chance of doing this is to be close to nature, away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
(SK) You are now Chief Instructor of the Nihon Shotokan Karate-Do Federation, which seems to have a highly philosophical element, and from my research it shows you are very enthusiastic in stressing the ‘Way’ of Karate-Do. Do you think this gets forgotten and neglected a great deal?
(PT) The thing I respect most from karate, is that, if you follow it honestly and with good spirit, it will teach you not just about defending yourself, and building a high level of physical fitness, but the lessons we learn through karate can apply to the rest of our life. The same spirit that you use to get you through the kenshusei course, a grading, or when you’re facing a tough competitor in kumite, will get you through many difficult times in your life. In the world that we live in now, we need this kind training more than ever. This is why I like to encourage my students to examine the philosophical elements of karate. This is why it’s important to chant the ‘dojo kun’ at the end of every lesson. People have very busy lives, they rush to the dojo after work or school, so it can be easy to detach the physical things we do in the dojo with the mental things we need to do. If my mind and body are both focused when I’m training, afterwards I feel great. I believe it cleans my heart and soul. Remember, karate isn’t just a performance. It also has a deep spiritual path for us to follow. We can find completion and satisfaction here.
(SK) You are quoted as saying ‘unfortunately, both in Japan and around the world, the original principles of Karate are being lost’. Why do you think this has happened and how can Instructors re-emphasise these original principles in their lessons?
(PT) There is an African proverb, ‘Find a job you love and you will never work again.’ I understand the temptation to build a dojo with profit in mind, but of course this can destroy the art, and create all kinds of political problems. We should do only what is right for our students’ progress and understanding in karate, not just try and protect business interests.
(SK) Outside of Karate you have a beautiful restaurant. Does this also bring you joy?
(PT) Yes, of course. It keeps my wife and I very busy, but it also allows me time for karate, so I’m very grateful.
(SK) What is your favourite kata and why?
(PT) My favourite kata is Bassai dai and Heian shodan. Heian shodan is very simple, Bassai dai is very strong and focuses on hip movement.
(SK) What are the main focuses of your own personal training now?
(PT) Like a painting, in the beginning you like to make the perfect picture. You don’t need to work too hard. We train very hard learning many techniques, but through training with these many techniques you find your best ones, the ones that make the most sense to you and your body, and through older age you try harder to perfect these few techniques. Which is interesting when you think about it. You start karate with a thirst to learn new things, many things, but you find that to know a few things well is more important.
(SK) Those who have trained with you have commented that you emphases the importance of keeping the technique minimal and not add extra movements, just make the technique simple. What are the best methods of training to ensure you’re not adding small extra movements?
(PT) Well, of course, it’s not always easy to see these extra movements yourself, and unfortunately some of these extra movements can be passed on through bad habits, from teacher to student. I like to train alongside my students in front of a mirror which helps them with imitation and visualisation. I also step away from the line-up to pick out one or two small mistakes at a time. I guess training in front of the mirror is helpful, watching some of the great masters, especially how they use their hips, and of course training with good instructors. You can also break down your movements slowly and watch for any small unnecessary movements like a knee wobbling, or moving your torso back slightly before you step forward and punch.
(SK) The JKA is renown for its attention to even the smallest of details. What details do you think tend to get forgotten or neglected most often?
(PT) Basic techniques tend to be neglected at the expense of higher level technique and tournament training.
(SK) When you first arrived in Japan you reportedly told Tanaka Sensei that you wanted a black belt in 2 months am I correct? With hindsight, some 26 years in Japan later, how do you feel about the path you are on in life and where would you like to see yourself in the future?
(PT) I was like a baby when I first came to Japan, so today, after 26 years I have become a man. It’s a long journey. Telling Tanaka Sensei that I want a black belt in 2 months was a reflection of my innocence, thinking that a black belt was reward for finishing the journey, when in fact, it was only the beginning.
(SK) Can we just say a huge thank you for this opportunity to interview you and may we wish you and your organisation every success for the future.
(PT) You are very welcome, and please feel free to visit my dojo in the beautiful mountains of Kabuchizawa.