Tetsuhiko Asai Sensei
New Zealand Interview - December 2003
By André Bertel – 5th Dan
(JKS New Zealand Founder & Chief Instructor)
Anyone who studies under Shuseki Shihan Tetsuhiko Asai learns rapidly why he is widely regarded as one of the greatest living masters of Shotokan karate. In the eyes of his followers - no one in the world can imitate his unbelievable technical skills. In addition to his seemingly endless knowledge, Asai Shihan's wonderful personality is loved all over the world - he is a master in the truest sense. In 2000 Asai Shihan founded the NPO (Non-profit-organisation) Japan Karate Shotokai (JKS) to take karate into the new millennium. Here, in this compelling interview, conducted in Christchurch, New Zealand, Shuseki Shihan Asai gives great insight into his unparalleled karate excellence.
(Andre Bertel) Sensei what are your main objectives in teaching Karate?
(Tetsuhiko Asai) In the past not everybody could do karate in the standard way, particularly after the war, there was a closed off mentality, a physical hardness in karate, aiming primarily to build spirit, rather than effective martial arts technique. Many people in Shotokan had, and still have, closed minds thinking this is the only way to do karate, and this permeates throughout all the aspects of their training. Karate has five aspects, firstly martial arts karate - effective in reality, secondly health karate, thirdly exercise karate, fourthly tournament karate, and lastly, karate to make a strong spirit... All these aspects are included in karate, and depending on the person, karate differs. My karate includes all of the above, not only karate for making a strong spirit. Effective karate is balanced, not just hard, this hardness which came after the war, was a way to make people push themselves to their physical, mental, and spiritual limits. This style of training is very basic and limited for martial arts/self-defense. It was also limited, participation-wise. My main objective is to return karate to its original martial arts origins, karate has no limitations. If karate can only be used by strong people, it is highly limited.
(AB) Sensei, you intensely study over 150 different kata. Many karateka can't comprehend this?
(TA) Yes, as you know we have many kata, for example if someone's punch is no good, practice this kata, if their hip rotation is no good, do this kata, kicks no good, train this kata... From practicing in this way we can improve martial arts technique. Before, karate was only movement (Asai Sensei demonstrates a few lightning fast strikes in rapid succession from his chair) with not so much meaning. Now there's more meaning, not only basic techniques but the revival of marital arts karate from the distant past. The standard Shotokan kata has emphasis on basic techniques like gedan-barai, mae-geri keage, oi-zuki and so on. These kata are mostly for development of power and speed. They also tire the muscles and breathing. They are good for making spirit and for conditioning the body, this is good in one's youth. However, as one gets older, step-by-step they must change so they can keep improving in karate. More natural movement is essential, in fact the sooner people start this the better, as it results in increased efficiency. The advanced kata I developed are martial arts kata, taking the karateka to the next level; André, you are one of my few students who know many of the advanced kata such as Hachimon, Kakuyoku shodan, Kakuyoku nidan and Kakuyoku sandan, Meikyo nidan, Meikyo sandan, Sensho, Shotei, Kashu, Suishu, Roshu, Hushu, Senka, Seiryu and others. As a result you are now executing high level martial arts karate. Others should follow your example. Some are fixated on merely studying the 26 standard Shotokan kata.
(AB) You have said that competition rules should be more martial arts orientated in the Kumite?
(TA) Absolutely, we must change from the sports kumite kind which is again very limited! Only straight punching, kicking and takedowns, not good for martial arts, creating bad habits. We must also include circular punches, strikes, and other karate techniques. If the distance is close, why not use a controlled empi-uchi or mawashi-zuki to win? This is martial arts karate, far more diverse than just sports.
(AB) Sensei, what is your advice for people who want to improve their karate-do?
(TA) For people reading this, don't be confused, exercise is technique. As you know there are five sections of the body, sometimes everything is coordinated together (as in standard basic Shotokan techniques). Sometimes the joints are used in smaller groups, or individually. When doing karate we must aim to randomly alternate between these applications of our body. This creates unpredictability. The technique must come from anywhere, and from any angle. This takes control. Karateka must aim to control every part of their body as a unit and separately. Relaxed, strong and flexible muscles are the key. This goes beyond style brand-names such as Shotokan, Shito-ryu, Goju-ryu, and even beyond karate. All five parts of the body must be trained in isolation and trained together as a unit. Training snap is very important. If people exercise their bodies in this way, they can follow my karate. Effective technique is effective technique regardless of style. The main point technically in karate is training the human body to move in the most efficient ways, one must remember that the human body, generally speaking, regardless of culture, is limited in possible movement. There are exceptions, for example double jointed people, but for the most part, human movement has certain limitations.
(AB) When people see your karate they are always amazed. Every year you seem to get better and better?
(TA) My thinking is wide, many techniques, development of martial arts karate. If the body is tight, one cannot be fast. One must kime properly, go through the target, not stop, this is martial arts. Control is also important, but has its place. I have trained this way since the beginning, effective karate. In regards to my karate, everybody doesn't understand that as you get older you can improve by harnessing natural energy. You must learn to use your body like a whip, or nunchaku, utilizing the power of your joints rather than just your muscles, this way you keep improving. People should always think of the string that joins the two bits of stick together to form the nunchaku. In saying that, many older people may wish to train slowly, and this is O.K. too. Only karate in one's youth is no good, karate can and should be lifetime budo.
(AB) Many people wonder about the relationship between Chinese systems and your karate, I know you always get asked this question around the world?
(TA) Good point André, as you know, it's not Chinese styles, and this should be made known to everyone in the world who reads this interview. I am a Japanese karate teacher and I teach traditional Japanese karate-do. I understand Chinese styles, but my karate is not Chinese. As I said earlier, the human body is the same, it has the same limitations. All martial arts are restricted by human motion. I study and watch the different martial arts, and use the best of all movements and kata. From my experience and daily training I engineer techniques. Karate and the martial arts in general have developed over the years through training, experimentation in combat, and then through further training. It is a cycle and is consistent with history.
(AB) Even though your training is centered on traditional budo karate, the JKS is producing many champions for example Mr. Tsuchiya, Mr. Inada and Mr. Matsuzake. Can you explain this?
(TA) Yes, these karateka do martial arts not sports karate as that is their focus. For example, many judges in the JKF (Japan Karate Federation) have said to me, Mr. Tsuchiya is doing martial arts in his kata and they are very happy. For 3 years straight Mr. Tsuchiya has won the JKF National Championships in kata with his Sochin kata, also the Asia Championships and the JKS World Championship. His karate is martial arts karate, not sports karate, just like the other JKS instructors around the world, you included. As you know, sports karate is very easy. If people study karate as an effective martial art, it is easy to do anything. Sports karate, this is only a small part of karate, those who follow my way truly understand this. There are no short cuts in traditional karate. Those who train just for sports have a limited life in karate, and will never possess truly effective combat techniques.
(AB) Sensei, every day when I sit with you at breakfast, before various seminars around the world, I know you have already done your two-hours of morning training. Can you give us an insight into your highly rigorous and disciplined routine?
(TA) Myself I am always thinking, I am a karate student... Every morning I practice; training, training, and more training. I am always thinking and developing my skills. This has continued day after day, every day of my life. 1 study karate, this is one point, but on a bigger scale I am thinking and training martial arts, some people cannot comprehend this type of thinking. My life is not just karate. Some people are thinking only karate, they say I am a karateka or I do Shotokan, this is easy! It is O.K. but you must think and train as a martial artist, and constantly learn as a student. That is my motivation for my morning training. Training every morning is very hard as it pushes me mentally, physically and spiritually, particularly when feeling tired, but I keep training. Never give up!
(AB) Sensei, what is your advice for all karateka who really desire to improve themselves and reach high standards in the martial arts?
(TA) For everyone who reads this I have serious advice, you must have a target in your training! For example self-defense, health, make a strong spirit and so forth. Make a target and make a sincere effort to follow the Dojo Kun in your daily life, in and outside of the dojo. This is important, firstly to have a defined goal or goals, and secondly to make a sincere effort to foster a good heart. If people do this, they are true followers of karate-do and the martial arts.
(AB) What is the meaning of the Japan Karate Shotokai 'Mon' (the crest/badge) you created? Note: Asai Sensei told me to ask this question as he wanted to publically put it to rest. Apparently he has been asked the meaning of the JKS logo in all of the foreign countries where he taught seminars, and was sick of being asked!
(TA) The gold circle represents the sun. Obviously without the sun everything in nature dies. The green wreaths around the outside of the sun represent the international community in much the same way the Olympic wreaths do. The logo is representative of the JKS as an international traditional karate-do organisation which fosters worldwide peace, collaboration and development of martial arts karate.
(AB) What do you think about Mr. Charles Lee’s sponsorship of my organisation?
(TA) The new dojo is great for you and your members André , I think it’s now the biggest JKS and IJKA dojo in the world! I saw that you have taught Mr. Lee Rakuyo, Shotei-dai and other kata. Mr. Lee enjoys karate and has trained for a long time under my student, and your friend, Mr. Fujiwara. So sponsoring the dojo for you, in your small city, is also good for him to access to your high technical standards and kata knowledge. Mr. Lee told me that he came to New Zealand for you, as you wouldn’t move to Hawaii to teach, so that is a compliment. André, your karate attracts people because you are very unique and possess martial art karate technique. So Mr. Lee’s financial support does not surprise me, however, I admit I was surprised to hear that you didn’t move to Hawaii to work for him there. Why not?
(AB) Sensei, I told Mr. Lee that I didn’t want to move to Hawaii this year as I had only just arrived back from Japan, and wanted to spend a couple of years teaching karate in New Zealand. So Mr. Lee visited the JKS New Zealand Honbu Dojo and offered to sponsor a new dojo for me to teach at. During this first time, he stayed at my mother’s house and we conducted several trainings for my students. Later, after Mr. Lee returned to Hawaii, I was asked to look for a potential building to set up as a dojo. The Southwark Street building appealed to Mr. Lee, so here we are!
Lastly Sensei, what is the future direction for Budo Karate?
(TA) For people to be able to do karate throughout their lives and keep improving. Everyone can practice karate-do. In regards to groups around the world, division in karate is not good. It is always because of ego, because everyone wants the top position in national federations and so on. I think if people want the top position in karate they have to train more than the others (laughs). For example if doing a seminar with me the top people should train seven to ten hours per day then perhaps they don't want the top position, they just want to quietly train and improve. This is because they are too busy wanting to be called the chief instructor or something. This is very stupid! Too many people want to be the boss more than they want to train and improve their own karate. My organisation is a martial arts organisation and I am a karate-man not a politician.
(AB) Thank you so much Sensei for doing this interview! We can't wait to get you back to New Zealand for more Technical Seminars and great times, OSU!
(TA) My pleasure Andre, OSU!