I’m pleased to present this interview with John Donohue, a karateka and kendoka who possesses a strong reputation as a martial arts author.
With over 30 years of training experience, Mr. Donohue has combined his martial arts with his academic life. As a result, he has created multiple high quality written works in both the fiction and non-fiction formats. He is most well known for the Connor Burke series, starting with the popular novel Sensei, and branching out into Deshi, Tengu, and most recently Kage.
Mr. Donohue is also an associate editor for the prestigious Journal of Asian Martial Arts. The following is a Q&A regarding his training experiences and literary success.
MA: How did you first get started in the martial arts some 30 years ago? What was your earliest experience?
JD: I was an adolescent in the 70’s at the time that the martial arts were really getting some popular exposure—Bruce Lee, the Kung-fu TV series. I was someone who had always been interested in other cultures (an interest that stuck with me—years later, I got a doctorate in anthropology). I was also fascinated by the Asian approach to traditional martial arts that integrated philosophical concepts along with physical technique.
My first exposure to actual training started with getting my hands on some popular “how-to” manuals for kung-fu, the Bruce Tegner stuff, and trying it out. I quickly realized that there was more to this than met the eye.
MA: Could you provide a brief outline of the styles you’ve studied over the course of your training, and under whom you studied?
JD: In college, I started taking karate classes that were offered either as intramurals or for PE credit. At Stony Brook University, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Shotokan Karatedo by Mori Masataka. He was a tremendously skilled sensei and I studied with him for a number of years. After graduating from college, I studied judo with Shiina Kiyoshi. As a graduate student, I conducted research on the martial tradition had an opportunity to be exposed to kendo with Kataoka Noboru and aikido with Hagihara Edi. Later on I continued studying karatedo with Liu Hong-guang, who also exposed me to some taiji. Finally, I studied kendo with Kimura Hiroaki.
I’ve been very privileged to study with some fine sensei.
MA: Who do you consider your biggest influences in the arts (your primary instructors)?
JD: Mori Sensei, since he opened my eyes to the power and beauty of traditional budo and Kimura Sensei, who set me on the path of kendo.
MA: Could you tell us a bit about their background and whom they studied with?
JD: Mori Mastaka studied at Takushoku University, joined the karate club there and eventually became team captain. He joined the JKA in 1955. He became Chief Instructor of the Karate Association of Hawaii (KAH) in 1963. In 1968 he relocated to New York and became the North Atlantic regional chief instructor of the JKA. His dojo is located in New York City.
Kimura Sensei showed interest in martial arts at a very young age (his father was the kendo coach at the local high school). He studied kendo and then began studying Shorinji Kempo in college. He moved to the United States when he was 22 and continued to study and train, but also recognized that there was strong interest in the martial arts in the United States. He has been teaching kempo for more than thirty years and was instrumental in introducing kendo training to Western New York.
MA: You’re an associate editor with the Journal of Asian Martial Arts. When did that happen in context with your personal writing career? Was it before or after you became a published author?
JD: I was fortunate to meet Mike DeMarco, the publisher of JAMA at the very early stages of the Journal’s development, sometime in the early 90’s. At that point I had published a version of my doctoral dissertation (The Forge of the Spiri—1991) as well as a few scholarly articles on the subject of the martial arts. Mike, along with a handful of other interested scholars, encouraged me to pursue more research and writing on the topic. It wasn’t until about ten years later that I started to write martial arts fiction—my first novel, Sensei, was published in 2003.
MA: The Journal of Asian Martial Arts is considered one of only a few highly reputable publications for traditional martial arts. Could you talk about the mission of the magazine and how you contribute?
JD: JAMA is devoted to providing high-quality scholarly and technical articles on the martial arts. Its mission is to take writing about the martial arts as seriously as we do training in them. It tries to bridge theoretical, academic, and technical perspectives on the martial arts and provide readers with well-written, accurate, and engaging material.
MA: Over the years you’ve developed a successful academic career as well as writing career. Has it sometimes been difficult to find time for training?
JD: It has. I think that the demands of family and career mean that there are times when training needs to be put on the back burner. It never goes away completely (and the desire and interest is always there) but the reality of it is that I am not a professional martial artist. I am a committed martial artist and I value the lessons that training has given me. When I can’t train regularly I miss it. But I’m also clear-headed enough to know that first things need to come first.
MA: Since Sensei you have written Deshi, Tengu, and now Kage. Has the story unfolded more and more naturally in your mind, or has it been difficult to improve upon yourself?
JD: Since I’ve invested considerable time and energy into making Burke’s world a fictional reality, I don’t have much difficulty generating possible story lines. I have about seven burkebooks outlined in my head. But one of the real challenges of writing a series about a set group of characters is that you have to make them change. This sometimes can be upsetting to readers, since they like things the way they are. Familiar characters that always act the same are in some ways comforting and are also probably related to the fact that we’ve been programmed to expect this from watching too much TV.
That said, I’ve tried to make the story of Burke and Yamashita and the others unfold with a little realism—Burke needs to grow, Yamashita is ageing. Yet at the same time I try to hold on to the essence of the characters and their settings.
The real challenge for me is in the technical sense of writing. I try to get better at it. The craft of writing is really important to me—I try to write clearly and to engage the reader and not fall into some of the more hideous mistakes that are often too abundant in popular fiction.
MA: Tell us a bit about the new book Kage. What elements of adventure and martial arts can readers look forward to?
JD: The new book finds the protagonist unwittingly getting involved with the shadowy world of cross-border smugglers in Arizona. The action takes place in the American Southwest as well as in the New York area and involves competing smuggling gangs, shadowy operatives from the Border Patrol and Federal government, as well as sinister hit men of various types. Connor Burke has to use all the skill developed in years studying under the master warrior Yamashita to come out whole.
MA: What are your plans for future books, and do you have an idea for how long the Connor Burke saga will last?
JD: As I mentioned, I’ve got at least seven burkebooks in mind, although I’ll probably keep writing them for as long as readers are interested. I’m also developing some new series, one involving an ex-Army Ranger named Oso Moreno—a hit man with a conscience who studies Daito-ryu aikijutsu—and another series that focuses on paranormal aspects of Asian culture with a heroine named Sharon Kao whose love interest is a top-notch judoka. Lots of action, lots of martial arts. I hope people like them.
MA: Thanks a lot for your participation and we look forward to more of your work!
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I’m not big on cities. Being in close proximity to nature has always been important to me (as evidenced by the design of this blog).
But living as close to Philadelphia as I do, I would be remiss to miss out on Chinatown so I recently took a trip down with some of my family.
Among Philly’s many sectors (Old City, Fishtown, etc), Chinatown is a very authentic and sizable chunk. While it’s impossible to replicate real immersion in a foreign country, Chinatown provides the sounds, sights, and smells (both good and bad) of the culture.
The first landmark worth noting is the front gate as you approach the main market strip. It is beautifully adorned and kept in nice condition. We didn’t stop and marvel for too long though as it was 103 degrees out and we wanted to find a nice market or store that featured air conditioning.
Littered amongst the more pedestrian buildings were a few that captured my attention.
These buildings, while historic, were certainly wearing their age. I would have loved access to explore them but there is little doubt the interiors were rough at best, unsafe at worst. A shame because even with some decay they were far more impactful than the typical city row homes.
One of our main stops for the day was The Bazaar, a deep reaching variety shop that features everything from tourist gifts to traditional instruments. The Bazaar was easily the biggest physical location I’ve ever been in dedicated specifically to Asian goods.
I had to exercise extreme self control to avoid spending a bundle. There were so many interesting scrolls, kimonos, pieces of art, and oddities that it was tough to walk passed any aisle without a second look. It was also a pleasure spotting the curiously out of place items that made it onto the shelves (such as the complete Mr. Bean collection).
Chinatown had a lot of those little quirks that you hope and expect to find. For example, one candy store was running an excellent special on their floor:
I chose to go in the Pocky direction, but the floor was tempting too.
As we sampled various shops and bakeries I couldn’t help but notice the steadfast street venders. Even out in the 100+ weather there were merchants with various forms of clothes, fish, produce, and undergarments. Basically everything you could need during your day. I chose not to indulge in the street fish though as we were headed to our primary restaurant destination.
The eatery on our radar was an unassuming facility located underneath a convention center overpass (not exactly prime real estate). Nevertheless, we had heard from a reliable Philly resource that this was a hidden treasure.
What the Dim Sum Garden lacked in flash it made up for in selection and speedy service. Traditionally, Dim Sum dishes are served by an attendant who wheels out multiple bamboo baskets with varying food items. You then take what appeals to you and are charged at the end. In fact, Dim Sum began as an exercise in tea tasting at roadside inns. Once the Chinese realized it was also pleasurable to snack while tasting tea, the destiny and development of Dim Sum was set.
Our food arrived with much less fanfare. The workings of the restaurant resembled that of a standard Chinese sit-down/take-out, except with a noticeably different kind of menu and procedure. As we ordered our Dim Sum items (such as pork and crab dumpling, steamed shrimp dumpling, etc), they came out in roughly 4-5 minute intervals. Before we knew it we had a whole sampling of delicious dishes in front of us and were enjoying it quite thoroughly.
We took a gamble heading into Chinatown during a prolonged heat wave, but we decided it was worth the trouble in order to enjoy the spirit of the neighborhood. If you ever find yourself in Philly, you could definitely do worse than a visit to Chinatown (no really, you could do a lot worse so don’t wander around).
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For centuries, being the uke of a skilled instructor has caused cold sweat and second thoughts in students. There’s something about bowing and walking toward your impending doom that seems like a bad idea.
Times have changed somewhat, and with the increase in school sizes and seminars students are more likely to watch techniques from an expert rather than experience them. In fact, a lot of students get good at melding into the background when the instructor gazes around the room for viable volunteers.
This begs the question – what do you get out of watching a technique vs experiencing it?
Back in the ‘ooool days, teachers didn’t do a lot of active discussion. They mostly demanded repetition from students and then tossed them around to demonstrate technique. There’s something intangibly effective about this method (just watch the old masters for proof).
However, we’ve learned a lot more about pedagogy since then and the ways in which we can maximize human learning.
It’s silly to ignore the value of discussion, explanation, and cognitive science. That’s why western style teaching has ultimately influenced martial arts all over the world. A dominant part of the western teaching philosophy is watching and listening (just imagine any given classroom).
When you watch a martial art technique performed, you get a big picture sense of what’s happening. You can observe the distance between the two opponents, the way the engagement occurs, and the way it concludes.
A detail-oriented teacher can explain the ways in which he/she is using physics to maximize force or leverage. They can show how and why they are disrupting their opponent’s timing or balance.
This is all very valuable input, but not a complete learning experience. Think of it this way: You could watch Xgames skateboarders every day for ten years, including every instructional video made. Armed with all that knowledge, what do you think is STILL going to happen the first time you step onto a skateboard?
You might think to yourself…well yea Matt, your point is obvious – a student has to train to get better. That’s why we do partner drills after an explanation, so that we can try the technique!
Not so fast.
Two people that don’t know the technique can help each other improve…but are either truly doing what the instructor is doing? Is it as good? How do you know?
Being the uke for an experienced instructor, while often regrettably painful, offers a unique learning experience. You get to feel exactly where the pain is supposed to focus, how the body’s balance is broken, where the points of relaxation and emphasis are placed, and what rhythm is needed to optimize effectiveness.
In addition, you get to feel the energy and spirit pressure placed upon you by someone at a higher skill level.
Of course, there’s a flipside. When acting as uke during intense techniques, your mind is often narrowed and sometimes blanked by the intensity of the event. You can certainly feel things, but recalling exactly how it happened (and why) is another story. There have been many occasions where I’ve been uke for an instructor and shortly after their demonstration I’ve walked back to my training partner in order to ask what happened.
Receiving high level technique is critically important…but not independently ideal.
The Best of Both Worlds
Maximizing your learning potential requires a little bravery. First, you have to take your best blending-in-with-the-crowd tactics and stuff them in a box under your bed. Get up there and experience the real thing. On top of that, you can’t be afraid to ask questions, even if it means going through another round of demonstration.
On the other hand, you don’t want to get too caught up in the action. Give yourself a chance to slow down and really look at what’s going on. Analyze the science in order to get to the art.
Remember: technique speed and physical strength are the go-to methods of students who are trying to breeze over the finer details of a technique. Do things slow and relaxed until you get it right. Pay attention to the small things like foot placement, body movement, angle, timing, etc.
If you have a teacher who tends to discuss technique while relying on partner pairing, politely wait for him or her to become available and ask to see the technique a bit closer. Every teacher I know is happy to oblige such requests.
There’s no question that caution and common sense should always guide your training, and I’m not suggesting you throw yourself headlong at every teacher you see (that would be impolite, and some teachers should genuinely be avoided because they lack control). But if you are with a good, kind teacher that also happens to be very skilled…it’s in your best interest to experience what they can do first hand.
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