Article for Shotokan Karate Magazine January 2005 by Jonathan de’ Claire - KDS 4th Dan
It was after an extended period of transience that persisted throughout the 1980’s and into the early nineties, that something really dawned upon me. It was during this period that I traveled extensively and experienced Karate in many places and at many levels. But no matter where it was that I practiced, the marked difference in one particular area was evident. It was something that I had taken for granted, something I had even complained about, due to the excessive emphasis placed upon it in the group I belonged to in the UK. However, it was as a result of that period of travel that I did realise its true value! I certainly don’t dismiss it so lightly now, for it is the cornerstone of my practice. Its value cannot be underestimated and yet as I found out, most Karate groups place it way down their list of priorities. In my humble opinion, much to their great loss!
Having begun Karate in 1976, I trained mostly at local level 2-3 times a week. As a young man, I rarely attended weekend courses. They clashed with Rugby matches and generally enjoying myself. I graded infrequently as a result. What with travel getting in the way also, from when I began up until 1990 I had probably trained for around a half of that period and that was in spells of 3 years here and 2 years there and so on. Karate was not on the top of my agenda, but something kept drawing me back. Then, from 1990 onwards it truly dawned upon me how lucky I was to have such intuitive perception within my reach, I don’t think I have missed more than a week of training since, except for my honeymoon and then on our return, I went straight from the airport to Summer School in Canterbury, the opposite direction to my bride (thank the lord my wife understands me!).
It was during a period of about 6 month’s training at a JKA dojo in Santa Monica I first really became aware. The Santa Monica club in Los Angeles, was a vibrant and energized dojo. The instruction was of a very high level and this was added to by instructor’s drive towards personal excellence. He had high expectations for his group and his great sense of humour added to his appeal and coaching ability. I was lucky to have found such a venue. The training was hard, but enjoyable. I was very impressed by the technical level of his class, they made you want to push hard to emulate their swift and solid techniques. But it was when kumite came around, that something began to occur to me. Over the months, this impression became more solidified. Even with my limited experience and technical ability, regardless of whom I partnered up with, I was generally able to thwart my would be attackers through my ability to control the distance between us by movement. My mobility didn’t allow my partner’s a clear opportunity for a cleanly landed blow. As long as I focused on this aspect, I would remain unscathed. However, my inexperience sometimes led me to be drawn into close quarter confrontations from time to time, at which point the better man (or women) took the honours! But during this time, I noticed that most partners soon became agitated by their wasted efforts to land an attack and began to throw caution to the wind as the attacks became less measured in a do or die effort to make a solid contact. In doing so, they would compromise their own postures! At that time, my ability didn’t allow me to capitalize on these occurrences to any great extent. I could see it, but my body couldn’t react naturally. My conscious awareness was slowing me down! It would be some years before that particular problem was addressed.
I had similar experiences at JKA and Kyoshin clubs in Sydney, Australia and again at several clubs in Asia. Of course I couldn’t match seniors for precision of technique or speed of limb, but it struck me as strange that experienced Karateka found it such a struggle to land a solid attack without jeopardizing their highly regarded form and posture in an effort to reach me. What else struck me was that few reacted to the subtle changes of distance that I made in order to gain an attacking opportunity. Instead they just held their ground and waiting for an obvious attack to block or counter against. Naturally, there were exceptions. But in the main, this lack of attention to controlling distance through movement seemed to be the norm.
It wasn’t really until returning to the UK, where upon I started training again, but now, consistently and in earnest under the guidance of Mitsusuke Harada Sensei and his technical group, that I realized what it was that gave me the confidence to stand in front of most any level and not be intimidated. I couldn’t dominate an encounter back then, but my control of distance ensured that my opponents couldn’t either!