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…