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!
Sparring with short weapons for the first time can be a jarring experience, especially when facing longer implements like bo, shinai (bamboo sword), or spear. Kata and pre-arranged drills can teach good handling and combinations, but when the opponent is live and aggressive short weapons can feel a little lacking.
One of the first things students usually realize when they take up short weapons in a sparring environment is that the opponent rarely hangs around long enough for combinations to work as planned. They find themselves poked, prodded, and otherwise harassed while catching nothing but air with their own attacks. One of the most common end results when watching a match such as this is an agitated small weapon user, slowly losing ground until they decide to execute a full out bum rush into short distance range. They usually get in, but only after taking two or three solid shots on the way. Of course, if it weren’t for the padding and control of the opponent the small weapon user would have been severely injured before completing their attack run.
Having been on the receiving end of this kind of treatment and seeing it happen to others, I know one of the most common mistakes small arm practitioners make– living too long in the dead zone.
What is the Short Weapon Dead Zone?
Most martial artists are used to setting distance in empty hand sparring. Typical distance for sparring is just about close enough for the lead hand of both contenders to touch when extended. Hitting the body or head of the opponent would require an aggressive step inward, allowing the defender an opportunity to react (theoretically).
When using a short weapon such as tonfa it feels as if the distance should be set the same way. However, that empty hand sparring distance is almost exactly the ideal distance for a bo user to strike without needing excessive body movement. The end result is unfortunate for the tonfa user – getting hit swiftly and with little warning.
Take a quick look at the picture below. Observe the standard distance set between the bo user on the left and the tonfa user on the right.
If you look specifically at the black tonfa figure, you’ll notice he/she is in typical fighting distance for empty hand (roughly). However, you will also observe that the action end of the bo is already in range to strike. A clever bo user will keep their opponent in this range for as long as possible.
Understanding Superior Zones
Look again at the image above. The shadowy gray tonfa figures show two zones where the tonfa user is no longer at prime risk. The farther out figure has an action end of the tonfa near the end of the bo. Although this will likely feel far away to the tonfa user, it is actually the ideal passive distance for him/her to set.
On the other hand, the close in shadow shows the ideal active distance. Although the tonfa user is still at risk, he/she is in prime location to do direct damage to the bo user. Once the dead zone of the bo is penetrated the short weapon user, with duel weapons and quicker manipulative speeds, is at a distinct advantage.
If the tonfa user is able to acquire either of these zones, the fight should be more manageable. Of course, that begs the question, how does one go from the passive outside distance zone to the close action zone? It inevitably requires moving through the dead zone.
Moving Through the Dead Zone
At first most small weapon users try the same tactic for penetrating the dead zone. They wait for an attack, try to block, and then rush into their opponent. Unfortunately, a bo or sword can be retracted at exceptional speeds and the small weapon user tends to eat multiple attacks on the way in. This is generally where an over-reliance on pre-arranged drills do a disservice to the student. A tonfa user may be in the habit of blocking, then swinging in retaliation, and finishing with a punch or swinging strike. Unfortunately, when attempting kumite (sparring), as soon as the block is made the bo user is retracting and striking again. The short weapon user tends to find themselves gaining no ground.
There are multiple tactics that can be used to avoid this core problem, but I’d like to share three in particular: simultaneity, sticking, and braving the gap.
Eventually most good empty hand fighters discover that if they block and counterattack at the exact same moment they tend to have better results. The same goes for weapons, especially if you happen to have two of your particular implement (sai, tonfa, tecchu, etc). There’s an added twist with small weapons work though. As the long weapon attacks, the defender needs to have an aggressive inward movement. The small weapons user needs to engage forward at the same time as the attacker, thus cutting the distance in a surprising fashion. This can be difficult because it requires moving deeply into an attack.
In Okinawa tode and kobudo we use the term “muchimi”, or stickiness. It is the essence of making contact with an opponent and maintaining that contact so as to better feel their intentions and manipulate their body and balance. Muchimi is more difficult to execute with weapons due to the unusual angles and hard deflections of the implements, however it is still very possible to achieve. Instead of hard blocking as a small weapons user, one can instead block-and-trap or parry-and-follow in order to keep contact with the aggressors implement. As a result, the small weapon user can “ride” the longer weapon as the opponent attempts to free it or retract it.
Braving the Gap
I often call tonfa and other short implements “weapons of bravery”. The movements required to make them effective demand complete resolve and commitment. A tentative attack or half-hearted leap will inevitably be deflected, dismissed, or suppressed. Braving the gap means waiting for a moment of over-confidence or laziness in the opponent’s defense and then completely cutting through the dead zone with a leap or short dash. This of course is one of the highest risk tactics but when effective can completely overwhelm the opponent.
It’s important not to confuse braving the gap with simply running in with abandon. Braving the gap requires pinpoint control of distance, waiting patiently in the passive distance range until the opponent reveals him/herself.
A Piece of the Puzzle
Distance control is only one piece of the combative puzzle. Timing, angling, psychology, and technique all play a factor. Not to mention, this article assumes combative engagements begin with a chance to establish distance (ignoring the reality of surprise attacks). Of course, that is one of the natural weaknesses of sparring, and the value in diversifying training. That being said, there is no feeling quite like having a bo or sword swung at you with unpredictable and focused intent.
One Final Note
As a weapons practitioner gets more experience the zones mentioned above tend to get tighter. The difference between the dead zone and passive zone can seem almost imperceptibly small, especially to the opponent. When this occurs, the opponent tends to swing, fully expecting to hit their target but missing just slightly. It requires a masterful understanding of the opponent’s length, technique availability, and mental intent to control distance in this manner. A worthy goal to strive for!