This is a continuation of the interview with Katherine Loukopoulos Sensei. In Part 1, Loukopoulos Sensei discussed some of her earliest martial arts experiences and some of the challenges she faced as a woman in a predominantly male environment. In part 2, Loukopoulos Sensei dives more into her experience in Okinawa, motivations for traveling and teaching, and what she hopes her martial arts organization will accomplish.
Q: Loukopoulos Sensei, did you have a formal invitation to train with Nagamine Sensei from one of your previous instructors or did you just show up and hope for the best?
I did not have a Letter of Recommendation; I just showed up and hoped for the best!
Q: What were your early impressions of Okinawa and its people?
My early impressions are the same as today. Okinawans are a gentle, kind, and smiling type of people. On the surface all is calm and gentle. Underneath the surface, it is an intricate cultural system where everyone struggles to achieve without being perceived as hurting others. All are in the service of the greater good. Within those parameters, a foreigner can easily make mistakes beyond repair. Worse yet, the foreigner would never know it.
Q: How was training with Nagamine Sensei similar or different than your training experiences in the USA?
The training in Nagamine Sensei’s Hombu Dojo was exactly, to the letter, the same as in the Heshiki Sensei’s Dojo. Or, better said, Heshiki Sensei’s training was an exact copy of the Hombu Dojo. Warm-ups, moving and stationary basics, kata, general strength and fitness were in the same order. What was different was that Heshiki Sensei had huge number of repetitions. For example: If we did 60 squat punches in the Hombu Dojo, we executed 1000 in the Heshiki Dojo.
In both Hombu and Heshiki Sensei’s dojo we sat zazen.
Q: Did you continue experiencing the Zen influence of the style while training in Nagamine Sensei’s dojo?
Yes, we had zazen before every morning class, and zazen at the end of the last class of the day. Both the morning and the night zazen training were led by Nagamine Sensei. In the very rare occasions when Nagamine Sensei was not there, the training would be led by the next-in-line senior instructor.
Q: How long did you stay on Okinawa and did you participate in demonstrations or competitions while there?
I stayed on Okinawa from August 1985 to December 2000. In that period, I participated in most cultural and martial arts events. I competed in government and privately sanctioned martial arts events, and also, participated and competed on US Military installations.
Q: When did you begin serious international travel to spread the art of Matsubayashi Ryu? What motivated you to travel far and wide to countries like Russia, Austria, Sweden, and back to Greece?
I was traveling and teaching during the same years I was on the US Team. In fact, I had two students on the US Team also. Faith Barbera was in Kumite Lightweight Category, and Tammy Harwood was in the Middleweight Category. During those years I traveled and taught extensively in the US and in Caribbean countries.
When I lived on Okinawa, there was a continuous flow of karateka from abroad. My name was given to people who wanted to visit Okinawa, and were told that I would be the person that could help them get into a dojo. I served as a bridge for a huge amount of karateka. Many of those who knew me from my competition days on the National Team saw me on Okinawa performing, demonstrating, teaching, and connecting people to various dojo . . . and so, the invitations to their countries began.
Q: What do you think makes Matsubayashi Ryu a special and complete art? Is there anything in particular you love about it?
I don’t know if we can consider any given art as COMPLETE. We strive to achieve perfection as best we can, knowing we can never reach that pinnacle.
Matsubayashi Ryu is pretty. Another person, from Kobayashi Ryu will say that Kobayashi Ryu is pretty. I was born in Greece, and I believe that Greece is one of the prettiest places on the planet. The same will be said by a person born in Mongolia, and so on.
Matsubayashi Ryu shares similar elements with other Okinawa styles, so I would not call it special or complete. I would say that I feel I made a very good choice. If we consider something as COMPLETE, and we have learned all of its content, then we become satisfied and stop researching further . . . thus, there would be no, or very little future growth.
Q: What are your goals with the Bubishi Karate Do Organization, Inc.? How do you hope it helps the karate world?
The Bubishi Karate Do Organization is a not-for-profit organization registered with the State of New York. Since I am not in the United States at this time, it is only in name. I do not charge membership fees. I only charge teaching fees. There are no contracts and no agreements. Simply the students learn, and are awarded their ranks without charge. They are free to learn as they like, and from other persons as well. There are no restrictions, except that the techniques must be acquired to the best of their abilities as were dictated by Okinawa.
I originally had my HQ in Brooklyn, NY. Besides the martial arts programs, we had a painting class once a week, monthly field trips, weekly outdoor trainings, dances, and an after school care program where students were assisted with their homework. A hot organic meal was served daily.
All of our instructors came through the ranks. They were paid well, but had to maintain a B+ school average if they were still in school. Self-esteem grew large in this ghetto dojo. Students excelled, and many went on to college with full scholarships.
In Greece I do not have a dojo. The Greek government controls all sports, and therefore controls the Amateur Karate governing body. Okinawa karate styles are not recognized, and therefore, they are not sanctioned. So, I teach privately, in my home, in other people’s homes, rooftops, beaches, parks, mountain sides, etc., and I do get the job done. Last month, December, we had our first Shodan in Ryu Kyu Kobudo. I consider it a milestone since I am operating under the radar.
Q: What qualities did you see in Okinawan and Japanese dojo(s) that you think the Greek, USA, and European dojo(s) would benefit from emulating?
What one sees in the Japanese/Okinawa dojo is a representation of the Japanese/Okinawa culture. Westerners copy the dojo etiquette thinking that this is the dojo etiquette. No, it is not just dojo etiquette; it is a general etiquette. In fact, universities and public school dojo are stricter than the neighborhood dojo. Respect for the teachers, sempai and kohai is the same in the public schools and neighborhood dojo.
So, unless the western person actually learns and feels respect, he will not really know the feeling of respect in the dojo. It is simply “acting.”
Q:You have a number of books on the horizon – could you tell us what kinds of books you have prepared and what people might learn from them?
Hundreds if not thousands of books have been written on almost every aspect of the martial arts. Each book is unique and has something to offer; therefore, I am not going to devote too much space on techniques, but on the teachers themselves. I lived with them in and out of the dojo. I stayed on Okinawa until, one by one, they passed away. I kept daily journals, and although I could not write everything, I will try to present the readers with a journey through my eyes.
Q: Do you still travel to teach seminars? Where can people contact you if they want to discuss that possibility?
I’m pleased to present this interview with Katherine Loukopoulos Sensei, a globally renowned karateka, particularly noted for her breadth and depth of kobudo knowledge.
In a time when martial arts doors were often closed to women, Loukopoulos Sensei showed incredible bravery and fortitude to pursue her training and prove herself to multiple high profile instructors. Loukopoulos Sensei spent over 14 years on Okinawa itself and traveled extensively before and after her time on the island. While she credits multiple individuals as significant influences on her development, Loukopoulos Sensei’s journey began with Heshiki Zenko and Ueshiro Ansei, two key individuals in the spread of Matsubayashi Ryu (the art of Nagamine Shoshin) to America.
As Loukopoulos Sensei grew as a martial artist, she also proved herself in the competitive arena, becoming a champion in both the United States and abroad. She established herself as a valued martial arts resource in her family’s home country of Greece, which she has used as a base of operation as she continues to spread her teachings all over the world, including locations such as the Ukraine and Zimbabwe.
Q: In what year did you first immigrate to America?
My mother and I came to the United States several times because she had an older brother in Utah. My father was a Police Officer in Greece, and remained in Greece. My mother and I traveled back and forth. In 1967, I stayed on by myself…I was 15 years old.
Q: Where did you end up and what was the motivation for coming?
For a few months I was in Newark, New Jersey; however, I quickly moved to Manhattan. It was not my motivation to stay in the United States; it was the belief of my parents that I would have a better opportunity.
Q: When did you first hear about martial arts as a youth in the USA? What was it that caught your attention?
Without knowing the English language, and being completely unskilled, I took the only jobs available to me: cleaning apartments, washing dishes in restaurants, altering women’s clothing, waitressing at various restaurants, and later on, bar tending at various bar. In all of those jobs I was frequently cornered and groped by the male staff, and had other several serious close calls…I needed to do something to protect myself. Discussing my woes with my school mates, I was told that I needed to learn “Karate.” Reporting the incidents to the police was not an option as I was a minor and was working off the books.
Q: What was the first dojo you joined? What made you take the leap?
At first I went to see the martial arts classes of one of my schoolmates, but I was not impressed. I consulted the Yellow Pages and visited every single school that was listed. I selected Heshiki Sensei’s Dojo (Satsuma Bushi Karate Dojo) because of the Spartan training and attitude. The dojo did not accept females. Nevertheless, I went every afternoon for about two months, and eventually, Heshiki Sensei offered me the opportunity to take one class. Heshiki Sensei further stated that if I survived the class I could study there free of charge. So, I took the class and for the next five months I did not pay dojo fees.
Q: Did you encounter any resistance from the instructors or students on account of being female? If so, what was that like?
I was the second female to be accepted in the Heshiki Sensei dojo. The first female was Susan Bailey who was a married woman. Married women, out of male mutual respect, were afforded entrance as long as their husbands were also students there.
I saw most females who followed after me ending up as bedroom material…Male students did not want us there. Male students would frequently create secret group trainings in order to practice without us. Females were not told where, when, and what time those secret trainings took place. After a while, I made it my business to observe and learn about those secret trainings and I would show up uninvited…I ignored their grimaces and acted as one of the group. Often the training would stop and would not continue…so I became an actress as well as a karateka.
Q: What was Heshiki Zenko like as an instructor and person? How did he balance teaching kata, sparring, basics, etc.?
That’s a pretty lengthy answer which occupies a chapter in my upcoming book. suffice to say that Heshiki Sensei, in spite of his severe discrimination towards women and anything female, was an excellent instructor. Because his training was very good, I overlooked all the difficulties and stayed on training… after all, that was early 70s and Victimology and Victim Assistance had not been born yet. Women were fighting to get into male professions and so my woes were simply one more on the list of gender discrimination in the United States. I knew all about discrimination as I had already experienced it in Greece at a very young age, so experiencing discrimination in the United States was not something new.
Q: Did you enjoy the Zen influence of Heshiki Sensei’s teaching? How did it help in your training?
I started training when I was 16 or 17 years old…therefore, I was very impressionable. Having a strong Greek cultural background I saw Zen as a form of training and nothing more. Zen was not easy, but Heshiki Sensei’s training was not easy either. To be able to sit still and endure the extreme pain and numbness in the legs was the exact opposite of the severe training to the point of exhaustion and fainting in the karate training. Both methods required patience and endurance.
Did Zen training help me? I would say, “yes it did.” I know I can out-wait anyone. I have the patience of a donkey, but I don’t know if it is my Zen training or my Greek DNA that is responsible for my capacity to endure.
Q: After Heshiki Sensei left for Hawaii you were left to discover the next phase of your training, which led you to Ueshiro Ansei Sensei. Could you discuss what made you seek him out and what that first meeting was like?
Please see the PDF Document: As I remember Ansei Ueshiro.
Q: Did you notice any differences in the Matsubayashi Ryu of Heshiki Sensei and Ueshiro Sensei?
Yes. They are also discussed in the PDF Document: As I remember Ansei Ueshiro.
Q: Your competition career began in 1979. How did this affect the course of your training and did you enjoy competing?
I loved competing! By nature I am competitive and I loved every minute of it. I met many wonderful karateka, and I came in contact with people that were truly great human beings. Thomas Carroll LaPuppet Sensei took an interest in me and taught me all about kumite. Toyotaro Miyazaki Sensei contributed to my travel expenses, and eventually we became training partners. We traveled and competed in the open tournament circuit and we also did demonstrations together. Through me, he came in contact with Okinawan instructors who influenced his karate perspective. My own training took another turn. I trained long and hard, but I also learned to train smart and efficient.
I quickly realized that in order to be better than the best names at that time, I had to do something different. So I started researching other sports. I investigated Olympic gymnasts, top names in track and field, boxing and wrestling…and they all had one thing in common: they lifted weights. Quickly I incorporated weight lifting into my training program as well as road work, and the results were encouraging.
Q: When did you choose to travel to Okinawa? Was it difficult making arrangements for that to happen?
I don’t want to say much on this because it will be covered in my book. Suffice to say that I went to Okinawa for the first time for the entire month of December 1982. In that visit, I also had the opportunity to run the Naha City Marathon which I completed within the allotted time.
When I decided that I wanted to visit Okinawa for a lengthy period of time, it was right after the last US National Championships in August of 1985 when I finished with my athletic competitive career.
How I did it?
Please wait until I publish my book… smile…
Stay Tuned For part 2 with Katherine Loukopoulos Sensei!
This is a continuation of the interview with Ann Marie Heilman. Part 1 of the interview can be found here. In this segment, Heilman Sensei discusses what it was like meeting Odo Seikichi of Okinawa Kenpo and how it changed the direction of her martial arts career. She also contemplates the meaning of being a Hanshi in karate and her growing responsibilities as a role model for women in the martial arts. Please enjoy.
MA: Could you discuss how you met Odo Seikichi Sensei of Okinawa Kenpo? What were your early impressions of him that made you decide to train under him full time?
AMH: The first time I met him was during a banquet we attended with Trias Sensei over in Okinawa. When they announced us and our style as “Okinawa Kenpo” a very small Okinawan man jumped up and yelled “yay! Okinawa Kenpo!” with his arms in the air. That of course was Odo Sensei.
That’s the thing – he was always happy and joyful. Even when he was quite ill, he was always a happy funny man and it was easy to grow to love him. He was also an excellent teacher. We brought him over to the United States the following year and continued to train with him as much as we could until his passing.
We established a routine of going to Okinawa or bringing Odo Sensei to the United States every year. We would be able to spend weeks and sometimes months with him in focused training. It was a great relationship and we were blessed to have him here in our home so frequently.
MA: What did you find similar/different studying with Odo Sensei vs some of your previous instructors?
AMH: It was different in that he was very laid back. I’m not sure if my previous experiences were flavored with American military or Japanese martial art style, which is very very different in the dojo and very serious. While we were training and doing kata with Odo Sensei, although the training was rigorous and focused he always taught with a smile and laughter. That was different and good for me.
Odo Sensei’s training was exacting and he had a huge emphasis on kata. That worked well for us because we could receive the kata and bunkai from Odo Sensei, but then also receive high level application, theory, fighting, etc. from Trias Sensei.
I remember early on in our studies with Odo there was no particular structure for the material. He would teach you what you were interested in or what he thought you should know. I remember attending a meeting in 1984 with a number of other senior students of his and establishing an actual hierarchy of material that students would have to learn. Once we had that scaffolding set up, everyone could then test standardized material. It was in this way that I tested up to 7th Dan directly under Odo Sensei.
MA: Odo Sensei was known for teaching in the old Okinawan manner of suiting material to the student, tweaking it as needed to make it more functional for the individual. Were there any particular ways in which Odo Sensei molded your learning to make it work better for you personally?
AMH: I think the most unique thing about my relationship with Odo Sensei was how frequently he used me as his bunkai partner. Bunkai became a very live experience for me. Before Odo Sensei I trained with a lot of tall, strong men. It was really great to learn from Odo Sensei who was much closer to me in size. That being said, Odo Sensei was very muscular and had huge hands. He was a powerful individual. I remember when we put our hands together his fingers could fold over my fingers.
If I watched him very carefully I could learn how a smaller individual could move, especially with the weapons.
MA: Your husband Bruce Heilman is also a senior in Okinawa Kenpo. This would inevitably lead people to wonder if you were perhaps riding his coattails or getting free rank simply by association. Am I right in assuming this sort of thing came up, and how did you go about handling it?
AMH: Testing and receiving rank directly from Odo Sensei and NOT my husband was critical. In fact Bruce was of the same mind and made sure that it was not him who tested or promoted me. Over the years I noticed a few women who did receive high rank simply because of who they were married to. My testing was always public and I was always sure to keep my training as transparent as possible. This is another reason I did tournaments for a while. I wanted people to see what I could do and prove that I was not just a figurine following my husband.
MA: While studying under Odo Sensei you and Mr. Heilman were also busy building the IKKF (International Karate Kobudo Federation), which Odo Sensei approved and sat on the board for. Could you discuss the challenges of starting something of that nature?
AMH: The organization came about because we wanted to establish a personal identity while being a branch of Odo Sensei’s Shudokan. Bruce Heilman had a talent for organization and was experienced in setting up this kind of structure. He knew about getting accountants, and lawyers, etc etc. We had met a number of excellent martial artists over the years that we wanted to associate with, and we also wanted to help other styles learn things like Okinawan weapons that their style may not have had.
The growth of the federation allowed us to share our art, especially the kobudo, with many people both in the USA and internationally. I never would have thought it possible when I was growing up.
One of the challenges of the IKKF is the desire to maintain high standards throughout the entire organization. Sometimes our style is not ideal for individuals that want to join us, or perhaps our standards are not reasonable for a commercial school. We try to be fair while maintaining what we think is right.
MA: Recently you received the rare honor of being promoted to 9th Dan, Hanshi. I’m sure this was something impactful for you. Could you talk a bit about your feelings and reflections of the promotion?
AMH: I remember my husband brought up the possibility two years ago but I was staunchly opposed to it. I wanted no parts of it and that kind of responsibility. As far as this time around, I feel right about it because I’ve had two years to reflect on the possibility and the things that I’ve done, and the amount of study I’ve done and still want to do. I knew that if I received it this year it would be coming in a legitimate way from teachers outside of the IKKF who are respected in their own right.
(Note: Heilman Sensei’s promotion was made by Hanshi’s Larry Isaac, 10th Dan; C. Bruce Heilman, 10th Dan; and Jody Paul, 9th Dan; with the approval and authorization from Okinawa from Hanshi’s Shihan Toma (ratified before his passing), 10th Dan; Shigemitsu Tamae, 9th Dan; and Kyoshi Satoshi Yamauchi, 9th Dan, representing both the Seidokan and Motoburyu lineages. Additionally Heilman Sensei received recognition from the IKKF (her home federation) and the United States Association of Martial Artists (an organization connected to the original USKA under Master Robert Trias). These ratifications were important as they connected Heilman Sensei to her roots in training (Odo Seikichi and Robert Trias), as well as continuing the historical connection between Okinawa Kenpo, Seidokan, and Motobu Udundi.)
To be honest, I was so much more involved and excited with Mr. Hayes getting his promotion that I was not thinking too much about my own. It felt good that I was more concerned with him than myself – I felt it was a moment of personal growth.
As for the promotion night itself – I do not remember a moment of it! I don’t remember standing in front of everyone…things were a dull roar.
MA: When you think about your overall legacy on the arts, what do you hope your lasting impact will be?
AMH: I’d like to be remembered as a good and fair karate woman, teacher, and judge. If I can do that, and combine it with the IKKF learning materials we have already created, I would be happy. We have set up the scaffold so that people will have what we created for a long time to come.
I’ve never considered myself (nor was I in truth) a natural talent at martial arts. Everything I learned was through repetition over and over and over. I would watch others get it much sooner than I could. I’ve had multiple injuries as well that were very debilitating. In total my learning process has been slow, with many ups and downs.
I hope that other “non-naturals” out there can see my struggles and continue to push through too. I would say to them, surround yourself with a good support system and never let “quit” enter your equation. As I was once told in grade school: “Aim for the moon…even if you miss you’ll land amongst the stars”.
MA: Thank you very much Mrs. Heilman for your time and thoughts!