Okinawa Calling: Sensei Damien Martin on Rediscovering the Roots of Karate

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Blitz Magazine, Volume 31, Number 6 December 2017/January 2018

Okinawa is the birthplace of karate. Japan’s fifth-largest prefecture was a cauldron of conflict during the second world war and is now a bucolic territory, known to boast one of the largest populations of centenarians in the world.

Damien Martin is one of a group of former Zen Do Kai instructors who have traced their martial origins back to Okinawa and makes the pilgrimage every year to study authentic karate, refreshed at its source.

This search for authenticity drives Damien’s modern incarnation of Goju-Ryu karate at the Southern Cross Martial Arts Association in Helensvale, Queensland. Damien’s karate has survived the acid-test of real-world application, and what is left is made up of the durable realities created in feudal Japan.

“A lot of what we were originally told was bullshit,” says Damien. “We discover new things every time we visit [Okinawa]. For instance, the furphy that weapons were banned by the invading samurai, so [the populace] turned to using farming implements for weapons training.

“There were pre-existing schools of kobudo long before that happened: it was their own king Sho Shin in the fifteenth century who took their weapons away, to keep them under control.

“Their own records and documents were lost during world war two when the place was levelled by the allies. Their oral history remains, passed on from instructor to student.”

Okinawa hosted one of the bloodiest battles of the South Pacific campaign when the US invaded to appropriate Okinawa as a strategic base for the invasion of mainland Japan. A quarter of the population died or committed suicide during that time.

Steve Nedelkos, another former Zen Do Kai instructor who has returned to Goju Ryu, has also made the pilgrimage to Okinawa and been enriched by the experience.

“I met Taira sensei when I went back to Okinawa in 2010. It’s not that I was deliberately looking for answers; I just went for the experience. Okinawa is the mystical place that we had all read about when we started. What an opportunity, to train with an Okinawan master.”

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“It was different to what I had expected. Within the first lesson, there were ‘light bulb’ moments left, right and centre. We had two weeks of [training] twice a day, four hours a day for two weeks. It came as a revelation, and re-kindled my original passion for martial arts. I was struck by the beauty of the kata [and the] lessons inherent in it.”

Taira sensei’s own karate method was the source of revelation.

“Taira’s combative expression of Goju was wonderful. I’ve seen lots of traditional karate applications but they didn’t inspire me as effective; you wouldn’t do that in the street. His example was unlike anything I’d seen before. It highlighted the importance of foundations… he had an explanation for everything.

“The original instruction and foundation [of karate] became clearer. The combative context of kata was unlike anything I’d seen before. Travelling to Okinawa has given us the meaning behind what we do. As we get older, we search for more meaning behind what we do.”

Martial arts schools are driven, for better or worse, by the personality of their founders, or head instructors. Southern Cross Martial Arts is no exception.

“I want to know ‘why,” Damien explains. “When I asked questions about kata while training as a part of Zen Do Kai, they’d give me bullshit answers. For instance, I’d ask, ‘Why do you turn head during ‘saifa’ kata?”

“Because you’re listening for the enemy.’ I knew that was bullshit; ‘I just kicked him in the nuts, so know where he is.’ You keep asking questions until someone gives you the right answer.”

The right answer was delivered with characteristic diplomacy by Japanese Goju master, Taira sensei.

‘Because you’re grappling and move off centre line so you don’t get head-butted. Are you an idiot?”

Taira is the instructor that Damien and his cohorts return to the instruction of every year.

“Taira was a cop for about forty years and did a lot of work on Okinawa around the US military bases,” Damien says. “He’s had to deal with lots of big people.”

Geordie Lavers-McBain, head instructor of Black Dragon Kai, is a former Zen Do Kai instructor who has founded his own style, but has also explored the roots of Goju-Ryu.

“I wanted to go back to Goju to learn the kata properly. I went on a camp that Damien also attended and the instructor corrected a student’s kata, saying it had been changed. If everyone is changing it, then we need to go back to the source. Personally, I still find Goju kata interesting because I can relate to it.”

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This is a big call coming from a martial artist whose school’s primary focus is Muay Thai.

“Taira sensei is very good with applications for kata. Lots of BJC people felt they had been misled because Tino Ceberano and Bob Jones didn’t really know the applications. Yamaguchi never really trained properly in Okinawa, so he didn’t know, either.

“People want to get back to the truth. They want the most reliable source, to make sure they’re teaching the best version of it. Taira can trace things back to the kata. He creates that relevance. That’s what’s really intrigued the Zen Do Kai guys. I know that’s what really got Damien.”

Weapons training, known as Kobudo, has further enriched Damien’s understanding of his own practice.

“I did Kobudo with Zen Do Kai and it never made any sense whatsoever. Five years ago, on an Okinawan training trip, Taira sensei took us to the weapons school where he trains and said, ‘This will make your karate better.’ And it has. We’ve been working on it ever since, and we’re due to grade for our black belts in January of 2018.

“The understanding of body mechanics that comes with using weapons has improved our own body mechanics. I’d never want to use a nunchaku in a fight, but for building your hand-eye coordination and dexterity, the nunchaku is a good weapon.”

The difference between Okinawan karate and Japanese karate is significant, and especially relevant to an instructor like Damien.

“The Japanese focus more on sport karate, whereas the Okinawan approach is grounded more in self-defence. They tend to look down their noses as sport karate.”

This focus on self-defence and practical application is much closer to Damien’s own focus, and the trajectory of his own martial arts journey. Damien began training in the martial arts at the age of twelve.

“I was always obsessed with the martial arts, but there was no chance to train until I was twelve because there was nothing around. I grew up in Camperdown, in South-Western Victoria. A judo school opened there in 1982, and I did that for a couple of years.

“Zen Do Kai opened in Cobden, fifteen minutes away, and in 1984 I started training there. My judo instructor told me I couldn’t train in both and had to choose, so I chose karate.”

Again, the personality of the head instructor seemed to influence the development of the style.

“Goju Ryu was the origin of Zen Do Kai, from the Yamaguchi line. Yamaguchi was Tino Ceberano’s instructor, who in turn taught Bob Jones. All three were quite similar in their flamboyant and shall we say, creative characters.”

Damien’s own ascension to instructor status was just around the corner and came as a matter of circumstance, as well as dedication.

“In the summer of 1987 the instructor didn’t come back [from holidays], so I ended up running three schools. I was a brown belt [at the time]; I had no people skills and no clue.

“People were a mystery; all I knew was to train hard. Each school had about forty members and I managed to whittle that number down to about five in a matter of weeks.”

Damien didn’t lack in terms of passion or work ethic and once he was taken under the wing of senior instructor Billy Manne, he found balance and the membership of his schools were rejuvenated.

“I lifted the membership [at the schools] by becoming better at what I do,” he says. “The bottom line is, there are a lot of good martial artists who are bad teachers, and a lot of good teachers who are average martial artists.”

Damien graded for his black belt in December of 1987 and was soon running a total of nine Zen Do Kai schools throughout South-Western Victoria.

“I moved to Warrnambool in 1991 and opened a school. I got divorced and met my current wife shortly after that. After doing everything I could not to train her, [she became my student and] here we are, twenty-seven years later.”

From there, Damien opened a Zen Do Kai school in Ballarat at the request of Bob Jones himself.

“I was chuffed to have come to the attention of the founder so we packed up, moved to Ballarat and I opened my first full-time school. I was only there for a few years. I’d begun working in security. I also started doing a series of courses [in security]. This was before licenses, I might add.”

Working security in the time before licenses gives Damien extra credibility, having gained first-hand knowledge of the ‘bad old days.’

“The day I turned eighteen, I went to the Magistrate’s Court and got a guard agent’s license. I stood before the magistrate, swore I had read the act and could perform the duties required. I quit my government job to do it, much to my father’s disgust.”

Damien’s first job provided the opportunity to put his years of martial arts training to the test.

“I was working in Hamilton, which was so frontier there was only one nightclub in town. It was called ‘Gables.’ There was nothing there [in Hamilton] other than two football teams, and they dominated the social landscape.

“You couldn’t bounce there if you were a local. It was the sort of club where you took three shirts to work every night; they either got torn off or covered in blood.”

That sort of high-risk security work put a premium on effective self-defence technique. It was this kind of work that threw a light on Goju-Ryu as the effective bedrock of his training.

“[Goju places] a stronger emphasis on clinching, grappling and close-quarters work, and builds confidence in that range. You develop a tactile sensitivity; you tend to feel it before you see it. For example, wrist locks and arm bars. If you can see them, you’re [physically] too far away from the opponent.”

Security forced Damien to take swift inventory of his training, as well as the instructors it had come through.

“You’re taking Occam’s Razor to cut away the stuff that isn’t necessary,” he says. “People in the RBSD [reality-based self-defence] community say kata isn’t necessary, but I have to respectfully disagree with them.

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“Kata is a template for developing logical responses to an opponent’s actions or responses to your own action. It gives you knowledge of the pain withdrawal reflex. If you do something, your opponent is likely to do a particular thing. Your follow up needs to respond to that. Every action has a consequence and a reaction.”

Damien’s method demonstrates a talent for working beneath the surface of a system to extract the theory beneath. Coupled with a strong motivation for the pursuit of knowledge, he resolves the contradiction he identified earlier between good martial artists who can’t teach and good teachers whose martial arts skills are lacking.

“We work more [in terms of] principles, rather than technique. Instead of having wrist lock [number] one through six, we work more in terms of the principles of exploiting anatomical weaknesses; balance, posture, simple human biology and psychology.

“If you know how the body works, you can develop logical systems and responses. Most students are taller [than me] and have different physiques, so different things will work [for them]. You have to learn to fight for your body type.”

Damien’s return to Okinawa has done a lot to place that knowledge in its original context.

“Old-school Karate was reality-based self-defence. After the war, in order to make a living teaching Americans, [the Okinawans] changed the nature of the activity. That said, modern techniques are no different; the human body can only move so many ways.”

Reality-based self-defence has become a legitimate extension of Southern Cross Martial Arts, with Damien formulating and delivering courses to a number of government agencies.

“From 2001 to 2014, we put together a training program for the Queensland government in ‘Aggressive behaviour management’. We facilitated the training of the instructor who conducted over eighty thousand training episodes with them using the RBSD model. It has evolved over time to make it safer without sacrificing ‘reality.”

This could mean any number of things and Damien is quick to clarify.

“It’s important to sanitise the environment and train the participants effectively. You can’t just put them in a suit and tell them to be a bad guy because once you’re armoured, it’s pretty hard to lose. People get hurt that didn’t need to be hurt, instead of instilling confidence.”

Physical contact is not necessarily instrumental in creating a realistic scenario.

“You can create realism by screaming,” says Damien. “Jim Armstrong can do it. He doesn’t even have to touch you to create that adrenal response. It’s often more effective to do that, rather than putting armour on and letting people fight.”

Structured progression through a series of identifiable thresholds is important.

“We start with verbal scenarios first to build up confidence, often starting with verbal insults. Verbal abuse is often used to shock you to set you up for something else afterwards. Then, we teach people to perform a dynamic risk assessment. That provides an opportunity to practice a skill.

“We’ve been introducing verbal-oriented de-escalation techniques with youth justice workers, which is the same model as what we used with Queensland Health. It’s reportedly reduced ‘use of force’ incidents by eighty-eight percent. The bottom line is, if you’ve got confidence in a technique, you’ll use it.”

Damien’s passion for ongoing education has taken some unlikely turns, including his graduate certificate in autism studies.

“Once I discovered I was autistic, I thought I should find out a bit more about it. Autism is not a disability, it’s just a different operating system… [something like the] difference between Mac and PC.

“[Autistic children] have a different view of world, straight out of the box. They demonstrate obsessive behaviours on given subjects and tend to have difficulty processing social cues. We often [identify] kids before their parents have realised. We recognise the behaviours. ‘We need to be a bit more careful with this one’.

“Forty percent of the kids at our school are on the spectrum. The only difference with them is that they require more patience. It’s not about reduced expectations; we just delay those expectations. We don’t treat them like they’re broken, because they’re not.

“We’re putting together courses for the industry at the moment to help people deliver ethical training to kids on the spectrum. Lots of kids are often excluded for a lack of skills and graces, if you like. Our goal is to address some of that and provide a quality outcome.”

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