The Shotokan Way, Interview with Frank Woon-A-Tai

30/10/2009 13:07



An Interview with Frank Woon A Tai

The International Shotokan Karate Federation – Headed by Teruyuki Okazaki 10th Dan is, without doubt, one of the world’s most important and prominent Shotokan groups. With an outstanding group of experienced teachers, it plays an important part in the development of Shotokan Karate as an art and as a way of life. Here we have an interview with one of these very prominent teachers, and loyal supporters of ISKF Karate – Frank Woon-A-Tai 8th Dan. Read this inspirational story of an outstanding karateka, who has and continues to promote and develop karate. Read about his experiences in Japan under Master Nakayama and the many other influential teachers there. Most significantly however, gain an insight into his relationship with Master Okazaki – who he describes as his ‘karate father’ – and his life long support of the ISKF. – S.Banfield 09

(Shaun Banfield)     Can we open the interview by firstly saying a big thank you for this interview, I look forward to hearing about your experiences, and understanding of karate-do.


(Frank Woon-A-Tai)     Thank you, it is my pleasure. I apologise for having you wait so long, but I just finished hosting the 2008 ISKF World Shoto Cup in Toronto. It was a huge success.


(SB)     You were born in 1950 am I correct? Can you please tell us, when did you first start Judo?


(FWAT)     Yes, I was born in 1950 in Georgetown, Guyana (former British Guiana). My grandfather emigrated there from Canton, China during the early 1900s.


I started judo around 1964.


(SB)     And how popular was Judo at that time?


(FWAT)     Not very popular. There was only one dojo.


(SB)     Can you please tell us about some of your experiences in Judo. What did the training consist of?


(FWAT)     The usual judo practice routine. I loved to throw my opponents really hard on the mat. Looking back that was not so good.


(SB)     And then you had your first encounter with Karate through a visiting instructor to Guyana. Thinking back, who was that visiting instructor, and what was demonstrated/taught?


(FWAT)     Actually, my first encounter with karate was through the movie, Karate: Hand of Death, which was released in 1961 and starred Joel Holt. There was a long scene where Joel visited a dojo in Japan with a friend. They were treated to a number of demonstrations by JKA Instructors. It featured, though I did not know it or them at the time, Masters Nishiyama, Shoji, Kanazawa, and Mikami among others. They were in their prime. There were scenes of breaking roofing tiles, which influenced me a great deal. That got me hooked on karate.


Soon after, a friend of mine learned how to toughen his hand, which felt like a rock. He learnt this from an earlier karate book. I was very impressed and immediately started training as best as I could. Soon, both of my hands were developed to the extent I could break three-four inches of solid concrete blocks, stacked on top of each other without spaces, with a single blow. My hands were rock hard and like sandpaper.


After a couple years of self training, I joined a local karate club and when it later folded, I began to train with the visiting instructor from Venezuela. His name was Christian and he taught basic karate. In 1968, he left Guyana and I open my own dojo. I recently returned to Guyana to celebrate 40 years since my first dojo. The First Lady of Guyana is our patron and was in attendance.


Frank Woon A Tai demonstrating his strength


(SB)     What was your first immediate impression of karate?


(FWAT)     Wow, this is for me!


(SB)     Your other exposure to JKA Karate was in form of ‘Dynamic Karate’ by Masatoshi Nakayama am I correct? Was this book difficult to get hold of at the time?


(FWAT)     Yes, but that was years after the movie. When I saw the movie, I did not know anything about karate and the JKA. I also got hold of Master Nakayama’s 8mm black and white film on all aspects of karate and all the kata. As well, I acquired a copy of Master Nishiyama and Brown’s book.


(SB)     Was the karate in this groundbreaking book different to what you had experienced through that first visiting instructor?


(FWAT)     Yes, Master Nakayama’s book was the real thing and much more technical. I loved the pictures of all the masters. I wanted to be like them. Master Okazaki’s photos excited me.


(SB)     And did you proceed to personally study and practice as demonstrated as shown in ‘Dynamic Karate’?


(FWAT)     Yes, with great enthusiasm. I became passionate about what the book offered; it became my Karate Bible.


(SB)     In what year did you decide to travel to England?


(FWAT)     In 1970.


(SB)     What had you heard of Sensei Keinosuke Enoeda before travelling to the UK?


(FWAT)     Actually, I intended to go there to train under Master Kanazawa, but learned he had moved back to Japan. I saw Master Enoeda in Dynamic Karate and in the 8mm film.


(SB)     Why had you wanted to go and train with Sensei Kanazawa? Had you heard of his reputation or seen footage of him?


(FWAT)     One of my students, Anthony Gomes trained with him in England and told me he was in charge. Yes, I had heard of his reputation and seen footage of him.


(SB)     Where did you train in England?


(FWAT)     At the Budokwai.


(SB)     Can you please tell us about the training you experienced with Sensei Enoeda in the UK, and who did you train alongside at that time?


(FWAT)     It was so long ago and I do not remember anyone in particular. We were all new to karate.


(SB)     Do you have any stories from your time in England that you would like to share with our readers?


(FWAT)     Not really, but I received most of my training with Sensei Kato. He gave me daily private lessons on the lawn of his apartment.


On one occasion, when I was at Master Enoeda’s residence he was preparing to take a bath. The doorbell rang and in walked none other than Master Nakayama. Master Enoeda forgot about his bath, which flooded the bathroom and I had the pleasure of mopping the floor.


(SB)     You mentioned that you received much of your training from Sensei Kato during this time. What was the training like with him, could you tell us about him and his karate?


(FWAT)     He taught me all the kata I saw in the 8mm footage. He concentrated on those and corrected me. Remember, I learned those kata by watching the film only.


(SB)     A year after your trip to England, you decided to make the profound trip to Japan. After getting off the plane, you immediately went to the JKA HQ am I correct?


(FWAT)     Yes, that is correct. It took me three days to get there. I was greeted by Master Takagi, the general manager. He told me to go watch the class. My first impression opened my eyes wide. As I sat watching, one black belt was beating the hell out of another black belt and even though he was bleeding profusely, the beating did not stop - real blows. Finally, the instructor put a stop to the fight and sent the victim on the balcony to cool off. It however, did not deter me as I had heard of this type of training and was prepared for it. I did not mind the contact; because I had toughened my body by having my students hit me with their blows.


Frank Woon A Tai


(SB)     Was that level of contact a typical example of the degree of contact allowed at the dojos of Japan?


(FWAT)     Yes it was. Years later, I represented Master Nakayama’s dojo in the All Japan Championships. After seeing all the contact, I decided to hit my opponent before he hit me and in doing so I was disqualified.


(SB)     Were you not fearful at all, and did you yourself experience this level of contact?


(FWAT)     No, and yes. I was not fearful at all because I was young and very, very strong. I have many scars from contact I received in the dojo and in competition. However today, I regret all the injuries I suffered. Every waking day reminds me of its stupidity…pain, pain, pain. That’s what you can look forward to if you like contact. The beauty of true karate lies in the ability to stop the blow just short of the target. In this way, karate is very enjoyable. In North America, a trip to the dentist is very costly. Moreover, everything is based on safety. It is more difficult to stop just short of contact than to make contact. It is the only way to perform Ikken Hisatsu.


(SB)     While there, you trained intensively on as many classes as possible. Who took the most of the classes while you were there?


(FWAT)     Masters: Nakayama, Ito, Shoji, Kanazawa, Asai, the late Yoshimasa Takahashi who graded me to shodan, Ueki, Oishi, Mabuchi, Yano, Tabata, Isaka, Takashina, Osaka, Yahara, and many others. They were all awesome! I was in Karate Heaven!


(SB)     Wow what a line up of instructors. Who influenced you most while you were there would you say?


(FWAT)     Master Nakayama of course and masters Kanazawa, Ueki, and Yahara.


(SB)     You mention above that you trained with Sensei Yano, who of course is infamous for his tough training. What do you recall from your sessions with him, any memories?


(FWAT)     His classes were very hard and rough. However, most of the times he assisted another instructor. 


(SB)     Who were your peers during the training, who was in the line up with you?


(FWAT)     I was only 21 years old and the only friend I remember was George from Lebanon who showed me the ropes. He later became Master Yahara’s assistant. George spoke fluent Japanese and set me up at a Ryokan. There were not many non Japanese karate-ka training at the HQ dojo at the time. Actually there were only a few. In later trips, Stan Schmidt and I trained at the Hoitsugan.


(SB)     Could you please tell us about the training? Japanese training the was extremely rigorous and intensely basic. What were the most significant things you learned from your training there?


(FWAT)     I learned how to develop correct basics and how to apply them with power, speed, and sharpness. There were constant repetitions everyday. I trained in the morning foreign class, a private class with Yahara Sensei, and two Japanese classes in the evenings. After the morning class, I had to wait until Yahara Sensei finished training in the instructors’ class. It was open only to Japanese instructors and kenshusei and a curtain screen was drawn across the dojo so no one could watch the training. Only their feet were visible under the curtain. Yahara Sensei always taught me basics and kata. On a few occasions, he sparred with me. I guess he liked me, because he did not beat me up. Actually, all the instructors were kind towards me. I guess they felt I was not a threat to them. Training with Master Kanazawa was great. In one class he made us do about a thousand punches. Master Ueki was extremely fast with his feet. His kicking was amazing.


(SB)     You have been quoted as saying that ‘Everything I learned about kata comes from Master Nakayama’. Can you please tell us about your time studying with Master Nakayama, and could you share some stories that you have of him?


(FWAT)     I trained with him at the JKA HQ, and at the Hoitsugan on other trips. I made many trips to Japan. I hosted him when I lived in Guyana and again, when I lived in Jamaica. He also taught me in Philadelphia at Master Camps and at other special seminars. Whenever he was visiting Master Okazaki, I would drive from Toronto to train with him. I also hosted him in Toronto a year before he passed away. We became very close, because he knew Master Okazaki liked me. There are many stories to tell about our experiences in the Caribbean. I will tell them in my memoirs, which is due in the spring 2009. He was a great teacher with an amazing personality. He was very gentle and his timing and kime were of the highest level. I did a few demonstrations with him in Guyana at the Caribbean Championships in 1979. He was a perfectionist. He always found time to talk with you and was a down to earth person.


When I hosted him in Jamaica in 1978, I picked him and Master Okazaki up at the airport in my old Volkswagen beetle. As luck would have it, my battery died at a stop sign. I still cannot believe, he and Master Okazaki got out and gave the car a push start. Master Okazaki and I still laugh about it today.


(SB)     What a wonderful story…is this humble attitude most commonly attributed with the most senior instructors who have no ego and nothing to prove? Is this your experience?


(FWAT)     Yes, it is. That’s why they are special in my life.


(SB)     What were the most important things you learned from Master Nakayama about kata?


(FWAT)     I learned about the importance of correct form and the strength of such form. He taught me all fifteen kata as well as some of the other ones above the fifteen. He always found the strongest body and technique position in the essence of Ikken Hisatsu. He taught the elbows must be one fist from the body in blocks. He emphasised when moving backward, the heel must not float off the floor. He showed me how to bring out the beauty in any kata. He was a man who loved nature and showed me connections to nature and kata. On one visit to Niagara Falls, he took many video shots with his camera. Later, he lost his footage and was very sad. I offered to go back to the Falls to shoot some for him. His face immediately lit up and he went to great lengths to tell me how he wanted the shots and from what angle.

I was at his dojo when he photographed and directed Master Okazaki performing Kanku-dai, and Master Shirai performing Bassai-dai, for his Best Karate Series. To watch the ease in which Master Okazaki performed his flawless kata, and the strength of Master Shirai’s Bassai-dai was a rare opportunity and quite a treat.


(SB)     Wow, being present in such an iconic moment in karate history must make you very proud. Was Master Nakayama an avid photographer?


(FWAT)     Yes, when he toured, he photographed or video taped everything. When he was in Jamaica, there was a spontaneous riot during our trip. He wanted to get out of the car to photograph the action. We whisked him back to his hotel despite his protest.


Frank Woon A Tai with Masatoshi Nakayama


(SB)     Coming off course a second, you of course famously won the Pan American Kata Championships in 1978. Kata I hear has a very important part in your life. Could you please define your relationship with kata? Is it simply a physical relationship or does it go deeper than that?


(FWAT)     It goes deeper. My kata at the time was Nijushiho. I did it in the finals of the IAKF World Championships in 1975. I believe one must chose a kata that is tailored made for them. For example, if one chooses Enpi, then one must become a flying swallow in feeling when performing the kata; likewise of Gankaku. On day, as I was sitting on the beach in St. Vincent contemplating kata, I noticed a leaf was being washed ashore with the surf, and back out again. I immediately made the connection with the first, second, and third movements in Nijushiho. To me kata is the essence of karate. Kihon teaches us how to develop basics, and kumite, how to apply those basics. But kata teaches how to defend against multiple attackers. Kata has a wide array of techniques and if one masters how to use those techniques effectively, then one is way ahead of others. I have used this type of training throughout my very successful tournament career.


(SB)     How would you define a beautiful kata? What are the essential ingredients?


(FWAT)     The essential three elements of karate: correct application of power, speed of technique, and body expansion and contraction. Furthermore, it must be performed with one’s ki – mental energy and feeling. Of course the kata must suit one’s body structure.


(SB)     What is your favourite kata and why?


(FWAT)     As stated, Nijushiho for its connection to nature. However, I have changed my kata to Hangetsu because of my age and body condition. I did Hangetsu for my eighth dan examination, because I fell in the snow and injured my knee. It was not showing signs of healing in time for my examination and thus I switched kata. I have also made connections with Hangetsu and the moon and realised I had to bring out the beauty of the kata-like that of the beauty of the moon. Also in brief, the slow parts represent the gravitational pull of the moon on water and when that is connected to the composition of the muscle water content in our bodies that makes sense.


(SB)     You have been quoted as saying that Nakayama insisted that through controlling your body in kata you could control your opponent. How do you take the principles found in kata into the real of kumite where structured stances, locked out punches and defined timing is unseen?


(FWAT)     Kihon evolves into kumite and eventually jiyu kumite. That however uses limited techniques-the straight punch, front and roundhouse kicks, a back fist and recently the ridge hand strike. But kata bunkai, done using all the techniques in a free fighting format is very different. To understand what I am talking about I recommend viewing my DVD, Soul of Kata.


Shodan means mastery of the basic techniques and the ability to use those techniques effectively. For nidan and above, one must demonstrate the ability to move from a free style position, to a traditional position to execute the technique and back out to a free style position. It is the same with free kata bunkai.


There are three distance ranges in karate and if you master them coupled with correct body shifting, no one can touch you, much like the mongoose and snake. Therefore, you can control your opponent.


(SB)     What are these three distance ranges? And which of these do you think is the most important to master?


(FWAT)     The three distance ranges are: The actual distance between you and your opponent, your opponent’s distance, and your distance. The most important is my distance. I must be close enough to hit my opponent, but far enough to avoid his attack.


Frank Woon A Tai in Tournament


(SB)     Coming back on track, after training in Japan, upon your return home you contacted Sensei Okazaki. You have said that Sensei Okazaki’s teaching is the best that you have experienced. Could you expand upon this and explain why?


(FWAT)     It would take all day, but here goes: Master Takagi told me to train with Master Okazaki because he was closer to Guyana. When I first brought him to Guyana in the early 1970s, he was very approachable, friendly, kind, thoughtful, and very relaxed. It shattered my stereotypical image of a great karate master. Later, when he began to teach us in our outdoor dojo, he seemed like superman. The things he could do with his body were unbelievable. He was, and still is today, as flexible as a newborn baby. When he did a jodan yoko-geri kekomi, his hip was thrust out at a 45 degree angle and lo and behold, he held that position for a few seconds. I could not believe it!


Master Okazaki’s knowledge of English and the fact he has lived in the USA since 1961, has given him an understanding of how to blend Japanese traditional karate-do training in the 21st Century and how to make it relevant. He has moved with the times and yet, maintains tradition.


Guyana was, and still is, a very poor country. Master Okazaki has never failed to go to Guyana even when we could not afford to fully compensate him. He has been going there for more then 35 years.


(SB)     You have had a long and very close relationship with Master Okazaki for a very long time. As a human being – outside and beyond karate - why is he so important to you?


(FWAT)     He is my karate father and I love him to death.


(SB)     Do you have any fond memories of Sensei Okazaki that you could share with us as we would love to hear about them?


(FWAT)     When he was teaching us in our outdoor dojo in Guyana, darkness approached; this meant mosquitoes would be out. He was swarmed and bitten all over. As well, the ants also had a good taste of him. Guyanese are immune to mosquito bites. Despite his discomfort, he did not get angry and continued to teach us. On another occasion, in St. Vincent, he slept with his windows open. Then it began to rain and he had thousands of mosquitoes for company that night. He told me he had to sleep with a thin bed sheet over his entire body and still, he was bitten through the sheet. We always laugh about it.


(SB)     You mention Sensei Okazaki’s kicking ability, and you say that he is as flexible as a newborn baby. Does he still work for flexibility now?


(FWAT)     Yes, he trains all the time. After Master Camp last year, as we were all packing to return home, he was training by himself in the Nakayama dojo at camp. If I, or any of the other American instructors teach class, he and Master Yaguchi train at the back of the class. It is very inspiring.


(SB)     And what about Sensei Yaguchi – I hear you have a wonderful relationship with him also. Could you please say a little something about him for us?


(FWAT)     He is my humorous karate uncle and a great and sincere friend. He is full of energy and life. He is very wise and advises me on any subject. He makes every karate problem seem so logical and easy. Master Yaguchi is very strong. He is like a brick. He always makes me laugh. His wife is the same and very adorable. She is just as funny as him. However, I admire him for his loyalty and dedication to Master Okazaki. He has taught me the values and importance of sincerity and loyalty.


(SB)     Why do you think he has remained so loyal to Sensei Okazaki? Do they share a unique relationship?


(FWAT)     Yes they do. They go way back. As well, Master Yaguchi is a man of principle and values. He follows the Dojo Kun, ‘be faithful.’ Some may interpret it as being faithful to themselves, but to me that is selfish. I believe when one joins a dojo, they owe their allegiance to their first instructor, especially if a bond develops between them and the instructor makes a difference in their life and karate career. Many students forget what their instructor did for them. This is much like what a parent does for a child. Whenever, Masters Okazaki and Yaguchi get together, they play like children, honestly. However, Master Yaguchi never crosses the line and maintains the greatest of respect for him. Master Okazaki is also a great karate treasure.


(SB)     You also have said that everything you learned about ‘kumite came from Nishiyama Sensei’. Can you please tell us a little about your training with him and the influence he had on your karate?


(FWAT)     I trained with Master Nishiyama before he and Master Okazaki split. I was a founding member of his Pan American Karate Union (PAKU) representing Guyana, at the Rio de Janeiro, Brazil meet in 1973, as well as a founding member of the International Amateur Karate Federation (IAKF) in New York, in 1974. The IAKF was the predecessor to the ITKF. I led the Guyana team at his first IAKF World Championships in 1975 in California. I think I placed seventh in kata. I loved him and Master Okazaki as my parents. However, I decided to stay with Master Okazaki. During a week-long judges’ seminar in Mexico City in 1978, Master Nishiyama summoned me to a private meeting in the presence of Matsura Sensei of Mexico. He made offers to me if I stayed with him. I never discuss what those offers were as I have the greatest amount of respect for him. In any case they were not unreasonable. I was reunified with him later in Canada and I hosted him in Toronto in 1999.

He was simply, a ‘karate genius.’ His knowledge of all aspects of karate was amazing. I have even been influenced by his writing style. All my karate projects are patterned after his.


Frank Woon A Tai engaging in Kumite


(SB)     You mention that he is a karate genius. Can you please give us an insight into the specific things you learned form him?


(FWAT)     I learnt from him the scientific principles and mechanics of any technique. He could dissect any technique and explain it in detail in his own special way.


(SB)     Very recently, Sensei Nishiyama has of course very sadly passed away. What kind of an impact do you think that will have for karate in the states? What has the karate community lost through his passing?


(FWAT)     The karate community has lost one of its greatest treasures. There was only one Master Nishiyama. He was a unique man. However, there are many of us willing and able to pass on his knowledge. Also, he has left a great deal of his written work for future generations.


(SB)     In what year did you undergo the JKA/ISKF Instructor Training Programme?


(FWAT)     I enrolled in 1974 under Master Nishiyama and re-enrolled again in 1976 under Master Okazaki. Philadelphia was more convenient to travel to than California from Guyana. I finished my training in 1979. In 1989, all ISKF Instructors had to be re-certified again under the JKA’s new licence rules. Master Asai was in charge then. We were all issued with the new JKA Licences after undergoing physical and written examinations again. Over the years, many JKA Masters taught us. All technical credits required their signatures after attending special instructor classes. We were required to submit 43 academic essays in a comprehensive list of subjects ranging from history to philosophy to kinesiology and health management. What is unique about the JKA/ISKF Instructor Programme, is the fact Master Okazaki was among the first to coach it at the inception of the JKA Programme in Japan in the late 1950s. Thus, we are very fortunate to have him run this same programme in the ISKF.


(SB)     What did you experience on the programme, what was the training like?


(FWAT)     It varied from instructor to instructor. Each of them had their own teaching style. Masters Yaguchi, Takashina, and Koyama gave very hard classes, while Masters Okazaki and Mikami gave informative classes. The same is true of the other visiting instructors from JKA HQ. I loved Master Nakayama’s classes.


(SB)     In what ways do you think you developed because of your experiences in the programme? How did it expand your understanding?


(FWAT)     The ISKF Programme stresses character development and refinement of the principles of Masters Funakoshi and Nakayama. All ISKF instructors are expected to graduate without ego or less of it thereof. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of some who graduated from other programmes.


Researching and writing the essays made it compulsory to understand the each subject in depth. It is much like that of only having the ability to drive a car without knowing how the car works and how it runs. I believe it is the same workload of a university B.A. Programme and thus, its equivalent. Master Okazaki says it is like a M. A. Programme.


(SB)     In 1976, you became Chief Instructor of Jamaica. Was karate already established or in the process of being established there when you took this position?


(FWAT)     It was already established.


(SB)     Why did you decide to go to Jamaica?


(FWAT)     My student, Anthony Gomes had moved there and was helping the Jamaican Association. He offered me the job.




(SB)     In 1981, you moved to Canada, how did it feel having to start again?



(FWAT)     It was like a great challenge.


(SB)     You to this day continue to head JKA/ISKF Karate in Canada. What do you see for the future of karate for your pupils?


(FWAT)     Sadly, we are now independent of the JKA. However, the future of the ISKF is great and exciting. We have now moved from a Pan American organization to a global one with more that 40 countries. The recent ISKF World Cup I hosted in Toronto was an enormous success. It solidified the fact that the ISKF is a very large and strong organization. The ISKF has represented the JKA in the Western hemisphere since 1977. Our standards are the same as before. Masters Okazaki and Yaguchi will not lower their standards. We invite other countries to join the ISKF. This is a great opportunity.


(SB)     The likes of Okazaki Sensei, Yaguchi Sensei, Nishiyama Sensei and the like are from an older generation where budo is central to their study and mentality. How do they try and maintain this mentality in their western students of 2008?


(FWAT)     Modernity and tradition are what attracts our students to karate in the ISKF. This was the theme of the world cup.


(SB)     Central to Budo is the Seika Tanden. Can you please tell us your understanding of the Seika Tanden and its role in karate?


(FWAT)     While the source of karate’s devastating power is mental, for the mind controls the body, the seika-tanden is the source of physical power. It is used in six ways. Performing karate techniques without the use of the seika-tanden is useless and very weak. One cannot execute the single blow concept without it.


(SB)     What are these six ways that the seika-tanden can be used?


(FWAT)     Hip: vibration, thrusting, rotation, driving up and down, and like a pendulum – for kicking. Each is used for a specific technique application. For example, hip vibration is used when one is stationary. It is used a great deal in Tekki kata.


(SB)     Can we please say a big thank you for this opportunity to interview you and may we wish you every success for the future?



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