Thursday 19 July 2007

Asai Sensei's Final Interview

This was Asai Sensei's final international interview, and was featured in Issue 87 of Shotokan Karate Magazine. After it was published, I recieved a lot of flack from various people, who claimed this interview shouldn't have been released, as it pre-empted his passing. However, Sensei wanted me to interview him. I hope that these people now appreciate the interview, and respect that Asai Sensei himself, wanted it to be published. I certainly had no regrets, and feel proud that Sensei asked me to conduct his final interview. As we approach the one year anniversary of Asai Sensei's passing, lets think about Sensei's message, to us, his karate students. RIP Asai Sensei.

Interview By Andre Bertel.
Ohope, New Zealand
This interview was conducted at 6:30am after a one hour and forty-five minute private lesson I had from Asai sensei on Ohope Beach, in the North Island of New Zealand. The one-on-one training I have received over the last few days, has truly been the highlight of my entire karate life. But then again, I say that every time after I train with Asai Sensei. To me training with Asai sensei surpasses tournament victories, dan grades, qualifications and karate trips. Obviously I would like to deeply thank Asai sensei for once again letting me 'join in' with him, and for asking me to do this interview for SKM (and give me some rest time - every other day we trained for nearly twice as long). I have been a personal student of Asai sensei for a long time, however, this interview was a complete eye-opener for me. At 70 years old Asai sensei seems far from slowing down, and I am wearing several 'very deep' bruises from our bunkai training yesterday morning to prove that. Asai Sensei is content with his life, and is now primarily concerned with passing on as much of his knowledge as he can to his closest students. This interview is very revealing, in regards to where Asai sensei is now, with his karate.


Andre Bertel: Sensei, how would you describe your own karate and it's objectives?
Tetsuhiko Asai: My karate has only one objective, and that is bujutsu (real fighting) karate. Effective technique for martial arts, for example, for military personnel, police, karate. real fighting, as opposed to any conscious focus on sports and/or health. In my style they are not important, effectiveness is, and community development is certainly not a goal. My karate is very free and flexible, it is 100% Asai style karate, it is my way precisely. In saying that, the typical foundation is Shotokan-ryu, as that is my orthodox base in karate. No karate group is better than any other. It simply depends on what the individual karateka wants from their karate training.

Andre Bertel: Do you believe that there is a technically superior karate organisation in the world?

Tetsuhiko Asai: No, only individuals. Organisations are simply meetings of people. No one is better than anyone else, if the organisation is truthful to the karate way. However, there are inferior groups ... These groups teach poor karate, for example commercial groups only wanting money. You have taught me very good new English word, 'McDojo'. Gimmick karate. Not good!

Andre Bertel: When and where will your next World Karate Championships be held?

Tetsuhiko Asai: This is the golden question, and this will be the first time this is known outside of Japan! It will be held in April of 2007 in Okinawa, for the anniversary of Mr. Funakoshi's passing. Mr. Tatetsu begged me to have it there, and the Okinawa Prefecture Government also asked me, so I finally agreed, as it is very appropriate. All affiliated nations will receive invitations as the time comes closer. Okinawa will be a wonderful place for this grand event in the karate world.
Andre Bertel: A bit of a controversial question Sensei, I hope you don't mind me asking! What is the story in regards to the Takushoku University Old Boys? Many Western karateka have felt disillusioned, that Japanese leaders of the Shotokan world, always preach the dojo-kun to everyone, yet they can't seem to get on together.
Tetsuhiko Asai: No problem Andre, at tomorrow mornings practice you die on Ohope beach (laughs). Seriously, we all pretty much get on nowadays, contrary to our official stances and federations. In saying that, some of us don't, but isn't that life? Everyone doesn't get on in the world, friendships don't always last. Actually my big issue 15 years back was only with one person, who I won't name here, but he was not a practicing karateka. Naturally, from there, people take sides, often they have to, especially in Japanese culture. It is very sad, but life is not always fair. In saying that, I am happy to say that most of the deep rooted rivalry has gone amongst my peers. I think that the passing of Mr. Enoeda, Mr. Kase, Mr. Tabata and Mr. Shoji and so forth has brought many of us back to reality. Obviously this is not limited to Takushoku university, it is all about us international karate pioneers getting very old. Soon we will all be gone, and then Andre Bertel's job really begins and Mr. Asai finally gets tenth dan (laughs). The communication of the Shotokan leaders in Japan, outside of organisations, and contrary to popular belief, is very good. Even the instructors I don't get on with are also good people, and follow the dojo-kun with sincerity. We have just gone our separate ways in the karate world, and in some cases, separated socially. The world is too big, why be together with people who you don't, or you no longer get on with? No, most of the instructors, especially Takushoku Old Boys get on well socially, outside of our respective groups. If karateka around the globe saw this side of the senior Japanese leaders, I think they would have a different view.

Andre Bertel: Sensei what is the source of the majority of karate politics then?

Tetsuhiko Asai: Very easy! Someone like you is the source! People are jealous of karateka like you, and others, because of your superior technical level and knowledge. If they can't beat you in the dojo, they will beat you in the committee room or with biased refereeing at competitions. So the highly skilled and knowledgeable students' instructor is also responsible, especially if they teach the student more techniques, kata and fighting application than the others in their respective nations. I do this on purpose (laughs). My student in Switzerland, Bruno Koller, has the same problem as you. He is the highest level karate man, and has more technical knowledge and understanding than anyone else there, so he has lots of trouble. Everyone, who is a politician in karate, is a jealous person who can't win in the dojo. I have taught you as my personal student because you have the correct attitude, martial spirit, and the ability to pass on what I have to the future generations of karateka. I want Asai style karate to go on in the future, through great karateka like you, Mr. Koller, Mr. Watanabe, and my other very close students. This is the goal of my life now.

Andre Bertel: That is a great compliment and huge responsibility Sensei, thank you very much! So where does Asai style karate sit for the karateka around the world who are in the Non-Profit-Organisation J.K.S and in I.J.K.A?

Tetsuhiko Asai: Sits anywhere! Both do my style because I am chief instructor of both groups. But I.J.K.A. is closer to me,because it is exclusively my style and mentality, its way follows karate as bujutsu, which is how I live karate. Real fight karate is where karate is! Not game karate. Tournament is ok, good goal or target. But bujutsu is everything in karate. You die or I die. This is the samurai spirit and is the base of Zen in Japanese martial arts.

Andre Bertel: Sensei some people are criticising the increasing number of kata you are teaching now. Some Shotokan people claim 15 or 26 kata is more than enough. What do you think about this?

Tetsuhiko Asai: They are right, and I am right, and everyone is right if they are training and improving. It depends on what your target is! 15 or 26? Actually one or two kata is enough for a lifetime. Just think of any number! Martial arts is physical training, not numbers, not theory. We must groove physiological principles into our subconscious mind, via physical repetition, for rapid response to any situation. Not simply memorizing movements. To me, kata is a solo training tool for the perfection of the essential principles of combat. The kata is not the issue, the body action is. The more variation, the less chance I have to think, the more I am grooving these elements into my subconscious mind. Various kata is great for developing specific points. This time here in New Zealand, the basic kata I taught at the open seminars was Kibaken, there are actually five parts of this kata, which is in fact one long koten (ancient /classical) kata. My reason for introducing this form is to simply refine kiba dachi. For example, rather than just sitting in kiba dachi or doing kihon in kiba dachi, practicing Kibaken is highly motivational. This is the other point of introducing kata. Kata is an excellent motivational tool to train more. I always say if a Shito-ryu person punches you in the face, you don't say that was a Shitoryu punch, or that was a boxing punch. More or less kata is not so relevant. Setting the number of kata is a closed minded way. A closed mind for developing your maximum fighting potential to me is foolish. My advice is just train! If people feel they want to stick to 15 kata, that is fine, if that is what they want. Just remember Mr. Funakoshi practiced many kata, and that if Gigo Funakoshi (his son Yoshitaka) had lived to an old age, I think what people now consider as 'orthodox Shotokan-ryu' would have many more kata.
Andre Bertel: Sensei, how about the JKS or JKA instructors course in Japan? For an individual to become the highest class Shotokan technician and karate teacher, do you believe the instructors course is essential?
Tetsuhiko Asai: The instructors course is very good training for karateka who are very serious about full-time training in Japan, but my answer to your question for 'need' to do the course is, no. Often the best karate technicians, for example kata and kumite champions, cannot survive the course. This is because their muscle type and endurance is different. I study the body extensively and this is an important point. The strongest karateka for a real fight and competition is not the endurance man, but the man like a machine gun. Highly explosive, very dangerous for a limited time, but after the bullets run out, the machine gun can only be used like a metal bar. This is still ok, but it can't beat the semiautomatic, which is still loaded, and the other man is holding. In saying that, this rule is often broken, for example, I think at the last Olympic Games, an American man won both the 200m and 400m. We select the best Japanese competitors from the best karate universities to enter the course. Many don't accept as they don't feel a need for it. Obviously, if they enter the course it helps their profile with the judges at major tournaments. This is something that I hope stops in the future. Back to your question, I have found that the best technicians and teachers around the world are in many nations. They are natural's with a passion for hard self-training, and technically don't need the instructors course, or even a style or organisation. There are many excellent foreigners at karate now, and have been for some time. Probably the very best people at anything, are people who train quietly by themselves. No one knows of their name in the greater karate world.

Andre Bertel: So Sensei it is not necessary to do the course for technical superiority. So what about for learning to pass on karate to others? Could you expand on the teaching aspects of the course? Does the course teach people to instruct?

Tetsuhiko Asai: The instructors course as I said before does not teach the participants how to teach, but in other ways it does! The point of the course is to simultaneously instill exact kihon and Japanese budo spirit. In karate terms, with these two elements covered in depth, the course gives the graduates a very exact and orthodox base in Shotokan-ryu karate. That is not to say they will become high-class instructors, but if not, it is because they are simply not interested in instructing others. Kihon is everything in karate, and the perfection of kihon is what best describes the two years on the instructors course. The technically best karateka and the best teachers, come from the inside of each person, course or no course. Not federation, not style, or martial art, but how the individual trains and studies karate themselves.

Andre Bertel: In your 58 years of doing karate (Asai Sensei started after seeing a boxer overcome with a karate kick at 12 years of age) you must have had some funny incidents in your karate life. Maybe in the early days?

Tetsuhiko Asai: OK, OK, very funny story! At Takushoku University I was the craziest in the karate dorm because I had to be to make up for my size. Some days in summer we used to all run to the beach together for extra keiko. One day I ran into the water yelling like a madman "Bonzai" after telling everyone I would swim out to a marker, way out. Everyone was determined to be the strongest due to an upcoming event. As I expected, they followed me with great pride to be back first, including Mr. Enoeda, for the England readers of SKM. I then sneaked back without going in too far, and everyone swam out and back. The entire time I relaxed on the beach with a big Asai smile. But my smile did not last! Everyone was so amazed how I beat everyone, even though I never seemed to do any swimming at all. I was back so fast I was completely dry, and not even slightly tired! So I was drafted onto the Takushoku swimming team, which was unfortunately competing only in a few days time. I was put into the last position for the grand event, the relay. All I can tell you is that Takushoku was winning easily, until is was Asai's turn. I lost the huge lead we had in the very last lap. Actually I can barely swim at all, so here I was pulling myself along the pool lane with the rope to get to the end. Everyone was watching, very funny now but not then!

Andre Bertel: Sensei, thank you so much for this interview here in Ohope. Hopefully you enjoyed your time here in the North Island of New Zealand. Do you have any last comments for the SKM readers?

Tetsuhiko Asai: Yes, I would like to use the situation here in Ohope as an example for the readers about instruction. I have found that the karate of the instructors and dan examinees here, to be very low level. Instructors here need much help with their basic techniques and stances. But everyone must start somewhere, and with the willingness to improve here, coupled with self-training, there is hope. But this comes down to the standard of the instructors, and this means they need to change! I have spent most of my time here correcting bad habits, in saying that, it has been great having you fly here to train with me. Otherwise, my time here would have been very frustrating. Please practice the two new kata I have taught you. Also I hope that the instructors from up here can visit, and train with you in Christchurch, as it will dramatically help them to improve their standards.

Andre Bertel: Thank you Sensei, I am once again overloaded with techniques and new ideas.

Tetsuhiko Asai: My pleasure again Andre, please have a safe flight back to Christchurch and thank you so much for coming. You have again improved a lot. Hope to see you back in Tokyo again soon. My best wishes to all the people who read this interview from all karate groups, and to the editor Mr. John Cheetham. I am very lucky in my life to be an old man and still practice karate everyday, and keep improving step-by-step. It is my hope that others can do this too.

Don't forget INTERNATIONAL ASAI MEMORIAL DAY is on August 15th. This will be the First Anniversary of Asai Sensei's passing. Globally there will be a special practice. Be sure to complete the 1000 gyaku zuki and 1000 mae geri in memory of Sensei.

© André Bertel, Japan 2007
I would personally like to thank Ari Hultqvist of Iceland who made this post possible. Thank you Ari for kindly scanning, and emailing the article, here to me in Kyushu.

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