Osu Shihan. I suppose the best place to start is at the beginning. I have heard it said that you came to Kyokushin as a Shotokan Black Belt but I understand that’s not accurate. Can you tell us how you came to be involved in the BKK?
I first began training in Kyokushin at Stratford Dojo in East London in the early 1970’s at the time Stratford Dojo was affiliated to the BKK – the instructors were Mick Hawkins, Mick Knowles and Tony Price – all these men in different ways gave me so very much in karate terms and I cannot thank them enough. They were crucial in getting me into the dojo and maintaining my appetite - training there was fantastic ancd I have many fond memories of the process. Although the last thirty years are a blur – those early days and the training are etched firmly in my mind. At Stratford dojo we also had visiting instructors who included Peter Spanton, Terry Stuart and Dicky Wu – their technical input to me personally was incredible. After three or four years training Stratford dojo left the BKK in the mid 1970’s and joined Yoshinano Nanbu’s organisation called Sankukai – it was under this style that I obtained my Sho Dan – but Sankukai was not for me for a number of reasons. Nanbu was a terrifically talented karateka and during the sessions I attended I was blown away by his vision and ability. But I struggled with the concepts and practicality of Sankukai and I felt I had no choice but to leave Stratford Dojo and I spent a year or so looking around and eventually found myself training at Haringey Dojo with Sensei Jose Claronino – among the black belts at the time were Roy Banton, Reg Winkworth, Dennis Harris, Dennis Murray and Gary Malcolm - their encouragement and support was fantastic. I owe a great debt to Haringey dojo for the foundation it gave me in understanding (or attempting to understand) Kyokushin Karate. In 1980 I retook sho dan in Cardiff with Shihan Steve Arneil, I took my second dan in 1981 at Crawley and my 3rd Dan in Shotley (Summer Camp) in 1984, I was awarded my 4th Dan in 1992 and my 5th Dan in 1997.
(Editor: Shihan Liam was also promoted to 6th Dan in 2005 and 7th Dan in 2013)
Shihan, you completed the 30-man kumite in 1982 at Summer Camp. Can you give us some more information on that?
In today’s terms this really is no great achievement and I am realistic in comparing today’s kumite test to those in the 1980’s. Officiating with Hanshi, when Kenny Jarvis took his test last year – I can say the fights today are a world apart. But as a contrast I would also add that there were some notable people that attempted the test in the 1980’s and did not make it! Having said that, the test for me, at 60 kilos in 1982, it was a great personal achievement. I had a fairly tough time and I was so battered that I was unable to train for weeks and the injuries prevented me from fighting for over a year. The process was to have quite an impact on me but I am very glad that I attempted this with all the above reservations and I was to attempt my san dan grading the following year so I felt this appropriate. The kumite test is very important to Kyokushin karate – and when you think of Hanshi’s 100 man kumite test in the 1960’s – well everything else just pales into insignificance on a world level. But my kumite test was very important, personally, and I was very proud to have succeeded.
Shihan, perhaps not everyone knows that you are, in fact, Irish. Can you tell us of your involvement in the IKK and of your hopes for Kyokushin in Ireland?
Yes I was born in Dublin and moved to England in the 1950’s. My involvement with the Irish Karate Kyokushinkai began in the early 1980’s when I came with Hanshi and other BKK Executive Committee members to support your tournament when Jerry O’Sullivan was the Chief Instructor. Before I knew it I was heading back to Dublin to grade and became the IKO Country Representative for Ireland and eventually the IKK President. The IKK is small but a very committed organisation and I am proud and impressed by their perseverance and developments in the past twenty years. A personal mile stone was the promotion of Kevin Callan to 5th Dan earlier this year – he has done a remarkable job and many forget he took over the IKK as a brown belt and what an uphill struggle he had in leading, teaching and grading. Now with yourself and Ken Fitzpatrick giving Kevin your full support I know that the IKK will go from strength to strength.
Shihan, you have been involved with the BKK magazine since the start. Can you give us some insight into how it got started and how it evolved into the professional production it is now.
The magazine was an idea by the Executive Committee and Grant Kinnard in 1981 and was a single A3 sheet folded – Grant stood down as editor in 1982 and I took over. My late brother Sean was very instrumental in its production in the early days – letra-set and typing etc. I have always seen the role of the BKK magazine – to inform and give enthusiasm. I cannot emphasise the importance of the Japanese Magazine produced by Hombu in the 1970’s and 1980’s. This was so influential to me and many others in those days. I have thoroughly enjoyed putting together the magazine for the past thirty years and wish I could return to the days when we issued three a year. But now with the Internet I hope that we can develop, in a different way, the publication of views and articles. I hope once we re launch the BKK web site at the end of the year we can make full use of it potential. In addition, through the BKK magazine, I developed a very close relationship with the Japanese Power Karate Magazine and Vera Shichinohe who was the editor of the Japanese Magazine – the English language version. She gave me great support and encouragement and through her I was able to interview Sosai – but unfortunately he then requested that I was not to publish the interview. Another proud moment was when I won an essay competition printed in the Japanese magazine on what being graded a sho dan meant!
Shihan, you have been chairman of the BKK for some time now. Can you tell us what that entails?
I became chairman in 1993 and have been on the Executive Committee since 1978 – with only a year’s break, for political reasons, after we left the IKO and EKO. I am honoured to be the BKK Chairman and see this as a privilege. I have taken so much from the BKK , IKO and IFK and this is my opportunity to repay a wonderful life in karate. I have been so very fortunate in that I have travelled the world with Kyokushin and have been to Japan in 1979, 1987 and 1991. I see the position of Chairman as a privilege and take the role very seriously. It is an important role within any organisation and you must sometimes be the voice of the unheard and fight their cause even if this conflicts against your own personal viewpoint. I will, in certain situations, take the opposite view to the majority just to insure that our decisions at EC level have been thought out full and sensibly.
Shihan, ss a follow on question can you tell us about your role as the Secretary General of the IFK?
Again I had been EKO General Secretary for many years - it seemed a natural step to consider a similar role within the IFk and I took this post up in 1992. It is very much a supportive role to Hanshi who works so very hard promoting the IFK worldwide. Up until recently I had not travelled so much due to pressures of my professional life but during the past few years have begun to accompany Hanshi on some of his trips to give him some help and support in a demanding role.
Shihan, your career has spanned more than 4 decades. You have been fortunate to train with Hanshi Arneil and also to visit Japan, the spiritual home of Kyokushin on number of occasions, and train with Sosai Oyama. Besides these two giants who has impressed you as a Karateka in all your years?
That’s a very difficult question to answer and I am not sure if I can indeed answer that within the confines of this interview. So many many people have impressed me in the past thirty years at so many different levels – not least nationally and internationally. It would be inaccurate to single out anyone specific – as I can look at our tournament fighters, dojo instructors, students, supporters - and I could name many that have impressed me. However at a personal level Sensei Moss Ageli has without doubt impressed me at a number of levels by his knowledge, outlook and approach to martial arts. His dedication to Kyokushin and his tireless work sets an example so very hard to meet and follow. His work for the BKK is limitless and he gives me great strength. As a friend I have gained so much from his insight, vision and advice. Notwithstanding his friendship and loyalty he is also a committed and difficult adversary as I have found to my cost at Executive Committee level. But a more loyal, dedicate, humble karateka you would not find anywhere. Moving on across the generations a karateka that cannot fail to impress is Sensei Darren Stringer - and he has impressed me immensely. He still is very young but his karate career thus far is second to none – but when you scratch the surface of the man – he is undeniably committed to the basics and fundamentals of Kyokushin karate.
Shihan, I have personally noticed an erosion in dojo and tournament etiquette over the years. I have seen fighters sneering at downed opponents and low grades shaking hands with a black belt with just one hand. What is your opinion on this in Kyokushin and what if anything can be done about it?
I am saddened by the observation and the fact – and yes it is quite apparent these days. I am of the view that there should be no show of anger, disappointment or indeed elation on the tournament mat – we should all be capable of control and courtesy and these are the foundations of the martial arts. I fully understand a fighter’s enthusiasm and their focus but there must be 100% control at all times. There should be the same demeanour and actions both in victory and defeat – the Japanese fighters impressed me in this respect at the World Tournaments I attended. I suppose the broader view is that most fighters show the utmost of control and respect but it is the few that do not that we notice and inevitably focus on. What can be done? Well it is our instructor’s responsibility to teach and lead by example – if there are faults within our organisation then it’s the high grades responsibility. As an aside I have noticed at National Gradings that some students lack the detailed knowledge of dojo etiquette that they should have going for a dan grade and that is a very disappointing. But again all we can blame are the instructors including myself!
Shihan, you once wrote that the title Shihan was difficult for you as there was only one Shihan and that was Shihan Arneil (now Hanshi). You have since been promoted to Rokudan. Does the title sit better with you now that Hanshis title has changed and some time has passed?
Time can be a great developer – whilst principles of articles, I still stand by, and are still relevant, I would perhaps write it differently now! I had quite a few reactions to that not least from Hanshi! But that was quite a few years ago – Hanshi is now Hanshi and the Shihans are now Shihans – we must move with the times and progress. I was hesitant, I think, in using the title Shihan for myself when in the background stood Hanshi Steve Arneil and look what that man had acciieved when he had the title “Shihan” awarded to him – I felt perhaps a cheat – not having come near to anything close to him. Since the publication of that article I have done quite a bit of personal research and I have discovered some interesting facts (which may form the basis of an article in the next magazine). There are similarities in the titles Han Shi and Shi Han. But as I say that’s perhaps for another time! I now am more comfortable with the title and especially since I am now a 6th dan. That promotion along with Shihan Alex Kerrigan was another pivotal time in my life. Now time for a further level of responsibility to the BKK, IKK, IFK and my dojo. We have, in total, five 6th dans within the IFK and I am so very proud and honoured to hold this grade.
Shihan, I know you place a great deal of emphasis on basics within your teachings – why is this so important?
Our karate style was borne of being different and seeking out different ways of training and we must continue to do so. We must constantly relook at what and how we do things. Look at the standard of knockdown fighting in 1979 to today’s fighters – they are worlds apart. On the negative side I feel we in the BKK have perhaps been guilty of amassing too much innovation and diversity at the expense of returning to the solid foundation (occasionally) of traditional and methodical aspects of training. We need to return to the principles of strong and focused techniques. I am saddened at national Grading to see students rushing through kihon and kata and not being able to demonstrate their depth and power in the lust for speed. I think we are now addressing this issue and hope that we will in the long term benefit as an organisation. Basics are so very important and should not be overlooked and taught in a correct manner – it is only through the constant repetition of correct form can we hope to develop our karate.
Shihan, you run your own dojo in Bishops Stortford called Kokoro - how and why did this come about?
After many years travelling and teaching in various dojos I decided that it was time to start my own dojo – all be it a little late in life. I had spent quite a few years helping at Dunmow dojo with Sensei Andrew Turner and enjoyed every minute of that association. So in 1994 Kokoro was opened and it was a very important time in my karate career. I had taken quite a few knocks within the BKK in the year or two previously and felt it was now time to make my own personal mark within the BKK. Kokoro means: right mind, right heart, right spirit. That meaning basically summed up what I wanted to achieve with any students that came to train with me – no matter if they never achieved a black belt or never entered a tournament. The correct approach to training is essential if we are to carry on the traditions of Kyokushin Karate in its truest form. I feel in current times we have become too tournament focused to the exclusion of many things and I fear this is an error in our training and teaching. I feel that a good dojo spirit is so very important and we can then transmit the correct aspects of training. The development of a good dojo spirit is absed on austerity (Shugyo) sincerity (Seiijin) and effort (Kunren). The observance of correct etiquette and ceremony is essential in creating an atmosphere that pushes the student to reach their maximum potential. The budo aspects of Kyokushin karate are very important and this is what I try to instil in my students from the first weeks they train with me. I am so very lucky to have a club as diverse as I have and I take great strength from my student’s attitude to their training – no matter what their ability.
Shihan, have you any final thoughts on your time within Kyokushin that you would like to share not least your training with Hanshi Steve Arneil?
The past thirty years within the BKK have been wonderful – I have been lucky to have Hanshi as a teacher and friend and I have not the words to express what this has meant to me. There is an unpayable debt (Gimu) that I owe to him and he has taught me many lessons. These lessons have not always been positive or indeed supportive – but they have given me focus and direction – above all else. If nothing else I have maintained the ability to remain on a straight path, sometimes on my own - in the hope of a deeper understanding of what karate is or should be. With these lessons I have developed my own views, which sometimes conflict with those of perceived acceptance. This is difficult for me - as when we voice another opinion it sometimes is difficult not to see this as a direct challenge. Hanshi has my full and unquestionable support and will continue to do so. I will also continue to carve out my own views and aspirations and hope that I may share these in the many years to come with all that train with me. Also not forgetting sharing the highs as well as support each other through the lows of the past thirty years. Leaving the IKO after a deep relationship between Hanshi and Sosai Oyama was unexplainable. Travelling to Japan in 1991 while Hanshi remained in London in a last ditch attempt to persuade Sosai and the World’s Country Representatives that it was a mistake to penalise Hanshi – but I failed. The BKK EC turning against Hanshi in 1990. All these year we battled together along with other BKK high grades to ensure the survival of the BKK and Hanshi. The highs: training with Hanshi and Sosai in Japan in 1987. The formation of the IFK. The first 10 years of the IFK. The celebration of the BKK’s fortieth anniversary. The hosting of the 3rd IFK World Tournament in London. There have been so many highs amidst the lows and without doubt it has been a wonderful journey and I look forward to the next thirty years within the BKK.
Osu Shihan many thanks for your answers here today.