Friday, November 15, 2013

A letter that left me speechless

It wasn’t all that long ago that I posted on why I didn’t want to be a 10th dan. Although my feelings haven’t changed about being qualified, I was persuaded to reconsider. Part was my age and the uncertainty that comes with it. Another was a letter I received last week from an organization and man I greatly respect, Shihan Patrick Hickey, President, USA Karate Federation. I certainly don't feel worthy but, as I said, greatly respect those who awarded it. (I've turned down several similar offers in the past - all from people and organizations who knew nothing about me except what they read.) I have trained with these highly skilled men and the USAKF, which for many years was the official National Governing Body for karate in the USA under the US Olympic Committee. They know me and we have trained together many times, over many years. Hanshi George Anderson, who founded the USAKF, was a great mentor to me as well as a close friend. I not only learned a huge, huge amount from him but he also opened many doors for me around the world, allowing me to train with almost anyone I could name. I equally admire Hanshi Koeppel. He has been a legend for as long as I can remember. So to be placed among these two giants of the martial arts makes me feel very uncomfortable.

Neither Facebook nor Blogger will allow PDF files to be posted. So I can’t include the actual letter I received from Shihan Hickey. But the following is what it said:


The Premier Federation for Karate in the United States of America
Historic Founding Member, World Karate Federation & Pan American Karate Federation


Patrick M. Hickey, President

Roger Jarrett, Secretary General

John Linebarger, Vice President

Robert Burns, Esq, Treasurer


Hanshi Jim Mather
United States National Karate Association
C/O California Karate Academy
1560 DeAnza Blvd.
San Jose, California 95129

November 1, 2013

Dear Hanshi Mather:

The recognizing of a 10th dan is a very personal event. In the United States many individuals either rank themselves as 10th dan, stay away from the title as it is considered a retirement, the 10th dan does not come from a group in Japan, or simply use the idea of not being a 10th dan to create notoriety (the individual knows inside he is not a candidate for any senior recognition).
The goal of the USA Karate Federation is to recognize senior masters in the United States with equal experience and involvement in the martial arts just as any other nationality or art that recognizes the 10th dan. There are certain individuals, such as yourself, with experience and experiences that many current and upcoming karate masters, both in Japan and the USA, will never have. The United States, in a legitimate forum, needs to step up and give proper recognition to individuals in the United States that have a treasure of knowledge equal to or greater then many recognized karate masters. In this sense, the USA Karate Federation does not “promote” to 10th dan but simply recognize those individuals who are of 10th dan – the most senior and knowledgeable of the karate in America with strong character, integrity and morals.

Karate came to the United States as early as 1945, one generation after karate entered Japan from Okinawa. In the 1930’s Karate became part of the Butokukai which was one of two rank and title awarding organizations in Japan. The active karate instructors of the time came together in some fashion and established an order of hierarchy in both major groups. This order became legitimate ranking for karate in Japan and a hierarchical control was established over karate as in other martial arts of the day in Japan. It is my belief that those master’s chosen at the time to be the leaders of the karate movement in Japan were chosen because of their knowledge and influence in karate. Many modern (1930-1972) masters trained under one or more of these individuals.

Hanshi George Anderson once told me, “Dan rank means nothing. What really establishes an hierarchy is who asks who the question.” You have and continue to be a go to person influencing many senior masters and yet you are available to even the beginning white belt. You are one of the most senior karate-ka in the United States today, still active and yet very humble with strong morals that you are not afraid to project. Your experience and wealth of knowledge is equaled by few, Americans and Japanese alike. We at the USA Karate Federation cannot think of any reason why this organization should not recognize you as a karate 10th Dan. You join the few individuals that the USA Karate Federation has recognized as 10th dan - Hanshi George E. Anderson and Hanshi Philip W. Koeppel.

You have our recognition, respect, and warm wishes.

Yours in Karate and the Martial Arts,


Patrick M. Hickey, President
USA Karate Federation
1550 Ritchie Road, Stow, Ohio 44224 • USA


Sunday, September 22, 2013

My novel, The Arrow Catcher, released on Amazon!

I apologize for pimping my own book here but it's my first novel and I'm excited to see it finally in print on Amazon. It's only out now in paperback. But is being converted to Kindle and should be released in that format soon.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Memories from an old photo of three great karateka

I posted a photo on my Facebook page (MatherKarateka) today and it reminded me of some great people I had met through karatedo. Below is the photo:

Right to Left: Asai Sensei, Kotaka Sensei, Mrs. Kotaka, Mrs. Mimoto, Mimoto Sensei, me.

It was shot at the AAU National Karate Championships in Wide World of Sports stadium at Disneyworld. I can’t remember the year. Asai Sensei was a special guest for the event. I was able to spend a bit of time with him. He had always been the mysterious one among the JKA instructors we saw in an early JKA training film. Everyone else was linear and explosive, their actions clearly full of power. Asai was different. He was agile and flexible, his techniques non-linear most of the time, reminding me more of the kung fu fighters I knew back then – Bruce, Al Dacascos, Brendan Lai, etc. – than the other JKA instructors. When I finally met him many years later, I found him to be a very quiet and gracious gentleman, who we have unfortunately lost since that time.

Also in the photo with me is Kotaka Sensei, the great karateka, whose son, George, is one of our great champions. Many of his students have gone on to represent the United States very successfully in international competition, and still do so. In the 90s, I was invited to his dojo while in Hawaii for his annual tournament. I was very impress with his approach to training and the quality of his students, across the board, regardless of age, gender, or rank.

Sitting next to me is Hitoshi Mimoto. He and I met for the first time in London. As I was a graduate student at Stanford University School of Education, one of the coaches for the USA Karate Team, and co-chair of the US Coaches Education Committee, Hanshi George Anderson invited me to accompany him to the formation meeting for the World Students Karate Union, under the auspices of JKF and WUKO/WKF. Sensei Mimoto was sent from JKF, along with Mr. Yamaoka, who represented WUKO/WKF. Sensei Mimoto was named President of the new group. Richard Thomas of Great Britain was named Secretary. And I was named Treasurer.

Foundation of World Students Karate Union.
London, England

Richard Thomas, Hitoshi Mimoto, and me in London.

I saw Mimoto Sensei several times after that at WUKO events and in the U.S. – at our USAKF nationals, at the AAU Nationals in Florida, and in LA, when I was asked to hastily put together a U.S. collegiate team for a goodwill competition against a strong collegiate team which Mimoto San brought to this country for another event.

Sensei Mimoto and I in LA for Goodwill Collegate Competition

The last time I saw him was in Okinawa for the Okinawan Karate & Kobudo World Tournament in 1997. As head of the JKF’s southern region, Okinawa fell within his area of oversight. It was, as always, great to see him again. He’s a wonderful man and great martial artist.

An interesting thing occurred during the finals. Mimoto San and his delegation were seated in a plush VIP section in the new Budokan. He saw me sitting in the stands and insisted I join him. After I was seated, he went to speak with someone. A U.S. instructor, originally from Japan (and known among insiders for his attitude and questionable versions of traditional kata), saw me and raced up the steps. He stopped beside me and said “You’re not supposed to be here!” Sensei Mimoto walked up and challenged him. “What do you want?” The instructor mumbled something about me sitting in the wrong place. Mimoto San told him brusquely that I was there at his invitation and it was no business of his. He quickly returned to his own seat.

Thanks for your patience. I will try to post more often.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

When the Shah was overthrown...

I posted this on my Facebook page but I'm also posting it here in hopes it will get me rolling again in making regular blog additions. My apologies to those who already read this.
One of the great things about being an instructor in an international hub like Silicon Valley is the number of wonderful students you get to train, students from all parts of the world. But it can also have a downside. Near the end of the 70s, I had a great student from Iran. He was an engineering major at a local college but lived in the Sunnyvale Holiday Inn. Each month, he would pay me with a $100 bill. I learned his education and board was being paid for by the Iranian government. I can’t remember a student who worked harder than he did. He gave me a great respect for the Iranian people. He told us his name was George Wilson. I didn’t know much about Iran but knew Wilson wasn’t a normal name for someone from that part of the world. I questioned him about it and he told me I wouldn’t be able to pronounce his real name so he wanted to make it easy for everyone. I told him that he was my student and the least I could do was call him by his name, learning how to pronounce it if necessary. He told me his name was Reza Mohammad Razmkhah (sp?), which I made everyone call him. He came in one day as he was about to test for brown belt. He was clearly upset and told me it would be his last class. The Shah had been overthrown and he had been recalled to Iran. He left and I never learned if he lived or died. But I think often of him.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Happy holidays!

Sorry I've been so remiss in adding new posts. It's been a tough year. But almost have my novel finished, with the 2nd about 1/3 way through.

I'll try to get more posts up in 2013. One of the things that has also slowed me down is trying to decide what to post about. As a result, they've been all over the board. I began with a chronological look but got some negative feetback or silence. So I dropped that. (One of my original reasons for writing a blog was to do an autobiography a bit at a time. I thought my journey and observations about people and events and changes in the arts might be useful to later martial arts historians, so it wasn't left to people I know have not been objective or informed - as evidenced by my personal experiences with them relative to their reporting of my experiences.)

So, please let me know what you would like me to discuss and I'll try to get to it.


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

John Gehlsen - Part II

John Gehlsen fights an unknown opponent, with a
young Fumio Demura as referee and me as one of the corner judges.

If you could select one person to accompany you in what could be a deadly fight on the street, who would you pick? For some, they might think first of some of the karate greats. There’s an entire category of jokes about Chuck Norris and his imagined prowess. (“When the boogeyman goes to sleep, he checks his closet for Chuck Norris.”) But having the skill to win at tournaments doesn’t always translate well to skill on the street in a serious, life-threatening fight.

For me, the person I would have selected back in the day would likely have been John Gehlsen or another old friend, Jim Harrison. Not only were both great tournament fighters but (because of their professions in law enforcement and the number of “death matches” they likely fought on the street when working undercover) they were perhaps even greater street fighters. (Professional Karate Magazine did a five-part series on Jim Harrison’s experiences several years ago. They were great reading. Hopefully, the articles are still available.)

(Just to put John’s skill in perspective, he generally bested his IKA dojomate Tonny Tulleners, who placed 3rd at the first WUKO championships, won his black belt division at GM Parker’s tournament, etc. Tonny easily beat Chuck Norris all three times they met, when Chuck was at his peak. I saw most, if not all, of those matches and don’t remember Chuck ever even scoring a point on Tonny.)

It always struck me as a bit funny when Gehlsen and the other cops who trained at IKA headquarters would enter the changing room, remove their service revolvers, and lock them in their personal lockers. I, of course, realized that the people they often faced in the line of duty were armed. And I had no illusions about the likely outcome in karate versus gun battles. But it always made me chuckle nonetheless. Gehlsen with a pistol seemed something akin to Superman carrying one.

John was a bit of an acquired taste. He was hard to get close to and it took a while before I felt accepted by him. Something I had learned along the way was that many cops tended to divide the world into two types of people – cops and non-cops. (Cops and “Assholes” was actually how most phrased it.) This helped prevent emotion from making it difficult at times to do their jobs. If a person wasn’t a cop, he or she were often considered a perp who hadn’t yet been caught. (Many years later, I was asked by San Jose’s Chief of Police to speak to his captains about how to prevent their officers from abusing the power entrusted in them. And I looked at the side-effects of this view of the public, essentially the objectification of anyone they might have to confront.)

Once, I was at the dojo when a guy came in. He waited for someone to help him. John eventually strode over to the man and asked what he wanted in a less than welcoming tone. The guy answered that he was interested in learning karate. John told him they didn’t need any more students and the guy left. (The truth was they did need students at the time.) He looked fine to me. But that was John. He was a pure karateka. The guy hadn’t look serious enough to him or something.

John and I were talking once about his job. He told me about a fight he had gotten into a few years earlier while working undercover. He had gone in on a drug bust and chased one of the suspects into a high school shower room, where the guy tried to fight him and failed. John said he was at the supermarket recently, buying groceries, when a man approached him. “Do you remember me?” the man asked. John shook his head. The guy asked if he remembered the incident in the school shower room. John said “Yeah.” The guy asked, “Do you remember beating the crap out of the guy you arrested?” John said, “Yeah,” his voice and nervousness rising. The guy said “Well, I’m that guy.” John said “Yeah?!!” his hand going into his coat for his revolver. Then, the guys said, “I just wanted to thank you. Getting my ass kicked that bad made me straighten up. I never want that to ever happen again.” He offered his hand and John shook it.

I’ll likely write at least one more post on John before moving one. If anyone has any footage of John’s fights, please let me know. (I should have some but have yet to find it on the many films I shot years ago and Val later converted to DVD.) I intend to talk next time about his unique fighting style and tamashii.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

John Gehlsen

John Gehlsen

One of the highest complements I ever received was “This guy could be good.” Now on the surface, it would not appear much of a complement. I was already 3rd dan and had won a fair amount of sparring trophies by then. But it was the person saying it and his personal standard that made it special to me.

It was the late 60s or early 70s. We were at Soke Takayuki Kubota’s IKA Headquarters on Kenmore in Los Angeles, the same dojo where they filmed the dojo scenes for the movie, The Mechanic, with Soke, Charles Bronson, and Jan-Michael Vincent. I was in an advanced class that met on a Saturday or Sunday afternoons, forget which. Soke was taking us through a drill he called “Attack-Defense.” Each person had to await the spontaneous attack of an opponent, defend against it, and launch a successful counterattack. If the counter failed, you had to wait for your partner to attack again. This went on until your counter was successful. Then, you got another partner and repeated the drill.

I was paired off with John Gehlsen. I don’t remember his attack or what I did in response but it was John who said to Soke, “This guy could be good.” Although not many people outside Soke’s organization were aware of John’s skill, I considered him (both then and now) one of the toughest fighters ever trained in this country.

John was a tall, lanky, thick-boned man, who worked both undercover and regular duties for LAPD. I first met him at Ed Parker’s Internationals. It must have been around 1965. Soke Kubota had recently arrived in the U.S. and Ed invited him to demonstrate at his annual event, the largest and most prestigious tournament in the world at the time. (I think I spoke previously about that event.) John was only a green belt at the time.

When I hosted my first tournament, the U.S. Winter-National Karate Championships in San Jose the following year, I also invited Soke to demonstrate. He brought both John and Tonny Tulleners with him. Chuck Norris drove up with Chris Wells and one of his other students. And Bruce Lee also demonstrated. I had met Bruce through someone. I think it was a great, old Kung Fu friend, James Yimm Lee, but not sure. (Bruce lived with Jimmy when he first came to California.) In the finals, Chuck fought Roy Castro, GM Ralph Castro’s brother, for the grand championship and Chuck prevailed, winning his first grand championship.

John and Soke Kubota shared an apartment back then in Hollywood, on Vine Street, if I remember right. It was on the second floor and they used the large front room for the dojo. I would fly to LAX in the morning on my one day off. I’d rent a car, drive to Hollywood, take a private lesson from Soke, and participate in every class. Then, I’d take the long drive to LAX, catch the last flight to SFO, then drive the 40 miles to my home in San Jose. (I relate this story whenever someone tells me the dojo is too far from their home – usually 5 miles or less – to train with us.)

As I mentioned, John wasn’t known to many beyond Soke’s dojo. But in 1969, or thereabouts, he was asked to accompany an American team that Sensei Nishiyama assembled to compete against several university teams in Japan. A friend, who was a senior student of Sensei Nishiyama’s, went on the trip too. He told me that the Japanese treated John and most of our fighters with a degree of disdain much of the time until his first fight. John had been an alternate to the team and didn’t fight during the first couple of competitions. But when they finally put him in, his opponent refused to stop when John scored on him and kept trying to hurt John. So he drove the guy out of the ring, into the stands, and didn’t stop until the officials grabbed him. My friend said everyone in the large gym jumped to their feet and applauded. After that, he was treated with respect wherever he went.

In 1970, WUKO held its first World Karate Championships in Tokyo. The U.S. sent five teams, comprised of many of our top fighters at the time. John and Tonny Tulleners, also from Soke Kubota’s dojo, were on one of the teams. In the individual competition, Tonny tied for third with the legendary Dominic Valera. John didn’t make it to the finals but received one of the Outstanding Spirit (Tamashii) Awards distributed to the most respected fighters.

In 1972, the United States sent just one team to Paris for the second World Championships. John was selected to this team as well. This event was highly controversial. The U.S., Japanese, and several other teams walked out due to what friends termed the inadequate quality of the officials. (I heard they used judo, kendo, and/or aikido officials in matches – depending on who told me. But I wasn’t there so I’m not sure if any of this was true. I just know teams walked out.)

Well, enough for now. I’ll be writing more posts on John Gehlsen and what I learned from him. Thanks again for your patience and continued support.

Postscript: Here is a link for footage of Senseis Gehlsen, Smith, Tulleners, etc. at the team selection tournament for the 1972 WUKO World Karate Championships in Paris. There is a clip at the bottom of the DVD ad.