Simon Oliver 7th Dan JKRUK, the pioneer of kata centric training in the UK.
An interview By Andrew Deeks .. JKRUK
- Sensei it’s been a long time since you did a magazine interview. Where have you been, what have you been doing?
I never really went away, I was very focused on my own training and research in-between leading a very intensive work schedule that supported a “don’t be in the limelight strategy”. I was also never that keen on the self-promotion thing anyway. I was also pleasantly observing all the kata centric research that was coming out, which really made me happy that folks were starting to look at the real value and purpose of kata rather than drilling for performance or gradings.
Now don’t get me wrong, I like to see a beautifully executed kata. I enjoy all aspects of karate and combat sports and continuously look for the real points of connectivity between systems. What I wanted was to make a clear understanding that the difference between sport and reality overlap.
I had also written and interviewed for several leading martial arts publications over the past three decades and frankly thought I’d said enough.
- But you were one of the first, and for many viewed, as the original practical kata interpreters?
Well in my eyes what I was doing was not new, in fact it was old, very old. So, to me I was never the first and there were certainly others also promoting a more realistic approach to kata. I can name several who I herald and respect as peer pioneers, Pat McCarthy, Vince Morris, Bob Rhodes and especially my original true Sensei Terry O’Neill. He was something else and still is to me.
O’Neill sensei is nearing 70 years of age and is still working the doors in Liverpool and a mighty force you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of.
To me he managed to excel in all arenas and alongside my father he has been a guiding light for me since the age of 14.
- Everyone remembers you for your Shotokan Oyo and Street Shotokan DVDs. Rumour has it you are now updating these?
I was never happy with them, I created them as a guide for my own students and the technology and quality was not that good. However, they sold in vast quantities globally, feedback at the time was immensely positive and let’s say the rest history…
I was lucky to have Paul Ives, one of the most talented photographers I have ever met and also an experienced karateka, become one of my students. Paul has that gift of seeing it, capturing it and creating the most profound images, as I guess he can see things from both sides of the camera. To me he is the David Bailey of the martial arts world.
Paul convinced me that I was now doing things very differently and we should work on a new project to not only bring the original Oyo DVD’s up to date, but to get my message over to those that were interested. He also convinced me that I needed to use all the new media channels available to me. I was still a little reluctant, but having seen some of the misinformation floating around and supporting principles that would get you a serious beating in the real world I thought I should shout a bit louder. Ha Ha Ha!
My new website is now live and will become the delivery portal, whatever that means, for providing all the revised Kata videos and maybe some of the rare film archive I have been hoarding for over 40 years.
- I have noticed in your sessions you really do have a very different approach to every aspect of training and it is all totally centric to practical street prep. Do you hold no value in the traditional three K’s principles still adhered to in a lot of mainstream karate?
Geez, that was a little direct!!
So, let me come straight back at you. Most of the training I see in dojos has nothing to do with development of the individual to cope with an act of violence. It’s predominantly centred on grading syllabus, championships, paying the rent and not real combat effectiveness. Now there isn’t anything wrong with that if your students fully understand that.
I know most of my senior students well enough to know why they are training to win. Yes win! Because this is where there is a very positive overlap with competition training. If you don’t want to win you aren’t going to survive a habitual act of violence. The skill set for any arena can be developed, but the hunger to win at all costs is hard to achieve without the correct preparation.
I have known lots of great competition fighters who never reached the top of the game because they didn’t have the hunger to win, I have also seen some that have got it and were good on the mat and the pavement arena.
The physical skills are one thing but without the real psychological preparation you’re never going to win in any arena.
- So you are talking about creating a certain mind-set?
It’s more than just having spirit, it’s more than just having commitment, it’s more than just understanding the process to be strong, it’s fundamentally how you switch on under pressure more importantly when you switch on. I have been researching human behaviour for almost as long as I’ve been training in martial arts. The whole mind over matter thing fascinated me at a young age, I have met folks over the years who claimed all sorts of skills from receiving direct tuition in dreams to being able transmit their energy through solid inanimate objects! Most were charlatans, but many had total belief mechanisms that made them able to do some impressive stuff.
Now that’s the bit that fascinated me, the whole self-belief mechanism. Steve Morris once said it to me “Most people are putting the tigers skin on but they are not the tiger”. He was totally right. Nice folks would become “warriors” twice a week but would get totally slaughtered in a fight outside, and instructors perpetuating the myth. Yet every now and again I would meet someone that just had that ability to win at all costs and some had never been in a dojo in their life.
I started devouring everything I could on social behaviour especially anything to do with acts of violence. I had friend who had started doing the NLP circuit and I attended a few of his lectures, but I found most of it had been dumbed down to sell a corporate message. I started to turn back and look at some very traditional sources mainly because of my inherent fascination in warrior culture. What I wanted to do is start delivering when I teach a method that got people winning. Today getting folks to become the “tiger” is really important to me I want them to excel in their lives and not just fighting.
My martial arts were always fighting for real from dealing with school bullies to door work and then eventually security work. But the key was really in a chance meeting I had in Japan many years earlier when I was young and lacked real maturity to really understand the significance until some years later.
- Was this when you met Konishi Sensei?
Konishi Sensei was very old when I met him but it was his influence and the training principles of the Ryobukan and Konishi Sensei’s Shindo Jinen Ryu that changed how I approached training and teaching forever. His style had evolved from close association with all the movers and shakers of that 1920/30’s wave of Okinawans into mainland Japan; Funakoshi, Mabuni, Miyagi more importantly Motobu. He was a close friend with Ueshiba Sensei the founder of aikido. The Shindo Jinen Ryu has influences from all these masters, as well as aiki and the original jujutsu Konishi had trained in all of these. Hell, it even has western boxing influences.
I met Konishi Sensei’s most famous student Yamazaki Sensei a few years later, and followed his way, especially as he is an excellent teacher of both karate and kobujitsu, for many years before I formally joined the Japan Karate-do Ryobukai.
Knowing my mentor Terry O’Neill Sensei and working for his magazine Fighting Arts International exposed me to loads of great martial artists and the opportunity to train with them, so I never had the myopic view that I found around me in the mainstream karate world.
- So, is Shindo Jinen Ryu a true cross training system?
Ha, Konishi was probably way ahead of his time. I find it interesting today as many folks think the MMA concept is new, it’s as old as the hills. The martial arts trends like the fitness world, desperate to reinvent itself as the best, the ultimate, the most effective and it’s all a load of twaddle! They’re just reinventing the wheel!
If you want to be effective to deal with violence, then you must train for violence, if you want to be the next world champion you must train for it. You look at young Jordan Thomas he didn’t just go out there and win without correct preparation and you can tell his mindset was more than just mere spirit!
- I have noticed even the way you do Kihon in advanced class is very different or progressive?
You mean the circular drilling of kihon? There is no real point to marching up and down after a certain level. What I want is folk is to be able to enter and deliver techniques at their optimum delivery angle. I also want fluidity and maximum power transition. It’s easier to show than talk about. Visual learning in martial arts without constructive development is pointless. It’s all about core skill development.
- There seems to be a huge increase in bunkai and kata centric training. Why do you think this is?
To be honest for some it’s a cop out, I see what they are teaching and it would get you beaten senseless. No stress testing, it’s not viable. I have been working with Johnny Johnson and Steve Lowe for a few years now and I just love how they takes it into another level on practicality.
People think I am part of the kata re-inventist set and I am firmly not. I am koryu or old style. What I teach predates the era I grew up in and the modernisation of karate into a sport par excellence.
The bunkai/oyo/henka concept is designed for reality training and pre-dates the modern three K’s that became the spinal process of post war karate.
However it falls down without the right supporting training to improve core skills.
- So, you are against the bunkai crowd?
NO!! Not at all, the complete opposite, if I was I would just be preserving antiquity, which is totally wrong. I think it’s marvellous and long may it continue. Martial artist as a description tells you we should be creative or it dies. Men invented fighting skills from engaging in combat, they get defanged by society to become socially acceptable, especially in times of peace. This is not new it happened in Japan amongst the kenjitsu schools in the past. What I am against is folks teaching others to so called fight who have never tested what they have done. I am old now but I know from real experience what I do will work.
- How can this sort of thinking relate to real self-protection scenarios?
Well as I said without supporting skill set training such as stress testing, body conditioning, impact training and most importantly incident visualisation to mention a few, it will not help.
- Some people would say you are an enigma as you still seem very connected to the old, especially in Japan, as well as being very modern in your outlook?
Don’t confuse my love of Japan and the Far East, with my martial arts. I have been a japanologist for years and have both embraced my interest in hoplology and social cultural behaviour with a passion. I became a Buddhist at the age of twenty which has influenced my life path ever since. My connection to Japan is deep and enhanced with the study of martial arts.
- We often come across those in the know, who often view you as the defacto reference point for the kata centric evolution?
That is a high accolade to carry!!
As I said before I think there are many who deserve that title and not me. What I will say is I am very comfortable with my own ability and if others want to join me then I feel honoured by that.
- You were once a keen competitor yourself. What are your thoughts on karate in the Olympics?
Ha Ha Ha Ha! My issue was I was not consistent and my control was equally inconsistent. However, I enjoyed it and had some reasonable success.
My honest opinion, I think on what I teach the Olympics will have very little impact on, but if we coach our young karate-ka in the right way it will have a positive influence. We need to create winners out of our fighters and always pay homage to the origin of karate, encouraging them to embrace a holistic approach to the benefits of training post their competitive career.
· What are your hopes for your karate and the JKR going forward?
The JKR is growing now, it has a strong leadership and is a very tight group. We weather the usual internal issues well as an association. Globally the Shindo Jinen Ryu is starting to come out of the shadows as a major representation of both old and new working within the one family.
Karate is so multi-dimensional today and I am so pleased to see the emerging koryu groups getting the visibility they deserve.