Sensei Kyle Kamal Helou. Interview By Simon Bligh.
I first came across Kyle Kamal Helou in the pages of SKM, issue 65, when he wrote a excellent report on Kagawa Sensei in America. I met him in the flesh in Tokyo in 2005, when he was just about to enter the infamous JKS Instructors’ Course, and found him to be a friendly and modest Karate Ka. In April 2008 he came to England after graduating on the JKS Instructors Course, only the second non Japanese to do so. He gave a great class and in the pub afterwards proved himself to still be modest and friendly and generous with advice. He also likes warm English beer!
Q: Sensei, could you give us a little background about how you started Karate?
My interest in Karate started when I was about ten. I was living in Beirut Lebanon at the time and I would remember seeing my older brothers return from training in Shotokan Karate, and talk about their training in shear fascination how their instructor “did this move... and did that turn” during the training. Occasionally, I would see one of them, ultimately the one who inspired me to start, train by himself at home. He never encouraged me start, in fact, I remember him clearly saying to me that I was still too young to start! Fast forward 13 years, I was now living in Germantown, Pennsylvania, had just finished my university studies and started working as a self employed consultant, when on New Year’s Eve, 1996, I made my resolution: To start Shotokan Karate. The next evening, on New Year’s Day 1997, I called on some Shotokan Karate schools in the area. And the only one to have answered was John McClary’s BEST Karate. I made an appointment to watch a training the next morning, and that same evening, I was on the Dojo floor with my do-gi on, and had my first training.
I have never missed a day of training since then. Having been self employed, I arranged my work schedule around my training schedule, and I would train there morning and evening.
Q: When you went to Japan, why did you choose the JKS?
I chose the JKS because in 1999, Kagawa Sensei came to teach at the Dojo in Germantown. In 2000, when we invited him again, I expressed interest in training in Japan and he arranged for me through communications with Scott Langley Sensei, to come, live, and train with the Karate team at Teikyo University. In 2001, I went to Japan as part of the US National Team to compete at the JKS World Championships, and to reside and train with the Karate team of Teikyo University.
Training under Kagawa Sensei and JKS instructors at both the JKS Hombu Dojo and Teikyo University was the most superior training I had undergone. That is the dream of any Karate practitioner: To be under the tutelage of great instructors. My commitment to the JKS and the bonds with the organization grew stronger the more I trained there. There was no doubt for me that the JKS is my Karate way.
Q: What was training at Teikyo University like?
I remember the night I went up to Teikyo University for the first time with Kagawa Sensei, who heads the Karate Program. We had finished a three-hour training at the Hombu Dojo and we were having dinner. Koike Yutaka Sensei was with us, and I remember Kagawa Sensei saying something to him, and then, Koike Sensei translating it to me, as I couldn’t speak Japanese yet. He said: “Kamal. Do your best at the University, Kagawa Sensei says. The training there is very Haaard.” I replied: “Oss! I will”. And they continued eating and drinking, and I just didn't know what else to think because nowhere in the world had I witnessed anything like I was about to witness at Teikyo University. Even to this day, I think about every new person who enters the university program and wonder if they really know what it is that they are getting themselves into.
The training is very, very “Haaard”. And Koike Sensei's words kept on
echoing in my mind as the days went by. The training is non-stop, everyday
including Sunday. Equally as hard as the training is the preparation and clean-up
process before and after each training session at the Dojo. I will talk about
that later on. But starting with the training, normally there are two sessions,
an hour and a half-session in the morning and a two-hour session in the late
afternoon. If a major tournament is nearing, then, training is upped to three
times per day. The morning session, which could last up to two hours, followed
by an hour and a half-session at noon, and last the two-hour late afternoon
session as usual.
Morning training consists of a stretching routine, followed by a 5Km run, which would take us about 30 minutes. Then, we would arrive at one of the green fields at the University, the rugby field if my memory serves me right, and we would split up into teams, usually mixed with students from all grades, and we would start the dash drills. That would go one for another 20 minutes. Then we would walk over to the immaculately clean Dojo, take off our shoes outside, try not step over our Sempai’s shoes, and walk into the Dojo. We bow first, enter the Dojo, and start whatever training is prescribed for the day. Some days would be muscle training with hundreds of pushups, sit-ups, and back raises followed with kumite drills. Other days would be kihon for the whole Dojo session followed by some Kumite drills, and normally before tournaments, it would be only kumite drills. There was no emphasis on Kata at all during any of those training except for the Kata competitors who had Kata competitions coming up. Kumite drills were always practiced no matter what. (The University’s Kangeiko, usually starting the second week in January was the only time the whole team did Kata training at the university).
The noon session, when we had it, was strictly non-stop kumite the whole time. We would get an explanation of the drill and just go through it endlessly until we were asked to stop. Sometimes we would use rubber tubes for resistance in order to develop speed and explosive power in our techniques, all in preparation for the upcoming championships. The instructor would now-and-then walk around and make sure we were doing the drill properly.The evening session was divided into two parts. The first one would be Kihon and idou-Kihon. Occasionally we would do Gohon-kumite in the first half, but that was usually left for the second half.
After a two-minute (oulong-cha – Chinese Black tea served cold) break, we would go on to the next hour, which was all sorts of Kumite drills and also jiyu-Kumite, sometimes ending with a little mini tournament-like competition.
You can think of it as an all year, on-site, Karate camp that goes on for four years! How much of that can you take and are you ready to go through it? There is so much to say and talk about when it comes to the training at the University and I could go on and on for pages. The one thing I learned, however, from my early days at Teikyo is: Train one training at a time; one day at a time. Although, I couldn’t help but think of the next training, I learned, to the best of my ability, to just relax, reflect on my previous training, and try to get some sleep.
I remember on my second day there, after having endured a deep cut to my face during training, that required stitching at the local hospital, I was sitting over dinner with Kagawa Sensei. After minutes of silence, which seemed more like hours, he turned to me and asked: “You, stay? You, Budo heart?”. I said “Oss”. He shook his head upwards and downwards and said, “Ok.” The next morning I was up and out with the rest of the team doing the stretching routine, and onto the morning run, followed by the training.
I always had this question in my mind: “Will I ever be as good as they are?”; and the simple answer I have come to is: “If I tried as hard as they did, if I ‘hung in there’ for as long as those who made it, and if I never quit – no matter what, then, I would probably make it.” And that’s what kept me going, one day at a time.
The training does not just end at the Dojo and is not just limited to actual Karate training. Cleaning, cooking, and event organization is also the duty of every student living at the dormitory. And, by the way, that dormitory is reserved to students who are members of the Karate team only. The students are divided into groups of about 5 students, with each group consisting of at least one student from each grade. Each group is responsible for cleaning and polishing a certain area. The groups rotate duties on a weekly basis. The group responsible for cleaning the cafeteria is also responsible for cleaning the shower/bath area. The group responsible for cooking breakfast is also responsible for food shopping, the night before, and cleaning up the kitchen after each breakfast. And that’s how we worked. It was like automatic clockwork. Not a single second went unaccounted for. They worked like a healthy organism under the leadership of their Sempai and ultimately their Shihan, Kagawa Shihan.
The Dojo clean-up was left to the first year students. We, and I say we because I was part of that group, would split up into two groups of three or four, after a rock/paper/scissors match, of course! The Dojo was harder to polish than the changing room. One group would head for the Dojo, while the other would head for the changing rooms. Each group would systematically polish their assigned area inch by inch until it became spotless. After that, we would meet up on the university campus and walk the two-kilometer road back to the dormitory.
I remember Kagawa Sensei telling me a few weeks into my stay at Teikyo: “Clean place is clean heart.” What he meant to say, and I understood him completely, is that when you clean your living and working place, you also clean your heart. And what I’ve come to learn through my days at Teikyo is that when you clean your heart, your mind becomes ready to receive the Karate training. Our spirits and bodies became stronger, the more we trained and cleaned.
Q: What about training at the JKS Hombu Dojo?
Training there, in the regular student/member class was the ultimate of training one can ever have in the aspect of learning the true art form of Shotokan Karate. There are different instructors scheduled to teach on different days. They all teach the same principles from their own perspectives. That does two things. One, it reinforces the unity of the art form, that no matter what body type you have, your movement must be in unison with the pre-required movements of the form at hand. And two, you get to see different instructors’ teaching styles which is necessary to broaden your knowledge of the art. And I can truly attest, that no two instructors are the same. Some have similarities, but for the most part, they are each quite unique in their teaching styles.
Q: Was it always in your mind to do the Instructors Course? and Why?
Yes it was, and similar to the training at Teikyo University, I knew, although I never told anyone openly, that I wanted to do so until the timing and preparation was right.
I saw that all these instructors at the JKS took ownership of their Karate. By that I mean that they made each technique their own, and they specialized in them. Their spirit and technique was unlike that of any other person training there. I soon realized that if I wanted to have the same, I would have to follow in their footsteps, if only they would allow me. I am truly thankful and honored that they did.
Also, having started a family in Japan, I felt that the only way for me to provide for them through Karate, because it was the only thing I wanted to do, was to reach this insurmountable level, of Instructor in Karate, that would provide me with the knowledge, both physically and spiritually, needed to teach it professionally.
Q: So, you trained at Teikyo. Trained in the regular classes at the Hombu. Then did Instructor training. What was the difference?
In many ways, it was the perfect gradual transition, and each step along the way was in the right order and the right direction. It was like taking small steps at a time to arrive to the top of one mountain, which only leads to the beginning of yet another, even higher mountain. By no means do I imply that one was less demanding than the other. While the intentions of training Karate are the same at all three places, the method was different. Teikyo University’s training aimed towards building a strong team spirit in addition to the individual abilities of each participant. Individuals who were considered Kata competitors would train in Kata as well as Kumite. Whereas, those who did not specialize in Kata competition, almost never trained in Kata. It was strictly kihon and kumite to the very extreme!
The Hombu Dojo’s regular members class was geared towards an overall understanding of Shotokan Karate, with a good balance between Kihon, Kata and Kumite.
The Instructors’ class, while the emphasis was mainly on Kihon and Kumite, Kata training was equally as important and required for all those on the program. As instructors we were required to know the Shotokan Kata syllabus in addition to the traditional Asai Sensei Koten Kata. Although sometimes weeks would go by without any Kata training, we were still expected to know all the Kata(s) we practiced, in addition to the proper timing of each technique and the proper counting method for each movement in the Kata. The Instructors’ Training was by far the most difficult and most challenging of all three. Not only physically but also mentally and philosophically. We were always closely watched by our seniors during training and after training. There was only three of us and we had to do it all, with little help from our seniors. From washing, hanging, and properly folding the Do-gi(s) after training; to Dojo, bathrooms, changing room, and instructor room cleaning; and I always had to check the emails and reply to all matters brought forth by our foreign branches. Sometimes it would be 2:30 or 3:00pm before we would part the Dojo to grab a quick bite and head for the various Dojo(s) we were teaching at.
Also, we actually had to write reports explaining methods for training and techniques and the reasons behind such methods. At no other place had we been required to study Karate with such depth. Once a month we would have one class divided into two parts. The first part would be dedicated to training and then the second half, dedicated to giving written reports about our research. Also, Kagawa Sensei, among other instructors and seniors would also talk to us on a metaphysical level raising all sort of philosophical questions and ideas that would leave us thinking for days about their meaning and application to what we were doing.
Q: Now that you have left Japan, what are your plans?
My plans are to build a strong and well-organized JKS in the United Arab Emirates, starting with Dubai, and eventually throughout the Middle East. I want to base my teachings on the principles of the Dojo Kun. In other words, I want to teach JKS Karate in the traditional form that I trained in while in Japan. I know that the culture is quite different over here, and I will have to adapt my teaching to it to some extent, but I will not compromise on the teachings of the Dojo Kun. Respect, compassion, endurance, tolerance, and discipline are at the heart of JKS Karate, and that is what I will teach.
Those are the principles necessary to build a good, strong, and ethical Dojo, which will eventually be reflected in the community by our members. That is what I want to teach here in Dubai and the Middle East, starting at my personal Karate Clubs and eventually my own Dojo, here in Dubai.
Q: How did you find teaching in Europe after so many years in Japan?
First, I found the enthusiasm in those who attended to be tremendous, and I look forward to coming here again. I probably learned as much as all those who attended! It was exciting to talk about Karate principles and methods to so many people outside of Japan.
Also, I must say that using the English language to teach Karate, after so many years, was a bit rusty for me! But it was great! Because even in Japan, teaching non-Japanese students, was usually done in Japanese, in order to accommodate for the rest of the class being mainly Japanese practitioners.
I had been teaching for more than 6 years in nothing but Japanese, and although making that transition took some getting used to, I think that by my 3rd seminar I had switched into English mode completely!
Q: Who were you training with at the JKS Hombu?
All the JKS Instructors: Kagawa Sensei, Ishimine Sensei, Kanayama Sensei, Yamaguchi Sensei, Inada Sensei, Makita Sensei, Matsue Sensei, and my colleagues with whom I started the program, Nihei Takuro Sensei, and Nagaki Shinji Sensei. In 2007, Watanabe Yuki joined the Instructors’ course and she started training with us on a daily basis.
Q: You say that there is a Female student on the Instructors’ Course now? Can you tell us about her?
Yes, that would be Watanabe Yuki Sensei. She joined the instructors’ program in April 2007 and took on all the trainees’ duties right away. Her performance has been very high on the course, as is expected of everyone there. She is a Kata competitor, and last year she won the JKS World Championship Kata Competition. I know that although she is very serious in her training and her work at the Hombu Dojo, she still has a very simple, humble and humorous side and it is very pleasant to have her there. We are all looking forward to her teaching here in Dubai.
Q: Did you have much contact with Asai Sensei? How was that?
Asai Sensei was a very busy man. His schedule kept him out of the house for weeks at a time, his wife would tell me. He was mostly travelling to teach seminars around the world, even up until one month before his unfortunate passing. Whatever time, my instructor trainee colleagues and I spent with him was very precious. All together, we had three seminars at the Hombu Dojo with him per year. He would also be present at almost every monthly Instructor Trainee’s report presentation. He would also run the Kagami Biraki ceremony training. The JKS instructors and trainees would visit him and his wife after the New Year at their home to wish them the season’s greetings. We would see him also on grading days and of course on all JKS related events. It is hard to forget any of his training and the times we met, and I can still remember something from each time we met.
His teaching was phenomenal. There was always something new he would introduce in his training. When not training, he would always be referring to Karate in every aspect of his conversation, both directly, in the sense of Karate technique, and indirectly, in the sense of human interaction and our dealings with philosophical and existential issues. He always had stories to tell, a few riddles, and jokes. He was always concerned with my family’s well being and always showed sincere interest in helping out in whatever situation whenever he could, in any way possible. After he passed away, it was the memory of these moments and his reassuring smile, etched in my mind that guided me and accompanied me all the way to my graduation, and still does every waking day of my life.
Q: Did you ever consider giving up, especially on the instructors’ course?
Give up, never. Rest, yes. And thank goodness for Japanese National Holidays! Giving up was not an option. I couldn’t consider that thought. Here is why. As I gradually got more involved in Karate in all its aspects, with all its joys and hardships, I decided that Karate was going to be my way of life. I knew that Karate would be the main focus in everything I did on a daily basis, in and out of the Dojo. And for me to achieve the highest level of training ability possible on the Dojo floor, I knew I would have to pay the ultimate price. And I started on that path. Along the way, it got more difficult but also my training ability increased, and thus the reward. And that kept me coming back for more, day in and day out. “You will encounter hardships in anything you do”, were the words of my sempai, and they kept me going through it all. The thought of looking at myself in the mirror five, ten, or even fifty years down the road, and knowing that I hadn’t completed what was required to be a graduate of that program was more frightening than any training I underwent on the Instructor Training Program. And that thought also kept me going one day at a time.
You see in the end, the battle is all in the mind. First, you set your mind on a goal and then you must fight off all negative thoughts that could possibly keep you from achieving it. The way to accomplish this is to focus on the reward, and the steps you need to take to get you closer to that reward. Then, you follow that plan and take action – train - no matter what. Convince yourself that you can do it, one technique at a time. Then you will do it because you’d be already doing it and going through the motions. And the rest is just your stick-to-it attitude, and your continued focus on the goal, and your reward for achieving that goal.
And that’s how I did it. I think it will be different for everyone but in the end, we are all human. Rest if you must, but never give up.
Q: What would you say was your best experience in Japan?
Meeting my wife, starting a family, and looking my children in the eyes everyday, emitting to them my love and appreciation for being so patient with me while I find my way to give them all the support they need in their life to achieve whatever goals they set for themselves.
Q: Was Kagawa Sensei your main influence? How did the other JKS Sensei influence you?
Yes, Kagawa Sensei was my main influence, although, JKS instructors each influenced me through their own special abilities, and here is how. Ishimine Sensei influenced me with his supple, quick, and flowing motion. Kanayama Sensei with his slow callisthenic training, and his ability to train beyond anything humanly possible. Yamaguchi Sensei influenced me with his explosive hip movement that drives his techniques piercing through his opponent. Inada Sensei with his superior and inexplicable kicking ability. Makita Sensei with his lightening fast movement in Kata. Matsue Sensei in his accurate and superior knowledge of the JKS Kata and their in-depth application. Nagaki and Nehei Sensei, who started with me on the course, are World Class athletes with tremendous ability. Nagaki Sensei is a proof that Karate is a combination of both Kata and Kumite, and not just one or the other, having won the All Japan National Championships twice in both events.
Q: The Instructor training in Japan is famous for its brutality. Do you think it needs to be so hard?
Having gone through the Instructor Training and continue to train on it after my graduation, I must agree that it is extreme in nature, and the level of training and finesse is also unmatched and unseen anywhere in the world. Does it have to be? Yes it does, otherwise it would not be training instructors. Instructors-to-be, and those who have graduated as instructors from the JKS, have to continuously undergo extreme levels of training that can only be experienced during that training session and no other. That session occurs on a daily basis and all instructors and trainees must be present – without exceptions. Trainees must learn to endure and persevere through it all, for a period of 2 to 4 years until their graduation, while instructors continue on that path throughout their life after graduation. It is part of a tradition that has now been around for more than 50 years, creating the best and finest Karate instructors in the world. There is much to be learned from this extreme training especially about one’s own ability to develop strength, (physically, mentally, and spiritually), endurance, perseverance, compassion, tolerance, gentleness, and most importantly above all, humility and honesty toward oneself and others.