JKF Goju Kai Masters Seminar - Bisham Abbey, May 2006
There are many people who profess to hold high dan ranks in the martial arts world. Some have been promoted on the basis of time served in the pursuit of their chosen discipline. Some have been promoted by their peers (or even juniors) out of reverence, or misplaced respect. Some have awarded their own dan grades based on their perception of their abilities. A very small number of special people have been promoted on the basis of sheer ability, under the scrutiny of their seniors, and have the documented pedigree to substantiate their rank.
In May 2006 Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre, and JKF GOJU KAI Great Britain, was to play host to not one such person, but four. Invited by Leo Lipinski (himself holder of 8th Dan Seiwakai and 7th Dan JKF Gojukai- all attained under test conditions) the seminar teachers were Akira Shiomi, Kesakatsu Hisenaga and Yoshihiro Kiyohara JKF Gojukai Hachidan (8th Dan), and Shigenori Sato, JKF Goju Kai Nanadan (7th Dan), as well as Paul Coleman, Rokudan (6th Dan).
The senior of this quartet, Shiomi, is the chief Technical Director of the JKF Goju Kai. Born in 1934 his appearance and agility belie his 72 years. A senior member of the JKF, amongst his many honours and titles he was awarded the title “Hanshi” in 1986 and is “Special Kata Coach” of the Japanese national team. Shiomi Hanshi has coached no less than four WKF world kata champions. Kiyohara Sensei is a director of the JKF Gojukai and a member of the JKF council. Hisenaga Sensei heads the Kagoshima branch of JKF Gojukai (as proudly displayed on his tracksuit) and holds the title “Kyoshi”. He is a senior member of the JKF for Kyushu Region, and Kagoshima Prefecture, as well as Shihan of the Kagoshima University karate club. The insight these giants could offer into the major Goju katas was formidable. This seminar then was to be a true master class. No run-of-the-mill drilling of routine low-level kihon waza for this weekend.
Unsurprisingly then, the delegates for this seminar were also of some considerable calibre. Some 120 representatives of 15 countries, themselves ranked as high as 6th dan, made their way to the National Sports Centre to feast upon the banquet that was to be laid before them.
The National Sports Centre at Bisham Abbey is home to many sports’ National Governing Bodies, including of course Karate England. Despite the somewhat uninspiring weather, the beautiful Thames-side venue proved a hit with everyone. Set in the grounds of the 13th Century Abbey, the state of the art sports facilities are complemented with accommodation blocks and the ancient manor house on the priory estate. Built around the perceptory of the Knights Templar the structure seems to have acquired the name “abbey” after the dissolution of the monasteries and dates from around 1260. Most visitors chose to stay in the reasonably-priced on-campus apartments, but some locals elected to go home. Others on a tighter budget slept on the floor of the nearby Bisham School, the shared experience again adding to the camaraderie.
Training commenced at 6pm on the Friday night, and after the formalities and housekeeping were done, the seminar began. The customary warm up and practice of kihon waza set the pace with some early corrections of posture, application and execution. Not even the high grades were exempt from this critical intervention, but no offence was taken as clearly these adjustments of stance, breathing or hip movement were coming from a deep bank of knowledge and experience.
The evening was to continue with three hours of deep drilling of basic Goju forms: Gekisai Ichi & Ni and those two pillars of the Goju system, Sanchin and Tensho. Pointers were offered on correct use of the hips (those delegates who hitherto were not familiar with the Japanese word “koshi” certainly knew it by the end of Friday evening!) the importance of correct muscle tension, and the use of the elbows and forearms to protect the torso. This evening set the scene for the weekend with pretty well everyone, however senior, however confident their knowledge of these elementary forms, able to take some new insight away.
The first evening’s session was rounded off with a varied and delicious buffet provided by the excellent catering staff of the National Sports Centre, in a meeting room of the 13th century abbey itself. As if this was not sufficient to make for a perfect event, the camaraderie and bonhomie amongst the international gathering were almost tangible. The Gojukai seminar circuit is something of a tradition, so lots of old acquaintances were remade, but equally many new friendships were formed, and promises of reciprocal visits, and exchanges of emails and addresses characterised the weekend.
The two sessions on the Saturday covered, alliteratively, Seiunchin, Saifa, Seipai, Sanseiru, and Shisochin. Over two sessions these intermediate kata were drilled repeatedly, focusing on detailed attention to minutiae of position, posture and form. Prior to this, the obligatory Sanchin and Tensho were practiced, and Shiomi sensei broke the class out into pairs to work sticking-hand drills related to the Tensho form.
Sunday again commenced, after a hearty breakfast, with Sanchin & Tensho to get us in the mood. Pairs work followed, drilling evasive footwork against straight punch (choku tsuki) and front kick (mae geri). Emphasis was placed upon hard, accurate attacks, and in response, the importance of footwork in evasion - the ukewaza (blocking, or receiving technique) taking a secondary role. Use of the hips in evasive footwork (tai sabaki) was explored at some length, and always related back to the kata.
Monday began with a vigorous warm up by Godan Ossie Osman. Then the session divided. The most senior yudansha were taken by Shiomi and Hisenaga sensei for a session on Kururunfa and Suparimpei, Goju’s highest form. Meanwhile sensei Kiyohara and Sato led the rest through, firstly Seisan then Kururunfa, breaking off for bunkai practice in pairs. For many these kata were new, but their importance cannot be underestimated. These two forms are the latest Shitei (compulsory) sets of the JKF. (and, rumour has it, may become the WKF shitei kata too.) To ensure the kata were fully assimilated, the sensei made the group perform in groups of four, the kata and the bunkai, to the rest of the class. To the writer this session held a special significance as it allowed the two “junior” – or rather, the less senior- of the visiting teachers to show their human face. Both teachers, their personalities hitherto overshadowed by the top man Shiomi, and the jolly, ever smiling Hisenaga, were allowed to express their own characters. Both men proved engaging, sympathetic and warm, and Kiyohara’s grasp of English was allowed to come out. Contrasting the stand-offish nature of many visiting Japanese coaches, both these gentlemen were happy to get involved with the class, allowing the students to execute throws and grapples against them, not afraid to be taken to the ground.
Throughout the weekend, the outspoken host, Lipinski, imparted his opinions and interpretations of the instruction. He noted that many of the methods taught seemed to contradict what one learns as a novice, but explained that there are “levels” of interpretation. A simple movement from a kyu grade or low dan grade makes way for more subtle interpretation in the more experience karateka.
Similarly, in relation to a movement in Sanseiru kata, Shiomi sensei described a forward- leaning posture, but Lipinski pointed out that this may not prove “acceptable” to less  experienced kata  judges in a competition environment, thus drawing a distinction between “proper” kata, and  shiai (tournament).
After the Sunday evening session many UK and overseas delegates tested for Dan grade promotions. Usually JKF Gojukai dan gradings take place behind closed doors, but due to the layout of the sports centre (the dojo being visible from the balcony) a unique opportunity was afforded the other delegates, and the general public to witness the test. Candidates were required to perform basic kata Gekisai, Sanchin and Tensho with the panel scrutinising execution in some detail. Each candidate was then required to perform the relevant kata pertinent to their grade. Kumite followed for all, examinees fighting two or three opponents in succession. The panel made it clear that spirit, technical ability and range of techniques were considered more important than sheer strength and power. Despite this warning, under the stressful conditions of the test many candidates found themselves subject to some refereeing restraint when unable to demonstrate such restraint themselves!
For those with energy and time to spare an additional session was laid on in London for the Monday night, although many had already departed after breakfast on the Monday. Emails and photographs exchanged, and farewells made, all looked forward to the next European seminar whilst the visiting Japanese masters prepared for the next leg of their world tour.