Thursday, October 7, 2010

An Interview with Richard Berger (Part 1)

Many karate practitioners from all over the world visit Master Kanazawa’s Headquarters Dojo every year to improve their Karate and to learn from the Master himself.  I personally spent three years training at Kanazawa-kancho’s dojo but I would venture to guess that there is nobody who has spent as much time studying the SKIF system at the Headquarters Dojo in Tokyo as Richard Berger.  In addition to studying Shotokan karate for so long in Japan, Richard is also the translator of several of Kanazawa-kancho’s most important books.
In this two-part interview I ask Richard about his time training in Japan, about his experiences with Kanazawa-kancho, about culture shock and reverse culture shock, and about what it’s like to be chosen as the translator of Kancho’s books.  I am extremely grateful to Richard for his time preparing this interview and for his professionalism throughout.  I think everyone will gain something valuable from his insightful answers.

-          Richard, thank you for agreeing to this interview.  Let’s start off with a few introductory questions.  How long have you lived in Japan?
-          I first came to Japan in 1984 for a couple of weeks as a university student. The following year I came on a one-year overseas study program, which I extended for an additional year. Then I returned in 1990 and have lived here ever since. So, if you include the two years I was here as a student, I’ve spent a little over 21 years living in Japan.

-          How long have you practiced karate?
-          I started training in the early 1980s in Southern California. I trained for a few years, took a few years off, started training again, then moved to Japan and took off a few more years. I then started up again in 1993 at Kanazawa-kancho’s SKIF headquarters and have been training ever since. So, all together, I guess that makes about 21 years.

-          Why did you start?
-          Good question. I think I had always been curious about karate, wondered how it “worked.” I think everyone had heard some variation of the story about the scrawny kid that used karate to beat up the two or three big street thugs that tried to mug him. I wanted to know what karate was all about. Were there “magical” techniques that would render your opponent helpless—a twisting motion of the wrist, perhaps? Or maybe some fancy footwork? I wanted to know the “secret.”

-          What it is it about karate that keeps you going back for more?
-          Well, aside from the fact that I genuinely enjoy it—something I don’t think I could’ve honestly said when I first began training—karate is the only form of exercise that I’ve been able to stick to. I tried going to a sports gym for a while—lifting weights, running on a treadmill, that sort of thing—but soon grew bored and quit. What keeps me going is probably a combination of things: following the lead of an instructor during class; training along with others in a group, which creates an environment of healthy competition; and engaging in exercise that requires concentration, providing a diversion from day-to-day concerns. I find that in addition to the physical benefit of karate, there’s definitely an emotional benefit as well, which allows me to forget about any other worries I may have while I’m training.

-          From personal experience, training at Kanazawa-kancho’s Honbu-dojo is an incredible learning adventure.  I was only there for three years but you have been there far longer.  Can you give us your thoughts on training at the Honbu-dojo and what makes it so special?
-          I joined the SKIF Honbu-dojo in the autumn of 1993, so I’ve been training there just over 16 years now. Needless to say, one of the greatest rewards is receiving direct instruction from Master Hirokazu Kanazawa, one of Shotokan karate’s true legends and an incredibly kind and considerate human being. What you can learn from Kanazawa-kancho goes far beyond just karate. His warmth, humility, and attitude toward life and nature, not to mention his sense of humor, all offer very valuable lessons.
But in addition to Kanazawa-kancho, who we don’t get to see as often as we’d like because he spends several months out of the year teaching overseas, the SKIF headquarters has many other first-rate instructors who regularly teach classes, each with his own unique expertise and teaching style. Also, when some of the top instructors from overseas are in Tokyo for competitions or other events, they will occasionally stop by and teach a class, which is always rewarding.
Needless to say, for those of us who train regularly at the SKIF Honbu-dojo, I think we’ve got it about as good as it gets.

-          Training in Japan is not just about your time actually on the floor practicing karate but also includes many chances for socializing with the senseis and members after class.
-          In Japan, identifying with, and belonging to a group is very important. For this reason, there is a strong sense of camaraderie and kinship among the students and instructors. In many respects, it really is like a big family and it’s nice to get to know the other students on a more personal level. During my first several years training at the SKIF headquarters, there was a group of us who’d go out regularly once a week for dinner and drinking after training. Things have changed since then, but even now it’s not unusual for members to occasionally go out for dinner after a class.
We also often get visitors from overseas who will train with us for a time at the dojo, and we’ll sometimes treat them to dinner, especially if it’s someone who’s made a strong impression on us, or who we haven’t seen in a while.
Getting to know the instructors is also a treat, because there is often quite a large gap between their true personalities and the personas that they project when teaching.

-          Can you tell us a little bit about how these two aspects go hand-in-hand both in a karate setting and in the workplace?
-          Well, this ties into what I was just talking about—namely, the importance of belonging to a group. In Japan, relationships play a vital role, and this applies to the karate dojo as well as the workplace. As long as you make an effort to be a part of the group and fit in as best you can, then, in most cases, you will be openly and warmly welcomed by everyone. Of course, no one can know all of the cultural dos and don’ts, so the occasional gaffe is inevitable, but having the right attitude and always trying your best will go a long way in Japan.

-          During my time at the Honbu-dojo there were many other foreign visitors who came to train with Kanazawa-kancho.  Many of them were excellent karate-ka who were visiting for a period of a few short weeks.  Can you give some advice to foreign visitors to the Honbu-dojo in terms of expected behavior and etiquette?
-          I can imagine how intimidating it might be for someone coming to Japan for the first time or paying their first visit to the dojo. One thing I would definitely recommend is coming a good 20 to 30 minutes early to introduce yourself and ask permission to take part in the class. I can’t imagine anyone ever being turned down, but it sends the right message and will ensure that you get things off on the right foot. It’s also important to understand that there is a visitor’s fee that needs to be paid if you plan to take part in the class. I think it’s 1,000 yen (approximately 11 U.S. dollars) per class, and it would probably be a good idea to mention that up front and get that out of the way early.
As for the students that you’ll be training with on the floor, one thing that you can do to make a good impression is to join everyone else when you see them wiping down the floor before and after class. This shows a sense of humility that is very important, especially in the dojo.
And if you plan to do any training at SKIF headquarters for any length of time, I would strongly recommend familiarizing yourself with Kanazawa-kancho’s kumite number system, which appears in his book Karate Fighting Techniques: The Complete Kumite. It’s not at all unusual during a class for the instructor to say, “Okay, now we’re going to practice jiyu ippon-kumite (free-style one-step kumite) numbers two and three.” If you don’t know what he’s talking about, you’ll probably wish you did.

-          The Honbu-dojo has such a deep pool of talent to draw from for its instructors and in many lessons there can be two or three instructors on the floor in addition to Kancho, all of whom are ranked 5th Dan and above.  Also, each instructor has his own way of teaching while sticking to the same syllabus content.  How have these different teaching styles helped to mold your personal karate knowledge and ability?
-          While it goes without saying that maintaining a consistent approach to training is very important, being exposed to different instructors and new training experiences can help give you a more rounded, well-balanced perspective of what karate has to offer. As you just mentioned, because the Honbu-dojo has so many first-rate instructors, I have benefited greatly from their individual teaching approaches, training menus, technical interpretations, and philosophies.