Part 1 Interview with D.Kirkham SKU Director of Coaching

 by Rachael Reiko Murakami
Article First Published (August 2010)  Issue # 40

Q1: Quite often we hear how things were very different years ago in this country, how was it when you first got involved in the Fighting Arts ?    

    Well I was born in 1956, and the Martial Arts (MA) were at that time still a very mystical and an exotic form of fighting art in this country. To put things into perspective, Gichin Funakoshi only died on
April 26th 1957 and the JKA worldwide expansion was no more than a hopeful plan. The British Karate Federation had just been formed 1956-1957.
Attitudes in society have altered greatly since I started to study the MA, and today, the non participating general public (an outsider of the established MA fraternity) I feel, do not, look at the MA in the same way as people used to. They have been corrupted by the instrument which served the MA so well in its popularisation and allowed it to grow to where it is today, I refer specifically to the film industry. Over the years they have
distorted the publics view and perceptions of the MA.

The public now have such a wide choice of sporting activities to participate in. And all sports have greater accessibility and affordability to the general public these days, than when I was a youth. Sadly MA arts classes today are merely just another activity choice for the public to participate in. However, MA was looked upon and treated as a lifestyle choice more than a sporting pass time in the early days and not wishing to sound like some gung ho, old timer, but training was a more brutal and more readily accepted as a brutal and austere activity in the early days. I’m not for a moment advocating it as a prerequisite to ensuring or maintaining a degree of seriousness of purpose in its practice or as a method of achieving high technical standards, I’m just saying how it was at that time.

In the early days, MA were nowhere near as popular, nor were they taken for granted. Most MA’s were practiced by serious enthusiasts of an older average age, some clubs were run by yellow belts students in the church / village hall. MA were just not that readily available those days unlike today and sadly there was still a hangover of a prevalent post war anti Japanese feelings in some parts of society.

Q2: So how and where did you start your training ?

    My study and practice of the fighting arts started with boxing at the
King Street junior school. We took things very seriously indeed, although we hardly had any equipment to speak of. We would box stood on those brown harsh coconut mats that resembled a flat scrubbing brush and they really did feel like one too, especially when ones bare knees came into contact with them. They were also used for other activities elsewhere in the school, so two kids per mat were nominated to transport them, because of their weight we would have to drag them to position them in the hall every time we needed them for boxing. And the cloud of dust generated from those heavy mats as we flopped them into position, well; the dust cloud was enough to choke a horse or clog the lungs of any would be young athlete. The gloves were a similar horror story, not only were they a scarce commodity and very old, but they were those huge brown leather gloves approximately 3 times the size of the hands that were flapping around inside them. It took all of ones strength to lift them as tiny juniors. The only bonus was that as a junior we were always listed to fight first. This meant that the inside of the gloves were still dry, assuming that it was warm weather and they had dried out from the day before. In other words, as you progressed if you were an older boy then you would have to fight at the end of the training session and the gloves had been used by at least 6 other people before you that day and in winter they were wet, smelly and sweaty. The lumpy uneven gloves were filled with the now outlawed, horse hair, as a padding, and as the age of the gloves were considerably older than we were, then the leather had worn so thin that the spiky horse hair inside them would often poke through the wafer thin leather, we were more in danger of being speared in the eye with the rogue horse hair than we were of making a knock out blow on our opponents as our hands didn't fill the gloves adequately. This lead to bare knuckle sparring that was frowned upon but without enough equipment and set training times, then we had next to no choice. Looking back we didn’t feel hard done by, simply as we knew no better in those days.

Then I had Judo lessons whilst I continued with my Boxing. Although Judo was very different and equally enjoyable, there were quiet mutterings from some students, in both the Judo and Boxing camps, that there was something called “Karate” out there. It already had a following but it was trying to firmly establish itself here in the
UK. It was supposed to be an exciting blend of kicking punching and throwing. So as kids, we speculated in the inevitable comparisons of which is "the best fighting art". However, it took me my training life time, to appreciate that the valuable knowledge I gained during my Boxing and Judo study were not time wasted but were an alternative climbing route to reach the same mountain peak. Also that each and every MA in their own right, hold many secret gems and individual characteristics that are very effective in the hands of a dedicated and diligent practitioner. While the less than objective, over zealous partisan claims made by some enthusiasts of their chosen fighting art are still common place, it would in reality, be erroneous to make the rash claim that any MA is "The Best".

Q3: When did you first become involved in Karate ?

    It was in 1965 that I first saw KARATE. I was 9 years old, which was way too young in those days to be considered to start training, as the acceptable age was considered to be around 16 years old by most of the clubs. There was a demonstration and training session run by Vernon Bell at the Liberal Club in my home town and he had a young man with him a brown belt, by the name of Andy Sherry. This was not Shotokan Karate, but  was Yoseikan Karate, under the direction of the British Karate Federation, this was before the split and the foundation of the KUGB in 1966. At that age, I didn't understand about and frankly wasn’t interested in styles, politics, organisations, nor did I realise that I was watching the man who in 1966 would introduce the JKA instructors Mr Kase, Mr Kanazawa, Mr Enoeda and Mr Shirai to this country, I refer to, Vernon Bell, who later would rightly be known by many as the father of British Karate. I did know however, that I loved what I saw and I was in awe of and  so excited by it that I just had to know more. I continued to follow it, when I heard of any events within travelling distance that would allow someone as young as me to be there. 

Q4: So what did you do  then ?

    Well as I was too young for regular karate lessons, and on the rebound,  I went to a Wrestling club run by the great, Ted (Legs) Betley, he held it in the annexe of the local Victorian swimming baths at that time. Remember that things were not so well publicised or talked about in those days, so much so, that to my great surprise when I started wrestling, I didn’t realise that there was a young man who trained there who went to the same school as I did
, he was a much senior student to me, and he would later turn professional at the age of 16. He held a long career in the sport, and later became a World Champion Wrestler, Steve (wonder boy) Wright. He was a fast, clean wrestler of high technical ability and he was one of Ted Betleys top fighters. I enjoyed the wrestling very much but there was something missing for me.

Q5: Did you give up your interest in Karate at this time ?

No way!  As Karate was always there in my mind and was my true passion, ever since the day that I had seen that first Vernon Bell demonstration. Karate was in short supply locally, so much so that I remember having to travel by bus as a child all around the North of England, upon receiving the slightest of whispers that there was a Karate demonstration or even for the smallest chance to see more of this Karate. I fondly remember, regularly discussing and swapping details with my close friend the late Chris Finch about people and places that were holding a Karate session, people like Vernon Bell Yoseikan, Terry Wingrove, Harry Benfield, some of the sessions were exactly like today, some held great validity to ones search while other were less so.

Q6: Was Chris a contemporary of yours ?

    He was slightly older, but yes we were both very enthusiastic Karate devotees who were simultaneously searching for the right fighting art at the same time. Chris practiced Karate until he later discovered Aikido, which was after he had a period of flirtation with jujitsu, but he never lost his passion and interest for Karate. Aikido was the perfect blend for him to go alongside his chosen career as a physical-therapist. He managed to elongate my competitive Karate fighting days by several years with his healing skills. There was one major drawback 
however, of a visit to his clinical practice and that was during the treatment session, when I was on his treatment table, immobilised and totally at his mercy, I was subjected to the animated reruns of fights and training sessions that we had both experienced “when we were younger men“.

 Q7: You sound like you tried many different fighting arts when you were younger ?

    Looking back over at what I thought was a rather nomadic period of existence at the time, I now acknowledge that I was gaining a wealth of experience and skills from various fighting arts 
in my early years in pursuit of the right MA for me . I didn't realise that I would go on to utilise that knowledge in my Karate study and teachings later. It has also made me more appreciative of the valid input that can be gained from the study of other MA.

 Q8: How did you get involved in Shotokan Karate your chosen Martial Art, the one that you are best known for ?

     I had been training and travelling around the region for sometime, looking for any demonstrations or open sessions at clubs that would allow younger students to attend. I didn't know at the time but I was experiencing various styles and in the presence of many of the top instructors of the day. But I did know that I was merely filling in time until I reached an age where a club would accept me as a fulltime member. During that time however, there was little opportunity unlike today for younger students, as the average Karate-ka was so much older then than today. In the meantime a local club had started up but they had a strict no child membership policy. I understand that this child exclusion policy may be viewed as a strange concept these-days, when some clubs are now actively seeking and accept students as young as 4 and 5 years old, (which is something that I still have strong views upon); but that was the way it was then, (and on many occasions since I have had reason to think "thank god for that policy!").  Anyhow, as enthusiastic teenagers my cousin, a good friend of mine and myself, all enrolled for Shotokan Karate lessons locally. This was very early in the 1970s, when the KUGB were them-selves still young, and as they were the only available Shotokan game in town, we immediately signed up. The club was itself in a period of transition and was about to come under the full time instructional guidance of its founder,
Roger Spencer, who was then a newly graded Brown belt.  Roger was not so tall but he was very strong indeed, he was an exceedingly determined and powerful Karate-ka, who formed the club when he was a yellow belt and at that stage he used to invite brown belts down from other clubs to instruct, this was not unusual for that time. He ran the dojo adhering strictly to the JKA principles of the 3 K’s, KIHON, KATA, KUMITE. The training was very prescriptive, yet it was a highly beneficial grounding and was the best preparation that any Karate student could ever wish to acquire. The intensity was high impact and there was absolutely no room in the schedule for anything less than 100% concentration, perspiration and commitment during those training sessions, and for that, I am genuinely and truly grateful to Roger for. Kime and speed focused heavily (no pun intended) at the club, after one had reached brown belt. Ikken Hisatsu definitely was the aim, and I can still remember being impressed by the speed of Roger’s gyaku-tsuki and his ability to switch on the Kime!  Instructors such as him, all around the country, were the true backbone of Karate-do and were instrumental in a big way in the development of Karate in this country, as a result of their raw enthusiasm, dedication and love of the art. As the interest of my cousin and friend waned, they both dropped by the wayside but my hunger seemed to increase exponentially.  The club had a strong traditional theme with a no competition approach but I was hungry to experience this aspect of Karate. By this time I was old enough and had passed my driving test which meant that I was then able to get around the country and train with many more people. This new found mobility had another bonus for me, as I was able to drive myself to venues nationwide when visiting Instructors came over from Japan. It was much easier for me to gain further access and experience.

 Q9: I have heard you say many times before, that "the person who is the most innovative is the man who borrows from the most sources!", so was that the basis for your "have GI will travel" approach to your studies ?

    Yes sort of, but always remember that  "there is no one man who has all the answers to another mans questions!"  I got involved in Karate in a period when even the most basic of equipment, like  karate suits were difficult to buy locally, unlike today, and there were no videos or dvd's and the internet had not yet been invented. I found one of the disadvantages however, of travelling around to all those clubs and renowned Instructors, was that it sadly, made me very aware of the political nature of the Martial Artist! Looking back, some experiences were quite hostile and were straight out of a Kung Fu movie scene. Nevertheless, I was personally prepared to put politics aside, and I continued to learn from as many sources as I could, as I increased the depth and width of my knowledge base. It was during that time, that an instructor that I had become to admire greatly, Mr Kanazawa, had formed his own organisation in 1974. Of course, the circumstances surround the split from the JKA, to start his SKI  organisation, depending upon which camp one was listening to, differed immensely, but no matter what version of the story one wants to believe in, it didn’t alter a jot to the obvious outstanding ability of Mr Kanazawa’s Karate and that’s all that mattered to me. As a member of the K.U.G.B,  J.K.A at the time, I must admit, that soon after the S.K.I split, I quickly learnt that it was for the best for me if I did not wear a karate suit or belt that carried the JKA logo on it, when I was visiting an SKI dojo, as initially it presented its own challenges, as one would be a self nominated target for the evening, until they got to know you better, of course. I gained greatly from this journeyman approach to my Karate study and I was fortunate that at my regular club, training with other clubs was not frowned upon.

Q10: Politics tend to get in the way these days in many MA, was it the same then ? 

    I'm afraid so, and ironically, history has just continued to repeat itself, for example the acrimonious split of the KUGB from the JKA after the death of Mr Enoeda. Nowadays, politics in karate is prevalent and politicians worldwide are as highly strung as any finely tuned violin, so with so many groups too many to mention from around the globe that are laying claim to the JKA name, it was hardly surprising that law suits for ownership of the JKA brand after the death of Mr Nakayama were being thrown about. This in turn lead to further splits even from within the ranks of the high ranking Japanese satellite groups themselves. There is a palpable under current of hidden resentment that is bubbling up through the inscrutable public Zen face, between some rival organisations today as they try to bolster their membership, to the point that some groups don’t in practice encourage inter organisational cooperation. It seems to be that every decade or so there will be a new outbreak of organisational splits by the new generation of instructors who are coming of age. This isn’t to say that more organisations is a bad thing, but, I must highlight if no inter organisational communication or interaction takes place then often some of the original concepts and techniques may be lost or differ slightly each time a split takes place as a result of the Instructors personal preference and their differing opinions on interpretation. Whilst splits of course, spoil the Utopian ideal of maintaining the original concept of training under one Shotokan banner, Instructors make decisions that are based on what is best to allow themselves and their students the freedom to grow and follow the path that is of most interest to them at that time. That’s why some groups strictly practise Karate as a traditional form of MA, while others focus only on the sporting / competitive aspects and some are merely interested in presenting Karate as a way to keep fit and as a means of self defence. The worst misuse of a resource and example of  how petty politics in the MA is an irrelevance, a totally unnecessary evil,  is the systematic undermining of other Karate-ka and or organisations in the related  media and nowadays on the web. I believe that people who participate in this behaviour have been nicknamed as Trolls.   A few years back there was a handful of bitter and twisted politicians in positions of prominence whose aim seemed to be to raise their self esteem,  their profile  and membership upon the back of unjustly being abusive  towards other organisations, individuals, opinions and  methodologies that differed from their own view. But isn't the freedom to choose which route to take, upon the very interesting journey of  MA  study, the thing which makes the MA such a fascinating pursuit and gives it its worldwide appeal. By now I shouldn't be, but even last week, I  was surprised to see how things seems to have got worse, when I read a barrage of ongoing derogatory comments, all  made by the same person . This lone assassin seemed to manage to have a controversial  and diametrically opposed opinion on every single topic that was in a particular publication. He managed to argue with  at least 10 different article authors from around the world, who collectively covered the complete spectrum of  philosophies within Karate. This deplorable display was brought to my attention by one of my senior students. Totally confused he asked me, "surely if the 10 authors represent all of the approaches, then how can 1 person argue with everyone?". I laughed and paused for a moment and replied, "if his aim is to appear as being Mr knowledgeable,  then the self acclaimed go to guru has failed,  as he has shot himself in the foot".  It is my firm belief that in the future, organisations will down size and clubs will return to the ways of the past, and therefore avoid being trapped by the negatives of the current organisational model . I believe they will follow the model adopted by the Shotokan Karate Union.

Q11: Tell us a little more ?

    The Shotokan Karate Union model is based on being a consortium, it's a coming together whilst retaining independence,  a coalition of like-minded members worldwide, who are free to run their own affairs with zero political interference. This allows them to follow the path best suited to their specific needs, yet at the same time they are in communication with others who are willing to share ideas in a non hostile, non competitive atmosphere, where they don't fear to express their opinions and understanding of their studies with other coaches. Because the Shotokan Karate Union does not have a designated Chief Instructor, they have senior members and a Director of Coaching; therefore, there is no political jostling for position. The consortium was a concept that was the aim at the foundation of the organisation, it seems to have worked very well thus far as we have past our 25th anniversary. When we were founded 1985  we started a few projects, 1: "Project 2000", which was a 15 year plan for the organisations advancement. 2: "The Coaching Award Scheme". Both of which were successful and far surpassed our expectations. We have members worldwide even in your home city in Japan, yet we still retain regionalised control over the day to day running of affairs.

Q12: What are the biggest changes you have experienced ?

    MA have changed for sure but the world has changed too. People in general today seem more impatient and require instant , guaranteed and tangible gratification from the MA. They demand success not in proportion to their efforts but in return for their membership dollar.  And it is this short sightedness, this materialistic attitude change, which is of most concern, as some organisations that have observed the shift, are capitalising upon it by diluting or certain cases even ditching altogether the traditional ways, merely as a business strategy for attracting more members. It's the move towards trends such as this that are detracting from and depriving new starters today from experiencing the true benefits that MA practice has to offer.  Since that  first exposure to Vernon Bells Karate demonstration in 1965, my conclusion has taken me a life time to arrive at and it is that, the study of the MA is a life long endeavour. It is said that the destination is of secondary importance to the experience of the journey itself and therefore, my belief is that, "Shotokan Karate is the everyday study in pursuit of technical excellence and self improvement".   Whilst Karate, Society, Attitudes and Ourselves have all developed, changed, grown and simply got older, and as none of the aforementioned variable elements have stood still during those 45 years, then the understanding of and mastery of any MA can only be described as a constant ongoing and changing struggle, a journey. But one that has been most beneficial to me personally in so many ways, none more so, than through the experiences I have had and the good friends worldwide that I have made during my long journey. 

Q13: So what is next for your journey ?

    Oh dear !  ask me something easier !  I plan to continue with my personal study and face the challenges that Karate throws one everyday, and as a result of recent personal events, I have had my enthusiasm to revisit neglected areas of study 
rekindled.  I have started a couple of projects that I intend seeing through to completion, which will keep me quite busy .  

Having studied with you for many years, I would like to thank you for your patience and for your frankness in this interview and I look forward to hearing more details of the projects that you are working on in due course.

    It has been a pleasure Rachael, you're very welcome. On a personal note may I wish you well for the birth of your first baby, I hope afterwards that you will return to your Karate study. As you have a wonderful talent and you would be greatly missed.

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