Today I want to share with all of you, the interview I did with Shimoji Toru Sensei.
Studying videos of AAKF tournaments and trainings at Nishiyama Hidetaka Sensei’s dojo, there was always an athlete that caught my attention for his brilliant execution of Unsu kata. Over the years, watching the Cobra Kai series, I saw him in one of the chapters, then I said to myself, I have to talk to him.
I hope you enjoy his answers as much as I did, read to the end because the anecdote he tells with Nishiyama Hidetaka Sensei is truly unmissable.
To enjoy and share.
DT – You were born in Okinawa, but your beginnings in Karate-do were not there. Where did you start your practice and why?
TS – I’d like to start by saying “Thank You” for this wonderful opportunity. My sincere regards to Tobias Sensei and all the students of Nishiki-kan. It is a great honor and privilege to be doing this interview. As I get older, I find that my memory is not as sharp as it once was, and would like to apologize in advance for any errors in my answers. My intention is to be as honest as possible and give you my most humble opinion on topics raised during this interview.
On TV one day when I was a small boy, there were people wearing white uniforms doing strange movements. My uncle who was with me told me that it was called Karate, and that it was an Okinawan art. I didn’t know what that meant, but the demonstration made an impression on me.
After moving to the United States, I was caught up in the Bruce Lee craze in the early 1970’s. I remember seeing him for the first time in a TV series called “Longstreet”. This was right before his breakout in the movies. The way he moved his body convinced me immediately that I wanted to do that too. There were no dojos near me, so I studied from a book I found at a local library. It was called “Shotokan Karate” by Ventresca. So every day after school, I would look at the book and copy the movements. Besides the basic techniques, there were two katas: Tekki Shodan and Bassai-dai. When my family moved to Hawaii in 1974, I found a dojo near my house and started training there. It was not a Shotokan karate, but a mixture of different styles. Looking back, I have to stay it was not a good quality training, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to train martial arts, regardless of style.
In 1975, IAKF World Championship was held in Los Angeles, CA. The Japanese team stopped in Hawaii on their way back to Japan and held an exhibition tournament with Karateka from Hawaii. Until then, I had never seen Karate performed to that level of excellence. I still remember Osaka demonstrating the kata Unsu, and the beautiful Ippon scored by Hayakawa in a kumite match. Watching these elite instructors from the JKA was my first real exposure to high level martial arts.
Around that time, my friend from the dojo lent me his book, “Karate the Art of Empty Hand Fighting” by Nishiyama Sensei. I remember studying this book from cover to cover, and taking lots of notes, but the pictures of Nishiyama Sensei were what impressed me the most. This was another exposure to JKA style Karate, and it must have set the course for my future.
DT – If your beginnings were in the JKA, with which Sensei did you start your training in Shotokan?
TS – I took a break from my university studies and traveled around the United States on my own for couple of years. This gave me an opportunity to try out different styles and compete in many “open-style” tournaments. Eventually I got back home to Hawaii and decided to find a JKA dojo to train. After several inquiries, I found a dojo in downtown Honolulu run by Ed Fujiwara. Basically, he started me from the beginning and took me to brown belt. He was a great Karate teacher and a human being. I remember many nights sitting in a coffee shop with him hearing all the Karate stories that imparted key lessons in Budo philosophy and ethics. I was truly lucky to have been his student.
DT – How and when did you meet Nishiyama Sensei?
TS – Under Fujiwara Sensei, I got to 1st Kyu Brown Belt and was getting ready for the shodan examination. After getting my shodan, my plan was to go to Japan to continue my training. During those years, a JKA instructor Masataka Mori Sensei, based out of New York, would come to Hawaii once a year and give a black belt examination. Due to schedule conflict that year he could not come to Hawaii, so Fujiwara Sensei suggested a couple of options. I could go to Los Angeles, train under Nishiyama Sensei and test for shodan under him, or go directly to Japan and train at the JKA headquarters. I decided to do both, going to LA first and then to Japan after I got my shodan.
In January 1982, I walked in to the Central Dojo in downtown LA and started my journey under Hidetaka Nishiyama Sensei. I still recall my first class with Nishiyama Sensei. His presence in the floor was something I can’t describe. His life-force was so strong and large, filling up the entire dojo. The energy that would come out of his body was just something! After that first class, I realized I knew nothing about Karate, and I need to start afresh from the beginning. Even though I wore a brown belt in his class, I felt very embarrassed since I felt I knew nothing.
DT – Do you remember any other practice partners in your beginnings in Nishiyama Sensei’s dojo, are you still in contact with any of them today?
TS – On my first night at Sensei’s dojo, I met another brown belt training in the class, Avi Rokah. We struck up a conversation and realized we had a lot in common. He had recently arrived from Israel after completing his military duties. He was there at Nishiyama Sensei’s dojo to fulfill his dream of training directly under him. We quickly became great friends and training partners, pushing each other every day to get better. We took and passed our shodan examination together. I guess you can say that we are Karate brothers at heart and will always remain so.
I remember many Senpai in the dojo, like James Yabe, Gene Takahashi, Ken Tambara, Thomas Shinmoto, Vern Vaden, and Gary Lebendig to name a few. Some of them had trained under Nishiyama Sensei since the 60’s, when Sensei first came to the U. S. There were other Senpai and fellow trainees but too many to name. Unfortunately, other than Avi Rokah, I’ve not kept in touch with them.
I also remember meeting and training with Karateka from other parts of United States and other countries. Many of them were high level instructors who made regular visits to get further guidance from Nishiyama Sensei. There was always a stream of Karate students coming through to train under Nishiyama Sensei.
DT – What led you to continue practicing the line of Nishiyama Sensei?
TS – Shortly after Avi and I passed our shodan examination, we attended the International Camp in San Diego. There, we saw many high level Karate instructors and practitioners. We were very impressed with them, but all of them respected Nishiyama Sensei as the main teacher, which shocked and pleased us. The shock was that we realized we were training under the best, period. And what pleased us was the fact that we didn’t need to go anywhere! So we decided to stay. My initial plan for six months lasted over nine years, training directly under Sensei at his dojo.
I remember having endless conversation with Avi regarding Sensei’s teachings. We would get together regularly and compare notes, making sure that we comprehended all the details of the methods and principles he would cover in his classes. We felt that we couldn’t keep up with the amount of information Sensei would teach us. We thought that if we wrote them down, we could figure them out in the future.
You see, when you study under Nishiyama Sensei, you always feel inept, that you just don’t know enough, and time is running out. It leaves you a little desperate, feeling guilty that you’re moving too slowly. Avi and I both felt strongly that we were very lucky to be training and studying directly under Nishiyama Sensei, but we needed to push each other and remind one another that we couldn’t get lazy.
DT – In your stage as a competitor, having participated in open tournaments and being for many years the winner of the AAKF championships, what did Nishiyama Sensei bring to you at that time and what did he leave you for your future?
TS – Before each competition Nishiyama Sensei would remind us that “shiai” means to “test each other” and through competition experience, you find out your weaknesses. Competition points clearly what you need to work on next. So after tournaments, Sensei would put us through extremely grueling training sessions, screaming at us to do this and that, and demand us to fix all our mistakes. In some ways, going to tournaments was a torture for our egos because Sensei would double down on all our problems.
Looking back, I am so grateful to have had a teacher who guided us like that. Now, I do my best to pass on this Budo ethics to students. In sports, the main goal is to win, but in Budo study, the aim is to learn about yourself in order to continue to evolve, perfecting one’s character along with your techniques. This is the Budo way, always searching, always moving ahead and always sharing.
You see in sports like boxing and MMA, athletes have hard time retiring. Once they pass the prime years, they keep struggling to hold on and try to keep up with younger fighters. At times, it’s painful to watch. Nishiyama Sensei taught me how to move on after retiring from competition. After I stopped competing, my training in many ways has gotten more intense but more fulfilling.
DT – You teach Karate-do, where, and what is the name of your school?
TS – I teach in Atlanta, GA, USA. I’ve been here since 1996. The dojo’s name is called Jinsendo Martial Arts.
DT – You are a kinesiologist by profession, how does the knowledge of body biomechanics influence your daily training?
TS – I went to Okinawa right after I graduated from the university and had the opportunity to train at JKA and Goju-ryu dojos as well as participate in seminars, competitions and demonstrations. I also had the great fortune of meeting many teachers of different styles, Ishinryu, Uechi-ryu, Shorin-ryu, etc. Through Tatetsu Meicho Sensei, the JKA Okinawa chief instructor, I was introduced to Kuba Yoshio Sensei, who accepted me to train under him at his dojo.
Experiencing Okinawan Karate gave me several new insight about my own Karate development. First, I noticed many older Karateka trained regularly and the ones I’ve met did not have any joint injuries. Second, movements in Okinawan Karate were biomechanically sound. I surmised that through centuries of trial and error, and thoughtful deep analysis, Okinawan Karateka derived at these refined movements.
I think sports science can greatly help with the way we train Traditional Karate. So, instead of thinking and just accepting, “this is how my sensei taught me”, I began to analyze movements based on biomechanics. After all, the human movement system can be enhanced through scientific principles. For example, if you look at the rear leg usage in Zenkutsu-dachi (front stance), many people studying Shotokan Karate will keep it straight or near straight, and use it as a static support instead of a dynamic structure that can be used to support and energize the pelvis. If you are mindful of the joint angles and muscular activations around the joints, the rear leg in Zenkutsu-dachi can act more like a coiled spring.
Over the years, I saw many Karateka get their hips replaced. This brings up many questions: Is this a new phenomenon? Was this unique to people practicing Shotokan Karate? Are others studying different styles of martial arts effected as well? Are there certain type of training that can cause or exacerbate hip injuries?
My current feeling is that we need to be more individualized with students. Karate training can be considered as high repetition, high velocity and impact, which can cause overuse joint injuries if not careful, especially to the lower limbs. If you teach proper body movements through sound joint movements, and accommodate individual differences, I think students will suffer fewer joint injuries, if any at all. The classical Shotokan method is analogous to having a one-size shoe that everyone had to fit into. Nishiyama Sensei’s method is more like learning and understanding principles that allow you to make your own shoes that fit your feet. I think the latter method is more challenging, but I feel that it’s more fulfilling and empowering to each individual.
DT – How would you define your Karate-do today?
TS – My Karate is an evolution of Nishiyama Sensei’s teachings, influenced by my study in movement mechanics and Okinawan Karate. Karate has to stay alive inside you, so persistent training is necessary for me to continue to develop my skills. My experiences in Okinawan Karate gave me great insights on Kata and application, which I incorporate to our Shotokan Katas. Study in sports science has allowed me to analyze movements in an effort to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of my techniques. I do my best to push myself to get better each and every day. If I discover something, I do my earnest to share the information, openly and completely. This is direct teaching that I learned from Nishiyama Sensei.
DT – How did you come to the WBKA?
TS – In 2020 I was invited to teach at the Polish Traditional Karate organization winter training camp in Zakopane, Poland. There, I met Radek Janus from Czech Republic who later started training in my Zoom classes. One day, he asked me if I would be interested in joining WBKA under Avi Rokah Sensei. I told Radek that I was more than happy and honored to help WBKA in any way possible. Shortly after, we were in COVID lockdown, so I took the opportunity to reconnect with Avi.
DT – What are your expectations regarding the development of Karate-do in Atlanta and the USA?
TS – Now that we are out of COVID, Avi Rokah and his wife Ruth have renewed their efforts to bring back Traditional Karate competition in the United States. I have great confidence that this will continue to pick up momentum and increase in popularity. Additionally, I believe that continuing education for the instructors in the US, as well as abroad, is paramount for the future development of USBKA and WBKA. We just have to make sure that such a program (Instructor Development) stays training-based rather then another political “old-boys” network. The real challenge would be to maintain high standards and accountability for our instructors.
DT – Finally, do you have any anecdote with Nishiyama Sensei that you would like to share with us?
TS – There once was a kickboxer that came to Sensei’s dojo while Avi and I were training after class one afternoon. He didn’t hesitate to tell us about his exploits in the sport. He said that he was a former kickboxing champion in Japan, and wanted to give us some fighting tips. Soon he came on the floor and sparred with each of us. We kept things light and friendly, and made sure not to let it get out of hand. He might have been a good fighter at one time but after sparring with him, we knew that he was not in good fighting form. Soon, it became a regular thing where he would show up after class and try to coach Avi and me.
One day, he came to the dojo earlier than usual, and since Nishiyama Sensei was still at the dojo, we introduced him. Like with us, he began to tell Sensei about his great kickboxing career. Sensei smiled and politely listened to him but I remember seeing a change in Sensei’s demeanor as he slowly squared up to him. It was subtle but distinct. It was as though Sensei’s energy got bigger and started to press heavily into this kickboxer. Sensei didn’t physically move, but his Ki energy was applying Seme-waza to the kickboxer.
Soon, the kickboxer, turned his body and broke his eye contact with Sensei. He started stuttering his words and lowered his voice. Before long, his posture slumped, and looking bit confused, he did a quick bow and left the dojo. Avi and I never saw him again. Later, as Avi and I recalled the incident, it became apparent that we witnessed a dual. Sensei gave us a great example of how to “win without fighting”, just using his Ki energy.I still remember this incident like it was yesterday.Nishiyama Sensei was truly a master in control. Even today his lessons, examples, and talks are fresh within me, alive and well. He keeps teaching me even now! I guess that’s what you call legacy. I can’t express in words how grateful and honored I am to have trained under such a Sensei.
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