Joint Applied Karate Seminar (John Johnston & Iain Abernethy)

This was a great seminar hosted by 2 world class instructors, held on the 4th May 2013.

Sensei John Johnston in action

Sensei John Johnston, 7th Dan, has worked nightclub doors in one of UK’s roughest city’s.  He’s been a high level competitor (back when competitions were a bit more “Wild West”) and was Geoff Thompson’s first martial arts instructor, introducing Geoff to the concept of reality based martial arts.

Iain Abernethy & I (previous course)

With him was Sensei Iain Abernethy, 6th Dan, who has taught all over the world, authored numerous books on the practical application of Karate kata bunkai and has produced a number of DVD’s.  The chance to train with both of them in one seminar was not to be missed.

There were Karateka there from numerous different styles and it was nice to see some Taekwondo guys too.  I was also a bit surprised to see Jamie Clubb there.  He’s not an easy guy to pigeon-hole, but if you had to you’d probably put him primarily in the Reality Based Martial Arts camp.  Yet here he was training with 2 traditional Karate guys, which is a testament their practical and effective approach and application of their art.

The first session was taken by John Johnston, which looked at the use of “blocking” techniques for destabilising, disruption and striking.  We started by looking at using basic blocks for covering up the head to absorb haymakers whilst moving in on an opponent and countering at close quarters.

We also looked at double blocks (simultaneous Lower Block with Inside Block, then the same on the other side), where the arms cross over each other in front of the body (as in the 2nd and 4th movements of Heian/Pinan Sandan).  Rather than blocking 2 attacks simultaneously (as used to be taught by our Japanese masters), this was used to block one high attack with the top hand, then use the second hand to come up to trap and secure the attacking hand, leaving the attacker vulnerable to a counter.

Another example was taken from Heian/Pinan Godan where the attacker grabbed the wrist with a cross hand grab and prepared to strike with their other hand.  The defender would move to the side, away from the attackers striking hand whist applying Uchi Uke (Inside Block) with the arm that had been grabbed.  This releases (or at least weakens) the attackers hold and sets them up for a counter.  At all times John emphasised that we should use whatever counter presented itself, rather than rigidly following the kata and thinking that we must follow up strictly with whatever the next kata move might be.

Numerous other examples followed with counters including releases from grabs, taking the attackers balance, striking and taking them to the floor; all taken from or set up by basic blocks.

The second session was taken by Iain Abernethy which looked at grappling and gripping drills from a Karate perspective.  Iain has a lot of Judo experience as well, but is very clear on the different requirements of Judo compared to Karate/self protection.

The first emphasis was on establishing a grappling hold which would prevent the opponent from being able to strike us (not an issue in Judo).  This involved placing one hand round the back of opponents head and pulling it in to you so as to prevent head-butts (and bringing in your own head in tight as well).  This arm was also “inside” the opponents arm so making their arm less effective to attack you.  Your opposite arm circles over the top of your opponents arm to secure it to your own body, again to neutralise it.  We had to circle over the top of their arm, as they could escape much easier if we tried to circle from underneath.

From here Iain introduced drills where the person at the disadvantage could reverse the position so they they had the advantage.  Then we added to the drill to block the previous move and keep the advantage and so on.  It is too complex to explain accurately without the use of many pictures or a videos (which I don’t have) and would take pages to explain.  So I’m going to cop out on that one.  You’d have to experience it for yourself to really understand, but I can say that it was a very clever and practical drill covering an area that most Karateka/TKD practitioners do not explore.

The third session was back to John for bunkai of the Shotokan kata, Wankan.  John explained that bunkai does not just mean “application” as it is often taken to mean, but it means “analysis”.  We should analyse not just the different movements of the kata, but the different attacks we might face, size/strength differences that we might encounter and the environment we might be in.

He made his point quite succinctly when he called up a young lad (probably early teens) and the smallest person in the room and told the lad “pick me up throw me”.  There was a pause and a silence, so John repeated he himself.  This time there was some laughter as people realised the point that John was making.  It is no good saying that any given application will work for everybody.  There was no way that the small lad would be able to pick up and throw a big man like John, so just teaching a given movement such as a throw and a throw only would be selling the bunkai short.

We looked at the first movement of Wankan kata which is normally seen as a high X block, or raising your arms between the attackers arms when he has a 2 handed hold to your neck, then lowering and separating your own arms to break his grip.  John gave us several potential uses for this movement including moving inside a haymaker and blocking with both arms and following up with a strike, or moving inside a haymaker and blocking with one hand whilst simultaneously striking with the hand nearest to the opponents head.

Other applications included stepping to the outside of a straight punch and using both arm to grab the attacking arm and apply an arm lock/take down.

At this point John told us that he wanted us to “do my job for me”.  By that he meant that we should experiment and work out applications for ourselves; applications which suit our own build, size, strength and experience.  In conversation with him later, we discussed how many people don’t realise that they are actually allowed to do this and wait for somebody to teach them every move.  The concept of finding out what suits you, (rather than one size fits all approach) is very central to John’s teaching.

Next comes 3 rapid steps forward with the arms held up (forearms together) in front of the face, followed by a reverse block and punch.  John demonstrated this as grabbing somebody by the lapels (or wherever convenient) and forcefully marching them backwards to take them off balance, then use the reverse block (see kata) to pull their leading arm to the side where it is neutralised, whilst turning their body so that they can’t use their reverse side either.  They are left we no hands that they can use, whilst you have one holding and one free to punch.  Again we were encouraged to experiment with this to find what worked for us best.

A few more applications followed, then back to Iain for the fourth and final session, covering throws and takedowns.  This built up on Iain’s earlier session on gripping.  Having gotton ourselves into a position of a good grip, we could then go for a throw or takedown.  Iain explained that although throws are a good tool for our arsenal of techniques, they should always be for back up and not what we rely on.  A strike or punch can incapacitate somebody much more quickly and effectively than a throw/takedown, less skill is required and there is less to go wrong.

Iain also explained how a number of throws had appeared in Gichin Funakoshi’s early books, yet they had been removed from the later editions and why the requirements of Karate/self protection throws would be different to those of Judo.  We then worked our way through Funakoshi’s original 10 throws, some of which I’d never seen before.  Rather than blocking a punch then throwing, we started from the gripping positions used in Iain’s earlier session.

Overall it was a great seminar bringing together people from a number of styles.  Both instructors were approachable, helpful and extremely knowledgable.  I would certainly recommend either of them in isolation, but together, you’ve got to go.

Further information on their up-coming course and contact details for booking are available on their websites.

Sensei Johnston’s courses are available at:  www.adaptivekarate.com/events
Sensei Abernethy’s courses are available at: www.iainabernethy.co.uk/seminar-dates

Psyche of a Warrior: John Johnston by Jamie Clubb

My attention was recently drawn to a post on Sensei John Johnston’s Adaptive Karate Blog.  This post has been written by Jamie Clubb and was about John Johnston himself.  It also quotes Geoff Thompson a number of times talking about his training and experiences with John Johnston.   Having interviewed Sensei Johnston myself some time ago and also had the privilege to train with him, I was of course interested as this is a man that I hold in very high regard.

Also, during an age where traditional martial arts come are criticised so much, it is good to see a classical traditional martial artist getting so much respect from some of the leaders in the world of Reality Based Martial Arts.

Anyway, I don’t often do this, but I thought I’d reproduce the post share it with you here.  The original posting can be found at:  http://adaptivekarateblog.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/psyche-of-a-warrior-john-johnston-by-jamie-clubb/

So, over to Jamie:-

 

“John was and still remains probably the greatest influence to my development in martial arts, taking me through all those vital fundamental lessons, offering me (free) private lessons when he saw my potential; he even bought a suit and belt for me when I didn’t have enough money. He is a great influence and a great friend and a powerful presence in British martial arts. Without John I would not in any way be doing what I am doing today” – Geoff Thompson (BAFTA award winner, best-selling author and world authority on martial arts and self defence)

It is too easy for my generation to be dismissive of traditional martial arts. Most of us began our training when the most popular systems had become commercialized and branded. We witnessed the dawn of the McDojo. The mystique of the 1970s’ Kung Fu Boom and the 1980s’ Ninja-mania was over when we began. The 1990s spawned some huge changes in the martial arts world; a fair amount was instigated by criticism of the old guard. This led the birth of the mainstream “Reality-Based Self Defence” movement and the emergence of “Mixed Martial Arts” as a limited rules combat sport. The McDojos didn’t decrease; in fact, they continued to grow along with the mystical schools. More martial arts were discovered and created. Along the way revisionists took the traditional martial arts back to their functional roots and created another subculture. However, there is still yet another area of training from the pre-cynicism and scepticism of the early ‘90s that is still healthy today and is also being “re-discovered”. These were tough instructors who believed in teaching the hard basics of their art, who were more concerned with developing the original intentions of the “do” way of early 20th century Japan than anything else. They came from an era when karate was still a minority quantity in the west, when the training was tough and when the rank of black belt was rarely seen in the UK. John Johnston comes from that era and today he embodies the strength of his times.

John ran a Shotokan karate dojo in Coventry. Among his students would be the man who would spearhead much of the martial arts controversy in the 1990s, Geoff Thompson. This article varies from many others I have written on individual martial artists in that I have stepped aside from giving my personal reflections and sought those of Geoff’s. Geoff had a profound influence over my development in the martial arts during the early ‘90s and he continues to do so today. Therefore, I thought it would be interesting and perhaps more revealing to co-interview Geoff about his experiences with John rather to give any surface impressions the man made on me. To begin with I asked Geoff to sum John up to me:

“I first started training with John in the early ‘80s, before my door period, way before leaving my real job to train full time; in fact I got my black belt with Enoida sensei in karate under John’s tuition. He had a big class and he had a strong reputation as a former fighter and city doorman, and as a class karateka. His karate was and still is very dynamic, he is a big man and when he moves the whole room crackles. For a big man he is very fast.  He was also as a man that spoke his mind and not everyone liked that (I did), so he did not suffer fools. It is what really drew me to him”.

To John mindset, attitude and the psyche of the individual is the foundation of the good karateka. He had a tough upbringing, which inspired him first to fight and later to seek discipline through fighting:

“I was a mixed race kid growing up in Coventry just after the war had finished. I mentioned the war because if people understand their history, they will understand that colour prejudice was a propaganda tool that the American administration used to keep their coloured GIs segregated from the British public, mainly the women.  Therefore it was very strong in the minds of a lot of adults and was consequently passed onto their children. I was brought up by my English Grandparents who were very loving, but lacked the understanding to be able to equip me to deal with the overt prejudice that I found, other than to tell me that if I was picked on I was to fight back. Consequently I was in a lot of fights at school and at play. I had to fight from infant school through to my second year at comprehensive school. I was not bullied after that because I had dealt with most of it by then. At that time, there were only five coloured kids at my senior school, which made me a target.”

Being naturally athletic, John was not your obvious victim of bullying. This only goes to show how bad racial tensions were at the time and how deep the propaganda was in the collective psychology of those growing up during the era of John’s childhood. Born in 1951, he would have experienced the nationalist racism of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s that was inspired over fears regarding mass-immigration. John did not seek martial arts to solve his bullying problem – he would be 20 years old before he took up karate. He learnt how to fight well through hard experience and understanding how to utilize his natural attributes. He was an able rugby player at school, becoming a member of the Warwickshire Colts and then later the Coventry Welsh. He boxed for a little while and dabbled a bit in judo, but it was karate that eventually captured his heart.

“I was influenced by such films as ‘Our Man Flint’, starring James Coburn, ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, starring Frank Sinatra, and later the Bruce Lee films. Having looked at several kung fu and karate clubs in the area I was fortunate to watch a class taken by Rick Jackson shortly after he had returned from training in Japan. I instinctively knew that Shotokan suited my physiology.”

Rick Jackson had recently been training in Japan. A much revered instructor, Rick taught John for two years. John’s dedication to the art was evident and it wasn’t long before he was entrusted with his own class to teach at Henley College. The scarcity of British born karate black belts in the early ‘70s was probably comparable to the number of British Brazilian jiu jitsu black belts in the 2000s. John was just a green belt when he first taught. Always the avid sportsman he took to karate kumite with predictable enthusiasm and vigour. In fact, it would seem he was a little too enthusiastic in his first competition when, as a purple belt, he was disqualified for excessive contact at the Larcano Ballroom in 1973.

However, he would soon become a regular on the competition circuit, fighting successfully at regional and national level competitions. This helped prove himself to the higher echelons of the British karate scene. He and his fellow club members began training with the British squad at the notorious Longford Dojo. Here he would trade blows with some of the best in the sport, and as time went on he became far more than a plucky sparring partner. John rose through the Shotokan ranks, taking instruction from some of the luminaries of his day such as Enoeda Sensei, Kawazoe Sensei and Andy Sherry. Despite learning some control from his early days on the tournament circuit, John was still feared for his devastating sweeps. By the time he was running his own clubs as a professional instructor he had caught the attention of the best in the sport and was selected for the Central Region Squad coached the British and European Champion, Frank Brennan.

The esteem that John was to be held in by his peers was explained to me by Geoff Thompson, who is one of today’s most respected martial arts instructors:

“He was a senior with the KUGB (Karate Union of Great Britain) and everyone knew at the time that they were the elite, it was an amazing association manned by some very serious players, Terry O’Neil, Frank Brennan, Andy Sherry, Bob Poynton, Ronnie Christopher to mention just a few. Just getting a brown belt with these folk was seen as top end, so getting my black belt with them was a life time ambition”.

And yet despite this awe he was held in and his reputation for not “suffering fools”, John, according to Geoff, was a man that was generous with his time and cared about people. Long time readers of Geoff Thompson’s work will be only too aware of the author’s dark days of regularly jumping from job to job. During some of these transient periods of Geoff’s life in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, John ran a building company and gave Geoff work:

“I even worked for him for a time, again there was always the sense with John that even if he didn’t have any work for me, he’d find work for me, he was that kind of person”.

However, John was always a realist when it came to self defence side of martial arts training. His initial karate training can be seen as a type of buffer period that helped turn the street fighter who was born in order to cope with childhood violence into a warrior that could turn his skills to a profession. Three years after his first lesson he began work as a doorman. He worked in Coventry during a time when the city had a fearsome reputation for violence. This was just prior to the era that Geoff made famous in his autobiography “Watch my Back”. John ended up becoming head doorman of a top Coventry nightclub and explained to me what a career in door security was like in those days:

“Initially the majority [of doormen] were boxers and a couple were rugby players. A lot of the guys that I worked with had criminal records for violence and it was after a particularly bad incident at a club that the police made it a condition that no one with a criminal record could work on the doors. It was at this point that I was promoted to head doorman and had to find replacement staff which I recruited from the karate club I was training at and a kung fu club”.

His work in door security was very successful. Geoff Thompson told me that John was once probably “the top doorman in the city”. This reputation led John onto other security work including “overt and covert operations protecting high profile business men, TV personalities and recording artists”. The “Adaptive” karate he teaches today doesn’t fall into the category of either literal interpretation, as portrayed by the pre-arranged sparring drills promoted in the 20th century, or the bunkai promoted today by the likes of Iain Abernethy and Gavin Mulholland. It is a more principle-based approach than a dissection or testing of bunkai. John told me,

“I feel that my karate is more instinctual than conceptual, so it isn’t easy to translate it to the written page. I try to encourage students to develop a very positive attitude when training, as well as being honest and realistic about real combat. I try to get them to understand that it’s not just physical; there is a psychological aspect which is also affected by the chemical reactions within the body. I believe that if you have these precepts in mind when you engage in training, and the training is hard and focused, you can help prepare them for the eventuality of conflict, and also give them the tools to be able to deal with conflict with the possibility of resolving it without resorting to violence, but worse case scenario, to be able to manage the situation with a favourable outcome”

“I stayed with Karate because its philosophy and its rigorous training methods have helped me to shape my life and has steered me in a direction which has been good for my wellbeing.

“I still teach and train in traditional Shotokan karate but I believe that to make it viable, the mind set in conjunction with the techniques require adaptation to be able to apply them in a way which would be effective. You can take competition techniques, Kata sequences and adapt them for street level protection. It’s not only the physical delivery of techniques that require adaptation but also you have to adapt your psyche”.

The mindset, attitude and psyche seem to mean everything to John and his approach to martial arts. It is something that I have noticed most experienced martial artists with a strong background in handling violence outside of their training came back to when they teach. When I pushed John on this subject he explained,

“I would say that attitude is not only a key part for the foundation of martial arts and self defence training, but is paramount and fundamental to a successful outcome, more so than the physical. If you train for competition you are preparing to attempt to win competition, however, if you prepare for war, you are attempting to avoid war. The attitude and mindset for these two concepts, albeit related are completely different”.

Today the martial arts world is very open to cross-training and hosting other martial arts and it is hard to remember a time when the norm was for most clubs to forbid training at another school. Knowing that much of the controversy surrounding Geoff’s early work came from his experiences in traditional martial arts, I wondered how he correlated this with his time training under John:

“It is hard to find other good teachers after working for so long with John because he was so charismatic; many of the people I went to afterwards, in my search for more martial arts information, were diluted by comparison. But he did also encourage me to explore, he was not one of these ‘jealous husband’ teachers that were afraid of you training with anyone else. Through John’s inspiration I later took my skills to the nightclubs and pubs of the Coventry to further forge and develop myself, and later when I wrote my first book, ‘Watch my Back’, he was very encouraging”.

Geoff Thompson often talks about stepping outside of comfort zones. Indeed, much of his philosophy is steep in metaphors about putting yourself into the forge as often as possible and moving toward discomfort in order to achieve the targets you desire. I can’t help but wonder whether John Johnston’s hard earned lessons didn’t have some degree of influence over him. John stepped from an outside world that had shown him cruel violent and irrational persecution and into another focused and disciplined type of discomfort. I asked John what the karate was like when he began and the changes he has seen during his lifetime.

“The Karate that was being taught at that time was very basic and very strong physically and mentally and often brutal, with a lot of misguided honesty to it”.

I queried what he meant by “misguided honesty”

“Misguided honesty or naivety: Various training methods which our instructors honestly thought were good for us. Sports science has recently shown us that many of these concepts were not only bad for us but also dangerous. I would say, however, that that kind of regime built a strong mental attitude. Unfortunately it also wheedled out the weaker students very quickly. They wouldn’t come back, which made it elitist. The students that really needed it should have been coaxed and encouraged instead of being put off. Here are a few examples.

“We used to block against an unpadded length of 3 by 2 hardwood that was being rammed at our abdomens with considerable force. This was supposed to toughen our arms up, which it did. However, if you didn’t block it you would have a rib taken out.

On one course held just before Christmas, a senior British instructor told us after three hours that he was now about to give us our Christmas present. We were told to kneel down, arranging ourselves round the Dojo, which was a converted Ice Skating rink. The last man in line was told to start bunny hopping around the room and over the students that were kneeling down. All the rest of the students followed round in succession. We all did three laps, no body was allowed to give up or be excused before we were allowed to finish. I and my fellow students spent three days virtually unable to walk. Thanks for my Christmas present!

“One last but not least of the so called body-conditioning exercises: We were regularly encouraged, advised to go on barefoot runs at least three miles long, around streets and parks. So when I say misguided honesty, I refer to instructors that genuinely thought that this type of body conditioning would have immediate and long term positive effects”.

It is not surprising that among the good things that John believes has happened in martial arts is the adoption of modern sports science. This has helped influence many schools to drop outmoded, counter-productive and potentially damaging training practices. However, he concurs with Geoff’s sentiments regarding the dilution that has happened within many traditional martial arts. This is not just in terms of the pragmatism, but also the morality. John told me “There are a lot of people that have no concept of the real values, ethics and aims of true martial arts” This side of John was echoed with some of Geoff’s points about the man I mentioned earlier such as providing Geoff with a suit and belt so he could train or giving him some paid work. Geoff sees John as one of his inspirations to compete in martial arts tournaments and then to work the doors. The era that Geoff trained in was a time when the unheated dojos and hard training that had made karate and other martial arts minority activities were beginning to give way to the commercialism that would jade my generation’s early experiences. On that note I would like to leave you with Geoff’s memories on the balance of values and pragmatism that John taught him during his karate days:

“I can remember being a purple belt (and feeling as though I was almost at the top of the world) and telling John my belief that karate was all about self defence, that was its real essence, and even then, way, way back then he pulled me to one side and explained that

self defence was only really a by-product of karate, and that good karate was about self development, about development of the virtues, ultimately it was about taking your skills to the level where you become of service to your community, to the world at large. I had no idea what he was talking about, and yet, here I am nearly 40 years on teaching just that.

“He was always like that though, John, so far ahead of the curve. He once told me that when you were good at your art, even painting a fence became an extension of your karate. Painting a fence, who ever heard of such a thing? The man was clearly mad (I thought). And yet…and yet here I am (again) painting fences and writing books/plays/film/articles all as an extension of my karate. As you can see I owe him a lot.

“I also remember a time when he gave me a real bollocking. We had a couple of black belts in the class that I didn’t think represented Shotokan, certainly not Shotokan as I saw it. They were haughty and arrogant. Good technicians I thought but not good men. I told John this; I said, accusingly, that he had let them slip through the net. He told me (with raised voice) that his job was not just to teach the people that were palatable, but also to teach those that had lost their way, teaching pleasant people he said was easy, any instructor could do it, but his job as he saw it was to help everyone, especially those that had drifted from the path. That has always stuck with me. It was a very profound thing to say, and I have quoted it many times since. In the Toa it says that a good man is a bad man’s teacher, a bad man is a good man’s job. He knew that all those years ago when I was still arrogant enough to think I had any idea what I was doing.

“John’s emphasis in training was always on good basics. He drilled them again and again. Obsessive basics made me so strong that it literally saved my life. One time in a club in Coventry I was attacked by a gang en masse. They were literally trying to kill me, but my basics were so strong that they could not keep me down, and everyone I hit fell over. Afterwards I said to a friend proudly (I was battered and bruised, but still standing), ‘that was Shotokan!’ I knew why the basics were so important. John taught me that”.

 

I have to say that I enjoyed Jamie’s account and found it very interesting.  For anybody interested in training with John Johnston, he is teaching a course with Iain Abernethy on the 4th May which I highly recommend.  The details are on the poster below.

Alternatively, you can find out more, contact or book your own seminar with Sensei Johnston from his main website at: http://www.adaptivekarate.com.

Adaptive Karate Blog: With John & Elaine Johnston

John and Elaine Johnston have started up their own blog which will be well worth checking out.  Sensei John Johnston is a 6th Dan Shotokan Karate and the people who he has trained with reads like a “who’s who” of early UK Shotokan Karate.  He has competed at high level when it was much rougher than today’s competitions and has also done a lot of door work.

His wife, Elaine is a 2nd Dan and has an interest in psychology and Yoga, so she also bring her own unique insights into the mix as well.  This will make it a very well rounded martial arts blog.

Sensei Johnston was also Geoff Thompsons first martial arts instructor and was one of the main influence of Geoff, teaching him that Karate needs to be adapted to make it work on the streets.  Geoff Thompson said of Sensei Johnston:

“John was and still remains probably the greatest influence to my development in martial arts, taking me through all those vital fundamental lessons, offering me (free) private lessons when he saw my potential; he even brought my suit and belt for me when I didn’t have enough money. He is a great influence and great friend and a powerful presence in British martial arts. Without John I would not in any way be doing what I am doing today and I am very grateful to him for that, and I highly recommend him and his instruction to anyone looking to fast track their martial arts”.

The blog is called Adaptive Karate Blog and already has a few postings on it.  Please take the time to check it out from time to time.

A Private Class With John Johnston, 6th Dan

Having recently completed an interview with Sensei John Johnston, I was lucky enough to secure a private lesson with him.  Having discussed his approach to realistic Karate for self defence and the Adaptive Karate that he teaches in his seminars, Sensei Johnston was keen to show me in more detail and I was very keen to learn from him.  So John came down from Coventry with his wife Elaine, who is a 2nd Dan, and we had a class.

Sensei John Johnston and myself

It started of with some open hand techniques in basic form including Outer Knife Hand Strike, Inner Knife Hand Strike, Palm Heel, Spear Hand and Ridge Hand. Many clubs do not place much emphasis on these techniques outside of Kata, so I was happy to see this.  Also, although some of these techniques are circular in function, many Shotokan clubs/associations perform them in a linear fashion.  This is probably because they are more easy to control when performed linear, and therefore better for Kata competition (for anybody who receives Shotokan Karate Magazine, this was discussed by Scott Langely in Issue 109).

Anyway, when I saw John perform them in a circular fashion, it re-affirmed to me that he was a practical man, rather than one who wanted to simply look good.  After practicing them forward (with leading hand) and stepping back (with reverse hand), Elaine and I were invited to use some of them on a focus mitt.  After observing us, John had two main points that he wanted to make.  Firstly that the strike should go right through the target (whereas some people focus on the target itself).

Secondly, being 2nd and 3rd Dans we should be making more use of shuffling the body forward (sliding step) with the strike to put more body weight behind the target, rather than simply performing the strike in our basic stationary forward stance.  This is part of where his “adaptive” principles come in.  Rather than regimenting a set stance and/or step, as Elaine and I are of quite different builds, the way that we use the sliding step and the amount of penetration through the target focus mitt would be different and we had to adjust to our own physiques.

A similar exercise was carried out with kicking.  After practicing basic Front Kick a few times, John explained that usually in Karate, we aim the kick to the stomach. This is not the best target as it is relatively easy to defend against and the stomach muscles are the hardest in the body. Even a kick to the groin is not such a good target as it is a relatively small target and again quite easy to defend (and very intuitive to defend against simply be bringing knees together).

John told us to use the opponents thigh as a kind of “runway”, so that the kicking foot almost “runs up the opponents thigh”.  This is so as to aim for the hip joint or pubic bone.  If you get the hip joint you easily collapse the opponents structure leaving him very vulnerable to any follow up attack that you like.  If you get the pubic bone, it is very painful and not quite so easy to defend against as a stomach attack.

Next it was kicks against a kick shield.  Starting with Front Kick, where the kicking foot was pulled back (after the kick) to the supporting foot, whilst the supporting foot rotated, so that the back was facing the opponent.  From here, we were to kick again with a Back Thrust Kick. The idea is to set up the opponent, so that they think if the first kick has missed and that you have left yourself turned and vulnerable.  When they try to move in to take advantage, you immediately kick with a Back Thrust Kick and they just run onto it.

Sensei Johnston training with his wife, Elaine

Again the “adaptive” principle came into play and the Back Thrust Kick could be delivered from either leg, depending on which leg we favoured, our balance and distance to the target.  John likes to give and opening technique and then you adapt to the follow up which suits you best.  He will give a few examples, but then leave it to the individual to decide what suits them best (just as long as it works).

Next followed some applications from Heian Godan.  Firstly the opening sequence of Inside Block followed by Reverse Punch (both in back stance).  When performing the Inside Block, the reverse hand (which is usually just seen as the “pull back hand”) was the hand used to perform the actual block.  The hand which is normally seen as performing the “block” was used to push the opponents arm and put them off-balance. Then of course follow up with Reverse Punch and anything else that just felt right at the time.  John explained that he did not hold with the idea of one application being used just for one given attack.  It has to be capable of being adapted to a range of different attacks. Hence John had Elaine and I using this application against punches from both sides and both straight and hooking punches.  John explained that without this kind of versatility, you can come unstuck if you practiced an application against only one type of attack, then somebody came in with something slightly different.

We also examined the low X-Block.  Typically this is explained as blocking a kick which is very impractical.  John had us looking at the scenario of somebody stabbing to the body with a knife.  The leading hand of the X-Block was used to block/strike the attacking arm, knocking it downwards, whilst the other arm simply used as a punch to the opponents forearm to incapacitate the arm and neutralise the immediate threat of the knife.  This was followed up by whatever felt natural and Elaine and I (being very different builds) experimented with different variations.

Overall, it was a very interesting and enjoyable lesson, for which I am very grateful.  Having worked the doors for many years, John is very sure of what will and what won’t work in the real world.  He sees a lot of bunkai being taught which simply would not work under pressure.  The hallmark of John’s methods are that they are direct, effective, and for an experienced martial artist they can be used almost instantly without having to drill them for weeks to internalise them. I would recommend John to anybody in traditional martial arts who wants to make sure that their art is practical and valid on the streets.

To find out a bit more about how John teaches, you can check out his Youtube channel at: www.youtube.com/user/shotokanjohnny.  Alternatively you can check out his main website where you can also contact him and book him for seminars at:  www.adaptivekarate.com.

Interview With International Instructor, John Johnston, 6th Dan Shotokan Karate

The people that Sensei Johnston has trained with reads like a who’s who on the early Shotokan Karate scene in the UK.  He has also trained at many seminars with other leading martial artists outside of the Shotokan world.  This is all backed up by years of experience at the sharp end doing door work at the toughest nightclubs in Coventry, as well doing personal protection for some high profile businessmen and celebrities.  Unfortunately, John can’t really talk about  his personal protection work for reasons of confidentiality.

Many people these days talk about “reality based martial arts”, but John was poineer these methods long before it entered in the mainstream of martial arts.  In fact Geoff Thompson, who’s name is synonymous with reality based martial arts received his early training and many of his early ideas from John.  In Geoff’s own words:

“John was and still remains probably the greatest influence to my development in martial arts, taking me through all those vital fundamental lessons, offering me (free) private lessons when he saw my potential; he even brought my suit and belt for me when I didn’t have enough money. He is a great influence and great friend and a powerful presence in British martial arts. Without John I would not in any way be doing what I am doing today and I am very grateful to him for that, and I highly recommend him and his instruction to anyone looking to fast track their martial arts”.

John is a humble man and not a one to push himself forward.  As such he is not as well known in the wider martial arts world as he deserves to be.  I have been very lucky and honoured to have secured this interview with him.  Later this month, I will be having a private lesson with him, which I shall report back on later.

In the meantime, here’s that interview.

 

CW:      Please tell us about your early training in martial arts and who your main teachers and influences were when you started?

JJ:      My first teacher was Richard Jackson. I started training with him shortly after his return from Japan. Having trained out there and taken his 2nd Dan. The reason I started with him was after having looked at some other Karate styles and Kung Fu, the immediate impact of the Shotokan style and his method of teaching. Seeing that made me realise that it was exactly what I was looking for. By the time I got to around 4th Kyu (2nd purple belt) Kawazoe Sensei had arrived in Britain and started to spend allot of time with myself and other colleagues from the Coventry Dojo. Someone else that also had a profound influence on my Karate was Neil Thomas from Wolverhampton, whom we had regular mixed sessions with. We were also very lucky and privileged that the Coventry Long Ford Dojo was used for the National and International squad sessions, which were taken by Enoeda Sensei and Andy Sherry. We were allowed to train alongside such names as: Steve Cattle, Billy Higgins, Bob Rhodes, Bob Poynton, Terry O’Neil, Mick Dewey, Dave Hazard, Mick Ragg and countless others from that era. I say we were allowed to train alongside them it felt more like we were being used for cannon fodder. I could tell you countless stories about those times, suffice to say  training was very hard on many levels, retaining students for financial purposes was not a criteria, you could either put up with the harshness or pack up.

John was renowned for his fantastic leg sweeps

CW:      You competed quite a bit in your younger days.  Competitions and training could be much tougher and harsher back then, can you tell us about some of your experiences from those days?

JJ:      My first experience of competition free style came when I used to visit one of the local Wado Ryu clubs at 8th Kyu stage.  I remember my basics although stronger seemed slow and ponderous in comparison and finding it strange when Randori was called, watching everybody pad up and starting to dance about. On reflection I look back at those times and think about my frustration at not being able to score points the way they were initially. Visiting the Wado Ryu club periodically over an 18 month period I started to find it very easy to overwhelm and score points on people of a higher grade than myself. In the first competition that Coventry Shotokan Karate club attained, we were nearly all disqualified in the team event and the individuals because of our strong technique, lack of experience and understanding. Although other styles were allowed to use protective equipment, it was frowned upon for us to use, we neither wanted to or were allowed any type of protection for many years. Only after at least 10 years of training was it that groin protection and gum shield became mandatory. Any other form of protection required a doctor’s consent and would meet with disapproval from your team mates. I think because of this we all myself included gained far more control, precision and was better able to apply our techniques. Initially myself and likeminded colleagues would enter the open competitions with which we had some minor success and also gained allot of experience. Later I became a member of the KUGB Central Region Squad which was coached by Frank Brennan. I was with the squad for many years as its Captain and as a full competing member. The experience gained from being on the squad was phenomenal. We had many senior and junior champions on the squad of international and national level, people like: Ronnie Christopher, Dean Hodgekiss, Ronnie Cannings, Donald Campbell, Glen Davidson and Bruce Thomas, these all won either national, European and world championships. Along with the fact that whilst being coached by Frank Brennan who that over this period of time was at the top of his game. I was very lucky and privileged to have been a major part of the squad for 12 years or more. Any new members that were selected to the squad would quite often be initiated with a line up. I can’t describe how devastating that could be on a young lad who’d never encountered such action before.

John fighting Shotokan legend Frank Brennan . . . and taking him down

CW:      How do you feel that Shotokan Karate has developed and how have training methods changed from those early days to what it is today?

JJ:      I see many changes in Shotokan over a long period of time. Quite a lot of it I feel is detrimental to the ethos, attributes and benefits of Shotokan. It has been diluted and lessened either because of financial considerations, fear of prosecution on health and safety grounds and or lack of understanding and knowledge of instructors that were badly taught themselves and do not have enough courage to step outside their small comfort zone and seek further knowledge and experience in a larger arena. They inherited inadequate and poor technique from their instructors and seem blind to the fact that they are passing on their bad technique to their students. I could write pages and pages on this topic but it needs to be said that it’s not all gloom and doom, there are allot of really good instructors on many levels, club, seminar and courses who are doing great work. I think that Kata especially has developed and improved from my early days. This has happened on both the competition and Dojo level. This seems to be a greater understanding of biomechanics, breathing and psychological focus combined with greater athleticism, speed, analysis and understanding of movement. It is a pity that this only happens in the more progressive Dojo’s. I know that in my case when I gave greater focus to my Kata training over long periods of time I became so much more successful with my Kumite. I think that there is quite allot of instructors who’ll teach only certain aspects of Karate which they may favour themselves. I feel that we should be teaching what the students need rather than what they want or we as instructors favour.

CW:      As you progressed and became more knowledgeable, did anybody else especially influence your martial arts development, and have you tried other styles of martial art?

JJ:      As I have explained in previous questions I have had many influences and I have experienced one or two other styles of martial art but I only train for Shotokan and in Shotokan. I have enjoyed some experiences of dabbling in Judo, I taught Karate at Neil Adam’s (who was the Judo World Gold Medalist and Olympic Silver Medalist) Dojo in Coventry for 11 years and for the fitness aspect I did boxing training for a two year period. Occasionally I get the opportunity to train outside Shotokan with various people i.e.: Steve Morris, Master A, Dev Barrett, Ian Abernathy. These have been within the last two years, previous to that there have been countless others in different styles of Karate, Kung Fu, Taekwondo, Aikido and Jujitsu. Although having enjoyed these as one off sessions it is Shotokan which I find suits me physically and psychologically.

CW:      You spent a lot time working on the doors in Coventry, which was noted for being a tough city at the time.  Can you tell us about some of your experiences and what effect these experiences had on your approach to your Karate?

JJ:      First I started working part time as a doorman alongside some ex boxers and local hard men. Later working full time until there was a major incident at which point the police came back with the condition that to keep the licence for the club which was one of the largest in Britain, the club could no longer employ anybody with a criminal record. I would say that this was a precursor that helped to establish today’s criteria for door staff. It also helped to elevate me to head doorman. As you can imagine there were numerous incidents every night, unlike Geoff Thompson I never kept a diary otherwise I would have written a book long before now. I would say working on the doors gave me allot of experience in understanding the psychology of confrontation and was a good testing ground for various Karate techniques and it taught me that your basic technique needed to be adapted and refined depending on your intent. Not only physical adaptation but mental adaptation is required to be effective as a doorman.  Charlie I would love to tell you about numerous colourful incidents but 1) I cannot just pick one out and 2) I would have to kill you so as not to incriminate myself.

CW:      Karate these days has become very diverse with some people adapting or adding in things to make their teaching more realistic.  However, do you feel that despite individual initiatives, most mainstream Karate is still lacking elements of realism which would make a difference in a real life confrontation?

JJ:      The simple answer to this question is yes. The majority of my senior students have never had a serious or violent confrontation in their adult life and I think the same applies to the majority of society.  Karate can be used for self defence/ protection and I believe that to teach this should come from experience and requires a certain mind set for it to be of benefit to a student. Most Karate is done or practiced for recreation, some for self development and improvement and some to fulfil a spiritual need.

CW:      You have taught for many years that traditional Karate (as passed to us by the Japanese) needs to be modified to make it work in real live confrontation.  Can you explain what you mean by this and what elements need modifying?

JJ:      I would say as a way of explanation that training needs to be done in a very robust fashion with correct intention from all participants and with an intensive competitive mindset. That is to say that you could have really good Karate technique but when put under pressure or in a stressful situation you lose the ability to apply it. Conditioning mentally and physically needs to be part of a comprehensive training regime for you to be effective with Karate in a real life confrontation.

CW:      Does this only apply to Shotokan, or do you feel that it applies to most traditional Oriental  martial arts?

JJ:      I would say yes in the greater majority

CW:      You call your teaching method, “Adaptive Karate”.  Can you please tell us exactly what that means and how it relates to making Karate more effective in real confrontations?

JJ:      I don’t call my teaching method Adaptive Karate. The majority of my teaching is in Shotokan Karate. However, I do Adaptive Karate courses and seminars in which I try to teach people how to apply techniques. I take people through drills to increase their skill level and give them a greater understanding of disruption, destabilization and distraction against an opponent and how to use the body as a unit.

CW:      With other instructors making a name for themselves with practical applied bunkai, do you feel that your approach is different to the way most other instructors apply Karate for self defence?

JJ:      Yes.  I will take moves from Kata and make them as straight forward and effective as possible. I do not believe that we have to call this Bunkai and directly relate it to a given Kata. I do not wish to go on a crusade or preach to other people about what they believe to be their version of correct Bunkai. However honesty has to play a major part in what you say and do in reference to your Karate. If you have not robustly pressure tested your technique as it applies to Bunkai. In reality, it is only your theory. If you can prove that the techniques that you are teaching are realistic and valid then your Bunkai will stand up to scrutiny, in other words if it don’t work then don’t teach it.

CW:      On your Adaptive Karate website, it says that “Traditional Shotokan Karate has an underlying spiritual essence that builds character and inner strength which empowers the mind and so empowers the body”.  How important is spiritual and character development to you?

JJ:      My personal development is of paramount importance to myself and to be able to give my students the advice, information, instruction and tools so that they can develop into considerate, humble, courteous, respectful, strong minded and determined members of society.

CW:      As somebody who puts a lot of emphasis on real world no nonsense self defence, do you see spiritual development and realistic self defence as being intrinsically linked, or are they separate elements where the student can focus on one more than the other?

JJ:      The answer to that question I would say is down to the individual; on a personal level for me they are linked but other people will have different perspectives and priorities at various times throughout their lives. Their needs and ambitions will fluctuate, vary and change depending on what their immediate influence in life is. That makes it a very difficult question to give any sort of definitive answer to.

CW:      Modern trends in martial arts tend to go either towards sport (primarily MMA) or “reality based”; both of which tend to move away from the emphasis that traditional Oriental arts placed on etiquette and pure form (such as kata).  What do you feel traditional Oriental martial arts have to offer in the modern world which can’t be found in the more modern approaches?

JJ:      I feel that in today’s fast moving and instant gratification society, that something such as Traditional Shotokan Karate taught correctly and progressively with the correct emphasis on courtesy, humility, self discipline and respect; has an enormous amount to offer to both children and adults. The benefits to children are obvious, but to adults there is the added bonus of a certain amount of spiritual fulfilment which can fill the void if you have no religious commitment or as an add on if you do have a religious conviction. It is so much more than a young person’s sport. It is a lifetime endeavour and commitment if you so want it to be.

CW:      You have at least 2 testimonials on your website which mention that you have given free lessons to students who had financial difficulties at the time (including the now famous Geoff Thompson) and that you even went so far as to buy them their Karate uniforms and other training equipment.  In a world where many people are just looking to make money, that was very generous.  Do you have any criteria for the people you help like this?

JJ:      The criteria which I have is that people are honest, and want to train and advance in their Karate. I don’t want to open the floodgates but I feel  and have always said that if somebody can’t afford to train, I would rather they came training for free up until such time as their circumstances change.

CW:      I understand that your wife, Elaine, does talks at local schools about peer pressure and bullying.  Do you help her with this and how important do you think this work is?

JJ:      Yes, everything that we do is some form of collaboration and we do almost everything together, and yes this type of work is important because not only as a Karate Instructor but as a member of the community, you have a civil and moral duty to help out wherever possible.

CW:      Although you’ve trained in other martial arts, you still teach primarily pure Shotokan.   Have you ever been tempted to add elements of other martial arts, or do you feel that Shotokan is complete enough without any other influences?

JJ:      Anything positive from other Martial Arts are always worth integrating into your training. Pad and bag work should be an essential part of any Martial Arts training regime. Strengthening and fitness exercises of the right nature are always valuable. Nothing should be set in stone, that is to say that we should look at other Martial Arts and use and incorporate anything that is beneficial and effective. On my Adaptive Karate courses I have incorporated techniques from Judo, Aikido, Taekwondo, Jujitsu, Boxing, Thai Boxing and other forms of Martial Arts and styles that I believe have any validity and effectiveness and the people that train with me in the Adaptive Karate are not expected to do things exactly the way that I demonstrate but to find their own way of executing the basic principle of the drill that it suits themselves.

CW:      What are your future plans for your own personal Karate development and for teaching?

JJ:      For the future I hope to be able to expand my teaching base so that I can instruct on more courses and seminars as well as developing my clubs. As for myself, I train every morning, mostly on my own, in which I will go through drills that I have devised for myself as well as Kata. I know that this year I am booked to train on several courses with people such as Sensei Dave Hazard, Sensei Aiden Trimble, Sensei Ian Abernethy and hopefully will attend other courses with other Senior Instructors. I still sometimes train at some other local clubs occasionally.

CW:      Are you available for courses and seminars outside of your own Karate Association, and if so, how should people contact you?

JJ:      I am more than happy to teach outside the association to any Karate style or Martial Arts discipline. I can be contacted several ways. My website is: www.adaptivekarate.com. Any telephone enquiries can be taken by my wife and Secretary Elaine Johnston on: 07791 635958 or drop me an Email:j.johnston@adaptivekara

CW:      Sensei, it has been a privilege to have done this interview with you and I look forward to training with later this month.  Thank you very much for your time and your interesting and informative insights.