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Interview of Michael Clarke for El Budoka Magazine-Part 1

by Juan Luis Cadenas de Llano Bajo, December 28, 2011

The following article is an English translation of an interview between author, Michael Clarke and writer, Juan Luis Cadenas de Llano Bajo for El Budoka magazine. Part No. 1 may be found on Page 50 in issues No. 5. Another interview in Spanish with Michael Clarke may be found on Page 64 in Issue No. 6 in El Budoka magazine. The writer also thanks Garry Lever for his assistance is securing this interview.

Juan Luis Cadenas: 1) You spent many years as a member of the I.O.G.K.F. training directly under Higaonna Morio sensei. Now he is a famous teacher with a huge worldwide following; apart from the politics and the fame, in your experience, what is so special about him?

Michael Clarke: Higaonna sensei has many wonderful aspects to his character, and like any good sensei, he has, through the personal example in the dojo, the capacity to draw from his students a level of karate ability they probably never knew they had. He has always been a very hard-working karateka, even as he approaches his 73rd Birthday. If he is not traveling around the world teaching his followers, then he goes to his small dojo underneath his home every day and continues to practice his karate as he has always done. This is not so unusual in Okinawa, but in the rest of the world, it is difficult to find people of his age and stature still training their body and mind, privately, in their dojo.

Another thing that makes Higaonna sensei “special” is his ability to make a living from karate for the past 50 years. Apart from a short time working in a bank, he has always supported his family and himself from karate. Not many sensei in Okinawa can do this, only those with a large international following. Higaonna sensei has so many followers around the world these days that millions of dollars are generated each year by the I.O.G.K.F. membership; although I must point out that Higaonna sensei himself lives a very modest lifestyle in Okinawa. I’m not sure where the vast amount of money generated by his followers each year ends up, or why such amounts of money are even necessary.

JLC: 2) After more than twenty years of training in karate, you met Miyazato Eiichi sensei, a direct student of Miyagi Chojun sensei, and head of the Jundokan dojo. How did you meet him, and why did you decide to become a student of his?

MC: I first met Miyazato sensei in February 1992, but of course, I had known who he was for many years before that. He wasn’t the first direct student of Miyagi sensei I had met or trained with. I visited the Junkokan dojo of Seiko Kina sensei a few times on my first visit to Okinawa in 1984. I was introduced to Miyazato sensei by my close friend, Richard Barrett, who had spent time living at the Jundokan. In 1992, we traveled to Okinawa together, and at that time Richard introduced me to his teacher, Miyazato sensei. Before I arrived at the Jundokan, it was necessary for me to write a letter to Miyazato sensei to introduce myself and to ask permission to visit his dojo. Back then, it would have been considered extremely bad mannered to just turn up at a dojo and expect to train.

Richard and I trained twice each day, in the morning and again in the evening, six days each week for three weeks. On that visit we shared a small apartment very close to the dojo, and every so often Miyazato sensei would send someone from the dojo over to give us a message; one day there was a knock on the door, and when I opened it, Miyazato sensei was standing there … I almost fainted! All he said was, “Come to the dojo … five minutes!” and then he walked away. Richard and I had to scramble to get dressed properly and find a clean keiko-gi. When we arrived at the dojo, Miyazato sensei looked at us, shrugged his shoulders, and shook his head as if he thought we were a little “simple-minded.” Then he told us to get in his car and together we traveled to visit Miyagi Chojun sensei’s grave to pay our respects. He then took us to lunch and made sure we had a big meal. We finished the day by visiting the Miyagi family home, and at the small altar in the living room of the house, prayed, along with Miyagi sensei’s descendents, to the spirit of Miyagi Chojun. Miyazato sensei was full of surprises like this.

You asked why I decided to become his student. Well, I didn’t. Miyazato sensei was not the kind of teacher you could “choose,” he chose you! If he did not like you, he would not teach you. Miyazato sensei was more concerned about a person’s character than his physical skills. He often told me, “Anyone can learn to kick and punch, but this is not karate!” His aim was to help people become the kind of person who could discover karate for himself; he didn’t want people trying to copy him. He didn’t like to answer questions either, and one of his favorite answers when people asked him something was, “Just do it!” He believed if you applied yourself to your training with an honest heart and an open mind you would discover the answers for yourself. He told me one time, “If I tell you things, you will go home and forget what I said, so it’s better to work things out for yourself. Then you will never forget.” He was a great sensei, and even though he has been gone for over ten years, I still miss him very much.

JLC: 3) How was the training conducted at the Jundokan, and what are the benefits of training in the Jundokan way?

MC: For as long as I have been a member of the Jundokan, almost twenty years now, the training, especially for yudansha, has always been personal. New students and kyu level students are taken to one side and given instruction, but if you wear a black belt in the Jundokan, you have to be prepared to look after yourself. Okay … so let me explain this a little further. Looking after yourself does not mean that no one helps you, they do; but you won’t find yudansha students being drilled up and down the dojo. How it works is like this: yudansha students arrive at the dojo and after they get changed and have paid their respect to the seniors who are present, they find a place in the dojo and begin training. At some point, a senior will come over and give some advice, or maybe do some training with the junior; but then, the junior student is left alone again to work on the things they have just received instruction in. I think the benefits of training this way is that it builds a strong sense of self-motivation, and encourages students to work things out for themselves instead of waiting, like a child, to be told everything. If a junior black belt (below yondan), does not work hard on his own, the senior students will simply ignore them.

At the Jundokan, if you can’t find it in your character to train yourself, why should anyone else waste his time training you? It’s very simple really, although it takes a certain level of maturity to get the most benefit from this approach to learning karate. I think of the Jundokan method of teaching karate as similar to receiving a University education. When you are a small child your formal education is conducted in groups, and everyone is given exactly the same lesson at the same time, by one teacher who stands at the front of the class. The teacher provides you with all the information you’re given and tells you exactly how to use it. But when you grow up and go to University, you have to work on your own; you attend lectures and tutorials, but you have to motivate yourself to study and do the necessary hard work. If you don’t do what you need to do, no one will give you trouble; it’s up to you, study, or waste you time. However, if you chose not to study then you will fail to graduate. In the dojo, of course, there is no graduation, just regular training and steady progress, but at the Jundokan, if you fail to motivate yourself you will be ignored.

JLC: 4) You remained a student of Miyazato sensei until his passing in December 1999. What made him different from your other sensei?

MC: My time as a student of Miyazato sensei was short, and nowhere near as long as others who called him sensei. Still, of all the sensei who have taught me karate, he has had the most profound affect on me, both as a karateka and a private person. Until I was accepted as a student of Miyazato sensei, I only had the experience of teachers who adopted the standard Japanese business model for teaching karate: the “Association.” So regardless of what kind of training I was doing, the basic model was the same; pay for membership, pay for training, pay for rank advancement. Obey your immediate instructor, obey your chief instructor, and obey the head of the Association! I discovered all that money, and obeying, leads to a form of corruption that human beings seem unable to resist; and very quickly, karate associations become more interested in keeping the association alive then preserving the karate they are meant to be passing on to others.

Because Miyazato sensei would not teach you if he did not like you, that meant if he was teaching you, he was genuinely interested in you. So although money changed hands between Miyazato sensei and me, it always flowed both ways; let me explain. Whenever I arrived at the Jundokan, Miyazato sensei would greet me and offer me tea or give me a cold drink. Then, we would discuss the training fees for the length of my stay. No matter how long I stayed, two weeks or a month, the training fee was always the same, 5,000-yen. By the end of the first week, I could guarantee that my sensei would have spent more than twice that amount buying me meals and giving me shopping bags of food to take back to my lodging. He was always concerned about my welfare and that I was eating and drinking properly. As well, he would take me to meet different sensei and show me places of interest. So, by the time I left Okinawa to return home, he had always spent a lot more money on me than I had paid him in training fees.

This idea of giving something back is called “Hachigo issu” in Uchinanchu (the Okinawan language) and is sometimes difficult for Western people to understand. Miyazato sensei was always aware of the physical and financial effort it had taken for me to get to his dojo; so, in return for all that effort, he gave me something back. Miyazato sensei had a very big heart, and so he very often gave back more than he received. Like I said, he was a remarkable man and I miss him a lot.

JLC: 5) You have had several sensei from other schools visit your dojo: Kanazawa sensei from Shotokan and Yonamine sensei from Uechi-ryu; what is you opinion about “styles” in karate, and would you find it interesting to practice kata from other styles?

MC: In my opinion, the idea of “styles” in karate has more to do with control and business marketing, than with anything else. In Okinawa, no one gave their karate a name until the Japanese insisted upon it in the early 1930s. Before then, Okinawans referred to their training in a number of different ways, but none of the words they used, like “ti” for example, pointed to there being different “styles” of karate. At most, they referred to the regions in which karate training was concentrated, Shuri, Naha, and Tomari, but these names were not a reference to style as much as they were to certain geographical locations.

For me, to think of karate in terms of styles is to miss the point of training in karate. It causes you to limit your study and understanding of the subject matter and, in the end, denies you the opportunity to experience methods that might be very beneficial to you.
These days “styles” are nothing more than a marketing tool, brand recognition, like any other product on sale in the supermarket. None of this kind of thinking has anything to do the “way” of karate.

I have practiced kata from the Shotokan School with teachers like Osamu Ozawa, Hirokazu Kanazawa, and others; I have also enjoyed learning kata with senior Wado-ryu sensei like Tatsuo Suzuki and Kazuo Sakai. Also, during my ten years practicing Shito-ryu karate, I trained in kata with many Japanese sensei, including on a number of occasions, Chojiro Tani sensei, the founder of Shukokai. But, and I want to make this point very clear, there is a huge difference between ‘practicing’ kata, and ‘studying’ kata. It can be fun to learn and practice kata, but the movements are meaningless if you don’t study them and put them into perspective. If, for example, you imagine that kata are a collection of offensive and defensive techniques designed to help you protect yourself, then you are wasting your time. Kata, when practiced alone in thin air, are a conversation between you and the kata regarding certain fighting strategies and ideas. Most people training kata on their own never listen to the kata, they just talk, and that’s why all their kata look exactly the same. If you are not going to listen to what the kata has to say, you might as well just move around the floor and make techniques up as you go along, a bit like they do in sport kata tournaments.

The thirteen karate kata handed down by Chojun Miyagi sensei, and the small number of kobudo kata I study, as preserved by the Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinko Kai in Okinawa, are more than enough to last me a lifetime of study. Being able to remember movements does not interest me; this is not the same as “knowing” what the kata has to offer; this is an important point to remember.

JLC: 6) Junbi undo—preparation exercises—are often seen as unimportant, just something to do before “real” training commences. How do you feel about this?

MC: In my book, Hojo Undo: Power Training for Traditional Karate, I devoted an entire chapter to Junbi undo. I also went to great lengths to show how the movements and exercises performed in junbi undo relate to the fighting techniques found later on in the study of kata. This idea has also been addressed by Richard Barrett and Garry Lever in their new book, The Essence of Goju Ryu, vol. 1. In both books the message is clear; if you fail to understand the link between how you prepare for karate training and the training itself, you will fail to understand the holistic nature of karate.

I believe the education many students of karate receive these days is quite shallow compared to the students of long ago. But this is not a new phenomenon; I have been training without stop for thirty-seven years, and in that time, only Miyazato sensei demanded I take personal responsibility for my karate. He was happy to teach me, but not karate. He taught me how to develop into the kind of person who could discover karate’s true value for myself, and in doing so, free myself from the endless cycle of childish nonsense being passed off as karate around the world today. He taught me to see the wisdom in the words of that other great Okinawan karate sensei, Gichin Funakoshi, when he advised his students to “Part the clouds, seek the Way.” Because so many karate instructors today have their head in the clouds, they fail to look beyond anything but the physical movements of karate.

JLC: 7) Today, there are many modern gyms with high-tech equipment and thousands of different scientific training routines. On the other hand, Okinawan karate works with old-fashioned equipment and home-made tools, a method known as “kigu undo” (apparatus training). What is the point of training in these old ways, with home made tools; what will the karateka get from this type of training that they cannot find by going to a gym?

MC: I cannot say what the benefits are from adopting the modern approach to supplementary training (hojo undo) because I have not been to a gym for over twenty years. Still, any kind of supplementary training is better than none, in my opinion, but only if the exercises you are doing are related to the techniques you are trying to improve your feeling for. If you are just trying to get faster or stronger, then simply lift a lot of weights and run marathons. Most karateka get fit enough for karate within the first year or two of training so to keep training to achieve higher levels of fitness is a mistake in my opinion. If you want maximum fitness and strength, you should train to become a gymnast, not a karateka. Karate is a civilian self-protection art, not a military empty hand martial art. It has nothing to do with the Samurai mentality and everything to do with the quiet, and dignified, approach to the life of the Uchinanchu people.

The various tools used in kigu undo are there to help a new student face the physical and mental demands that karate training places on the body and mind. When karate was introduced to Japan, kigu undo was quickly abandoned by the Japanese in favor of the endless repetition of basic techniques and countless drilling in kata, none of which allows for individual discoveries, but then, that was the point. Japanese society doesn’t like individualism because it questions the established authority and makes people nervous. Japanese karate reflects Japanese attitudes, just as Okinawan karate reflects Okinawan attitudes; the two are very different.

Like junbi undo, kigu undo training serves to reinforce the movements and feelings that make the fighting techniques of karate work. If you want to use ‘nukite’ for example, but you haven’t conditioned your fingers or understood the targets this technique is used against, then you invite injury to your hands. I know how powerful my punch is, and how much impact I can take on my shins when I use my legs to block a kick. I appreciate how much pressure it takes to destabilize my balance, and how much weight I can propel from my body with one rapid movement. I understand all these things because of the tools I work with to test my limitations. Compare that understanding gained through personal experience, with the karateka who only trains karate in thin air. I understand my physical and mental limitation because of the resistance the tools I use have given me over the years; this kind of understanding is invaluable.

JLC: 8) There is a special training tool that is neglected by many karateka who say it is harmful to the body, I’m talking of course about the “makiwara.” Can you practice karate without training with the makiwara?

MC: The short answer to this is “No.” I don’t believe you can train in authentic karate without finding the courage, and technique, to stand before the makiwara on a regular basis. The Frenchman, Henri Plee, who was the pioneer of karate in Europe during the 1950s, said about the makiwara, “That which it teaches cannot be learned in any other way”. He was right of course. But like the other tools found in kigu undo, the challenge they offer is often as much a test of our personal courage as it is of physical ability. Knowing the makiwara will bring you physical discomfort, even real pain, especially in the early years, but still finding the courage to stand before it is what marks the difference between a karateka and a karate fan.

I have stood before the makiwara for almost thirty years, and my hands show no signs at all of the bad health some people use as an excuse to avoid facing this tool. Others say there is no point hitting a makiwara because it can’t hit back. What I know is this: if you have never been ‘bitten’ by a makiwara, then you have never trained with it properly.

9) Sanchin is possibly the best-known kata within Goju-ryu, but perhaps is the most misunderstood kata in Goju-ryu also. Every school of Naha-te karate has a version of this kata, and history records that both Kanryo Higaonna and Chojun Miyagi placed great importance on the kata too. Can you explain why it is so important?

MC: The importance of this kata, as I understand it, lies in the number of basic principles from Naha-te that are found within its physical form, plus the opportunity it provides to ‘feel’ them. The firm but flexible body, the hardness of the external and the softness (relaxed) feeling you have inside your mind while practicing the kata give a strong feeling of the harmony (balance) I believe Miyagi sensei was trying to convey. Many people practice sanchin kata like they are driving a car with the parking brake still on. But I don’t think this is the right way to use the kata at all. I have practiced sanchin kata for well over thirty years, although the Shito-ryu version I learned never made sense to me. During my twenties I was extremely fit and crazy about karate, but no matter how hard I tried I could never finish sanchin kata without feeling exhausted, and even with my best efforts, the kata was never very good. It wasn’t until ten years after I began karate, when I traveled to Okinawa to train at the Higaonna dojo that I began to get some insight into the correct way of using this kata. Before this time, sanchin was just a test of strength; now I understand it is a display of balance on many different levels.


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