Interview of Sensei Hanratty by Robert Hargreaves

Sensei John Hanratty

Can you tell us when and how you started training in karate?

I started training in 1969 or 70 with Frank Vernon in Prescott which is just outside of Liverpool.  Frank was one of the founder members of the KUGB. In fact Charlie Naylor who was also one of the founders told me that Frank was instrumental in choosing the name Karate Union of Great Britain as he was very active in trade unions and was a shop steward at BICC where Charlie had worked.  I met Frank through a friend who worked with me.  Frank Vernon was actually an amazing Karateka. As a child he had contracted polio and had poorly developed right leg in fact walked with a pronounced limp. This did not stop Frank from being one of the best and most respected door men in Liverpool, and although he wasn’t that big, other doormen like Gary Speirs and Terry O’Neil all respected Frank.

After a couple of years, Frank lost his training space to a dance group and I moved Dojos to the Triangle under Andy Sherry. I had been there a few times previously when they had Enoeda Sensei in or some other guest instructors. So I sort of knew some of the boys there. Also we all went to the Crystal palace course together every year just before the KUGB Nationals. So it was an easy transition.

What motivated you?

Not sure really, I used to box and got to the stage where I knew I wasn’t going to be a pro or even a great amateur so I was looking for something else to challenge me. I was in a Sky Diving team at the time and that was fun. In fact, we were probably one of the first non-military teams in the country. I believe the parachute club is still going. We were the black knights out of Cockerham up by Lancaster.  Anyway I couldn’t afford the new rigs that were coming out and my old stuff was getting dangerous; so I took up Karate. Probably not the best reason ever recorded, but original.

What made and still makes the Red Triangle produce excellent Shotokan Karate?

That is an easy question; Andy Sherry! He is in my mind the best instructor ever. And I have trained with a lot of world class instructors including just about all of the JKA top people.

Andy Sherry’s dedication and personal perseverance are remarkable. I was lucky enough to be able to train with Sensei Sherry in his daily morning sessions. I don’t know what it is like now, but, we had a very informal invited group usually Frank and Jimmy Brennan, Bob and Jimmy Poynton, Frank Cope, sometimes Terry O’Neil and a few others who could get the time. Informal they may have been but they were tough, and I am sure anyone who still attends the mornings at the triangle will agree they still are tough.

Now a lot of people will give different answers and definitions of a good instructor. But I believe an instructor by definition should be judged by the students he produces. Their expertise, their depth of understanding, and knowledge of the art all come from whoever first planted and nurtured that desire to push further. I won’t bother listing the people who have come from the Liverpool Triangle; I think Sensei Sherry’s record speaks for itself.

What relevance would you say does karate training have for today’s society?

I think more than ever society needs the benefits Shotokan Karate provide. Now I am not saying that Shotokan is the only beneficial martial art. It’s just the only style I have ever been fully involved with. I know that there are other styles and methods that work and are very beneficial and effective. I believe that if you practice sincerely and dedicate yourself, style is of no consequence – you will find what you are looking for, and it will work for you.

Studies done at Halifax University have shown that martial art training especially in children improves concentration, heightens self esteem, increases muscle coordination and generally improves fitness all round more than any other activity. Moreover it develops discipline and the studies show children who practice martial arts are far less likely to have disciplinary problems than those that don’t train.

In your experience or opinion is the traditional training of kihon, kata and kumite effective?

I believe it is the only way to give students the fundamentals and basic principals that are required in later and more advanced study. There may come a time when the techniques you learn are not being applied in the dojo or in the competition ring. As a survivor of more street fights and real life situations than I care to remember, I can tell you it is the fundamentals that work! The techniques you apply are always going to be secondary to the principles you use to employ them.

How important is it to make the techniques we teach relevant to potential real life situations? Does this help make it relevant to students?

It is very important; how often have you seen some self made 10th Dan demonstrating on his own students? How often do those followers of the same “great sensei” drop like gunshot often before the technique is finished? Anyone can demonstrate the purity of a technique, and I have no problem with that. In fact I love the classical demonstrations like you often see from a kneeling position or basic stance. But, I always remember what Steve Cattle used to say; “If it doesn’t work fast; it doesn’t work”! Steve knew what he was on about; he was one of the great ones. You have to remember technique, timing, and control go out the window when it’s blood and guts.

Can you tell us about the formation of the CSKA?

Sure the CSKA was formed in 1990 – actually we had started putting it together in 89.

Nishiyama had an organization in Canada called “JKA. International Canada.” This was headed up by Jerry Marr and Rick Jorgenson. When I left the UK to come to Canada I had asked Eneoda Sensei who I should train with and he had told me Nishyama so I joined that group. I was with them from 1980-90 graded up to Yondan with them.

In 1989 I was Alberta all styles coach and had been for a number of years. In fact that year I was voted NKA coach of the year and nominated for an AIR Canada sportsman award. So I was pretty happy with the situation as it was.

The NKA was having lots of political problems with Jorgenson and Marr and eventually both Saskatchewan and Manitoba left the NKA. They tried to apply pressure on the other provinces to join them but it had nothing to do with Karate and was seen as a political exercise at best and pure ego by most.

Anyway we where having a lot of problems with Dan certificates and missing fees, as well as all the politics. I called up my Sensei to ask his advice and Sensei Sherry told me to go it alone which is what we did. He also invited me to attend the founding meeting in Italy of theWorld Shotokan Karate Association. I did, making CSKA one of the first members. We also put on the first World Championships in Calgary in 1991, and we have been members ever since.

CSKA has changed format over the years as any growing organization will. Originally there was myself, Mike Scales, Andy Holmes and Norma Foster. Since then we have gained a few and lost a few. But we still keep to the traditional training and concept, and I believe we are stronger and better than when we started.

We often explain the reasons people decide to take up karate for physical reasons such as self defense, sport or a form of exercise; but do you agree that they could also be looking for something else such as character development through the challenging training?

Not really; I don’t believe anybody starts training in Karate thinking it will make them a better person. I believe that there are certain benefits that accrue through training that change and form the character of the Karateka. But I also believe these benefits and changes would also be present in anyone who dedicates themselves to any discipline. I mean a boxer or a weight lifter who goes the gym every day will develop a certain discipline and character. However, I feel the more rigid structure of the Dojo and the training promotes this development to a greater degree and is more readily apparent in Karate. It is true to say that the self discipline and strength of character as well as the increased confidence and self esteem would not be apparent if the training was not there to promote it.

Apart from technical skill development, your training sessions also emphasize the development of the ‘right’ attitude – this must be an important part of what you consider necessary for effective technique or does it go beyond karate technique?

It’s really hard to communicate the importance of the right attitude or strong spirit as Eneoda Sensei used to call it. Something I constantly push to my students is “a strong spirit will always carry a weak technique.” I truly believe this. You can have the best looking technique in the world, the most beautiful form but, if you don’t have the spirit or attitude to get in and use it, it is useless. Well, not useless – some judge may give you a medal for it. But it won’t get you home when it’s business time! The ability to switch on when needed is vastly underestimated. As is the training to control an adrenaline rush and the limitations it puts on you when you are in a bad situation. That initial rush of adrenaline will limit circulation, reduce peripheral vision, and in some cases freeze a person. Exposure to that rush through training will show you how to deal with it.

There are many ‘karate’ or ‘martial arts’ clubs that seem to teach a more athletic or family orientated brand of karate of even some of the traditional styles – are you concerned that this could influence karate in a direction that is different from the what say the JKA, KUGB or CSKA type organizations would?

As I often stress in my instructor course the responsibility is always with the instructor. The student trusts you to show them the correct path. Their concept of martial arts is usually what is portrayed in Hollywood or on TV. The whole secret is finding the right instructor. Not someone who is just out to make money from public gullibility.

There is so much garbage disguised as Karate these days people have no idea what they are training for. My belief is it is rarely the students fault. He trusts an instructor to show him the correct way. If the instructor is just out to make money then he obviously abuses this trust. However, there are students who know after a while they are being taken and still persist in training in what is obviously a pension fund for someone who is just handing out belts and telling you that you are good when all it takes is a look around to see you are not even average. They are just trying to justify a bad decision they made to start with. This is the same situation with those styles that insist your grade is only good if it comes from the guy they support. Or the martial sport supporters who think kicking thin air or a bag grants them super powers.

Your club motto is ‘Traditional training for the serious student” & “Shi Ku Kai” can you further explain the philosophy behind these?

Yes; First of all “Traditional” training to me is the structured dojo set up with Kohai Senpai format throughout, also the discipline that goes with that type of structure. Traditional also means to me the constant seeking and research into the techniques and philosophy of Kata and Karate in general. Just practicing Kata and going through the techniques in constant repetition may make you a very proficient performer. However it is comparable to singer singing a song in a language that they don’t understand. It may sound nice but they have no idea what it means. Most true artists will research the music and lyric so they are familiar with the translations and every nuance of the language to give it its true meaning. Why would you not do that with Kata?

Shi- Ku Kai was a name that Sensei Yamaguchi gave to our dojo about 25 years ago. He was staying at my house at the time and was practicing calligraphy, in fact he was showing some of the students how the different characters meant different things, even though they sound the same. He then gave us the characters for Shi Ku Kai it s meaning is “dojo of high ambition or strong heart” We stayed with that till we became the CSKA honbu. But, a lot of people still refer to us by Shi-Ku-Kai and that’s OK with me.

You were recently appointed as the Chairman of the North American Technical Committee for AJKA-I. Can you tell us about this recent affiliation of the CSKA with Sensei Otis group and what opportunities you see it provides?

I have known Edmond Otis since 1990. He was Ray Dalke’s top student and his successor at university of California Riverside. When Ray went into semi retirement Ed took over the Martial Art faculty at UCR. He also took over as head of AJKA, the organization Ray founded after splitting with Nishiyama.

Ray Dalke was and still is a very good friend. I coached at his dojo, he coached at mine, and we attended each other’s summer camps. (I think I got the best of the deal) Anyway Ed was always there as well and we have carried on the tradition of cross training and visiting each other’s dojo. I greatly admired his technique and his dedication; I believe he is one of the great technicians of Shotokan around!

The AJKA with Edmond Otis as Chair and Leslie Saffar as Head instructor has undergone a lot of changes and expansion over the last few years. With sensei Saffar expanding into Hungary and Germany it has more of an international feel. The instructor program that Sensei Saffar introduced in Europe is now being introduced into North America; Sensei Otis has generously asked me to be a part of that and I accepted. Of course they also have a great depth of resource in Randy Hassel and James Yabe as well as all their own senior instructors, so I look on this as a great honour.

As for the advantages to CSKA AJKA affiliation, I believe we can all benefit from the pooled experience inherent in the merger. All senior instructors have an amazing knowledge pool and have all produced outstanding Karateka from their Dojos. We are all committed to promoting and spreading the traditional style of Shotokan we believe in.

Edmond Otis has this great quote I am always stealing.

There is nothing as good as good Shotokan; and there is nothing as bad, as bad Shotokan.

How very true! I have had people come to my dojo telling me they are Shotokan when I know for a fact that their chief instructor studied some other style all his life; how can he then instruct Shotokan?  Or worse still, some instructor with a self awarded 10 Dan who instructs so called family Karate selling belt grades. These same people expect to have the grade honoured when it is obvious they have been ripped off.

Can you provide us with a brief insight and commentary on the three areas of training?

Kihon:

Yes Kihon! Well, although Kihon means basics there is no simple or basic interpretation or explanation for this discipline. A student or instructor can never practice Kihon enough! I personally find Kihon the most challenging of all training disciplines. (Mainly because the body is changing as we age, different aspects come into play).

The study of fundamentals in Karate is always ongoing. We need to start with coordination; Moving the muscle groups in the right sequence, coordinating with breathing, and achieving maximum contraction of all groups at the same instant. (Kime)

This means practicing the technique using whole body movement and utilizing whole body power. This is more complicated than it sounds as different techniques utilize the body movement to provide power in different ways. Some techniques use momentum, some use rotation, some use a type of vibration and so on. All need to bring the body movement together at the right moment to provide the maximum transfer of kinetic energy to the target. As a novice these basic or Kihon practices will look large and regimented, eventually they will become automatic and power and smooth technique will look second nature. Providing you don’t stop training!

Kata:

I have seen and heard more arguments and discussions over Kata than any other single topic in martial arts. You have the “purists” who are convinced that Kata should never be changed and that any deviation from hand position or stance or even eye direction is a cardinal mistake or worse disrespect to the old masters. These are the people who know all the movements by number and can immediately demonstrate the exact position on the shout of “number 12 in heian nidan” or any other Kata. These are the Karateka I place on a shelf with the creationists who believe man didn’t evolve and that the earth is only 6 thousand years old.

Kata always was and is a great training tool. It is also a great teaching tool and has a lot more to show us than many students or instructors think. One of the great things it teaches is that nothing is cast in stone and everything changes. How can anyone who thinks creatively believe that these set sequences just appeared? So if they didn’t just appear why should they stay as rigid as they where in say 1947? And, did the JKA change any of these Kata?? Of course they did!

I prefer to subscribe to Patrick McCarthy’s views on Kata. He is well researched, has considered all objections and arguments that have been submitted, and has published his findings for all to read. No unsupported statements, no undocumented hearsay, and very concise and lucid conclusions. (I won’t plagiarize him as many do; so look him up.)

Kumite:

This is another good teaching tool. It teaches timing, distance and control (in theory).

A lot of Karate practitioners use competition Kumite as their end goal in training. This is fine as long as it is understood by both student and instructor that his is not the real self defense or life situation one is likely to encounter in the real world. Having accepted that; Kumite is an excellent method of practicing technique and strategy under various pressure situations.

However, I can’t stress enough how important attitude is to survival in a dangerous confrontation. That is where the second nature fundamentals that are taught in Kihon really prove their worth.

So which is more important of the three? Well that is like asking is the heart a more important organ than the brain or liver. Simple: you won’t survive without any of them.

Thank you Sensei