Richard Amos Sensei has had many experiences training in the Japan Karate Association headquearters Dojo, in Tokyo, completing the three year JKA Instructor's Course, and was only the second Westerner to ever do so. Today he is Chief Instructor of the World Traditional Karate Organization based in Manhattan.
Sarah Amos: Could you please tell us how you first got started in Karate?
Richard Amos: It was in ’73, I was 10 yrs old and saw Bruce Lee’s death reported on the TV. He looked amazing and then the Kung Fu series was on and so I wanted to do that. There was only karate available in my area so I started karate instead of kung fu; it could easily have been the other way around.
SA: At the age of eighteen you were invited to join the KUGB Junior Karate Team, can you tell us a little about your time on the team?
RA: I felt extremely proud to receive the first letters (I still have a couple of them) from Andy Sherry inviting me onto the squad and remember driving up to Liverpool with a big lump in my throat. The only other times I’d been to the Red Triangle Dojo were for the occasional school holiday to simply train in the regular classes and they were daunting enough. But the squad trainings were as tough a training as I’ve ever experienced. The KUGB was extremely well organised. It was great to be part of the group, travelling for tournaments with guys like Andy Sherry and Frank Brennan coaching from the sidelines. I got a couple of medals in the Europeans and was more happy not to have let them down than for any sense of my own achievement.
SA: You are famous for having trained at the JKA headquarters, can you tell us what it was like training under instruction of that kind of calibre?
RA: The first two years of my time in Tokyo were probably the happiest of my life in karate terms. I’d been wanting to go forever and the JKA was still very much intact. All the instructors were there all the time either teaching one of the 4 regular classes a day or training in their own class at 12 noon. That is when we mere mortals would have to leave. We’d linger after our morning session (which ended at 11:30) taking ages to tie our shoelaces, as they warmed up, before getting shooed away.
I think a lot of people go there expecting complexity in the regular classes, beyond their abilities, but this is not the case. The classes are only an hour long and often rather subtle. This can be disappointing for some who are not ready, or those who are just doing a short visit, hoping to absorb a lot of detail. The variety of sensei was impressive though and I trained a lot with all of them. Some of them talked all time; some didn’t talk at all; some looked completely bored and would have us do jiyu-kumite all class. Others were highly motivated. I trained once a day for the first week, twice a day for the second week and then two to three times a day for the next two years till I got invited onto the instructor’s course. I was prepared to be told to put on a white belt when I arrived at the headquarters in January 1989 but found the average Japanese student to be no better than those elsewhere. Slowly but surely I found my place in the hierarchy and just got stuck in.
SA: You then joined the JKA Instructors course, how did that come about?
RA: Well, I became the conspicuous foreigner there because I trained very consistently in the mornings and evenings over an extended period and started winning things on the weekends too. I was training every morning at the Hoitsugan too and had lived there for 2 periods of 6 months each. Several instructors dropped hints and I knew not to ask but just wait. I started the course in April 1991.
SA: What was your day-to-day training like, what kind of things did you study?
RA: The daily routine hardly varied. We would start with endless repetitions of the most elementary basics usually moving on to kumite. A couple of times a week we were told to line up for kata after an hour of kihon and we knew the training wouldn’t be too harsh that day. Other times very early on we’d begin the kumite and had no idea whether it would get crazy or not.
SA: Who was teaching there, who did you train alongside and how brutal was the training?
RA: Well I joined the instructor’s course as a kenshusei (trainee) when the JKA became split in two. Both groups had claims to the name, and to all intents and purposes, there wasn’t much difference. In those days all the instructors continued to teach in the regular classes together, but we had an imaginary line down the middle of the dojo for the actual instructor’s class. We would train on one side and the other group would train on theirs. As junior instructors we all thought it strange but didn’t say anything.
Asai sensei was the titular head of our group but many of our classes were taught by Abe Keigo sensei. On Thursdays Isaka sensei would go through kata in his inimitable style. It was wonderful as the emphasis he placed on slow-motion, allowed one to feel each muscle respond, instead of relying on pure momentum all the time. It was also a more nurturing atmosphere which I took full advantage of by asking relentless questions.
Occasionally Kagawa sensei would teach and more rarely Yahara sensei. Both of these instructors were more interested in training rather than instructing though. Among others in our group were Aramoto senpai, Tamang senpai, Kanayama senpai, Maeda (who joined the same year as I), Yamaguchi and Kawasaki, who both became kenshusei two years after me. That of course meant that for my last year I had two other juniors to take the pressure off.
Training across the invisible divide were classes which were often led by Ueki sensei and included senseis Tanaka, Osaka, Kawawada, Imamura, Izumiya, Naka and Taniyama. We’d start at the same time doing the same warm-up and continue from there. Oddly, I cannot remember seeing them do a single thing after the warm-up, an indication I suppose of the intensity of what we were doing on our side. I do, however, remember thinking that our classes went on longer and longer so we wouldn’t be seen to be slacking off earlier than they. .
SA: And how does it make you feel knowing you were the 2nd westerner to ever complete it?
RA: I don’t really think it necessarily matters that much; I wasn’t the first and certainly wouldn’t be the last. There is, however, a definite sense of achievement at actually surviving something that goes beyond the rational. Nothing else I’ve experienced has come close to being as hard as this. It’s unexplainable why one would embark on and continue to pursue through such a course. Why does the mountaineer risk death and frostbite, or the explorer hack his way through the jungle? It’s human nature to attempt to conquer. To be honest, I was more proud to have been able to graduate in the great dojo in Ebisu. Actually the dojo wasn’t so great because the floor was much too hard, but it had atmosphere. It was also home to the best days of the JKA throughout the 70’s and 80’s with Nakayama sensei. It closed a couple of weeks after I graduated in April 1994 because the rent was going up to something silly like $40,000 a month.
SA: Not only did you train in the Instructors Course, but you also taught at the headquarters. What was that like?
RA: I knew very well I hadn’t the pure physical ability of some of the Japanese instructors, but I was getting good by studying and analysing and worrying about the technique, which I then passed on to the students; I think they appreciated it.
SA: What was the biggest thing you took away from your time in Japan?
RA: I was there between the ages of 25 and 35 so this is a pretty formative period in anyone’s life. But when I left I was still confused as to what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be. Japan is so far removed from the real world and it took a couple of years to be truly comfortable with myself again. Having said that, the confidence I have walking into any dojo anywhere in the world must be the result of all those years slogging away in Tokyo.
SA: You experienced the JKA at a very politically volatile time. Can you please tell us a little about this political chaos, and how this affected you and your karate?
RA: This is difficult to talk about because I still have a little bitterness about what happened and how things were construed. I prefer, by nature, to choose a position of neutrality in many things. This was especially true regarding the JKA back then because I was in such awe of the instructors I’d been reading about for years. I was devoted to the JKA and had grown up with it from the age of 10. Here I was in the middle of the headquarters in Japan and it suited me perfectly. You have to understand I was training in all the classes and totally accepted because I’d agree to anything and try my best. It was a time when there was still an element of danger in the classes, and the young guns and I were on fire.
A teacher should never abuse his students by exercising his inherent influence over them for his own political gain, but I’m afraid we were all too naïve, said osu a lot and trusted blindly. Retrospectively, I feel the JKA split was just petty back-stabbing nonsense and fragile egos, in the middle of which I was an impotent observer. The effect of this political chaos on my karate then was probably to infuse it with an element of anger which is not a good thing at all. I had my dreams shattered and woke up knowing that my heroes were flawed. I should have known they were just human.
SA: You also placed very high at the All-Japan Championships several times, how would you say competitions over there differed from the competition you experienced with the KUGB, and the competition we see today?
RA: Competition is always healthy at certain periods of one’s life. One seeks different things as one evolves. The competitions themselves also evolve. I don’t suppose for one minute the competitions in the KUGB are as rough as they were in the 70’s, and so Japan in 1989 it might not be a fair comparison. You must also take into account the likes of Terry O’Neil, Frank Brennan and Ronnie Christopher in that great era. Their Japanese counterparts: Yahara, Yamamoto and Kagawa I don’t imagine exist now either. I wouldn’t like to be negative of today’s competitions, but there are too many rules and not enough real judgement. I’m rarely inspired now by anything except the competitor’s sheer athletic ability and maybe it’s too much to ask for more; to ask for the intangible; to ask for dignity and composure; to have the rules as simple guidelines rather than see them manipulated for advantage. Perhaps I’m just being nostalgic, but I feel these days (overall, but especially watching the sportier organizations’ events) in kumite the referees seem intimidated by the competitors, and in kata the competitors are, in some cases, poseurs with no respect for the innate integrity of the movements.
SA: As a fighter, who inspired you most back then and now?
RA: Back then, without a doubt Yahara. He had the sort of body type I felt I could emulate and an incredible dynamism that was very impressive. Nowadays I read more to get inspired by the lifestyles of the greats rather than by watching competitions or jiyu-kumite. I think this is important because as no moment may be reproduced, so an elementary philosophy is required to cope spontaneously with any circumstance. We don’t do enough philosophising in Shotokan because the movements (when done well) are so satisfyingly good. Mental frustration, therefore, doesn’t creep in; which is something upon which philosophy depends. Shotokan Karate is so difficult but the rewards are so great that we find ourselves continually focussing on only the physical.
SA: We recently spoke with Sensei Aidan Trimble, and he mentioned that you often teach kata that are not in the standard Shotokan Syllabus. Can you tell us why you do so, and what these kata bring to your karate?
RA: There are a number of kata I practice because the Shotokan kata have come to be a little too defined sometimes. Practicing something off the syllabus is useful if only to unshackle oneself from caring too much about form all the time.
SA: How much emphasis do you place on kata bunkai, and what benefits do you think bunkai study provides.
RA: It’s absolutely essential. But like everything, it’s important not to get too obsessed and to be able to judge how far one takes the bunkai according to one’s level of training. Bunkai has unlimited possibilities which is both good and bad. It can be too much and we need specific guidelines in the beginning. My emphasis is in form leading to effective bunkai, and not throwing out the former in order to justify the latter. However, on a very high level, form does not exist either and complete freedom is achieved. I’ve only seen this in a couple of instructors in the world though.
SA: What do you think is the most important thing to study in your karate if you want to make it as effective as possible? What do you place most emphasis on in your own training?
RA: The most important thing is finding a good instructor and trusting him or her. Otherwise bad habits will form. In the beginning, one’s karate will not be very effective (unless you have a particular gift) but we must learn and, importantly, trust the technique. As far as effectiveness goes, it depends what you mean by effective. Once one’s karate has reached a superior level, there’s no need to test the effectiveness as it should never be used of course. For real power though, relaxation is the key. Tightening the muscles not only slows you down, it stops you from being able to think effectively. And when you can’t think, you can’t have composure and vice-a-versa.
SA: In most classes up and down the country, instructors shout ‘Faster with the hikite’. In what ways do you feel hikite is important in generating speed and power?
RA: Hikite emphasis is important because the unconscious never takes care of it. The unconscious might offer a lot towards the punching arm or kicking leg but it gives almost nothing to the hikite part, because purpose of the hikite action is not as obvious as the punch going out to hit something. Therefore, we should consciously emphasize the hikite in order to balance the body.
SA: We also train in Shotokan using deep stances for the most part. How do you think stances help us generate power? And what other reasons do we use stances?
RA: This is a big question but, in a nutshell, a deep stance will not just make stronger leg muscles (obviously advantageous) but also will give us a sense of connection to the ground without which we have nothing to drive off.
SA: Do you still hit a makiwara, or do you hit bags, and why do you feel this type of training is important?
RA: I’m ashamed to say I am not able to hit the makiwara in my dojo at present because of the building and its tenants. I’m in the middle of Manhattan and there are some things you just cannot do; a couple of hundred gyaku-zukis each day against a post is one of them. I do like very much the makiwara though and for now I have to do with the bag. It’s essential to hit something in order to get feedback and this should be understood with every technique we have.
SA: What is Richard Amos’ favourite kata, and why?
RA: I have a favourite kata each week. Right now I’m thinking of Asai sensei who has sadly just passed away, so am practicing some of his kata daily. They are beautiful. When competing I would use Unsu a lot. There are times when Kanku-sho feels perfectly balanced, and other times when Heian Shodan is the only choice for the day. As for next week, I’m not sure.