Sensei Pete Spanton 7th Dan is one of the most Senior Karate-Ka in the UK and is still a regular visitor to our dojos. Peter Spanton was Chief Instructor to Sensei Derek Ridgway for many years and is greatly respected as a major influence on his Karate.
INTERVIEW WITH PETER SPANTON 7th DAN
BY DEREK RIDGWAY
I recently had the chance to talk to Peter Spanton, 7th Dan. Peter is a Karate-ka from the old school, from the first generation of British Karate-ka. He was one of my first instructors and is a Karate-Ka I have a great respect for. I managed to catch up with him when he was teaching at one of his member’s clubs in Cannock, Staffs. We chatted about his life in Karate, a career that spans well over 30 years.
D.R.: When, and why, did you start training?
P.S.: I started training in 1965. I had just come out of the Merchant Navy and was working in a brewery. I didn’t really have any sports interests at the time such as football or cricket etc. So I was looking for something different, I looked at Judo and that didn’t really stir my interest. Then I think I read a small article in a newspaper or magazine on this martial art from Japan called Karate. This sounded very interesting so I did what research I could and tried to find a club etc., but I couldn’t find anything. Then I heard about a Judo club where someone had some information on Karate, this person turned out to be Len Palmer. I contacted Len Palmer and he told me that yes, they did have a small Karate Federation going, and that they had invited an instructor from Japan to come over and teach. His name was Tatsuo Suzuki and he was teaching the Wado-Ryu style at the club in south London. This sounded like just what I wanted, so I went down to the south London club to watch a session and to see Mr. Suzuki in action. I was most impressed and thought this is definitely for me. So that’s how it all started for me and I have never looked back.
D.R.: So your first instructor was Mr. Suzuki?
P.S.: Yes that’s correct, although we had visits by other Japanese instructors.
D.R.: Can you remember any of the other instructors who you trained under?
P.S.: Yes I can remember some although it was a long time ago. Instructors such as Mr. Toyama, Mr. Kono, Mr. Shiomitsu, and of course Toru Takamizawa. Plus of course others who Mr. Suzuki would invite over to teach. In those days I just never stopped training, morning noon and night, and three times a week at the Dojo. I would also follow Mr. Suzuki around the country when he was teaching away on courses.
D.R.: Where exactly was that first club?
P.S.: That was in south London, Clapham North. That club was classed as the Hombu Dojo.
D.R.: Who else trained at that Hombu Dojo who is still active in Karate.
P.S.: The one that instantly springs to mind is Ticky Donovan. He started about 6 months after me. I think John Smith came in a little later to the club. Of course there were others training up north such as Danny Connor, Trevor Overfield is a name that springs to mind. Plus of course others whose names escape me now. But in the actual Hombu in the very 1st year Ticky is the only name that springs to mind that people would know now.
D.R.: So what was a typical session like in those early days?
P.S.: Well what you have to remember is that we were all beginners or relative beginners. There were no Black belts in the club then. In the Hombu I think that I was the highest grade when I was a Brown belt. This of course meant I got the job of teaching the raw beginners, which I felt was losing me out on my own training. But at the time I was doing so much training that I don’t think that it made much difference to my progress.
D.R.: How many people would be training in a typical class at the Hombu dojo then?
P.S.: Classes ranged from about 20 to around 40 people. 40 would be a big class for those days.
D.R.: Were the classes all adults, what about women? any children training?
P.S.: The classes then were all adult; mostly male, although there were a few women training. I don’t remember any children training, at that time it was all adults.
D.R.: What about the standard of Karate in those early days? When you passed your, Black belt how would it compare with someone passing their Black belt today.
P.S.: Well I can only comment on what I see in my clubs and the other clubs that I teach as regards comparing standards. So that is my standpoint when I say to be perfectly honest with myself looking back at my standard when I took my Black belt compared to the ones I see today, my standard was really quite low. At the time of course I thought I was the bees knees when I got my Dan grade, but my limit of knowledge and ability was far below what it is now for one of my own students who I would grade to Dan grade now. When I actually think back to the actual range of techniques we did back then there were really, compared to today, very few. We would do front kick; roundhouse kick; side kick (usually only to the knee); and back kick. Our knowledge of combinations was limited to a few from the syllabus. So as you can see in the early days we were very limited. At the time front kick was my best technique that was because we did so many of them!
D.R.: What was your Black belt grading like all those years ago? How was it different to a Black belt grading of today?
P.S.: Well it was different in as much as I didn’t know it was my Black belt grading. I had been, in my opinion, jumped quite quickly through my grades by Mr. Suzuki, which on reflection perhaps was not that realistic. I went from beginner straight to Green belt 6th Kyu, then from 6th Kyu to 4th Kyu. Then when I took my 3rd Kyu I was graded straight to 2nd Kyu. My 1st Kyu grading came along just before Christmas in 1966. I took what I thought was my 1st Kyu grading and just before Christmas 1966 Mr. Suzuki gave me my Dan grade. That was a bit of a surprise as all I thought I was doing was my 1st Kyu. I don’t know to this day why Mr. Suzuki did that, perhaps he thought I was too good for 1st Kyu, or perhaps he needed the Black belts, I really don’t know. Anyway that’s how it happened.
D.R.: Kata knowledge in those days. When you passed your Black belt, what Kata did you know?
P.S.: As I recall, when I passed my Black belt I knew the 5 Pinans, Kushanku, Naihanchi, and that was about it. I know that I didn’t know Chinto at the time, I think Mr. Suzuki took us through a little bit of Seishan once, but that was about it. Compared to today I certainly didn’t have the range of Kata that today’s student would have when approaching Dan grade.
D.R.: So when did you decide to open your own club?
P.S.: I opened my own club when I was a Brown belt; that was in East London at a place called Custom House. At the same time I also opened a club in Forest Gate East London, that was over a pub. When I got my Black belt the Forest Gate club moved to the local community center and I have had a club there ever since in Forest Gate East London.
D.R.: Lets talk about Higashi, how did that evolve?
P.S.: We were in the British Karate Association (B.K.A.) at the time, which was getting progressively bigger. We didn’t want the Forest Gate club to become isolated on its own, and as one of the senior instructors in the B.K.A. at the time I would be asked by other clubs to go to their club and teach. So these clubs started to get together with my Forest Gate club to train; have friendly competitions etc. At the time it was only a small friendly group of clubs such as Swindon, Cheltenham, Cardiff, Bristol etc. That’s really how Higashi began. Eventually we decided as membership was growing steadily we had a fair few clubs that we were big enough to go it alone and form a federation of our own which we call Higashi Karate Kai (H.K.K.) and so Higashi was formally created.
D.R.: What does Higashi mean?
P.S.: Higashi means EAST, the first club was in the East End of London so it just seemed a natural name and it has stuck with us.
D.R.: Would you consider Higashi a style, or to be precise do you consider Higashi is now a Ryu?
P.S.: I am almost inclined to. In fact some of our senior grades would prefer that we call it Higashi-Ryu, rather than Wado-Ryu. I myself still feel a great loyalty to Wado-Ryu; our techniques are Wado-Ryu and we use Wado-Ryu Kata. Perhaps we have evolved them slightly but never losing the original concept.
D.R.: How big is Higashi as an Association?
P.S.: In England we have about 1800 members, then we have affiliations in Wales, Northern and Southern Ireland and Australia.
D.R.: What are your opinions of competition Karate?
P.S.: My own personal competition career was in 1965/1966. I took part in British championships of the time, such as the B.K.A. championships etc. I represented Great Britain in 65 and 66 in the European championships where I gained a Bronze medal. Then after that I really lost interest in competition Karate, I just loved my training and I didn’t think that competition was why we trained; that was not the direction I wanted my Karate training to go, it was not my goal in Karate to be good at competition. I still recognise competition as an important aspect of Karate training although in my opinion by far not the most important. I still wanted to contribute to competitions that’s why I got involved in refereeing and became Chief referee for a while. And now of course I contribute in that I help in the administration of competitions on computer both Europe and world-wide for the World Karate Federation (W.K.F.)
D.R.: What are your opinions on competition Kata?
P.S.: Well to be honest I find alot of it is very cosmetic. I see alot of competitions both here in Europe and Worldwide and it seems to me that alot of judges tend to award points for how good a Kata looks, not how good the Kata actually is! It is a very shallow, thin way of looking at Kata and that is what I mean when I consider it very cosmetic. That is what I personally don’t like.
D.R.: Your own Higashi squad is doing very well at the moment?
P.S.: Yes I am very pleased. I put that down to the dedication of the squad and the tremendous ability of squad coach Alan Flook and his assistants who have really brought the squad on. Recently, at Aston Villa, we had some tremendous results, the squad did really well so yes I am really pleased.
D.R.: I was well impressed last year when I helped referee at one of your nationals, the squad to me looked really sharp!
P.S.: Yes we are flying really high at the moment, which is really great for us and very good for Higashi.
D.R.: Do your top fighters still get treated the same as the rest; do they have to do their Kata and their basics just like the rest of the students?
P.S.: Oh yes we still insist our squad members train in the normal Dojo environment and do what everyone else does.
D.R.: You don’t see much of that these days; usually top fighters have little or no regard for Kata; and Kata people are the opposite, they concentrate only on Kata performance and see little or no connection to fighting.
P.S.: Yes that’s very true, most Kumite people can’t do Kata; and alot of Kata competitors can’t fight. No side of your Karate should be completely ignored in favour of another or it ceases to be the complete package. You are only doing a part of the whole, which is Karate. Obviously when a large tournament is coming up you adjust your training accordingly, but in the end to be a good Karate-ka all priorities must be observed.
D.R.: Changing the subject, earlier you mentioned computers, how did you get involved with computers and Karate?
P.S.: Well, as I touched on earlier, I retired from refereeing and still wanted to contribute in some way to Karate. I was already into computers and was starting to run Higashi using computers. It seemed a natural step to help Karate as a whole in the administration of Karate tournaments and to help other associations administer their members in a more efficient manner via the use of computers. I now provide programs for use with tournaments and for use with association licensing duties and a considerable amount of associations are now using the above programs and finding them very useful.
D.R.: Was there any other reason why you were drawn towards computers?
P.S.: To be honest I knew that I wasn’t getting any younger and I knew that even if in the future I can’t be as active physically in Karate as I am now, I can still make a contribution via computers. So you could call them my insurance policy to keep me involved with Karate which is what I love.
D.R.: What does your own personal training involve nowadays?
P.S.: I would like to say that I train every day, but in truth nowadays I have to be more careful what I do. I do have a few small injuries and when they play up I have to work around them. So these days I tend to train how and when I can, when I was younger I would throw myself about thinking I would last for ever, but after 30 odd years you realize that you have to give the body more respect and be far more careful.
D.R.: Your training has to change and evolve relative to your age; you can’t be doing the same Karate when you are 50 as you did when you were 20.
P.S.: Yes that’s right; up to about 10 years ago I thought I was still 18 but now I’m more cautious and think more about safety especially with my own students, I want them to learn from my mistakes.
D.R: What aspect of Karate training is your favorite?
P.S.: I like good basics, good combinations, but I think the favorite aspect of my training is Kata. Especially Bunkai, that really appeals to me and is one of my favorite aspects.
D.R.: So why is Kata so important?
P.S.: Well for me especially, when I do Kata on my own I shut myself off from the world; all is blocked out like I am in my own little shell.
D.R.: Approaching a meditative state of mind perhaps?
P.S.: Almost because it’s like a shutter comes down and all I can see in my mind is the kata. So maybe extreme concentration would be a better term to use than meditative. Concentration is very important to me. Then there is the Bunkai of the Kata, which gives you the chance with a partner to practice the practical applications from the Kata.
D.R.: Without Bunkai do you think Kata ceases to be as important?
P.S.: Without Bunkai the Kata becomes just an exercise. It may be a good exercise but it is only that, an exercise. You must practice Bunkai, even our lowest grades are taught the application of the Kata they are learning so that they understand that Kata contains techniques that when practiced with a partner and learned well, can be used in real fighting situations. So yes Bunkai is very important.
D.R.: Do you have any favorite Kata?
P.S.: Yes, some Kata suit the taller person, some the shorter person. It is the same with a person’s build; some Kata will suit the lighter person, some the heavier person. So for me Wanshu was always one of my favorites, although the jump now causes me a little trouble. Bassai is another one I like. Niseishi is another Kata I quite like but as I get older I am not to keen on the sidekicks in it. Seishan is another kata I quite like. I would not like to say that I have any absolute favourites, maybe preferences would be a better word to use rather than favourites.
D.R.: I find things can change as your karate career evolves, a Kata you liked when you were younger may not be one of your favourites now, and vice-versa.
P.S.: That’s right, and obviously not just for Kata, but for individual techniques as well. You could have been perhaps a Gyakuzuki person for years then all of a sudden another technique takes preference. As I said earlier in my early day’s front kick was my favorite technique. I would use it on people and 9 times out of 10 I was successful with it. Then later I got into roundhouse kick and I still really like it, and while my hips hold out I will continue to use it. If one day I start having trouble with it I will perhaps drop back to a front kick again.
D.R.: I know you do some Kata from other styles, which ones?
P.S.: Yes I do, but obviously I’m not going to qualify them, they include Kata such as Seienchin and Seipai from Shito-Ryu, Tensho and Yang-Su from Kyukushinkai, and Kanku-Sho from Shotokan. So I will show these Kata if people ask but I stress that they should get their in depth expertise from someone else who actually does the style in question. We allow our Dan grades to learn Kata from another style but we don’t use them in our syllabus. In our own nationals we did allow Kata from other styles to be performed but now it is only Kata from the syllabus which are allowed. This was because we thought it unfair that a competitor may get up and perform a Kata from another style, which he/she had learned, and none of the judges that were supposed to mark it would know it. So now we limit it just to Kata from the syllabus which makes it alot fairer for all concerned.
D.R.: I know that you have developed your own Higashi Kata, how many are there?
P.S.: There are four Higashi Kata.
D.R.: Why evolve your own Kata?
P.S.: Well the Wado style has less Kata than most other styles, for example Shotokan have perhaps twice as many Kata as Wado, Shito-Ryu three times as many or even more. Master Ohtsuka probably knew alot more kata than the Wado list, which is taught as standard now. Unfortunately though, if he did know more, he never passed them on. So we were limited to a certain few, which in itself is not such a bad thing, because with less you can probably make a better job of them. Anyway we wanted to give our students the opportunity to do something extra without losing our Wado concepts. So although the four Higashi Kata do use some stances and techniques from other styles, there are not many. The kata do for the largest part contain the principles of Wado-Ryu karate.
D.R.: Do you think you will keep it at four kata for Higashi?
P.S.: I did toy with the idea of a fifth, but then changed my mind. You have to draw the line somewhere, so I have decided to keep it at four.
D.R.: You have been doing karate now for well over 30 years, who do you respect and admire?
P.S.: All of the instructors that I trained under for a start, if I did not respect them I would not have trained under them. I don’t really have to name names, just any senior high grades of any style who have kept at it and kept training through the years. They deserve respect. Obviously my mate Ticky Donovan, who lives very close to me anyway, we get on very well. So sure I admire and respect him. I suppose to put it in a nutshell I respect the old school of Karate who came from my generation of Karate-ka. There are people calling themselves 4th/5th Dan and I have never heard of them, that does not make them bad 4th/5th Dans but I can’t comment on what I don’t know.
D.R.: What are your personal hopes for the future?
P.S.: For myself to keep on training when I can and as often as I can, to hope that the body holds out a bit longer. To contribute to Karate as a whole as much as possible, and not to get involved in politics, which I can’t stand.
D.R.: And the future for Higashi?
P.S.: For Higashi I would like to continue to see it successful, to keep it at the top in competition. To continue to give plenty of opportunity and scope to our members. And to maintain our standards, as standards must not be dropped.
D.R.: What do you hope for the future of English Karate as a whole?
P.S.: I would like to see all aspects of English karate become the best in the World. One thing I do wish is that we could unify standards a bit better, and clamp down on the cowboys teaching Karate, there are still to many of them.
D.R.: Finally Pete, any advice you could give to Karate-ka who are perhaps not as experienced as you are?
P.S.: Work hard on your basics, get good fundamentals and foundations, and keep your mind focused.
D.R.: Thanks very much.
P.S.: My pleasure.
I WOULD LIKE TO THANK PETER VERY MUCH FOR HIS TIME AND PATIENCE, AND TO WISH HIM AND HIS MANY MEMBERS ALL THE BEST FOR THE FUTURE. YOURS IN KARATE
Sensei Keiji Tomiyama Sensei Roy Partridge Sensei Peter Spanton Sensei Harry Cook Sensei Steve Cattle Sensei Tori Takamizawa Sensei Julian Mead Sensei Derek Ridgway