An Interview with Richard Barrett Sensei
by Garry Lever (2012)

For many years I have wanted to interview my teacher Richard Barrett sensei, but as anybody who knows him very well will appreciate, he is not particularly forthcoming when it comes to matters which involve him being the center of attention. In fact, to this day, the only time that I have ever seen him perform an entire kata was when we were in Okinawa and Kinjo Seikichi sensei asked us all to perform a kata for him one at a time. My teacher is usually far too private to ever 'show off' in such a way.

As I have said before, many of the ideas which found their way onto the pages of the articles in this and my other books came from various discussions that I had with my sensei. I say discussions, but actually these usually consisted of me listening while he talked and I would then steal his ideas and write them down. I always learnt a lot from these discussions and enjoyed greatly hearing about his experiences in Okinawa, training with Miyazato Eiichi sensei. Having never had this opportunity myself, I used these stories to appreciate what such experiences must have been like and tried to extract the lessons contained within them. It is my hope that through this interview, other people will be able to find equal inspiration and value in their Karatedo through the advice and opinions of my teacher.

GL: How did you come to first be involved in Karate?

RB: I first started training during the Bruce Lee boom. In 1974 my father took me to a hired school hall and I started Kyushindo Karate which I believe was started in England by Kenshiro Abe, a famous Judo sensei. The class was led by a brown belt instructor but because it was quite large, green belts taught the beginners and the brown belt taught the rest. Training was twice a week and I think that this was how most people started their Karate training back in the 70s in England. One year later I found Goju ryu at another town only 10 miles from my house and became hooked on this style. This was also being taught by a brown belt, but the classes were much smaller and Goju was quite new to England at that time.

GL: What prompted you to first travel to Japan?

RB: I visited Japan for the first time in 1981, travelling to Tokyo and the Shurinkai Dojo of Morio Higaonna sensei. In England I was a member for a short period of the I.O.G.K.F, and as a keen student I went to any course that was open to me to better my Goju Ryu, but on a few occasions my instructors, in my opinion, let themselves down. One time an 'instructor' had a display in his office of his 'trophies', which were ladies underwear! Another 'instructor' during a class taught us the value of correct breathing and then after training retired to the bar for a smoke! Some people found these examples funny, I found them sad, and I also found it hard to call these people 'sensei'. I knew that there must be more to Karate than this. I had read whatever books I could find and they all pointed to more, but I wasn't finding it in England so my search took me to Tokyo.

GL: What were the biggest challenges presented to you during your time in Tokyo?

RB: In the early 80s there wasn't the internet as we have it now or email, or even much information about where to go or how to get there at all. I booked an open flight at a travel agent with a Russian Airline to Tokyo, wrote a letter to the dojo and another letter to the Kimi Ryokan hostel to book a room, but never got a reply from either of them. I bought a map of Japan and another of Tokyo, and when the time came, a friend and I packed our rucksacks and set off. Friends of mine had gone one year earlier and gave us a lot of verbal advice, but when we landed in Japan we may as well have landed on another planet. Somehow we made it to Tokyo Central train station with thousands of black haired shorter people marching all around us. All the signs were in kanji and we hadn't got a clue about anything! We looked at one another and seemed stuck yet we had only just arrived! We stood there for what seemed an eternity.

Thankfully a kind Japanese gentleman saw these two lost gaijin and helped us with his pigeon English to find where we hoped we would be staying. For two young men, this and all the other trials that we came across during this trip made the whole experience one big learning curve. The dojo was the one place that I felt at home. Everything we had to do for ourselves was a real test, we had no one to help us, and everything that happened until we arrived back at Heathrow airport two months later was an experience.

GL: Could you please describe what the training was like at the Yoyogi Dojo under Higaonna sensei?

RB: The training was extremely hard. Back in England we thought we trained hard but this was different in that I probably tried too hard and didn't pace myself. As a consequence I would run out of steam after about 40 minutes. The training consisted of junbi undo, then kihon from heiko dachi, always 100 techniques, followed by 100 push-ups and then maybe 100 uke waza, followed by 100 sit-ups. This was followed by kihon ido, mae geri, mawashi geri, etc, followed by squats. Then kote kitae, sandan gi or kumite, and possibly followed by repetition of a kata. The pace of the class was much faster than I was used to and I remember trying my best to avoid doing so, but inevitably looking up at the clock only to find that I still had another hour left to survive.

Morio Higaonna sensei was in his 40s and extremely impressive, very powerful looking, and we all wanted to be able to replicate his technique. The classes were all identical, and I did always question myself on the way to each class, asking myself did I really want to do this? Experiences like this, I now know, do help to mold you as a person; you just don't feel like that at the time (laughs). I left training in Tokyo with the advice to put on more weight as during kumite I was regularly flattened by the seniors as I only weighed 10 ½ stone at the time. I also grew a lot more confident from the whole journey, but I still hadn't found what I was looking for.

Richard Barrett - Tokyo 1981
Richard Barrett (far left) with other karateka at the entrance of Higaonna Sensei's dojo.
(Tokyo, 1981)

GL: What led you to Okinawa and the Jundokan Dojo?

RB: I went to Okinawa four years later, after being promoted to sandan in England with the I.K.U. The reason for my visit was that from my studies I had gained a lot of questions and I thought that the answers must be in the birth place of Goju Ryu. So I booked an open ticket to Naha Okinawa, this time with China Airways. Armed with another map, I first stayed at the Naha Youth Hostel and within a day or so, found the dojo of the Yagi family. In Okinawa at the time there was, to my knowledge, 3 main groups of Goju Ryu; each headed by the three main students of Miyagi Chojun sensei, namely the Higa dojo, the Yagi dojo, and the Miyazato dojo. This was what I believed at the time and I knew that Morio Higaonna had come from the Miyazato dojo so I decided to try another type of Goju Ryu in the form of the Yagi school. I went to some classes there for the first two weeks of my stay in Okinawa, training twice a week, and the students and teachers were all very friendly. The Goju was a little different in flavor to what I was used to, but something happened that didn't sit very well with me which caused me to leave. It was implied to me that, should I continue with them, I could become a yondan and their European representative! I guess some peoples egos would have flattered by this, but I didn't go back.

I had gone to Okinawa with one student and a friend who didn't train but wanted a two week holiday. My student had started training at the Jundokan Dojo of Miyazato sensei, and so I also made my way there.

Miyazato Eiichi Sensei
Miyazato Eiichi Sensei

GL: What particular challenges were presented by the training at the Jundokan?

RB: Well it wasn't what I expected. I thought it would be similar to the training that I had done in Tokyo, but my student had indicated that it wasn't. I turned up at the Jundokan and was first taken into a small office and interviewed. Miyazato sensei asked me where I was from, how long had I been training and with whom, etc. After this I was told to get changed and was soon stood in front of Miyazato sensei wearing a white belt. He asked me to perform gekisai dai ichi and afterwards he commented that it was "too fast" and about certain techniques he said "Why's Morio doing it like that?" This straight away was a new experience for me, one to one training with Miyazato sensei! Also, I had always been told "faster, stronger" up until this point, but never to slow down before!

Training in the Jundokan was a completely different experience for me. It's been well documented about how there was an open training policy, with the dojo being open from 10am to 10pm. You could come and go as you pleased, but this was completely new to me at the time. All of my previous classes had always been in a group with a teacher barking out the orders and everybody else responding. People leading, people following.

Richard Barrett - kata - Jundokan Dojo - Okinawa 1985 Richard Barrett - makiwara - Jundokan Dojo - Okinawa 1985
Richard Barrett training at the Jundokan Dojo in 1985.

GL: Who were the people who impressed you most, and why?

RB: Miyazato sensei was the most impressive, but not just because of his technical abilities, which were of course great; it was more his aura and personality which I really admired. I mentioned before some of the things that were new to me in the way that the Jundokan didn't have a formal class as such, but imagine the dojo full of karateka, from children through to people in their 70s, all different grades training together under the same roof. The higher grades helped the lower grades and then returned to their own training and what struck me the most was that they were all ordinary people.

Let me elaborate. Up until then, all of the top teachers I had been taught by were professionals. While you or I worked for 8 hours every weekday, they could if they wished, train. They were professional athletes and as a result, were very good, and very fit. All of the students and seniors in the Jundokan worked or went to school during the day before they came for training, unless they were retired like Miyazato sensei. They were normal people, so when I saw seniors there with better technique than mine, I knew that it was also accomplishable for me because they were in the same situation as me. This encouraged me that with a lot of hard work, my technique might one day become as good as theirs.

Miyazato Eiichi Sensei - kata Miyazato Eiichi Sensei - kata
Miyazato Eiichi Sensei performing kata.

GL: What was so special about Miyazato sensei?

RB: Sensei had a very unique character. In the Jundokan he was completely in charge; when he asked, students ran, and when he spoke everybody listened. Both inside and out of the dojo he didn't suffer fools. He was strong willed, but also had a kind heart. He encouraged the students who he could see had brought enthusiasm to the dojo and ignored those that hadn't. He was very kind to me, in feeding me quite often and also taking me on shopping excursions and visits to different sightseeing locations; none of which he had to do, but he did anyway. I was nothing special to him, just an English karateka with a lot of enthusiasm. He even walked with me to the immigration office and acted as a sponsor when I needed to increase my 3 month visa. I also saw that he encouraged his students to help one another inside and out of the dojo, supporting one another where possible. I saw his politeness and humbleness when meeting friends and seniors, and he seemed a very contented gentleman. Some people have remarked that he was a little gruff or seemed to always be in a bad mood in the dojo, but I disagree and thought that he was just serious about passing on Miyagi Chojun sensei's Karate. I also thought he had a wicked sense of humor.

Miyazato Eiichi Sensei - bunkai
Miyazato Eiichi Sensei demonstrating kata application.

GL: What is your favourite memory of your sensei?

RB: I have a lot of memories, and some of them have already been told through Mike Clarke sensei's writings as we shared some of the same experiences together. One time Mike and I were training together in the Jundokan and we had been put with Yasuda sensei one afternoon for him to correct our kata. A couple of days earlier Yasuda sensei, Mike and I had passed a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, and outside was a life sized plastic replica of Colonel Sanders. Yasuda sensei joked that Mike looked just like him. Back in the dojo our kata training had started to get humorous with Yasuda sensei saying that Colonel Sanders' kata needed a lot of polish. Miyazato sensei wandered over, asking what was so funny, and Yasuda sensei replied in Japanese "nothing" to which Miyazato sensei grunted and walked away. Five minutes later there was more laughter from the three of us and Miyazato sensei returned and barked something in Japanese at Yasuda sensei, who then bowed his head down and the training together was brought to a close. I think Mike ended up cleaning one area of the dojo, while I cleaned another (laughs). Who said Miyazato sensei didn't have a sense of humor? I bet he had a good chuckle to himself over that.

Miyazato Eiichi Sensei - Richard Barrett
Miyazato Eiichi Sensei and Richard Barrett at the tomb of Miyagi Chojun Sensei.
(Okinawa, 1992)

Another time I was training with Miyazato sensei watching me. I was moving though a particularly fast part of a kata when sensei suddenly stopped me and corrected a small detail before then walking off. I couldn't believe how he could have seen that the detail was wrong, at speed, but he could. I came to learn that sensei would always do his best for me and expected nothing in return. This spoke volumes to me about the type of person he was, and the type of person I would like to call my sensei.

Miyazato Eiichi Sensei - Richard Barrett - kata Miyazato Eiichi Sensei - Richard Barrett - kata
Richard Barrett practicing kata under the watchful eye of his teacher.

GL: You also practiced Kobudo at the Kodokan Dojo of Matayoshi Shinpo sensei. How did this come about?

RB: While I was in Okinawa, I met a French karateka whilst visiting the Shureido martial arts shop. He spoke English and after a long chat he invited me to go with him to watch a class at the Matayoshi dojo, the Kodokan. After watching this class I was invited to join. I had previously trained for a short time in Inoue sensei's Kobudo, so the handling of most of the weapons was not that strange to me. I attended twice a week for about 5 months and as a result got graded in secret to shodan!

GL: What was Matayoshi sensei like as a teacher?

RB: Matayoshi sensei didn't teach much, or at least I never saw him unless there was someone special arriving at the dojo and then he would appear and take charge. The classes were usually taken by one of his top students Oshiro Zenei sensei. He was also a Goju practitioner and spoke some English. I liked his personality and enjoyed the training with him. Matayoshi sensei was very kind in that he invited the French student and me to sleep in his dojo and set up our beds in a room next to the training area. So we kept the room clean and tidied the dojo, and this helped us both with our expenses.

GL: What were the biggest lessons that you learnt from your experiences in Okinawa?

RB: As I said earlier, I came to Okinawa with many questions and I got a lot of the answers; the answers to the rest of the questions though, I would have to find out for myself. The biggest lessons that I learnt from Okinawa were that Karate is for everyone who brings enthusiasm to their training, and that there are those who practice Karate and others who study it. Also, I leant a lot about Karate and its values outside of the dojo by observing and integrating with the Okinawan people. Even during my last visit, the courtesy shown by some of the Okinawan people I found to be wonderful, especially in this day and age where courtesy seems to be a dying art.

Richard Barrett - Jundokan Dojo - Okinawa 1992
Richard Barrett at the entrance of the Jundokan Dojo.
(Okinawa, 1992)

GL: You returned to the Jundokan in February 2011. Had the dojo changed much since the passing of Miyazato sensei?

RB: To be honest, I wasn't looking forward to training in the Jundokan this time around. The thought of Miyazato sensei not being there made me feel as if the dojo would be empty and I missed him. So I was more focused on going with students, meeting up with old friends, and enjoying the people and culture of Okinawa. Training was at the back of my mind but I was dragged to the dojo by Mike, and as I met up with old friends and started training it was great. Training in that dojo has always been special for me. Practicing with equipment that was once used by Miyagi Chojun sensei and practicing your kata on a floor where thousands of others have polished theirs is always special and I hopefully will never take that for granted. Things had changed at the dojo, but they always had done, with students leaving and new ones starting with every visit I made. Also, I too had changed. Like life, nothing stays the same, nor should it.

Michael Clarke - Richard Barrett - Miyazato tomb - Okinawa 2011
Michael Clarke and Richard Barrett at the tomb of their Karate techer, Miyazato Eiichi Sensei.
(Okinawa, February 2011)

GL: In 2001 you founded the Shinsokai. What is the purpose of this group?

RB: When I left Okinawa the first time I asked Miyazato sensei permission for my group in England to become a branch dojo. Ahhh, I wish I'd never asked! Miyazato sensei became very serious and told my sempai Chinen Shinzo that we would have an interview in half an hour at a local restaurant. Sensei disappeared upstairs and my sempai and I got changed, with Chinen sensei telling me "it will be alright". I must have looked very worried. The solemn interview came and went with questions such as "What do you think Karate is?" and "How would you teach Karate in England?" Well, Miyazato sensei left, and Chinen sensei was still telling me "it will be ok". The following day at training I was asked to perform all of the Goju Ryu kata in front of sensei and other seniors, and then when that had finished, I was packed off in a car to Hichiya sensei's dojo to do the same again in front of him. The next day training was back to normal until sensei called for everyone to line up and he presented me with my yondan certificate. Also before I left Okinawa, sensei gave me another certificate entirely in Japanese, and it wasn't until I was back in England and had it translated that I found out I was now in charge of England! I thought that I had just been granted permission for a small branch dojo.

Miyazato Eiichi Sensei - Richard Barrett - yondan - 1986 Miyazato Eiichi Sensei - Richard Barrett - rokudan - 1997
Richard Barrett receiving his dan grade certificates from Miyazato Sensei.

That year I wrote a couple of articles and advertised, and over the next couple of years I started to assemble a group of dojo under the banner of the Jundokan G.B. I held courses and once a year we held a gasshuku. I tried to encourage the kuro obi kai to study their Karate by asking them to do book reviews and write essays regarding Karate. For some of them, this went down like a lead balloon! They were only interested in the external, but I didn't care; quality not quantity had always been my motto and I hoped that they would just leave. But as time passed, I found that I was becoming attached to the title of 'chief instructor' and my ego, rather than getting smaller, was increasing. So, as soon as I had realized this, I made the decision to let it go and gave up the title to someone who needed it. A couple of years later in Okinawa, Miyazato sensei told me I had been brave to give up that position.

10 years ago I formed the Shin so kai, just before I left to immigrate to Spain with my family. This was mainly to give the students I was leaving behind a bond of unity. I know that some of them thought I was abandoning them, but now I think that they would agree that it has made them better karateka for it. Throwing them out of the nest so to speak.

5 years ago I started to get a lot of excuses rather than reasons from some members in England and I decided that some drastic action was needed, so I threw all the members out of the Shinsokai, emailed them all asking if they would like to re-apply and then only accepted the students who wanted to study Karate without excuses.

The Shin so kai name is made up of three characters. Working backward 'kai' is a group of people. 'So' is 'searching/looking for something with bare hands' which I thought appropriate for Karate, and 'shin' means 'truth' or 'realty'. So the purpose of this group of like-minded people is to find, through the medium of Okinawan Goju Ryu Karatedo, the truth of their own nature to then better enhance their own life. Everybody is an individual and lives within their own set of circumstances, and I hope that though the study of Karate they will come to know themselves a little better and will come to understand others around them too. They can then go on to make educated decisions for a better life.

GL: What would you say is the main focus of your teaching?

RB: To deliver the above. I think there is a minority of educated people who have discovered for themselves that a person is not more important than another because they have a bigger house or a nicer car, or because they wear designer clothes, are better looking or even famous. Hopefully this minority has discovered that what 'makes' a person is their personality.

From when I first started Karate I read that within the art there was woven a set of moral codes that we should all aspire to, but as I mentioned before, there are a lot of karateka who are not interested in being a good person; only kicking, punching and titles. Over the years I have seen and heard of a lot of bad examples, but these examples can only confirm to me that I don't want to travel down that same path.

I try to veto any members that want to join these days, and if a student gives me any reason to doubt their conduct, then I would tell them they are no longer welcome. I tend to believe these days in peoples actions and non-actions rather than what they say.

Richard Barrett - sanchin-gami
Richard Barrett training sanchin-gami.

GL: What is your opinion of the state of Goju Ryu today?

RB: Well, most people just want to learn and practice the physical side of Karate, but then others add to that by learning about the history and culture of Okinawa, and studying the precepts that underline Karatedo. All of these people will receive some benefit from this, even if it's just improving their level of fitness.

I believe that the true benefit of practicing Karate is being able to put what you learn to some use. What's the point of learning how to fight when you never intend to, and will probably never actually have a fight, unless you go looking for one of course? I would say that 95% of people who practice Goju Ryu around the world today only do so at a superficial level. It doesn't matter how long they have been practicing or what grade/title they have either. But that's ok, Karate is for everyone.

Karate-do is a little different though. Some people search for more from their Karate and get tired of just following the leader. They will hopefully find a sensei and dojo that can help them make Karatedo a part of their life.

G.Lever - R.Barrett - Kinjo Seikichi Sensei - M.Clarke - M.Turner - Okinawa 2011
Garry Lever, Richard Barrett, Kinjo Seikichi Sensei, Michael Clarke and Mitch Turner.
(Okinawa, February 2011)

GL: Where do you see Goju Ryu in another 20 years?

RB: Much the same as it is now I guess. Hopefully, there will still be small pockets of practitioners just practicing, but I don't think that true training in Goju Ryu Karatedo will ever be a big affair. It can't be, it's an individual pursuit and requires a level of personal guidance that is quite intimate.

Richard Barrett - Sanchin kata - Okinawa 2011
Richard Barrett performing Sanchin kata on an Okinawan beach.
(February 2011)

GL: How do you think Karate is still relevant today?

RB: I can only speak about my own personal experiences. When I wake up in the morning, I try to remember to be very grateful. I am very thankful for having a loving wife and two, sometimes, wonderful children (laughs). I have my health, and I am content with what I have. This I believe has been possible because of my training in Karate. Not the fact of having a wife and children, but the appreciation of what I have, and what a wonderful way to start the day. I believe that through proper training, Karate can give the student a wonderful insight in to what is and what isn't important in life as they come to understand more about themselves.

GL: What is the most important aspect of Karate?

RB: Your attitude to your training. If you don't have that, then you will gain very little from your Karate. First of all, you will always need the enthusiasm to want to improve, but also honesty with yourself so that when things start to get hard you don't start making excuses. Courage and being determined are also good attributes, but as I said earlier, everyone is different and Karate will enhance the character attributes that are lacking in a person to then hopefully help them to develop a balanced personality.

Richard Barrett - Shinsokan Dojo - 2012
Richard Barrett adding 'life' to the opening movements of Kururunfa kata through resistance training.
(Shinsokan Dojo, 2012)

GL: Do you have any final thoughts to finish this interview?

RB: At this moment in time I am 'digging out' the fourth dojo that I have personally built (note: this dojo is being literally dug out of a small cave in the hillside behind Barrett sensei's home!). I have traveled to Japan several times and other locations on this planet in pursuit of bettering myself as a karateka. I built my own kit car with the help of my brother. We immigrated to Spain with the hope of bettering our lives and with the help of my wife Claire, we rebuilt from a derelict basic shell of a house, the place we now call home. Claire owns and runs a health food shop and Community Center in our local town and enjoys giving her time to the people who need it, and I am very proud of her. I have been training in Karate for nearly 38 years and still find its pursuit a challenge. I do not want my students to equal what I have achieved, I want them all to surpass me and exceed what I have learnt and done. This does not mean that I expect my students to start moving country or building a house (laughs), but I would like them to study Goju Ryu Karatedo and through it, all find and enjoy a contented life. I don't consider myself very clever or intelligent, just ask my wife (laughs), but I do know that life's too short, and the sooner you take control of your own unique situation and steer it in a good direction, the more contented you will become with what you have and who you are.

“No matter how you may excel in the art of Karate, and in your scholastic endeavors,
nothing is more important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life.”