Part 2 Interview with D.Kirkham SKU Director of Coaching

by Steve Redburn
Article first Published (February 2013) Issue # 50

It’s really great to catch up with you Sensei, for part two of the interview that was started part 1 by Rachael Reiko Murakami (August 2010) Issue # 40:   Thanks for taking the time out to do it with me.    
    Your welcome Steve, how is that broken arm healing?

Its on the mend thanks, the plaster comes off next week.

Q1:  In part one of the interview you mentioned that as a young boy that you travelled around your region for sometime, looking for any demonstrations or open sessions at clubs that would allow younger students to attend; why was that?

    Well simply because at the time we had no other options as Karate was in short supply locally and we were too young to join a club, it just wasn’t so easy to find a club that was interested in taking a 9 year old boy, because there wasn't the same amount of opportunities then, unlike there are today for younger students. My good friend used to have KOA, karate and oriental arts, a magazine on regular order and it was a life line to the would be martial arts enthusiasts of the day, such as we were, it had information in it, of events and contact addresses to write to, and we did write, so that we could be kept informed of any events that were upcoming and being held locally to us. We were prolific letter writers and I can only just imagine what the recipients must have thought of the barrage of mail that they were receiving from these two young lads who were constantly asking for information. Remember that this was 20 years before the internet was invented so no email and instant replies those days, we would have to wait weeks but I still remember the excitement of getting the replies that had useful information on events. When I receive mail nowadays from people who  are asking questions what many would view as mundane enquiries, I always try to recall of how eager that I was to get started and therefore I always answer all of my correspondence personally and insist that anyone connected with the Shotokan Karate Union must never ignore any genuine enquiry. The magazine was produced by Paul Crompton who featured people in those early days who were "real people" by that I mean that they weren't the polished finished article, they wore gi's that hardly fitted them and we as kids felt that our goal of becoming karate-men was an achievable aim, but the magazine also featured what we thought of as the more exotic, in other words people who looked like karate gods even in those days, people like Mr Kanazawa and Enoeda. I remember one issue had a photo of Mr Kanazawa on its cover and he was performing a breaking technique on what seemed to me at that age, to be something the thickness of half a tree trunk, he was being observed by Lee Marvin the actor. I was so impressed by this powerful image that I remember having to mention its effect on me to Mr Kanazawa when I first met him, when I was a youth. I also mentioned it again to him many years later when I was interviewing him; he said that he remembered me as a youth being excited by it. I added that I believe his photo was my inspiration to experiment with tamashiwari many years later in the 80s, he smiled and looked at my knuckles "no damage done then!". At the time the magazine cost the princely sum of 3/6d which is the equivalent of 17 pence in today’s money, but when my pocket money was only 2/6d a week, my friend and I used to share the cost and we would swap the magazines between us after reading them from cover to cover. Armed with the details of these events chris and I would take the train and more often than not it would also involve taking a bus to the venues that were situated all over the region as we were both far too young to drive. This went on until we were old enough to be accepted into our first fulltime training dojos, that’s why some people exaggerated a little about their age and they gained their dojo membership earlier, unfortunately we only looked our age and we had to wait.

Q2:  That does sound like a true labour of love especially to people who are reading this and are new to karate, as nowadays they will never have had a difficulty in finding a karate club to join. You also say that at that time the average age of the karate-ka was much older than today?

    Yes the average age of the bulk of club members was considerably higher than today; there was a hard core of members at most clubs that were in their mid 20s and the higher grades seemed to be in their late 20s early 30s. My first fulltime training dojo had a strict no child membership policy. I think that the same age group are more attracted to MMA training than karate nowadays, and that is why many clubs have more juniors when compared to seniors in their ranks. I saw a local club in the press recently advertising, that they accept students from as young as 4 years old.  Whilst I understand the benefits of a junior feeding programme to bring through karate educated students into the adult ranks, and how it gives them a head start on their adult training career. I also agree with specialised karate classes just for kids, especially as one of our club instructors, runs a programme that dedicates itself specifically to junior karate-ka, aged 6 years and above; but 4 years old, come on! That is bordering upon being no more than a cheap baby minding service, twice a week for mum and dad.

Q3: You said your first fulltime training dojo was run by a yellow belt?

    No, my first full time training club was founded by Roger Spencer, who was a yellow belt when he started the club and he was a purple and white belt when we started training at the club and shortly after us joining he passed his brown belt grading. As Tom Jones might say it, that's "not unusual" for the period. There are many famous high ranking heads of associations today that were encouraged to start a club at the rank of yellow belt in those early days, and many clubs were started by enthusiasts merely as a means of them getting someone to do extra training with on the nights that they were not at their regular training dojo. I am still very friendly with roger who is now retired from karate but we often recall when we were training together and he remembers a couple of his contemporaries who also started their clubs when they were also yellow belts.

Q4: Again it sounds a strange concept to start a club at yellow belt just for extra nights training as there are so many options for students these days to train every night if they so desire.

    That’s right, I know exactly what you are saying but without instructors such as him, enthusiastic people who were situated all around the country, then karate would not be as readily available to the many as it is today. Those classes were run by instructors who were operating on high octane raw enthusiasm, and they displayed their dedication and love of the art with a passion every time they put on their gi's. Yes today there are more opportunities for students to train everyday of the week if they so desired but equally there are more instructors out there, who merely look upon their students as financial units and they offer their extra classes as an opportunity to gain further revenue from their financial units. But when I started, students were being taught traditional karate by traditional methods in damp church halls and the facilities were minimal, things were not run on a commercial basis yet the clubs thrived, as they were a group of like-minded people and there was a very strong sense of belonging, in my experience no one was treated as a financial unit.

Q5: You have trained with many of the highest ranking experts, sadly many who have passed away now and you have also trained with instructors from numerous styles of karate over the years, what benefits have you got from the whole experience?

    It wasn’t easy because in the early years, as there weren’t so many associations to choose from and it was an unspoken taboo if one decided to go outside of ones own organisation to train with other high ranking instructors. If anything is a definite improvement in today’s world of karate, then this is. I refer to training with other instructors and organisations; today it isn’t as frowned upon as it used to be. However, there are of course some organisations that hold firm to the idea of "it is not permitted to train with other organisations". This attitude change has been long overdue and is welcomed greatly by us.  When I said that "there is no one man who has all the answers to another mans questions!" what I exactly meant was that you should look around and gain from the experience of the many, rather than just learning from the one source. Yes I have been exceedingly fortunate to have gained access to and experienced from many sources around the world, too many individual names to name here, and you are correct I have seen many changes and trained in a wide variety of venues in this country ranging from small village halls, sports venues like crystal palace to purpose built luxurious private dojos; and abroad at venues such as state of the art national sports centres, the old J.K.A H.Q. in Ebisu and the old S.K.I. H.Q. in Yotsuya, I've trained at a tiny dojos even one that was in the middle of an agricultural area outside Izumi Japan which was surrounded by rice fields and the training there was terrific, the weather however, was very humid indeed, so much so that they would slide open the sides of the dojo and reveal that you were among the crops and you could hear the frogs and insects in the fields. I have never forgotten the courtesy that I was shown by the many over the years, and that is why I intend on continuing to pass on what I have learnt with the same open door policy environment, and that is why the Shotokan Karate Union has many of its members who hold dual membership and these members are free to discuss and demonstrate their methods and equally they are welcome to learn from other like-minded karate-ka who have had a different source of their input. The Shotokan Karate Union runs all of its seminars and training sessions in an environment where safety and the non judgemental approach are the standard; of course anonymity for our members with dual affiliation is also a guaranteed. 

 Q6: What do you mean by anonymity?

    Well as I explained earlier that sadly even in this day and age there are still some associations that insist on 100% loyalty from its membership to their association, and as a result they forbid their members from going outside of their association for instruction, grading, competitions or any contact whatsoever. That is why the Shotokan Karate Union offers dual affiliation membership with grade recognition and membership anonymity guaranteed if required; as we openly encourage all of our members to make links with and participate in inter organisational communications. Over the next decade or so there will be an explosion when many junior instructors will follow the current trend of flying the nest and running their own smaller groups. They will however, have to be careful that they don’t isolate themselves, because with isolation comes the unhealthy by-product of a loss of maintaining ones own educational advancement and the traditions and the traditional values suffer, through the over diversification and personalisation of the style. So then, in planning for the future the Shotokan Karate Union still feels that our open door policy is for us, the only way to go!

Q7:  Tell us something about your comment, that you "got involved in Karate in a period when even the most basic of equipment, like karate suits were difficult to buy locally."

    Yes I know it makes me sound like a dinosaur but it’s true, that before the Bruce Lee boom period of the mid to late 1970s, even karate suits were difficult to source locally. There was only one sports shop in the town that sold them and then they only got them in to order, that’s why you would see people starting their first karate class wearing a second hand judo gi, this was simply because judo was much more popular than karate at that time, especially as it had recently gained entry into the Tokyo Olympics and therefore, the judo gi was more easily obtainable. When we started training we turned up for our first class, with one of us wearing a poorly fitting second hand karate suit and the other two of us wearing karate suits that were hand made by my mum. She made them from a flimsy lightweight white cotton material and it was cut using a pyjama pattern. Unfortunately, on the first occasion when we were practicing jodan kicks, the gusset split on my trousers allowing me to unceremoniously display my credentials to the rest of the class. It is very funny looking back at it now, but very embarrassing at the time for a self conscious young man. I am still friendly with a contemporary of mine from that time, although he has retired from karate now, he was a couple of kyu grades above me, and he was and is a renown no nonsense tough guy locally, and recently we were together watching a video of karate that was filmed in the 1920s; in the video the Okinawan karate-ka were all wearing nothing more than skimpy loin cloths and as we got around to talking about how things had changed over the years in so many ways since we trained together, I asked him did he recall the incident when my home made gi split? He did remember but he answered, "that was nothing!”  Then he told me the story of his first lesson, how he was from a poor family and while he was keen to join the club he didn’t have any sports kit or access to a karate suit so for his first lesson he was reduced to wearing his underpants that looked like sports shorts.  And as we continued watching the 1920s Okinawan's, he said that, when he started karate that he knew nothing of the ways of karate and when the coach paired him up with a partner for kihon kumite practice, he put his head down, ran in and tried to rugby tackle his opponent, that was until his underpants slipped down in the skirmish. Now that’s what I call embarrassing hahahaha, it made me feel so much better about my embarrassing experience. Yes equipment was difficult to source but after the boom period shops started to stock karate suits but not the belts, so we were forced into dying our belts after each grading. My old brown belt started out life as my white belt, I found it in a box a few months ago and all the memories came flooding back. One member of the club was very popular because he had a copy of Henri Plee's book "Karate: Beginner to Black Belt" which for us, it was the holy grail, and it was looked at by us all after every training session to see if we could learn something extra, that was true until we discovered Nakayamas' "Dynamic Karate" which was and still is a great piece of work.

Q8:  What did you mean in part one of the interview when you said about it being a politically hostile time?

    Quite so and while some experiences were totally politically orientated and were generally undertaken to gain and maintain their market share, other experiences however, were quite physically hostile and as I said they were straight out of a Kung Fu movie scene. Like in any environment where some people are professional and earning a good living from there activities then there will always be a politicising and an undercurrent of self protectionism to maintain what they have worked hard to build. I remember an incident when a club instructor from a no nonsense Okinawan style of karate, came to call on us one evening at our dojo and while we always had an open door policy, this one person was very hostile right from the word go, as he kicked the door open and began to call out across the class in the direction of our instructor. He was making assertions of how his style was the hardest in the world and how that "this town isn’t big enough for the both of us!” Laugh? Well we did, at his gunslinger approach and his cliché vocabulary. Our instructor calmly left a brown belt in charge of the class while he went outside to discuss the situation with this chap, he highlighted how it was unwise and poor etiquette for him to come down to our dojo trying to humiliate him in front of the class. It was a short but decisively well punctuated discussion and once the ambulance had taken the unwanted visitor away, our instructor came back into the dojo and normal coaching service was resumed. Another incident was when an instructor came down uninvited to my club, and he brought with him his senior student as backup. As he was one grade up on me, and at his personal insistence, I allowed him to take the class for me, and at the end of the class he demanded with menace, yes demanded, that he was given the whole of the nights training fees. However, we were a not for profit club and giving him the nights training fees was an impractical suggestion, so we settled on me giving him a set fee for his impromptu instruction. I thanked him and made it clear that he is welcome at the club anytime but we couldn’t afford to finance him when he arrives unannounced. This seemed to fall upon deaf ears as the next training night he turned up again, and again with his senior student in tow as backup. He decided that the theme of the session would be 100% dedicated to as he put it "real life kumite practice" whatever that was? The class started with a line out and when I noticed that my lower graded students were getting a rough ride from him and his student, I called out "stop this now!" So he got all the class to sit down and they were told that they would be privileged to watch the exhibition by him, one where he would be performing kumite techniques which were all to be delivered at maximum speed and with no control, and how I was to be the lucky person who he was going to demonstrate these techniques on. Well that was HIS plan! I however, didn’t subscribe to his plan. He stepped back in kamae-te but after that things didn't go exactly as he planned it, as I launched a pre-emptive attack and put to bed his would be punishment beating or should I say his exhibition as he phrased it. He was so totally shocked that he had to withdraw immediately and put his senior student in to take his place, who also received an abrupt rebuttal by me of his unwanted advances. Afterwards I immediately called an end to the session and left the two of them with no doubts whatsoever, that if they were ever passing by my club again, then that is exactly what they should do "carry on and pass it by" as they were not welcome at my club ever again. These sort of examples of angry outbursts were not everyday common place, but they were however, too frequently replicated in the early days and they are one of the reasons why I personally have no time whatsoever for politics in karate, it's why I have a none hostile approach towards other organisations and their members. It is also why the Shotokan Karate Union has since it was established in 1985 attracted members from the majority of the mainstream organisations.

Q9: When you said that personal events made you reassess certain aspects of your own karate study, was this the hardest period for you of your Karate career?

    I think everyday of the first 45 years of my study were possibly the hardest period; but after that 45 year teething period it just seemed to get real easy after that ! But seriously, yes it was a difficult period for me on a personal level as the loss of two loved ones affected me more than I ever imagined. I feel that if it wasn't for the ever constant in my life, my personal karate training regime, then I think that I may not have got through what was a very tough period. There was a positive to come out of this period of personal reflection as it led me to reassess the more neglected areas of karate practice and I found great solace in their systematic practice, simply because I reaped the benefits of it in the execution of my basic technique.

Q10: What projects are you involved in at the moment?

    At the time of the first part of this interview as a result of personal events in my life, I had my enthusiasm to revisit the more neglected basic areas of karate study rekindled and when I introduced the theme to my students at club level, they seemed to enjoy and benefited from the practice too, so much so that I was being asked by club instructors at an association level to visit their clubs to cover the same subject matter. It wasn't anything glamorous, it was purely the dynamics of basic technique, the nuts and bolts mechanics of correct technique delivery. It seemed that the reason for this aspect of training being neglected was as a result of the latest trend that was being consumed with relish by students, which lead to neglecting this constantly important aspect of ones training in favour of what could only be described as an unhealthy preoccupation with "collecting new kata!" By that I mean there are a vast array of relatively new kata that are becoming the in vogue collectable of late; they have entered on to the radar of the mass ranks of Shotokan Karateka for various reasons. This isn't a bad thing on its own, however, when students are merely learning the established 27 core kata of the shotokan system at a superficial level, so that they can tick them off on some sort of mental checklist and then they can put them into cold storage and rush past them to cram in and expand their collection with these new kata. Likewise, some sport karate-ka are learning kata from other styles than their own before gaining a proficiency in their own kata. When collection over proficiency, quantity over quality is the preoccupation, then this is a problem, as it was leading to a noticeable downward spiralling of standards in the understanding of and the performance of the 27 core kata. It's seemed that it was becoming more desirable for some students to say that they "KNOW" 50 kata, than it was for them to be able to say that they can perform well and understand the 27 core kata of their own styles system. So having noticed this undesirable trend, the Shotokan Karate Union set about refocusing the attention of its members, towards the more thorough and diligent practice of the 27 core kata. The aim was to get the students to appreciate that they don't really "KNOW" 50 kata! They merely have a nodding acquaintance with them! When they analysed how many kata that they could confidently say that they really knew, it was only then that they realised that "collecting kata" is fine and it does indeed expands upon ones appreciation of your own systems kata, but not if it comes at the detrimental cost of neglecting their own Shotokan systems 27 core kata.  This lapsed period of focused direction had to be addressed immediately before it became endemic, and therefore, we corrected this minor issue by refocusing our efforts upon improving our performance through the study of the dynamics of basic technique, the nuts and bolts mechanics of correct technique delivery

Q11: What are the 27 core kata?

    The 27 Kata that are at the core of the Shotokan Karate Union Grading Syllabus, are : Kihon Kata,  Heian 1 2 3 4 5, Tekki 1 2 3,  Bassai dai & sho, Kanku dai & sho, Enpi, Jion, Jitte, Jiin, Hangetsu, Wankan, Meikyo, Sochin, Chinte, Gankaku, Nijushiho, Unsu, Gojushiho dai & sho. Kata from other styles are taught purely for interest as an extention to the official syllabus, and generally they are taught by guest specialist coaches, from that style.

Q12: What other projects are you involved in currently?

    Well the refocusing of our efforts upon improving our performance through the study of the dynamics of basic technique, the nuts and bolts mechanics of correct technique delivery led me to being asked to produce a short series of breakdown articles on the topic, and of course you are aware of those aren't you? As you were in many of the photos!

Yes I was and I found it a very interesting experience, thanks for inviting me to do it.  

    Hahaha just remind me, wasn't that when you broke your arm?

Yes it was, but not during the photos for the karate! I slipped over getting out of my car during all of that snow that we had.

    Didn't you tell your wife that you did it blocking a powerful kick?

Well yes that was my secret until now!

I better wrap the interview up now before you expose all of my little secrets. Thank you again Sensei for the interview  

    Your welcome Steve, and may I take this opportunity to congratulate all the members of the SKU England team and Mr Mason their coach on their success in the recent International Match against the Japan team, the event was held in Osaka Japan.

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