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Gavin J Poffley Interview

Gavin J Poffley began his martial arts training at the age of 15 in Somerset, South East England. In addition to having trained in both the classical and modern forms of Budo, Gavin has studied the Japanese language for over ten years and holds a Bachelors degree in Japanese language and culture from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London as well as a Masters degree in Japanese translation from the same institution. He has also spent several years living in Japan where he earned qualifications from Tokyo University of Foreign Studies andHiroshimaUniversity. This interview was conducted during the summers of 2009 and 2012.

Gavin what was it that initially spawned your interest in the martial arts?

I can remember seeing Jet Lee’s early films like The Legend of FongSaiYuk, as well as an old Japanese animation called Fist of the North Star on late night television when I was around 12 or 13 and thinking how amazing it looked. When I went to college to do my A-levels (High School for American readers) I saw an advert for a local karate and kickboxing club and joined up. I have been hooked ever since!

Did your interest in Japanese culture originate with the martial arts?

To a large degree I would say yes. I was always fascinated by the words that were used in the dojo and the idea that there was a whole culture hidden behind what we were doing. I used to read books on karate and get really curious about the country and its culture. Everything seemed so different and intriguing.  I am interested in many other aspects of Japanese culture as well but the martial arts have always been my strongest passion.

Did you hold any preconceived ideas about martial arts training in Japan, prior to moving there?

Yes and no. I had heard about the intensity of training some Japanese martial artists participate in and the very formal environment of the dojo so I imagined that these aspects would far exceed what I was used to in Britain. However, after learning the language for a year before going to live in Japan for the first time and making a lot of Japanese friends in London, I came to understand the need to keep a very open mind and be accepting of whatever differences you encounter. Not everyone seems to be able to manage it but I feel that if you want to really understand another culture, especially one as different as Japan’s, then you have to be aware of all your preconceptions and work past them. Don’t be surprised by anything and don’t immediately start judging the unfamiliar. You should always try to deal with the culture and society on its own terms. I think you learn a lot more that way and I think that this attitude really helped me to get inside the psychology of Japan and its martial artists.

What surprises awaited you that first year in Japan?

Funnily enough the things that struck me most in those early days were really little, general things like how clean and well organized everything is and how good the food tastes. I guess that probably says more about Britain than it does about Japan though. From a martial arts perspective what threw me most (apart from the old guard at the Tokyo gaigodai judo club!) was the fact that most of society is just as in the dark about the martial arts as it is everywhere. Perhaps I assumed that, being native traditions, there would be a wider appreciation and knowledge among the general population but that is just not the case.  The other thing was the massive contrast between the University martial arts world and “regular” dojos.

You belonged to the Hiroshima University Karate Club, how did that contrast with your training in England?

The university martial arts scene is one of the things that even knowledgeable martial artists who go to train in Japan often do not see. The university system in Japan has its own sporting subculture which has its origins in the military academies of the early 20th century. Those who participate will devote vast amounts of their time to training in their chosen discipline and psychologically very much “belong” to their club or team. The level of devotion is phenomenal and it really is its own enclosed little world. Martial arts such as karate are just one part of this culture but often exemplify its harshest tenets.

How much emphasis is placed on competition in the university clubs?

The obvious answer to me is around 80 to 90%. The modern budo ideal that through hard training itself martial artists are improving themselves is very much present and to the fore but most university judoka and karateka have only the vaguest idea of non sports oriented training.

As I mentioned above, the martial arts are very much a part of the youth sports culture and one of a school or University club’s major objectives is to train a team to compete in the numerous national and regional student competitions and win trophies for them. In this respect almost all of the training is geared towards competition. I can remember that in one year of training at Hiroshima University for 2 hours a day, 6 days a week, going up to 6 hours a day during holidays we maybe spent around 5 or 6 hours practicing kata in total!

Do the university clubs differ from those found locally?

Very much so. There are a number of differences. University clubs generally do not have an instructor present during regular training sessions. Graduates of the university club who have gone on to become teachers in their own right will infrequently turn up and may instruct for a bit but regular training sessions are led by a “shusho” (captain) and follow a proscribed pattern. How many European and American karateka could envisage doing exactly the same training session unquestioningly for 6 days a week I wonder?! University clubs are also organized strictly along the academic year of the members so they will line up with the 4th year students at the front going back to the first years at the back. Even if a first year has previous experience and has reached say shodan they will still defer to the senior students even though they may be of a lower grade. University clubs are perhaps one of the best places to see the sempai kouhai hierarchical system in action, both the good and the bad aspects of it.

Are the University Karate styles very comprehensive?

I can’t speak for all university karate clubs around Japan and those few that are affiliated with full contact styles like the Kyokushinkai are somewhat different but the technical content I have seen in most university clubs is incredibly narrow. There is lip service paid to a number of basic techniques but really, if it is not useful in competition it is not trained. I would say that in most sessions 70 to 80 percent of the techniques practiced would be mawashi geri, gyaku zuki or ashi barai arranged in an endless variety of combinations! This training environment and the intensity is very good for creating champion tournament fighters under very limited rules and make no mistake, some of the fighters they produce are unbelievable, but I find it quite a shame that you can have second or third dan recent graduates who don’t know how to throw an elbow strike and only vaguely know the enbusen for two pinan kata.

Westerners usually think of all Japanese as being die-hard martial artists, what is the reality of this perception?

Well as far as the general population goes that is clearly not true. Martial arts are regarded as a “3K” activity in Japan. This is not the “3K” that karateka will be familiar with (kihon, kata and kumite) but a description of something that is dirty, dangerous and hard work (respectivelykitanai, kiken and kitsui in Japanese). Despite the comparative popularity of fighting sports on TV there, most young Japanese are turned off by the idea of actually practicing them. The adult population, especially those of a more conservative bent generally has a respect and admiration for martial artists. You won’t get the bemused looks and puzzled expressions when you say you do martial arts that you might in the West but most Japanese are no more interested in going to the dojo than people elsewhere.

With regard to how Japanese martial artists are perceived in the West, I think that a lot of this image comes from the old stories about the original Japanese karate pioneers such as Kanazawa Hirokazu, Oyama Masutatsu etc, who were indeed somewhat exceptional, and the fact that the only direct experience most Western practitioners have of Japanese martial artists is with travelling expert instructors. If the only British martial artists you ever trained with were Steve Arniel, Iain Abernethy and Wayne Otto then you might start to think that we were all a bit full on as well (no offence to any of the fine gents mentioned above!). The majority of adult martial arts practitioners in Japan are unsurprisingly just everyday people with varying levels of dedication and talent.

Your dissertation is about the modernization of Japan’s martial arts. Could you explain this process and what it means for us today?

It has been a while since I wrote that now but I can certainly sum up my findings here. As many readers will know, the transition in the zeitgeist of Japan’s martial arts between the older, feudal systems now called koryu and the modern “gendai budo” occurred around the turn of the 20th century and was pioneered by Judo. This mirrors the broader trends in Japanese society at the time, which had just undergone a major political reorganization in the form of the Meiji restoration and was evolving at an almost unprecedented speed from an agrarian feudal society to a modern industrialized nation state in the span of about 20 years. There was a widespread culture of modernism, Westernization and revision of traditional practices. Something so closely tied to the old feudal order as the classical bujutsu ryuha could not conceivably have escaped the critical eyes of the reformers and the fact that the culture and focus of the martial arts was radically changed to fit a more modern society should be of no surprise to anyone. The most intriguing point here is that the form martial arts would take in this new order was largely the product of just one man’s vision. Kano Jigoro is in my opinion the single most influential martial artist who ever lived. With kodokan judo he basically formulated the whole model for how martial arts are taught, structured and operate in the modern era. His unprecedented influence then brought other arts like karate, kendo and aikido to adopt most of his innovations almost wholesale. Things like the familiar white dogi, the dan i ranking system and sports style competition are perhaps the most obvious examples but from the structure of large governing federations to the holistic philosophy of self improvement you will be hard pressed to find areas in modern Japanese budo that escaped Kano’s influence. I would wager that most of the things modern Japanese budo practitioners take for granted would look very different without these changes. I suppose you really would have to seek out one of the smaller koryu and spend time training with them to get an insight into what it used to be like. Even there you can see the modern ideas and attitudes to some extent now.

What impact did Kano’s philosophies have on karate?

Karate is unique among the modern Japanese budo in that it is not a modern derivation or amalgam of koryu bujutsu. As many people know, it was originally an Okinawan blend of Chinese influenced arts and other methods that has been adapted to Japanese sensibilities. Although Kano was not a direct player in the promotion of karate on the Japanese mainland he did have direct contact with Funakoshi Gichin and others and it is clear that in order to achieve popularity and acceptance most of the karate pioneers followed in his footsteps. Because karate had the extra obstacles of being from an obscure rural area, not being a part of the vaunted samurai tradition and having obvious foreign roots, it was perhaps even more imperative for those who wanted to promote it to align themselves with the status quo.

Competition is perhaps the most obvious example of where the Kano model has been adopted in karate and is quite alien to its original training format. There is also the need for strictly defined curricula and objective testing requirements and the conventions of large group based training.

Philosophically, the whole modern budo ideal of personal improvement through dedication and perseverance was pretty much imported wholesale by the newly emerging mainland karate. Most of the pre-Meiji karateka talk very little about moral improvement or contributing to society in their writings and we can clearly see the change in emphasis.

Had karate not been influenced by Japan’s military ideologies how would we be practicing it today?

The effects of Japans mid 20th century militarization on the martial arts community and practice are another big influence on the way martial arts are practiced today. In some ways this period can be seen as an extension of the Meiji societal reforms which owed a lot to the strengthening of the nation in the face of rampant Western colonialism in south East Asia. The national ideology that he military and the government tried to cultivate in the population drew heavily on an idealized version of the samurai ethos (often referred to as the “samurization of the masses”) and, alongside a highly nationalistic reinterpreting of the Shinto religion, one of the main tools used for fostering this spirit were the martial arts. Judo and kendo were the two systems co-opted by education and the military for this purpose, which explains why they were the first two the occupying forces banned after the war. A number of karate organizations were also directly involved in some way or another. Funakoshi’s son Gigo in particular was responsible for training military personnel. I would say that the aspects of training introduced at this time were the pseudo military style discipline and focus on group exercises such as mass kata. The idea of pushing oneself hard to achieve has always been present in the martial arts and in the Japanese context group focus and unquestioning obedience to authority are present in society at all levels but the formalization and overemphasis of these aspects were certainly not part of the highly personal karate training that took place on Okinawa pre 20th century.

Are there Western influences on karate?

I think there are, yes. It would be pretty implausible to think that karate would completely avoid Western influences after being trained in Western cultures for over 50 years. Certainly in full contact karate circles the use of modern weight training is one obvious influence although as a concept you could see this as an evolution of some of the traditional hojo undo found on Okinawa. Also, how many modern karateka hit bags for example rather than makiwara? On a purely technical level, a lot of the footwork seen in competition today was influenced by Western boxing

.There are many smaller cultural influences too. I can remember when I first started training at the Hiroshima University club that they would always refer to a specific combination of kizami tsuki followed by gyaku zsuki (e.g. jab cross) with the mysterious name “Wan Tsu” and I struggled to work out where this strange new term came from, assuming it must be a Chinese loan word or something. After about two weeks of hearing this day in day out it finally struck me that they were using the English “One, two” but with a Hiroshima accent!!

How important is the concept of style to karate?

I guess this comes down to a modern perception that groups martial arts into distinct "arts" and "styles".

Most modern martial arts practitioners tend to think in terms of "style X" of "art Y", so for example Shotokan karate or Aikikai aikido.

The implication here is often that all the different styles spread from one original one and are technically related.

The reality however is somewhat more chaotic. Some martial arts do indeed fit rather neatly into the pattern described above (aikido or taekwondo for example) but most have completely independent origins and lineages and are nowadays grouped together with other "similar" arts for convenience. Karate and jujutsu are prime examples of this.

The word “jujutsu” in particular is effectively little more than a group term for predominantly grappling based systems of medieval Japanese origin. Many arts that are referred to as jujutsu today probably never even used that term at all when they were founded. As far as I have seen “yawara”, “koshi no mawari” and “kumiuchi” were more common classically.

I think it helps to realize this dichotomy. A lot of people are fooled by the oriental terminology here. After all, how many Europeans or Americans would ask why Greco Roman wrestling and Cornish wrestling are different under the assumption that they are both derived from the same source due to them both being referred to as "wrestling"!!

I also think that style is overemphasized a lot today. This is ironic in the sports karate world because outside of the differences between full and semi contact rules sets the various “traditional” styles are almost invisible. In that respect each rule set could be thought of as a “style” in its own right.

If we ignore competitive styles then the question becomes more relevant because we are talking about lineages. Even so, despite the vast proliferation of different styles we have today I can only really see a broad distinction between the Naha te and Shuri te derived lineages. In terms of movement patterns most karate styles will fall into one or other of these camps. Uechi ryu and ryuei ryu are interesting examples because historically they came from their own lineages in China and arrived in Okinawa and thus Japan much later. However, the movements of both these styles are very close to the Naha te family and I don’t see them as completely unique.

 Funakoshi is on record as saying he disagreed with the idea of styles in karate and the reason he and most of the pioneers founded them was to fit in with the Japanese sensibilities that valued distinct lineage. This really does emphasize the differences in the martial culture of Japan and Okinawa. The Okinawans followed a Chinese inspired model of martial arts practice, respecting individual masters for their skill and crediting them for their student's achievements but without the formal, family like unit of the ryuha and the idea of a body of knowledge being passed on independently of the individual practitioner.

It is well known that the martial legends of China are all about the exploits of individual heroes with great skills whereas the annals of Japan's martial tales tell almost exclusively of prominent families and lineages.

Are the components of each style interchangeable?

To a large degree I would say yes. You see all kinds of amalgamations and cross fertilization in the martial arts, both in the modern context and throughout the history. There are a lot of myths going around about exclusivity and “purity” in martial arts systems but looking at the history it is clear that all methods are related and can be combined and adjusted to suit their user. It seems more than a little silly for example talking about the “purity” of the kyokushin style when Oyama created it from what he learned in shotokan and goju ryu with later influences from muay thai etc.

I think that the culture of adhering slavishly to the teachings of ones school derives from a widespread misunderstanding of the Confucian character and peculiar feudal nature of Japan’s koryu bujutsu. Martial styles as bodies of knowledge were viewed as possessions in the feudal era and were the property of the family or organization which practiced them. They had an “exclusive copyright” if you like. This is quite different from the modern view that knowledge belongs to anyone who has it. In the classical school’s internal hierarchies it was only the current inheritor, usually the patriarch of the family, who was allowed freedom in changing the “official” content of the style. Those who were not the official inheritor would only have the option of going off and founding their own lineages. However, in reality this was very much about keeping up official appearances (tatemae, a very important Japanese cultural tenet) and at the level of the individual you would still have had much cross training and personal variation. In fact the curriculums of many classical schools have semi-formal sections called “kufuden” and “gaiden” specifically for invented techniques or methods borrowed from other schools.

When the martial arts adapted to fit a modern society this idea of official exclusivity became somewhat distorted.

Ultimately, all martial arts boil down to collections of combative principles and knowledge of how to apply and train these. As long as the person teaching the system fully understands the purpose of each exercise and can coherently combine them then really they are free to pick and choose from anything and everything available. The problems start to emerge when instructors only half understand the exercises they teach and what they are for.    

What role does kata have in karate?

As I see it, karate’s kata are collections of techniques that illustrate combative principles. They could be described as the technical syllabus of a karate system if you like although a lot of styles also have techniques that are not covered by the traditional kata such as mawashi geri and practices that kata does not cover such as body conditioning with equipment. Still, it is not the individual techniques themselves that are important but the principles of body movement and associated combat knowledge that they illustrate. The solo forms do have other benefits such as physical conditioning but that is just incidental.  In my opinion you don’t learn or internalize the skills the kata tries to teach you by doing it alone. Combat is an interpersonal exchange and the unknown factors of an opponent’s reaction are essential for properly understanding it. The solo kata can certainly teach good form and that is perhaps the best place to start learning anything but in order to really learn how to strike someone or grapple you have to get used to doing it with a partner. This kind of training is known as kumite. Once a student has practical experience of the technique and understanding of the principles behind it then the kata takes on the role of a mnemonic. Each time you perform the kata with a real knowledge of each movement’s meaning that knowledge will be further ingrained into muscle memory.

 Although they are ingeniously designed, I do believe that it is entirely possible to teach karate without the traditional kata. I recently attended a seminar where they were doing just that. You simply teach the principles and techniques without referring to the solo patterns. Solo forms are cleverly put together records that contain a great deal of knowledge and were used to transmit this in a largely illiterate culture in a hands on way. They are not the only method of recording however.

How do karate’s kata differ with those of the Japanese martial arts?

The kind of choreographed sequences known as kata that karateka are familiar with are quite different to the exercises in mainland Japanese martial arts of the same name and actually follow a Chinese model. Seeing as Okinawan culture and thought was arguably more Chinese influenced than Japanese this makes a lot of sense.

The word kata is a uniquely Japanese one and as far as I am aware has no direct equivalent in Chinese. I am not completely sure of its origins but would hazard a guess that it comes from the world of traditional performing arts such as noh and kabuki. The concept of kata itself is not unique to martial arts and can be found in a lot of other traditional practices such as the tea ceremony and even in calligraphy. The literal meaning here is "form" but the character used is a very simple one and can also be used to mean "shape" in the most basic sense. The concept of "kata" in mainland martial arts is a huge and nuanced topic in its own right but can be summed up as “a formalized exchange involving actual techniques in ideal circumstances ". Most traditional koryu kata are just that, fixed down to the last detail for both partners. Importantly, mainland kata is mainly a partnered exercise. Generally solo practice would be referred to as "suburi" (lit: fundamental swings) for weapons systems and was not common at all in unarmed ones (possibly due to the prevalence of grappling techniques that really cannot be trained solo very well), so much so that I am unaware of a widespread term for it before the advent of striking oriented gendai budo like karate and shorinji kempo.

In karate this type of training is usually called yakusoku kumite or sometimes bunkai kumite and kata is used for the stage before that, the solo form from which these drills are taken.

The karate idea of "kata" should in all fairness probably have a different name as it is using the Japanese word "tacked on" to represent what is originally a Chinese concept. In modern (post 1920) times sometimes a similar yet different character is used to address this. This alternative ideogram has the meaning of a "mould" or "template" in the sense that by internalizing this template the student will acquire the correct movements.

Is it possible that some of the traditional karate kata were developed after karate was introduced to Japan?

Seeing as how practically all the records of karate’s early development were lost during the bombing of Okinawa in the Second World War I would say that it is entirely possible. I suppose it also depends on what you class as “traditional kata”. The fukyu gata in goju ryu and shotokan’s taikyoku and ten no kata are all examples of kata created since karate was exported to Japan’s mainland and they follow the format of the supposedly older forms to a great extent. Also, some other kata have been modified so much that they might as well be new creations. 

You study classical kata quite a bit.  Why?

I feel that the kata are both an excellent way of teaching the fundamental movements of karate and a brilliant way to train alone. Of course, you have to do them properly in coordination with other training methods and have at least some coherent idea about the bunkai though. All the depth and technical substance of karate can be found in the kata and without it you risk limiting yourself greatly. The more I look into and practice kata the more “secrets” I notice and there is a real feeling of achievement to see things add up when you work out a new application.

I can understand those who don’t train the traditional kata though and if they have other exercises and methods to teach the same kinds of principles and techniques then I don’t think they are missing so much. It is undeniable that a lot of the core principles of kata bunkai have been lost or obscured over time and spending training time on other proven exercises is probably a lot more productive than doing kata badly.

I do also have an academic interest in the form and evolution of kata and what they can tell us about the evolution of karate and the ideas of the people who created them. It is for this reason that I have studied a large number of forms from different styles although I only train a few regularly and in-depth.

You fought full-contact for a number of years, how did this help your karate?

I think that there is a danger among karateka who don’t ever do contact sparring that they will never instinctively grasp the mental and physical realities of combat. I am no expert by a long way but I feel you need to experience both giving and taking impact in a reasonably realistic manner to get a proper feel for what you are doing. It is also surprising how different hitting full contact with bare fists is to hitting hard with gloves.

My full contact experiences really did change my outlook on martial arts and in my training I now always focus on generating power as a primary concern. I also absolutely love the low roundhouse kick to the thigh that remains my favourite technique to this day!

Gavin you often speak of the impact language has on the martial arts, what insights do you get from reading original Japanese martial arts texts?

It is a privilege to be able to read original texts on the martial arts in Japanese. Not just the classical works but modern ones too. The sad fact is that there is a lot of information that doesn’t get translated simply because it would not be profitable to do so. I have done a study of Japanese martial arts literature translated into English and found that it is mainly only the general, introductory type stuff that gets done. Comparatively few martial artists are so interested in the historical or cultural side so there just isn’t the market to warrant the expenses of translation and publishing.

Something that is sorely lacking from the English language martial arts literature is proper historical analysis. Most books seem quite happy dealing with the accepted legends and stories without looking into the actual historical facts. There are also a much broader variety of opinions than you might expect. As an example I recently bought a book that interviewed 5 senior kyokushin based karate teachers in depth, ostensibly about karate and its relevance to self protection. They all approached the problem very differently and the technical content of what they showed was completely different. Some of it was really good too. You would never see a book like that published overseas and I think that is a shame.

As far as the real “old classics” go, the most important thing to be aware of is that Japanese authors tend to be very vague and suggestive in their style and leave a lot open to the interpretation of the reader. The older the language gets the more this is accentuated, meaning that a deep understanding of the context and period the text was written in is essential. Often the messages they are trying to get across are quite simple but can be obscured by not understanding the mentality of the writer. 

How has the language barrier affected karate’s transmission to the West?

There are of course endemic problems with using a plethora of foreign language terms in such a specific context as martial arts and misunderstandings and misinterpretations are perhaps unavoidable when the majority of practitioners will have no special familiarity with the language or its parent culture.

I would say that often it is not what is said that causes confusion but what is not. The culture that most Japanese martial arts teachers who come to the West are used to is often very different to that of the people they teach. In Japan it is generally accepted that you will learn the why and wherefore of something in good time and should leave it to the expert to explain in the way he sees fit. This means that a lot of Japanese instructors are not generally inclined to explain in much detail what they are teaching. Japanese students would just get on with it and trust that they will find out later but most Europeans and Americans will want to know. Western thought generally places a value on knowing about something completely before beginning it so I think a lot of the early students may have been impatient and come to unwarranted conclusions, filling in the gaps on their own. It is not that the teachers are reticent to explain what they are doing but that they generally are not aware of their students desire to know. To confound the problem I have seen a lot of Western students who really wanted to ask a question about something but feared it would be seen as impolite to do so and so held back.

In the case of karate there is also the fact that most of the terms used are quite recent in origin and don’t represent the classical content of the art very well. Itosu Anko was the first to document and record karate terms and he did so largely in relation to his school karate education program. His technique names are very simplistic and imply a definite use for each one as a “block”, strike, kick or thrust. I believe that this obscures a lot of the more subtle and sophisticated techniques in karate and encourages the student to think in terms of cutting kata up into single move segments rather than concentrate on the transition movements and what they mean.   

Concerning martial arts, does the Japanese language possess more nuances than what is recognized in the West?

There is a trend for only one very narrow meaning to be inferred as the entirety of the meaning in a lot of cases. To give an example I shall return to karate terminology. I have heard a lot of people in Britain refer to kumite and sparring as separate entities. This is quite ironic for me because kumite can basically be any kind of paired work, including sparring. The word literally means "joining hands" or "group hands". “Kumi” refers to coming together to form a whole and in Japanese "te" is sometimes used metaphorically to refer to a practitioner or doer of something. Thus this "coming together of hands" is more accurately a coming together of practitioners. In this sense it is functionally a very similar term to the English "pair work". The abstraction allowed by Chinese characters still lets this word retain its "hand" nuance though and gives it an impression of a skilled, physical interchange.

The scope of the term kumite really can cover anything from full on free sparring to 100% fixed exercises and everything in between. Thus there are usually suffixes to denote what type of kumite is being done. The prearranged sets that a lot of non Japanese karateka assume kumite to be are actually called “yakusoku kumite”.

Overall, the most important thing to bear in mind is that these are still essentially just words and like any set of terms, the specific meanings and nuances are given by the context in which they are used.

In an e-mail you wrote to me “There is no reason for a Westerner to even imagine that the art he is presented with is not a coherent cultural system.” What, for Westerners, does this imply?

Ah yes, here I was referring mainly to the fact that a lot of karateka are unaware of the history of modern karate’s development and just how much of a hotchpotch of eclectic influences actually shaped it. Without that knowledge it is very easy to view karate although it was a complete and coherent system with one designer and a clear purpose. The reality is that you have fully evolved Chinese solo forms from older systems of combat that were understood to an unclear degree combined with local grappling traditions and various input from the local fighting arts of surrounding nations traders and processed through the proclivities of the old Ryukyu culture. Not only that but each master and student would freely interpret them in their own way. This fertile mix was then synthesized by the Japanese and had an almost unrelated competition system tacked on that owed a lot more to kendo than anything before it.      

Once you understand all these different strands it becomes much easier to see why karate is the way it is and what each aspect is most suited for. Things like the discrepancy between techniques in points based competition and those in the kata.

You’ve also trained in Koryu Bujutsu how has this affected your karate?

Perhaps the biggest advantage for my karate in experiencing koryu systems is that I can see the differences in purpose between techniques and approaches much more easily now. Not all martial arts follow the same ground rules and a lot of people forget that. Most koryu are weapons systems and the unarmed elements they incorporate are largely for fighting armed opponents who may be wearingarmour. This drastically changes the attack method you will face and the approach you will take to tackling it. A number of koryu also feature restraining techniques for use in non-battlefield situations that are alien to both karate’s civilian selfdefencemethodology and its competitive format.

There are of course a number of areas that cross over, as is inevitable in the broad sphere of human conflict. I would say the use of weapons and grappling are of tremendous benefit in learning good distancing for a karateka. The familiarity with grappling and locking type movements is of great help in interpreting kata too. 

 You’ve just recently written a book, could you tell us about it?

Certainly.  The book is called “The Spirit of The Sword” and it is actually a translation of a Japanese book written in 1980 by the late kendo and iaido master Nakamura Taizaburo. The original title was “The Essence of Test Cutting with the Japanese Sword” but I really don’t feel that summed up the content all that well. Much of the book is autobiographical and details Nakamura’s experiences as a martial arts instructor in the Imperial Japanese army, stationed on the occupied Asian continent. It contains a frank and thorough discussion of the state of the Japanese sword arts and instructions in the kata of Nakamura’s own sword system and his parent art, the Toyama ryu, as well as chapters on esoteric subjects like the right swords to use in training, sword maintenance and correct mental attitude.  I feel that this book is quite unique among the martial arts literature published today and offers a real first hand insight into Japan’s recent history.

Nakamura Taizaburo actually used his sword in combat. What were his views on modern sword arts and how they should be taught?

Nakamura was quite iconoclastic in his views that the gendai budo were in many ways superior to the koryu. He urged for an objective and critical assessment of any and all training practices and away from a slavish devotion to the traditional kata. He also thought that kendo and iaido should be unified into one discipline along with test cutting to form a coherent and comprehensive art. This is doubtless why when forming his own system he used the term battodo instead. What strikes me is that this message of pragmatic training with a practical focus from over 30 years ago is exactly the idea that so many are espousing in the empty handed martial arts world today.  

 Do you feel the study of classical arts (Koryu Bujutsu) today has any value in the modern world?

I suppose it really depends on what you are looking for in martial arts training as to whether the koryu are valuable or not. Clearly they have a great historical and cultural value that should be preserved but that is perhaps best viewed separately from individual’s training goals. For self protection I can’t recommend classical weapons training at all. The basic motor skills of how to strike effectively with a weapon may be transferrable to improvised weapons but the mindset, tactics and overall focus of training are largely geared towards mutual duels between skilled opponents who are armed and armoured. That kind of combat just doesn’t happen anymore. The koryu can still be of great benefit to their practitioners though in cultivating mental traits like discipline and perseverance if approached with the correct mental attitude. Even with training weapons there is real danger of injury if you don’t treat the practice seriously and that conditions focus and control like nothing else. 

 How did Taizaburo’s views influence you?

Perhaps the thing that resonates with me the most about what Nakamura has to say is the need for all parts of training to be integrated and not exist in separate spheres with separate goals. Of course, there is scope for other training outside of that for enjoyment’s sake but I want the core of what I do to work in the same direction. In the sword arts kendo, iaido and tameshigiri (test cutting) are often separated and many will only train in one or at most two of these disciplines. In karate terms that would be the splitting of kata, kumite and impact training into three separate arts and only following one of them. I strongly believe that all three in unison are essential for developing real skill.

Nakamura also repeatedly advises the student not to think and philosophize overly on their training but to simply get out there and train. That is an important warning, especially for one such as myself who has both an academic and a practical interest in the martial arts. Knowledge and practical experience are very different things and should not be confused.

When is your book due to be published and where can we buy it?

The Spirit of the Sword is due to be published in Spring 2013 by Blue Snake Books. I do not have the full distribution details yet but they are a major publisher so it should be available both online and from many book shops. Further details will be put up on the Blue Snake website closer to the time.

What are your future plans, martial arts wise?

I plan to continue my training in karate as the core of my martial arts practice but also study as widely as I can in tandem. I mainly do Okinawanshorinryu and Ryukyu kobudo but we are very lucky in our dojo to have practitioners skilled in goju ryu and shotokan as well and a regular visiting jujutsu instructor. On top of that I am also currently practicing aikido and iaijutsu. That is quite a lot to be getting on with for now but hopefully one day I would like to do some in depth study of Chinese systems to really get to the bottom of karate’s origins. Work wise I would also love to translate some of the interesting books on martial arts that are being written in Japan.

Gavin thank you for taking the time to do this interview.

Thank you Michael, it has been a pleasure.

About the interviewer: Michael Rosenbaum is the author of  Kata and the Transmission of Knowledge in Traditional Martial Arts

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Many thanks to both for adding this!

Les_Lacey's picture

Well researched and a great read packed with knowledge. It confirms many of my own theories on training and kata. I continue to seek what the masters sought.