Andrew Roubas: The Art of the Empty Hand

Shihan Andrew Roubas with Soshihan Gonnohyoe Yamamoto

Shihan Andrew Roubas (left) with Soshihan Gonnohyoe Yamamoto

Blitz Magazine, Volume 29, No. 4, April 2015

Like all practitioners whose life has been dedicated to their art, Shihan Andrew Roubas, eighth Dan in Goju Ryu Karate, becomes philosophical when making sense of it.

“Just like a canvas that is being painted, often it is hard to reach perfection. There can always be an extra shadow or additional colour to add. But this is the measure of a real artist; whether it is with a paint brush or the empty hand.”

For Roubas, this metaphor is especially apt, working as he does as a painter.

“I am an artist who creates murals and visual arts. This has allowed me to develop an eye for detail which helps in karate. I am a perfectionist when it comes to… art.”

Both painting and Karate have given him a strong set of principles which inform everything he does.

“Even the simplest of tasks such as arranging straight lines in the dojo before the bow… it must be perfect before we can begin. The smallest details are often the ones that get us closer to perfection.”

Perfection, or the ceaseless striving for it, is the essence of his philosophy and the way he engages with karate.

“I had always wanted to do martial arts or boxing when I was growing up in Greece, [but] the opportunities weren’t there; it was too expensive. I did get a taste of hand-to- hand combat in the Greek military though, which I loved.”

Roubas emigrated from Greece in 1970, at the age of twenty-five.

“After a few months of being settled in Australia, I made the decision to start karate. I found the club [run by] Shihan Con Hardas in the Greek newspaper. It happened to be Goju karate.”

As is so often the case, martial arts gave Roubas an extended community in his new home.

“After training we would go out together; socially, and of course to talk about karate. Our club had a strong community vibe; we were all friends. We used to train full- contact in the dojo and enjoyed pushing each other physically and always would go out together afterwards to laugh and reflect on the training.”

Karate, given its Japanese heritage, also provided a space in which Roubas’ ethnicity was parallel to that of the other Australians he trained with.

“After my first few months in Australia, I caught on well to the language. I was working and training with Australian people. Although in the Dojo there was a huge Greek community, who still train today. So this helped, also.”

The language barrier was surmounted by the essential nature of training in the martial arts.

“Karate is beyond language barriers,” says Roubas. “Even though I caught on to the English language relatively quickly, the dojo is a place where you can follow someone physically, rather than through language, and a place where the main language spoken was Japanese. I was on an even playing field with the Australians, because we were all learning a new language!”

Roubas has been involved in karate, both training and teaching, for over forty years. In that time, both his focus and practice have evolved.

“The thing that attracted me in the beginning was the sparring; the discipline and the respect for fellow karateka. But as I’ve gotten older, I realize my values are more focused on the training and educating [of others]; the family and friendship aspect of the club and the students involved in the art.

Kata isn’t an archaic feature of practice in Roubas’ syllabus.

“Kata is a measuring tool to give insight into how well someone can perform in all aspects of karate. It’s a way of showing how they incorporate all aspects… into one; mind, body, focus, balance, timing, co-ordination and strength.”

Both ippon and full-contact kumite are an important part of the syllabus at Roubas Goju Ryu.

“We focus on point sparring for many of the kids that want to compete in tournaments,” he says, “But it is important that our senior grades spar with focus and power and are encouraged to make strong contact to the body.”

Some students will stay after class to practice kumite amongst themselves.

“It is not uncommon to see our black belts stay back after class has ended for… kumite, but they do it because they love it and want another challenge.”

Self defence is also a feature.

“We have many prearranged fighting techniques that we perform over and over again. Through repetition, we develop an automatic response system to an attack. So in a real life situation you don’t have to think about your response, it happens automatically.”

Andrew has supplemented his training by branching out and studying the use of weapons.

“Kobudo weapons training is a big part of my karate,” he says. “When you have a good karate base, the weapon becomes an extension of the body. And when you learn weapons, anything that you pick up can be used as a weapon.

“I trained under Shihan Merv Oakley in the 1970’s and learned Kobudo weapons through him. I trained private lessons, every Saturday in Granville. In that years that have followed, I have continued training with weapons.”

Andrew Roubas enjoys close ties with the Japanese hub of the Goju Ryu karate organization, especially Soshihan Gonnohyoe Yamamoto.

“I first met Yamamoto in Sydney in 1983 through a visit organized by Shihan George Barounis where I received my second Dan. I received my third Dan [during] a second visit in 1984.”

After that, Roubas travelled to the home of karate to train with his mentors.

“I was an ‘Uchi Deshi [live-in student] for nine weeks and was graded to fourth Dan. I met many of the IKO high grades such as Mori, Maeda & Kamon and many more in the Yabe dojo’s. This trip created great friendships that are still strong.”

Travel to Japan has been an important part of Roubas’ training and ongoing education.

“In total, I’ve travelled to Japan three times and I’m planning another trip later this year.”

Andrew has also bought Yamamoto to Australia for the benefit of Australian students of Goju Ryu.

“I organized Soshihan to visit Sydney for a ten day seminar in our dojos for all IKO [members] to attend.”

Yamamoto himself has been an inspirational part of Roubas’ journey as a karateka, beginning from his stint as an uchi-deshi.

“Yamamoto… looked after me and opened my eyes to Japanese customs. One of my most treasured moments of that Japan trip was when Soshihan invited me to his house for dinner on my final night and presented me with a shredded black belt that was barely held together as a gift to remember him.

“He said that this was his first black belt that he received from the great Yamaguchi [founder of Goju Kai]. This was the greatest of honours – it remains a cherished trophy [among] my collection.”

Over forty-five years, Andrew Roubas has made the transition from student to teacher, the well-worn path which shreds every black belt. In that time, every aspect of his art has changed.

“I am sixty-eight years old,” he says, “But please don’t tell my students. They still think I am 21!

“Before, I was always very aggressive in my kumite. But as I have gotten older and have more experience, I have learnt to wait for the right opportunities and get aggressive only when the time is right.

“Now I teach more. As I get older, karate becomes easier to teach. Over time you are able to recognise common mistakes that students [make], so an experienced Sensei can get them on the correct path quickly.”

The point of entry to that common path is different for every student, and experience has helped Roubas develop the acumen to choose how to involve every person in the way that best suits them.

“Everyone is an individual with different strengths and different weaknesses,” he says. “Some learn quick and some learn slow, so you can’t treat them the same.”

Just as different students struggle with different aspects of karate, so too do different teachers excel in different areas.

“Our organization is lucky to have many good black belts that share teaching duties. This allows them to transfer knowledge in areas they excel in, [so] our dojo – and classes – [can be] split up to provide specialized lessons for a personal approach.”

One of the most appealing aspects of Roubas Goju Ryu to the community at large is that while many dojos proclaim they are family-oriented, Andrew teaches alongside one of his longest, most enduring students, his son, Stefan.

“It’s like a gift having my son train with me,” he says. “Many other instructors I know have children that haven’t continued training with their fathers.

“When we started our dojo in 1983, my wife helped with teaching the beginners and reached Shodan. Our children didn’t have a baby sitter so they were forced to train, also. My daughter started at the age of four and reached first kyu. My son started at the age of six and has continued for over thirty years now, reaching the rank of Shihan.”

Aside from boosting the number of staff, karate has forged an especially strong bond between father and son.

“Karate has strengthened my relationship with my son. It gives us common interests and creates a real family atmosphere in our dojo. Our father-son relationship has encouraged many other father-son/daughter relationships. It makes our dojo a ‘real’ family dojo.”

“I started karate at the age of six,” says Stefan Roubas, son and Shihan at Roubas Goju Karate. “I had no choice in the matter. My Mother, father and little sister (Chrisoula) trained to help start the dojo with new students. Many of my cousins and aunties also started karate to support my father with the new dojo.”

Having one’s father as sensei is not always beer and skittles, however.

“Having your father as a sensei is a very unique situation,” says Stefan. “As a child, my father always made me the example and picked on me so that all his other students could benefit from my correction.

“I was his son of course, and he knew that offending me didn’t matter because he was family. But this is difficult for a child, and had a negative impact on me and I didn’t like karate. I wasn’t a very good fighter… either. In hindsight, all that unwanted correction has turned me into the karateka I am today.”

Having his father as a sensei meant that Stefan had to develop a sensitivity to a situation which operated outside the boundaries of both karate and family.

“As I got older, in my late teens and early twenties, there was a lot of grey area of having dad as a sensei… I could speak openly to my dad, but couldn’t do that in the dojo. All my friends in the dojo looked at my dad as a father figure, also.”

One of the most interesting aspects of Stefan’s practice is that he works as a civil engineer and in a truly eastern way, sees a correlation between these two modes of work.

“Being a Civil Engineer… allows me to see the science behind karate. Body mechanics. Equilibrium through the body. How the body battles against gravity and generates force through the feet.

“In building, concrete is strong in compression but weak in tension. And steel is the opposite. Our muscles work in the same way. They are strong in compression, but need to stretch and reach to hit the target. [Karate] is a constant search for equilibrium where we are most efficient in movement.”

Karate, and martial arts generally, are a metaphor for living. Often people not only find the skills to live life, such as discipline, but they also develop a means to talk about it. Roubas Goju Ryu is a place where family focuses on the art of karate.

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