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Interview of Michael Clarke for El Budoka Magazine-Part 2

by Juan Luis Cadenas de Llano Bajo, January 3, 2012

The following article is Part 2 of the English translation of an interview between author, Michael Clarke, and writer, Juan Luis Cadenas de Llano Bajo for El Budoka magazine. In Spanish, Parts 1 and 2 in may be found on Page 50 in Issue 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: 10) What are your thoughts about the different kinds of kumite found in karate training, and have your thoughts on kumite changed over the years?

Michael Clarke: This is a big question. kumite, an exchange of hands, within karate can take many forms as you know, from heavy contact free-sparing requiring protective equipment to the light and playful kind found in many karate clubs. It can be played at in tournaments or approached very seriously through the study of bunkai, oyo, and tagumi, taken from the kata. What you want to achieve from your training will dictate the kind of training you do. As long as you are honest with yourself and realistic about your abilities, then kumite can be a good tool, no matter which way you use it.

When I was young, I represented England within the Shukokai World Karate Union; and during that time, I traveled around England and Europe taking part in some fairly big competitions. I enjoyed it, but I never, not even for a single moment, believed that what I was doing was real fighting. Before I discovered karate, I already knew about real fighting and I was very good at it. My convictions for street violence, and my time in prison for inflicting serious physical damage on others, had all given me a taste of what ‘real’ fighting was. As hard as the competition training was and as tough as some of my opponents were, I knew there was far too much ‘safety’ built into tournaments to confuse them with real fighting. I don’t teach ‘sparring’ in my dojo because it gives students the wrong idea about fighting. For a karateka involved in a real fight, the aim is to dominate the situation as quickly as possible and then bring the conflict to a close. So at the Shinseidokan, students spend a lot of time studying the fighting strategies in the different kata and learning to apply them.

JLC: 11) How has your own approach to training changed over almost 40 years of practice?

MC: I am fifty-six years old now, and as I begin to approach old age, I am mindful of my health and how I will eventually exit my life. Of course I still feel young and so, hopefully, I am a long way from the end; but still, I want to have a good death, and for me that means dying with dignity and composure. I see karate as a way to help me achieve that aim. I also see my karate as being a lot smaller now than it once was, and I no longer try to remember everything I ever learned. I now understand the power in letting go of things, of becoming “unattached” as they say in the Zen philosophy.

My dojo stands discretely in the backyard of my home, and I train there almost every morning. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings, students come to the dojo and I supervise their training, but like Miyazato sensei, I don’t teach them much. Instead, I let them try to discover karate for themselves. Also like Miyazato sensei, I won’t teach karate to people I don’t like.

When I was young, I went to the dojo and trained as hard as I could, but my karate was an external thing back then, something “extra” that I did when I went to the dojo. For many years now, my personal training has been an internal experience, an opportunity to go to a different place in my mind, a place that brings me peace and sense of contentment.

JLC: 12) Recently, you claimed that in 37 years you have yet to meet a person who makes his living teaching karate, who teaches karate. That is a strong view about professional karate instructors; is it really so hard to make a living teaching true karate … and if so, why?

MC: Well first of all, I never used the word “true” karate; I said “budo” karate. I stand by my statement that teaching for a living is not possible if your intention is to pass on the tenets of budo. When you teach karate for a living, you place the financial security of you, and your family, into the hands of students. No one in their right mind would do such a thing if they understood the message budo is teaching, because this act alone is a complete contradiction to the notion of “self” protection. How can I protect my life if I am dependent on students to provide my income? When people become financially dependent on their students, they also become their slaves. Soon they avoid teaching the difficult lessons that are a natural part of karate because they fear losing students. This leads to instructors becoming more like entertainers, always inventing new ways to keep their followers happy. Such behavior has nothing to do with karate.

In the past people have asked me, “But what about teachers like Kanazawa sensei and Higaonna sensei; they make their living from karate and they are teaching budo!” But I say, no, they are not! Both of these two great men are running vast international corporations; and just like any other businessman at that level, they spend the majority of their time keeping the business going and keeping their followers happy.

One only has to look below the surface of any karate organization to see the ugly side of human nature at work. The larger the organization and the more money it generates, the uglier people behave. When teachers pass away, their empires crumble in a disgusting fight for money and control; you only have to look at what happened with the JKA after the death of Nakayama sensei for an example of what I’m talking about.

As for the tiny minnows who gather their followers in rented halls and school gyms and think of themselves as ‘professional’ karate instructors, such people are a joke! What ‘professional’ qualifications do they have to run a karate business? Did they go to business school and study profit and loss, bookkeeping, personnel management, the psychology of marketing … or any of the many things ‘professional’ business people study in order to be successful in the business world? Of course the answer is “No!” All they did was abandon the idea of working for a living. It is no surprise that such people end up teaching little children because that is all they are good for. But even in this regard they are not ‘professional’. It takes specialist training to be a ‘professional’ child-minder or to be qualified in the early learning needs of young children. Budo karate requires a mature, adult mind to cope with the demands made on those who would pursue it; and those who are passing budo on to others understand that trying to make a living from such an activity would mean financial ruin.

JLC: 13) The ‘Dojo Kun’—dojo advice—is still considered important in Okinawan karate, although not many karateka are familiar with a dojo-kun these days. Can you explain what a dojo-kun is and whether or not it has a role to play in the modern karate gyms?

MC: Unfortunately, the dojo-kun has fallen from use, I believe, because of the lack of dojo. These days most people train at a karate “club,” and that is not at all the same kind of place as a karate dojo. A dojo-kun is a list of ideas that a sensei wants his student to think about. They are not “rules” or “laws,” but ideas to be thought about. Each dojo should have its own kun; otherwise it becomes more like a corporate mission statement. Dojo-kun are as individual as the sensei. The Shinseidokan dojo-kun reflects ideas that are important to me, and asks the students who train there to think about the following, and how these ideas might relate to their lives outside the dojo:

Live within your means.
Practice often and with serious intent.
Always consider your health.
Learn to understand the meaning of balance.
Be honest with yourself.

Thinking beyond the obvious is an attribute I encourage the students to adopt; and if they can manage it, they find themselves able to move through life without many of the negative distractions that others find difficulty avoiding.

JLC: 14) You have written many times: “Karate does not develop your true character, it reveals it.” How can a martial art, based on physical combat, work this way?

MC: Well of course, it’s not karate that reveals your true character, but the challenges involved during the learning of it. These challenges to your physical fitness, your sense of humanity, and the many other demands that authentic karate training makes on you as you struggle to understand it are often enough to see people make excuses for their lack of progress, or stop training altogether. Budo karate has never been a popular pastime, it never was in Okinawa, and I see nothing in the Western world to change that. fact. If you pursue karate with integrity, it will reveal your true nature, what you do about Such revelations will see your character either develop or stagnate.

JLC: 15) Do you consider it important to know about the history and customs of Okinawa, and if so, why?

MC: Without becoming an academic, or making a detailed study of Okinawan history, I think it is important to know something of the culture from which karate emerged. But I don’t believe it is necessary to spend too much time on this. Karate is a living art, and if you spend too much time investigating the past, you leave little time for consolidating the present or developing your future. I believe what people did in the past has only so much relevance to what you and I are doing today. The tradition of karate lies not in repeating what others did, but in how we conduct ourselves now, today.

If you take karate out of its cultural background, you will lose much of what it has to offer. So while I believe it is important to understand karate through its culture, it would be a mistake to try to act like an Okinawan or adopt an Okinawan view of the world. Taking the best of the karateka from the past as an example, we can use our feelings of inspiration to help us go deeper into our own karate study, and in doing so, we continue the tradition of karate for one more generation.

JLC: 16) Do you think it is important for karateka to read about their art, and if so, why? Also, isn’t there a danger of people who read a lot believing they understand something that they haven’t had personal experience of themselves?

MC: To answer the second part of your question first, yes you are correct. There is a danger that some people will read something, and confuse having knowledge of karate with understanding it. Knowledge of a subject and having a deep understanding of it are not the same. I have knowledge of mathematics, but I’m not a mathematician. If you are being honest with yourself as you struggle to learn karate, it’s not too difficult to recognize when your ego is pulling you in the wrong direction. What you do about these moments of recognition reveals your true nature.

As to the first part of your question, I believe reading is like training for your mind. In the dojo, you work your body hard. The mind is working hard too, but on specific matters to do with self-control and dealing with your emotions. Reading is done while your body is relaxed, allowing the information in the book to wash over you and let the knowledge and wisdom of others deposit small seeds of interest in your mind. From these seeds spring your own desire to learn more, and deepen your understanding of the tradition you are a living part of.

JLC: 17) During your recent trip to Okinawa, in February 2011, you spent a morning training with Seikichi Kinjo sensei, one of the few remaining students of Chojun Miyagi sensei. Can you share your feelings about this encounter?

MC: The visit to Okinawa earlier this year was remarkable for me in many ways. Usually I go there on my own and spend most of each day in my own company. On this trip however, my closest friend Richard Barrett and two of his students came from Spain and Europe. I was also joined by a student from my dojo, and for a brief two days, another old friend flew in from her home in Japan. To be in Okinawa with so many friends was wonderful and made the experience quite special.

I first met Kinjo sensei in 1992, and until he left the Jundokan dojo in 2006, I was fortunate to receive instruction from him whenever I was in Okinawa. Meeting with him again after five years was the major training highlight of the visit for me. The previous evening we had all been invited to his home and treated to the kind of Okinawan hospitality that always leaves me feeling humbled by its extent. Kinjo sensei’s generation of karate sensei teach more than fighting techniques; they are living examples of how to live life well and achieve balance and contentment.

I find it difficult to express the feelings I had during three and a half hours training my friends and I did with him. He was as generous as always when it came to sharing his understanding of Goju-ryu, and as inspirational as ever in the dignified way he conducted himself. The memory of training that morning will remain with me for the rest of my life.

JLC: 18) Your new book is titled Shin Gi Tai: Karate Training for Mind, Body, and Spirit. Why did you choose this title, and what relation do these concepts have to karate?

MC: With the rise of sport, and now, commercialism, in karate, the philosophical education that was once an integral part of a karateka’s education has been lost in the rush for fame and fortune. Today, many young people get involved in karate to become a “world champion” and then later, become a “celebrity” instructor. There is no shortage of karate “fans” out there to allow a person with such ambitions to succeed. Just look at how many “World Championships” there are now and how many “celebrity” instructors who spend large amounts of time each year traveling the world conducting seminars.

Some years ago, I had the good fortune to meet with the late Shoshin Nagamine sensei. I visited his dojo a number of times and he was kind enough to sit with me and talk about karate. He told me that the concept of ‘Shin Gi Tai’ (Mind, Technique, and Body) was very important in the learning of karate; but he lamented that modern karate students paid too much attention to the learning of techniques and the building of a strong body, and were neglectful of developing the mind. The word ‘Shin’ can also be understood as spirit, meaning your character or personality, and this, Nagamine sensei told me, was most important. During our last conversation, Nagamine sensei reminded me that learning karate properly was always done through challenges made to the ‘spirit’ (character) of a student; this was where understanding the real value of karate came from.

With the worldwide success of my previous book, The Art of Hojo Undo, I knew, more than ever, that many karateka are looking for ways to reconnect to the culture and history of authentic budo karate. So when I sat down to write the book, my conversations with Nagamine sensei came to mind; this was how the title was chosen. Of the three main approaches to practicing karate, kyogi (sport), kenko (health), and budo (martial art), my interest has always been in the last of these: budo. In the book, I make the point that one approach to training is not necessarily superior to another; it all depends on what you want to achieve. But regardless of which path you walk, you have to be honest with yourself if you want to make progress.

JLC: 19) Is there anything else you would like to comment on regarding karate?

MC: I think I have said too much already, but I would like to end this conversation by reminding karateka of the need to develop their own understanding of karate through their own personal research and training. A sensei is only there to guide you; he cannot make your journey for you. So make karate your own by taking personal responsibility for it. When you do that, you will discover the way of karate is mostly about the art of living.


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