Articles, Interviews & People

Steve Arneil – Kyokushinkai Legend

Steve-with-Steve-Arniel

This interview was conducted in the year 2000…

I have known of Steve Arniel since the 1960’s and personally for some years.  I have attended the Kyokushinkai tournaments since the beginning, many of them as a V.I.P guest and had the honour of awarding Steve the “man of the year” award for “Traditional Karate” magazine at one of those tournaments.

Steve is one of the most senior, if not the most senior Karateka in Great Britain.  He holds the prestigious grade of 8th Dan and the respected title of Hanshi.  He has held the respect and loyalty of those close to him for many years and despite the politics still holds the greatest respect and love for his mentor, Sosai Mas Oyama.

My respect for Steve lies in the fact that at 65years of age he still teaches regular classes to beginners and senior grades alike, he still travels the world teaching courses and remains one of the most genial, likeable people that I have ever met in my life, let alone in the Martial Arts.

Because of our friendship I feel that the following interview reveals many never before published facts about Steve and his struggle to learn Kyokushin in Japan from it’s founder Mas Oyama.  Steve also allowed me trawl through his private photograph collection and select some of the most intimate photographs from those days.

I think that all readers will enjoy Steve’s story documented here in his own words in a way that keeps the “magic” of his own personality, reflecting his honesty, and almost superhuman effort required to learn Karatedo in those days.

JAPAN AND THE 100 MAN KUMITE

SR Can we begin with how you got to Japan – how you started training?

SA I was born in South Africa and at the age of 10 our family emigrated to Zambia. I was very interested in Judo at the time and started training in both Judo and Boxing.  My mother wasn’t very keen on boxing and made me stop, so I continued with Judo.

From a very early age I was fascinated with the Orient, – I can’t explain why.  As I grew up I used to watch a Chinese gentleman training in his back yard doing things that I didn’t understand.  I used to watch him and was fascinated by him.  I used to go to the shop that he owned to buy groceries.  One day I was in the shop with my Mum and he said “why do you always look at me?” and I said that I didn’t – I had not realised that he could see me ‘spying’ on him.  He invited me to watch closer.  He told me he did Shorin Kempo and he asked me if I wanted to learn.  I told him I did Judo but my main love at the time was Rugby.

I started to train with him and was very intrigued by the movements he made. Looking back I think his training was mainly for health.  I went on to college and my apprenticeship.  I used to go and see him and work with him.  There was no set training or syllabus or anything.

I moved to Durban to finish my qualifications in mechanical engineering and found a local Judo school that also did this other thing called Karate, I was about 25 or 26 years old at the time.  I used to go down to the docks because at that time, many Japanese were emigrating to South America and Durban was the port at which they all stopped.  I used to go to the boats and ask any Japanese if they did Karate and if they said yes I used to take them up to the Dojo to train with me.  I was doing such a mixture – Wado, Shotokan, anything!  To me Karate was Karate and I had no inclination as to what style was, I just wanted to learn!

I went back home to Northern Rhodesia and I said to my Mum that I wanted to go to the East.   She didn’t understand why, but she agreed that I needed to get it out of my system!  So I went to see the Chinese gentleman and he gave me the names of people to train with in China.

I got an engineering job on a boat and worked my way from Dar Es Salaam across to Hong Kong and then from there to Kowloon and into China and I got as far as Manchuria where I found a monastery and I trained in Shorin Kempo there.  I was in 7th heaven!  It was beautiful.  Very hard discipline, working in the fields, meditation – very similar to a Buddhist temple.

Unfortunately the Cultural Revolution occurred with Mao Tse Tung and the ‘little red book’ and life became difficult. People outside the monastery didn’t like me (a westerner) and would hit me on the head with their red books! The people I was staying with suggested that I leave China as it was becoming extremely dangerous to be there during the revolution.

I had no choice but to leave and they took me to a teacher in Kowloon. But I was not happy there – it was very different.  By then I had heard of a teacher in Japan called Oyama.  The people I was with told me that I should go and look for him as he taught the kind of thing I was interested in.

I didn’t have enough money so I worked on the boats to the Philippines where I did some training in the stick and knife.  It was great and I enjoyed it.  When I had earned enough money, I went back to Hong Kong and travelled to Yokohama.

When I arrived in Yokohama I suddenly thought ‘Oh no, what am I doing here?’  Nothing was in English, everything was in scribbly writing and all I knew was the capital Tokyo – like someone coming here and knowing only about London!  I managed to get myself to Tokyo which took a day or so.

As all I really knew at the time was Judo I went to the Kodokan.  It was such a beautiful place.  I said that I wanted to learn and they let me in.  There were a few Americans there. I did Judo there for a little while until I passed my Shodan.  Then I met an absolutely brilliant American called Don Draeger.  He became a friend of mine.  He was in the military and specialised in many things.  He helped me.  I said I was looking for Oyama.

I first went to Gogen Yamaguchi and I enjoyed my training with him but felt that something was missing.  However it would have been very bad manners to ask him where Oyama’s Dojo was.  I then went to train in Shotokan in a Dojo behind the Kodokan.  I trained those years with people like Kase and all the other well renowned Shotokan Sensei.  I knew Kanazawa and I knew Enoeda – he is still my friend.    I walked into the Dojo and was asked if I was interested in training.  My Japanese was getting better and I was able to say yes and join.

Coming back to Don Draeger.  I said ‘You know Don, I am living in a fantasy world.  I have heard about this bloke that knocks bulls out and he said, “do you mean Sensei Mas Oyama? I know him.”   He took me up to the Honbu Dojo behind Ryoku University – the first Dojo of Kyokushin in Japan.  I walked in and Don came with me.  He could speak beautiful Japanese.  There was something about the place and I knew it was what I wanted.  It was just a room really and everybody was pounding the usual ‘OOS!  OOS!  OOS!’ and I could hear it from quite a distance.

Observing the usual courtesy and rituals Don spoke to a wonderful instructor called Sensei Kurasaki, a very famous Japanese Instructor in Kyokushin.  He said that if I was interested in training I would have to sit and watch because Sensei Oyama was in America at the time.  I said to Don “how long will I have to wait”, he said  “as long as it takes.”  I didn’t understand, I said “why do I have to wait, every other Dojo I have been to have just let me train.”  He said that this was a different Dojo.  Kurasaki said that if I wanted to train there I had to attend every day and watch.  At the time I thought “what a cheek”.  In any case I did go and watch for about six weeks – I just sat in that space and watched.  The Dojo wasn’t very big, a wooden floor, four wooden walls with shogi windows with rice paper on them.   I would come in every day, do the bow and sit and watch.

Very few people would speak to me.  Not because they didn’t like me but just because I was a foreigner and they weren’t used to foreign people being in the Dojo.  Then one day, this man came through the door and I thought, “this must be him” he had a wonderful presence.  Kurasaki was speaking to him and he was looking at me.  He tried to speak to me in English and Oyama’s English was awful.  Then he said “Don Draeger” so I asked Don to come up the next day.

He spoke to me through Don and said that this was a different Dojo, everything was 100% here and was I very sure that I wanted to join the Dojo – not the organisation – the Dojo.  I said yes and that I really wanted to train.  I had looked at it and I liked what I saw and that I felt it was really for me.  He said OK, then I need to come back for a few more weeks to watch and really make up my mind. I said to Don “What for”.  He said that he wanted me to be very sure.  I said that I was sure.  He said that he was talking about life.  I didn’t understand.  He said this is one life, don’t play around.  It was a different Dojo.  I said OK.  When I went on the second week he gave me my first Karate Gi.  He said that I would have to start from the beginning.

I had to be there at 6pm and train until whenever Sosai felt like finishing, it could be 10 or 12 pm.  You couldn’t say that you would go home when you felt like it.  As Kohai we had to then clean the Dojo, the toilets (which were buckets), you can imagine how difficult that was for a fresh South African boy and check and wash the dirty Karategi’s for the entire Dojo!  It was not pleasant work but part of Kohai life.  I was accepted there as a Karateka and treated like one even though I was foreign. I was treated the same as all the other Kohai (like slaves).

Slowly but surely I worked very hard.  I was very dedicated.  I was treated like everyone else.  After a period of time I passed my brown belt.  Then my first lesson in life came.  It was from an Instructor called Okada unbeknown to me at the time he was a brilliant Karate man.  The late Ashihara and I were great mates – we were always up to something.  When anybody new came into the Dojo we were always on to them – testing them out to see what they were like.  One day this bloke came in and we found out his name was Okada.

We were tasty 1st Kyus – or so we thought!  In Japan you have Sensei and Sempai and you all line up.  When we lined up Ashihara was up before me and stood in front of Okada.  He was like a young lion raring to go.  So he faced Okada and fought hard and gave him a hard time.  As soon as the fight was over, I faced Okada and also gave him a hard time!  We were feeling very full of our selves as we walked off – we had smacked a 3rd Dan.  We waited for him to come back but he didn’t for two weeks.  Finally he returned.  Of course we thought it very funny.  But he was back for us.  He had been out of training for a while and had returned to pay us back.  When Ashihara lined up in front of him he laid him out with one punch.  Then everybody looked at me because they knew it was my turn next.  He called me over and I suddenly didn’t speak any Japanese!  But I had to go and take my turn and boy, did he give me a pasting – not in a nasty way though it was a lesson.

It was my first lesson in respecting others.  Just because they may not be fit or something you should not take advantage – they didn’t get 3rd Dan for nothing.  It was our first lesson.  My second was my Shodan.

I was a bit cocky and a big headed a foreigner that could speak Japanese.  I went for my black belt – I had trained extremely hard and to me it was just a procedure.  It was very hard like all Kyokushin gradings.  I was very confident and thought I was the best, especially my Kata.  Although Kyokushin is a very hard style Kata was important then and that is why I am very much for Kata training now.  Oyama wanted absolute discipline in technique and I felt I was good. I knew it – I fought like a champion.  I went out with Ashihara, we started together at the Dojo as white belts.   We were both very confident and thought we were good.

At the Dojo you didn’t find out if you had been successful for up to six months afterwards, so we both trained and trained in that time.  I was so confident I even went out and bought a black belt and kept it in my room and looked at it.  Then training one day the list of passes was put up and I was looking up and down the list and my name wasn’t on it!  I went up to Kurasaki and said “Sensei my name isn’t on the list”, and he looked at me and he said “Oh yes, its not there”.  So I went out and trained and then I thought I knew what had happened – I was getting a special award!  Then nothing happened – I just couldn’t figure it out.  So the next day I went to Sensei and said that my name wasn’t on the list and he said “yes”.  He wouldn’t tell me I hadn’t passed I just had to accept I was still brown belt.  Then Ashihara walked in front of me with his black belt and I couldn’t believe it – I was so angry.

I went home that night and went through all the excuses – it was because I was foreign, the wrong colour, anything that I could think of – it was because they didn’t like me.  It thought that’s it …………..

I was very disillusioned after that, I thought I had been failed because I was the only round eye or foreigner in the Dojo.  Instead of going training that evening, I went to a movie but I didn’t enjoy it because my mind was at the Dojo.  I was nervous in case someone saw me who knew I should have been at the Dojo.  I did this for about four days I was quite up tight about it.    I lived quite close to Oyama in a small bedsit room with a family.  I was sitting there feeling very hurt and wondering where my life was going.  In the morning there was a loud banging at my door and I said “who the hell is that banging on my door?”.  When I opened it Mas Oyama was standing there.  He wanted to know where I had been.  I said that I was very sick but I’m feeling much better now and coming training today and so off he went.

Then I though oh my God what am I going to do?  I thought of leaving the country but I didn’t have enough money so I had to stick it out!  In any case I went back that day.  Not a word was said to me about where I had been.  I was nervous about training again.  But I got stuck into training and accepted that I had not been successful.  But I began to get over it and got on with my training.

Then the grading came again and I lacked a bit of confidence.  They asked me if I was going to try again.  I didn’t think I was ready.  But I went in for the test and I did exactly what I had to do I worked very hard and I waited for about a month and a half and my name was on the list – shodan!  I ran all the way to my apartment and put on the black belt I had bought – I had never put it on before.

Looking back, over the years, I know why they held me back.  I wasn’t ready – my mind or my heart.  It was a hard lesson to learn.  I think if I had got my black belt then (first time) I would have left Japan – that would have been that.  I would have been too big headed.  Oyama said that he saw more in me than just black belt and he had to take the chance that he would lose me through disappointment.  I try to explain this to students when they are not successful on gradings.  I always try to be honest and fair.  That was one of the greatest lessons in my life.

SR Its nice that there was somebody wise enough to see that.

SA Yes what would have happened to me if I did pass – I would not be here today like this.  I would probably have been like others and packed it in, and tried something else and pack that in and so on.

Then I passed 2nd Dan before Ashihara.  I pushed and trained harder than the others.  It was not like it is now where you have three months between gradings or a year.  We went by time put in, dedication.  I was training morning, afternoon and evening and so within a year they said that I should try for 2nd Dan.  I thought they were crazy!  My attitude had changed completely, I wasn’t thinking about grades any more, I just wanted to be a good black belt.  But then I went to 2nd Dan and a few months later Ashihara and the others went to 2ndDan.  By then Shigeru Oyama and Nakamura went to 3rd Dan.  They were all good people.

So we trained and trained.  We went to summer camps.  They were very hard.  We slept in tents and had to get up very early in the morning.  Whatever we did, though, Mas Oyama did first.  He never asked us to do anything he didn’t do himself.  If he trained in the waterfall, we did, if he walked through paddy fields barefoot, we did – whatever he did we followed. He used to tell us stories of how he grew up and when he went into the mountains.  He would give demonstrations, which would encourage us, even if we tried to copy and weren’t successful.  He was a good leader and was an extraordinarily kind man, which many people didn’t realise.  He was extremely strict in the Dojo. You never stepped one fraction of an inch out of line, but privately, very kind.  He made us very disciplined.

We fought hard.  Our fighting was totally different to the fighting that was going on elsewhere.  Nowadays you would call us crazy people.  Every time you fought it was for survival.  After every session you would see the boys putting on bandages.  And then the black belts would have a field day on the white belts.  Of course I went through all that and I gave it out.  It was like a sport but it was never abused.  Higher grades never took advantage or abused their rank.  Giving a hiding always had a purpose – it might have been a hard lesson but it was never done in spite.

Usually the evening session began with a strong warm up, Kihon, Kata and then we would end up with fighting as usual.  Go through the traditional ending bowing etc.  Then we would finish and hang up our dirty Karategi’s for the Kohai to wash.

Then we had to build the new Dojo – the one everyone is fighting about today.   Our job on a Sunday was to dig the foundation.  I dug the foundations for that place and wheel barrowed the concrete.  Slowly the building went up and when it was finished it was as it is today.  It was a beautiful building it has a small Dojo on the bottom another in the middle and at that time, Sensei used to live on the top floor.  That is where I grew up and saw and did a lot of things.  It would take me years to document it all.  It was a lovely time of my life.

SR How long were you there?

SA I started there around 1961 until beginning of 1965.  I loved it.  I was very fortunate with my wife.  I wasn’t able to work and she supported me fully.  She worked in a bank.  If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t have been able to do what I have done.  I did some work of course like most foreigners but it wouldn’t have been enough.

SR When did you get married?

SA In 1964, the last year I was there.  I used to teach English in the bank where my wife worked.  That was how we got to know one another.

I was fortunate enough to get work in the Movies also – I was a bit of a movie star.  I changed my name to Steve Mansion.  I did quite a few movies.  I did a movie with a famous actor, it was called “Big Fight On Sand Hill”.  I was a Mongolian.  That’s how I earned money.

SR Tell us about the 100 man Kumite.

SA Of course, the day came when the Old Man gave me the biggest shock of my life when he said he wanted me to do the 100 man fight.  I said that he must be crazy and that I couldn’t do it.  He said that he thought I could and he had confidence in me.

I said why not one of the others?  He said that some had already tried and couldn’t do it.  He said that he thought I had the character to be able to do it.  He said that he wanted somebody to do it before he died.

I said that I was too small!  I made all the excuses that I could.   But he kept talking to me and by that time he and I were very close.  Due to my marriage and all my training he had become like a father to me, my own father had died some time before.  In those days your father had to negotiate your wedding for you and he took on that role, we were very close.  I felt that if I had a son he would be named after him – which he is – Stephen Oyama Arneil.

In any case he said that I had better speak to my wife about it.  She said that I was crazy.  He kept pestering me and in the end I said to my wife that I wanted to have a go and she just said OK.

It was very hard training.  I trained every day – up mountains, in rivers, on the sand.  Lots of Kata – the absolute discipline of the training.  When I tell people about it they are surprised and just say “Kata???”

I trained in Kata, on the candle (putting out the flame with the kime from a punch), the makiwara and then bag work, that was my daily schedule.  All I did was get up at 4 am and go to bed at 11 pm and just do Karate in between.

I kept asking him when?  He said he would let me know when he thought I was ready.

I just trained and trained and in the end I didn’t worry about it any more.  I thought it was just a way for him to get me to train more!  I had great support from all the other students there.  Some of them had already tried it and been unsuccessful.

The rules are quite simple.  You don’t beat a 100 people you just have to fight a 100.  If there is any indication that you are taking punishment that you can’t handle or you can’t fight back they stop it or you can stop it yourself. Other than that, you have to stand and fight.

One Sunday morning, I walked into the Dojo.  They were all sitting there in traditional form.  Sensei Oyama came up to me and said that today I fight a 100 fights.

I said today?

He said are you ready?  Everybody was sitting there, all the officials, the students everybody, so I said yes.  I didn’t know that they had told my wife and told her to come down and fetch me later!

I started about 10 o clock and finished about 1 o clock.  It took about 2 and three quarter hours.  You can save time if you knock them out.  Each fight is about 1 and half minutes so if I was able to knock him out in 15 seconds I saved myself that much time.  I think I knocked some out and some down and I went down and got up a few times.  Mentally I was very focussed then.  I counted the fights up to 20 – and after that I was just fighting.

I fought Okada and Shigeru Oyama.  And then Nakamura came up.  We had a very hard fight, he really had a go.  I thought he was trying to kill me.  Then all of a sudden it just stopped.  I stood there and looked at them.  They said, “you’ve completed it”.

I couldn’t believe it.  Everyone stood and clapped.

The Kohai took me downstairs and washed me.  I could see bruises all over me.  When I went back up to the Dojo where my wife was waiting for me and she just looked at me – I was covered in lumps and bumps and bruises – I looked like a leopard.  They did the usual ceremony of bowing and they gave me a certificate and after the congratulations that was it.  They said to me wife that she had better take me home.  When I got home I could barely move.  That night I slept like a log.  The next day I didn’t train at all but on the Tuesday I started training again.  They said I needed to in order to get my circulation moving again.  I was like an old man, but by the end of the week, I was back to normal again.

That was that.  In those days it wasn’t done for public recognition – papers and all that.  It was a personal and Dojo achievement.  And I wanted it to be kept that way.  However after about three years, it came out and everybody knew about it.  My life was a misery after that.  Everybody wanted to come and fight you know?

Unfortunately now it has become stupid – the TV is there and all that. So I was lucky in that I was the first person other than my teacher – they say he did 200 fights, I don’t know because I wasn’t there but he says he did it so I can only go on that.  He was very powerful so I believe he could do it.

He was a tremendous tamishiwara (breaker).  There were two things I always wanted to learn from him.   How to take the side of a bottle out and how to hold somebody down with a finger touch.  He never taught it.  I would ask him many times to teach me and he would always say I wasn’t ready.  He took the secret to the grave with him.

SR Do you mean he could hold you in a sitting position?

SA Yes just sitting and he would do this technique (Steve placed his finger softly on my head) and you couldn’t move however hard you tried.  I really wanted to learn that.

The other technique was with a beer bottle.  He would set it down and take the cork out.  He could hit it on the side and take a piece out of the side without breaking any thing else.  The first time he showed us he hit the bottle then showed us his hand with the piece of glass in his hand.  It was amazing.

SR After those early years, how did things develop from there?

SA Then the organisation began to grow.  As you know, it was very powerful.  I was groomed and Takashi Nakamura was groomed for ‘special’ jobs.  Slowly but surely it developed.

SR What about competition?

SA I had never done a competition in full contact, in my period of time it didn’t exist. Competition only came about in Kyokushinkai because the kick boxers of Thailand challenged Japan – any style.  We were the only style who accepted them.

SR Wasn’t a film made about that?

SA I think so, I’m not sure.  Anyway, we agreed to give it a go.  A group of us were selected including me but I wasn’t able to go as I had commitments.  Kurasaki the coach went, Nakamura and Fujihara.  He was a small man but had the spirit of a mountain.  We went over to Thailand and we fought them with their rules and  knocked them all out.  The Thai people were so shocked, they didn’t know there were any other styles that fought like them.  They fought tremendously, in those days anything went except you couldn’t gouge the eyes.  They came back to our Dojo as heroes.  They were very bruised.

Three fighters were supposed to go over to Thailand.  As I said, I couldn’t go and the other student Yushiko, Oyama’s brother couldn’t go as he was a law student taking exams.  Only the two of them went and the Thai people were upset because we had promised three fighters.  So Kurasaki fought – he should never have fought – he was the coach.  He was very strong, a hard man and he did very well but got caught with an elbow strike and had his nose broken.  He didn’t win.  He had the biggest black & blue eyes you’ve ever seen!

That is when Kyokushin really started and when we decided to have tournaments.  The first knockdown tournament was quite wild!  We were allowed to hit in to the face, to grab, to go on to the ground just like we did in the Dojo, all kinds of things!  It was a bloodbath.  There were no guards on the knuckles or anything.  However, slowly but surely, all that changed.  No face hitting was allowed, mainly because we didn’t want to wear gloves.  We could kick to the head though.    If we had worn gloves we would have been kick boxers and we didn’t want that.  We then stopped grabbing.  The rest is the same to this day. – We don’t kick to the joints or on the ground.

We became tremendous fighters.  But Tsuyuko always said to us that all Kyokushinkai must be gentlemen and ladies – at that time we didn’t have any women students but he mentioned it.  He said our courtesy must be of high level at all times,  he said that when you fight, you fight like an animal – for survival; after the fight you must be a perfect gentleman.  We would have been in big trouble if he had caught us abusing our positions or misbehaving.

SR I heard that you were a bit of a movie star, did you keep any memorabilia?

SA I am always asked if I have any posters from my movie days.  But I am not a collector and in those days you didn’t think about things like that – it was just something I did.  I have all the memories, which is just as good.

SR Tell us about the demonstration you did for the Prime Minister of Japan….

SA We did a demonstration for the Prime Minster and Oyama said “now the boy from Africa will do a break” and he held up four pieces of wood.  I hit them and nothing happened!  He said, “do it again”, I did and nothing happened.  I could see I was bleeding and he said, “do it again” and I still didn’t do it  – but he said “that’s what I call courage it never lets you down!”

That’s typical of the things he would do – I had never done a break before!  When we when on summer camp with him or winter camp, the things he would ask us to do were unbelievable and we always had to reply ‘oss’.  He was always testing our courage and obedience but he never abused it, he never did anything for a ‘giggle’ or to humiliate.  If he asked you to do something, he really wanted you to try.  That is why I loved the style.

SR How did you come to the UK?

SA Coming to Europe was fate really, I was on my way back to Africa, and I came back through Russia and London.  However due to the complications in my home country, it would have been very hard for my wife to live there you know?  It wouldn’t have been right, so I ended up staying in London.  Then I met Bob Bolton who I originally met in Japan.  He was a very good Judo Man as well as Kyokushin.  He opened up the LJS (London Judo Society).   That was where we started our Kyokushin group.

Then I became President of Europe Section and I did a lot of things for the European group.  I was the first one to introduce a syllabus.  We didn’t have a syllabus prior to that.  But I knew we didn’t have the same mentality as the Japanese and needed to have things written down.  In Japan there wasn’t a syllabus we just had to learn everything and keep it in our heads!

Then came the kata book.  Oyama said that the only way you can unify a club or organisation is by doing the same thing and the only way you can do the same thing is by Kata.  He said to me ‘ promise me that you will never forget that Kata is the only way you can unify a group’.  You can see that when people from different places are all doing kata – all the same and unified.

Unfortunately, like everything else, it got very big and certain things happened which Nakamura, Shigeru and I wasn’t happy with, things were done openly – draws were fixed, rules were changed in the fighting.  You know people would train their lives out to go to Japan to compete and then were robbed by bad refereeing.  This of course got more political and then Nakamura left and he asked me to go with him.  But I said that I was obligated to my ‘dad’ and couldn’t go.  I was sad to see him leave and then Shigeru left and then finally, Kimura said to me that I couldn’t hang on to it any longer.  He said that I would be leaving the organisation around the man, not the man himself.  I have always said that I would never leave him, but I did leave the organisation.

I will always be a Kyokushin man until I die and I have tried to carry on his dream as I saw it – good karate, having a good time and try to do your best.  I think I did this with our European Kata championships.  All the kata were the same and the judges knew exactly how to judge.  It was very good.

There are three breakaways.  I don’t have much to do with them and I try not to criticise.  This is the way the IFK has developed.  I hope to continue the best way I can and I hope there will be people to continue it.

SR I often wonder about those masters in their graves looking and wondering at the use their names are put to sometimes.

SA Yes!  I think if the old man could come back he would probably cut a few heads off!!!

I don’t know our future, we will see what happens.  I will do my share to see that it develops the right way.  I have a very good group of people around me who think the same way.

SR Yes, Kyokushin is known for its integrity.

SA Yes, as you know Steve, I always have respect and want respect in the group.  I think it’s a terrible thing to boo two fighters – it shows disrespect to the fighters even if one has committed an infringement.  Let the referee sort it out.  If you don’t like him, don’t clap him but don’t boo him.

SR I watched the Kyokushin championships certainly since the 1970’s.  I can remember Shigeru Oyama and the first baseball bat shin breaks etc. I was there for those and I can remember when you had contingents from the Wu Shu Kwan and other groups.

SA Yes they were my mates and I loved the other groups coming to join in.  We had a group over from Holland once who had a very bad attitude.  We wouldn’t let them come again.  I said to them that they had to improve their manners first.  They were rude to everyone and they were rude to our VIP’s as well.

I think it’s tragic what happened to the Kyokushin organisation.  They were very big.  What hurts me sometimes is that some groups keep dragging the old man from the grave you know?  He always taught me that he had given us all knowledge and we had to continue the knowledge, respect him, talk about him but don’t live on him.  Live on your own achievements.

SR You mean like Shu Ha Ri?

SA Yes, I have lived on my own achievements but I couldn’t have made the achievements without his teaching.  I don’t go on about his achievements – I know what he did.  I am a man of my own destiny.  I have developed the things that he said and taught.  He said to me that there were things he wasn’t happy with and that maybe with my help they would improve further and that my students would develop if I taught them properly.  You will play your part in the chain.

But this doesn’t work for some people.  Many people say they knew him and were friends with him.  He was friendly person and would put his arm around someone for a photo but most of them didn’t really know him.  But that is human nature I suppose.

Kyokushin is broken up and I don’t think it will get back together in my lifetime.  There is too much diversification, too many splits.

SR That is the way of things though isn’t it?  People grow and change and move on?

SA Well, yes.  Oyama always said to me that you’ll grow up and have your own family.

SR Yes.  Your style is your roots, where you come from.

SA Yes, I will keep developing.  People always say to me about the WUKO thing.  They ask me who is better, the boys then or the boys now.  I say, technically the boys of today are very good, they are very sharp, but the boys of my day would probably destroy the boys today with their character, they couldn’t match their character.  The guys today with their methods of training are very good, but they have never had what we had at the Dojo.  So it is very difficult to say who is the best.  I can only go by character.

I look back to the way I trained.  Many of the things we did were plain stupid.  We didn’t know any better, you know if you could stretch your legs a certain way they were forced by someone helping you – there would be tear marks from stretching.  Nowadays there are proper ways of training and we have new technology and knowledge for training so we don’t have that any more.  If I learn something useful from a sportsman or trainer I use it.  Sometimes I meet people from the Olympic teams and if I see someone who can jump high I ask them how they train to do it.  I develop the training methods to suit us and get my boys to jump higher when they fight.

As I was saying the boys of today would never survive the training we did.  The character is not there, the absolute loyalty, the dedication we had.  Then again, in my era if only we had access to the technology and knowledge we have today back then, and with the character, it would be a totally different thing.

People ask me about different styles, I think of Steve Cattle, Terry O’Neill, Bob Poyton, Andy Sherry all Shotokan men, they were all in my squad.  They were brilliant.  Then I had Brian Fitkin, Howard Collins, to name a few, they were Kyokushin.  They were able to train together and they were all able to fight well and to the rules.  Once they came home they would all go off to their separate classes and clubs and do their own thing, but when they came together for the squad they all pulled together as one British group – no style.  It took some time for them to come together as they all were very loyal to their groups, and I had a couple of upsets with Enoeda and Suzuki but they had to be loyal to Britain whilst on the squad and follow the rules and plan of the squad.  But we overcame our differences by talking and eventually we all went out to Japan and although we lost the tournament, I learned a lot from the experience, because remember that I wasn’t a WUKO fighter.

I was fortunate enough to do well in European tournaments and then eventually we won the world tournament and beat Japan in Paris, which I will never forget.  Kanazawa came up to me and groaned.  I said next time we will beat you in the World Tournament, and he said never.  We won in Los Angles and it was a very proud moment for me, the boys on the squad and for Great Britain, I was very proud.

SR What year was that?

SA 1975 I think.  It was great.  I know that Oyama was a bit put out, he said that he felt he had been robbed by his own.  So I said to him that I lived in the country, I worked in the country – I pay my taxes and obey the rules, just as he had taught me.  I said to him that I couldn’t do knockdown in Britain – it wasn’t allowed, and that the only way I could ever expose Kyokushin, was to do what I was doing then.  I needed to show people who we were and how good we were so that I could go back to Britain and concentrate on our organisation.  After that, I had no trouble.  I was able to start Knockdown in Europe.  If I hadn’t done the WUKO thing I would never have been able to get Knockdown started – every one was dead set against it.

We have good rules, proper medical examinations before competing and good training and to this day we have never had a serious injury.  But I have very strict discipline if people want to fight.  They can’t fight unless they are fit.  They must have a doctors examination before they fight.  They have to be medically checked out.  My main concern is for the fighters.

I never went against my teacher in that respect.  I don’t know where Kyokushin would have been if we hadn’t done all that.  Brian Fitkin and those guys they did a tremendous job for Britain in WUKO fighting, but they also came back.  Howard Collins did a hundred man fight after I did it.  And they should all go down in the history books for the work that they did.  What they do now is their affair.

When I give a person a grade, he is worth every bit of it.  After that if he goes one way or another, or disgraces himself, I can do nothing about it, they must do what they must do.

I think that is what my Karate is about.  I am saddened at what has happened to Karate in Britain now, the same as what happened to Kyokushin.  It is falling apart, money, power and greed and then etiquette becomes lost.  If they are not careful, it will be gone forever.  It will be difficult to bring it back to what it was because of changes in modern society.  Nowadays you have “Karobics” Karate and aerobics combined, you have “Boxercise” and karate exercise they are all spin offs to make money.  But it is not for me to say what is good or bad but some of it is a con.  But all of it is taking away from the Budo study.  Every time you have a Dojo open that is doing a form of Karate and exercise where the tradition is gone, the etiquette is gone, the directness is gone and you are losing.  It is a new generation and they are not getting the training.

The prospective students don’t know any different if they just walk in from the street.

SR The movies don’t help.

SA Yes the movies give an unreal view of Martial Arts, even though some of them are very good.  I don’t know what the end product will be.  I shall just try to keep going and maintain the traditions like many other good Karate Instructors in Great Britain who feel like I do.  When we are gone, I don’t know…

There must be many people who have the same thoughts that I have.  But I am not too saddened by it because that’s life you know?

SR There is still a lot of good in the Martial Arts

SA I remember debating and talking with my teacher.  I was one of the few who could talk honestly and directly with him because we were very close.   I always said to him that he had to learn to give way a bit, learn to handle some change.  It is important to have an open mind.  There is so much change about.

SR Can we talk about Kata?  Sanchin – a lot of styles including Kyokushin pay a lot of regard to Sanchin training.

SA Sure, Sanchin and Tensho.  They are taught with Ibuki breathing.

SR When people watch Kyokushin Kata they see the Ibuki breathing and don’t really understand.  Could you give some explanation on it?

SA Ki is the main aspect.  The inner spirit you know?  It’s in the shout, the breathing, the movement, and the relaxation, in appreciating something.  It has an unbelievable power that can’t be described on paper really because you need to feel it to understand it.  The power that people can produce in it is well ……

You only have to go to the East and watch Tai Chi and  see a gentleman or lady of the age of 80 or 90 and they move around like (Steve demonstrates Tai Chi type movements).   I would just stare and think it was beautiful then you have the other side of it in Tai Ki Ken – the exact reverse of it.

Ibuki is something you learn from the body. It’s a breathing aspect, a form of energy.  You inhale clean air and you bring it into the body and you exhale it out from the diaphragm and it pushes it out.  The idea is that you achieve a clean sound not a guttural sound and what comes out is like a whistle, a wind sound.  I was always taught that there are three powers within the body; and it comes from Tai Chi.  A soft power, a hard power and instant power and you try to accomplish these things within your training by Kata.  We do Sanchin and Tensho kata for that effect.

It took me a long time within myself to try to grasp it.  I understood it but I have not achieved it.  I understood what I was after but to achieve it is difficult.

SR Is it translated as Battle Breath?

SA Yes, Battle Breath.  It’s a part of a shout.  Its not a scream, its very controlled.  It has different aspects.  If you are hit in the stomach for instance and you can’t breathe, people hit you on the back.  If you know what you are doing you inhale down very quickly.  The stomach has a lot of nerves.  When they are shocked they contract and prevent you from breathing.  Therefore if you inhale and use the technique, it releases the nerves and centres the breathing again.  That is basically our argument in favour of it.  It stops shock preventing parts of the body working.  It is the Ibuki part of recovery.

You can do Ibuki in three powers.  You can do it in the soft power like Tai Chi, you can do the hard power, but you can’t just practise instant power.  My teacher said that instant power is like a fish.  Take a stone and drop it in where fish are swimming and they just move and then carry on as normal, which is like instant power.  That is the key, like when you are fighting and you go in for the big one – that is the battle cry for instance.

SR The Chinese call vibration power “Fa Jing”

SA When it dawned on me I wanted to tell him (my teacher) but he is dead.  That is the only way I can explain Ki is physically by using kata.

If you relax your body it will collapse.

Power three will only come out in kata at the point where you shout.  The shout is instant not long or drawn out.

My students train with all three powers and you can see the different levels of power quite clearly when they train or fight.

I have been quite successful throughout the world in getting across the message of the three powers of Kyokushin.

SR In Sanchin we do a flexing of the spine, the difference between tipping the hips forward and the tailbone coming up.

SA We draw it in.  We don’t push it forward.  If you push it forward you lose the structure of one degree forward.  We are always one degree forward. All stances are one degree forward in Kyokushin to achieve the centre line.

The muscles must be hard and flexible not tense.  Tense muscles can’t move.

SR What about Tensho?

SA Tensho is exactly the same except it is circular movements.  My teacher said that when you do Tensho you must think like an artist and draw the lines.

Sanchin is direct lines, Tensho is circular.

Sosai believed that if you could circle the body with your arms you had an impenetrable defence like a fan.  If it goes slowly you can put your finger in and out, if it’s fast then you lose your finger!

It is to create an absolute pure defence.  A circle is to protect.  This is what I was taught why we do these circular movements.

SR Last Monday I trained with Yap Chen Hoi who is the Shaolin Forms Master and he has the original five animal forms that are taught at the Temple.  You can see Tensho in all of them.

SA Yes, yes, it’s lovely when you get to meet people of that level and you can converse and not argue.  And you can discuss one another’s ideas.  I don’t waste time with people who think any thing they don’t do is rubbish – it’s a waste of time.  Have you ever heard the stories as to why different stances?

SR In my view the original Kata was Sanchin as it gives you the ability to stick to the ground instantly in a normal stance.

SA I’ll tell you what was told to me.  Zenkutsu Dachi is to develop the full structure of the legs for a fighter on a smooth area.  Kiba Dachi the Horse Stance, comes from the Military where they used to hold the horses with their legs and knees, and Sanchin was developed for use in very wet and slippery conditions like on the battle fields of China.  It was a lovely way to describe the stances.  Kokutsu Dachi was so that you could step and kick quickly.

I am sure there must be many other formulas and explanations for the stances.

SR Yes, I think for Sanchin particularly, a lot of monks and dignitaries all wore robes and had this magical dignified thing, that you had to be able to despatch and adversary effortlessly. …..

SA Yes, it’s lovely stories.

We use the triangle for Sanchin do you?

SR We use both, the back foot straight or angled.

SA I was taught by Sosai and a sensei from Tai Chi Ken in China, the way we do it is with body proportion – how tall or short you are like building a house.

It is how the triangle fits on your body type.  It is quite interesting.  I know the Goju do it differently but I don’t understand it – it would be nice to learn their way someday, to understand it.

SR Some Chinese stylists do it with the feet straight.

SA Yes, we call that Mura Ashi Dachi.

SR In Chinese Chi Gung and Tai Chi we keep the weight over the kidney point in the feet because the Chi builds up in the kidneys particularly when you fight.  As you were saying the one inch (per cent) forward. They always aim to keep the weight on the kidney point and maintain balance.

SA Yes, the trouble with a lot of westerners is that they don’t know the meridians of the body and they don’t know the points.  All they want to know is how to kill somebody or how can they cause pain.  But it takes time to learn properly.  I was fortunate, I learnt a lot from my time in China although it was short and my time in the East.  I enjoyed what I was doing in China it was strong and powerful and it was only by fate that I ended up in Japan – it wasn’t planned that way.

SR I think that Kyokushin still has a very Chinese influence.

SA Yes, Sosai was very strong in Chinese influences, the circles, the straight lines, the curvatures.

SR Yes, such as the original Sanchin stance was similar to Naihanchi stance.  The Tekki Kata – In Shotokan they changed it as they said that when the legs were tired you would rise up in the stance so they changed it so that you would sink lower.

SA Mind you in my own way, I have developed technique and style to suit the conditions we have.  I hope I have not done any thing wrong by it.  People ask me if we teach a hard style and I say yes.  They see the fighting and some think that we don’t have any skill, but I say to them that if they come to the Dojo they will see a different thing entirely.  This is why we do Clikker, Wuko and Knockdown.  I believe all three provide good things, one is the ability to control, the other is movement with control and one is full contact with focus and where you hit hard you put them all together and you have a nice fighting machine!

SR I always say to my wife that I go out and “play” Martial Arts because where ever I go I enjoy it.  I enjoy taking lessons and learning from different sources.

SA Oh yes, I enjoy it all and I am not the sort of bloke that won’t try to learn from what ever I come across.  I am always learning.  About two months ago I was in Norway and I was asked why I teach beginners like I teach high grades.  They said to me that I shouldn’t teach beginners I should leave that to lower grades.  I said that no, a beginner wants to work with me just like a high grade.  It’s something that I’ve never forgotten, I said I was a beginner and I was grateful to have my teacher work with me.  I know some people think it’s beneath their dignity to work with a white belt but I think it’s important.

SR Yes, it’s nice to have a clean sheet of paper to work with.

SA Yes it’s good.  But it’s a strange world.  So many changes, so many things taking place.  But if you are brought up properly you know what’s right and what’s wrong.  You have to rely on your education.  I hope that my students are getting that education.  Some people say to me that some of my students have left me.  I say that’s right, but whilst they were with me I gave them my full co-operation.  If they were black belts that I gave to them, they deserved it.  Any one I gave a black belt to was worth it.  Some say yes but look at what they are doing, but I can’t vouch for their character now – once they leave.

Let’s have a coffee!

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One thought on “Steve Arneil – Kyokushinkai Legend

  1. Anthony mason says:

    Amazing interview with a legend, I remember taking my shodan with Steve arneil I was by then with my brother running a club and had been 1st kyu for seven years. I went into the grading as an instructor as strong and fit as I could be. The gradings as all kyokushin know can last a whole day. Everyone passed except me ,, STeve arneil told me the story of the Japanese had done it to him and that he was doing it to me , as he said at the time maybe to me maybe it will make you stronger I don’t know. Gutted and wounded all the way home I moaned and blamed this blamed that how could I not be strong enough I had the heart of a lion was as fit as anyone I trained so long and hard for it wasn’t fair. So fair play to my brother who was a shodan we went back to work and prepared again.
    I went to the next grading in the hut in Crawley mid summer the heat was 30 degrees and they had only just brought in that you could have a drink of water in the grading then previously if you fainted with dehydration or were sick, if you didn’t get back up and carry on you had failed. Very hard days indeed, imdid exactly the same in this grading as previous even with the heat and having to fight a few youngsters who not fought knockdown to date and were told by haanshi they would be expected to in the British. I had fought in the British open my first tournament and the welsh twice.
    There was no novice then I had enterd as a green belt. So these youngsters were trying to put on a show I can still feel the pressure now.
    We get to the end I can hardly stand and thinking that’s it you had it all 6 hours of me, the results were given out hanshi said I’m promoting you to shodan I thought you were going he said but you realised and came back stronger.
    Tears after to say the least but as he says in his story he did it to me for a reason and as time went on after the grading I realised and learnt from his wisdom, a very clever and intelligent teacher thank you
    OSU Hanchi Steve Arneil

    Like

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