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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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By Neil O’Connor




Neil O'Connor at the JKA Hombu, Tokyo




During the annual Kan Geiko, I still managed to train in the afternoon or evening, as I did not want to lose momentum after the morning session.  The regular 10-30 class proved too much of a struggle to make after the early morning start.  However, I left the Kan Geiko each morning feeling invigorated and ready to face the day.  During one of the evening sessions during the Kan Geiko, we were doing some jiyu kumite (free fighting) and I was paired with a white belt gentleman.  Earlier that evening, we had run through some gohon kumite (5 step sparring), and he appeared to be learning fairly quickly.  During the first few moments of jiyu kumite, he executed a perfect mawashi geri (roundhouse kick) and it caught me right in the mouth/nose.  Good shot I thought, hoping that no-one other than me and him saw it.  I quickly recovered from this shock and continued the sparring, hoping to return some equally well placed kick or punch.  After the class had finished, I approached the guy in the changing room to congratulate him on the perfect kick earlier.  It turned out that he was a Nidan (2nd Dan) in Goju-Ryu Karate, and had only started Shotokan a few months earlier.  Motto here is, don’t judge a book by it’s cover.


Immediately after the Kan Geiko, the regular classes started to concentrate on the grading syllabuses (kihon, kata and kumite).  The techniques being taught were very “simple”, but the focus was on getting the technique correct.  The instructors were constantly moving around the class correcting foot placement, hip positions, un-necessary  head movements etc.  No-one escaped the eyes of the instructors.  A few times, I would be about to lunge forward with oi-zuki, when suddenly I felt a huge push on my lower back.  This was the instructor making sure that I commenced my forward motion through the hips.  This was a common error amongst many of the karateka, who often tended to lean forward to put weight over the front foot.  In shifting the body weight over the front foot, it made it easier to move forward.  However, this shift is a dead give-away to an opponent and is positively discouraged.


Almost on a daily basis, upon leaving the dojo after the morning session, there was a distinct sound resonating around the building, emanating from the second floor dojo.  This was the “thwack” of a karateka working out on the makiwara (striking post).  Maki means "to roll up" or "coil" whilst wara translates to "straw."  Punch after punch, kick after kick being focused on the straw clad post, perfecting ma-ai (distance), timing and kime (focus) upon impact.  The resident instructors here live and breath karate.  In order to improve my karate between sessions, I’d been utilising the 2nd floor dojo where there are a number of punch bags, makiwara and some basic gym equipment.  Initially, I made use of the big punch bags, to get some feedback for my kicks and punches.  The makiwara is a training tool that I have no previous experience with, but have read about.  Training in Kihon and Kata are very helpful in strengthening the body and fists, but in either case, you are only punching thin-air so there is no resistance or feedback.  The only true way to have confidence in your punching (or striking) ability is to incorporate the makiwara into your training regime.  During this time though, a training injury to my hand, prevented me from “having a stab” at the post.


Kihon during his Shodan examination at the JKA Hombu, Tokyo


Since my first lesson at the JKA HQ, I had attended more than 80 lessons, including the annual Kan Geiko (Cold Weather Training).  This is amount of training is equivalent to about 8 months worth of training in the UK.  Six days a week, twice a day I went to the dojo to put in some quality training, in the hope of being able to take the coveted black belt grading on February 22nd.  This date came around very quickly indeed, but when it did, I was both mentally and physically prepared.  It was only on the Wednesday before the grading, that I actually received permission from the England National Instructor (Ohta Sensei, 6th “Dan) to take the grading in Japan.  This late news was playing on my nerves a little.  The two days prior to the grading, I attended all 4 classes at the dojo, in the hope of picking up some final tips for the grading.  I even managed to receive about 20 minutes personal tuition from one of the top 3 instructors at the JKA (Osaka Sensei, 8th Dan).  This last minute opportunity was one not to be missed, so that I could ensure that I was completely ready for Sunday’s grading.


So, the grading day came around and I arrived early at the dojo to ensure that I was fully warmed-up before “stepping on to the mat”.  I was the only Westerner grading that day.  The grading (conducted in Japanese) consisted of three parts; kihon - basic techniques of blocks, punches and kicks: kata – set moves in a predetermined sequence: kumite – freestyle fighting against another grading examinee.  The guy that I had to fight looked like a right bruiser, much heavier than me and with a shaved head.  Oh dear!  However, once the fight started, I realised that I was much quicker than him and he found it very difficult to land any clean kicks/punches on me.  The jiyu kumite (freestyle fighting) did not seem to last long at all, but I was sure that I had done enough to pass this section.  I landed a number of punches and kicks on my opponent with good technique and a strong kiai (shout).  During my kata, I recalled making a few minor mistakes, so as I left the floor, I couldn’t help but keep worrying about them.  Would those errors be spotted or taken into account?  I just put this to the back of mind and watched the remaining black belt hopefuls do their stuff.


         Kata during his Shodan examination at the JKA Hombu, Tokyo


The results of the grading were to be announced after the higher grading black belts took their 2nd through to 5th Dan gradings.  This lasted about another 45 minutes, but felt much longer.  All the black belt hopefuls assembled downstairs in the lounge to await the results.  Lots of fidgety movements from all assembled added to the tension that I was feeling at this point.  I couldn’t help but run through bassai-dai in my mind, in the hope that the mistakes were out of eye-shot of the examiners.  Can’t do anything about it now.  Two instructors came into the room clutching a pile of karate licences.  The results were ready to be read out.  “Neil San” came the call.  I went up to the front and saw that both instructors were smiling.  Good news I hope.  “Pass” one of them said with a cheeky smile.  Whoah!  I was now a black belt (kuro-obi).  I couldn’t believe it.  I had to check the licence for myself to see that this wasn’t a mistake.  Nope, I’d passed, this had really happened.  The license had been updated and there in front of my eyes, was the 1st Dan section all completed.  The last 10 weeks hard training had finally paid-off.  I no longer had to worry about returning to the UK empty handed (ie, no black belt).  I made my way home with a purposeful spring in my step, ready to share the great news with Amy (my wife).  As soon as I opened the door, I shouted that I passed.  The following day, I went out to purchase my black belt from a renowned karate equipment supplier, with my name embroidered in Japanese characters (katakana).  The belt will be ready just before we leave for the UK.


Without trying to dampen my current elation, my enthusiasm to train suddenly and  unexpectedly waned.  I’d taken three months off work, and travelled to Japan to train daily in karate.  One of my personal ambitions was to achieve black belt status before I turned 40.  After a lot of serious training, that particular goal was attained.  How could I maintain focus on my training after such an achievement.  Everything I had done up until now had been good enough to get me where I was. The problem really lay not with what I had done to date, but in my failure to realise that at black belt, what I had done in the past was no longer good enough.  My journey on “The Way” has only just begun.  Each advancement in karate not only brings with it a wide variety of rewards, it also brings with it a demand for even higher standards, something often over looked by karateka. After each stage of testing (kyu or dan), the expectations on the karateka are increased, so that there is no stagnation of technique or effort.  If all I was interested in was just achieving the black belt, then my karate career would now be over.  Almost like a “been there, done that, what’s next” kind of feeling.  However, this temporary loss of enthusiasm only lasted a few days.  Learning the ins and outs Gojushiho-dai a few days after receiving my Shodan, was the first time that I could fully concentrate on the kata at hand.  No more would I have to worry about having only to focus on Bassai-dai, Tekki-shodan and the 5 Heians.  I could now open my mind to more experiences as I move through the Dan ranks and aim to further improve my karate as I continue on this new path.


Kumite during his Shodan examination at the JKA Hombu, Tokyo


My wife and I will be returning to the UK and taking a few well-earned days rest, before rejoining the big wide world of work.  3 months without earning a penny has put a sizeable dent in the savings, but I can honestly say that it's been worth the effort/sacrifice.  However, I don’t think that this trip would have been so successful without the support and encouragement from my wife Amy.  Despite the numerous bruises, swollen knuckles and the niggling ankle pain, I’d recommend anyone who is serious enough about their karate, to take a trip to Japan to visit and train at their respective Honbu (HQ) Dojo, even if only for a week.  During my 3 months at the JKA HQ, I’ve met a number of likeminded karateka, who’ve also made the trip to the Honbu dojo.  However short their visits were, the common thread was their desire to improve their karate.  Over my final 2 weeks, I even had the opportunity to train and spar with a member of the French National Kumite Team, who was at the dojo as part of his annual trip to Japan.


What next when I return to the UK?  I see passing Shodan as a transition from beginner to advanced karateka and a stepping stone to further karate enhancement.  As one great journey ends, another, more rewarding one begins.  My karate journey here in Japan has not been easy.  Like any art that you practice, you only get out of it what you put in.  Through the regular training, I feel that I have developed my character both mentally and physically.  My short term goals in karate will be to attain 2nd Dan and gain a formal instructor qualification through the JKA (England).  Upon return to the UK, I will be keen to pass on the wealth of experience that I have gained whilst in training at the JKA HQ.  This will give me an opportunity to return something to the club instructors in Reading, as they have supported me since my first attempt at Shodan back in 1998.


             Neil O' Connor Certificate


Without wanting to sound too clichéd, this journey has been more important to me than the destination.  The black belt is merely a marker in the ground to indicate how far I’ve come.  The hours of training put in have been absolutely fantastic.  I’ve trained with some of the best shotokan karate exponents in the world in the heart of JKA karate.  Over the last 3 months, karate really has become a way of life.  Returning to the UK will mean that I cannot dedicate anywhere near as much time as I’d like to this art.  However, the memories and experiences that I’ve gained whilst in Japan will ensure that I unwaveringly follow “The Shotokan Way”.


Neil O’Connor