Articles & Interviews

Soon Pretorius 8th Dan JSKA: Kata is Kumite

Soon Pretorius 8th Dan JSKA: Kata is Kumite

Interview By Michelle du Plessis & Janine Engelbrecht.

SP: My karate career started in 1966 at the tender age of 8 years old when Norman Robinson sensei (JKS 9th Dan) demonstrated the weird art of Unarmed Combat at our Primary School. The next 56 years of my life was jam-packed with Karate training, teaching, camps, tournaments, tours – and I loved every minute of it.

I started my first karate school in 1973 in a small store behind a shopping center close to our home, but had to close down because of the political situation in our country. In those early years, I enjoyed training with Koos Burger sensei (SASKA) and the late Eddie Dorey sensei (JKA), especially their traditional, but tough and challenging, approach the Karate-do.

My university days had been fun without many responsibilities but to study and train (not always in that order of commitment). I had been fortunate to represent the University of Pretoria and the University of Potchefstroom at the SAU Karate Championships (South African Universities) over a period of seven years. 

In 1990 I accepted the position of Senior Sports Official and lecturer at the University of Pretoria. I was elected as President of the University’s Karate Federation and thoroughly enjoyed the enthusiasm of the university students.

In 2002 I joined Keigo Abe sensei and his organization – the JSKA (Japan Shotokan Karate Association) – on recommendation of Richard Amos sensei whilst at a training camp in Bath, England. A strong contingent of respected leaders of the Shotokan World were founding members of this organization: Dieter Flindt sensei from Germany, Khosro Taghva sensei from Italy, Vilaça Pinto sensei from Portugal and Hans Muller sensei from Switzerland. Today, we are still good friends and enjoy working together to develop JSKA.

JSKA has experienced strong growth even after the passing of Abe sensei in 2019. We have a strong support team based in Japan under the leadership of Takashi Naito sensei and representation across the world. I do have to mention that a modern and dynamic approach, especially in terms of technology, is used in our admin support office. This is a very refreshing upgrade!

My years as active student of Shotokan Karate allowed me to travel the world as competitor, instructor and referee. In my final year as a competitor (1998), I had won Gold for Kumite and Mitsuru Nagaki (now Chief Instructor of JSKA) Gold for Kata at the 11th JKA World Karate Championships hosted in Thun, Switzerland.

I have since received a World Referee License and AAA JSKA Referee Status. I must confess that I thoroughly enjoy adjudicating at Style and All-Styles events across the world. The challenge of “Fair-Play” in judging Kata and Kumite had always been a high priority in my life.

I am currently Chief Instructor of JSKA South Africa, JSKA Africa and a member of the JSKA Shihankai. I live in Pretoria, the capital city of South Africa, and work as a full-time Karate instructor and owner of a purpose-built Karate dojo. I invest much time in leadership positions in South Africa, Africa and on the international Karate front as well as teaching and personal training.

Q: You have trained with many senior Karate instructors, tell us about your experiences. 

SP: The most influential instructors I have trained with are Keigo Abe sensei, Keinosuke Enoeda sensei, Hiroshi Shirai sensei and Masahiko Tanaka sensei. Keigo Abe sensei had a very kihon based approach and I enjoyed his Bassai-Sho teaching. 

Keinosuke Enoeda sensei’s classes could often be very tedious, but his presence was impressive. Training in Milano, Italy under Hiroshi Shirai sensei was three hours of unsympathetic hell, but I loved every second of it. What I enjoyed about Masahiko Tanaka sensei’s classes, on the other hand, were that they were very specific and repetitive. 

The long list of instructors further includes Kase sensei, Kawazoe sensei, Ozawa sensei, Yahara sensei, Kagawa sensei, Andy Sherry sensei and Terry O’Neil sensei, all of whom have had a profound impact on my Karate philosophy and teaching. The South Africa instructors that I trained with and greatly admired include Stan Schmidt sensei, Norman Robinson sensei, Malcolm Dorfman sensei, Nigel Jackson sensei and Koos Burger sensei.

Among these, the instructors that had tremendously influenced my technical thinking and personal technique must be Johan la Grange sensei, Norman Robinson sensei and Malcolm Dorfman sensei. They all taught REAL and effective Karate-do. Sensei Johan mastered Ashi-barai to perfection, sensei Norman had dangerous throws and sensei Malcolm taught beautiful detailed kata.

The early morning training at the JKA Instructors class at Wanderers, Johannesburg had been an inspiration for many years. I will never forget the tension I experienced before every training session, because of the high impact and seniority of every class. To be part of a class with a dozen, sixth and seventh Dan Grades in the front row at line-up was quite nerve-racking! 

Q: You have a unique teaching philosophy, please tell more.

SP: I am a fourth-generation teacher (my dad was a history teacher) and I decided at an early age to follow the Japan direction of traditional Karate-do. My kata teaching is based on Masatoshi Nakayama’s Best Karate book series, and it is further influenced by Masahiko Tanaka’s Perfecting Kumite. 

Thorough planning and preparing of every single class had always been my motto. All my classes include Kata and Kumite training, depending on the calendar. For example, in the early parts of the year, my teaching would include more Kata and cardio, and later in the year more Jiyu-Kumite.

Whilst preparing, I will decide on a topic, for example, projection from the back leg or controlled versus speed of an attack, or methods to reach your target faster, or sen-no-sen or go-no-sen and so forth. The list is rather long as I have been teaching for many years.

Based on the theme, I will find combinations of movements in Kata to support my theme. This same theme will be used in Kumite teaching. I enjoy reading and studying from my rather large collection of books on only one subject … Karate! 

I feel very strong about finding supporting technique or combination in Kata before I allow myself to teach that theme in Kumite. An example of teaching such theme would be the loading of the hind leg as in movement four of Heian-Shodan, the purpose of changing into Gyaku-Hanmi in movement sixteen of Heian-Nidan or the projection found in Heian-Sandan movement eighteen.

My current theme is Yori-ashi, which can be defined as a fast projection from the hind leg shifting with the front foot first. We find this movement in Heian Sandan movement twenty. This method of movement might not provide tremendous distance but the speed definitely ensures an effective technique. In more senior Kata, Yori-Ashi is also found. For example, the technique occurs five times in the Kata Jitte in the same direction.

I would use the counting as appears in Nakayama’s Best Kata to explain the movements. I rather enjoy comparing movements in the Heian Kata to the variation found in advanced Kata. For example, the difference of Yoko-Geri Keagi found in Heian-Nidan, to Heian-Yondan, to Kankudai and lastly, to Sochin. The difference is not in the snap kick itself, but in the preparation and the degree of difficulty in each Kata.

A theme that I enjoy and emphasize in all my teaching is the alignment of the feet in a fighting- and forward-stance. Breaking the alignment will influence your speed and effectiveness to the actual target. It does seem worrying to see so many photographs of “big” names in Karate with their feet not aligned.

Modern day Karate elevated from boring repetition of movements to the mastery of an array of combinations and individual movements with the sole purpose of being effective in either attack, preparation, feigning or defense.

In my opinion, the most important aspect that all students of Karate must master in Kumite is distance. The projection cannot be too strong, thus overextending to the target, or too weak, thus not reaching one’s target. Mastery of distance is essential in the career of every serious student of Karate-do. 

Q: What is your view on Sport / Competition Karate?

SP: Firstly, one can never label or limit the age-old Art of Weaponless Combat to a sport with the intent of winning medals. The science of Karate does not fit into a small box! 

However, I must confess that for years I was motivated by the next tournament or training camp. I thus believe that healthy and fair competition does add a fun element and excitement to Karate-do, but for me, Karate cannot sacrifice its character to accommodate sport or medal karate. Like Keigo Abe sensei once told me, if the art of Karate was an entire dojo, competition or sport Karate would consist of only one block of tatami.

Q: What is your position in Africa?

SP: I have been in a very fortunate position to travel to many countries in Africa and build strong relationships with karate-ka all over the continent. Currently, there are six African countries affiliated with the JSKA, which include Kenya, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Mauritius and Angola. I enjoy the passion and love for strong, hard Karate-do and could share many stories of unique incidents in my beloved Africa. 

It would not be uncommon to start teaching a class in Maputo, Mozambique with fifty students at 11 am. The word would spread across the city and I would end the training with more than three hundred enthusiastic students wanting to learn more, by lunch time! 

On a recent visit to Angola, I was on a flight from Luanda to Lombici on a cargo plane with 150 competitors and officials, plus the tatamis and the luxury coach designated to take the team into town... and I was assigned the small seat between the two pilots! This is an experience that I think one can only have in Africa.

Q: What is your attitude towards other styles of Karate?

SP: I was fortunate to have trained with formidable instructors of other styles like Lionel Marinus sensei (Shukukai) when he coached the University of Pretoria Karate Team. I gained so much respect for the style and their leader, Shigeru Kimura sensei, during my time training with him. 

The late sensei Braam Peens (Goju Ryu) coached the University of North West Karate Team and his mastery of Bunkai and extremely powerful training methods was certainly impressive. I do believe my understanding of the Kata Hangetsu, which was originally a Goju Kata adapted to the Shotokan style, had been elevated by training under these giants. Sensei Braam was indeed a master of close-quarter combat, which is at the core of Goju – I remember him as a giant with a small heart.

Q: What had been the highlights of your 56 years in Shotokan Karate?

SP: An occasion that I would always treasure was when I received a personal letter from the late former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, when winning the JKA World Championships in 1998. It had been amazing to receive recognition for a Karate achievement from this legendary person.

In 2016, I received 8th Dan from Keigo Abe sensei. It had been very special as I received 5th Dan to 8th Dan from Abe sensei over a period of nearly thirty years. We unfortunately lost this stalwart of Shotokan Karate in 2019.

A highlight in my career had certainly been in 2019 when two of my students and I travelled to Romania to participate in the WUKF World Championships. This had been an amazing event on fourteen tatamis over four days of intensive competition. We returned home with Karen Pretorius, my wife, and Jessica Fourie as World Kumite and World Kata Champions. 

A recent appointment as JSKA Chief Referee had also been a highlight in my Referee career. These are great achievements, but at the end of the day, every successful training session, whether attended by many or few, and every motivated student bring a smile to my face! 

Q: You trained for many years in the JKA South Africa notorious morning class?

SP: This specific class was labelled as notorious because of the extreme variety of training in every class all under extremely high impact. It was a warm-up followed by Kihon, then groundwork followed by line-kumite, and then advanced Kata. It had been the most challenging training I have ever experienced. 

The high impact training in a class loaded with very advanced individuals, without “respect” for the not-so-young, had been a life-changing experience. Sensei Johan la Grange led the training skillfully and always guaranteed many drained students returning for more! Up to this day, I rate sensei Johan as one of the best Karate instructors in the World!

Q: What is your personal training program?

SP: Even now, in a normal week, I would train twice per day. Early morning gym session mostly consist of core training, and I play squash at least one morning per week for cardio fitness. Every evening would consist of teaching Karate, but I always join the final senior black belt class and train together. 

Our style-organization believes that instructors must stay in shape and set an example of a healthy lifestyle for the students. Teaching the senior class would allow me to set a pace and standard and it also adds to my personal development and skill. Recently I started a veterans class for older adults. I enjoy teaching this class immensely as it tends to become rather technical. We would explore Kata like Nijushiho, in the old way of replacing the Yoko-Geri Kekomi with Fumakomi-geri. This way of doing the Kata is of course less challenging for the 60 plusers.

Q: What would you regard as weakness in Kata training?

SP: Sport-karate Kata seems to have become the norm for teaching. I have heard an instructor saying to a student, “That movement looks nice,” where the instructor should rather be judging a Kata by saying, “that movement is more effective in combat.” An example of this is in the Kata Jion in last two movements where competitors would deliver an elaborate Tate-shuto for show and not effectiveness. My favourite saying regarding Kata is always, “Remember Kata is Kumite”.

I must be careful not to invest too much time into a specific Kata but keep the class interesting with a variation of senior Kata. When teaching a “new” kata, I would spend time studying the Kata in great detail, comparing movements from Heian Kata and advanced Kata. I do enjoy the enthusiasm of the students when deciphering a Kata, especially when teaching the veterans class.

I must confess that I love the in-depth dissection of a Kata, comparison of movements, and discovering the true character for each of the twenty-six Kata. Kata mastery requires persistence, which often seems impossible.

Q: Karate is all about persistence?

SP: Karate cannot be mastered in quick-time or short-cuts. McDojo or sensei Google are probably the most damaging lies in Karate. Karate is like a never-ending journey attempting to master that Art of Unarmed Combat, but never reaching the place where anyone can claim, “I have mastered the Art of Karate”. 

All the instructors selected to present Kata in Best Kata Series were not perfect gymnasts or athletes, but became excellent examples through their persistence in training. I believe the greatest challenge in the West is to copy the persistence of repetition found in Eastern dojos. My classes are often structured on repetition, but made exciting through variation of games and fun competitions. 

Q: You have a large collection of books on one subject?

SP: I started collecting books on Karate at a young age and must have more than 1500 in my personal library. I obviously have my favourites, like the Best Kata Series of Masatoshi Nakayama sensei and Perfecting Kumite by Masahiko Tanaka sensei. 

My teaching would often compare alternatives of movements as done by different instructors, but would always end with the technique I prefer. An example would be the preparation of Tate-Shuto performed by Kanazawa sensei being from above the shoulder compared to the same movement performed by Nakayama sensei being below the shoulder. This is evident in Gojushiho-Sho and Gojushiho-Dai. Another example is snapping Uraken movement seven of Heian-Nidan compared to the locking or thrusting movement as performed by Shirai sensei.

Q: Tell us about “Tate”.

SP: The word Tate means vertical line or vertical fist position. My first question to students when referring Tate would be, “Where do we find this movement is Kata?” I believe the Shotokan foundation lies in Kata and if a technique is not found in Kata, it has no place in Shotokan Karate-do Kumite. 

Vertical hand position is actually very popular in Kata, such as in movement four in Heian Shodan, movement eleven in Heian Nidan and the repetition of a vertical fist position in Chinte. I also teach a vertical fist position of both hands in a Jiyu-Kumite Kamae position. 

I believe that modern traditional Karate has perfected projection through the leg and hip to launch an extremely effective Zuki starting and ending the fist in Tate. Please compare the natural strike on a Makiwara – always Tate.

Q: You have enjoyed and interesting journey to eventually obtaining 8th Dan. Tell us more.

SP: I achieved Brown belt grade at a very young age and did not bother to grade again for the next fifteen years. I must confess enjoying extreme joy when beating “Black Belts” in tournaments and Randori. The idea of grading never seemed important to me.

In 1998 I was invited to grade in Switzerland for Godan (5th Dan) with a huge group of candidates. The grading panel included Asai sensei, Yahara sensei and Abe sensei, which took nearly a full day before the senior grade candidates were called. When the results were announced, my name was not called and I was rather taken aback as I had worked very hard for this grading.

I approached Yahara sensei with the question of failing. He still had the huge pile of Grading Applications with him which he then scanned through and the very last application was mine and his words were, “Sorry, you on last page …. I forget …… you pass!”.

My next gradings were all adjudicated by Keigo Abe sensei over a period of nearly thirty years and I was fortunate to receive 8th Dan in 2016 before Abe sensei passed in 2019.

Receiving of a higher Dan grade does motivate the years of merciless training and inhuman commitment, which are often difficult to justify, but the greatest reward remains a word of acknowledgement from a senior student recognizing the dedication and preparation invested.

Q: You have many awards of recognition as student of Karate-do. 

SP: After winning the JKA World Championships in 1998 and receiving a personal letter from our former State President Nelson Mandela, I stopped competing and dedicated much time to adjudication of both Kata and Kumite. I sincerely loved this new direction in my Karate career, especially travelling the world to judge at major events.

Judging individual Kata can become rather tedious when watching the same Kata hundreds of times. Team Kata has always been my favourite, probably because I knew the time and effort invested into performing a well-polished Team Kata. 

Judging Kumite had been very easy because of years as Kumite competitor – I could see the point land! In Kumite rules I favour Shobu Ippon, probably because it is the closest to reality, but also because it can help us understand the value of Shobu Sanbon Kumite.

Competition does give a student the opportunity to compare his/her technique to others and motivate the student to train more! I do, however, not associate with any Sport Karate practices as I believe the finer essence of Karate-do is ultimately lost in Sport Karate.

Q: You are involved in Karate development in neighboring countries – please tell us more?

SP: I have been teaching in neighboring countries, Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Mozambique for many years, as well as in the rural areas in South Africa. Travelling to Harare, which is approximately 1500 kilometers from my hometown, Pretoria, had always been a challenging journey. I remember travelling one year and was stopped at twenty-two roadblocks on the way.

The trips to Maputo, Mozambique had been shorter, but the border crossing never lasted less than six hours. One day, I received a letter from the Cabinet Minister of Mozambique Government defining me as a VIP guest of the Government and after that, crossing became a breeze of a few minutes. 

Q: You have been training Karate for 56 years. Which moments highlight your journey?

SP: The moments that are most precious to me are being referee at the Budokan in Tokyo, which was life changing, our annual Berg Gashuku training at 3,500 meters above sea-level, receiving Gold from Yahara sensei at the 10th JKA World Karate Championships hosted in Switzerland, receiving 8th Dan from Keigo Abe sensei, and currently enjoying training and teaching at the Brooks Dojo, our purpose-built dojo in the center of Pretoria, South Africa. 

Moreover, in 2020 at the WUKF World Championships in Fort Laurendale, USA as referee when I heard the South African National anthem played over the speakers – my wife (Karen) had won the Shobu Ippon Kumite and received her Gold medal on the podium. Much of my time is currently invested into development of Karate across the world and I must confess to enjoying the travelling.

Q: Which is your favourite theme when teaching abroad?

SP: Six steps to improving your Gyaku-Zuki attack. The first step in to relax your upper body because the tenseness of muscles will make you slow and tired. 

The second step is speed – get to your target as soon as possible. Effectiveness of techniques are mastered from speed to the target (in a straight line!). 

The third step is to enhance the strike by launching with a supporting hip. 

The fourth step is to add Yori-Ashi or sliding of the front foot towards the target by the projection of the back leg. 

The fifth step is to start the attack with a small step with the back leg (hidden technique) followed by a strong projection with the back leg. 

The last step is to drop the entire attack by bending the knees and gaining more distance and strength in the Gyaku-Zuki. The above would fit into the regular two hour training session.

I believe and teach that in attack, the front foot and the technique, either Gyaku-Zuki or Kizami-Zuki should not arrive together (simultaneously) i.e. the arrival of the fist on the target and the front foot on the floor. I am aware of the fact that simultaneous arrival as prerequisite is engrained into the minds of many, by advanced teachers of Karate. I believe there should be a split second of delay with the fist reaching its target after the front foot landed. The purpose of the delay would be to transfer power from the leg and hip onto the fist and onto the target. This would also apply when practicing Kata.

Q: Last question – is there anything outside the World of Karate that excites you?

SP: Yes, I enjoy squash, and Adventure Motorcycling is also a huge passion of mine. I crossed Africa with my Africa Twin motorcycle in 2007 and really experienced the authentic Africa. Crossing Sudan on many kilometers of sand had been very challenging, but the people were so amazing. The physical challenge of standing for 12 hours per day whist crossing the roughest terrain possible had been a physical but also a huge mental test. 

I took a stroll one evening through the streets of a small town along the Nile in Egypt. On a tennis court a young boy was teaching a group of students Heian-Nidan. I watched for a while and couldn’t resist to comment. The young instructor asked more questions and eventually I was teaching Karate in the Sahara Desert.

I love Karate, as a teacher discovering new ways to teach and train, as a student training more, but effective techniques with the desired outcome and to practice Kata with the big six in mind:

  • Correct appropriate formalities
  • Correct sequence of movements
  • Each technique being effective attack, defense, feint or preparation
  • Focus on every movement
  • Appropriate combinations or rhythm
  • Correct breathing

Last word – I love receiving my newest edition of Shotokan Karate Magazine!

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The magazine has been published since November 1984. Because it is a very specialised and Traditional magazine we only publish each quarter (March - June - September - December) . We do pride ourselves on featuring the most senior and famous Shotokan Senseis in the world in the magazine and it is totally non-political, we feature everyone from all the various organisations.