I had been eager to interview Alistair Mitchell for a long time, and in early 2012 I got the chance. I’d had several correspondences with him over the years, but finally got to meet him at the JSKA World Championships in Manchester, UK. Over coffee, whilst watching people fight in the background, he and I talked about Shotokan and his experiences training with some of the best in the world. Upon my return from the trip, I noted several questions inspired by our discussions, ready for the interview. It wasn’t until 2012 however that we started.
This interview was conducted over several months, and throughout this time many things changed for Alistair Mitchell. This interview, whilst being current, contains many questions that were posed at an earlier time, when his situation was slightly different. This interview was launched whilst Alistair remained a member of the WSKF, but in late 2012/ early 2013 Alistair moved to the JKS.
Within this second part of the interview, Alistair talks about his time with Kasuya Sensei, his training in Japan and his work within the Police Force. This interview was a slow and detailed process – resulting in a two part interview, but at the end I feel like I got to know Alistair and his karate far better, and I hope you do too. – Shaun Banfield (2013)
(Shaun Banfield) Whilst in Japan, you met Hitoshi Kasuya. Was this the first time you met him? Could you tell us a little about him and your impression of him upon meeting him?
(Alistair Mitchell) When I trained at the old SKI dojo in Yotsuya there were not as many seniors training as I had expected.
After the first week of training I was invited to attend a training session at Hosei University. This was my first meeting with Sensei Hitoshi Kasuya. At the time Sensei Kasuya was not so well known to the general karate public outside Japan. Prior to leaving the SKI, he was one of the senior instructors at the Yotsuya dojo . He was also in charge of the kenshusei programme.
I didn’t know it at the time but the World Shotokan Karate-do Federation had been formed a few months prior to my arrival in Japan.
The experience of the training that day left a lasting impression on me. The class was a 4 hour session consisting of:
1 hour circle training with 50 repetitions, both left and right side, of each technique and combination.
1 hour stepping kihon. Because of the size of the dojo at Hosei this meant 15 steps up, 15 steps down.
1 hours Kumite ranging from Gohon, Sanbon, Kaeshi Ippon and Jiyu-Ippon Kumite through to Jiyu-Kumite and Randoori Kumite. Each time the importance was on attack. No real attack, no real block.
1 hour of kata. We practised the Heian and Tekki kata followed by Bassai-dai, Kanku-dai, Jion and Enpi. This was then followed by one of the advanced kata, Sochin, performed 25 times nonstop.
In between each hour session there was a 5 minute break to recover concentration.
Sensei Kasuya led all the training by example and expected everyone to follow suit. His technique, power and speed were an inspiration. I was not only impressed Sensei Kasuya’s technical skill, but also by his logical and progressive way of thinking.
For example in the WSKF there are two types of basic technique – one, the normal type of basic kihon, for understanding and developing body dynamics. The other being kumite kihon where the importance is, as Sensei Kasuya says, “No lost time”.
Also in WSKF there are many spinning combinations. This type of kihon adds greater flexibility in movement (direction) and also greater vision during kumite. Another benefit of this type of combination training is the use of different muscle groups leading to probably about a third more energy expenditure compared to up and down line basics. An excellent training method for kumite preparation.
Kasuya Sensei will show the way to improve. This is his responsibility as a teacher. As a student we have to take responsibility for our own karate. Find the way ourselves through hard effort. This is our responsibility.
(SB) How does the Kenshusei training compare to ordinary training would you say?
(AM) Nothing special, just a different intensity.
When I say nothing special, I mean no secret or hidden technique, just intense pressure and hard work.
For example if we have two 3rd Dans of the same level in a class together. One is selected for kenshusei training and the other stays in the normal class. After one month’s training doing the same technique there won’t be much difference, after 6 months a big gap will appear. After 1 year a completely different karate-ka will start to develop with professional technique. Pressure is applied by the senior instructors to produce the next generation of instructor.
This type of training is not undertaken lightly. It is like the iron ore being put in the furnace, if the ore does not poses the correct raw qualities in the first place it will burn and be discarded. If it does have the correct qualities, the forging process, the heat, the hammering and quenching will produce something of fantastic quality and strength. This is instructor training.
(SB) Karate has – without question – developed dramatically over the last 20 years, becoming even more scientific, and even more technically precise and focussed. What kinds of specific changes have you witnessed?
(AM) Shotokan karate has been developing since Sensei Funakoshi’s time. Probably the most important point in time for Shotokan was the development of the JKA instructor or kenshusei training programme. This programme developed some of the greatest exponents of modern day Shotokan karate.
I have film of the first kenshusei group consisting of Senseis Hirokazu Kanazawa, Takayuki Mikami and Eiji Takaura. If we look at this footage the karate is a little more upright and “raw.”
Since that time, and with the maturing of these instructors and the input of successive instructors coming through the kenshusei programme, Shotokan has developed into the more refined system we see today. With each generation of instructor something new, hopefully better, is gained.
People talk about “Traditional Karate” and how good it was in the past. This is maybe a misconception. Maybe they don’t train anymore and live on memories.
Traditional should be the best of the old plus the best of the new. I think this is the best type of traditional. If the next generation is not better than the last, there is a failing in the teacher or the teaching process. This is a teacher’s responsibility.
Probably one of the biggest changes I have experienced is flexibility in the hips and shoulders giving technique a more powerful and natural feel. Once we have this flexibility and understanding every karate technique improves.
(SB) So from a ‘teacher’ perspective, how do you go about making your students better than you, what is your focus in your attempt to take them to new heights –as the goal of a teacher is to create karateka better than themselves?
(AM) The main focus is on correct basic technique. This is most important. Without the foundation nothing can be built. If we have good basic technique then anything is possible. This is the same whether it is the Budo or the Sport aspect of karate.
Also you must understand yourself, your limitations and faults, and not impose them on your students. I have a responsibility to demonstrate the best technique I can to my students. To this end I must constantly try and improve my training. For me this is very exciting.
Because we train together, if the junior makes good progress this pushes me to improve. This is a good two way process, always trying to make improvement.
I have developed a very clear route map and connection between basic training and advanced understanding of karate. This ensures the juniors are evolving through a process and the seniors have a responsibility to demonstrate the end result of that process.
I have some very good seniors who have competed and been successful at national and international level. Paul Allison, Anne-Marie McLachlan, Andy Renwick and Alice Hamling, these have all trained for many years and adapted with me. It is encouraging they all reflect and share the same spirit and passion for karate-do that still inspires me today.
(SB) From my own personal perspective, I try and remain rounded in my teaching, but at times I get a ‘Bee in my Bonnet’ about something I don’t like in my students’ movement, and ironing that issue out becomes high priority. Do you have any current ‘Bees’ in your bonnet?
(AM) Bad dojo manner and also people not listening and thinking they know better. This can usually be resolved by explanation and demonstration! We should always have a mind like a beginner. Always looking, listening and learning.
I am more tolerant in the dojo than I used to be. I enjoy teaching, pushing those who want to be challenged to their full potential and encouraging those who are less confident or naturally athletic.
(SB) You believe that there are two types of basics, am I correct? Can you explain what you mean by this?
(AM) It is much like weight training. We go to the gym and perform controlled exercises such as bench pressing, squats and dead lifts. Once we are proficient at the technique we become stronger and can lift more weight. After training we don’t carry a bag of weights around to prove we are strong – we apply the strength we have gained through hard training in the gym.
The same can be said for kihon.
The first basic is standard kihon which we see in everyday practice. This training is to develop correct technique, body movement and body support for the karate we practice. This type of basic should always be practiced and refined. It is also closely related to kata practice.
The second is kumite kihon. In this type of basic we look for a more direct and natural movement. For example in basic kihon gyaku-zuki we punch from the hip whereas in kumite basic we would punch directly from kamae postion. The same goes for blocking.
Kumite kihon is only possible with good understanding and serious practice of standard kihon.
(SB) Speed is an important feature of Shotokan karate. How do you work on increasing punching speed?
(AM) Through the honing and polishing of basic technique.
The actual speed of the punching arm and kicking leg cannot be dramatically increased once we have reached our natural ability, possibly 1st or 2nd Dan level, depending on the level of training.
What we can work on is how to deliver the technique more efficiently and effectively. How to deliver directly from the centre of the body rather than from the peripheral. How to use the elbow in zuki and the knee in geri
This is the honing and polishing of basic technique which is then applied in kumite. If we have this type of technique and thinking we can cut down our opponent’s reaction time.
(SB) Can you please talk me through the ‘No Lost Time’ concept in applying techniques?
(AM) “No Lost Time” means direct movement and how to move from one kime point to the next. In kumite it is very important technique is delivered direct from kamae.
(SB) Many modern dojo’s kata study is ‘Bunkai/oyo’ focussed. Other associations’ kata remains ‘kihon’ focussed. What is the central ‘core’ ethos within the WSKF study of kata?
(AM) Within WSKF, the study of kata is very important. Firstly the study of technique, then timing, power, rhythm and concentration and finally application.
Funakoshi stated “Kata movements are precise. Free fighting is different”
This is always my experience as a competitor in a “sport” environment and also as a Police officer when dealing with violent uncontrolled situations. It doesn’t always go the way we train in set scenarios.
There is always the “jack in a box” situation and if you don’t have the ability to change and adapt to the situation in an instant you might well be the one ending up in a box! This is the nature of combat.
Kata contain everything we need in kumite. But we should consider kata as formula.
The fight is the numbers and kata gives us the plus, minus, divide and multiply to, hopefully, resolve the situation in our favour, whether it is self defence or competition.
(SB) So would you say kata is a ‘tool’? A part of the fighting ‘process’ rather than just being a part of the ‘objective’ of having an aesthetically accurate kata?
(AM) Yes, kata it is part of the fighting process.
Kata together with kihon, and kumite must be considered thirds of the whole. This is our process in Shotokan Karate. Also if we are missing the budo aspect of training then it becomes meaningless.
Correct technique is important. The physical discipline and mental concentration required to perform kata is the fight to control yourself. This type of training is Budo karate.
In “sport karate” kata there is no need for this type of thinking. I look at WKF kata competition, particularly European, and think it’s not karate. It’s just an athletic performance for the referee and audience; it has nothing to do with karate or martial arts.
(SB) So what is your favourite kata and why?
(AM) The one I can’t do well! For me there is always some point in every kata that doesn’t quite suit me. This then becomes a challenge to make the kata complete.
At the moment I am practising Gojushiho-sho. It has good timing and rhythm and because of the number of movements it is good for concentration.
(SB) You mention that we should prepare for the ‘Jack in a box’, and be able to adapt to any given situation. How do you go about developing your students into adaptable, flexible karateka?
(AM) First a flexible body and then a flexible mind.
In training I subject students to stressful situations, particularly in kumite training. WSKF have many different kumite training methods. This gives us a greater range of technique and body movement, in particular circular movement. It also improves blocking ability in a combat situation.
In addition it also increases peripheral vision and lessens the tunnel vision effect that occurs in stressful situations.
We also use training methods such as makiwara, focus pads and body armour to develop impact.
(SB) Important in kumite is catching your opponent’s timing. Can you talk us through your perspective on this fighting strategy?
(AM) Catching your opponents timing is a very important strategy for successful kumite especially as we get older. Younger fighters tend to rely on speed and just attack. As we get older we should study blocking and body movement (tai-sabaki ) as well as attack.
With this understanding we can develop a technique which in Japanese is called Yomi. This is the cultivation of the technique of sensing the intentions, movement and technique of your opponent. This can only be gained through kumite experience. Once we have Yomi our technique becomes elegant and there is no wasted time on irrelevant movement.
(SB) Coming back to Kasuya Sensei, what would you say have been the most important ways in which he has developed or enhanced your ability of skill set?
(AM) Sensei Kasuya, as a teacher, takes responsibility for the development of his students. He will give everything in his power to help develop the student’s karate. He is not interested in how many are in a class. He is only interested in improving your technique and thinking. This is his responsibility as a teacher and he takes it very seriously.
This is a two way process, as he expects the student to take responsibility for their own karate and not just blindly follow. He will show the way, but it is up to the student to make the effort.
My own training has improved over the years since I first met Sensei Kasuya. I feel more capable than I did, say, fifteen years ago. This is because he has given me a logical process to follow with my training. With this process there is a product at the end of the line. Because of this I feel more comfortable and can feel an improvement with time.
(SB) Do you have some stories or anicodotes of Kasuya Sensei that you could share with our readers that would help illustrate his character, and/or your relationship?
(AM) I remember the first time I met him in Japan. I didn’t know who he was because he was not so well known outside. During my first training session at Hosei University I had the privilege of sparring with him. His timing and speed were fantastic. I thought at one point I had caught him when he missed with an ushiro mawashi-geri. As I moved in to counter he reversed the kick into a mawashi-geri with such control that I felt that if he wanted to he could have finished me completely. This was his strategy to draw me into a course of action were defeat was inevitable.
The training in Japan was hard. I remember Seiji Sugimoto telling me that at times he had to go and kick the toilet doors down and drag students back into the dojo because they were exhausted and terrified of Sensei. Sensei is a little different in Japan than when he is teaching abroad!
Sensei Kasuya is a unique teacher. He is not interested in money or numbers; he is only interested in karate.
One time after a 3 day seminar I invited Sensei to teach at my dojo. Because he was tired and there were only about 10 people training I suggested we have a short session. When he arrived at the dojo he came onto the floor and gave us one of the best kumite sessions I have had in my career lasting over 2 hours. Sensei trained alongside us, demonstrating the technique and practicing with us as well.
It is not often students have the privilege of training up close and personal with such a high level instructor.
Another time on a Dan examination in Japan some of the older Western candidates going for 4th Dan and above wanted to do Ippon Kumite because they thought it might be an easy option. Unfortunately for them Sensei Kasuya’s Ippon Kumite is a slightly different from their expectation. The attack distance is a lot closer and directly from Yoi position. When he demonstrated with a Japanese who was grading, he knocked the unfortunate karate-ka out with the first jodan attack. Needless to say the rest failed.
(SB) So let’s backtrack slightly and talk about your competitive career. You have had a competitive career that has spanned several decades, retiring just last year. Who would you say was your toughest opponent throughout your career? Could you describe that encounter?
(AM) Probably one of my toughest opponents was Sensei Fouad Korban, the chief instructor of WSKF Venezuela. He is an exceptional karate-ka, both in kata and kumite. I fought him in the finals of the Shobu Ippon and Jiyu-Kumite events in the2000 WSKF World Championship in Tokyo. In both events he attacked strongly, which suited my style of fighting, and I narrowly defeated him.
In the 2002 World Championships we met again but this time it was in the second round.
I didn’t know it at the time but Sensei Korban had been studying video of our final matches in Tokyo.
During this fight he didn’t attack. He waited for me to commit. In the last 30 seconds I did and he took wazari. On restart I immediately attacked and scored my own wazari with gyaku-zuki.
The punch just happened, I didn’t consciously throw the technique, it was perfect, the timing the distance, everything. It was a strange experience. But as hard as I tried I couldn’t do it again! We drew the first match and I won the extension by decision on aggression.
(SB) Of all the coaches you worked with, who would you say was most inspirational and useful to your development?
(AM) Without doubt the most inspirational coach in the development of my karate as a whole is Sensei Kasuya. He is responsible for the way my karate is today. He has taken responsibility for my development and with that he expects me to make the effort and develop myself. Many times he has said he doesn’t want clones of himself – you must develop your karate - he can show the way but it’s up to me to make the effort.
The other Japanese instructors who had a great influence on my development were from my JKA time - Sensei Enoeda who gave me tremendous fighting spirit and Sensei Kawazoe with his excellent technique. Also the visiting JKA instructors such as Sensei Tsuyama, Tanaka, Ueki and Yahara. Each was unique and inspirational to train with.
The coaches who helped the development of my kumite skills have been numerous. I have had the privilege over the years of training under some of the world’s greatest fighter of their generations.
This started with Gene Dunnett and Alec McGregor as my first instructors. I competed as a member of the Glasgow Budokan team. This gave me a good grounding in tournament fighting. We used to travel all over Britain competing in any competition we could.
In those days the All Styles competitions were a good testing ground for your skills. As the name implies they were all style. We fought anyone and everyone – karate, taekwondo, kung-fu, free style – if you technique didn’t work, it was back to the drawing board. The best of these competitions were probably the North, North West and North East Open competitions run primarily by the KUGB. I’m not saying their referees were biased, but you had to be so much sharper to score points in those tournaments!
Moving into the Scottish All Styles Team was the next step. I was lucky to have Hamish Adams as the team coach during the 13 years I competed for Scotland. Under Hamish’s guidance Scotland became one of the greatest competition nations in the world. This was from the 80s to the 90s. In that time we won Commonwealth, European and World Titles. It was truly a Golden Age for Scottish Karate.
With the British All Styles Team the coach during my time was Ticky Donovan. As a coach his record speaks for itself.
Other coaches who had a big influence over the years include Dominique Valera, Davie Coulter and Eck Duncan.
(SB) Of all your titles, which would you say was the most important of all, and why?
(AM) The1984 European All Styles Team Championships (EKU) is probably the one that sticks in my mind as being the most important of all. It was the beginning of a successful International career.
From about 1980 to 1984 Scotland was not allowed to compete in the Europeans as a nation. It was only a British team that was allowed to enter the European and World Championships during this time.
Hamish Adam had just taken over as the National Team coach and he arranged many friendly international matches against different countries.
In 1983 we knew we were going to be allowed to compete again in the Europeans as a nation again. That year we trained very hard and the week prior to the Championships in Paris the team was taken to the National Training Centre at Inverclyde. We trained every day, up to 4 sessions a day for a week. We then rested for two days and travelled to Paris.
On the day of the competition we were on fire. We beat Italy in the quarter-final and had to face England in the semi-final. That was a major test but we beat them 3-2. I had to fight Geoff Thompson in my match. Geoff had just won the WUKO World Heavyweight title in Taipan with a special 3 combination attack. Nobody could stop it. Luckily for me he had produced a T-shirt with the combination printed on it. Every time he attacked with the combination I countered him on his drawing technique. I beat him 7-1 under the Shobu Sanbon system.
We then went on to face Holland, the current WUKO World Team Champions, in the final.
We beat them 5-0 with each fighter scoring maximum points under. It was unbelievable.
(SB) You mentioned earlier in the interview that you make full use of the body armour. Can you tell us about this type of training, as I have personally worked with the Red Man and found it very useful. Could you share your perspective on this?
(AM) The body armour we use is light weight and very responsive. You can impact with full power on the target without causing damage to the person wearing it (not much anyway!).
The Red Man suits are OK but it’s a bit like sparring with a Michelin Man. I prefer the lighter type of body armour as it gives a more natural feel and better feedback. For instance the Blauer Spear System from America has developed a good lightweight full body armour suit that is more natural and life like.
This type of training is important for developing correct distance, timing, movement and impact when facing a live, moving target. It also develops non-stop explosive action until your opponent/training partner is grounded.
If you can’t control them within the first 30 seconds things are starting to go wrong and you’re in a bad place.
(SB) Now from the perspective of a Police officer and as a karateka, what do you think are the primary principles of self protection, and how should our dojo training be used to work along with these primary principles?
(AM) Awareness and communication combined with simple, effective, technique. If we can resolve the problem before it escalates to violence, then all the better, everyone walks away unharmed.
However, should the situation deteriorate, we must act decisively to take control. In a stress situation you lose control of small motor skill. With training we can keep small motor skill control for longer.
This is why it is important to train in a way that is constantly changing and placing you under pressure. Stress makes us stronger, or it destroys us.
(SB) From the perspective of the law, where would we legally stand if we were to pre-empt in a conflicting situation, as the law allows for this am I right?
(AM) Case by case! Any action we take has to be justified and in proportion to the threat. Anything beyond this becomes assaultive.
(SB) Do you believe in ground work?
(AM) A basic understanding of ground work is essential if we are to be a well-rounded karate-ka.
Competition in false in this sense as it usually stops when one person gets grounded, either by a sweep or throw.
In real life self-defence we have to be able to defend ourselves in any situation. With this in mind it is important we understand the different ranges of technique we have at our disposal ranging from kicking, punching, knees and elbows to take downs, throws and finally ground technique.
(SB) Since starting this article you have left the WSKF. Can you tell us why?
(AM) It was purely a political matter and nothing to do with training or my relationship with Sensei Kasuya. I made a decision as Chief Instructor to expel an instructor who had been causing problems for a number of years. This decision was not upheld by WSKF HQ and I was left with no alternative but to resign.
Since this time I have been in contact with Paul Giannandrea, Alan Campbell and Scott Langley from the JKS. They have been kind enough to allow myself, my senior members and my dojos to affiliate to JKS Scotland and England. This move will allow my students access to the technical expertise and support of Britain’s largest and fastest growing Shotokan organisation. I look forward to the challenge of meeting and training with new karate-ka.
(SB) Can we please say a big thank you for this interview it has been a pleasure. Good luck for the future.
(AM) Thank you very much. Please keep up the good work with this web site.