We spoke to Dan and Stuart, on the eve of the HDKI National Championships in Birmingham in October, all about this uniquely alluring sport, their club and their careers, and found two incredibly dedicated and talented guys.
KUDOS: So, firstly, tell us a bit about your introduction to Shotokan and what it’s all about…
Dan: So I’ve been training in Shotokan karate for coming up to 39 years. I started when I was 9 years old, and it’s stuck with me throughout my life. It becomes a way of life. It’s helped me shape and develop my life. Karate has many aspects but it’s not just about combat – it can help you in every walk of life, whether that’s day-to-day life, your academic life, karate life…it has many benefits, particularly for kids. Things like cognitive development – we could talk all day about that side of it.
In terms of the origins of Shotokan karate, in around the 1920s/30s, a guy called Funakoshi, who was from an island off Japan called Okinawa, developed Shotokan karate with his son, prior to the war. He promoted it through demonstrations and become very popular through his karate dojos in universities across Japan. The Shotokan form was officially founded by Funakoshi in 1938. In 1965, the Japan Karate Association sent out four instructors across mainland Europe – four Senseis called Enoeda, Kanazawa, Kase and Shirai, and they promoted it across Europe through demonstrations. Enoeda Sensei came to Liverpool and did a demonstration. Because this guy was such a character, very charismatic, he was asked to come back to teach in Liverpool. It was a long shot, but incredibly he said yes! He set up a dojo in Liverpool, and loved the British culture so much he based himself over here. Because of that, Liverpool has become known as the sort of capital of karate in the UK. Once he’d built a solid foundation in Liverpool, Enoeda then went to London to set up his own dojo there, which he ran up until his death in 2003.
Shotokan is split into two words – ‘shoto’ means pine waves, and it’s meant to represent the wind blowing through the pines. And ‘kan’ is a house or a hall. Funakoshi would sign his works ‘Shoto’, and it just stuck. Shotokan is now the most widely practiced karate globally – around 70% of karate is Shotokan.
Stuart: There’s lots of different styles of karate. Karate has a history dating back hundreds of years, to India, it’s believed, and then through Buddhism it spread into China, and as Dan said Funakoshi Sensei then travelled to mainland Japan and that’s where Shotokan – as a much more dynamic style specifically targeted at high school and university students – first began.
So what was it about Shotokan, ahead of the other forms, that drew you both to it?
Stuart: For me it was just what happened to be there. I’m sure most people starting out don’t realise there’s lots of different forms and styles – it was just the club I happened upon. Because it’s the most prominent style, I’m sure it’s the same for a lot of people. Liverpool has been such a hub of…not just karate, but martial arts, and other combat sports, particularly boxing, for a number of years now. And Shotokan, due to Enoeda Sensei’s influence, became very strong in this city. Liverpool’s had a huge impact on karate, and karate’s has a huge impact on Liverpool.
Dan: Same for me, yeah. As an 8 or 9 year old, I saw an advert in the local community centre. I had no idea what Shotokan was – I just saw karate and wanted to get involved, more than anything to able to look after myself. Then as it develops you become much more aware of the mental side and the philosophy behind the teachings of karate.
It does seem as though, as you get into karate, it becomes about so much more than just the activity itself, and about something sort of greater – in terms of a way of life, instilling discipline, on a philosophical level, becoming a better person…is that fair?
Dan: Yeah I’d say so. Funakoshi had 20 precepts, and they were all based around bushido and zen. Bushido is kind of a Samurai warrior code – it becomes a way of life. And obviously zen is all about calmness. And so in a nutshell that teaches all about humility, respect, compassion, patience and calmness.
There’s also another aspect called the ‘dojo kun’. The dojo is the training hall, and kun is the code – so it’s the code in the dojo. When we walk into the dojo, that becomes like the Mecca of our training. The respect we all have when we walk in the dojo, and that code helps us to seek, if you like, the perfection of our own characters. You endeavour to excel, to try your best, to be your best, it teaches respect for others, and most importantly, it teaches you to refrain from any violent behaviour. It gives you the confidence knowing that you can fight, that you can look after yourself, but it’s always an absolute last resort. We would always rather walk away. Karate teaches one hit one kill, and as instructors ourselves we would clearly never advocate that that’s what you go and do! There’s a respect and calmness behind everything we do.
Stuart: Like most things, the more you put into karate the more you get out of it. Lots of people want different things out of it – some people just want to undertake a very different type of exercise. It’s an incredible type of exercise. You can burn substantial amounts of calories per hour, compared to most other forms of exercise. As Dan mentioned, there’s a really nice atmosphere of respect in the dojo, between the students and the teachers and also between the students themselves. And that helps build a really nice community.
It’s also incredible for building confidence You are in an environment in which you can find yourself under a great deal of pressure – for example, let’s say a middle-aged woman who’s never done anything like this, and putting her in front of someone else and saying ‘you’ve got to attack them now’! That’s a completely different scenario to anything they’ve ever been in before. Also grading, and getting your belts, is a very pressurised situation. But it provides opportunities for all ages and abilities. I teach professionally, it’s my full-time job, and I teach kids as young as 4 and I think the oldest person in my club is 67. It really is for everyone.
Statistically very few people get attacked in the street. I used to work in security, and outside of that job I’ve never had to use my karate for self-defence. I’ve been doing it for 21 years and never had to use it. So while it’s taught me to be able to handle myself should that situation arise, the likelihood is it’s not going to happen to the vast majority of people.
So whether it’s something you want to dedicate your life to, or just improve your fitness, balance, cognitive ability etc, it doesn’t matter. My 67 year old student is stretching like a man half his age. It’s your training, it’s your karate – you can take as much or as little you want from it, even if it’s just to get a sweat on with your mates. But if you want to immerse yourself in the philosophy, the culture – knock yourself out!
Would it be fair to say, though, that a good proportion of people who get into it do end up getting into it on a deeper level? That, for many, it becomes that way of life rather than something they do for an hour every Tuesday evening. There’s something about karate, it seems, that attracts the sort of people more likely to really embrace its philosophical aspects?
Stuart: I would agree, yeah, and I think that’s down to the culture that spreads in the dojo. For example I had a class of 20 kids, and you wouldn’t believe that 6 year old kid could stand in a line and not say a word, but they do! A beginner will come in and they don’t start running around and mucking about with their mates, because they’re looking at all the other kids and thinking “Oh, I’ve got to fit in here”, so it builds that discipline – and then as they get older they start to think about why they’re doing this on a deeper level. And yeah, I do think martial arts attracts the sort of person who wants that. They’re receptive to the idea that there’s more to this than kicking and punching, definitely.
Lots of dojos have their own way of starting the class, and finishing the class. We always finish with what is essentially a brief meditation period. We sit down, on your knees, eyes closed, breathe in, slowing the heart rate down, take in what we’ve done – so at the very least we have that meditative period in which it does become that little bit more. As an instructor, you’re not just a sport coach – you’re a therapist, a friend, you’re a confidante, sometimes even a babysitter! It’s a culture in itself, a community, a self-sustaining thing – and people definitely want that spiritual and philosophical side.
How did you as a club and as instructors cope during the lockdowns? Was Zoom an option?
Stuart: We did roll out Zoom sessions, yeah. While fighting is a major part of karate, there’s still quite a lot we can do and so Zoom was fantastic. I still teach four times a week on Zoom. I’m fortunate that I have a number of people from outside the UK – in Spain, Brazil, America, Canada, Germany – who want to train with me.
As lockdown started to ease we were training in a laundry room…stood in front of about six massive industrial washing machines. There was nowhere else! We trained in gardens, wherever we could, until we found somewhere more permanent. We certainly didn’t let the pandemic stop us, while operating within the rules of course.
I managed to maintain 100% retention of my students after lockdown, purely because we gave them the option to train during the pandemic. I recorded a lot of my sessions, so for anyone who couldn’t make it they just had a link that they could use in their own time.
It’s been amazing for us to speak to clubs across a range of sports who have all taken something positive from the lockdown period, from the Zoom sessions, or that it maybe highlighted areas of their practices and methods that could be improved, issues that hadn’t dawned on them until we were all forced into this new stark reality…
Stuart: Oh without a doubt. Every club that I know of that didn’t do Zoom has suffered because of it, including some that have closed – which is a huge shame. But those that did embrace Zoom have flourished. Our club has doubled in size since lockdown began. It’s almost heretical to say you can make money out of karate, but I’m able to make my living out of it and that’s due in no small part to how we were able to operate with Zoom and other adaptations to our methods during the pandemic.
Actually we’re seeing our membership grow, every week I’m getting phone calls, and I think a lot of that is due to Cobra Kai. Bring on season 4! Seriously though – it’s like when the Bruce Lee movies started…people flooded to martial arts dojos. Just like with the Rocky films, everyone was boxing! And now with Cobra Kai, every kid on the block wants to do karate.
So you’re both instructors, but you both compete too. How do you manage both instructing and competing concurrently?
Dan: I’m a 5th dan at the moment. As the dan grades get higher, there’s a much longer period of training, commitment and dedication. Also the criteria changes the higher up you go, and it can even become academic. So you can be asked to do a thesis on an aspect of karate. The examinations are tough ‘cos you’re asked your opinions on techniques, why is it best this way and not that way, all that stuff, and there’s no real correct answer.
Stuart: There’s a few wrong answers though!
Dan: Haha! I’m sure there are some wrong answers, completely wrong! But yeah, when you get to my level, 4th dan, 5th dan, you’re looking at 4-5 years between examinations. I haven’t mapped out my future as such, but – and I’m sure Stuart’s the same – we’ll continue…until we die, probably.
Stuart: So I still compete, yeah. Karate is all I do. At the moment I teach a lot more than I train, which is a challenge, but it’s all I do, it’s what I enjoy, and I’m in the gym five or six days a week. At the club Dan and I have – the Fenikkusu Phoenix Club – we train three times a week. I do private sessions too, travelling up and down the country running courses. When we do teach, even that is very physical – lots of demonstrations etc, and you just want to get stuck in yourself!
We came from a very prolific club, with some of the best instructors in the world, and the classes were very physical. We’ve recently joined another association, another international group, which is brilliant – but we’re sort of on our own in Liverpool now and trying to build this club. It’s a balancing act between getting your teaching right, and your training right.
Competitions have been very quiet recently, due to covid, but I have my first one back tomorrow, which is a national event. I’ve not done as much training as I would’ve liked, but it’s just the way it goes and we’ll see what tomorrow brings!
How are you feeling about it? Underprepared?!
Stuart: In all honesty, yes! Pre-covid I was probably training six days a week, but off the back of the pandemic, the change of association…it’s going to be difficult, a new experience. New faces, new referees, new rules. I’ve competed internationally for 12 years but I’m always nervous. I always say to my students “If you’re not nervous, you’re doing something wrong”. You should be nervous! Not scared, but nervous. Tomorrow will be interesting!
We conducted this interview a few weeks ago, and the day after we spoke Stuart, Dan and others from Fenikkusu headed down to Birmingham for the HDKI National Championships to take their ‘step into the unknown’…
And what a day it proved to be! As you can see, Stuart prevailed – as Grand Champion!
From the same dojo, Tony Chin Sensei took 1st place in Over 40s Kata and Damion Woods Sensei took 1st place in Over 40s Kumite. Stuart was also awarded the Palma Diosi special award for the ‘most spirited competitor’ from Scott Langley Sensei and Robert Rhodes Sensei. A remarkable day.
We’d like to thank Dan and Stuart for their time and such a highly engaging and fascinating chat. If you’d like to join Fenikkusu Shotokan Karate Club, you can find them on Facebook or simply give us a shout and we’ll point you in the right direction. Huge congratulations to Stuart and everyone else at the club for their incredible showing in Birmingham, and good luck for the future!
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