Martial Arts Illustrated interview with Simon Keegan

Passionate about martial arts history, while at the same time dedicated to teaching Karate as something realistic and effective, Simon Keegan is the pioneer of a Karate method called “Hakuda Kempo Toshu Jutsu”. This method of Karate aims to take the art back to its root and “trunk” not just the branches. Simon’s approach to intelligent realistic bunkai have attracted the attention of many advanced martial artists and his students include several Karateka who have gained blackbelts in other styles and now want to gain a deeper understanding of the art. Holding the grade of 5th Dan with Steve Rowe’s Shikon organisation and having received previous grades from Japan’s oldest martial arts fraternity the Kokusai Budoin, he balances a traditional path with a modern attitude to training. He also recently published an early history of British Karate (1956-1966) featuring pictures from England’s first ever Karate club which have never been seen before. His efforts have attracted the attentions of a real Karate pioneer, Freestyle Karate legend Alfie Lewis who met up with Simon recently and conducted this interview.

Bushinkai's Karate method Hakuda Kempo Toshu Jutsu featured in Martial Arts Illustrated magazine

Bushinkai’s Karate method Hakuda Kempo Toshu Jutsu featured in Martial Arts Illustrated magazine

Alfie:
We’re going to talk a lot about martial arts history, an area we are both interested in, but to start with Simon, why don’t you tell us about what you teach?

Simon:
I teach a system of Karate and Jujutsu called ‘Hakuda Kempo Toshu Jutsu’, a traditionally taught method but one that is very much geared towards self defence. We do spar, we do grapple, but these are means to an end rather than an end in themselves. The aim is to develop a range of skills that are drilled in such a way that they become instinctive should the need arise. I don’t want people to think this is one of those styles where I stand at the front with a beer belly, a red and white belt and a hakama waxing lyrical about pressure points and Chi. We get stuck in, we spar, we grapple, I do all the situps and pushups with the students. But the focus is on real fighting not fighting for competition.

Alfie:
Hakuda Kempo Toshu Jutsu is a bit of a mouthful. Why that name?

Simon:
It’s very much in keeping with names of Karate systems pre 1920 which had names like Ryukyu Kempo Tode Jutsu or Rentan Goshin Karate Jutsu. ‘Hakuda’ was an atemi based approach to Jujutsu common to the Nagasaki area, Kempo refers to systems of Chinese origin and Toshu Jutsu is another way of pronouncing the characters ‘Karate Jutsu’. But generally my students just call it Karate or Bushinkai Karate. We tend not to dwell on semantics in class, we’re too busy training!

Alfie:
What do you think is different about the way you teach compared with say the average Karate club?

Simon:
Firstly, I don’t think my club is better or worse than the next club. It depends what you are after. I might like an Italian restaurant that doesn’t mean the Indian restaurant down the street is no good. But my approach to Karate is this: I want to look forward and take Karate forward as an intelligently taught, practical, real workable self defence method, but I also want to have a living link to the past and the roots of Karate. Our branch may be Shotokan but the trunk is the Karate Jutsu of Okinawa, and then the roots are the systems of China like the White Crane school and styles like Hsing-I Chuan. So I want to better understand these too. People say “Karate came from Chinese boxing,” I want to know more. Which kata came from Chinese boxing? Which Chinese style? Whereabouts in China? Karate’s link with the crane and tiger styles of Fujian is well documented but maybe less documented is Karate’s links with arts like Tai Chi and Hsing-I so this is something I have established in a tangible way and something I teach. And actually my style proves popular with advanced students in other Karate styles who want to learn other aspects that are not commonly taught.

Alfie:
How do you go about this?

Simon: 
For example in applying the principles of the Chinese internal martial arts in terms of postural alignment, softness and power generation. I have trained in Tai Chi for around 15 years and my Tai Chi teacher for nine of those years also taught Hsing-I. Not to say I learnt that art in any depth, more looking at some of the the first Five Fists. But it gave me a feel for how the art feels and moves. Hsing-I is quoted as being an influence on Karate in various sources. Tode Sakugawa (who we get the kata Kanku Dai from) learnt Hsing-I in the 1750s, Seisho Aragaki’s (who we get the kata Unsu, Nijushio and Sochin from) teacher in about the 1870s was said to be a master of Hsing-I and it is also speculated that the old kata Wansu (Empi) was derived from the Swallow form of Hsing-I.

Tai Chi itself is also related to Karate. Masters Sakugawa and Chatan Yara trained with the Chinese master Wang Zongyue in the 1750s and of course Wang Zongyue was the man who taught Chang Chuan boxing to the Chen family which was then inherited by Yang Lu Chan. So I’m looking at the likes of the Yang style long form and how its snake and crane movements contrast with those found in older Shuri Te Karate forms like Kushanku and Gojushiho.

Another example is in the Tiger boxing systems of Fujian. One of the masters who introduced this art to Okinawa was Tang Daiji, a friend of the legendary Gokenki. I’ve been researching the history of Tang family Tiger Boxing. I am lucky to have a good friend and Kung Fu brother from the Tang family whose great grandfather was a Tiger boxing practitioner from the Guangzhou area not far from Fujian. We compare notes. He showed me one of his forms, and I noticed a similarity with Seishan kata so having learnt the Shotokan Hangetsu and also the Goju Ryu Seishan, (as well as Aragaki Seishan a long time ago) I now have a third dimension to the form.

I am lucky to have also trained in a Goju Ryu system called Nisseikai, the founder of which was also a master of Fujian white crane – actually the Feeding Crane branch which was strongly associated with the Bubishi. So this gives another tangible link to the roots of Karate.

My friend and teacher Shihan Phil Handyside, as well as having studied Shotokan for the best part of 50 years, also trained and graded under the grandmaster of a Malaysian style called Budokan which owes its origins to Kanken Toyama’s Karate Jutsu which was very much a traditional old style, much more Chinese in appearance and Toyama was also a Hakuda master, so this is another area I am looking at.

Styles like Shotokan, Goju Ryu, Shito Ryu and Budokan are the branches, Okinawan Karate Jutsu or Toshu Jutsu and Hakuda are the trunk and Chinese arts like Chang chuan, Hsing-I Chuan, Tiger boxing and White Crane are the roots. My approach is, I’d like to think in line with the approach of the teachers of old. I don’t want to teach 30 kata, I want to teach 12 kata thoroughly.

Alfie:
What kind of facility do you have for your club?

Simon:
I teach in a great place in Manchester city centre called Van Dang which every martial artist in the area knows. There’s some great instructors in there, including Jeet Kune Do veteran Steve Powell, Muay Thai coach Giorgio, wrestling coach Artur, MMA coach Ozzy, and there is also various styles of Kung Fu. All the instructors there are supportive of each other which is nice and probably quite rare. We have a small Kung Fu studio on the top floor where I teach Tai Chi and a fully matted room with punchbags and so on where we do the Karate. Somebody commented it’s like the building in Game of Death – a different style in each room!

Alfie:
You and I have had some good chats about martial arts history, whether it’s the old masters of the past or the more recent martial arts legends, but a lot of people don’t seem to appreciate the importance of martial arts history. Why is it so important to you?

Simon:
Your lineage in martial arts is your DNA – it’s where you came from and why you are the way you are. Some people say lineage in martial arts doesn’t matter and it’s what you can do on the mat that’s important and to some extent that’s true but you wouldn’t want to be treated by a doctor who had never been to medical school would you? Not because he didn’t have a piece of paper but because he probably hadn’t been taught properly.

Years ago a senior instructor said to me “I can tell a man’s grade by the way he walks across the mat.” That might be a slight exaggeration but there is a truth to it. A Shotokan man moves in a certain way, a Goju Ryu man moves in a certain way.

Alfie:
One of the things you and I always seem to talk about is our shared interest in the martial arts heritage of Liverpool. Why are you so interested in that when you live in Manchester?

Simon:
Well I’m a scouser in exile in Manchester. And my family has a lengthy tradition in the martial arts in Liverpool. In fact my great uncle Bill Nelson trained at the same Jujutsu club as you Alfie – albeit about 30 years earlier!

Alfie:
That would be Skyner’s Jujutsu, a tough club with a real understanding of streetfighting. When did your great uncle train there and what do you know about Skyner’s?

Simon:
Skyner’s was one of the first martial arts clubs in Liverpool. The very first was the Kara Ashikaga in 1906 where Gunji Koizumi taught before he moved to London; the second was Jack Britten’s Alpha Jujutsu school where your mentor GM Ronnie Colwell trained and the third was Skyner’s. The story is that Mikonosuke Kawaishi who was later a great Judo teacher in France came to Liverpool in 1928 and taught Professor Gerald Skyner. Kawaishi had been taught Jujutsu or more specifically Aikijujutsu by Yoshida Kotaro who was a senior student of Daito Ryu master Takeda Sokaku. Yoshida was also the hereditary master of a style called Yanagi Ryu which was derived from Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu or Hakuda.

Kawaishi is famous for his Judo but in the few years he was in Liverpool it was definitely Jujutsu that he taught. My great uncle trained there after the war from 1945 and gained his blackbelt which was a very high grade at the time and then he trained in another style from the Koizumi branch. I consider myself fortunate to have been able to learn of this era from my great uncle who I was very close to. My great uncle and his brother Jim, my grandad had been taught to box by their dad and grandad when they were kids in the 1930s.

Alfie:
So that is quite a long family tradition then…

Simon: 
Well it goes back even further than that! As you know Liverpool is a real mixing pot of cultural diversity a lot of my family are Irish but that part of the family were Swedish. My great great grandad was in the Swedish Royal Navy and if you go back even further a branch of his family three generations earlier moved to Okinawa. The Nilsson family patriarch worked for the Swedish East India Trading Company and so since the Shogun wouldn’t let Gaijin in Japan they made Dejima Island their trading base and settled in Okinawa in 1778. Interestingly at the same time Tode Sakugawa the Karate master also worked for a shipping company which is where he made his name defending the cargo against pirates. The Nilsson family patriarch spent 15 years there then returned to Sweden (leaving his wife and first four kids in Okinawa) where he remarried twice and settled in Kalmar where my branch of the family were from.

Alfie:
And your dad’s a martial artist as well isn’t he? Did that influence you?

Simon:
Yes, my dad Dave Keegan teaches Tai Chi these days but he begun originally in about 1959-1960 training in Jujutsu with the Blundells, another one of Liverpool’s early Jujutsu clubs. He has also studied Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaido as well as Karate. He also worked in China when I was younger. My dad gave me my start in martial arts, training in his garage and boxing in my grandad’s back yard then I joined my first club aged 10. I also have an uncle who was a Shotokan blackbelt and an uncle who had done Goju Ryu. I formally started Karate as a teenager.

Alfie:

So who was your main Karate teacher when you started out?

Simon:
Somebody you know actually Alfie, it was Steve Bullough, who was on the Great Britain squad with you about 20 years ago. I’ll always credit Steve for the eight years I trained with him. He taught me traditional Karate, sport Karate, some Judo, some Aikido, some weapons, some boxing. It was great because it kept me fit, toughened me up and gave me an introduction to a lot of different areas. I used to train at his house at weekends not just in class. He graded me my 1st Dan and it was about a seven hour grading with only me grading.

At that time I used to compete as well, which is how we first met Alfie. I always remember seeing you across the mat from me and being scared to death – bnow I’m glad I know you and you’re such a nice guy! Training with Steve was a great grounding and then I basically pursued three arts – Chinese Kung Fu, Okinawan Karate and Japanese Jujutsu.

Alfie:
So on one hand you say you are traditional, following in the footsteps of the old masters, but on the other hand you cross trained in at least three martial arts. Isn’t that a contradiction?

Simon:
No, that is precisely what the old masters did. For example Sokon Matsumura – to my mind the greatest Karate master who ever lived – began with Okinawan Karate which he learned from Sakugawa, then he trained in Kung Fu in Fujian and Beijing, then he went to Satsuma and studied a Japanese style. That Okinawans always took advantage of that cultural melting pot and absorbed arts from China and Japan and made them part of Karate. The important thing is that this is done in a purposeful way and not just randomly collecting techniques.

Alfie:
Who are some of the others who have influenced your approach?

Simon:
As teachers, Bob Carruthers Sensei and Reiner Parsons Sensei have probably been the biggest influence over the last 12 years. Bob Carruthers (7th Dan) started in a style called Bujinkai which was headed by John Smith and your old friend, the legendary Danny Connor. He then moved back up to his hometown of Wigan where he trained in Shobukan with Phil Handyside an art which comprises style such as Shotokan and Budokan. After being in the martial arts for 30 years when most people would be coasting he started learning other arts, Jujutsu, Iaido, Escrima, Karate Jutsu and he really set an example to me that you should always be open minded and put on the proverbial white belt. He now teaches Abaniko Tres Puntas, a style of classical Arnis and through him I was introduced to grandmasters like Rene Tongson and Angelo Baldisonne. It’s not really my thing but a pleasure to have trained with them.

Bob’s own teacher Shihan Phil Handyside is now a friend and teacher of mine, I first met him on a seminar in about 2003 and was impressed, not only by his Karate, but also the way he carried himself. In around 2003 I was accepted into Japan’s Kokusai Budoin organisation in the Shotokan division headed by Hirokazu Kanazawa who was Mr Handyside’s teacher and in the Nihon Jujutsu division headed by the late Shizuya Sato and I also had the opportunity to train with masters such as Tadanori Nobetsu and Mitsuhiro Kondo.

With Kokusai Budoin Reiner Parsons (7th Dan) another 40 year veteran of the martial arts, took me under his wing. Reiner started in Goju Ryu in Liverpool with Tony Christian, Dennis Martin and your old friend Gary Spiers, he later trained with masters like Morio Higaonna, Kai Kuniyuki and Nobetsu who is also a huge influence on me. Reiner hasn’t so much taught me Goju Ryu as teach me a more efficient way of doing what I do. He would see me do a technique like an inside block or a front kick, then he’d prove to me why it was lacking power and show me how to add power to it – which usually boiled down to a few simple things – relaxation, waist movement, breathing and so on.

I took my 1st Dan under Steve Bullough, my 2nd Dan I actually graded for a few times, the first was another seven hour Jujutsu and weapons grading in London, then I graded under Bob in Shotokan Karate, then ratified in Nihon Jujutsu under Sato Sensei’s UK representatives, and finally in Judo and Tai Chi. Reiner graded me 3rd Dan and I was subsequently awarded 4th Dan freestyle (Karate/Jujutsu) in 2007 and the title of Renshi in 2010. Last year Shihan Handyside graded me on the mat for my 5th Dan in Shobukan as part of Steve Rowe’s Shikon organisation, and when he presented me with my certificate it was one of the proudest and most humbling moments of my journey.

Nobetsu’s system was of great interest to me because as well as Goju Ryu Karate he was also a master of Feeding Crane Kung Fu which was one of the Fujian boxing styles that influenced Karate in the first place, so Nobetsu was a tangible link to the roots and the trunk not just the branches. Again, it’s not about saying “I’ve trained with suchabody so I must be good” it’s just about this is where we come from and this is why we do what we do.

With the Kanazawa Shotokan as a basis, I began to look at ways the more Chinese influenced styles like Budokan and Goju Ryu and the Chinese styles themselves had a more effective way of moving. However the definite change to my approach was not about adding it was about taking away.

Alfie:
Do you mean like the ‘Bruce Lee’ concept of discarding what is useless?

Simon:
Yes, in a sense, but it wasn’t Bruce Lee that impressed it upon me it was Terry Wingrove! I was training in Poland with Terry and we were talking about techniques and I mentioned some technique or other let’s say it was a spinning kick and Terry said: “So give it the Tesco Test.” I said what’s the Tesco Test? He said, you’re standing in the baked beans aisle at 11 O’Clock at night and somebody takes a swing at you are you going to do a spinning kick on them? I said no probably not, but, you know, it’s part of Shotokan he said “Oh right so when they attack you maybe you can pull out a picture of Funakoshi and see if that impresses them.” That was my “Eureka moment” – everything I taught got the Tesco Test. I took out the stuff I couldn’t make work in a ‘live’ environment, I took out the anachronisms and I concentrated on developing an approach to self defence that was more tangible and scientific.

Alfie:
Terry Wingrove is one of England’s longest training Karate instructors isn’t he?

Simon: 
Yes, I only trained with Terry a handful of times, but he did give me the Tesco Test so I have him to thank for that! He was one of the very first members of Vernon Bell’s Karate club – England’s first ever Karate club – in 1957 but also trained in Japan for a long time in more practical (ie closer to the trunk) Karate Jutsu and Yawara methods which was something very painful to experience! He also introduced me to the late Alan Ruddock who was a joy to train with. Alan was a student of the founder of Aikido so it was great to be doing an Aikido technique and him say gently “O Sensei would do it like this…” Terry also introduced me to Allan Tattersall of the Dai Nippon Butokukai, another great Jujutsu teacher who has been a good friend to me. I used to work near his Dojo and spend lunch hours there sitting in his office listening to his stories and being tortured with his wristlocks, and through Terry I met Patrick McCarthy in person who is probably one of my biggest martial arts heroes in terms of his achievements, knowledge, skills and research. Patrick McCarthy is an inspiration to me because of the way he applies a scientific approach to everything from self defence to kata to grappling. Not somebody I’ve spent much time with but I’m a big fan of his work.

Alfie:

Can self defence be taught in a scientific way?

Simon:
My approach in martial arts is to look at how other things are taught successfully. If you learn to drive you do your practical, your theory, your highway code, your hazard perception, your maneuvers, your emergency stops. I devised a self defence approach called The Bushinkai Method which divides the subject into three areas – the Science of Violence, the Science of Technique and the Science of Learning. The first is your “theory” a knowledge of the realities of combat, the second is the how and why of techniques and the latter is the ability to drill techniques so they become instinctive – like an emergency stop.

I cringe when I see Karateka who have never had to defend against a grab, or Judoka who have never had to block a punch. To me, whatever the martial art unless you’re doing archery or something, you should have a grounding in all common types of attack.

The science of technique looks at the underlying principles of techniques. If somebody attacks you you’re not going to do a picture perfect shiho nage or an Olympic standard tomoe nage, but you must respond powerfully and decisively. We don’t learn 1000 techniques once, we learn one technique 1000 times in 1000 different ways. It becomes un-mechanical. It is by “feel” not by rote.

I never teach “if he does A you do B” I give the students the principles, the ability, the power and the reactions they need to respond quickly and efficiently. It is like language, you start by teaching a child the right answer to basic questions, by the time you are an adult you can just converse on any topic and respond to any question. This is where the science of learning comes in. Often people can do a technique in the Dojo but when it matters they go to pieces. Techniques must be drilled, practiced, tested, and ingrained so that responses are as natural as walking.

I’m a great believer in teaching a few things well. For example we drill and drill basic throws like Osoto Gari (take the opponent backwards) and Tai Otoshi (take the opponent forwards) from these two techniques there are infinite variations. Students of mine who go and do MMA will come back and say “the stuff you teach us really works” which is generally sneaky stuff like just covering up the opponent’s mouth and nose and suffocating them. Not very sportsmanslike, but then I’m not a sportsman.

Alfie:

You talk a lot about kata and bunkai. This is a controversial subject. What’s your take on it?

Simon:
I love bunkai, especially exploring grappling and weapons applications. Some people have the attitude that bunkai is one of those subjects for when you are too old and fat to do anything active. Well I’m neither but the reason I like to explore bunkai is because it gives meaning and purpose to the kata. Then the form acts as a mneumonic device in other words a kata is a database of techniques and your bunkai is your data.

I also very much like two man flow drills. Other arts like the Filipino Escrima arts and Wing Chun will also do partner work yet in Karate we spend so much time punching thin air. Flowdrills and push hands are a great way of bridging the gap and being able to apply techniques like headbutts, knees and elbows to a real opponent in a safely controlled manner. We also draw from the traditional Kobudo styles and practice each of the core kata with Okinawan, Chinese and Japanese weapons.

Alfie:
We briefly mentioned Mitsuhiro Kondo and of course Terry Wingrove, this links in with a project you’ve been working on doesn’t it?

Simon:
Yes, I’ve recently worked on a brief history of British Karate (1956-1966) which included published about 20 photographs from that first era that have never been seen before. Those were really the dark ages of British Karate. Everyone knows about Kanazawa, Enoeda, Suzuki, but few people realise it all started with Vernon Bell.

Alfie:
Can you tell us more about this era?

Simon:
The first style of Karate that came to Europe was actually Yoseikan. What happened was a pair of Frenchmen named Jean Alcheik and Claude Urvois trained in Japan in the 1950s. They were the first Europeans to study Karate and passed it onto a Judo instructor named Henri Plee who wanted to grow the art in France. So the Yoseikan founder Minoru Mochizuki sent his four top students over to live in France, Italy, Switzerland and ultimately England. These were Hiroo Mochizuki, Shoji Sugiyama, Mitsuhiro Kondo and Tetsuji Murikami. Vernon Bell who in 1956 was a 3rd Dan Judo and Jujutsu instructor began taking lessons in France with Plee and Mochizuki and set up what would today be called a “study group” teaching Karate to four of his senior Jujutsu students in his back garden in Essex. One of these students, Mike Manning contacted me and asked me would I like to pass on some of his memories, photographs, poetry and information from this lost era. Of course having trained with some of these pioneers such as Kondo, Terry and Alan Ruddock, I was very keen to do this. This article is on my website. This era brings us back to Liverpool since the second branch Vernon Bell authorised was Frederick Gille’s club in Liverpool which was mostly consisted of members of Jack Britten’s Jujutsu school and included the likes of Andy Sherry that club became the Red Triangle… and the rest as they say, is history!

Alfie:
Thanks for speaking to us

Simon:
Thank you Sensei.

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