A Man of Substance


Regular readers (are there any?) of my ramblings would be forgiven for believing I have a cynical dislike of karate. ‘Why’, they may ask, ‘would one so negative see fit to write in a website devoted to the promotion of karate?’


The truth is, I love karate. My cynicism is, I believe a healthy, open-minded questioning of the dogmas and truisms that characterise much of today’s karate and stifle its progress. Too many in the karate world are either misguided, charismatic leaders of misguided, gullible followers, or well-intentioned trusting disciples of such thugs and autocrats who have the nous, drive or cojones to take the lead.


Karate can be the most profoundly rewarding of pastimes. In combat it develops self confidence balanced with respect for others, the will and strength of spirit required to stick at something in spite of, or because of the fear and risks involved. In kata and in kihon the pursuit of technical betterment against constantly shifting targets and the promotion of a healthy fitness regime are developed. Most dojo have either formally or otherwise a “kun” or code of conduct. This invariably promotes a sense of morality and community as well as improvement of the self.


Other pursuits may encourage all or some of these ideals but the Oriental combat disciplines stand out in two respects. Firstly these ideals are an integral part of the syllabus, rather than a circumstantial spin-off. Second the act of fighting in an environment of mutual respect is, for me, far higher a test of the human spirit than the “mere” kicking of a football or throwing of a dart. Although I sympathise with the Shankly-esque definition of top level sport, nothing gets quite as close to life and death as fighting. It follows therefore that the highest ideals of the Corinthian ethic must be realised in increasingly realistic combats. Because I am a civilian, and exist in a civilised society a controlled, limited form of fighting must prevail.


Unfortunately the nature of karate, a system of no-holds-barred fighting, allows the aggressive bully to flourish. The alternative, supposedly civilised approach – to take the brutality out of training – leads to pure theorists whose teachings are never tested and, therefore are allowed to become corrupted for reasons of facility or aesthetics, thus reducing their karate to an irrelevant nonsense


How pleased then was this cynic to witness the recent appearance of John van Weenen on TV’s “This is Your Life”.


Many of us may aspire to the levels of achievement in our own chosen discipline that John has reached, but only a very few will actually reach the status of legitimately-accredited seventh dan. To do so requires a selfish devotion to study and training that only the true elite could offer their art. Given then my earlier observations about the shortcomings of most “martial artists” any such expert must surely be a boorish, selfish and thoroughly unpleasant individual.


Not only is this untrue of the estimable Mr van Weenen, but he has also proved himself to be an almost limitless source of drive and energy in pursuit of his charitable ideals. He has raised many hundreds of thousands of pounds for various fine causes, and for this alone many are rightly in his debt. But further, he has masterminded, engineered and taken part in scores of convoys of aid to Albania including the largest such convoy in post-war Europe. John has risked his life for such causes on a number of occasions, but continues his efforts, seemingly unabashed. What is more, judging by the TV broadcast, and the testimonies of his family, friends and colleagues, John is a devoted family man and thoroughly nice bloke to boot.


The heart warming message this sends to karateka is resoundingly that it is possible to become a not merely good, but a great exponent without either resorting to macho posturing, degenerating into single-minded brutality, or eschewing any other activities or responsibilities (including raising a family). What it says to non-karateka is that the ideals of the dojo; fearless determination, compassion, respect and dogged hard work are compatible with the ideals of humanity.


 Would that we all had a small portion of whatever John van Weenen’s got. I for one heartily salute you.


Copyright Martyn Skipper March 2001


Martyn Skipper holds third dans in Henka Ryu and Shotokan karate but has avoided the constraints of style by exposing himself to many schools and styles in 25 years of training. He is currently practicing Shukokai in East Lancashire. To contact him for seminars, or to discuss any issues from his articles, email him on: martyn@henka-ryu.co.uk