Sensei Dirk Heene interview

Interviewer: Jose Alberto Pinheiro (2005)

Born in Belgium in 1948, Dirk Heene Sensei started karate when he was 17 years old. He has been a member of the of the Belgian National Team from 1970 to 1980 and graduated with a Physical Education teacher’s degree from the University of Ghent in 1972. During his career, he had the opportunity to train with several renowned instructors, but it would be with Master Taiji Kase that he would develop his strongest relation. After many years under his wing, he became one of Kase’s Sensei most trusted students and has been an instrumental piece in establishing the Shotokan Ryu Kase Ha reputation around the world. Carrying on his shoulders the wealthy heritage that his master passed to him, he now assumes the responsibility for the perpetuation and development of master Taiji Kase’s Sensei teachings. His tremendous reputation as a remarkable Shotokan pedagogue precedes him and he is now one of the most respected karate-ka in the world, occupying the charge of Executive Coordinator of the Shotokan Ryu Kase Has Instructors Academy and teaching regularly at the Belgian Karate Shotokan Academy as well as abroad.

What was it that attracted you to karate back in 1965?
I was already involved in sports and I was quite active. I was practicing Judo, but the atmosphere, the way of working and the demonstrations I saw in karate were very impressive. By that time, in Belgium there was only Wado Ryu and a little bit of Kyokushinkai. The spirit of this last one was very tough and hard. Some time later, I saw Sensei Kase on a demonstration he gave in my country, but I was not yet involved in Shotokan Karate. I could see that it was completely different and I felt like: I want to do this! I saw the method, I saw the building up, I saw the man, that was it. But I was too young and could not afford (moneywise) to travel to the big towns like Brussels and other places where Sensei was teaching.

What was the biggest difference between Kyokushinkai and Shotokan that you have noticed and that impelled you to make the shift from one “style” to the other?
It was the method. It was a different approach. The way I saw it, Kyokushinkai was only tough, only the strong and rough way of working. Then, in Shotokan I saw the method. I was studying physical education and that point was attracting me.

You spent some time in Japan during the seventies. Can you please tell us a bit about that experience and how it has affected your perception of karate?
In 1973 I was in Japan by the occasion of the World Championships as a member of the Belgian team. To got to Japan and train karate over there was one of my targets, because it was the Mecca of Karate. We went there under the leadership of Sensei Miyazaki, who was actually the chief of Japan Karate Association instructor for Belgium.What attracted me in Japan was the completely different mentality. Everything was more, harder and more intensive. For that reason, the Japanese were a lot better than we were. And I mean, a lot better is… roughly said: More Japanese were better than we were. We were only a small group and we saw so many good Karate guys in Japan that time.

Speaking about Sensei Miyazaki, many people know him only by reputation and particularly the younger generation of Karate-ka seem to know very little about whom he was and what he represented to the development of Karate in Europe. Can you please share with us some impressions about him?
Originally, Sensei Kase was assigned to teach for half time in Belgium and the Netherlands. The other half of the contract was to teach in France. After a couple of years the contract finished and he had to decide what he would do. He had chosen to remain in France. We had no teacher in Belgium, and that was the opportunity fro Sensei Miyazaki to come over here at the invitation of the Belgium Judo Federation (Karate was part of it).In that period, he was the only one in Belgium that I could reach. He was in Brussels and I was at the university and travelled everywhere he was teaching. So, I was very close to him. He was a very good instructor, because he was a very good example. His technique was very fine and very precise; his positioning was perfect at all the time. His first aim was specially kihon, a lot of kihon and then there was mostly jyu kumite, there was not so many kihon ippon and such (It was always the same system: kihon, ippon kumite, jyu ippon kumite and jyu kumite. Then, when we were in the team, there was a split between kumite and kata people). But everybody did kata.By that time I was spending more time travelling on the train and in the dojos than at the university. So it was hard for me to study as well because I had to work very hard, but I was very lucky.

You have integrated the Beglium Team from 1970 to 1980. Which were the best experiences that you recall from those days?
The most important point was, of course, the challenge. To stay in the national team you had to win the nationals and you had to win a lot of championships in order to be selected. So, I had to win or at least to be in the best places, for kata and kumite. In that time there was not the real slplit between kata and kumite.What impressed me the most was travelling to the 1973 World Championships in Japan. After that, we stayed for some courses and I was always looking forward to them. The 1975 Los Angeles World Championship and the 1977 World Championships (again in Tokyo) were the “big events”. Then, every year there was the European Championship and lots of international meetings, like Belgium/Germany, Belgium/Italy, Belgium/England. There was always strong fighting, strong atmosphere and some tension. Afterwards there was a very nice atmosphere, especially when we could drink together. The socialising, having some fun, drinks, sharing some jokes, the experiences all together were very nice. It was a total experience, not only the training, but also the championships, the tension. Even when we were in events like the World Championships, we would be coaching and supporting other European teams. It was like a championship between continents. That was a nice experience. But most of all, I enjoyed the international trainings.

What do you think about the present state of traditional Karate competition? The ITKF vs WKF issue and all it implies?
Well, it is a very important thing to seek progress in Karate. Talking about differences and developments. In the ITKF the rules are very determined by the Japanese instructors, there is nobody else making determinations about it. In the other competition, the rules are organised and set up by different countries, not only by the Japanese. So in the ITKF, and what they call Traditional Karate, I see specially the techniques from the older times and the skills from the Japanese instructions.In the WKF I see a development and a more flexible and dynamic Karate. At this moment they can’t agree with each other, they even cannot fight each other.

In a recent interview, Sensei Nishiyama stated that the WKF has rules but not clear definition of the techniques. What do you think about it?
It’s a very delicate situation, because on one side they care about the score and not so much about the position and other related elements. So, you can kick or punch and if the heel is on the floor or not (for example) you still get the point. Meanwhile, on the other side you need to have the heel on the floor, body rotation, etc. But before you have this in a competition it is very difficult and also, very dangerous. So, the lighter the contacts, and by lighter I don’t mean soft, I mean just touch and go (like fencing), too look into so many details becomes very complicated. For the competitors, referees and spectators. It is very difficult to observe and to see clearly: Oh, Yes! That was a point. What we see is that people are refraining from a flexible and dynamic Karate by all those rules. In the WKF we have a more flexible line, it might not have such nice techniques like in the Traditional way, but you see a lot of spectacular movements. So, for the public, competitors and referees it is a more attractive way of watching competition.

It is known that there was a very special relation between you and master Kase, can you please tell us a bit about how it begun?
Well, we organised Summer courses at the university of Ghent, Belgium. I was involved on it and we invited Japanese instructors together with Sensei Miyazaki. Sensei Kase came over to teach for several times and also Sensei Enoeda, Sensei Shirai and other Japan Karate Association instructors. But I also travelled regularly to Paris (within the possibilities I had) and that was when I was with Sensei Kase alone for three days. I remember the first time I went to the Christmas course at the Dojo of Mr Plee (European Karate Pioneer). There I trained with Sensei Kase, and he looked after us. We could sleep at the Dojo, we didn’t have to pay and he always covered our backs. This was because he knew we had no money and were just students. He was always that kind of a lovely man. But it was what he was teaching and how he was teaching, that impressed me. He brought us really up to a different level and when I came back to Belgium I felt like I was reformed.We were used to the repetition way. Miyazaki Sensei showed and we did it, but the progress was not always clear. But when I came back from a course with Sensei Kase, I felt like a completely different person. The impact of Sensei Kase on the instruction, especially at that time, was great. He was a lot younger, let’s say around 37 or 38 years old. It was impressive, both I and my partners could feel it. Even a lot later, when I was still training with Sensei Kase, people often asked me: Have you been with Sensei Kase this weekend? They could feel there was something different about me, the techniques, but specially, the energy and the approach.

Was there any key moment when you realized that he was your ideal teacher and you would be learning from him for the rest of your life?
What was special about this man was his motivation. Many people spoke about a different dimension in traditional Karate training. Through the katas, kumite and we were training to achieve it, to find a different dimension, a fourth dimension. A different sensation and a different approach. For example, feeling that something is wrong and knowing how to act. Using, for instance, techniques in advance, without touching your opponent in order to influence the outcome of the situation, and things like that. So, he was going for that level. To reach an extremely high level in human capacities. Not only in a physical way, but also in a spiritual way. That was the approach he was more interested in. We talked a lot about it, over and over. He had that great interest in developing people in a spiritual way, a deep way, using the breathing, contraction, different elements like how to catch an opponent, how to make him move a certain way, how to attract him, trap him, but without touching! It was a very interesting experience. Also, he built up a method to take physical contact and mechanical techniques to a different dimension, even in one course. So, he was a man who knew the methods to reach for that different dimension. Many people only saw the techniques and the mechanics, but very few people understood the development to a different level. Sometimes there were a lot of strange combinations. Your capacity changed, because you were concentrating yourself on that. Concentrating on your breathing, your tension, your movements, your opponent.  Sometimes the trainings were very hard, with very hard contacts but in other occasions there was very deep feeling of changing.

In your opinion, what was the most important contributions that Master Kase has given to Karate?
Clearly and surely, for me, whatever other people may say, he made Shotokan Karate progress to a different level. When we speak of traditional Karate we always do the same things that people did before, that is what we believe to be traditional. But traditional has a different meaning. It means to keep the traditional values of karate and to bring them to a higher level, and not keep them where they are. Otherwise, we would still be living in the middle ages. He opened the door. He was reading a lot and gathered a lot of information to use in favour of Karate progress. In twenty years he brought Shotokan Karate to a different level. He brought up my personal kime and feeling to a different level. Very specially, we must remember the independence he brought to Karate, the non political aspect. I feel that very strongly, now that everybody asks me: What will we do now without Sensei Kase? I say: Carry on. But not doing politics. Everybody wants to organize something and to make some association but I say: We stay at school, we stay at the academy and you can go wherever you want, any association, this is freedom. And that is the most important point. He changed Shotokan Karate, from when I started and every time I was training with him there was a different aspect he was studying and progressing very deeply. He said to me: Funokoshi Sensei brought Karate from 1923 to Japan and until he died, he and his son developed Shotokan Karate greatly. And what happened since that time? We only kept what we had. And we still do the same Karate. Yesterday I saw some films of the katas and they are still the same. But how we do the bunkai and how we carry the study of these katas, how we use the energy – its completely different. And that was a deep study from a very important professor who was Sensei Kase.

Kase Sensei studied Astrology to find comparative points with the Karate instruction. Can you please tell us a bit more about this?
He was obsessed by Astrology and by watching the stars. In Shintoism there are a lot of energetic points in the stars and they concentrate on certain stars which have a certain number. So he was interested to study about energy. That was his point: energy. How to increase vitality? To load you up, like you can load yourself up with a crystal and use some drugs to kick yourself up! Some people kick themselves by using meditation or by using some crystals, like quartz or amethyst for example. Or you can have some light, some stars. And there were some stars that people know that had a special energy and he was just studying about it; empirical experience.If its full moon, you feel different, it is closer. If the sun is shining you feel different, its very close, if its not shining there is a different energy. But so many stars are out there, and influenced many so strongly, for so many time. Many people say: Well, they are so far away, there is no influence. Maybe. But in certain knowledge, stars are no still leading the people, in the oceans to see the north, this and that like the Big Bear, is a very important star in every history because it is so clear in the sky and every people is watching it. By watching it you get the energy coming from there, it gives you a special energy. If people are emotional, if they love each other, they go and sit watching the stars, under the influence and enjoy emotional feelings. So he said: This is happening. Why not use this kind of energy for Karate? He didn’t defend any extreme points or even pointed them out in a concrete way… But he was studying it.

Nowadays a big interest and research about the history of Karate is emerging all over the world. It seems like there is a demand to go back to the roots in order to better understand our present and future situation. What are your views about this phenomenon?
It’s a sign of the times. It is very clear that since religion and many other things are changing, people are searching for values. People who are practicing Karate see the mysterious, spiritual and philosophical background and they want to know where it came from, what is its origin. What was the origin of religion, from this and that. The necessity of going back to the past is a very recent phenomenon not only in Karate. Look for example at the interest for the middle ages, where people dress up like medieval knights and do games and other things just like 400 years ago. So, it’s a general interest. But also, I think there is so much confusion and when you get older you want to know: What are we doing? What is the real value? Why did people do so? Who was this person who started this? So they want to know more about the roots, and I think that’s why they study. But we have very few information.

One of the points that are commonly pointed as a fragility in Shotokan, is the limited amount of knowledge about kata application principles It is known that Funakoshi sensei often sent his most senior students to learn Kata under the guidance of Master Mabuni, and indeed a great deal of the “modern Shotokan Kata syllabus” was introduced to his students by this master. It is debatable, but many students ask if the Shotokan Karate-ka have ever had the sufficient training to master these katas, and point this as a plausible reason for some “confusion” that might be involved on the “Shotokanisation” of these rituals. What do you think about it?
Well, I think that firstly, the big gap is the Second World War. A lot of instructors who knew about the situation were killed in the war. After the world war they started up with the katas, they remembered and memorised them, but they forgot the applications, they were not related to the applications from Okinawa. They just took over the katas. It was only a lot later, and I’m talking about around the 70’s, probably 1975 that some instructors made some research about these katas. And I know Sensei Shirai went back to Okinawa to study about this. And Sensei Kase and Sensei Shirai tried to develop and to restore a lot of information about katas. And they still do now, well, Sensei Shirai is still doing it now. Looking to progress and to search for more. But much information is lost. So, many instructors only stick to the katas and made their own interpretations of the applications. But if they are still connected with the original katas: I don’t know. Personally, I like to train for example with people like Julian Mead from England, who is a very well known Kobudo trainer but also very good in karate. And there are some instructors who are still connected with the original applications of the katas and I try to study with them, to research and to introduce it to the Shotokan kata. If not, all the knowledge is lost. So we have to restore, to research what might have been, but we will never be sure because there are no documents left.

How is your personal approach to the study of kata?
Well, personally I think that everything starts and ends with kata. In the kata there is the form, it is the bible. And from these kata techniques you take out some kumite applications, we can study the kumite applications and try to increase the skill and then go back to the kata with the knowledge of the kumite. Then the content of your kata becomes a complete different aspect. And that is my personal opinion: Kata is the beginning and end or Karate.

Can you please tell us the formation of the Shotokan Ryu Kase Ha Instructors Academy?
The objective of the academy is to develop Shotokan Karate and to develop the personal skill and let’s say personality, after the level of sandan. Until sandan we can have the usual karate training with the competitions and everything involved. But after that, if you want to progress, what is the way to go? Do you become a referee? Do you get involved in an organisation or in in leading some kind of association or federation? Or how can you progress? This is the task of the academy. A kind of Karate University for Shotokan people.The creation of the Shihankai was made in order to organise and advice, a technical committee to support Sensei Kase in his later days. We talked about this with several instructors after his heart attack in 2000. So, we were working together with him. And he was the only instructor who was so open minded that he agreed to have a Shihankai around him. I took care to make the selection of people who were very active in the last ten years around Sensei Kase and that understood him very well. Who were in my opinion, in the same direction and that were able to continue even if Sensei Kase was no longer here, which happens now. Now we have the task and we have to organise ourselves because this is just overwhelming us now, it’s just coming in like a lightening that Sensei Kase passed away. Because he was on his progress after his illness, and he was planning to do some actions again and to organise this Shihankai and a larger group around him, all the 5th and 6th dans in special seminars, to pass through his knowledge and especially to increase the level of this group. So now its up to ourselves to increase and develop our skills with the knowledge we got from Sensei Kase and in my opinion we just have about 20–30 of information and skill, so we still have to work out 70.

What are your main objectives and future plans?
What I would like to see is first of all: to bring up and to keep Sensei Kase development in the Shotokan and not let it pass away just like he did. So, not only to keep his memory, but also his training skills and methods. The second point is to reorganise the academy. We have a valuable group of progressing people with the possibility to grade, and grant diplomas and everybody is proud to be on that group.
Thank you very much Sensei.

Sensei Heene (centre) with Sensei Cattle (left)