By: Shaun Banfield Featuring: Toru Shimoji Special Thanks: C.J. Beck
Nishiyama student Toru Shimoji applies kinesiology science to Shotokan training in this 2009 interview. If you have self-imposed injuries or wish to avoid them, the answer may lie here.
"Prior to me conducting this interview, I had received so many emails from different people asking if we could interview Sensei Shimoji. I’d heard of his reputation, but must admit to not knowing a tremendous amount about him. I of course did a bit of research, and instantly was eager to conduct the interview. Born in Okinawa, Toru Shimoji’s early experiences of the Martial Arts consisted of kiyabu-te whilst in Hawaii."
"His first exposure to Shotokan came however through a demonstration made by Osaka and Yahara in Hawaii, which was “something to behold”. It was his long time studying with Master H. Nishiyama however that proved to be of huge significance. This interview provides insight into Sensei Shimoji’s experiences training with Nishiyama Sensei, his karate career and his person understanding and knowledge of Shotokan Karate" – Shaun Banfield 2009
(Shaun Banfield) Thank you very much for being so willing to give us this interview; it is a pleasure having the opportunity to put our questions to you!
(Toru Shimoji) I feel greatly honored and I thank you for this opportunity.
(SB) You were born in 1959 in the town of Koza, Okinawa. Can you please tell us about your childhood there?
(TS) The city is now called Okinawa City and it’s located in the middle of the island and surrounded by several U.S. military bases. Okinawa was still recovering from the Second World War, and existed as U.S. territory. The congested city was bustling with construction and commerce as I was growing up. I was small for my age and rather sickly, but very curious about everything. Together with my friends, we roamed the city, exploring every nook. We got into all kinds of trouble but I don’t think that’s too unusual.
(SB) Prior to your study of Kiyabu-te, had you any experiences of the Martial Arts whilst in Okinawa during your childhood?
(TS) No, but when I was very young, one day on television there was a karate demonstration. My uncle explained to me that they were doing this thing called karate and it was indigenous to Okinawa. I remembered being attracted to its movements, as though it was something I’ve done before.
(SB) How evident and highly stressed within the Okinawan culture did you find the Martial Arts? Was it very much a part of everyday life?
(TS) Most Okinawan people are not familiar with karate, and this is even true in mainland Japan. Yes, people know what karate is, but I think the common misconception in the west is that all Asians practice some type of martial arts. It’s not that big of a deal there.
(SB) In 1974 you moved to Hawaii and started studying Kiyabu-te am I correct? Readers may not know that much about Kiyabu-te, could you please tell us a little about its origins?
(TS) Kiyabu-te was an attempt by a martial artist who tried to combine Shotokan Karate with San Soo Woo kung fu. I believe it no longer exists. Basic Kihon of Shotokan was practiced but at a much more crude level.
(SB) Can you please tell us about the demo that you first saw of shotokan karate, with Yahara Sensei and Osaka Sensei?
(TS) In 1975, on their way back to Japan, the JKA team stopped over in Hawaii for a demonstration and a goodwill tournament against the local JKA team. I was still a novice in martial arts, so you could imagine how impressionable I was. Even today, the memory of Hayakawa Sensei’s Ippon, Yahara Sensei’s ferocity, and Osaka Sensei’s Unsu remains vivid in my mind.
(SB) What was it about the demonstration that caught your attention so?
(TS) The overall skill level was something to behold. Up until that time, I have never witnessed such mastery of Karate. They were the Karate world’s equivalent of an elite group of military Special Forces.
(SB) Your first experience practicing shotokan took place in the US, in Texas am I right? With whom did you train?
(TS) I left home at 19, travelled around the country for couple of years and participated in many “open style” tournaments. One day at a tournament in Oklahoma City, I met a Shotokan practitioner, L. Duffy. We got to be friends, and he invited me to train under him in Texas. I went there and trained with him for about six months.
(SB) Can you please tell us about this first experience?
(TS) It felt right from the start, the style of Shotokan. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it was easy to learn, in fact it was extremely challenging. I have great memories of living in Texas. Once or twice a month, after training all week would take off for a tournament. I can’t count how many “open style” tournaments I competed in during those six months. Looking back, it was a simple life based entirely around Karate.
(SB) Upon returning to Hawaii you joined the JKA there. Who was the Chief Instructor of the JKA Hawaii at the time?
(TS) When I got home, I wanted to continue with JKA, so I hooked up with Ed Fujiwara. At the time he was the chief instructor of JKA and AAKF (American organization under Sensei Nishiyama). He had a small dojo in downtown Honolulu, in Chinatown district. I was very fortunate that he took me under his wing and basically started me from scratch. Eventually, he got me to 1st kyu. I have the greatest respect for him and we still keep in touch.
(SB) Can you please tell us about some of the shotokan training you experienced in Hawaii until your departure for Los Angeles in 1982?
(TS) Fujiwara Sensei was an easy going and gentle man, but his classes were awfully tough. He gave us the standard JKA style training but also added many training concepts and drills from Tetsuhiko Asai. You see, he was heavily influenced by Asai Sensei, who was the second instructor to be sent by the JKA, after Kanazawa Sensei and later followed by Mori Sensei. I think Fujiwara Sensei considers Asai Sensei as his main teacher.
I got to hear many Karate stories from Fujiwara Sensei and the philosophy of Budo. Through him, I got to meet other local JKA teachers and practitioners. He also introduced me to Sensei Murasaki, a Buddhist monk, who taught another style of Karate. He was another gifted martial artist who also had a huge on me.
(SB) Prior to training with Sensei Nishiyama in Los Angeles in 1982, did you have any prior knowledge of him before meeting him?
(TS) When I first started training, my friend showed me Nishiyama Sensei’s book, Karate: The Art of Empty Hand Fighting. He let me borrow it, so I read it and studied all the pictures. I remember making copies of the pictures and pasting them on my notebook. When I started training with Fujiwara Sensei, I learned that he was the head of the AAKF.
Mori Sensei from New York usually came to Hawaii at the end of the year and gave us Dan- Examinations. Due to schedule conflict that year, he couldn’t make it, so Fujiwara Sensei gave me couple of options. Wait another year, or go to Los Angeles and test under Nishiyama Sensei. I decided to go to LA, train under Nishiyama Sensei until I received Shodan, and then go to Japan for further training.
(SB) And upon meeting him, what were your first impressions?
(TS) I got to LA in January of 1982. Within a week, I found a couple of part-time jobs, rented a room, bought a car and headed out to Nishiyama Sensei‘s dojo. Sensei walked into the office as I was registering, and the receptionist mentioned that I had come from Hawaii to train. He just nodded.
As I saw him for the first time, I remember being taken back by his powerful presence. Many have told me of their similar first-time experience with Nishiyama Sensei. Like stepping in from another time, he was an embodiment of a samurai.
(SB) Can you please give us an insight into your training with Sensei Nishiyama? Tell us about the training you had with him?
(TS) My first class with Sensei was eye opening. Nothing I did was acceptable, or even close. I felt I knew nothing about Karate. He charged the air with his amazing charisma. I pushed myself beyond what I thought was possible. In his class, I sensed this overwhelming urgency to figure out and do what he was instructing.
Also on my first night, I met Avi Rokah. He had arrived a couple of months before me from Israel. He had just gotten out of the Army and wanted to fulfil his dream of training under the famous master. He too had ambition of getting a Shodan rank from Sensei and moving on with his Karate career. We hit it off and became the best training buddies. He is and will always be my karate brother!
As the weeks added to months, then to years, I realized that Nishiyama Sensei was a special teacher. Every class he taught, and I mean each and every one, was as though it was his last.
(SB) Do you have any stories of Sensei Nishiyama that you could share?
(TS) During my first week with Sensei, I asked if it was possible to attend the Friday evening Team Training. With his thick accent, he told me I could attend once in a while. I really didn’t understand what he meant, but I went to the next Team Training, and the next and the following weeks. I decided to keep attending the Team Training until he kicked me out for “over attendance”.
After couple of months of training at Sensei’s dojo, he stopped me on the hallway one night and pointed his finger straight at me (classic Nishiyama gesture), and said, “Good idea you start Team Training. Can come Friday?” I replied with a deep bow, “Oss, Sensei!” and started to leave, but he stopped me and pointed his finger again. “But…if start, no can miss this class—understand?” I screamed again, “Oss, Sensei!”
Although I was bit confused, I felt grateful that he finally recognized my presence in his dojo.
(SB) And did you ever miss this training?
(SB) Technically, what were the most important things he taught you?
(TS) I would say that there were many points as far as the technical aspects of training that I learned from him, but the most important thing that Nishiyama Sensei taught me was how to see the roots of techniques and figure out how to continuously evolve from it. In a nutshell, he taught me how to observe and teach myself.
An interesting observation of his top students is that they all looked different. He would find a way to draw out the individuality of each student.
Students will often emulate their teacher, copying all the outside motions and mannerisms. Nishiyama Sensei was able to prevent that by forcing you to be you!
(SB) How did he go about drawing out the individuality of the student? By what process did he achieve this?
(TS) By asking how would you solve this problem, whether it was a punch or kick. He would not allow you to copy someone else’s solution. I think he had the ability to see right through you and understand the essence of your being, perhaps much more than yourself. So he continually led you to self-discovery and introspection—at least it was for me.
(SB) From coming from your experience within the other style of Martial Art, how well did you adapt to Sensei Nishiyama’s karate?
(TS) As I alluded to earlier, when you encounter someone like Nishiyama Sensei you realize the opportunity of a lifetime. I purged my past and started all over with him. Having gone through the experience in Texas and Hawaii, I was already used to the classic JKA style training, but not Nishiyama Sensei’s system.
Under Nishiyama Sensei’s system, you were not allowed to sit back and just “repeat” techniques. He forced you to look inside yourself, at least technically, and live in the present. Put in your best effort now and attempt to get it right, or don’t train!
If you’re working on Gyaku-zuki for example, are your legs properly connected to the floor, does their energy transfer smoothly into the hips, are the muscles around the spine correctly supporting the structure as it rotates, are the shoulders responding adequately to the movement, and on and on. Then you face off with a partner and attempt to apply all that you were working on in a Kumite setting. Likewise in Kihon and Kata. The overall picture of your goal, along with detail of how to get there was systematic and comprehensive, with the lesson menu changing about every four weeks. It was intense to say the least, but I could not get enough of it.
I kept a detailed training journal during that time. In one of my earliest entries, I wrote, “Tonight, I learned how to punch!” Nishiyama Sensei had helped me discover the fundamental principle of punching for the first time, and that made me excited. Few months later, however, I had another journal entry: “Tonight, I learned how to punch!” After repeating this several times, I eventually realized that I was getting pieces of the puzzle, one at a time.
(SB) From the classic JKA style of karate you must have witnessed or experienced, how different was Sensei Nishiyama’s karate and can you give examples of the differences?
(TS) Often, teachers show you what they are good at, in essence a visual presentation of what it should look like. If you were lucky enough to possess a similar body and mind of the instructor, then the transfer of information would be rather smooth. But does that method go deeper? Can superficial know-how lead to introspection?
Nishiyama Sensei’s method was pragmatic. You dealt with the source of your techniques, not only through your physicality but also from the psychological perspective. An example would be my description of the Gyaku-zuki I described in an earlier question. In any teaching field, an instructor faces a fundamental dilemma of what a student needs over what you want to give. I think this is where Nishiyama Sensei shone. His insight to your current and future development was very deep and thorough.
(SB) You had a very successful competition career, winning the AAKF Championships for many years in a row. What was your attitude to competition at the time?
(TS) I would call it productive rather than successful. I used to dread that first day back to training after a competition. No mentioning of the medals won, just the areas of weakness in your training that had surfaced during the competition and the urgency to fix them. Nishiyama Sensei would push us hard enough, but that Monday was always tougher than normal!
Nishiyama Sensei always stressed to me that I shouldn’t rely on my “showmanship” ability to win Kata and I must overcome my fear of Kumite through continuous introspection and arduous training. We used tournament experience as markers for these things we were working on. Therefore, winning medals and trophies didn’t mean anything at all.
(SB) And has your attitude changed at all?
(TS) Fundamentally no. I do my best to pass on the Budo philosophy of Shiai (competition) to my students.
(SB) What is your favourite kata and why?
(TS) Presently, I don’t have a favourite Kata, but I will say that Unsu and Gojushiho-dai are deeply imbedded in my bones.
Tokui-kata was assigned to you by Nishiyama Sensei. When I was 1st Kyu, it was Jion. After receiving Shodan from him, he changed it to Kanku-Sho. With Nidan promotion, I was given Unsu and Gojushiho-Dai. For a long time, doing these Katas was absolutely excruciating because he demanded nothing short of perfection—each and every time you performed them. No matter how hard I tried, something was always lacking.
Some students were envious that I was assigned Unsu; but they did not understand what it was like to do it endlessly in front of Sensei, with him pointing and shouting more this and more that. I used to call them “Un-sucks” and “Gojushiho-Die”, just to add humour to the misery. In hindsight, I realized it was a special gift from Sensei, but when you’re young, immature and ignorant; you don’t see things from a proper perspective.
(SB) You mention Unsu and Gojushiho Dai. What do you think are the most important factors that influence the effective execution of each of these kata?
(TS) I believe over time, your Kata becomes an act of self-expression. I think this process happens from early on, but goes deeper as you develop into your higher Dan grades.
For me personally, Unsu is about ½ and ¼ beat timing in Kumite or Close-Quarter Battle, a way to change your hitting rhythm and tempo. I think all great fighters use rhythm/tempo changes in their fighting, but in Unsu you can see the blueprint of it.
Gojushiho-Dai is about the deception of heaviness in light techniques. The challenge of it lies in its sharp angle changes, Neko-ashi stances and Ippon-nukite applications. Moving your energy in figure-8 is also prevalent in this kata.
(SB) To what do you attribute your early success in competitive kata?
(TS) I tried to carry on the pride of being a Nishiyama student, backing it up with proper preparation. During early years, I was able to do well (as far as placing) in Kata division but not so great in Kumite division. Therefore, I don’t recall those competitive days as “success” since my tournament experience was always bittersweet.
(SB) In 1991 you graduated from UCLA with a degree in Kinesiology. Can you tell us about your experiences studying in University?
(TS) I had a grand vision that I was going to go into research and discover all kinds of amazing things about biomechanics of karate techniques. I soon came to a realistic conclusion that I was dreaming. However, the courses I took in my program were extremely helpful in my own development in Karate, such as Human Anatomy and Dissection, Biomechanics, Sports Psychology, Neurophysiology, Exercise Physiology, and Injury Biomechanics.
(SB) How has your understanding of biomechanics (knee, shoulder, hip, etc.) influenced your karate teaching?
(TS) Knowing the physical limits of our body is very important for practicing safe and effective techniques. Parameters of joint movement and surrounding connective tissues dictate how one should perform various techniques. For example, the position of the knee in relation to the foot is very important.
A slight misalignment, which is very common in Zenkutsu-dachi, can be a cause of long-term knee, foot and/or hip injuries. The way the hip is used in typical training can also be problematic. I have my personal feelings about movement mechanics that are different to classic Shotokan.
(SB) Can you please elaborate on your personal feelings about movement mechanics as readers would sincerely love to hear about them?
(TS) Without actual diagrams and visual presentation this is very difficult; but I will do my best to explain using simple words. For your interested readers, I am putting down all these in a book, which I hope will be published next year.
When you flex your knee for example, the thighbone can pivot over the shinbone. Then as you straighten it, two bones line up straight. In an ideal knee movement, you want to minimize any pivoting while the knee is bent because as you straighten the knee, the realignment of the thighbone with the shinbone puts stress on the menisci of the knee. This stress may be minimal, but over time this repetitive stress may end up becoming an injury, or at least weakening the joint.
The best advice is to teach your body to bend the knee over the second toe. I see this misalignment in many Shotokan practitioners’ rear leg during Zenkutsu-dachi.
Now, as far as the hips, in Shomen position, your hip can extend (move leg backwards) about 10 to 15 degrees. Typical JKA front-stance is deep and long, with hip extending way over 20 degrees. So how does the body deal with the extra movement? Your pelvis swings backward.
Usually you are instructed to push the hips forward, so most student over-contract the hip flexors to accomplish this, thinking that the pelvis goes in neutral position. This is not what really happens, and tightening the hip flexors can actually cause strain in the lower back, and undue compression in the hip joints.
Also, many practitioners have a habit of stomping the floor during impact, which can exacerbate the stresses on the hip joints. We wear loose clothing (Karate gi) so most of this misalignment is unnoticed, and we hit mostly air where the consequences seem unimportant. Therefore, most people tend to ignore these things until they get injured.
(SB) In 1991 you moved to Okinawa. What drew you back to Okinawa?
(TS) I had two goals, one to visit my birthplace and another to experience Okinawan Karate.
(SB) Whilst there, you studied Goju-ryu under Kuba Sensei. Can you please tell us a little about him?
(TS) I have a dear friend from New York, Isami Shiroma, who is also from Okinawa. He introduced me to a JKA instructor in Okinawa, Tatetsu Meicho. After finding out why I was in Okinawa, Tatetsu Sensei advised that I study Goju-ryu since it had a different lineage than Shotokan. Acting as a go-in-between (which is very important in Japan), Tatetsu Sensei introduced me to Kuba Yoshio, who was a student of Toguchi Seikichi, a famous Goju-ryu practitioner.
(SB) And what was the training like? Can you give us an insight into some of the methods of teaching you experienced under Kuba Sensei?
(TS) Kuba Sensei was an acupuncturist by trade. He taught Karate in his private dojo above his clinic. It was a small dojo, right outside of Kadena Air Force base in Okinawa City, just minutes from where I was born and raised.
The first night, no one else came to the class, just Kuba Sensei and me. He asked why I was wearing a white belt when he knew of my experiences under Nishiyama Sensei. I replied that I knew nothing of Goju-ryu and wanted to be treated as a beginner. So we started, Kuba Sensei showing me how to make a proper Goju-ryu fist. Before leaving, he gave me a key to his dojo and told me to come and train whenever I had time.
It was very old style training. Kuba Sensei had an official class two or three times a week, but his students came and trained on their own, each having a key to the dojo. I think the whole time I was there, he had just handful of students.
Many nights I would show up only to be the only student. So I was very fortunate to receive special attention from him. He taught me the traditional body conditioning using Chi’ishi, Saashi, and Tsubo, which I was encouraged to practice on my own.
The vast majority of time with him was spent on Kata training. He taught me Tensho, Saifa, Seiunchin, Seisan and Seipai, which I still practice. Tensho is actually an exercise more than a Kata.
Kuba Sensei taught me these Katas because he thought they would compliment my Shotokan training. During those nights when he would teach me privately, he would often go over one of the Katas showing me many Bunkai, which he preferred to call Kaishaku, meaning “interpretation”.
He stressed that each move of the Kata had at least 8 application variations, and encouraged me to figure out how to “see” and “understand” Kata so that I could figure out my own Kaishaku. That way, when I went back to Shotokan, I could dissect our Katas using this principle. I am forever grateful for his generosity.
I also had a chance to train briefly at Miyasato Eiichi Sensei’s dojo, the famous Jundokan.
(SB) Did this dissection of kata develop your understanding of your shotokan kata and can you please tell us a little about what you found?
(TS) As I applied the principle of Kaishaku that I learned from Kuba Sensei, all Katas, Goju-ryu or Shotokan are effective in terms of application usage. Even with many changes that were made in Shotokan Katas from their original forms, they are still vibrant and effective. Kata Bunkai is all about combat survival. There is no option for loosing. You fight to stop your opponents by all and any means.
Some martial artists feel that Kumite, especially the competition type, is useless training for combat preparation. I disagree with this notion. There are important elements to competition Kumite, like emotional control and dealing with a dynamic target, i.e., a person who is trying to hit you. When you add these to the traditional Bunkai training, I think you have a very useful combination.
(SB) You mention that you were taught how to make a goju-ryu fist. How does it differ to Shotokan?
(TS) This would be difficult to explain in words, but I would attempt by saying that Goju-ryu fist is softer and you also try to squeeze up the skin of the palm inside the bent fingers
(SB) You spoke about the small number of students within the classes. Was this typical of Okinawan training?
(TS) I would venture to say yes. There are large commercial dojos in Okinawa, but they are very few and they often cater to the U. S. military personnel.
(SB) Do you have any fond memories or stories from your training in Okinawa?
(TS) While teaching me the Kaishaku of various Katas, Kuba Sensei would apply numerous Tuite techniques. Every one of those was extremely painful, and he would chuckle while flip-flopping me all over his dojo. I never got to see how they looked, just how they felt!
I once mentioned that I was confused about the jumping technique with Juji-uke landing in our Heian Godan. I was insinuating that JKA Katas had lost the practical application element.
He asked me to perform the movement as it was done in the Kata. Without skipping a beat, he told me to attack him. I remember seeing a blur as my neck was twisted in an uncomfortable position, and somehow I ended up on my back. He smiled and said to me that any Kata could work as long as you apply the principle of Kaishaku.
Training under Kuba Sensei also allowed me to attend various social events, where I met other Karate teachers representing different styles. Some would take the time and would freely share with me their Karate wisdom, for which I am forever grateful.
(SB) In what ways did you find Goju-ryu and Shotokan different?
(TS) How Goju-ryu viewed Kata training was obviously different. Of course, I can only speak from my experience with Kuba Sensei. Without the application knowledge, Kata was useless to him. When you realize the potential of these Kata movements, it brings home the reality of life-and-death combat. For example, one night Kuba Sensei showed me numerous tactics of eye gouging and where they were hidden in the Katas. The accumulated knowledge gathered through centuries of combat experiences was systematically codified into these Katas.
(SB) And in what ways are they similar?
(TS) Emphasis on morality and character building through arduous training.
(SB) You mention that Goju-ryu view kata differently to Shotokan. There is a big interest these days in practical application of kata. Do you think this interest has been developed primarily within the Goju-ryu circles and now shotokan karateka are simply catching up?
(TS) I would venture to say yes, and add that many are catching up quite well. In our circle here in the states, there is one teacher, Chris Smaby, who has spent several decades adapting Nishiyama system of Shotokan with Okinawan approach to Kata Bunkai. His knowledge of Tuite (pressure point tactics) and its usages are second to none. What I really like about Smaby Sensei’s approach is that it’s from real-life scenarios that he’d experienced from being in law enforcement.
(SB) How has your experiences within Goju-ryu affected your approach and understanding of shotokan?
(TS) As Kuba Sensei advised, I took the concept of Kaishaku that he taught me and began exploring our Katas. Now my feelings for our Katas have this Okinawan flavour. Another influence was the “Ki flow” in our movements. Shotokan training is often technical, with emphasis on speed, power and timing. I think this needs to be complimented with movements that develop the “Ki flow”. Even when I teach beginners, I emphasize this “Ki flow”, which I prefer to call Breath Energy.
(SB) How do you teach beginners about this concept?
(TS) My personal experience of teaching beginners the concept of Breath Energy or Ki for that matter leads me to believe that it is very important to start them off from the start of their training. I feel strongly, however, that you have to be pragmatic and practical, showing the direct usage of Breath Energy, leaving out any spiritual, philosophical or mystical components.
I usually start them with a simple visual and conceptual model of an imaginary energy ball held in front of the body. Then you squeeze and expand this ball to create a fundamental rhythm. Finally you do simple technique like Choku-zuki using this feeling. Basically, you tie together the physical foundation with usage of Breath Energy, which sets up future development for the beginners.
(SB) How does the concept of Ki fit into your scientific outlook, as many scientists insist it does not exist, whilst others have not completely ruled it out. What are your feelings?
(TS) Just because you can’t measure something is not proof that it doesn’t exist. Look how long it took for western medicine to acknowledge acupuncture. Can you tell someone who claims to be happy (or depressed) that he is not because a scientific instrument cannot measure it?
We all have Ki running inside and around us. I have seen it, experienced it first hand, and have taught it effectively. Many use different names or expressions to describe this life force, but its undeniable that we have this energy.
Scientific approach can be merged effectively with Ki concept when teaching and learning. I think its just a matter of correct presentation and thinking.
(SB) Describe how you integrate the classic Okinawan karate into Shotokan karate?
(TS) There is a phrase in Japanese, “muri ni shinai”, which means not to push too hard. This was advice given to me by many older teachers in Okinawa. It does not mean you don’t try, or not to push yourself to be better. It means to be balanced in all aspects of training. Being too rigid and stubborn can be counterproductive. Being soft yet hard, hard yet soft was an idea that took me a long time to figure out. I understand it now, and it makes all the difference.
(SB) After your stay in Okinawa, Randall Hackworth (and others) invited you to come to Atlanta, but you had had other offers am I right? What made you decide to go to Atlanta?
(TS) After getting back stateside in ‘96, I was thinking to go to graduate school, hoping to be a science teacher. I was not planning on teaching Karate professionally at all. All that changed, however, when I met up with Nishiyama Sensei at a training camp in South Carolina. I felt in my heart that I needed to repay Sensei by spreading his teachings. So I suggested to him the idea of accepting the position of Technical Director of the South Atlantic Region. I chose Atlanta over Charlotte, North Carolina because Atlanta had better access for travelling.
(SB) How have you developed such a special method of teaching, which enables you to zero in on the main area for improvement for each student (especially since all students are unique)?
(TS) Teaching is an art form. I would say that human beings basically learn by watching, hearing, or doing. Each person has his/her tendency, or preferred modality of learning. So I try to identify the learning style of the student (visual, auditory or tactile), and then hone in to get the message across. I also identify the source of motivation, which helps me to further fine-tune my communication with the student. Of course, even with your best efforts, you still loose students. The process of learning to be a good teacher is dynamic and ever evolving.
(SB) What is Axial Resonance and how do you incorporate it into your karate instructions?
(TS) I believe there are two common threads uniting all human activities, alignment and breathing. Both are interrelated and interdependent. ‘Axial Resonance’ is a movement system that coordinates proper body connection, mental focus and Breath Energy, in order to create, manage safe and effective body actions. I designed this system to be applicable to audiences outside the Karate world, but currently I use it only in Karate circles. The Introductory Course that I teach at my dojo is mainly on Axial Resonance. I find that students’ learning curve shortens and motivation remains high with this approach.
(SB) Can you please explain the concept of ‘Lines of Energy’ for our readers?
(TS) It was my early attempt to introduce the concept of energy flow to Karate students. Mechanical principle of starting your force line from the ground to the target (kinetic chain) can easily be explained and felt by students, but the energy sensation was bit trickier, so I came up with this notion of “Lines of Energy”. As my ideas evolved over the years, I used several different terms to describe this, and eventually formed Axial Resonance.
It is my observation and opinion that human movement without proper energy flow is analogous to machinery without lubrication. I think this is one strong element of many Shotokan practitioners suffering from joint problems. Of course when assessing injury causations, you have to take into account other variables like training habits, genetics, and diet.
Because life force or Ki cannot be measured by a scientific instrument, one can argue that it doesn’t exist. But we all know through our daily experiences that energy, of some nature, permeates around us and in us. For me the question was not about its existence but on how to harness and manage it, so I came up with a teaching method.
Students are initially taught how to harness and manage their energy, which I call Breath Energy. This principle is next applied to movements in Kihon and Kata training. Then, in Kumite training they engage their Breath Energy with other students.
Positive results are seen and felt from early on, which applies to their daily lives. Students often tell me that they can better manage their emotions during stressful moments, whether at work or home. Additionally, they begin to notice other people’s energy, which they were not aware of.
(SB) What are the 11 lines of energy and why are they an important part of your karate instruction?
(TS) I wanted to go beyond the fundamental concepts of body connection and Breath Energy. My quest has led me to a current state, an attempt to somehow combine the physical alignment with energy flow using a geometric mapping. Your question of the 11 lines of energy is from my current research. I would need another day to further discuss this, and I’m not too comfortable talking about something that is floating around my head so loosely.
(SB) What are the most important things to emphasize when transferring energy from the source (*the ground*) to the target?
(TS) Mechanically speaking, all human movements are based on ground reaction. Therefore, we must manage this action-reaction system correctly. Joint alignment and Breath Energy management are critical to safely and effectively pass on this energy.
(SB) What training style or techniques do you apply differently between youth and adults?
(TS) Kids subconsciously pick up subtle tonal shifts and vibrations in your voice. They can feel the extension and retractions of your energy. Therefore, with kids I rely more on my energy usage, like subtle voice changes, tactile adjustments and visual cues. I pace kids class differently, usually matching their energy state. I really don’t mean to side skirt another topic, but this subject area needs an entire forum to serve justice, so I’ll leave it at this.
(SB) What has been your biggest influence throughout your instructional career?
(TS) Early in my teaching career, Nishiyama Sensei was the biggest influence. Through him I learned how to break down a subject to a systematic lesson plan, in a short and long term training menu. Now the biggest influence comes from the collaborative effort of the students, colleagues, and senior instructors that I am currently involved with.
(SB) Many articles have been written about how karate combines the mind, body, and spirit. How have you been able to combine all 3 into your classes?
(TS) Three elements are interdependent and interrelated, meaning they are an inseparable entity. Discourse of mechanical principles of Karate deals with the mind, the associated movements taps the body, and breath control and focal attention moves the spirit. In other words, the dynamic ratio of thinking, doing and feeling are steadily presented to challenge the students.
(SB) Sensei Nishiyama passed away not too long ago. Would it be possible for you to express your feelings on this, and tell us what the Shotokan Community has lost in his sad passing?
(TS) He was a wonderful teacher, the likes of which we will never see again. Not only did he teach me the way of Karate, but connected me to both the Japanese Budo heritage and Master Funakoshi.
He was able to bridge the East with the West allowing us to see and experience clearer what this Budo experience is all about. His unique and innovative teaching methods will survive in all his dedicated students who will continue to evolve this system of martial art.
I remember once when Sensei was asked about his late father. He smiled and tapped on his chest and said in his heart were all the good memories he had of his father.
When I think of all the stinging shinai whacks on my hikite, his pointing index finger aimed straight through my soul, his ramrod punch that would burst my ego, and his warm handshake when I won the Nishiyama Cup, they all make me smile and tap on my chest.
(SB) Are there any points that you would like to speak about that I have neglected to ask you about?
(TS) Expressing myself through karate never felt complete. I felt I could coordinate three facets, so I started exploring healing arts through body-manipulations and energy work, and later got into fine art by making sculptures. This trio -- Karate, Healing Arts, and Fine Arts – keeps me busy and content.