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!
I recently finished the book “The 47th Samurai“, by Stephen Hunter. One of the main driving forces of the book is a seemingly simple yet utterly misunderstood word: “Samurai”. Young men throughout the book cling to this idea of Samurai and are driven by it, distorted by it, and blinded by it.
For generations the notion of Samurai has shaped Japanese culture and now affects every culture around the world. The power of it has only increased as Anime and Chanbara films grow in influence. These days it is impossible to avoid Bushido, Ninja, and Samurai (and the slew of individuals claiming mastery over each).
Concepts like Bushido have been subject to centuries of nuance and development that are so subtle that practitioners spending a lifetime trying to grasp them still cannot truly put the entire philosophy into words. The greatest poets and writers have only been able to give us the essence of it.
Samurai, even during their glorious Sengoku Period, were complex creatures that were prone to as much obsession and compulsion as they were to honorable sacrifice and courage.
Modern day individuals cannot and should not be Ninja or Samurai and they should not strictly follow the code of Bushido. The reason why is because assassination and suicide are not parts of our modern culture. Nor are the rights of Kirisute Gomen, Seppuku, or Jo Uchi. Furthermore the right to kill peasants/criminals in order to test the sharpness of a blade, or to eliminate an enemy’s family through political intrigue, are seen as uncouth acts at best.
It is critical to remember that when invoking the name of Samurai or Bushido you invoke everything that comes with it, not just the parts that sound good in platitude.
Honor It Instead
Honor the Koryu arts by training in them diligently and absorbing the best of what they have to offer. Recognize the truth of the matter – that you are an individual who is bettering him/herself through ancient philosophy and applying those parts of it to your life that improve your health, happiness, and skill set. Embracing “the essence” of the art is a far more worthwhile goal than trying to join a long extinct class.
To train in the Koryu arts is to seek a better understanding of Budo. To study the way of Samurai/Bushido/Ninjutsu is to understand what it is and what it is not. If you say “I follow the way of the Samurai”, understand what you’re saying. It’s not just a couple of quotes about personal strength and courage.
Honor the old ways by avoiding fake titles, self embellishment, and delusion.
Kendo is a dynamic sport. When watching, it’s hard to take your eyes off of the lightning bolt sword strikes or the faces of the competitors as they pierce each other with intensity. If you’ve never seen a kendo match (or even if you have), check out the following video for a great example:
The zanshin of a good kendo match is always very high. It is a fine balance between keeping energies and emotions perfectly in check while still transmitting full spirit into your opponent in the hopes of intimidating or disrupting him/her.
However, even with all of that going on, the real core fundamental that every great kendo player requires, the engine that powers each thunder clap movement, is Okuri Ashi.
When first learning kendo one of my biggest problems was that I had already been a karate and kobudo student for about a decade. That means certain stancing and body movements were very ingrained into me. This was compounded by the fact that I had studied karate in my formative years and thus had it as part of my developed “self”.
As opposed to karate where most stances are optimally used to involve the whole body (especially the hips) in a variety of techniques and to weight the body down when appropriate, most of kendo’s footwork is light and crisp. Shizen tai is a very popular term in kendo and means “natural body”. Okuri ashi takes a shizen tai upright body and manipulates the footwork to allow for extremely quick forward and backward movement with minimal “dead spaces” in between each movement.
The execution of Okuri Ashi is as such:
The feet start about shoulder width apart, the ball of the left foot lining up across from the right heel. The right foot moves first, sliding forward about a half pace. The left foot then slides up to meet it, the heel lifting just a bit off the floor. Exactly how much lift you are instructed to get during this movement will vary from school to school.
Okuri ashi can be used with smooth, half pace strides to cover distance or it can be abbreviated to possess extremely short motions (while still maintaining that sliding characteristic). The benefit of moving like this is that your weight is underside almost at all times. This allows you to make quick directional changes and leap into attacks at the moment you feel them appear.
When Okuri ashi is done in multiple successions, it takes on a slight hopping quality even though the body and feet never leave the ground. To understand what I mean, observe this video of a basic drill known as Kirikaeshi:
You might take note that when moving forward the lead right foot moves first, and when moving backward the rear left foot moves first. During Okuri ashi they do not switch.
It can take years to make this motion feel natural, but it’s worth the effort. Okuri ashi has a lot to teach about keeping body weight centered and available for explosive movement. Give it a shot sometime, and don’t worry if you feel a bit awkward at first.