Interview with Secretary of Technical Committee Cathy Cline: Her Karate Journey

This is a transcript of an interview with Secretary of Technical Committee of the International Shotokan Karate Federation in the spring of 2019. Here, we discuss the current state of karate in the United States, her early years of training, and her thoughts and feelings on being the first woman in Shotokan Karate to earn both seventh and eighth dan. This interview was referenced in the book Aikido Comes to America.  

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: I would like to welcome you and thank you for taking some time to talk.

Cathy Cline: I am always happy to talk with those who are interested!

MAYTT: You began your karate training in 1974. What drew you to karate as opposed to other martial arts at the time?

Cathy Cline ISKF
Cathy Cline, Secretary of Technical Committee of the International Shotokan Karate Federation (ISKF). Source: ISKF.

CC: As a young girl I was drawn to the culture of Japan and all its customs. It began when my uncle presented my sister and me with colorful, silky kimonos from Japan.
The material and texture of these beautiful kimonos were like nothing we had ever seen or worn. The fascination continued and as a high school student, I found myself
writing reports on the mighty emperors of Japan as well as the samurai. I enjoyed drawing colorful red pagodas in my art class, and I studied the map of the Japan islands and dreamed of going there someday. It was a strong attraction that I could not explain, and it finally led to my study of the martial arts.

When I moved to Denver from New York City in 1973, it was destiny that I began employment for the management company that owned and maintained the Japanese dojo across the street from my office. The Master and Chief Instructor of that school was Yutaka Yaguchi, who had been sent to the United States in the late 1960s by Master Masatoshi Nakayama to help spread the art of karate.

During a lunch break one day, I spent my lunch hour observing the afternoon class and was mesmerized by what I saw. The movements were strong, beautiful, and very different from any sport or activity I had ever participated. My interest was piqued. Although there was only one woman in that afternoon class, I was compelled to make an effort and give it a try. The ratio of men to women did not bother me. It was the first and only karate school I visited. I felt no need to look any further.  I knew this was the place I wanted to train. In February of 1974, I began training in earnest, and have never looked back

Oftentimes I reflect on how fortunate I was to walk into that particular dojo which would fuel my interest in karate and lead me to this lifelong passion. Not to mention that it was headed by one of the greatest karate instructors to ever grace the shores of the US. I will always be grateful.

MAYTT: That is very interesting, Sensei. In researching martial arts in the United States, female practitioners in the postwar years were uncommon to say the least. Why do you think that was the case then and how has female participant in karate and other martial arts grown since then?

CC: Japanese karate originated as a male dominated art in Japan and then continued to be male dominated when it came to the US in the late 1950s. Women’s roles were much more rigid in both the US and Japan in the 1950s and throughout most of the 1960s, but following the marches for equality in the late 60s and early 70s in America, things began to slowly change for women.

As I mentioned, there was only one woman in the daytime class at the Denver dojo
back in the early 70s, and very few women in the evening classes. However, with the
advent of a TV show called Kung Fu, the American television audience became
fascinated with the perceived superpowers of “mind over body,” exhibited by David
Carradine, the star of the show. With the advent of that show, interest in the martial
arts exploded. The dojo membership literally doubled from 60-120 students. This
uptick in members led me to ask Yaguchi Sensei if I could teach a self-defense class
for women. With his permission, I invited all the women I knew, including my sister,
fellow employees at work, friends, and friends of friends. My class was a good dozen
women, and we trained twice a week for eight weeks. When the course ended, most of those women joined the dojo and became regular students. We offered more
self-defense classes and word-of-mouth brought more women. The cadre of women
who had gravitated to these classes for self-defense, physical fitness and rigorous
physical training; soon began to understand and embrace other “hidden benefits” of
martial arts such as self-confidence, self-image, and mental and spiritual focus.

Between the “revolution” of the 60s and 70s for equal rights, and the influence of a show like Kung Fu, people were ready for change, and that change included women taking on more roles that had previously been dominated by males.

MAYTT: Possibly being one of the only female karateka in the dojo when you began, what was the overall atmosphere like during your first years of training? Has that atmosphere changed at all as both time and skill continued?

CC: When I began training in 1974, I was young, just out of college and was highly motivated to learn the self-defense aspect of martial arts. It was important to me to learn how to defend myself against any attack, whether physical or mental. Since I was single and living alone in a large city, I was motivated to not only learn the techniques necessary to defend myself, but I enjoyed the competitive aspect of the art.

I loved training, learning new combinations and kata, and I really enjoyed sparring. Our dojo was all young, single, men and women and there was a social aspect that also prevailed. We trained together at the dojo, but we also enjoyed social activities outside the dojo. Those were fun, carefree days where we had no responsibilities other than to ourselves, our jobs and the dojo.

As the years went by, and we entered our 30s, our priorities changed. Some got married and had families, some went back to college or university, most took on serious careers; in other words, karate took a back seat for many practitioners. We were serious, hard-training karateka in our youth; but the ability to spend the same amount of time together in and outside the dojo changed.

In the 70s, when most practitioners were single, it meant you never saw kids or family members at the dojo. Now, in the twenty-first century, the demographics of a dojo are much different.  You will see all age-groups training, from seven years of age and older.  Many of the “die-hards” that trained as young, single karateka in the early 70s, now train with their spouses and children in their later years. It has become a well-balanced, family affair. Fortunately, karate is an art that can be practiced throughout a lifetime and frequency, intensity, and duration of class can be adjusted accordingly.

MAYTT: In October 2019, female aikidoka of the United States Aikido Federation (USAF), one of the largest aikido organizations in the United States, signed a petition that described the desire for more female representation in the organization. Being the Chief Instructor of Northwest Region and Secretary of Technical Committee of the International Shotokan Karate Federation (ISKF), how has the ISKF represented female members and are these types of concerns more common than most average organizational members are aware of?

CC: I must say that positions of power and authority for women are few and far between in our organization. I am the only woman on the ISKF Technical Committee, having been invited to join in 1998 by Master Teruyuki Okazaki and Master Yaguchi. In addition, for twenty years I was the only female Director of a region within the United States. Now we have two female directors. This is an under-representation compared to the number of females training and the efforts and contributions they offer to the organization. We do, however, have many women who are chief instructors and manage their own dojo throughout the United States.

As in any organization, there are many hard-working, competent and professional women within the organization who could effectively hold an office of power within the organization.

MAYTT: According to Seattle Times and King 5 News, you were the first woman in Shotokan Karate to earn a seventh and eighth dan promotion, respectively. What were those exams like and what were your overall emotions/feelings of receiving each promotion? What do you feel such a promotion did for the art and female practitioners as a whole?

CC: Each of the seventh and eighth dan promotions I achieved required a technical
karate paper, which was submitted to ISKF Headquarters for review and approval
prior to a practical examination. The practical portion of all high ranking dan
examinations must be taken at either the ISKF Master Camp or the ISKF National
tournament where a minimum of five, A-ranking examiners must be present. At the
practical exam, I was required to demonstrate my individual, or “ tokui,” kata, and
answer any questions the examiners posed regarding the purpose and/or application of certain techniques found in the kata. Following the performance of my individual
kata, the Chief Examiner asked for a second, different kata. The final part of the exam included my choice of either kumite (free sparring), or self-defense where I defended against an attacker.

My feelings and emotions following my seventh and eighth dan examinations were of both relief and pride. After years of training and preparation it was exhilarating and daunting to stand before a panel of examiners and demonstrate skills to the best of my ability. I was grateful for the instruction and guidance I received from the two Masters I trained under; Master Yaguchi and Master Okazaki. I wanted to accomplish these goals on their behalf, and to pave the way for other women.

Many of my fellow women karateka are more talented and competitive than I, so I hoped they would feel the door was now open for them.

MAYTT: That seems like it was an in-depth exam! Switching the subject, when you first opened your dojo, how did you acquire new students? What types of methods/outlets did you use?

CC: When I first started my own club, back in the late 1980’s, my method of recruiting was word-of-mouth, the Yellow Pages of the phone book, and the business
section of the white pages. Those were my primary means of advertising. My friends
and co-workers were also curious about my passion for karate, and wanted their
children to learn karate. I began teaching kids the first year, then added adult classes
in the second year. Since there were no ISKF karate clubs in the state of Washington,
I had to start from scratch and build a base.

Over the last 30 years, I have seen the greatest growth from 1999 to 2010. I had been in the area teaching karate for ten years, settled into a permanent dojo location, built a website, and hosted an annual camp inviting well-known instructors from around the country. After the first ten years of building, we reached “critical mass” and have
maintained a good student/instructor base since that time. Currently, the dominant age group in my dojo is twenty-five to fifty-five years of age. They comprise about
seventy-five percent of my dojo. The smallest demographic at this time is youth, from six to seventeen years of age; who comprise about twenty-five percent of my dojo.

Keeping a long-term approach, rather than depending on quick, short-term growth, paid off.  Believing the Japanese philosophy that nothing truly grows or sets roots in less than ten years, helped me to stay encouraged and to persevere.

MAYTT: I can see how taking a long view can help in attracting potential students. With looking towards the future, how does your dojo address training and developing new/future instructors?

CC: After I earned my Instructor license, Examiner license, and Judge’s license from
the ISKF; and became a member of the ISKF Technical Committee; I became
qualified to teach Instructor Trainee classes. I believe that a large, international
organization overseeing the Instructor program, is ideal. Since the ISKF follows the
same program curriculum as the Japan Karate Association (JKA), quality and
standards are maintained through this oversight. Because of these program standards my instruction, as well as the instruction of other official Instructors, incorporates the same solid basic principles that are followed in Japan.

MAYTT: With those standards in mind, how have you grown as an instructor and a practitioner within the ISKF? Do you think that such standards can be maintained on an individual school level, without organizational oversight?

CC: The ISKF has established high standards for both instruction and training. Our Instructor Trainee Program is patterned after JKA’s program in Japan, which was in fact, created by Master Hiroyoshi Okazaki under the direction of Master Nakayama. Having completed the Instructor program in 1996, I have had plenty of opportunities to not only exhibit the teaching skills I attained, but to add to those skills through the attendance and participation in a myriad of camps and seminars. The June Master Camp in Pennsylvania has, over time, given us exposure to such world renown instructors as Master Nakayama, Hirokazu Kanazawa Sensei, Hideo Ochi Sensei, Masahiko Tanaka Sensei, Yoshiharu Osaka Sensei, Robin Rielly Sensei, James Field Sensei, and of course Teruyuki Okazaki Shihan and Yaguchi Shihan.

A single dojo may have excellent instruction, but the spread of and continuation of those high standards go hand-in-hand with a strong and viable organization to oversee the criteria and standards that must be maintained.

MAYTT: I can see how those two things can go hand-in-hand. Some believe that the quality of instructors has diminished over the generations and that because of improper training and instruction, both instructor and practitioner as a whole do not compare to those of old. Would you agree with such a belief?

CC: No. I do not believe that the quality of instructors has diminished over the generations, or that because of improper training and instruction, both instructor and practitioner do not compare to those of old. Good instructors produce good students – this happened then and continues to happen.

MAYTT: Recently, several martial arts writers have claimed that traditional martial arts like karate have been on a steady decline since 2004. Do you agree with the assessment?

CC: Although it may seem that traditional martial arts like karate are on a decline, I believe there are simply more schools and martial arts systems out there to choose from. We are seeing Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), and Krav Maga schools opening in many locations. Nevertheless, the traditional Japanese martial arts schools continue to remain open, offering a tried-and-true form of martial art.

MAYTT: I see. Those same writers also contend that the eighteen to twenty-nine age group/demographic, specifically males, is almost vacant in karate as well as other traditional martial arts dojo across America. What do you think is contributing to the decline and can these traditional martial arts survive without those specific age demographics?

CC: Males, eighteen to twenty-nine years, are a very small demographic in my dojo. I believe that the attraction to full contact and free-style fighting is appealing to this age group, therefore, a traditional martial arts school that practices controlled, semi-contact and non-contact sparring may not be as appealing. My belief is that a good instructor must challenge the students in this age group by creating strenuous partner drills and combinations leaving the students feeling like they have been part of a full-speed, all-out, encounter.

As I mentioned before, there is room in this country for all types of martial arts schools. And, there are probably enough varieties of schools to accommodate every type of individual. Some martial arts schools appeal to children, some to strong young men and women in their 20s and 30s, other schools appeal to a more mature clientele. Age, life experience, desires, all play into the decision of which school or dojo an individual chooses to affiliate. I would say that MMA and BJJ appeal strongly to one segment of society: young adults. Karate, kendo, aikido and other Japanese martial arts appeal to a broader, wider range of the population because they can be practiced from a young age until a very old age.

MAYTT: You mentioned before that your dojo has a majority of karateka between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-five. Why do you think this is the dominant age demographic at your school? Do you think it has to do with a person’s maturity level that is, to some extent, required to fully understand the art’s teachings?

CC: I believe that our youth, who comprise twenty to twenty-five percent of our dojo membership, are not only dependent upon their parents to get to and from the dojo, but are involved in so many after-school sports and activities, that they cannot easily commit to any single activity. They are young and need to explore as many experiences as they can while they are in school.

As adults, we hopefully have had many experiences and are able to discern which ones are a “fit” for our physical abilities, as well as our interests. Since karate is not seasonal but a year-round endeavor, it seems to lend itself better to a demographic that can make its own choices, based on experience.

MAYTT: In your opinion, do you think the Americanization of karate and other martial arts are now contributing towards these arts’ current decline?

CC: I was attracted to karate because the instructor and the dojo I attended was NOT Americanized. My dojo was in America, but the classes, etiquette and training were all Japanese. Our training was like those in Tokyo, which I discovered when I traveled to Japan in the mid-70s to train and observe classes. Because it was different from the sports we played in America, it was very attractive to me. If karate remains “true” to its origins, it will remain a viable art.

MAYTT: In your opinion, how can traditional martial arts, such as karate, adapt to the changing modern martial arts landscape and the American business model? Is there a way for schools to maintain tradition and integrity while staying current with the times?

CC: Again, there is a certain type of individual who is drawn to the long, arduous, repetitious, but rewarding road of traditional martial arts. Those individuals who gravitate to short-term goals and results will not stay in a traditional art but will move on to something with short-term rewards without long-term benefit.

It is important for the instructor to design the class around those in attendance. Age, rank, and physical abilities are factors that must be taken into account when teaching a class. The instructor must be able to balance content, especially when teaching a mixed class of color and black belts. The intensity of training, number of repetitions, speed or pace of the class, variety of techniques, length of training session, degree of difficulty, all factor into a successful training session.

MAYTT: That is an interesting take on those who take up the martial arts. Is there something that karate offers that may not be present to MMA and BJJ that would still make it a valid choice for people?

CC: Absolutely. How many sixty-five-year olds and older are still able to practice MMA and BJJ? Not many. Karate is something you can practice for a lifetime, as exemplified by Master Funakoshi, who was coaching at his dojo shortly before he passed away at eighty-nine years of age. The movements of kihon and kata, and even basic sparring, can be practiced throughout one’s lifetime. You simply shorten your stances, slow the pace a bit, and keep moving. They sometimes refer to karate as “moving zen,” this is when the mind becomes calm as the body moves. Thus, karate can be practiced for a lifetime.

MAYTT: Most karate schools, according to karate writer Jesse Enkamp, focus teaching defense tactics as from only one of the three basic approaches that “bad guys” would use to take advantage of their intended victim, that being the “blitz,” usually in one-step sparring scenarios. Enkamp mentions that two other approaches are neglected: the “con” and the “surprise.” How do you see karate creating a more well-rounded self-defense foundation that would include training for all three methods rather than focusing solely on one? Is this possible and how can such training methods be implemented for the average practitioner?

CC: Once a karate practitioner is comfortable with all the major blocking, punching, kicking and striking techniques, he or she can then be placed in different situations where an element of surprise is introduced. This takes time and repetition and is something I look back on and realize that my instructor used on me all the time. It is helpful if you are “challenged” by other karateka when you are outside the dojo and in public. For example, in a queue for a show or a theatre, the grocery store, or on a walk; a fellow karateka attempts a grab or an attack which requires a reaction and puts you on guard. You are not alerted ahead of time that your partner may grab or strike at you, so you must develop zanshin or an awareness of your surroundings. This may sound out of place, but it is valuable practice. Martial arts training must take place all the time, and everywhere.

There may be some missing pieces of the puzzle, but those “missing pieces” are what makes karate eternally interesting. Even after training of decades, a true martial artist continues to learn, continues to experience epiphanies that make training more meaningful.

It is always helpful to practice pieces of a kata with others to see how they interpret certain moves or techniques. We are told that there are no wrong answers, but some answers are better than others. Working with small groups or partners to experiment and understand what is happening during the movements of a kata, helps bring insight into one’s training. There is not an application for each and every movement of a kata, but looking at a sequence of movements, in collaboration with others, can give helpful insight into what may be happening.

MAYTT: How do you see the state of karate and other traditional martial arts being/looking in the next five to ten years? Is there a possibility that such arts could disappear?

CC: This is a very good question, and one that I will attempt to answer. Each generation has its own set of values, and each generation’s values are different. We have even given names to each generation; going back to the Silent Generation, to Baby Boomers, to Gen X, to Millennials/Gen Y, and Gen Z/Boomlets.

As long as there are instructors and individuals, in each generation, who believe in hard work, taking and making the time to build a strong foundation, staying on the same path even when it seems like it is going nowhere, rejecting “short cuts” and “streamlining” which offer quick but temporary rewards; then we will always have a traditional martial arts school in which to train. As German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche said, “the essential thing in heaven and earth is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction – something that has made life worth living.” In many cases, this adherence to a traditional martial art is the long obedience in the same direction, which makes life worth living.

MAYTT: I see. Final question, Sensei. Being a dojo owner for more than twenty years, what advice would you give to those wishing to open their own school?

CC: First and foremost, I would advise anyone wishing to open a dojo to set realistic goals. It is typical to think you can build up your membership in weeks, or months, of opening your doors. In actuality, you should be thinking out ten to twenty years. Having trained with Japanese masters and having an idea of how they think and plan, it is best to think long-term.

We are so programmed in the United States to expect monthly, quarterly, and yearly
gains, that we put unrealistic goals in place, which can be discouraging or lead us to
quit. Incremental steps to achieve a solid, reputable school takes time, in fact years, of dedication and perseverance. Word-of-mouth is a big part of growth, and good
reputations are not built overnight. It is important to experience the ups and downs of a karate career, and of life in general, to appreciate what you have now, and what you can build in the future.

It is also prudent to “pick the brains” of successful karate school owners to see what worked and what didn’t work for them. There are so many variables to consider; the pros and cons of requiring a contract; what days to offer classes; how to separate classes by age or rank; the appropriate fees to charge depending on the area in which you are located; the importance of passing on the background and culture of our martial art; and the willingness and dedication to “stay the course,” and the decision to make this art a lifetime endeavor. If you do that – you are never disappointed.

MAYTT: Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you!

CC: Thank you for allowing me to inject my thoughts and experiences to you and your research.  Best of luck to you in your future pursuits!

This interview was referenced in the book Aikido Comes to America.


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