Guest Columnists - Norma Foster Interview in 2002

Norma Foster, the head of JKF Wadokai- Canada, is the highest ranking female JKF Wadokai practitioner in the world.

She is also the only female WKF Referee and is currently the chairman of the WKF Gender Equity Committee. In October of 2002, Ms Foster was inducted into the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame. The bulk of her Wado training was accomplished under the tutelage of Mr Toru Arakawa and Dr Hideho Takagi of the JKF Wadokai. She was born in 1952 in Edinburgh, Scotland and currently resides in Vancouver, Canada.

How and why did you start doing Wado, when already an experienced Shotokan practitioner?
Not a short story.
I had begun to suffer the effects of long term Shotokan: cruciate ligament tears in the knee and underwent a first arthroscopy around 1986. I started to consider my competitive lifespan as being shortened and had begun to consider alternatives. I was already 34 years old anyway. So what to do? Hold that thought for a paragraph or two.

Mr Fusajiro Takagi the General Secretary of the JKF at the time, visited Canada in 1987 with several coaches and members of the Japan National team. The purpose was a goodwill tournament through which Japanese team members were supposed to overcome their fear of gaijin. I was member of the Canadian National team, Vice President of Karate BC (British Columbia), and organiser of the visit. I arranged the hotels, airport pick ups, the venue, marketing the event, the finding of lost suitcases containing $2,000 and escorted Mr Takagi shopping for his wife in addition to competing (and getting my butt whipped). Thus a relationship was established with Mr Takagi, Mr Goshi Yamaguchi of Goju Ryu and Mr Tanizawa of Wado Ryu who accompanied the team.

I left Vancouver in 1988 in bad graces with JKA International of Canada (headed by Jerry Mar in Winnipeg, chief pooh bah, Mr Hidetaka Nishiyama) due to competing in the goodwill tournament, which was perceived as “WUKO” rather than an “ITKF” event. I can’t say I was terribly concerned, as I moved to Chicago that year for my job. I had also begun refereeing at the national level and attended the Pan Ams in 1988, where I obtained a PKF Judge qualification.

I'd had reasonable exposure to other styles: Goju (Toguchi Seikichi’s - Shoreikan); Shito Ryu - Tosukai; a seminar with Tatsuo Suzuki of Wado once in Vancouver; Cha Yon Ryu Taekwondo with Kim Soo for lack of a Japanese Dojo 1975 – 77 in Houston; Texas Ryu, Son Ryu and Shorin Ryu with David Akahane, a transplant from Hawaii who worked for Kim Soo, but whose great love was his teacher, a Mr Murakami, and Shorin Ryu. Naha Te in Vancouver for 2 years with Yuwa Wong . . . And all the Shotokan summer camps with Nishiyama, British Summer courses at Crystal Palace in London, in Sweden, blah blah on top of routine daily Shotokan training.

Back to the story. With refereeing in mind, I looked for another style to practice in addition to Shotokan while in Chicago and found that John Nanay was willing to have a go at teaching me some Shito Kata. I also trained with John Di Pasquale for Shotokan. I left Chicago in 1989 for Tokyo.

I asked Mr Fusajiro Takagi to recommend some Dojo to train and made it clear that I wanted to study another style with the intention of hopefully gaining enough understanding to Judge it at the international competitive level. Mr Takagi was a Shotokan man from Keio University, and he recommended a Shotokan school that was not JKA. At that time, the JKA was undergoing its split and a visit there proved that it was not a healthy place to study Karate from any viewpoint: technical, mental or physical. So I went to the YMCA Shotokan school and the instructor, Mr Ichimura was very welcoming. He treated me with endless hospitality and kindness and so I entered a few tournaments on behalf of his school.

I did quite well and caused a big rumpus as I qualified to enter the National Workers Karate Federation (Jitsu Gyo Dan Karate Renmei) champs in Osaka. However, the Board of the Jitsu Gyo Dan refused to allow me to compete because I was not Japanese. Naturally I fought this racism, with Mr Ichimura’s support . . . .and won. The current Board was removed, a new Board instated and I qualified again the following year. Alas, never to compete as I had to work on the same weekend as the championships, which were again in Osaka. Never mind.

Mr Ichimura was not what I wanted technically in an instructor, but I imagined that Mr Takagi had good reason to send me there, so I kept going. The JKA was not an option, as it was still in turmoil. It began to be difficult to trudge all the way across Tokyo for 1.5 hours just to do exercise.

Another call from Mr Takagi and he told me to meet a Mr Arakawa outside a store one Tuesday night at 7 p.m. He said that Mr Arakawa was a “very nice teacher”. So I thanked him and then asked by the way, “What style is Mr Arakawa?” "Wado". "Wado????? Er,,,, Wado Sensei?" " Yes, Wado". "Oh right then, er, thank you, I’ll meet Mr Arakawa on Tuesday at 7 p.m., Keio Plaza, Shibuya". What? Why? Wado? No Wado Kata ever made it to the WKF best eight, um…

Of all the styles, Wado was the one I'd had the least exposure to. I’d seen Mr Suzuki, right enough and trained in his seminar, had seen Mr Ajari and trained in his seminar, but neither of them held any appeal for me. Of course, how much of that was indeed my own Shotokan insularity or condescension, just plain ignorance, personality or what, I can’t really say.

So I met Mr Arakawa as arranged, and I rode in a taxi with him to his Dojo in Shibuya. I changed under the stage of a primary school gym that was an inch thick in dust and cockroaches that scuttled as I wriggled a Gi out of a gym bag and danced about avoiding them. The men changed on top of the stage.

I emerged into a gym full of Japanese men wearing black belts lined up at the opposite side of the Dojo, staring at me as I bowed and walked towards them. Perhaps they are surprised that I have manners. Who knows? They just kept staring. Deep breath. Ah well, no turning back now. No women and no gaijin. Yikes!
I lined up at the opposite end of the line from He-who-issued-commands and awaited the world of Wado.

The warm up made sense and was not weird or dangerous or macho or silly. Good. First bit over. Then Mr Arakawa started to teach moving basics. Ah. Hah! So this is Wado. I see. This makes sense. In fact, this makes lots of sense.

So I tried to do Junzuki and Pinan and Mawatte Jodan Uke and had a great time stumbling about trying to alter stances and relax shoulders and move smoothly and use the whole body and . . . . . . . Mr Arakawa gave me feedback and guess what? It didn’t seem to conflict with anything at all! In fact the principles were no different from what Mr Nishiyama had been saying, they were explained and demonstrated differently. I could hardly wait until Thursday, which was the next class. . . .

Which were the qualities of Wado that appealed to you most?
There is only 9 Kata! Just joking….. My teachers are educated, intelligent and compassionate people.

Takagi Sensei’s Dojo was 2 minutes by bicycle from my house which was a massive stroke of serendipitous luck! Because of that I could train in Wado 7 days a week and did so for most of the 8 years I was in Tokyo.

I liked the logical approach that Mr Arakawa took to getting his point across. When I met Dr Hideho Takagi (no relation to Fusajiro Takagi) I liked his approach and his unique Karate and his sense of humour. He is not so big and I am quite small so he was a great model for me. Of all the people I have trained, studied and practiced with over 30 years and four countries, Dr Takagi is my ideal image of Karate.

I liked the way I was treated by both of these gentlemen: kindly, with respect and seriously as a student of Karate. It did not matter that I was female or male, gaijin or not.

I also liked the fact that Mr Arakawa’s teaching led me to look at Wado as a framework that should fit one’s body, rather than as a framework that one’s body should be forced to fit. Shotokan for example, or at least the vision I had from various Shotokan instructors, was that your back foot in stance x should be precisely 35 degrees this way and “make ankles soft” , whereas when asked the same question, Mr Arakawa would say, “back foot could be here, could be there, depending on ankle flexibility.”

So Wado as I learned it from Mr Arakawa and Dr Takagi seemed far more humanistic than the Shotokan I had been practicing. This bode well for the future of knees.

Mr Arakawa and Dr Katsumi Hakoishi also supported me a lot with my desire to study officiating. I owe them all, much gratitude.

Was it a painful process to move to Wado?
No, it was great fun and I am still enjoying the challenge every step of the way!

For about 2 years, I practiced both Shotokan and Wado three times a week each.

Eventually, Mr Ichimura would say, “mmmm No-ma san, looks like Wado” And I would grin hugely and say, “Thank you Sensei” And Mr Arakawa would say, “No-ma, looks like Shotokan” And I would grin widely and say, “Thank you sensei” And then I would say, to both, “Thank you. New style. No-ma Ryu!” And they would laugh and mutter something akin to incorrigible, or hopeless or what am I going to do with this stupid gaijin.
Actually I don’t know what they muttered, but they kept trying to Wadoize me on Tues/Thurs/Sat and Shotoize me on Mon/Wed/Fri so eventually I thought I should make a choice.

Since I understood 20 years of Shotokan that amounted to whatever, and 2 years of Wado, I figured that since I had daily access to great teachers, I should focus on learning from them. Also by that time I knew that Mr Arakawa had produced Nishimura, Maeda, Murase and other great fighters so I had things to learn. What a great position to be in! Knowledge just waiting to be absorbed!

Did it involve a lot of 'unlearning'?
Nah. Not unlearning. Relearning, refining and adding. A nice challenge for a bored Shotohead looking for some adventure!

The Heians became refined into Pinans; Hangetsu and Gankaku and Kanku dai and Tekki Shodan were refined into Seishan, Chinto, Kushanku and Naihanchi.

What was added was flexibility of mind, a broader outlook and acceptance of style nuance and interpretation and a lot of relaxed shoulders and more ergonomic stances.

I look/looked at it in two ways:

  • I have built a house on a solid foundation (Shotokan) and the house has stood for over 20 years. It has not crumbled, or become dilapidated, or bulldozed down. I changed the wallpaper. Painted all the ceilings. Bought new furniture. Reinforced the struts. Cleaned out the basement. Added a bathroom. Built an adjoining wall and created a bedroom. Expanded the living room. . . . . . . . . . but kept the library and the garage (Unsu, Gojushiho Sho and Dai, Sochin, Chintei, Kanku Sho, Bassai Sho and Meikyo). So the structure of the house remains firm and hopefully will last another 20 years and more.
  • Wado is like Shotokan might have looked around the 1930s – 1940s. Look at the pictures of Funakoshi to see what I mean. That is, Wado to me represents living, breathing Shotokan before the Funakoshi nephew, the army and the JKA took it over.

Someone once said to me that it was a pity I wasn’t still doing Shotokan, because he would have liked to invite me to his club to teach. I asked him where he thought the 20 years of Shotokan had gone. He said he couldn’t conceive of it. I replied that it had not been flushed down a Wado toilet, out into a Wado sea. It was still right at home, in the living room.

So what I guess I did was retain what I felt was good about Shotokan for me and added Wado to it.

Are you practising both Shotokan and Wado, or only Wado? Do you think it is possible to combine the two, or are they mutually exclusive?
I no longer practice Shotokan.

However, the only versions of certain Kata that I know are Shotokan and I only know how to do them as I learned them. Such as Chintei or Sochin, for example. So if anyone wants to do those Kata, I enjoy having a go.

I have no wish to practice Shotokan as I studied it because I don’t think it is good for my physical health. Both knees had surgery by 1994.

Yet, for me Shotokan and Wado are different types of gravy on the same piece of chicken, since one emerged, so to speak from the other. It is difficult to do things simultaneously that are very similar, like Heian and Pinan etc. It is easier to do things that are not very alike, such as Saifa and Seishan

Did you ever had any regrets about your transition?
Not one. Not ever. It is all Karate.

I now have some wonderful, kind, generous, sensitive and humane friends. They are Wado instructors.
And, I am quite comfortable in a Shotokan environment and sometimes I go and work out at Shoto friends’ Dojo. Here or in Japan. I just stand in the line and do what I’m told but I do it my way. Is it Shotokan? Is it Wado? Maybe it is now Noma Ryu!

Do you feel women generally practise Karate at the same level as men do? If not, why?
Depends what you mean by “level”. Do you mean “intensity”? Something else?

However they train, if they do or if they don’t, (practise Karate at the same level as men do) why would it be important? Each man and each woman and each child presumably practice Karate for their own personal reasons and each will train according to where Karate lies on their list of priorities. I know men who are cowards and women who are not. I know men who can’t overcome a broken nose to continue a fight yet I know women who can. I know women who are cowards and who make excuses for their failures. I know men who do the same. I have seen all sorts of insecurities manifest on Dojo floors from both males and females and an equal number of coping mechanisms from macho violence to outright fear and timidity.
For me, the important thing is consider why one is training. Above all, one is choosing to do this for oneself, not for anyone else and therefore, one’s “level” of practice is one’s own business.

You trained in Japan. Did being a woman pose any special difficulties for you over there? Or any special privileges, for that matter?
No difficulties at all. I had lots of fun, made many friends and would immediately move back there upon receiving a suitable job offer.

No special privileges, other than getting away with things that no Japanese person of either gender, or no foreign man would.

If you are cheerful, positive, have a sense of humour and don’t mind making a complete fool of yourself in public (singing karaoke songs, doing a dance or a skit, doing Shoto in a Wado school, refereeing a WKF tournament…..), you will have great time in Japan regardless of gender.

What do you think of the state of the Karate world today?
Great things: Something for everyone, men, women and children. Competition, philosophy, exercise, self defence, self improvement, Japanese culture, high performance training, recreational sport… whatever facet appeals, a Dojo is nearby that will suit. WKF competition is producing great athletes, especially with the impact of the new rules.

Not so great things: Too many people seem to make extravagant claims about their abilities, product offerings, Dan certification etc. This can fool people. The Dan system, which I feel is inherently flawed due to its examination subjectivity, has become devalued. In Canada at least, Karate is becoming so legislated, sanitised and standardised that people are shocked if a bruise so much as appears somewhere on one’s person.

Just things: When I started training in 1969, Karate was considered to be “not suitable for children” and I was the only woman in the Dojo for about four years. Now in excess of 70% of Karate practitioners in the world are under 17 years of age and a substantial number of those are girls. This has naturally impacted the way Karate is taught and perceived by the public. In Canada, Karate is simply viewed as another choice of spare time activity, like horse riding, soccer, softball, piano, dance and ice hockey. This also impacts the way Karate is taught and presented.

Do you have a professional occupation, apart from Karate?
Actually, Karate is not and never has been, my occupation. I hope to keep it that way. I am a medical/scientific proofreader. Before that I was a sales representative for a chemical company, a product manager and research technician.

2002, Igor Asselbergs/Bob Nash.

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