Yukiyoshi Marutani (Interview)
Dragon Times: When did you begin your martial arts training?
Marutani Sensei: I started in 1967 with a college Karate club. There were classes Monday through Saturday for three to four hours a day. In addition, you were expected to do personal training like hitting the makiwara during the lunch break. Many times my hands or feet were bloody...
DT: What was the training like?
Marutani: It was always my college sempai (seniors) who led those early workouts. We did nothing but basics...again, and again, basics. I remember wondering to myself after three weeks if this was all that Karate was...nothing new for three weeks...three hours a day!
DT: Somebody told me that you failed your first kyu exam. Is this true?
Marutani: Yes, I failed. There were about thirty students who tested that time. They split us into two groups...the upper group passed. The lower group (my group) failed. My sempai told me I was a bad kicker...my center of gravity was too high...everything! They were always yelling at me. Later on, they were all amazed that I stuck it out and progressed as much as I have.
DT: What made you stay with it? You could have quit but you didn't...in fact, you increased your training to six or seven days a week for four or five hours a day.
Marutani: You know, the first month I hated it. The second month...I began to like it. My mind and body became fixed on the simple acts of hitting and punching. I failed the testing but after that we had our first Gasshuku training. It was long...about ten days. Running in the morning...punching until our hands were bloody...and afterwards, we had to clean up and cook. That was ten long days. After that...the feeling was so different. It was like being a new person. I became more involved with karate...working on my punching...working with seiken-tsuki. At night, I would train my eyes. I was a shy person. On the trains I would look into people's eyes--never moving my eyes from theirs...they hated it! I have heard about the "Eye of the Tiger" or something like that.
DT: Who were your main instructors?
Marutani: I had many sempai but my main instructor is Kunihiko Tosa. DT: What is Gensei-Ryu? Marutani: I don't have a lot of details. I learned through my instructors that Mr. Shukumine (the founder) started Gensei-Ryu after World War II. Mr. Shukumine's instructor was Soko Kushimoto, an Okinawan. We can see through the kata that it is very close to Tomari-Te. I only met Mr. Shukumine twice, but I understand that he had a very strong character and that he was a very philosophical man. GEN means the universe and SEI means control--so GENSEI is to "control the universe". He wrote the kanji and analyzed it to more fully understand what it meant... physically and spiritually.
DT: What makes it different from the other more well-known Japanese styles?
Marutani: I think Mr. Shukumine had done research in body movement...like gymnastics. I believe he was also involved in that sport. So, the body movement in Gensei-Ryu was more natural...more reasonable. He also figured out how to incorporate certain movements from gymnastics (like jumps, flips, and handsprings) into karate techniques. These sorts of techniques helped to make the movements faster...more surprising.
DT: When did you qualify for the Japanese National Team?
Marutani: I believe it was 1974.
DT: What was the selection process like?
Marutani: I remember the first team selections were in 1972 or so. There were about 150 people in the selection pool. All the top people from the tournaments except for the JKA. We ran, we free-sparred. If you got hurt...there was no sympathy. Good-bye...thank you for coming! You packed your bags and went home. No one was special. If your karate was bad and you couldn't survive... you went home. They started with about 150 of us--all championship caliber--and ended with 7 or 8.
DT: How long were you on the National Team?
Marutani: I think it was about 7 years. I retired from competition in 1981 or so.
DT: What were some of the highlights of your time with the Japanese National Team?
Marutani: I was on the team for the World Championships in Long Beach, Tokyo, and Madrid. I took the bronze medal (70 kg.) at the World Games in Santa Clara.
DT: Who were your teammates? Marutani: During the seven years, I trained alongside Mr. Murase, Mr. Nishimura, and Mr. Maeda and several others. Those three are on the current coaching staff for the Japanese National Team.
DT: Can you tell us a little about those days, about training with the team?
Marutani: We met about 7 or 8 times a year for three days. The first one was longer. It was a good time. We trained and trained...we also drank...but then the coaches changed. They wanted us to be more like college students, younger. I was 32 or 33 at the end. Now, the maximum age is 29. I don't know the details. It is a brand new team.
DT: When were you first exposed to international competition? Marutani: My first memorable encounter was in Tokyo. I was matched against a big Italian. I couldn't move. He couldn't move. We were both so nervous. the first time in the spotlight with 20, 000 spectators watching me...especially the Japanese team. I managed to get past him and relaxed in the later rounds. I still remember...the coaches were inexperienced as far as competition was concerned. They didn't understand how to coach for sport...how to use strategy to score a good point.
DT: This situation has improved as seasoned competitors like yourself and your teammates, Murase Sensei & Nishimura Sensei, have moved into coaching?
Marutani: That is right. They can explain concepts better to the new generation. They understand the point of competition, or at least can put themselves into the position of the competitor and explain it in those terms. Some of the first coaches understood the concepts but couldn't explain it. They had no frame of reference--the rules were changing. Ippon Shobu has a different strategy than Sanbon Shobu.
DT: Sensei, I understand that you were also ranked nationally in Japan for kata. How important is kata in Gensei-Ryu? What kata is included in the curriculum?
Marutani: We do the mandatory kata used by the WKF (WUKO). We also do kata unique to our style of Gensei-Ryu. DT: How many Gensei - Ryu kata are there?
Marutani: There are seven. I demonstrated Sansai Sho for you. I am still learning the others. Sansai Sho is probably the most well known of our kata. It is used in the All-Japan tournaments. DT: When did you come to America? Marutani: The first time I came here was in 1981. I stayed for 3 or 4 months at Mr. Yamazaki's dojo in Anaheim. Later, in 1982, the Huntington Beach dojo sent me tickets to come here. I have been here ever since!
DT: Within a very short time your students were ranked nationally and competing internationally. What was the training like in those early days? Marutani: I didn't teach much as far as technique. Some Americans get caught up in asking questions. I told them not to worry about the competition. Win or lose--it didn't matter. Just go to the tournament... their bodies would understand. Back then we had mini-training camps...two or three times a week. Every morning we ran 10 miles. After that, we would train. It helped to teach them about stamina. We wanted to push the competitor...to make the preparation more difficult than the actual competition. It is like hitting a very heavy bag. When you switch to a smaller bag...no problem!
DT: What does the American kumite competitor need to do to win at the international level?
Marutani: Most competitors are not skilled in basic things like distance control, body evasion, situational strategy, time management... things like this. These sorts of skills should be "second nature" to a competitor. I think that this is the biggest weakness here...especially when compared to the stronger teams like Japan, France, etc., etc. These teams had a better understanding of competition even 15 years ago.
DT: You stress distance control and body rotation/evasion in your seminars. These are much higher level/ more sophisticated skills than what is normally taught today. Is this the next step for the typical American competitor?
Marutani: Yes. A lot of these ideas came to me from my own competition days. Back then, it was basically full-contact... I would just fly at my opponent...and I didn't have any teeth!! I went to the dentist and he joked with me that I was too weak--after every tournament I showed up in his office!! I started thinking about things and began to experiment. I would put pressure on the opponent...both physically and mentally. I never backed up. I pressed, I hit, I pushed...naturally, I lost some...but I won a lot more! About 3 or 4 years ago, I began to train seriously with weapons. It changes the atmosphere. Everyone worries about getting hit with a weapon. It can be a bo or nunchaku or sword...it doesn't matter. It got me to think more and more about the distance. When I moved in close, the opponent couldn't hit me. If you analyze a punch...the fist is the fastest point and the shoulder is the slowest--if you stop the shoulder you don't have to worry too much about the fist. It loses most (if not all) of its power.
DT: Your weapons training has been recent, but it has helped you to develop your entry skills, how to get in closer and gives you a better understanding for distance and body control?
Marutani: Yes, I didn't show many of these techniques today, perhaps I should have--how to balance your shoulders, hips and knees to get more control and ease of movement... nobody really explained it to me...so we learned how to block, how to move our spines and big joints efficiently and economically on our own. That's what helped them to learn their skills. My responsiblity is to teach my students, not only what is easy and what I like, but how things work. I was thinking about why a punch has tobe countered with this block or that block. I enjoyed sparring, the movement... and you got hit. People told me that it was too dangerous and I know--I got hit hard sometimes. It's like in soccer however, if you learn to absorb the power of the ball you can avoid injury... I think that sparring should be taught first in Karate, and after you've learned how to move that way you should move on to learning Kata. I learned Kata through the fighting when I was beginning.
DT: Can you tell us about the Japanese Instructors Club?
Marutani: Right now there are over forty of us from all styles. Just a month ago we got together and had a good time. We get together as often as we can but it's hard. Before the club, when we were at the tournaments it was usually with six or seven competitors each, and it was difficult to discuss things. I want to learn what other people are thinking and saying about Karate for the future. It gives us a place to pool our knowledge, and be sure that things are passed on from one generation to the next. It's an easy concept to explain in Japanese--very difficult in English... For my generation, it means passing on what we learned from the last generation to the next generation--it also means that the new Japanese instructors coming here should not expect to control American Karate, that there are already sempai here... there will be a place for them to get advice and guidance. It works both ways.
DT: So far you've had training sessions with Nishiyama Sensei and...? Marutani: Yes, with Mr. Nishiyama, as well as Mr. Higaonna.
DT: It seems to me that you've come into Karate from the Kumite or sparring side, and the more you've learned, the more you have come to understand that the Kata training is a necessary thing to help the students to learn and grow?
Marutani: To completely understand Kata, if it is the right instructor teaching the basics, it is the same thing. Kata has to equal useful sparring, that's what we learn. Sometimes that concept is lost. For example, some highly rated Kata competitors score well but they can't hit. They practice their Kata like gymnastics or a dance. I didn't want to get into that so I concentrated on teaching sparring--to teach realistic movement. My student, Kevin Chen, is Chinese, so he brings books on Chinese martial arts and we compare... the movements may be similiar but the execution and meaning is different. So that's like Kata--the Kata itself is very important, but so is the the student's understanding of the meaning of the movement.
DT: So it's helped you, because you've taken your competition experience and applied it to the performance of the Kata--unlike some American competitors who do Kata--not performing the Kata with real understanding of the basics or possible applications? Marutani: Yes, like when you perform Kata you are supposed to be facing an opponent--every instructor will tell you that, but the competitors eyes are wrong... you know in Sparring, everybody's eyes change--they get fighter's eyes, but you don't always see that in Kata..
DT: You continue to train and develop, is there anything special that you are doing... any new arts to learn? Marutani: I enjoy doing basics more and more every day--kiba dachi, forward stances, hit the makiwara, combinations... and I enjoy sparring with the kids. They hit me with all their power, and I learn how to absorb the impact better. I learn how they move and what to expect from them.
DT: Do you practice any other arts?
Marutani: Boxing, or anything else--I'll watch. During high school I practiced Judo as part of the physical education. I enjoy watching it. The movements are very similiar to Karate.
DT: Mr. Reynolds' Yoshinkan Aikido classes uses the facilities here at the Huntington Beach Dojo... do you watch the classes or otherwise become involved? With your participation in the instructors' club, you always have the opportunity to learn--do you consider yourself still a student?
Marutani: Yes, I always want to learn something. I want to research more into the relationship between basics, Kata, and Kumite. I've seen too many demonstrations of Karate that are basically the same thing, and not done very well. I would like to be able to present demonstrations that really show what Karate is about, and are meaningful for future Karate students... I was really impressed by some AIKIDO demonstrations I've seen. It looks like dancing, but the fundamental movements and concepts are sound. Karate instructors have to prepare for the future, for when they are done... that's what Mr. Demura is trying to do. To pass on to the next generation what we have been taught, and what we have learned, so that they can do the same in the future... Part of what I am worried about is the manner in which Karate is taught today--I think there should be more emphasis in the basics.
DT: One of the concepts that came out of Nishiyama Sensei's summer camp this year in La Jolla, California was that regular training in the Dojo should not be different from competition training--that your training in the Dojo should leave you prepared to compete at any time. Do you think that this reflects on some of your own philosophies about training?
Marutani: Some things that Mr. Nishiyama talks about I absolutely agree with... He said that Dojo sparring equals Tournament sparring. I don't train my students with one or two punches... we free-spar every day and have special training on Saturday. We hit each other over and over...we learn to move our bodies to avoid the kick or punch... we need to understand that the movement can also be a treasure of Karate.
DT: Some people would say that one of the weaknesses of American Karate today is that it has become a business... that compromises have been made to keep the students from leaving?
Marutani: Somebody told me that it was bad if the students sweat too much after a workout... that you had to think about the students. I didn't change my workouts. People who join have to understand what they are getting into. To develop your mind and body, you have to sweat. The school is not joining the student, the student is joining the school. I try to teach like this is a church, and that people who join have to make a different kind of donation. If I taught like this was a college, people coming for one semester and then saying goodbye--I couldn't have the correct control to teach.
DT: It is difficult because the American culture is not that way. Marutani: Yes, and that's my problem. I have to change. If you said something to the students, probably they would stay. Having a conversation to explain why I won't change the workout would probably help. My English is getting better so probably that's why I have more students.
DT: Are there any GENSEI-RYU instructors in Europe?
Marutani: Yes, there some Japanese instructors in the Netherlands.
DT: If you had an opportunity to do seminars in Europe, would you?
Marutani: Any time, any where. I have students in Brazil, and the Dominican Republic... so if you go to South America, people would know about GENSEI-RYU.
- Classical Fighting Arts magazine - Vol 2 No 13 Issue 36, http://www.cfa-digital.com/product/classical-fighting-arts-magazine-vol-2-no-13-issue-36
- Dragon Times' presents U.S. National Coach Yukiyoshi Marutani - An Interview with America's leading Gen Sei Ryu practitioner by John & Steven Heyl. Second half of page: http://www.dragon-tsunami.org/Dtimes/Pages/articlef.htm