I wanted to post this beautiful, heartfelt essay from one of Sensei’s amazing student (Tony A.) . Sensei is so proud of all of you.
Sensei David Johnston died yesterday. Outside of my family, no person in my life did more to shape me as a young man than him. I simply can’t imagine my life without him and Shotokan playing a role.
Sensei was the truest of originals. Born and raised in the Lake District, his first love was rock climbing in the early days of the sport. He continued with it until the very end, marking each milestone birthday with an impressive new climb. He was masterful at violin since childhood, and again until the very end, practiced alone multiple hours per day. As a young man, Sensei moved to London and briefly worked as an ad man during the counterculture heyday. Proud of his snakeskin boots, bell bottoms, three-martini lunches, and the fact he’d regularly see the Stones and play a bar the size of the dojo, as he’d tell us decades later over sushi or his favorite pizza. His own band auditioned Robert Plant and passed on him, shortly before Mr. Plant met a guy named Jimmy Page.
In the mid-1960s, Sensei’s life changed forever as he watched a karate demonstration from Senseis Kanazawa and Enoeda. These were the first instructors to leave Japan to spread Shotokan, having learned themselves from Master Funakoshi and Nakayama. True pioneers. Sensei gave up everything for karate, and he lived in the moment the rest of his days. Over his career he was the right-hand-man to Senseis Eneoda, Kanazawa, Okazaki, and Yaguchi (all mythical in karate stature, each now with their own wikipedia pages), spanning from the UK to the East Coast to Colorado, before moving to Los Angeles and then Orange County, removing himself from the politics of martial arts and teaching Shotokan independently.
When I say Sensei gave up everything for karate, I mean it. There was never any money to be made. There were no “brand ambassadors” or sponsorship, and there certainly wasn’t any social media on which to brag, humble-brag, or project an image. Sensei could barely bring himself to advertise locally with small flyers; it’s a miracle I and others found him. The *only* reality and reward to him was hard work in the dojo and respect for the art. Full stop. Sensei lived and died in the oldest tradition, dedicated to his art, touching the lives his many students, while living the life of a content pauper in the most purposeful and dignified of ways.
I first met and trained with Sensei in 1999, and I never worked harder for anyone ever. His final dojo was still new back then, and there were some classes where I’d be the only person to show up. I was all of 17 years old, Sensei was somewhere past 60. I’d push myself until my vision would go black. Then he’d tell me to start the kata over from scratch, or do another round of sparring, so I did. The details he could see (and be right about) were endless. The work was never finished. His longtime students would travel 90 minutes from Los Angeles or Ontario on Sundays, and they were the best karate-ka and people I’ve ever trained with. When I needed the dojo most, it was there, and when I’d catch my breath after class, Sensei and I talked Zen Buddhism, we talked Minor Threat, we talked Tarantino movies. He’d describe his favorite line in Repo Man, then walk me through a Chopin piece, because that came up too.
Sensei expected a lot from everyone in life. Too much sometimes, realistically speaking, but no more than he had earned or expected from himself. You simply couldn’t argue with the man. He worked so hard, sacrificed and forewent so much, stared down heartbreak and the early loss of his wife, and continued on following the truest spirit of karate. No glory except his dojo, the legacy of his students, and his tattered black belt, five decades old and turned all but completely white by the end.
Knowing and training under Sensei has been a rare honor, the likes of which in this world are fewer by the day. More than anything, Sensei’s high standards stay with me, and I think that’s how he’d like to be remembered. His passing has made me reflect on how much of his teaching I still carry, and how much I’ve changed, and processing it all won’t happen overnight. For now, I’m thankful he’s at peace, and I’m grateful to all his students for caring for him in his final days. I’m lucky to call you friends and dojo-mates, and Sensei was very lucky and grateful to have you in his time of need. Oss.
By David Johnston
The word ‘jutsu’, as in “ju-jutsu’, means ‘skill’. The purpose of’ karate-jutsu’ is to learn techniques, in as short a time as possible which can be put to use in combat. The word ‘do’, which is the same as the Chinese word ‘tao’, means ‘Way’. The purpose of karate-do is to use those techniques as material to work with in a lifelong endeavor to approach perfection. Patience, determination, and courage are required and developed in the process. Other qualities that are developed, through interaction with the dojo, are humility and consideration for others. So, through striving to perfect technique, one indirectly – little by little – strengthens and refines his or her own character.
There are objective standards which the student must strive to meet; they are the subject of this handbook. However, since the important point is character formation, it is the trainee’s performance in relation to his natural abilities which is assessed, for this is what reflects the effort he has made. One student’s combination may be sharper than another’s but the latter may have worked harder to achieve this level of skill. Since this relates to character it must be taken into account.
All this might seem idealistic. On the other hand, the person with strong character is the one you want by your side in a “real” situation. Good coordination or flexible joints are useful, but less important than strong spirit.
I repeat, though: there are objective standards which the student must strive to meet! We should never easily excuse ourselves! The human capacity for growth is unlimited and this is the most important lesson that karate-do can teach us. ‘Osu!’ means ‘Strive!”. We should remember that every time we say it!
By Sensei David Johnston
(editor’s note: This article was written when Sensei Johnston was part of the AJKA)
Two years ago, when I took the position of Technical Director, I considered that the most useful thing I could do was to standardize the Kata. It was apparent that every kata, from Heian Shodan onward, showed some variation from region to region or under different instructors when within the same region. Standardizing would make it easier to judge a performance, in competition or testing, and (more importantly) would ensure that each kata maintained it’s integrity as a vehicle of technical and strategic instruction. The more I became involved with the project, however, the more like a nightmare it began to seem. And, the more I began to appreciate Nakayama’s monumental efforts in that direction. That he was not successful was due, I believe, to the size of the job (the bewildering array of diversity even within the supposedly united JKA), to the limited time at his disposal, and to the resistance he met from instructors at all levels around the world. As one senior instructor I was attached to liked to boast: “My style is my style!”. Well, and why not? Within limits, why shouldn’t there be variation?
Katas were not stamped out by machines or to be performed by machines. They were developed and transmitted by people with variable strengths and weaknesses and with variable points of view; the strategic situations they explore are similarly variable. If every detail could be rigidly standardized, katas would lose much of their historical and aesthetic richness (like computerized music compares with live performances) and they would be less useful as lessons in strategic flexibility. As for judging the main points of concern are stance, posture, rhythm, focus, concentration; all that is required of a particular technique is that it should have some respectable historical precedent and make sense in the context of the kata being performed. But as an instance, take three Japanese competitors in the same competition (The World Shoto Cup held in Philadelphia) performing the “same” kata (Gojushijo-sho); take one movement, the characteristic turn into back stance, right hand open and left hand under the right elbow; you’ll see it done three different ways. There may or may not be a slide; the right hand may be in upright knife-hand form or “Tiger’s mouth”. But, and this is what’s importance, done differently, a different situation is implied and it’s our business as students, instructors, and judges, to be clear about what this might be. Of course, there must be limits to variation. Each kata has its own character; it expresses and develops certain well-defined qualities; without limits its character would be blurred or lost. A jump-kick in Jitte would be as unnatural as a banana leaf on an elm tree; the kata would also be less convincing as an exercise in stability! Part of my job, with the new title of Technical Chairman, is to think about what techniques are acceptable in a given context and why; to debate controversial points with other senior instructors; and to communicate the results of our brain-storming to AJKA members all over the country. To this end, I plan to contribute regular articles in this news letter; I also urge member dojo’s to host seminars by visiting senior instructors, perhaps twice a year. All instructors should make whatever sacrifices might be necessary to attend the Annual National Camp. For our organization to be strong, we must communicate by all means possible: news-letters, telephones, and E-mail all help but nothing beats getting on the floor together!
Brief Biography of David Johnston 1964 Started Karate training under Hirokazu Kanazawa 1967 Britsh Team, 1st EKU Championship 1968-71 Karate instructor London School of Economics University of Surrey, Budo Kwai (London) 1973 Moved to USA; Assistant Instructor for Mnt. States Region; Founded clubs in Vail, Aspen, & Boulder CO 1976-80 Regional Director, Completed instructors training under JKA 1980-88 Chief Instructor of North Shore JKA, founded clubs at Brandeis & Harvard Universities 1988 Moved to Calif., founded clubs at Univ. of Redlands, Claremont College & Pasadena JKA 1993 Technical Chairman AJKA 1995 US Team coach (kata) WSKA World Championships
By Sensei David Johnston, (First printed in Ippon, the newsletter of the American JKA.)
Some time in the seventies, at a tournament, my teacher performed Kanku-dai as a demonstration. He looked very splendid in the hakama he kept for special occasions; the movements were bold and expansive; for a starry-eyed fan of Japanese samurai movies it was easy to feel a connection to a distant, heroic past. As he left the area, I complimented him on the performance. He scowled: “Looks only,” he grunted. “Power nothing!”
There was a large mirror at one end of his dojo and he often talked of removing it. He never did: perhaps he was afraid of losing students. The mirror was useful for occasional checking of form but some students seemed unable to perform kata without it. At each turn, instead of facing an opponent, heads would turn to find the beloved reflection.
As time goes by, however, it would seem that the mirror might be the most useful of all training tools if one wishes to do well (that is, to score high points) in kata competition. More and more, outward appearances seem to outweigh other factors. A lay audience can hardly be expected to appreciate the finer points of a performance. Judges, however, are supposed to have more sophisticated criteria. Yet what earns the most applause from the bleachers also earns the highest scores and I don’t think it’s because the audiences are more sophisticated than they used to be. It’s because judges are less so. They like what is easy to see: high kicks, high jumps and low stances, for example. That a contestant is unable to move from his beautiful rooted stance without raising or tilting the hips is of little consequence. To observe that the angle of a foot might indicate the absence of torque in a stance is to be pedantic. If the eyes show that a contestant is thinking of anything but a life threatening situation, it seems to pass unnoticed. (Japanese competitors are rarely guilty of the first two crimes: their stances, shifting and technique generally are superb. The third crime, and to my mind the most serious, I have seen perpetrated by top Japanese many times, even in prestigious events like the Shoto Cup.)
The general tendency to exaggerate (high kicks, low stances, etc.) does have more subtle manifestations. Sometimes, what is easy to see – what catches the eye – is movement of reduced magnitude. Take the inside knife-hand strikes in Gojushiho-sho: these used to begin close to the ear and little by little the movement became smaller. Smaller techniques are appropriate to a “sho”, and very advanced, kata but many performers now do little more than turn the hand over from the preceding outside strike. It has no meaning! But who cares, if it looks nice? (See addendum)
Often, first or second dan students see a technique like the aforementioned knife-hand strike performed differently from the large scale version they were raised on (at least, we hope they were) and they think, “Aha, advanced people make it small. The smaller I make it the more advanced I will appear to be!” The correct reflection, however, is that, having learned to make power from large movements and having developed a strong body through practicing those vigorous movements, one can get an edge in speed without too much loss of power by making the movement smaller. Beyond a certain point, however, diminishing the technique will diminish its usefulness.
Thinking about this just now made me think of dog breeding (not something I often think about at all)! Traits which characterize certain breeds are, I’m told, deliberately bred and over-bred to satisfy the artificial criteria of dog-shows. Sheep dogs, for instance, are bred with extra-narrow heads and a consequential loss of intelligence. They are bred for “looks only” and the usefulness of the breed is thereby diminished.
Some time around 1970, before the Japan Karate Association National Championship, a prominent competitor (Isaka, who for a time had instructed in New York) asked Nakayama Sensei if it would be all right to make the kicks in Nijushiho to the upper level. Traditionally they were done to the knee but, as the competitor pointed out, big kicks look better in a big hall. I don’t know with what misgivings Nakayama gave his assent – I don’t know if he ever regretted his decision. I do think it was a pivotal moment in the development of modem karate and that there might be cause for regret. At least, we must be on our guard against the “looks only” syndrome!
By Sensei David Johnston
It seems to me that Unsu and other very advanced kata are performed by lower grades at tournaments more and more. Shame on their instructors! In fact, a young, well-coordinated beginner can learn the outward movements of Unsu in an hour. To another beginner, the performance might look impressive; to someone experienced in Budo, (any authentic martial art, not just Shotokan Karate), it would appear hollow.
A kata which is too advanced will fail to express, or cultivate, a student’s understanding of the underlying principles of karate. Some of these principles were mentioned in Part I of this series. Among others, we should remember (especially) Master Funakoshi’s Three Imperatives:
- (The interplay between) the expansion and contraction of body parts and muscles;
- Fast and slow body movements; and
- Soft and hard body conditions.
And whereas a beginner will not learn anything of any depth from the very advanced kata, an advanced student will always benefit – and deepen his understanding of all kata – through continued and serous practice of Heian Shodan. Thus, students of all levels can work together – using dojo time as well as space efficiently – each deriving the same and different benefits according to his or her level.
Different techniques can be substituted or added to the basic stepping pattern. Advanced students might sometimes use stances like Hangetsu or Fudo-dachi. One might take a free-sparring posture between changes of direction. All these variations have their uses on occasion but should not distract rrom the value, for everyone, of the kata pure and simple. I want to suggest different ways to practice using the standard techniques.
Very slowly is one way. Be aware of as many components of each movement (physical and psychological) as possible. At the start, for instance, you receive a danger signal – a sound, a movement, a reflection, or shadow. (It’s important that every time you practice you connect, in your mind, the technique with its purpose.) Your stomach tightens and eyeballs move, followed milliseconds later by your head. Hips sink and left foot slides out to make length and width for the stance (place it as precisely as you would your hand, dotting an “i”). Be aware that the foot moves milliseconds after the hips begin to sink and that as it moves the arms are raised in preparation for down block. At this point the hips are still facing the front and the body feels relaxed except for 50% tension in the abdominal muscles.
When the left foot arrives, pivoting on the ball, the heel is drawn into line. Simultaneously, the right heel pushes back and the knee straightens, helping to drive the hip into the block. Tension is felt to radiate from the stomach to the side muscles, chest, and finally the fists (be aware of little fingers and thumbs) as the technique is completed. (see addendum)
Fortunately, this is less tedious to practice than to read (or write) about! There are more components to the movement than I have mentioned (consider the coordinated breathing, for instance), but don’t enumerate them. Don’t think. Just be very aware of what’s happening. If it seems easy, turn the microscope up, go more slowly. Notice how the parts fit together and overlap. Things work differently when you slow down. Factors like balance, inertia, and momentum are affected. Learn how these interact with your body – it will improve your motor control. Above all, it will sharpen your concentration.
Some years ago, during a training camp at Brandeis University, I devised a strange competition. Participants were to perform the first five movements of Heian Shodan as slowly as possible. There was only one rule: some movement had to be visible to the judges at all times. The result were significant, I think, and surprising in their consistency. White belts all finished with 30 seconds; purple belts were in the 1 to 1 1/2 minute range; black belts all spun it out to 2 minutes or more. The winner, a nidan, made it to a little less than 3 minutes!
Practicing very slowly, tai chi style, develops concentration and control over techniques and combinations performed at speed. That, of course, is why some movements in kata are required to be slow in actual performance. These movements are, however, not numerous and are often performed without concentration. I believe that sustained slow practice can be beneficial to everyone, and thirty minutes or more should be included in the training routine at least one a month.
By David Johnston
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few. ” Shunryu Suzuki
Shunryu Suzuki was a zen teacher who taught in San Francisco from 1958 until his death in 1971. There is a book compiled from his talks during this period called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (a very influential book which I recommend to some of my students as a fine karate text book). It contains this line: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
When you think of yourself as an expert you have stopped learning. A white belt can be dyed any color at all; a black belt cannot. Please take the symbolism seriously.
In Japanese, the concept is shoshin. Shin is mind or spirit; sho means first or beginning with the connotation of opening to possibilities. This is why sho is used instead of ichi to describe (and not merely assign a number to) the first kata. With Heian Shodan a beginning student learns the most basic principles of karate: sustained awareness, placing the feet for optimum stability whichever way he turns; using changes of position or direction for power. None of these and other principles is masked by complex surface techniques: the slightest violation of them stands out clearly. This is why Heian Shodan never gets easy (indeed, as the ability to detect ever more subtle flaws develops, it should get harder) and why the kata is essential for students at every level. If an advanced tournament fighter were to select just one kata as part of his training schedule, it would probably most usefully be Heian Shodan. (This is not a recommendation, however, that he should neglect other Kata!).
Actually, the hardest aspects of Heian Shodan are identical with those of more advanced kata. An anecdote occurs to me which may illustrate the point. In 1974, preparing for sandan, I worked intensively on Nijushiho, often repeating it 100 times. Techniques which had seemed difficult – kicking without moving the line of gravity; the wrapping block at the end – became easier, but standing in yoi with the right feeling of preparedness (and the milliseconds of transition from stillness to movement) became more and more difficult. I mentioned this in some bewilderment to my instructor, Yutaka Yaguchi, who grinned broadly: “That is karate,” he said.
If you really did master Heian Shodan, you probably could be called, with justification, a karate expert. Just don’t call yourself one!
By David Johnston
On Saturday night in April, 1965, I witnessed the most impressive demonstration of karate I’ve ever seen. And it couldn’t have been less specatacular.
It took place at the lower end of the strand, in London. A group of us, seven or eight I think, had earlier met with a quartet of young but already legendary senseis, taken them to a pub, and then a Chinese restaurant. They were Kanazawa, Enoeda and Shirai – all ex-All – Japan Champions, and 5th dan – and Taiji Kase, 6th dan. We were mostly beginners, and had been awaiting the arrival of these super-men for months, our excitement building as Vernon Bell, our first instructor, fed us stories of techniques too fast for the eye to see and uniforms that snapped like rifle shots. Of course, we were proud to be in their company – after all, we were karate-ka too! – and as we strolled around Soho, Kanazawa had to warn us not to swagger. “Walk naturally” he said gently.
After dinner, of course, another pub. Then, as we drifted South from Soho, we split into smaller groups, which casually formed and reformed throughout the evening, I remember passing the National Gallery with Shirai, who asked in excellent English about the French Impressionist collection there. I was naively impressed that he was so well-informed. Continuing across Trafalgar Square, we reached the Strand and that’s where I found myself alone with Kase.
The streets had been getting crowded. I realized that it was after 11:00pm – closing time (in those days British life revolved around the rituals of Opening and Closing times) – and the patrons of many pubs were spilling out through the open doors, along with the mingled sounds from many jukeboxes. I do remember after all these years that the Stones’ song “Satisfaction” – ‘I can’t get no girl reaction…’ – came through loud and clear at one point. Sensei was relaxed and smiling, talking about his family, which he said he missed. In his dark suit, white shirt and maroon tie he looked like just another Japanese businessman, comfortably rounded, not obviously athletic. But then I saw his face change.
A bunch of Irishmen had been shouting at us, unintelligibly but obviously aggressively. I guess that they had something against the Japanese, as many did in those days. At first, Sensei ignored them, continuing to walk and to smile; I, meanwhile, was getting quite excited. These drunken fools were messing with perhaps the most dangerous man currently in Europe. (These were the heady days of early ‘007’ and my imagination was no doubt colored by having seen ‘Dr. No’ quite recently). Boy, was I going to see some action!
Then it was over. It had become impossible for us to walk further because they were now blocking our path. And, as I looked at Sensei, his face, which had been glowing with affability, turned into something like stone. He turned his head slowly, eyes sweeping across each of their faces in turn but not stopping. And they were gone, not running but walking away very, very quickly.
Sensei blinked and his face became as it was. He simply picked up the conversation where he’d left off. He seemed disinclined to talk about what just happened, and I didn’t ask.