We asked Edmond Otis, of the US to write a brief introduction on his instructor - Leslie Safar, 9th dan. He writes -
Safar Sensei is co-founder, International Technical Director, and Chief Instructor for Europe of the AJKA-I (American JKA Karate Association - International). He has practiced Shotokan karate since 1958, and received his go-dan ranking from the JKA in 1980. He has a strong following on both sides of the Atlantic for his mastery as an instructor, his deep understanding of the core technical and philosophical principles of Shotokan Karate, and the development of an unparalleled, internationally accredited, instructor training program. He is absolutely dedicated to building total and complete instructors, and paying attention to how our organization can create something positive for our individual members and clubs.
Before establishing the AJKA in 1984 (then, a revolutionary concept, but now, something that is recognized as inevitable and as natural as any other type of human development) Safar Sensei was Okazaki Sensei’s most senior student (Okazaki, himself, has recently separated from the JKA). Safar Sensei tours the United States on a regular basis, but spends the majority of his time teaching, directing, and developing AJKA-I karate in Hungary, Germany, and throughout Europe.
Safar Sensei was my personal hero I started training in 1967 - and remains so today. As my “karate uncle” my respect grew for him, and his absolute love of karate, every time I trained under him. Over the last 10 years, as my mentor and friend, I have only grown more impressed by the strength and insight Safar Sensei brings to the role senior instructor and leader of a large organization. He never loses sight of how wonderful it is to practice karate, and that, “the instructor’s responsibility to the student is always greater then the students responsibility to the instructor.” – Edmond Otis 2007
(Shaun Banfield) Could you please tell our readers why and how you first started karate?
(Leslie Safar) When I got to the US, I could not speak English, so there wasn’t much I could really do. Karate was one of the things I could do though due to the fact the Japanese Instructors could not speak it either, so just by showing how to do certain things we could communicate. In time, I got good and I had the chance to travel to competitions all over and got to love karate.
(SB) And what competitions did you travel to and would you care to share some of your memories from this time in your karate career?
(LS) I have competed all over the world; like for instance France in the world championships, in Los Angeles on the JKA world championship, New Orleans National, Canadian, Pan-American and they were all very important at time. I have won so many trophies and championships that I have a hard time remembering when and where but through competing I have learned that karate is not about wining or losing, but it is about life and how we handle losses and victories. I will tell you a short story. I had finished competing in a National competition and came in first. Following the tournament, due to the fact that all the high ranking Japanese Instructors were there, I had a Dan examination where I have tested for 3rd Dan with some of the people I had beaten in the tournament, and when the result was announced, I learned every one had passed but me.
At this point I went to Sensei Okazaki and I told him I quit. Sensei without asking why told me go ahead and quit. After 2 days, I was standing front of the dojo when Sensei came and asked me what I wanted. I said I wanted to train and he replied ‘then go train’. For the following month I trained hard, but he never even looked at me. Finally one month later he called me, ‘Laszlo (that was my name in Hungarian) come here’, and I said ‘Oss Sensei’ and I went to his office in Philadelphia where he asked me ‘Why do you come to me for examination’, I replied, ‘Because I respect your decision’. He said ‘Then why don’t you except it’, to which I replied ‘Sensei all the ones I had beaten passed and I failed, where is the truth?’ He said ‘Why do you compare yourself to the losers, be as good as you can be always be better than what your are, that is what karate-Do, life itself and competition is all about’
(SB) What was your first impression of Okazaki Sensei?
(LS) I feel Sensei Okazaki was one of the best instructors I have known and I liked him right away.
(SB) What was it about his personality that made him such a great instructor and a great human being?
(LS) Sensei Okazaki, and I know not many people will agree with me on this, was a very unselfish and self giving person. He had a way of teaching you or telling you things without saying anything relating to the situation.
(SB) You are renowned as being Okazaki Sensei’s most senior students. Can you please tell us about your time training under Sensei Okazaki?
(LS) Sensei Okazaki was a very energetic and never tiring instructor. He was a brother, a friend, an instructor and true Sensei to me and I think all he wanted to practice was real Karate-Do.
(SB) How would you describe his karate, and what was the most important thing he taught you?
(LS) Sensei Okazaki’s Karate was very simple, but at the same time very exact and to the point. His teaching was very complete and he strived for everything to be perfect to the point that at times it was almost boring. But now as I look back, I never would have reached the point where I am today if it had been any other way.
(SB) You say that Sensei Okazaki strived for perfection. What were his kumite classes like?
(LS) You know I always tell my students you do not need to fight a lot to be good at kumite, rather you need to practice good karate.
This was Sensei Okazaki’s kumite teaching method. When we prepared for a competition we would do hours of combination techniques and we would practice hours of kata and the last week we would start jiu-kumite. And what he did, he would get on one side of the ring and we would line up on the other side and he did kumite with us one by one, and the truly important thing is that he was good and was able to never hurt any one of us.
(SB) And during kata classes with Okazaki Sensei, was it form or attitude that he stressed most?
(LS) He was a great kata Master so when we practice kata he accepted nothing less than perfection. He would always say karate is 70% kata and 30% kumite if you want to be good, and this is why good kata people are usually also good at kumite.
(SB) You mention that he was a true Sensei to you. What do you personally think makes a great Sensei, both technically and personally?
(LS) Sensei Nakayama told us one time that ‘Sensei’ is a very special word it should not be used lightly. Great artists, writers and special people are called ‘Sensei’ and Sensei Okazaki was a special person from all aspects. Just because you are good at karate does not mean you are a Sensei.
(SB) What other Senior Instructors did you encounter whilst training under Okazaki Sensei?
(LS) I have had an opportunity to work with Kanazawa, Shirai, Enoeda, Kase, and Mori, so quite a few on their way to Europe. They all came through Philadelphia so I worked with them all.
But of all the times I spent with Nakayama Sensei, he was a true gentleman in his teachings and in all other ways. He had such a wonderful way of getting a point across that once you learned it, you would never forget it. I have some interesting stories, but that’s for next time.
(SB) I know I am a bit cheeky, but would you mind telling us some of your stories involving Nakayama Sensei as I’m sure our readers would love to hear them!
(LS) You know there use to be a program the ‘Naked city’ and it always stated that there are 10 million stories in the naked city and this is one of them, So I will tell you one, because it is special to me.
One time Sensei Nakayama was visiting in Philadelphia and I missed training, so the next day as I am coming to training and he was standing in front of the dojo. As I got to the doors I say, ‘Sensei I am very sorry that I was not here yesterday but’, at this point he stopped me and pointed up the sky and asked me, ‘Do you see the sun’, I replied ‘Yes’, He then said ‘When the sun goes down your are one day closer to the end of your life, so what you missed on that day you can never make it up no mater what you do. No money, no wisdom can bring it back so it doesn’t matter why you missed training on that day, you did not learn’. I have never made excuses again.
(SB) Two of the most Senior Instructors from the JKA, Okazaki Sensei, which we have already mentioned, but also Nishiyama Sensei was teaching in the USA. Did you ever experience Sensei Nishiyama’s Karate?
(LS) I liked Sensei Nishiyama but he was very different from Sensei Okazaki.
(SB) In what ways was Sensei Nishiyama different to Sensei Okazaki?
(LS) He was his teacher and never let him forget this; he always gave him the out most respect.
(SB) Apart from Sensei Okazaki as your Sensei, who else would you say has had a profound impact on your approach to karate?
(LS) My students.
(SB) You are co-founder of AJKA and Chief Instructor for Europe. Can you please tell us why this Organization was developed and what were your objectives?
(LS) A statement was made by Koyama that JKA is a Japanese Cultural Organisation for the Japanese, and at this point Ray Dalke and I had decided to move on, so we contacted some of the senior instructors to form an American Organisation, whilst maintaining the JKA technical level due to the fact that it was the best.
(SB) What do you think Koyama Sensei intended to mean with this statement?
(LS) I know exactly what he meant by that. If you are not Japanese you always will be a gaijin.
(SB) You also obviously trained alongside your co-founder Raye Dalke. Was this an organization build solely on a mutual respect, or on a close friendship?
(LS) Ray Dalke and I were as far as I am concerned the best of friends, and we worked hard together to keep karate on the highest standard and take it to a higher level. Unfortunately, Sensei Dalke, and this is my opinion, could not go to the next step and except the fact that his students had grown up and are as well liked by the students as we are. I feel it is a great loss for the karate community, but we must go on.
(SB) Do you mean ‘ego’ sometimes gets in the way of great karate flourishing?
(LS) Unfortunately it does. As karate instructors, sometimes we think we are better then any one, but I personally think our greatness lies in our students. By that I mean, how many of their lives did you affect in a positive way, how many of them will remember me as I remember Sensei Okazaki.
(SB) You also have a great team with you, including the great Edmond Otis who we were luck enough to interview. As a student of yours, what is his gift when it comes to karate?
(LS) There was a statement made by Sensei Okazaki one time saying ‘Life is made up of beginnings and endings, and if we are ready for it, transition is very easy’. I have always known Sensei Otis, but I have truly got to know him after Ray Dalke left AJKA and took over the AJKA Chairmanship.
I have found him to be a very good karate technician, but also a great ally and friend and I could not think of a better person to work with in this position.
(SB) How different is the approach of AJKA to the JKA, which you were once a part of?
(LS) Technically there is no difference. The differences come in that all members of AJKA are all treated equally, depending on their performance. We allow them to take away what they give and this is what life and Karate-Do is all about. This was what Sensei Okazaki taught me.
(SB) Can you please tell us about your Instructor Programs? How are they set up, how are the classes run and what is your primary focus?
(LS) JKA originally had an instructor classes which was very different from every day trainings. The importance was not how to do karate, but how it teach it.
When we studied karate in the 60s, we would kick 500 times, punch 1000 times, which is not a problem, but no one could tell us why we need to do this, so a lot of people stopped training. By developing an Instructor Programme we can have an intelligent approach to teaching instructors classes where we teach kinesiology, motion study, how the human body and mind work together, the importance of muscle contraction and expansion and why breathing is so important. Our goal is that instructors know more than just kicking and punching.
(SB) You mention that you pay attention on ‘Motion Study’ in the Instructors Classes. Could you please tell us a little about this and its role in karate techniques?
(LS) It is quite a long subject and I have prepared a 4 page report on how motion study relates to karate. I can tell you that by understanding kinesiology or motion study an Instructor can have a much more intelligent approach to teaching karate techniques. One of the problems with most Instructors comes if some one asks them for the ‘why’ of doing something, and by the way, this is the way it was the old days where the answer will be ‘just do it’ which is not a very good motivator.
(SB) Nakayama Sensei in the Best Karate Series mentioned that you must breathe in on blocks and out on punches. What is your belief as far as this is concerned, what role does breathing have in all karate techniques do you think?
(LS) By understanding we will see that it impossible. Due to the fact that in order for us to contract our muscles we must exhale and if you want to perform a strong block of any kind you must contract the related muscles. The deference is we must understand the deference between maximum and sub maximum muscle contraction and what I mean by this to simplify for example, when we do an Oi-zuki we would use maximum contraction but when we do an age-uke-gyaka-zuki we use the sub maximum contraction or 50% on the block and 50% on the zuki and the breathing would appropriate 100 % out on the maximum and 50%-50% on the block and counter attack.
(SB) Coming back to an earlier comment, you spoke of muscular contraction and expansion. Can you please tell us a little about what you teach your students as far as this topic is concerned?
(LS) The simplest way without being to long inhale on the preparatory move and exhale on the techniques.
(SB) You also took part in the ‘Shotokan Master Seminars’ series; can you tell us how this came about, and what was the reason for you making this DVD?
(LS) You know, we never do the same things as all good instructors, so it would be a waste if these classes went unrecorded so I think it is a great idea that this DVD was made and it can be a great source of information for all.
(SB) It’s said that your Instructor Training Programs help create a ‘Total Instructor’ can you please explain what is meant by this?
(LS) One of the misconceptions was that only the US has good karate, and I have found to my surprise that a great bunch of good karate people here in Europe. To quote Sensei Nakayama, ‘Learn to learn from your students’. Karate is a life time undertaking so I try to learn everyday from everything.
One time we did a TV programme with Sensei Nakayama and was asked if he know Aikido, Judo, Kendo etc. Sensei answered ‘Oh they are all very nice but I have been practicing karate for over 40 years and I am still trying to learn, so I don’t have time for all the others’
(SB) What do you feel is technically the weakest parts of karate both within your own group, but also in other groups you have experienced.
(LS) Not enough training.
(SB) What is your favorite kata and why?
(LS) When I was young, I loved unsu. Now I am 70 years of age, I love hangetsu.
In conclusion, I made karate my way of life and it has been one of the greatest things I have done due to the fact that karate has given me much respect all over the world and it gave me a good life also to do something forever. Everything I have achieved in my life I truly owe to my karate training and my karate instructors.
(SB) And what do you remember Okazaki Sensei’s favourite kata to be?
(LS) I don’t remember, but as I look back he did all katas all the time as he felt kata was very important.
(SB) We spoke to Sensei Otis and he mentioned that too much attention is paid on Kata application. Is this your view also and could you please tell us what you mostly emphasize in your kata teaching?
(LS) He is right kata is not about bunkai and application, kata is about improving karate techniques. Each kata has a specific purpose and characteristic and each will teach something else. For instance Heian 1 will teach you body rotation and body shifting on a most simple level and if you don’t learn it here you will have a hard time learning this in Bassai-Dai. But this is again a long subject.
(SB) Do you still practice karate as heavily as you did when you were thirty or have you adapted your training to fit your age? If so could you please tell us how you have done so?
(LS) Of course I don’t practice as hard as I did when I was 40-50 years old, but I spend probably more time on karate by teaching and researching of teaching.
(SB) Can I, on behalf of myself and all at TheShotokanWay, say a big thank you for allowing us to speak with you and we wish you every success for the future!
(LS) Yes, thank you and I hope we meet in person some time where we talk about some of the things more specifically. Your questions are very interesting and I love karate so I don’t mined sharing it with your readers.