Manchester Listings Editor and Bushinkai student Samuel Bainbridge interviews Bushinkai Chief Instructor Simon Keegan
Over the years martial arts has installed itself as a firm favourite in everything from action movies to animations about turtle-shelled amphibians. But like many of us who are new to the world of martial arts I found that actually choosing the right style and a good sensei could be just as challenging as even the most advanced kata.
While training at the Manchester Bushinkai Dojo under Sensei Simon Keegan I feel that even as a relatively new starter I’ve managed to acquire the basis of what Bushinkai Karate means to both its students and those who teach. This article is for those who, like myself, are still finding their feet in this centuries old practice, or who haven’t yet joined up to the Bushinkai family but have always wanted to find out what real martial arts is all about, without the Power Rangers special-effects.
Sitting down for a conversation about martial arts with Sensei Simon Keegan is noticeably similar to the conversations during class. With a high level of experience and passion for what he teaches, Simon is a wealth of information, with an engaging attitude perfect for settling the nerves and imparting some welcome war-stories to a Bushinkai newbie like myself.
Bushinkai Karate. Is it a sport or simply a healthy activity?
Our Karate isn’t a sport because we don’t compete, Karate is an excellent activity for fitness but it is predominantly for self-defence. Karate can be a sport, and we do some elements of this in class such as sparring but the primary purpose is self-defence.
What do you think attracts new students, like myself to this type of martial art? Surely punching and kicking with bare feet is a bit antiquated?
Karate is the ideal martial art for self-defence. While some martial arts are relics of history like archery and swordsmanship, Karate is as relevant now as it’s ever been. I think students like my class because we offer something different. We don’t teach kids, and we don’t do silly impractical spinning kicks. We learn in a relaxed yet serious environment of adult self-defence study.
How did you choose the name ‘Bushinkai’? What does it mean?
Actually it was given to me by my Jujutsu teacher at the time who translated it as “warrior spirit school.” This is a bit of an over-simplification though. The character Bu, usually translated as martial, war, warrior is actually comprised of the characters “prevent” and “conflict” (the pictogram is two crossed spears). Shin means spirit or heart and kai means school. So it’s the school where the spirit of preventing conflict is taught.
You recently featured in Martial Arts illustrated, in part because of your extensive knowledge of the history of material arts, which is obviously a passion. Where did this come from and why?
I have always enjoyed certain periods in history, I like for example the British Dark Ages, the Arthurian era if you like. I am also fascinated by family history, particularly the Irish and Scots branches of my family. I suppose my interest in martial arts history is an extension of this – understanding, documenting and continuing a warrior tradition. My father and great uncle (also both blackbelts) began our family history and I picked up on this. To a Samurai one’s martial arts and the traditions of one’s clan are part of the same heritage.
What can Bushinkai training do for me? Is it all just about the physical, the fighting?
Training can do different things for different people. Yes, it develops an improved ability to defend one’s self but through its self expression can also improve confidence, self discipline and the ability to impart knowledge.
You come from a long line of martial arts practitioners, didn’t you ever want to take a break from training and try other interests? Or does Bushinkai require constant commitment to progress?
As a child I chopped (no pun intended) and changed my martial arts interests with great regularity. One minute it was boxing, the next Jujutsu, the next fencing, archery, Kung Fu, Ninjutsu. I was always interested in swords and swordsmanship, but not one particular school.
If I liked a sword it didn’t matter whether it was Spanish or Indian, I wanted to learn to use that weapon. I was lucky to have access to such knowledge in my own family. My dad had studied Jujutsu and Karate my uncle was a member of the To-Ken Society for Japanese swords, another uncle was a Shotokan blackbelt, one great uncle was a Jujutsu blackbelt, another had fought in Japan and China in the war. My parents and grandparents all encouraged my love of martial arts and took me to antique fairs to buy swords and so on. But it wasn’t until I was 16 that I committed to one style, studying under Steve Bullough Sensei for eight years in a style called Bushidokan Karate.
I do have other interests outside of martial arts though, I very much enjoy cooking and I like to travel particularly city breaks, to places like New York and Paris. I enjoy writing as well, spending 16 years working in the newspaper industry, and not to mention having an in-depth knowledge of Peppa Pig and Scooby-Do, thanks to my daughter.
How long have you studied Karate and Jujutsu?
I was first taught by my dad when I was about six. He had studied Jujutsu in about 1959-1961 and later Karate and Kobudo in the 1960’s and 70’s. When I was about nine he went to work in China and when he returned (with a Kung Fu suit for me!) my interest in the martial arts grew. My dad taught me throwing knives, sword and stick-fighting too, I joined my first club when I was ten. I used to practice my boxing in my grandad’s back garden and he would make weapons for me. I settled on formal Dojo as a teenager and was competing at national level by the time I was sixteen.
Is it true you had to once defend your Manchester dojo during the riots?
Not that I recall, although I did still hold my class that night. As my students and I walked to the club, everybody was fleeing the city and shouting at us not to venture to the city centre. We did and commenced class while police horses galloped past and cars set on fire.
Another instructor in the building suggested we ought to leave though, so again we walked through the riots and to a student’s workplace we were resumed training. I wouldn’t let a bunch of uppity brats spoil our training night.
As a new student I have several preconceptions about my first classes. Where do you think the negative aspects of the martial images come from?
To me the negatives in martial arts are the “McDojos” that hand out blackbelts to three year olds. The other negatives are these instructors with what I call a “dressing up box”. They couldn’t punch their way out of a wet paper bag yet they are a 15th Dan in some made up style with a different coloured kimono for every occasion. These people are more like thoseDungeons and Dragons players who like getting dressed up as wizards and elves. They are into the “look” but you’ll never see them do a situp.
Who are your martial arts heroes?
As a child in the early 1980s, I watched Kung Fu (David Carradine), the Water Margin, Monkeyand of course Bruce Lee and then came the Ninja boom in about 1985 and I loved that. I also liked any movies with swordplay like Highlander. In terms of real people, Hanshi Patrick McCarthy (a Canadian who now lives in Australia) is a great inspiration nowadays. He is one of the foremost researchers and practitioners of Karate in the world. I have only met him in person once but I’m a huge fan of his work. When I was a teenager my sensei was who I looked up to. But mostly, my dad and my grandad are my heroes for different reasons.
There seem to be so many confusing varieties of karate, what makes Bushinkai different from what kids are learning in after-school classes?
We teach the “trunk” and the “roots” not one of the branches. We teach a thorough, scientific approach to the martial arts. You don’t learn just by seeing and copying you learn by understanding and doing.
Do you think that martial arts is a male-dominated activity? Is there a place for women in Bushinkai?
Karate is equally good for men and women. Some of my best students have been women and some of my hardest teachers have been women. Women are very welcome to train and often are more natural than men.
Taking my first grading in front of yourself and a senior Karate instructor was an intimidating experience, do you think the traditions of the grading and katas are still important and applicable today?
Grading allows the curriculum to be broken into bitesized pieces and for progress to be tracked. It is also a tradition and you know when you get a blackbelt off me, you’ve earned it. The kata is a living link to the past. Some of our kata have been handed down and modified along the way over eight to ten generations, by practicing kata we are walking in the footsteps of the masters.
Where can I learn Bushinkai Karate?
Our classes are held at Van Dang Martial Arts in Manchester. This is a three storey listed building that has been the north’s leading martial arts centre for over twenty-five years. There is an excellent martial arts shop on the ground floor, martial arts on the first floor and on the top floor is our Dojo. We have a fully matted Japanese style Dojo for Karate and Jujutsu and a Hong Kong style Kung Fu studio for our Tai Chi classes. Karate classes are Tuesdays nights, Jujutsu Sunday nights and Tai Chi Tuesday nights. I find that this allows students to explore the full range of what’s available.
What are the qualifications of the instructors?
I hold the grade of 5th Dan, awarded by the World Union of Karatedo Federations, a worldwide governing body. I have also received previous grades from Japanese governing bodies and the English Karate governing bodies. We have a coaching programme which starts with Assistant Instructor then Club Instructor, Regional Instructor, National Instructor, International Instructor then Senior International Instructor. In Bushinkai our regional instructor is my senior student Dan Sanchez who holds the grade of 1st Dan, and we also have club instructors Ben and Pete, also both 1st Dan. We also have students who have held black belt grades in other styles.
How long does it take to get the different belts?
With dedicated study, a hard working student can expect to grade for their red, yellow, orange, green, blue and purple belts every three to four months. Then there is six months in between brown belts and one year to black belt, two years to 2nd Dan, three years to 3rd Dan and so on. The average time to reach black belt is about four to five years, with dedicated study.
For every new starter to our Manchester Bushinkai club who has joined after me, I always feel the urge to make them as welcome as possible, remembering all too well how daunting it can be taking those first steps into the dojo. But it’s also the senior instructors who remember this feeling and go to the same lengths to make sure those of us just starting out are always well looked after.
To me and others who are starting out in our studies not only does Bushinkai Karate mean healthy exercise, self-defence and the chance to learn a real martial art, it’s also a positive force that gives back exactly what it’s students put in. Providing a sense of achievement and pride that can often be lacking in modern life.
By Samuel Bainbridge