14 November 2022

An Interview with Rob Part 2

With many martial arts available today and traditional martial arts losing ground to the likes of MMA; your school, Zenshin Dojo, has 6 branches and over 100 members.  This is obviously a great testimony to your teaching methods and leadership. How long has the school been running, and how long did it take to build up to this level?

I started the club in 1992; it took nearly a decade to grow to a number which could financially support hall payments etc.  We’ve been members of various national and international organisations but sadly, in the end, political manoeuvring and the thirst for power by some, always seems to spoil the party and in 2010, I decided to become an independent club, free to practice what and how I wanted and more importantly be guided by who I chose to be guided and influenced by.

Since that time we have grown from strength to strength.  I’m not sure I’m unique, but I certainly don’t feel akin to the major karate styles.

With the rise of sport martial arts (MMA) and reality based martial arts (like Krav Maga), what you see as the future for the traditional martial arts?  And what do you think traditional martial arts can offer better than any other vehicle?

I don’t feel qualified to predict the future of “traditional” martial arts but believe the answer doesn’t lie in offering self defence practice or training. Referring to nature, Charles Darwin said “the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt to and adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself”. 

What can martial arts offer better than any other vehicle?  A lot, it can improve health, fitness (however described); teach mindfulness, the value of meditation.  It can provide a meaningful hobby a past time which has a social element.  The physicality of martial arts has a way of processing stress (although other exercise can also achieve this).  For me the overriding benefit lies in the philosophy.  It’s a metaphor for life.  In the end (and the more mature you are), you realise the destination is not as important as the journey.  This is what non sport martial arts offer better than any other activity.

I believe that Zenshin Dojo has a club katana, which is used for symbolic and ceremonial purposes.  Can you tell us about that please?

The Zenshin dojo katana, was bought on behalf of the club from a dealer in April 2004.  It represents a metaphor for the qualities required to achieve dan grade and therefore is not intended to be interpreted in the context of the samurai, combat, or “budo” arts.

The sword itself can be perceived as an object of grace and beauty, and yet it retains the ability to cause harm and injury. Like our art, it relies upon the integrity of the owner to use it without malice; honestly and honourably.    The blade, forged by a craftsman for countless hours, represents the labour; time, care and endeavour required to progress through the kyu grades thus demonstrating there are no short cuts to “forging” both sound character and good technique. The Samurai was never seen without the katana and so should this be for karate.  Recognising its value in all aspects of everyday life is what differentiates karate from other forms of physical activity.

The Zenshin dojo katana blade edge (ha), is sharp and remains hidden, sheathed in a plain undecorated scabbard (saya) it’s exposed only on rare occasions thus signifying that, like the karate ka, beneath the unpretentious façade exists a “cutting edge” capable of significant impact. 

The primary occasion for exposure of the Zenshin dojo katana blade is the acceptance of a new member into the “Yudansha-kai”.

The age of the weapon represents “history”, “a past” metaphoric of experience.  As a genuine antique it represents “an authentic article” and is thus symbolic of the meaningful nature of dan grade achievement and Yudansha.  More decorative swords can be purchased.  To the untrained eye they are pleasing and impressive; however they lack that certain something necessary to be “the real deal

Zenshin Dojo is not just a Karate School, it's a community in which I've been privileged enough to have been included a few times.  What do you consider to be the main factors behind building such a successful school and community?

If you visit our website the first words you’ll see are “People Centric Karate”.  I believe this is the difference between a club or organisation and a community.  In a nutshell people (members) are THE most important element and considerably more important than the actual karate itself.  This is profoundly different to most other clubs and groups I come across.  Valuing a person means much more than saying “well done” or congratulations.

Many teachers with such a big school would have gone professional and “lived the dream”!  Yet part of your ethos is that Zenshin Dojo should be a non-profit making organisation.  Did you ever and any point consider giving up the day-job and going professional?

Never.  The day I put profit before people and integrity, will be the day I hang up my belt.

You have quite a few international connections and as I understand it; sometimes you travel as a club to visit and train with them, sometimes you host them when they come to you.

Would you like to tell us about some of these connections and the places you've all been to?

Before my young children were born I was free and able to travel extensively across Europe, Finland, Canada and Japan even practising karate on the South Atlantic island of St Helena and in Bangladesh.  I value those I have met and do my best to remain in contact with them but my opportunity and time now, is more limited.

We do invite friends to visit and have enjoyed weekends of practice at Zenshin dojo with French, Portuguese, Canadian, Italian and of course Japanese instructors.  We have hosted two International Gasshuku.  But I’m sure your other readers will have similar experiences.  I don’t feel I have had a particularly impressive journey, perhaps a lucky one, but not that much different from others.

Zenshin Dojo also regularly donates quite substantial sums of money to charity, some of then being martial arts based.  Can you tell us about some of those charities, what they do and why they were important to you?

As a non profit making group we feel it’s important to support charities where ever possible.  Twenty years ago we focussed on local, smaller Bristol based community charities, later we moved to raise funds for the IKKAIDO organisation a group engaged in tremendous work bringing martial arts to the disabled under the guidance of Ray Sweeney.  More recently we have concentrated our efforts in support of Fairfight a small charity dedicated to empowering underprivileged children in India.  More specifically we help fund Mary Stevens an impressive karate ka from Oxford as she gives her time and energy helping the children in person.

Why do we do it?  Why is it important? Because it is.

Your wife Kate, also a senior grade Karateka, runs the children's section with KEBBA (Kate Easdale Black Belt Academy).  Apart from teaching what is age appropriate, is KEBBA run pretty much in parallel with Zenshin Dojo?  Are Zenshin Dojo and KEBBA separate organisations or are they fully integrated?

Kate’s junior club KEBBA was established in 1999 and has proved to be very successful with a current membership in the region of 150 children.  I was a 2nd dan in 1993 when Kate began her karate journey in my club.  Therefore, naturally her karate and my karate are as one, but KEBBA is an entirely separate and distinct organisation  There is no integration with Zenshin dojo beyond the fact parents sometimes join Zenshin dojo and occasionally one of our seniors will help Kate run a class.

 Are any of your own children interested in following on in yours and Kate's footsteps?

Sadly not, only one of our 9 year old triplets does practice, the other 3 prefer their tablets to a gi! My older daughter, now an adult living in London did grade to 2nd kyu but then flew the nest.

You also have a ladies only section, which is quite rare these days.  How did this come about, and does it make much difference to the ladies to have their own separate section? Some people say that if woman want to learn to defend themselves against men, they should train with men; how would you answer this?

I find the argument “if woman want to learn to defend themselves against men, they should train with men” one dimensional and superficial.  We’re back to this “self defence” question again.

The first thing to acknowledge is not all women (or men ) are looking for “self defence” classes and I refer you to my answer of question 6.  Many people join for, regular exercise, to lose weight, for fun, to meet new people with similar interests etc etc.

If you view karate practice only through the prism of “self defence” then, in my humble opinion, it loses its appeal to, and alienates, a large section of the adult population.  I believe regular practice offers profound benefits to the average person and therefore should be available and attractive to all.

What about Muslim ladies?  We are lucky to count several as members.  Adherence to their faith means they are not free to touch another man.  Should karate not offer them somewhere to exercise, thrive, grow and develop?

In my experience many ladies feel intimidated and lack confidence.  If I want to improve their confidence then the first thing I need to do is get them through the door.  I respectfully suggest the usual kind of karate advertising emphasising macho qualities of power, strength, speed, high kicks etc will not appeal to the average, slightly overweight 38 year old mum who has not exercised since leaving school.  So what can karate offer her?  Why learn karate?  Because with help, support and guidance, this hypothetical lady can overcome physical challenges which she would never have dreamed herself capable of doing and by making progress her confidence and self esteem all improve.

The ladies group is very popular.  They seem to thrive in a mutually supportive environment where they work out without fear of judgement or feelings of inadequacy.

To answer your question directly, our policy is always based upon pace and lead, in other words we gently introduce the ladies to a comfortable karate environment but encourage them to integrate with the men, when they are ready.

We talked once about internal power, utilising the fascial systems in the body (rather than using chi/ki energy as so many others talk about).  I personally believe that chi/ki (internal energy) is good for health and well being, but is quite different to the internal power used in martial arts.  What is your understanding on the subject, how important do you think it is to martial arts and who was your primary teacher(s)?

For me the engagement of the fascia is of paramount importance and it is present in every aspect of my karate.  The term Zenshin, translates to whole body and the fascia is the physical manifestation of “whole body”.  The Yutenkai practices all engage fascia and I believe Harada sensei also recognised its value but somehow it was lost in translation to his students.

Years ago I studied qigong during an intensive three year instructor’s programme and it completely opened my eyes to “qi”.  I also began shiatsu training which incorporated traditional Chinese medicine until my children came along and I had to stop!

In my experience many Europeans have a very poor understanding of “qi” when compared to the Chinese.  There are all kinds of “qi”, it’s not a mystical, mythical thing it’s real but not in the way some martial arts guru’s or “Masters” would have us believe.  In the context of your question we’re back to the water and garden hose analogy again.  It’s a huge subject and one which I find fascinating but too big to convey here.

Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang is the only person I have ever seen, in person, on TV or the internet, who has developed formidable internal power, it’s real and mind blowing but that level of skill and understanding is beyond me and I humbly suggest many others. Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang’s student Karel Koskuba was my teacher but even Karel was unable to replicate Chen’s ability.

If I had my life over again I would study Yiquan, an internal martial art which blows my mind but takes decades of dedicated to offer any meaningful value in terms of self defence.  A Shotokai 5th dan friend with a dojo in Paris has combined his karate with Yiquan training and he’s very impressive.

You've attained your 5th Dan, which (correct me if I'm wrong) I believe is the highest grade in Shotokai Karate.  You've also trained a lot of people up to black belt, quite a few up to senior black belt and have probably the largest martial arts school in Bristol (which is quite big).  That's a number of great achievements for anybody.  But what do you personally regard as your single proudest moment in your Karate career?

Hosting an international Gasshuku in Bristol attended by 140+ persons from11 different countries.  The bringing together of so many friends under one roof was truly magical.

You obviously have a lot of knowledge from a lot of different sources, have you ever considered teaching seminars outside of the Zenshin Dojo schools?

No. To be honest I don’t think my views and practice methods would have much appeal in the conventional karate community.

And probably the most important question of all, what do you feel that spending most of your life in Karate has given you as a person?  What differences has it made to your life spiritually, intellectually, health, friendships and in terms of personal development?

I’m defined by karate philosophy, it’s provided me with a “path” to follow, an understanding of me and an appreciation of others.  It’s also helped me with relationships both personal, professional and incidental.  And finally exercise, a “match fitness” which only comes with regular practice not to be confused with athletic prowess, stamina or flexibility.

What are your plans for your own future training?  Are they any big names you haven't trained with yet who you'd like to; and what direction do you see Zenshin Dojo going in?

I’m happy where I am in my journey, I continue to enjoy coaching, teaching and practising basics also interacting with Koryu Uchinadi and Yutenkai practitioners.  Frankly time is precious and my children always trump any personal karate aspirations I may have.

At some point, we all have to retire (by choice or otherwise).  Do you feel that you have good people in place to take over the running of Zenshin Dojo?

This is a matter we are currently wrestling with.  My goal is to sustain Zenshin dojo as a functioning entity long after my death.  It’s a goal that relies on other people and a developed culture.   We’re not there yet but I have some truly wonderful colleagues and together we are working hard to future proof Zenshin dojo.

06 November 2022

An interview with Rob

The following is a transcript of an interview given by Rob to Charlie Wildish, 5th dan karate instructor and Chief instructor at the "Holistic Karate" martial arts club.

Part 1

Rob, was Shotokai Karate your first martial art, or did you try anything else first before settling with Shotokai?

I confess, apart from feeling in awe of Kwai Chang Caine, star of the 70’s Kung Fu TV series, I had zero interest in learning martial arts.  I began because I was a community beat police officer on a rough council estate and wanted to get to know some of the local yobs… I mean young men!  Several of these lads trained at the local Shotokan dojo so I joined.  Therefore my first taste of martial art was through the practice of Shotokan.

Who were your first teachers and how did they influence the young Rob Jones?

I can’t remember the name of the Shotokan “sensei” I met.  But my first real teacher was a man called Adrian Baker (see below) and also Mitsuske Harada sensei.  Both brought wisdom and martial philosophy to my table and opened my eyes to what could be achieved and the wider context.

It’s perhaps worth noting that Mitsuske Harada sensei considers himself to be a teacher of orthodox shotokan

Although you've adapted along the way, is it fair to say that Shotokai is still at the base of what you teach with other influences added on?  And what was it about Shotokai that appealed to you to want to commit so much of your martial arts journey to it?

I  remember the actual moment vividly.  My friend who had introduced me to Shotokan was a large man and physically strong, a 1st kyu Shotokan karate-ka.  There had been some disagreements with the way our club was being run (at that time by a husband and wife combo).  Consequently my 1st kyu friend had, in the course of his employment, met a man called Adrian Baker quite by chance.  At the time Adrian was a 3rd dan practising under the tuition of Mitsusuke Harada sensei.  My friend invited Adrian to our club one evening. During the session Adrian asked to accept my friends punch.  This was not an uncommon practice within the Shotokai world.  Accepting an attack is a core skill.  On this occasion my friend hit Adrian, oi-zuki chudan with as much strength as he could muster.  Adrian was knocked a little but there was no profound effect.  Then the roles were reversed and Adrian hit my friend with a chudan oi-zuki.  This time there was a profound effect as my friend struggled to breathe and fell to the floor.

I’m not a particularly big or muscular man and neither is Adrian. However our Shotokan man was / is and I remember thinking “I want to punch like that”!  And so the seed was sewn and I joined Adrian’s club. For me I was intrigued by the explosive energy created and delivered in a “relaxed” way.  I don’t want to be muscle bound, I don’t want a suit of armour, I prefer to be able to run if I can.

In my experience most can’t make the connection, or perhaps don’t understand or believe how words like, “soft” and “relaxed body” and sensitive”, fit with the common perception of “strength” and “physical power”, which I believe is why Shotokai is not as popular as the more established karate schools.   The best metaphor I can quote is that of a garden hose pipe.  With no water running through, it is limp and flaccid but turn a jet of water on and it becomes immensely powerful and unless focussed on a target, it can have a mind of its own. 

So my journey is twofold, to remove tension and stress so that my garden hose is soft and supple and develop and create energy (high pressure water).  The intriguing search for this yin and yang contrast is why it appealed and sustains my interest over nearly 40 years.

I know from talking to you, that you longer describe yourself and your school as Shotokai, as you've had a number of influences from other teachers.  I believe the main non-Shotokai influences comes from Patrick McCarthy and his Koryu Uchindi.  Can you tell us how this come about and how it has influenced your approach to teaching and training?

Actually I have two major influences.  The first, are the Japanese Yutenkai group.  Their seniors, many of whom I am lucky enough to call friends, were all students of Shigeru Egami sensei, a man probably known to most Shotokan scholars as a key student of Funakoshi sensei. 

25 years ago there was significant political and practice differences between many very senior members of the Shotokai and the Shotokai Hombu dojo in Tokyo, resulting in the formation of the Yuten (Egami pen name) kai.  It is out of respect for the Yuten-kai that I no longer use the term Shoto-kai.

I first met them 15 years ago through a mutual friend in Italy.  Since that time I have practised in Japan, Italy and here in UK with Yutenkai masters and 5th dan instructors.  One 5th dan master in particular Isao Ariga sensei was probably the man I admired the most.  If I had a role model it would be him.  Sadly he has passed away and faced a premature death with immense dignity and courage.  I remain in contact with his widow and make a point of paying my respects to his memory when in Japan.

I was also introduced to McCarthy Hanshi through another Italian friend.   On our first meeting we enjoyed good times both on and off the dojo and I am also honoured to call Hanshi my friend.  I try to meet with him at least once a year either in UK or more often, in Italy.  He’s an impressive man whose karate knowledge and experience is as deep and extensive as any.  I like what he does and the explanations underpinning them, and have adopted some of his practices into the syllabus of my group.   I’m also impressed by the manner he conducts himself and the way he leads and manages a worldwide karate movement with a huge following.

Are there any other teachers who have had an influence on you and your approach to martial arts?  And if so, what were those influences?

My personal practice and philosophy is also influenced by the two most impressive martial artists I have ever had the good fortune to practice with and be taught by, Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang and his student Karel Koskuba.  Both men, but particularly Karel, are understated and unbelievably inspiring. Their skill is matched only by their humility and willingness to give their time to others.

Finally I am fond of Iain Abernethy.  His karate knowledge and application is great but moreover I am drawn to him as a man.  I feel he and I are, in many ways, more similar than it appears on the surface.

Having absorbed these influences, how would you describe your teaching today and what makes you unique from most others?

I was a frontline police officer and detective for 32 years.  I have formed opinions based upon those experiences.  People seem reluctant to acknowledge, but the fact is the chances of encountering personal physical violence, for the majority of people, is very low.  Of course some people do sadly fall victim, but if you remove what Iain Abernethy refers to as consensual fighting i.e. usually young men brawling; people who become vulnerable through the effects of excess  alcohol, and discount domestic violence victims from the equation, you’re left with a large portion of the population.  These people are unlikely to ever find themselves facing violence and therefore martial art appears to offer little value because they don’t feel in need of “self defence”.

Zenshin dojo focuses on defence from self, good, natural posture, efficient use of the body structure and encouraging all manner of skills, abilities, qualities and behaviours that are valuable in everyday life and transferrable to modern living.  It’s a far more holistic approach to well being.

Learning how to stay calm under pressure, non reliance on power and domination, sensitivity, discipline and motivation are all key elements.  Of course I teach technique, kata application etc, but these do not really interest me as much as time spent finding ways to improve and develop the yin and yang contrast, I mentioned earlier.  I have “used” my karate training several times throughout my police career but in a way people never expect or truly understand.

I read on one of your websites once, (though I can't find it now) that you are sometimes referred to as “the friendly Sensei”.  I title that you seemed a little bit embarrassed about.  Having trained with you and your club a couple of times, I can say that's a fair description and that your whole club has a well ingrained ethos of friendliness to others. 

With so many other martial arts classes being very formal and almost militaristic in format, was this a deliberate approach by you, or just your own natural personality shining through? 

Yes.  I have adult teaching qualifications to degree level and one thing accepted as fact in post compulsory education teaching is adults learn best a) in a relaxed environment; b) adults don’t appreciate their behaviour being judged, c) adults learn best by problem solving.  It’s my belief that the formal militaristic classes do not and will not attract the majority of adults.  Of course they will appeal to some but the appeal of that kind of training will tend to attract younger people into the dojo, although I appreciate there are always exceptions and it’s easy to be too simplistic.

I’ve spent my entire police career employed within a quasi military, certainly disciplined and hierarchal organisation.  In my experience, the best “leaders” are those who support, value and guide rather than barking commands.  Encouraging people to do difficult challenging things because they want to, not because they are complying with an order! 

 The instructor at the Shotokan club I first attended was the formal, militaristic type, as a young novice I once asked him why it was important to perform a particular exercise. “Because I said so” he bellowed. I did what he asked but lost immediate respect for him and his teaching.  Others may like that style, I did not!

I end this answer by controversially stating I’m English, not Japanese and I have no desire to be Japanese despite visiting the country several times and having numerous Japanese friends whom I care deeply about.  I like their culture and traditions, but I’m not Japanese.  Of course we have some (although not much) formality and we acknowledge the heritage of karate through the teachings of Funakoshi sensei etc, but I sense many clubs are “formal” for “Formality” sake.  There is a romantic narrative of the Samurai, Shogun, bushido and all that goes with it, I know this is immensely appealing, but not to me.

03 October 2022

The Yudansha meal

Zenshin dojo operates a traditional hierarchical structure with members split into two basic groups, the first, Kyu (pronounced Q), and the second, Dan.  The terminology has its roots in the popular strategy board game, Go.  Centuries ago players would be ranked according to their experience and skill.  Confusingly the more junior the player in terms of experience, the numerically higher their kyu grade, in other words first kyu was the highest rank.  Conversely the ranking of senior players, dans, numerically were numbered in a manner more easily understood i.e. one being the lowest.

In a martial arts context and in particular within the karate world, the kyu and dan approach to grading is ubiquitous. The coloured belt (obi) rankings often differ, but generally, the most junior rank within the majority of karate groups, is either sixth, seventh or eighth kyu.  Zenshin dojo ranks begin at “Novice” which equates to seventh kyu, although this title is never used.  Red belt is the first grade i.e. sixth kyu.

Kyu grade practitioners are known collectively as “Mudansha” meaning those without dan!

Zenshin dojo tries to walk the fine line between respecting and understanding the traditions and heritage of karate-do, without becoming so immersed in the formality of Japanese etiquette so often seen in other karate clubs, sometimes to the point of obsession. 

For many karate groups dan grades can go as high as tenth dan. The problem is that for most people, particularly from western cultures, it’s easy to believe a tenth dan must be “better” than a ninth dan.  In reality it just doesn’t work that way.  Dan ranks can be awarded for administrative or honorary reasons; these have nothing to do with karate skill or prowess.   Furthermore Karate is an unregulated, diverse industry so comparisons are almost impossible.  One group’s tenth dan may be another group’s third dan etc.  For example, American “Great Grandmaster Fred Villari” is a fifteenth dan.  His website extols he is “the highest rank one can attain in a martial art.” At the risk of sounding disrespectful his exalted grade may be more of a commercial lure than evidence of his karate competence.  By contrast, Gichin Funakoshi the Okinawan man widely accepted as first introducing karate to Japan was, after a lifetime of practice, a mere fifth dan.  This brings us nicely to the Zenshin dojo dan grade ranking.

Funakoshi Sensei
Rob first practiced the “Shotokai” style (see previous blog) with Mitsusuke Harada sensei.  Harada, in common with every other practitioner from that particular lineage, remained a fifth dan until the day he died having been awarded the rank in 1956!  Consequently the Zenshin dojo dan grades rank from one to five only.

The collective name for dan grade practitioners in “Yudansha”.

In 2005, the very first meal for Yudansha  took place.  It was an opportunity for those most senior Zenshin dojo members to meet, eat, drink and generally enjoy each other’s company in a formal yet relaxed environment. It was also an occasion for Rob to recognise and celebrate individual achievements and present awards.  From that time the Yudansha-kai, (Association of black belts) was formed.



Since then the Yudansha meal has become an established annual Zenshin dojo tradition, missed only once in 2020 as a result of the global pandemic.  Occasionally guests are invited, but essentially the evening bonds black belt members together as a community within a community expressly dedicated to the future preservation and long-term growth of the club.










30 August 2022

People Centric Karate

 Zenshin dojo is a “People Centric Karate” club.  But what does that mean?

In my forty years of karate experiences I’ve travelled the world, practised with many groups, sampled different styles and disciplines and met some amazing teachers and practitioners.  In the course of my travels I've come to the conclusion karate clubs or organisations tend to be fall into one of two categories.

The first I would label "Karate Centric", groups where the central focus is on the karate itself.  I compare this particular genre, metaphorically, to a fitness centre or gym.  The gym owners provide all the necessary equipment for their members to keep fit.  There are staff on hand to help gain the most from particular exercises and there is real benefit from regular attendance.  However the gym centre staff are not personal trainers their role is one of general facilitation rather than bespoke guidance.  If the gym folds the members find another gym and carry on as before.

The second category I've called "Personality Centric". This type of club or organisation are personality driven, that is to say they revolve around an individual. This person is generally a high grade, a “Master”, often opinionated and can be guilty of being blinkered to alternative views. In the worst of cases the phrase “my way or the highway” comes to mind. For groups like this, all too often when the “master” leaves, retires or dies a power vacuum is created causing internal political division and ultimate disintegration of the organisation or club.

To be honest, over the years, I’ve experienced both genres.  However, I assert Zenshin dojo falls outside the two categories.  I should add that neither are wrong or incapable of providing excellent karate tuition, nevertheless I find the distinction interesting but neither very appealing.

Some years ago, following an Iain Abernethy seminar, two young men from differing karate styles and clubs approached me.  I’d never met either before.  They explained that they had attended many such seminars in all parts of the country but found the Zenshin dojo environment unusually warm and welcoming. Their comments got me thinking.

The sun radiates light and heat which enables life on Earth to be possible.  Its warmth nurtures, allowing all living things to grow and develop.  It could be argued that in the aforementioned categories either the karate or the master are the metaphoric sun.  But for Zenshin dojo it’s the members who are central to the existence of life.

Taking the metaphor a stage further, various academics have been quoted as saying “the relaxation we feel when we sit by an open fire can be traced back to our ancient ancestors who saw flames as essential to safety, survival and socialising”. I’m sure we can all agree that on a cold winter's evening there are few things more inviting than a roaring fireplace. The flickering flames draw us in and capture our attention.

The Zenshin dojo “fire” was lit in 1992. Like all fires it needs constant maintenance to prevent the flames from dying. A regular supply of combustible material has to be gathered, stored and added to keep the fire burning brightly. But who gathers the wood?

For many years I have been the primary source and in the past couple of decades that responsibility has been shared with the Instructors and club seniors who are all committed to keeping the fire alive. But here we return to our “People Centric Karate” maxim for it is our members who by their attendance truly keep the fire healthy, bright and burning. Their individual contribution may be perceived as relatively small, nonetheless even the smallest sliver helps and without it the flame dies.

So please remember, every time you attend a class, residential weekend, dojo practice, or social event, you are helping the collective keep the flame eternal thus allowing us all to benefit from the warmth and nourishment our club "fire" provides.

01 February 2022

The Evolution of Zenshin dojo


This article shouldn’t be seen as a definitive commentary of karate’s history.  Rather it seeks to simply track karate’s evolution from Okinawa to Zenshin dojo, thus providing a basic understanding of the origins of Zenshin dojo practices and in so doing offer context to Zenshin dojo members.

Many scholars believe the genesis of karate can be traced from India, through China and beyond via trade routes and migration.  It is widely accepted a man called Funakoshi Gichin, introduced karate developed in Okinawa to mainland Japan.  Arguably there were others but this article focuses on the Funakoshi legacy.

Culturally, some  individuals would be referred to by a pseudonym or pen name.  This tradition becomes significant in the context of our story.

Funakoshi’s pen name was 'Shoto' which roughly translates to pine waves, an apparent poetic reference to the Okinawan winds gently blowing through the pine trees.

If someone wanted to learn karate from Funakoshi they would visit him at the hall, known as 'kan', where he taught. Therefore if a person practised with Funakoshi they would be members of "Shoto’s kan."

Although Funakoshi was an impressive advocate of his art, karate was perceived by many as a Chinese fighting system at a time when relations between the two countries were not great. Consequently, Funakoshi initiated subtle alterations with a view to making the discipline more acceptable to a Japanese audience, however it didn’t really take hold until Japan geared up for the Sino-Japanese War.  Karate, particularly kihon, lent itself well to military training and karate practices were accepted as an excellent way of improving the physical condition of young men.  It had also taken root in the Japanese University culture which is believed to be the birth of competition based sport karate. 

When Japan surrendered to the Americans thus ending the war, Tokyo was awash with American GI’s attracted to the martial arts, as a result some cross fertilisation took place.

According to his own account, Manchurian born Mitsusuke Harada, joined Shoto’s kan around this time.  By then Funakoshi was an old man and in April 1957 he died. 

Following his death, there was a dispute relating to his funeral arrangements.  The Japanese Karate Association (JKA) had been created and felt it was their responsibility to organise the funeral, however, some believed the JKA had moved away from the original concepts and philosophy so important to Funakoshi, consequently those who chose a different path from the JKA, notably Funakoshi’s uchi-deshi, Shigeru Egami, supported by Funakoshi’s family and friends, formed a separate alliance collectively known as the Shoto-kai (Association of Shoto).

Egami and Harada
Harada had become close to Egami and legend has it the two trained constantly together for a whole year, however, by the time of Funakoshi’s death, Harada, who worked for an international bank, had been posted to Brazil by his employers.     

Unsurprisingly, Harada wanted to introduce Funakoshi's karate to a South American audience and therefore was awarded the rank of 5th dan.

In February 1963, Harada was invited to teach at a dojo in Paris.  Initially he planned on staying for a year, but he experienced immigration problems and a personality clash with another Japanese instructor.  

At some point in time, a Shotokan practitioner called Tetsuji Murakami met and trained with Egami sensei.   Murakami was so impressed by Egami’s approach to karate practice he effectively converted to the Shotokai style.  Accordingly, by the time of Harada’s arrival in France, Murakami had already established himself as an important karate figure on the continent.   


It’s clear that Harada and Murakami did not get on and there were significant and profound differences in their approaches and interpretations of Egami’s teachings.  What exactly happened is difficult to pin down, but whatever the reasons, Harada moved to UK and Murakami remained a European karate leader primarily based in France but with an ever expanding organisation across Europe.

Harada settled in Cwmbran, Wales, and formed the Karate Do Shotokai (KDS).  His innovative and original practices were exciting and engaging. Consequently the KDS grew in popularity throughout England, Scotland and Wales.

In early 1984, Rob Jones, founder of Zenshin dojo, began practising karate in Pill where he was the resident community police officer.   He was keen to get to know some troublesome teenagers who frequented the local youth club and subsequently joined the karate club there.

Even as a beginner, he felt the club’s style, a derivative of Shotokan, was poor, the techniques unnecessarily rigid and the general environment unappealing.  Luckily, by chance, he was introduced to a 2nd dan practitioner, a student of Harada and member of the Karate Do Shotokai.  So impressed was Rob that he immediately committed himself to Harada’s teachings through the guidance of his teacher.

By the end of the 1980’s Harada’s group began to fracture.  The fault line lay between Harada and two of his highest, most respected grades, Billy Haggerty and Colin Reeve.  Matters couldn’t be reconciled and in due course Haggerty and Reeve left the KDS to begin their own organisation called The Shotokai Foundation.  Haggerty was particularly popular in Scotland; Reeve was based in the south of England.  As a consequence of the breakup, many Scottish clubs and a considerable number of English clubs aligned themselves with Haggerty and Reeve.

Rob with Billy Haggerty

Colin Reeve
Rob followed his instructor Adrian Baker and became a member of the Shotokai Foundation.  Things seemed to be going well.  Rob was awarded his first dan in 1992, and opened his own club in Keynsham.  However, it became increasingly obvious that Haggerty and Reeve offered competing karate perspectives.  
There couldn’t be two 'Kings', consequently, for whatever reason, in 1993 Haggerty left and created a new group based in Glasgow called Shoto Budo.  

The Shotokai Foundation continued for several more years before Reeve decided to leave and start his own group called the Shotokai College. The void created by Reeve’s departure was filled by a small group of seniors all of whom had reached the grade of 5th dan.  But by the early 2000’s it was evident there were “too many cooks” and ego’s were beginning to clash.  

Things came to a head in 2002.  With emotions running high the manifest differences between all concerned couldn’t be reconciled so the Shotokai Foundation once again fractured and yet another karate organisation, Shin Do Shotokai, was born.

By this time Rob had reached the rank of 4th dan and was instrumental in the day to day administration of the new group.  His Keynsham club had attracted a healthy membership, but with additional venues outside Keynsham, the club had geographically outgrown its name.  Subsequently, in 2004 a new name was chosen, Zenshin dojo.

Rob’s desire to broaden his karate experience and knowledge blossomed in 2000.  During a working visit to Lyon France, he visited a French Shotokai club.  Despite the warm cordial welcome, differences in technique, basic shapes and practices were immediately apparent.  It transpired the Lyon group were members of  Karate Do Shotokai Europe, an organisation directly descended from Tetsuji Murakami.  

Murakami had died in 1987 leaving no single successor. As a result, there were many independent European Shotokai karate groups whose lineage could be traced back to him.  

Friendship overcame Shotokai karate practice differences and in 2003 Rob was invited to attend the first ever "Shotokai International Meeting", in Almada, Portugal.

The organisers recognised how fragmented the Shotokai 'style' had become and hoped to bring the diverse groups from around the globe together, to talk, share knowledge, promote understanding and in so doing bring some consistency to Shotokai practices.  

Rob receiving a gift from the Portuguese organisers

The conference, although well attended by over 80 delegates from across most European nations and as far away as Argentina and Mexico, was dominated by practitioners of the Murakami school of Shotokai.  Despite receiving an invitation, Harada sensei had refused to participate or send a representative which resulted in the fact Rob was the only delegate who had ever experienced his teachings. 

Rob's friendship with the French and appearance at the Shotokai International Meeting opened many doors.  In the following years he accepted invitations to practice with groups across Europe, notably in Portugal, France, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy.   His ever growing network and exposure to different practices and opinions provided an unfortunate contrast to the karate practised by Shin Do Shotokai. 

The Zenshin dojo team with Keisuke Nakagawa and Koibuchi sensei

A particularly close relationship with Italian, Marco Forti resulted in a 2005 visit to Cesena, Italy and  a subsequent invitation to participate  in an autumn Gasshuku in Fontanellato.  

Unfortunately for Rob, the dates clashed with a wedding commitment, however he felt it important for Zenshin dojo to be represented at the event because it offered an opportunity to meet and practice with several Japanese karate masters who had been direct students of Egami sensei.  

These inspiring, humble, friendly men were members of a Japan wide organisation called the Yuten-kai, (Association of Egami).

Rob with Enzo Cellini and Yutenkai masters Pisa 2007

It transpired that three Yutenkai masters from the Fujitsu dojo, each year, routinely shared their knowledge, experience and teaching at a karate camp held on a Mediterranean beach just outside Pisa.  Their host, 5th dan senior karate-ka Enzo Cellini, was friends with Marco Forti and through that connection Rob was invited to attend the 2007 Pisa event.  

Marco Forti, Rob, Enzo Cellini

From then on friendships grew.  Rob and other Zenshin members became regular attendees at the Pisa camp, each year guided by the Yutenkai masters and supported by their increasingly friendly Italian peers.

Sadly, the Shin Do Shotokai, “Technical Directors”, Alan Neish and Stephen Gilmour, were becoming increasing unhappy with Rob’s experiences in the wider karate world.  They certainly didn’t share his open mindedness or willingness to explore new perspectives. Despite his sincere commitment to continue helping and supporting Shin Do Shotokai, Rob became increasingly marginalised and a rift developed between him and Gilmour.  

In 2009, Shin Do Shotokai collapsed; the organisation was dissolved with the remaining funds divided equally between the five 5th dans.  From that moment on Zenshin dojo became an independent club, not affiliated to any association or group.  

Later that year, seven Zenshin dojo members and a large contingent of Italian friends visited Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and attended a karate camp in sight of Mt Fuji hosted by the Yutenkai masters.

The Zenshin dojo group in front Mt Fuji
Zenshin dojo group performing the kata Meikyo

During their stay, respects were paid at the grave of Egami sensei and Funakoshi sensei .

Rob at Egami sensei's grave

Zoe at Funakoshi sensei's grave

In 2010, Zenshin dojo organised an International karate gathering, (Gasshuku), in Bristol.  The practice weekend at the University of the West of England, attracted over 150 karate practitioners from seven different countries and was led by three Yutenkai masters supported by six other experienced Yutenkai members.

Ariga sensei leading the Gasshuku

Koibuchi sensei, Rob, Ariga sensei and Nakano sensei

By this time Marco Forti had become disillusioned with Shotokai karate.  Consequently he became a student of Hanshi Patrick McCarthy an internationally recognised karate pioneer and academic.  McCarthy has authored many books relating to karate and the Okinawan martial arts, most notably the 'Bubishi' a classic text, known as the “bible of karate” by many eminent practitioners.  Marco soon adopted McCarthy’s innovative approach and training methods and became a student of Koryu Uchinadi Kenpo-jutsu, a modern interpretation of Okinawa’s historic fighting arts.

Rob with Patrick McCarthy

In 2012, on a visit to Italy, Rob attended a Koryu Uchinadi Kenpo-jutsu seminar and met Patrick McCarthy.   From then their relationship developed and Rob attended Koryu Uchinadi seminars led by McCarthy either in Italy or in UK every year until the pandemic.

Zenshin dojo has adopted a small selection of the Koryu Uchinadi Kenpo-jutsu practices which add balance and something a little different to the overall Zenshin dojo syllabus.

History, and Rob’s personal karate journey, has inevitably influenced and shaped the Zenshin dojo curriculum.  Consequently, Zenshin dojo is a non style based independent club offering a blend of Shotokai karate as developed by Mitsuske Harada sensei; Egami ryu as taught by the Japanese Yutenkai group, and Hanshi Patrick McCarthy’s Koryu Uchinadi Kenpo-jutsu.

24 September 2019

1st Kyu (Brown belt) Welsh Retreat

The weekend retreat in Wales was the first for the Zenshin dojo 1st kyu (brown belt) group.  After navigating enforced traffic delays, including the South Wales rush hour, accidents and roadworks, eventually eight members, drawn from across Zenshin dojo, sat together to enjoy excellent food prepared by Lucy.    The idea of the retreat is to bring people together, allowing them to mix and
mingle in a way ordinarily difficult during the weekly practice schedule.
 It doubles as an intensive karate experience and socially enjoyable get together.  Lucy had pre-prepared an excellent chilli; one veggie, one meat, and all the trimmings.  After supper, the group moved outside to the decking area adjacent to woodland and, in the cool evening air, drank, joked and conversed with each other whilst sitting comfortably around a blazing fire pit.

The next morning, after breakfast and posing for a pre practice photo, the group drove the short distance to LLanstefan beach.  The weather was amazing.  The sun shone, the big sky was clear blue, the rolling Welsh hills green and picturesque.  The otherwise deserted beach was a vast open space of golden sand ranging from talc like softness to a yielding firmness.
Practice began immediately with a run to the water line and back before lining up for kihon.  The kihon practice, although simple and basic, enjoyed a magical quality.  The group were encouraged to take advantage of their spacious, open and glorious surroundings, keeping their vision up and out as they moved slowly and methodically back and forth for a considerable distance.  The gang then adjourned to the water’s edge where the group experienced kiba dachi and shiko dachi, rooting themselves to the ground to prevent being blown over by the significantly strong, warm wind racing across the water.  It was as if nature itself was testing their stances.
Later, the group worked their Heian katas and were introduced to the conceptual “circle of excellence”, designed to encourage and improve their understanding of mushin and zanshin.  From Heian they progressed to Bassai Dai, the traditional 1st kyu to 1st dan kata.  Much work needed to be done and the group separated into pairs, working with each other, feeding back and discussing techniques.
Lunch back at the Lodge was provided by Gemma and Bev; a simple but delicious selection of salad, condiments, bread, quiche and cold meats.  Ninety minutes later everyone was back on the beach, thrown head first into fast Sanbon, Ippon, jyu Ippon and jyu kumite.  It was a tough session, but the time available allowed Rob to explain in detail the fundamentals of kumite, its nuances and what was expected.  The group rose to the challenge and after much practice the intensity of engagement and overall understanding grew to a more advanced level.

After a short water break, it was the turn of Tekki drills from the “clinch”.  Unfamiliar for some and a refresher for others.  After explaining these exercises were a form of kumite, but often interpreted as more obvious self defence techniques, as opposed to the more profound skills and qualities found in the previous kumite practice, Rob took the opportunity to place Emily under considerable pressure by organising a mock “clinch” assessment.  Her seven assailants lined up in front of her and attacked with right hooks as Emily defended herself with vigour and searched for the presence of mind to deliver effective responses.

As the clouds began to gather the group moved to the water’s edge for final Bassai Dai practice.  First in groups, then solo, then finally in the cold, River Towy water.

08 September 2019

The Zenshin Dojo Katana

Wikipedia describes the katana as historically one of the traditionally made Japanese swords used by the samurai of ancient and feudal Japan.  The katana is characterised by its distinctive appearance: a curved, single-edged blade with a circular or squared guard, and long grip to accommodate two hands.

The Zenshin dojo katana, was bought on behalf of the club from a dealer in April 2004.  It represents a metaphor for the qualities required to achieve dan grade (black belt), and therefore is not intended to be interpreted in the context of the samurai, combat, or “budo” arts.

The sword itself can be perceived as an object of grace and beauty, and yet it retains the ability to cause harm and injury. Like our art, it relies upon the integrity of the owner to use it without malice; honestly and honourably.    The blade, forged by a craftsman for countless hours, represents the labour; time, care and endeavour required to progress through the kyu grades thus demonstrating there are no short cuts to “forging” both sound character and good technique. The Samurai was never seen without the katana and so should this be for karate.  Recognising its value in all aspects of everyday life is what differentiates karate from other forms of physical activity.

The Zenshin dojo katana blade edge (ha), is sharp and remains hidden, sheathed in a plain undecorated scabbard (saya) it’s exposed only on rare occasions thus signifying that, like the karate ka, beneath the unpretentious façade exists a “cutting edge” capable of significant impact.  The primary occasion for exposure of the blade is the acceptance of a new member into the “Yudansha-kai”, (black belt association).

The age of the weapon represents “history”, “a past” metaphoric of experience.  As a genuine antique it represents “an authentic article” and is thus symbolic of the meaningful nature of dan grade achievement and Yudansha.  More decorative swords can be purchased.  To the untrained eye they are pleasing and impressive, however they lack that certain something necessary to be “the real deal”

The signature on the tang (that portion of a sword that is hidden by the handle), is authentic, engraved by the master smith Sadahiro around 1680.  It was common practice in the ShinShinto period (1764 – 1868) to put an old tang on a new blade, basically to give the blade more prestige in an attempt to increase its value.
It’s a Tsugi Nakago which basically means that the original nakago (tang) has been removed and replaced with a different one. The signature is gimei (gimei swords are those that bear a fake signature) to the blade (as in Sadahiro didn’t forge this blade) but the signature was declared authentic by sword expert Steve Smith of Liverpool Museum. This is quite rare in itself as there’s an old Japanese saying “11 out of 10 signatures are fake”. The Sadahiro tang was probably taken from a fatally flawed or broken blade. The tang from the other katana was removed and welded to the new one.  An old blade by a master smith is worth a lot of money. It was probably done during shin-shinto times but possibly it could have been done as late as World War 2. 

During the forging process, when the smith folded the steel, he mishit the blade once with his hammer letting air into the fold thus giving the club blade its one minor flaw.

The blade is forged in the Mino Tradition, a collective name for sword maker’s schools in the Japanese province of Mino, which had similar characteristics in varying degrees. The centre of sword making schools in the Mino tradition was the city Seki near Gifu.  The blade has a Sugu-ha hamon (straight pattern) Suguha is one of the oldest patterns of hamon; and muji hada (grain).   Muji means a "plain" or "unfigured", ji (blade surface). This is a hada (grain) with a very small, very tight pattern which is very difficult to discern. The boshi of this blade is also perfect; quite a lot of Katana’s are fire damaged on the boshi from the Samurai cooking food on the end of the blade! (Boshi is the shape of temper line in the point of the sword).
 The tsuba (sword guard) is not original to the blade.  The original tsuba was a very plain circular open work one.   The current tsuba has not been appraised therefore unfortunately not much is known about it.  It’s authentic Japanese and very old, probably 18th Century but could be much older.
The saya (scabbard or sheath) is probably from the 1960 /70s.  Whenever a Japanese blade is polished there is a need to replace the old saya with a new one as the slightest bit of dirt or grit in the saya can damage and spoil a freshly polished blade.

Within Zenshin dojo Rob holds the official title of Sōsetsu-Shihan  (founder).  He currently has responsibility for the maintenance, safe storage and use of the club katana.  In due course, this responsibility will pass to the elected Zenshin dojo President.

All new Zenshin dojo Yudansha have their award commemorated with an official picture, sat formally in seiza behind the unsheathed katana.  The club website, members only area, displays the photographs and records details of the individual Yudansha members.