Articles: Interview with Alan Campbell (By Shaun Banfield - theshotokanway.com)


Alan was scary! I first met him when I was about 14yrs old. He would have been 24 at the time and competed regularly for the Inverness Karate Club and the national team. The club at the time were unstoppable and Alan paid no small part in the reputation they had. After I grew a little, we used to compete together in the British team and he was always a great sempai not only to train with but also to take advice and learn from... Although he was still scary!

Finally after I returned from Japan Alan was one of the first to join the newly formed JKS GB & Ireland. Since then he has held the position of Chairman and it is only now that I can look past his formidable character and see the high level of his technique and teaching. A great communicator, Alan has produced some of the best black belts I have seen outside Japan and his courses are always well attended and informative. Fortunately, he is now teaching more internationally and taking his unique brand of Shotokan to a larger audience. – Scott Langley 08

(Shaun Banfield) Can you please start by telling us a little about how and why you started karate?

(Alan Campbell) I remember as far back as primary school having an interest in martial arts through Bruce Lee, but it was in 1978, at the age of fourteen when I first started training. My brother, cousin and best friend started first.

After about six months of my brother coming home and lining me up to test out the techniques he had been learning at the club, I thought it might be better having a go myself. “If you can’t beat them join them” - type of thing!

(SB) It says in your profile that your club in Inverness had a reputation for being one of the toughest in the country. Could you please tell us why this was so?

(AC) At the time I didn’t think really about it, it was the way things were. But when I look back I can certainly see that it was tough. Of course when you lived in the Highlands of Scotland, particularly in the 70’s and 80’s, life could be pretty tough generally. When I joined the club it was run by several Dan grades including Ronnie Ross, who had been training in Japan for quite sometime. On his return and through his influence, we started training with a much more Japanese style. Although as a young boy and complete novice it didn’t really mean anything to me. Actually I don't think Ronnie was given the credit he was due. He was a good instructor, and still is. In hindsight I think there was an element of jealousy involved.

In those very early days there was quite a lot of condition training, lots of bruising block to blocks, and countless sit ups with people running round jumping on your stomach, running through the streets barefoot on a Sunday morning, wading across the main river that dissected the city centre etc. It was a type of training that you couldn't do these days. I think that virtually nobody would put themselves through those kinds of things nowadays. There was a lot of physical pain involved, regardless of whether you were a young boy, middle aged business man or the best conditioned Dan grade, the karate was of a good quality for the time but very hard and if you didn't like it, you could always leave!

Some time later for personal/political reasons Ronnie split from the club, it continued as a collective and eventually led to Alan Nairn becoming the Chief Instructor. His style of teaching was very much about the “doing of it”, actually he was somewhat uncomfortable with the position of Chief Instructor as he always said that “If it was the army I would be more akin with a Sergeant Major than an Officer!”

After I’d passed my Shodan special training nights were introduced, they were by invite only. We also did Saturday mornings for black belts only, which was mainly full on kumite training with a bit of kata practise to finish off. These were incredibly hard sessions and nobody held back regardless of who was senior to each other. We did this in a nightclub where I and one or two of the other guys worked part time (we got the venue free of charge). The head of security, a real tough nut and bodyguard to the Boss man (another story!) looked at us training one day and suggested that there was something wrong with us... possibly mentally! Afterwards we would all go to the pub and survey each other’s cuts and bruises, there were always plenty of them!

A while after we’d started the mid-week “invite only” training sessions I mentioned, one of the many "normal" club black belts turned up uninvited, this was a guy who would on occasion give me a lift to training or drop me off after. He was a decent standard, but wasn’t deemed tough enough or had the hunger/heart that we had. These sessions weren’t about grade, just the willingness to train to a point of possibly being physically sick at any time during those two hours of training. I was given the nod to sort him out! (Something I am not proud of) We set up for Jiyu Kumite. We both stood on our lines. “Hajime” was called and I dropped him straight off the line with a chudan mae geri, very sharp and very hard, one step in and one step straight back to my line. It’s what I was told to do so I did it without question; no ifs or buts, just did it! He was lying there and wasn’t getting up; he wasn’t able to breathe and was turning blue. It didn’t mean anything to me, that was the way we were then. He shouldn’t have been there: He hadn’t been invited. Someone was sent to call for an ambulance and even as they were running off to the payphone it still didn’t register as to what I had done. After a few minutes he came to, and the ambulance was cancelled. The instructor brushed by me and whispered “A wee bit hard!” I said “OSU” and we carried on. I only mention this incident to make a point about the severity of the training and although I believe you have to be able to switch on instantly, I have matured an awful lot since then and wouldn’t condone this nowadays. In hindsight this guy had just tuned up to train, he didn’t know the type of session he was getting in to; I don't remember him ever training again. I can only suppose that this incident helped form his decision.

That was the physical side of the club at the time. Regarding the technical aspect of the club, we raised money for our instructor Alan Nairn to go and train in Japan. It was very expensive back in the earlier days, so we thought if he went then we would get the benefit when he came back. When he returned he declared he wasn’t happy with the way things were technically, we had the passion and we were tough but we didn’t do basics like the Japanese. This was a road that he had taken us down since Ronnie Ross had left the club and I guess by going to Japan he gained an insight to what Ronnie had experienced many years previously. This “Eureka” moment didn’t sit well with a lot of people, some left straight away and some left after a few months of continuous Kihon drilling. We had to move premises because of the drop off in members, but we didn’t care because we wanted to do karate properly. There had been other clubs setting up over the years (partly due to the reasons just mentioned) but again we didn’t care, the hardcore were happy. There was no question about how tough we were and now we were really going in depth with pure basics, for us it didn’t get any better! Of course other clubs looked at us and thought we were a bit mad, you would hear comments like “you don’t want to train there, those guys are off there heads”. We were so solid and supportive of each other as a core of dedicated Karate-ka, I guess it was a bit like being in the armed forces. It felt like we were always going into battle; it’s strange to think about it now but I suppose that was a sign of our petulant youth, determination and dedication!

(SB) Can you please tell us about your training under Sensei Kato?

(AC) Kato Sensei was a genius in Karate; the thing is that you need to be of a certain standard to appreciate what he had to offer, for me this was from shodan onwards. Kato Sensei was very natural in his karate and I liked that. He was very insistent on technique, and once you were technically able he would push you extremely hard. He was a giver, always ready to discuss the whys and wherefores of karate in finite detail. His knowledge of kata bunkai was incredible, he could show you countless variations for any technique in any kata. Many people misunderstood him; he was not always typically Japanese when teaching, he had a sense of humour, one that was at times a little rude, shall we say. However, I always thought that if you were in a class trying to learn how to potentially damage someone severely then a mildly rude word here and there wasn’t much of an issue. Plus, I think he got his point across much more easily because of it. Many times I did see the Japanese side of his personality, both in training and socially, he would reserve this for the people who got to know him, there was a time when I was between appointments, i.e. jobless! I didn’t want to live in Inverness so I asked him if I could stay with him, (he has a house in Whitchurch, Shropshire) to train, I couldn’t afford to go to Japan back then and I thought that this was the next best thing. In this period when I was driving him to courses and looking after his house when I he was out of the country, I experienced some of this Japanese – ness. Kato Sensei had been away one time and I thought I would take the opportunity to repair some makiwara that were situated along a small stream in his very large garden. I added new ones to make a total of around 8 or 10. He acknowledged the fact that I’d done them, so no problem there. Any night that we were at home I would go for a jog then practise a bit of kata and finish on the makiwara. This went on for several weeks, he never said a word about it, and I didn’t really expect him to of course. However, one time we came back from a midweek course, it was late, maybe 10.30pm. We had something to eat, and I said my goodnights as I couldn’t keep my eyes open, I was shattered. As I stood up and took a couple of steps he grunted “Huh, no makiwara tonight”. I thought I may as well keep on walking. He got me good and proper. I went to bed that night cursing, and vowing not to let it happen again. I learnt so much from him and will always be grateful that he was my Sensei.

(SB) You were a part of JKA GB for some time. It states that you because disillusioned with the direction it was taking. Why was this?

(AC) Yes, the JKA (GB) was the side that Asai sensei headed; Kato Sensei was appointed Chief Instructor in the UK and Europe. It was an amazing time in the most part, we had incredible courses with people like Asai sensei, Toru Yamaguchi sensei, Abe sensei, Yahara sensei, Kagawa sensei, Yamada sensei, Kato sensei, and all there at the same time. I loved it, all the courses were open but not too many non JKA (GB) people took advantage of them, slightly strange I thought.

I was a devoted member and wanted to help promote and push the organisation onwards, I was really prepared to do my bit, I had lots of ideas about promotion and sponsorship etc. but I was ignored, there was a group of seniors who didn’t let you “in”. I don’t think they necessarily did it on purpose, it’s just that they were comfortable the way it was. The future was with the younger guys who had the energy and drive to succeed, not the “Old Guard” there was also the “Blue eyed boy syndrome” to contend with, where every so often one person would be the centre of the seniors attention and the needs of the members as a whole were forgotten, it was all pats on the back and how great you were, I didn’t feel the association was being allowed to grow in the direction it could have. The crunch came in 1996 when I was due to go to Moscow for the JKA World Championships, I didn’t agree with the way the selection was done so as much as I wanted to, I didn’t go. I had made my decision to leave the Association; I didn’t want to be a hypocrite. It was the hardest decision I ever had to make but I knew I couldn't exist in a group that didn't nurture the upcoming members and their valuable input. I walked away. I felt it was the only thing I could do.

(SB) You also competed very successfully for quite some time.
Can you tell us about this period of your training?


(AC) Well actually for me competing was not where my karate was at really. I did it because I was told to, I enjoyed it but for me courses were where I felt most comfortable. I had success at National championships, winning Kata and Kumite titles, and some success at European level. My two really big events were the JKA World Championships in Dubai, 1990 and Johannesburg 1993. I was a product of the 80's where the kumite was still very hard, not always too much control, if you know what I mean. We hadn’t really been exposed to the sport karate aspect; we were quite static, explosive movements from very little set up. We trained for upcoming competitions but it wasn't that much different to what we would do normally. It was more of a mental preparation. We worked on tactics of course, particularly about team kumite but not to the extent of nowadays, actually the more I got to see sport karate in competitions the more I knew that competing was not where I wanted my personal karate to go.

(SB) Do you have any memories of competing that you’d care to share with us?

(AC) I had some very nice memories of competing and I think that the friendships that were made will be something that will stay with me. The sense of camaraderie as a team or a squad was terrific; having the opportunity to travel was also great.

I remember meeting Pemba Tamang Sensei (the first non Japanese to complete the JKA instructors course) a few years back when he still had his Nepalese restaurant in Tokyo, we talked about the Dubai Championships in 1990 and almost with a tear in his eye said "That was the golden time, I know because the way things are now, that kind of event will never happen again!" I couldn’t have agreed more with him and think I was lucky to be a part of that era.

Competing was always a mix of emotions, you know highs and lows, for example Scott Langley, Pete Walley and I who all lived in different parts of the country had been practising team kata for months leading up to a European Championships in Switzerland. We built a strong bond together as we travelled some distance to get to each others home towns so we could prepare, everything was perfect, we felt like we could read each others minds, when the time came to perform Gojushiho Sho in the finals, not mentioning anybody’s name but... (SCOTT LANGLEY) made a mistake, just a hesitation really and it cost us 1st place, we didn't blame him as we knew how badly he felt and that was good enough for Pete and me… Of course when we were all out on the town after the competition we let him have it!

Not long after that he redeemed himself in a team kumite final against the Dutch national team, he came good and fought a great fight to help us win the championships. Those are the sorts of things I remember and I hope that my current students can feel that same bond when they compete.

(SB) What was your ‘Winning Kata’ of the time competitively?

(AC) I had the most success with Nijushiho. I had originally seen Asai Sensei perform it on video and was blown away with his fluid and dynamic performance, I wanted to replicate that and I have always tried keeping that image of him in my head when I perform it. Sochin was another one for me and Gojushiho Sho.

(SB) What was it about the JKS that was so appealing?

(AC) The JKS appealed to me initially because of Scott Langley, he was a person who had the same feelings as me back in the JKA (GB) times. When he returned from Japan after completing the instructors’ course in 2002 we had several discussions, which led to me joining. Scott, as he still is now, was like an open book, nothing to hide, completely transparent in the way he saw things progressing. It was what I needed, not just for myself but also for my students. Here was an organisation that had concrete connections with Japan, yet was allowed to operate with support, but without interference, from the Hombu Dojo in Japan. The JKS has a structure, it has a proper instructors programme at the Hombu, where the next generation are being prepared to take things forward. We have access to that programme if we want; we even have access to Teykio University (the number one Karate University in Japan today). Through Kagawa Sensei, we can send any of our students if they wanted to study there. We also have a dedicated committee looking after, amongst other things, the financial affairs of the JKS GB & Ireland. There is a solid long term future with the organisation, something that is not necessarily true with some others that are more centred on one Chief Instructor and have little or no structure in place for the future.

(SB) Can you please tell us about your annual trips to Japan?

(AC) The trips to Japan are the opportunity for members to gain access to the "Japan experience" without the hassle that could potentially go with organising something of that magnitude on your own. Cost can be a huge factor in a trip to Japan so we offer a two week trip to our members for a fraction of the price that you’ll see elsewhere. The credit for these trips really goes to Scott as through his five years experience living there we don't have any "slack time". The two weeks are more like four or five because we get to do so much more than you could ever do on your own. There is no getting on wrong trains or puzzling over tourist books as to where to go, Scott sorts everything out to the finest detail. It's a bit of a military operation; everybody has to work as one in order to get things done efficiently. We train at the Hombu Dojo, normally for Kangeiko, cold season training in late January into February; this is done early in the morning for seven days with a party at the end of it. We train at nighttime either at the Hombu or travel out to the high-ranking JKS instructors around Tokyo. Mealtimes are always different as all types of Japanese cuisine are sampled, this adds to the overall experience (no western food allowed!) We also stay in traditional Ryokans (Japanese-style Inns) to add more to the experience. On the second week we travel outside of Tokyo to stay with Japanese families who we now have a strong connection with. We train with the instructor there and his very capable young high school students! We move on to Hakone where Mt. Fuji lies, for some R&R in the last couple of days. When people review what they have done on their trip they can't believe they did so much! It’s only when they get back and start telling people everything that they did that it hits home!

(SB) How would you describe Asai Sensei’s karate? What did he place most emphasis on during the sessions you studied under him?

(AC) Asai Sensei used his body like a whip, he was a small man but he used what he called joint power. Not relying solely on muscle to create energy, he used the opening and closing of his joints. Asai sensei's karate was Budo, he was a martial artist, a true pioneer, he inspired everybody who saw him to strive that bit harder. He was so very flexible, right up until the end he practised, I know he believed that you are only as good as the last time you trained. That's what he would do, every morning, at around 5am for two hours, he said if he stopped training he would die. It was Karate that kept him alive, it was very sad to have such a man taken by illness. He was a genius and anybody who trained with him can consider themselves to have been part of karate history and feel very privileged.

(SB) You mentioned that Asai Sensei used the opening and losing of the joints to create power. Could you please tell us more about this and give us a deeper insight into this approach, as I’m sure our readers will be fascinated to hear about it?

(AC) Asai Sensei always taught that relaxation is the key to powerful karate, he was a small man in stature and instead of building muscle mass he worked on the bodies natural movement, something we in the west don't study enough, the body is not just muscle so the joints play an important role in how we deliver power. Asai sensei kept his joints relaxed and was able to deliver techniques like haito to the opposite side of an opponents head (So, right hand haito round the back of the opponents head to impact on the right side of their face, I have seen him demonstrate this to great effect) the only way to achieve this is to open the shoulder joint keeping relaxed including the elbow and wrist. If you think about the structure of your body and visualise your joints and how they move, like ball and socket and hinge joints, then you can imagine the opening and closing of those joints, shoulder and hips especially. The only problem with this way is that if you can't make good kime then there is the possibility of injury as there isn't the muscle tension at the required time to hold the joint in place. A simple way of getting the idea is if you put both your fists out choku tsuki style, keep your body square and move one fist forward and back from the other without turning your shoulders you should be able to feel the opening and closing of the joint.

You can apply this with movements to the side and use this idea in kicking techniques like yoko geri. Imagine Asai sensei's shoulder and hip joints were like a nunchaku connected with a chain and not some kind of restrictive mechanical hinge and you get somewhere to the idea.

The ability to use our joints in a fluid way and to allow their natural expansion and contraction will not only make us more powerful it will keep us healthy, the joints in our body needed to be moved freely or they will become stiff over time, as Asai sensei said "If I stop training I die" meaning that his continual training kept his body supple and healthy, unfortunately as we all know Asai sensei has passed away to leukaemia but right until the end he kept up his unique way of training.

(SB) Kagawa Sensei is now Chief Instructor of JKS because of the very sad parting of Master Asai. In what direction is Kagawa Sensei taking the JKS?

(AC) Well for one, Asai sensei will always be "Shuseki Shihan" (World Chief Instructor) of the JKS. On saying that Kagawa sensei is taking the JKS "forward" as ultimately it was never about just one man. As I said the JKS has structure to allow for it continue forward, all the seniors in the JKS are passionate about the organisation and want to support it and thereby Kagawa sensei. He has his ideas and is an intelligent man; he is also a gentleman, which for people like me means an awful lot. I respect that kind of personality and I know that he has massive support in Japan for his dedication and loyalty to Asai sensei in the years gone by, he is hugely respected worldwide and I couldn't think of a better head of the organisation to take things forward in the coming decades.

(SB) Having experienced the teachings of Kato Sensei, but now being a part of the JKS, what would you are the major differences between the karate of each groups?

(AC) The differences in instruction from Kato sensei and any high quality instructor, regardless of association, is I think minimal. As I said before I think Kato Sensei was, a karate genius. Very unique, but it's not always just about karate. Kato sensei gave us the tools and the JKS gave us the room to develop them.

(SB) The JKS practice many non-Shotokan Kata. What do you think is the benefit of this?

(AC) Yes we do practise non standard Kata but the only ones that are part of the syllabus are the Junro series 1-5. These were developed and implemented into the JKS syllabus by Asai sensei. I think that there is a problem with teaching karate in too basic a way sometimes, not introducing students to techniques until it's almost too late. The student can become too robotic and limited to a point where it's hard to develop. The Junro kata help to rectify this by allowing students to be more relaxed and fluid in their training, learning certain stances and various types of movement sooner than is the norm in Shotokan Karate. If you practise the Junro Kata side by side with the Heians you do feel a greater sense of freedom in your body movement and when you get to brown belt level I don't think students are so awestruck by the intermediate katas.

All the other non syllabus kata are there to be practised, (or not) as anybody feels the need, I think they definitely have their benefits but we don't need to get hung up on them. I know that Asai Sensei used the non syllabus katas to train specific areas of technique, he would recommend specific katas for students like Rantai if you needed to train more in kicking techniques, just like a doctor prescribing medicine!

(SB) Do you have any particular favorites?

Alan Campbell sensei(AC) I like all the Junro katas but I do have a soft spot for Yondan. I remember Yamaguchi Sensei demonstrating it a few years back, I’d never seen it like pretty much anyone else on the course. The kata has quite a few turning/spinning techniques in it and he was amazing. As soon as he blinded us with his performance he said "ok now you try"… Well that was a fun session! I vowed I would nail it as soon as I could, I’m nearly there!

Off the non syllabus kata I particularly enjoy Senka, Joko Issei and Hachimon, I try to add katas to my repertoire the best I can.

(SB) Can you please tell us about working with Scott Langley? Do you work well with him and what do you think of his karate?

(AC) I really enjoy working with Scott, I’ve known him for many years as my junior in JKA (GB) but now we work as equals. I respect him for what he did in Japan and graduating from the Instructors Course. He took a lot punishment while he was there, but it’s not affected him (much!) He has no ego and he remains a gentleman, he is straight and honest and that's really the only kind off person I could work with. I think his karate is of the highest quality, I know he continues to train even though he is in demand as an instructor at his dojo and all over Europe. He trains in the mornings with his senior students in Dublin. These sessions are very demanding, I know because I’ve done them when I’ve been over there! They are the gut wrenching type of sessions that all instructors should do to remind them where their karate is at. These sessions inspired me to introduce morning training at my own dojo. His technical ability is first class, second to none and he's a tougher nut than his demeanour might lead you to believe. He is not happy staying as he is, he's continually looking for methods to improve himself, he's a decade younger than me and that's great because his hunger for knowledge and improvement spurs me on! Anyone who's not trained with him should really take the opportunity if they can.

(SB) JKS GB now has a purpose built dojo. Does it have a different atmosphere to the clubs you taught in before and does having a personal space influence the students at all?

(AC) Actually the dojo you’re talking about is in Dublin, Ireland. We don't have a purpose built dojo in GB, well not yet anyway! I think that atmosphere is created by the interaction between the instructor and the students; I’ve had great lessons in scout halls, church halls and kitchens! The thing with a dedicated dojo is it allows for consistency both in training schedule and in the ability to maintain an atmosphere once it’s established. The Hombu dojo in Dublin is small, like the one in Japan, it creates a great atmosphere. I’ve only taught there a couple of times and it does challenge you to create training methods with the space allowed. It's probably every Karateka’s dream to have their own dojo and be able to deck it out with all the paraphernalia that you’d want in there. So it's nice that we have one in Ireland, just need to see what happens in the future here.

(SB) You are now a very successful coach. What is the key do you think to being a successful coach?

(AC) I think the key to success is passion for what you do along with the confidence to get on and do it yourself, side by side with the students. Mine have no time for instructors that teach by numbers. I know they don't respect the arms folded, Ichi - Ni - San style of teaching that all of us have seen on occasion, they've never had that from me and they certainly don't want it from anyone else.

I’ve taken a fair few to Japan now and they’ve witnessed the way all the senior JKS sensei’s still graft alongside the main class. And when you have the likes of Kagawa sensei doing kihon alongside you, there's nowhere to hide, you step fast and he steps even faster, you punch hard, he punches harder, and it’s quite inspirational! If students know that you (as their instructor) are of that same ilk then I thik they naturally have faith in you. I have had some of my Dan grades for coming up on fifteen years and I train with them the same now as I did way back when.

I also think you need to look at different martial arts for inspiration, think outside the box a bit, and never be happy with the same old thing. I try not to teach the same lesson twice, impossible probably but as long as you think that way then it keeps you on your toes! The way you put things across is important also, I always try to find different analogies for the same thing, what one persons mind clicks to another may not. It's about caring enough to find ways of getting it across to the individual and not just the group. When you teach in a foreign country the ability demonstrated with you body becomes even more important, even if they have a basic knowledge of English language and you theirs, it's the body mechanics they remember. People have to be inspired by what you do as well as what you say.

(SB) What is your favorite kata and why?

 My favourite kata will probably always be Nijushiho, but it’s normally the one I'm practising (struggling) with at the time!

(SB) Many thanks for providing us with this interview and giving us an insight to JKS karate.

(AC) It’s a pleasure, you're very welcome.

Alan Campbell is the chairman of JKS (GB) and he can be contacted at alan@jksengland.com.