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Michael Randall - An Interview

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

With close on forty years' karate training Sensei Randall is one of the first Karate practitioners in this country. He is a shy, quiet man of slight stature but beneath the calm exterior lies a man of steel, tempered by years of arduous training. A true gentleman, this humble master has sought neither fame nor fortune and few have been so selfless in the pursuit of their art nor shown such a true understanding of karate-do.

AK: Sensei, were you a sporty type at school?

Michael Randall: No, sports didn't interest me much as I was, and still am, small and lightweight. I had played cricket at school and was a reasonable wicket keeper, having decent reactions and good timing, two attributes which would stand me in good stead for what was going to change my life.

AK: What was it that attracted you to karate?

Michael Randall: I suppose it was the intrigue of the unknown because in those days there were only two Shotokan dojos in the country, one in London and one in Liverpool . I actually started by chance when I was introduced to it by a friend and work colleague who wanted to start training. All I can say is that once I saw it I knew I wanted to do it.

AK: Who was your first instructor?

Michael Randall: Vernon Bell and he was the first Englishman to attain Shodan in Shotokan karate. However, in those days most instruction was given by brown belts because black belts were such a rarity. In my case I was instructed by Terry Wingrove and Jimmy Neale, both very good karateka and we were instructed at the Horseshoe public house dojo in Clerkenwell, London . Vernon Bell was scrupulous in vetting all who wished to join in those early days and one had to come up with two character references, one of which had to come from a professional person. You then had to sit in on a few sessions just to watch and prove you really wanted to study the art. After a verbal character assessment you were then asked to sign a declaration of Oath and Allegiance and obtain a medical certificate to prove you were fit enough to train. Finally after paying two guineas (two pounds ten pence) membership, we were finally allowed to start training.

AK: What were your impressions upon entering a dojo the first time?

Michael Randall: They were mixed. Conditions were very spartan. There were no changing rooms, no luxuries! We didn't dare speak. I was very impressed by what I saw, knew it was right for me and that I wanted to do it. I was in awe of it. I thought here was something I can do for myself, where I can be in control of my own destiny. There was something else too, hard to explain, but I immediately felt at one with it, a sense of belonging. In his dojo were about twelve to fifteen students who trained very physically for about an hour and a half in simple basic combinations kata and one step sparring. He was a hard, usually fair and likeable, but he had a peculiar side to his nature. I am eternally in his debt for his early instruction has stood me in good stead and formed a good foundation from which my karate could grow. Single-handedly he introduced karate into this country and put it firmly on the map. It was essential he laid good foundations both with his teachings and those he selected to teach.

AK: Did those impressions change when you first put on your gi?

Michael Randall: No. By then I had been training for a while because when I started I wore a jogging suit as I was unable to purchase a gi locally. Believe it or not but my mother made my first gi for me.

AK: Have you tried any other martial arts?

Michael Randall: No. If you have already found what you like and what suits your body, why go looking for an alternative? The best martial art is the one which suits the practitioner of that art the best. In the eyes of an experienced martial artist there can be no best art, only differences between one and another in attaining the same goals.

AK: I know you've followed Sensei Kanazawa through the years. How did you first come to train with him?

Michael Randall: Vernon Bell received a group of Japanese instructors who were travelling around the world teaching and in the group were Senseis Kase, Enoeda, Shira, and Kanazawa. I was in total awe. I had only ever seen one black belt and here I was training with four Japanese black belts. After touring the rest of England the group left Sensei Kanazawa behind to develop Shotokan karate in the UK. He is so impressive, fast, strong, supple, and ultra-fit. His understanding of karate is second to none. Some of his techniques were spectacularly amazing like his jumping side kicks and his unique butterfly kick! When I first met Sensei his English skills were not good but through demonstration, repetition and through his communication skills it transcended any language barrier. Even now in his seventies he is still a brilliant karateka, an inspiration to all.

AK: Any amusing anecdotes you could share with us, about him?

Michael Randall: Yes. He would tell us all sorts of stories. Once he recalled how he had been despatched to fetch Funakoshi in a taxi from the railway station. On the return journey he was looking at Funakoshi and was thinking if this old man in front of him was actually still any good at karate, indeed could he even block an attack. Funakoshi just looked at him and said “You can try if you like!”. Sensei never forgot that incident, how did he even know what he was thinking? He always referred to Funakoshi as a great master.

There was a phase in our training when it became the fashion to have your name in Japanese on you gi and sensei used to do it for us. No British name translates directly into Japanese and sensei translated mine to Randori, which in judo means freestyle, this pleased me. He also wrote on my friend Ray Fuller's gi and we later found out that he had written "naked woman" due to Ray's eye for the ladies. This shows the other side to his nature, for he really has got a wicked sense of humour.

AK: Any other musing tales from those early days?

Michael Randall: Well. I remember we used to train on the works roof in the summer, which was opposite Guys Hospital . One day Ray was on the roof practising and one of the nurses saw him frantically throwing his arms and legs about and never having witnessed karate before, presumed him to be a madman. Unbeknown to Ray a policeman came up on the roof via a trapdoor and tapped him on the shoulder. In reflex Ray spun around and hit him. Ray got the sack, not for hitting the policeman but for practising karate when he should have been working.

AK: Which other Japanese instructors have you trained with?

Michael Randall: Over the years I have been instructed by many Japanese karateka and the first was Master Hiroo Mochizuki, who was the first to venture into Europe . He was the son of Master Minori Mochizuki, the famous Aikidoka. I remember how much his karate impressed me, probably because it was the first Japanese I had seen doing it but it seemed to me he was in a different league. It was just his strong, crisp techniques but the way he conducted himself. He was a true gentleman, educated and refined, from a better class than some of those who were to follow. I also trained with Master Tetsuji Murakami, a small man, third dan and absolutely fabulous. He was the most supple man I had ever seen. In May of 1964 Kazuo Nagai came over for a visit. Later, through the years, I have been trained by many Japanese instructors- Takahashi, Kase, Enoeda, Hirai, Asano, and Kato to name but a few.

AK: Do you still believe the Japanese to be the best?

Michael Randall: Most definitely. That is because they are still maintaining the art, rather than the sport, which is commonly the case nowadays. It is the only way to improve and the only way to continue training into one's latter years.

AK: How much do you practice freestyle?

Michael Randall: It is important but only as a transitional phase. It is a need in us all. When you are young it is very important to you but you go through it and come out the other end. Once you have competed at whatever level, you need to move on because in the long term it is not important. Perhaps that's the paradox. It is much more important and necessary to return to basics and kata. This will not only improve one's techniques but more importantly through years of diligent practise will enhance one as a human being.

AK: What experiences of freestyling with the Japanese have you?

Michael Randall: Well through the years I have of course freestyled with Kanazawa Sensei, Enoeda sensei, and on many occasions with Asano sensei who used to come to our dojo once a month to teach. His freestyle was just excellent, what else can I say? The Japanese used the freestyle to test how we were developing and I used to get kicked all around the dojo but I had no problem with that. It was probably what had been done to them and they were just passing it on. It's just another way of teaching.

In 1972 I represented England against an all styles Japanese team at Crystal Palace . I remember the guy I drew being very tall for a Japanese, just my luck with the lack of height to get the tallest one! As I recall I shocked him. I just lashed out with a gyaku-zuki and there it was, I'd scored the first half point. It was more luck than judgement I think and I didn't last long after that because after a flurry of combinations I'd lost the bout.

AK: How has training changed since those early days, and is it for the better?

Michael Randall: In most ways training is safer now because more is understood about how the human body performs in relation to karate. In those days some things we did to our bodies were really ill-advised, too many bunny hops, walking in bunny hop position, press ups on the back of your hands, damaged knees and wrists. In other ways training is not as good. Hour upon hour of repetitious training was the norm and people today wouldn't stand for it, they want more variety and to progress too quickly. I am concerned that karate is becoming just about getting another belt. Physically the training is less demanding too. Training to exhaustion used to be the usual practice and if you weakened you suffered the consequences. Today, perhaps correctly, people wouldn't put up with it.

AK: What is your understanding of karate-do and who in your opinion best epitomises it?

Michael Randall: That's a very deep, difficult one. My belief is it means the way of karate, which is to say through karate training the objective is to better oneself through many hours of hard endeavour. A true understanding can not be explained. Enlightenment will only come through repeated diligent practice of the art. When enlightenment arrives one should be more tolerant, forgiving, respectful, considerate and understanding of others. Of course for me Kanazawa best epitomises the art and the do.

AK: Do you think Karate benefits all?

Michael Randall: Yes. I certainly do, as a way of keeping fit and it gives us a higher moral approach to life, becoming more respectful and tolerant. Young and old achieve more self determination and self belief. If one is both diligent and dedicated karate can be a refuge in times of adversity.

AK: Why do you feel there is such a high drop out in karate?

Michael Randall: Many children leave too readily to take up the next fad or craze. Regrettably we also lose those who show genuine potential. Career moves and relationship breakdowns count for many too. Some just realise they are not cut out for it once it becomes difficult or repetitive.

AK: Should we make karate more attractive to them?

Michael Randall: No, certainly not! Unfortunately karate has come a long way from Funakoshi's karate and what he intended. Let those who don't like what we do play football or something else!

AK: Have you ever felt like giving up?

Michael Randall: NEVER!! That is the simple truth. It has never ever crossed my mind.

AK: How and when were you graded shodan?

Michael Randall: I was graded shodan by Kanazawa Sensei in 1967 at the Blackfriars dojo. My shodan grading was a private affair with only me grading at the time. I remember doing particularly gruelling basics then freestyling against three people consecutively. My chosen kata was Enpi which was influenced by Kanazawa Sensei. I also had to demonstrate some bunkai from it. Nowadays students have their dan grading much easier, knowing exactly what is required in advance.

AK: In those days didn't you have a formal syllabus then?

Michael Randall: No, not as rigidly as we do now. We only really knew which our chosen kata would be and what format the grading would take. Sensei always seamed to make the grading up as he went along. Possibly we have become too formalised and leave too little for the unexpected.

AK: Do you think all karateka should strike makawara pads etc?

Michael Randall: Yes, I think the best way to feel a technique is to strike something to detect one's weaknesses. It is a good way to train but I only recommend it for adult senior grades, not for juniors or lower grades due to the derogatory effect it might have on either their body or their technique.

AK: What are your happiest and saddest memories of training?

Michael Randall: I have so many happy memories but my saddest memory is the loss of a dear friend and training colleague, Eddie Whitcher. Regrettably he died from cancer ten years ago. Eddie used to train with us in the early days and he was over six feet tall, strong, supple, fast, dynamic, everything that is good about karate. I never even contemplated getting a black belt when I started karate and when I got it, it was nice but the happiest grading experience was getting third dan because in Kanazawa 's eyes that was when you became a junior instructor. So that was a truly significant, satisfying and memorable day for me.

AK: How did you come to leave the BKF?

Michael Randall: Having trained with Sensei Kanazawa nearly every day for a year we missed him dreadfully when he went back to Germany to teach. We felt in limbo and after a meeting which had been very heated we adjourned to the pub with the lads from Liverpool . It was then the idea of the KUGB was born. Not knowing how to set up an association we persuaded Kanazawa to come back to teach us and head it.

In 1973 he formed SKI and we dutifully followed. But sadly due to his world wide pull we saw him much less, so in 1979 along with John Van Weenen, Mick Nursey Roger Hall and Harry Jones we set up ESKA. It was a huge step for us. In 1984 I left to form SHOTO my own organisation.

I don't think fragmentation is inevitable, just an unfortunate fact of life. People do change and so do situations, sometimes beyond our control. Karate breeds expansion, growth both individually and collectively. I don't believe in politics just karate-do and it would be nice if we could all get along but then again it's not an ideal world is it?

AK: How important are grades and goals to you?

Michael Randall: Grades are not important to me, but to continually strive to improve particular techniques is still important, aspiring towards small, individual goals. Karate allows you to continually improve and strive for betterment. I suppose karate ambition must be to aim to beat your previous best.

AK: Do you still train dally and how important is realism?

Michael Randall: I still enjoy my daily training but as one gets older one's training has to change, to still derive benefit from it without negative side effects and damaging one's body. When training individually or collectively it should always he realistic, with determination, strength, force and spirit. I can honestly say I have no ambitions left in karate except to continue training as long as possible and to emulate Kanazawa sensei's way and manner for as long as God is willing.

AK: Is traditional karate a realistic form of self defence?

Michael Randall: If practised with sincerity and spirit both regularly and realistically, it is an excellent form of self defence suiting all body types. I regret though that many karate-ka are not training traditionally and in that instance may be deluding themselves and possibly leading to a false sense of security but, that is their concern, not mine.

AK: If Karate were accepted into the Olympics what would it do for you, me and karate?

Michael Randall: Positively, karate would gain more media exposure, it may heighten public awareness of our art and maybe bring in a few more practitioners. If not handled correctly it could dilute our traditional ways still further and degenerate competition into a game of tig even more so.

AK: What has karate given you over all these years?

Michael Randall: A simple answer is everything. You will only get out of karate what you put into it and that is the most important lesson. There are no secrets in karate you have to live it and experience it to discover all it has to offer. After all these years health for a start, I was a very sickly child, a chronic asthmatic. It has given me my physical strength and also an inner strength of character through my years of training. It has given me my friends and the reason to travel. It has given me all I have and made me what I am. I am not materialistic and money doesn't bother me. However I consider myself to be rich, not wealthy, I feel rich inside. I have a wealth of friends and experiences given to me by karate.

AK: Sensei I cannot thank you enough for sharing your time with me and taking the trouble to answer my questions.

Michael Randall: No Mr Kidby, thank you. OSS !!


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