Wado-ryu - Yoshitsuga Shinohara, 8th Dan
My full name is Yoshitsugu Shinohara. I was born in 1946 near the centre of Japan, in the prefecture of Nagano (where the 1998 Olympics were held). I moved to Tokyo in 1961 to further my education and find work. I entered Meiji University in 1966 to study Economics and Political science.
I had practised Judo in my teenage years but when I started University I changed to Wado-ryu Karate. Because I was a bit short but a fighter and challenger, I wanted to become stronger. Although Karate was a relatively new martial art at that time, it seemed the ideal sport for me to achieve my goals.
All the junior Karate students were taught by Sempai (senior colleagues) and OB (old boys) in the Meiji University Kenren (student’s union) Karate-do Club. Every training session lasted about 3 hours and we trained almost everyday, and they used a military style of discipline. The aim of the Karate training was to improve skill, speed, strength, stamina and self-discipline (the 5 S’s). The training was often repetition of a few thousand kicks and punches with full speed and power (Kihon). Then Kata, Yakusoku-gumite and finally Jiyu-gumite at each session. We often found a small pool of sweat on the floor around our feet when we were allowed to have a standing short break in summer season.
However the training methods were not always scientifically correct, we had to hit makiwara board with seiken many times with full power…the skin on my knuckles peeled off and they bled all over, but I was forced to continue hitting the board. The worst part was when I had to hit the bloody makiwara again 2 days later when the skin on the knuckles had just started to heal. However, after 2 years of hitting the makiwara, my fist became so strong I used to be able to hit a large concrete lamppost with full power without damaging my hand.
We also often had to bunny-hop up and down approximately 150 steep stone stairs. One day when one of our Sempai saw me smiling when I had completed it, he ordered me to repeat the exercise. Many years of Judo training had made my legs quite strong, but that evening, people at the train station watched us with strange looks on their faces when many of us wobbled down the stairs holding onto the railings.
We often went away for one week long Gasshuku (training camp) for intensive training. The day’s training began at 6am sharp with a morning run in bare feet for about an hour and plenty of press-ups, sit-ups, etc.. Apart from breakfast and lunch breaks we continued to practice Karate all day until we were completely exhausted. One day after the training, a Sempai heard us talking, complaining about the hard training and tiredness; he said that we were not really tired, because we were still able to speak!
I remember one occasion, well after midnight our sleep was abruptly interrupted by colleagues because a junior colleague was missing. We were really worried because he was not a tough character and his belongings were still in the dormitory which meant he hadn’t run away at night … there was also a fast flowing river next to our Ryokan (inn). Fortunately, we found him later in the middle of the back stairs, poor boy was so exhausted and had fallen asleep and couldn’t make it to his bed!
I remember the 2nd year above Sempai were a hard lot, they used to take us to free fight with them after the formal session at the club and beat us black and blue. One of them in particular was pertinacious brute … he would force us to fight for at least 20 minutes despite our injuries and exhaustion. One day when I had suffered enough and felt I couldn’t continue any more with him but didn’t want to be defeated by him, he was very good at sunegeri and kingeri to torment us, I was determined I would take a chance and use my Judo techniques to strangle him into unconsciousness and quit the Karate club for good. After all I was a 2nd Dan in Judo and had confidence to beat him with the knowledge of Judo if I could get a hold on him. Strangely, the Sempai was not cruel to me that evening or ever again.
Competition was not popular at that time, fighting was not as sophisticated as nowadays, we did not wear any protection, mitts etc. … we just aimed to knockdown our opponents…therefore, competitors often received injuries at the tournaments. I remember one incident at one of the early Wado-kai Championships. One of my colleagues received a serous injury, he kicked his opponent so hard but his leg crushed opponents knee and his leg was broken in half … white shinbone was protruding through the skin!
Ohtsuka Shihan visited our club once a month to teach. We were all glad to see him because although his lessons provided us with much information, the sessions were physically easy. There were 96 boys when we joined the Karate club but just 9 of us survived through the 4 punishing years training and this number was a club record; normally only a few students were successful enough to complete the course and sometimes none!
Anyway we were young students, enthusiastic with lots of energy and ambition. We tried everything to toughen ourselves up and challenge our limitations. The training sessions were sometimes unreasonably hard but after the session we all enjoyed a drink together and forgot all the aches and pains and were happy, the beer tasted great. We surely learned the value of truth, integrity, courage, perseverance and an indomitable spirit with pride and honour.
When I graduated from the university in 1970, minus a graduation ceremony, because of university disputes (Gakuen-Funso), we just had to leave the teargas filled university (whose motto was Liberty and Right), which had become a battlefield between Zengakuren (united student’s union) and Kido-tai (police combat units). I had now completed my education and I was now free and independent and confident of looking after myself, I wanted to leave Japan to see the world and learn new languages.
After 2 years of hard work as one of Tokyo’s notorious kamikaze taxi drivers (very fast, skilful, special licensed drivers, but not suicidal), I had saved enough money to travel. I boarded a ship in Yokohama Harbour in 1972, but my first voyage was a disaster because almost immediately the ship had left the harbour a huge typhoon struck, with gushing winds and huge waves. All passengers on the ship were seasick and I was unable to leave my bed or eat for 3 days and nights. It took me 2 weeks to get to England through Russia, Austria, Germany and Belgium (now it takes just 12 hours from Japan to England by non-stop flight) and I settled in an Oxford boarding school for languages to study the Queen’s English.
My original plan was to study English for 2 years in England then go to Madrid to study Spanish for another 2 years … but have lived in England now for 29 years. Unfortunately my English is still not good enough to move onto Spanish!
I met a few Japanese Karate instructors at a college when I moved to London in 1973 and it led me into teaching Karate. I opened Essex Wado-kai Karate Club in 1975 with branches in Romford, Chelmsford and Harlow after 6 months of travel in a camper van around Europe and North Africa. I established BWKS in 1987 with senior students of mine.
Nowadays I get invited to attend weekend courses and teach Karate at other Karate clubs very often, and it’s a pleasure to meet and practice Karate with different people in different places. In return, we invite all the associate members to our BWKS Championships every year, which is the biggest event in the BWKS calendar.
I am also a qualified Japanese language teacher and I used to teach at colleges and am currently teaching in the City of London, so I’m able to help anyone who needs to learn Japanese.
It’s important to be fit physically in the early stages then you can enjoy going out to open fields for jogging, general exercise and Karate training whenever you have time. Exercise is good for me and makes me feel stable and happy. I will continue training as long as I can.
PS - I had a chance to visit the Meiju University Kenren Karate-do Club last year (2000), 30 years after I left and encountered a total change. The old familiar university buildings had been demolished and re-built and are now huge shining new buildings. Half of the 30 students who were training in the new dojo were young women, one of them told me later that most of the women there were (at the club) for health and beauty reasons!