Rick Hotton began training Shotokan Karate in the early 1970s, being one of the youngest practitioners to join the dojo. After taking responsibility for the dojo he once trained in, curiosity led him to aikido pioneer Mitsugi Saotome, who, to Hotton, is his best karate teacher. Today, Hotton discusses his karate journey, how Saotome influenced his karate, and how Hotton is making aspects of karate a spiritual/metaphysical training. This is the first of a three part interview. Read the second part here and the third part here.
Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Hotton Sensei! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us!
Rick Hotton: Thank you for the invite and I look forward to our conversation.
MAYTT: You began training in the late 1960s and early 1970s where you were one, if not the only, teenager in the dojo, the rest being adults. What was the training like being the only teenager in the school and how were you treated by your fellow students and instructor?
RH: There were some teenagers and young people in the dojo. I recall people having to be at least twelve to join. I was eleven at the time, but I lied and said I was twelve. There was a cultural difference when I started compared to others who started much later than me. The training was much more severe back then too. I felt like I had to prove myself to the sensei to be there.
We had classes at the local YMCA that had an outdoor area, and we would train there. The first class would have about forty people and the sensei would have us stand in horse stance. He wouldn’t let the class rest until he got a chance to go to each individual and correct them. By the time he was finished, you’d be standing there in the stance with your legs hurting. He would continue to do this until the class was whittled down to about twelve people, and then the real teaching would begin. It was essentially earning the right to train. It wasn’t like today, where you can sign up, get a free dogi, and try out a few classes.
After that phase, I was ignored by the sensei for a few months. He would walk by me while teaching and wouldn’t look at me or correct me during those first few months. But I was still trying my best, even without much instruction. Then, as time progressed, I would get a few slide glances and more instruction. I started to feel that I was earning my place in the dojo. Then I had someone come up to me and say that I was invited to train in the Sunday morning class at six. Those practices were by invite only and if you were invited, you better make sure you were there. It was a bit of an honor to be invited. Then, my sensei became a runner, ultimately an ultra-marathoner, and moved Sunday morning training to four. We would meet on the beach and run about a mile and a half, train until the sun came up, and then run the mile and a half back.
It was a magical time in the country then. There was a sense that martial arts were mystic and held a bit of mysticism to them. There was no utilitarianism to the martial arts – nothing solely based on self-defense or putting someone down. Martial arts are about something else that’s deeper, but it can be also used for self-defense. However, self-defense is not the end objective for martial arts. Back then, there was a subconscious expectation that the martial arts had something beyond just the techniques and self-defense; it was a quest for epiphany. It was kind of like the tea ceremony, where there’s so much more than just trying to quench your thirst.
I fell in love with that idea and concept, and I’ve had the same perspective on karate and the martial arts since then. The world today has moved towards the mindset of keeping what works and throwing away everything that doesn’t. It’s different from the traditional budo experience. I don’t think that’s the basic idea or intention of traditional martial arts, as it encompasses a broader range than just to fight and win over opponents and defend yourself. They are a method on how to study something – how to get to the meaning and purpose. For me, to do that daily and be connected with everything, that is self-defense.
That being said, both traditional martial arts and Mixed Martial Arts have different challenges and I respect them both. I’m trying to resurrect that older training that encompasses the original essence of what karate was supposed to do; I’m going for a warrior-priest figure, rather than just a warrior.
MAYTT: What was the karate community like in Florida when you began training? Was it a community that was thriving with schools and practitioners conversing with each other or were there small, isolated pockets of karateka around the state? How did you see the community evolve and grow as you continue your training?
RH: If I remember, there was this television program called Kung Fu. Popular culture has a way of having a fingerprint at its zeitgeist. Martial arts had an allure for things of the mystic nature and this popular culture representation portrayed that mysticism to the American public. The show had a Buddhist monk walking across the Wild West and it was a big departure from the usual John Wayne mentality, shooting up Native Americans and looking for fist fights. Kung Fu was a completely different ethos, and that vibe was a perfect zeitgeist for that period in time.
While that may have attracted some to the martial arts, there weren’t a lot of martial arts around where I was, in Sarasota. There were only a small number of people who earned their black belt, myself included. I and some others estimated that our sensei taught between two and three thousand people, yet only five of those students reached shodan. Achieving your shodan was a minimum of five years, but it was five years of intense training. Karateka now can get that first black belt much sooner.
I was eighteen when I inherited the school and there weren’t a lot of karate teachers in town to learn from. The dojo became my student because there weren’t a lot of martial arts schools to go to. Aikido people in Sarasota, especially when Mitsugi Saotome Sensei arrived, had a similar experience to me and others in the area of having few places to go and train. It was certainly not like in the 1980s and 1990s where there was a boom, and a multitude of schools and instructors began springing up almost everywhere.
MAYTT: You mentioned that the training regimen you experienced was much tougher and more demanding than those of the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond. When would you say that switch or change occurred, and why do you think there was a relaxation on the demanding training regimen?
RH: There were a couple of things. I want to say that the change happened maybe in the 1980s, when karate became commercialized in the United States. Overseas are a bit different but we’ll just look at the States for right now. I think during the 1980s, a lot of people and instructors taught the art as a form of business. I did too, but we had two different purposes. I also think there’s a conflict of interest in transmitting the art and retaining students to continue to make money. With that in mind, student quality and overall standards start to slide. The new community became diluted and moved away from the hardcore and demanding training experience. My sensei didn’t harm me or anyone else in the dojo, but he pushed you further so you could become better. His standards were more extreme than the Japanese Karate Association Shotokan guys are today. He definitely had more strict standards. He wanted you to fix your mistakes; you needed to fix them because if you didn’t, he wouldn’t promote you and you wouldn’t advance. There were no hours accumulated or time-in considered when you were eligible to be promoted or tested; you had to get the technique and movement down or there would be nothing.
When I inherited the dojo from my sensei in 1976, I took an active look around schools and noticed some things. The schools that have gone through a few generations of students acquired some relaxed standards. The karate they taught became something different from what and how the original instructor taught the art. Also, right after The Karate Kid released in 1986, almost every school included a children’s program, which, in some cases, became a daycare program but with dogis and belts. Karate schools didn’t have those programs back in the day when I began. As time passed, I would see these amazing teachers with superb technical ability and knowledge, and they would be teaching five- and six-year-olds. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, but for karate to move beyond just a children’s daycare program to something everybody can do, regardless of age, it needs to be presented at that level.
I didn’t want to do all that the others were doing. I wanted to bring karate back to its traditional source and I looked and searched for teachers who taught and held more of the essence of karate. During this time too, I was reading a lot of Black Belt Magazine articles by Richard Kim, who wrote a lot of information about martial arts education. I ultimately joined his group, the Zei Bei Butoku Kai, to get closer to the source. I trained with Saotome Sensei too, who was close to the source of aikido. I wanted to go back to the original and essential message that people first fell in love with. Martial arts can evolve as time goes on, but I’m not talking about the overall evolution of a martial art but the underlying vision or message in the technical training that the founders wanted to convey. That, for me, is important to identify that vision or message and as an ambassador of karate, it is important to understand that message and project that outward to your students.
Another thing, anything that’s powerful has to have some application in the resolution of problems, both on and off the mat. And the art can change; the 1980s is a completely different world than the 2020s. a completely different world. Training can give you the tool to understand how life is and karate has to evolve and has to find all these pathways in different points in time. Before, a flying side kick sold a lot of people to enroll into schools, now it’s something different that sells students to go enroll. You can’t sell people with a flying side kick now. Karate has the power, still has the power, to transform into something that people can relate to.
Karate still should have a martial aspect to its training; it should have a level of deadly seriousness, but not outright self-defense. Take aikido for example. From what I have read of O-Sensei’s writings and my experiences with Saotome Sensei, aikido is a philosophical system that manifests itself in physical technique into the realm of realization. And you can feel that concept directly on the mat; you are dealing with conflict on the mat and that experience on the mat becomes a part of you for you to take elsewhere. The real essence of any martial art is much further down and beneath the physical techniques. Connection is one of the main concepts, connecting to the moment and the present itself, every day, with every moment, and every proposition. That is aiki. Everything is everything. It’s how one can approach things in your life. It’s a way for me and others to move back and try to connect better with themselves and, by extension, with others. It’s a connection on a heartfelt level, and at that level, it’s hard not to feel compassion and connection with others.
How do people sustain such a practice for that long? Many will ultimately phase in and out of the martial arts – some staying only a few years or ten years and leaving. There’s nothing wrong with that, as people choose their own way to experience life, but what I want to do with my karate and training is to extract the most for them. I want to find the different relationships that compliment my practice. I’m doing my own thing and I want to make it fruitful. Part of becoming skillful is maintaining practice and not falling victim to not practicing. I’m still creatively hungry. I’m turning sixty-four this year and my karate is technically the best it has ever been. I may not be as athletic as I was when I was thirty, but I hope to say that in the next ten years that’s when my karate is at its best. I’m always in that pursuit. Always be curious and feel what you’re doing. I recall watching a pianist play on YouTube recently and I’m watching how she’s playing. I’m seeing the skillfulness in her hands and in her fingers as she has this relaxed heaviness about them while on the keys. I think that’s the same for me with my karate. Beneath the surface of the physical, there is a powerful truth.
MAYTT: In addition to karate, you also train aikido under Mitsugi Saotome. How did you come to be his student and how has aikido training enhanced your karate?
RH: I knew of him when he came to Sarasota in the 1970s. I knew he was an uchi deshi at Aikikai Hombu Dojo under O-Sensei, and later spent a long stint there. A few of my fellow karateka left to train with him, and everyone was portraying him as an amazing teacher from Japan. I, at the time, was stubborn and was entirely focused on earning my shodan. I’m glad I did. As luck would have it, some of Saotome Sensei’s students came to me and my dojo to develop their atemi some years later. They offered to pay, but I declined, reasoning that this was a form of martial reciprocity. I did remember that Saotome Sensei had published a few books, so I asked those students for a copy of his book to read. It was Aikido and the Harmony of Nature. When I read it, I knew I wanted to meet him. I felt the book was a masterpiece. There were a lot of pen and ink drawings directly from Saotome Sensei’s hand. I thought he was a martial genius after reading his book.
The first time I met him or had any interaction with Saotome Sensei came in 2000 when another one of his students, Melissa Bell, was training with me for six years to further hone her karate. Though she wasn’t as active in the aikido community at the time, she would still attend the seminars. She suggested that I come and attend one with her, as many of my old karate peers were still there and this would be a way to rebuild bridges and such. So, I kind of had my entrance to aikido and Saotome Sensei backwards, by attending a seminar and learning from his students, rather than meeting him first. I attended the seminar and immediately Saotome Sensei recognized me as a karateka and wanted me to be uke for the seminar and other seminars, even though I haven’t taken any sort of aikido besides what I just did at the seminar. Now I was Saotome Sensei’s uke for all of these seminars. I had to train in Largo, which is about an hour north of me with an old karate friend, trying to get up to speed out of necessity. I never really considered what I did with Saotome Sensei as just aikido. I viewed it more like learning body intelligence. Even he says that all this is body intelligence.
The thing with Saotome Sensei is that he lives in the right hemisphere of the brain, which is the artistic side of the brain, rather than the left hemisphere, which is the more analytical. He views everything as everything and that informs him. I try to assimilate and integrate that perspective into my training and body intelligence. I consider myself not doing either karate or aikido; always a mixture of both. I have a YouTube channel that has gotten a bit of traction from its viewers, and they always have some comments about my style. I’m not quite Shotokan with my movements, but that’s probably from my time with Saotome Sensei.
I think in one sense, I was looking for someone to be inspired by; someone that was at a level to provoke me into different realms of thinking and practice. When we put what we want out there, the universe conspires to bring us that in some form. When I met Saotome Sensei and spent time with him, I felt a kindred feeling. It may be strange to say, I dream about him as my teacher from time to time. It’s a strange metaphysical thing that I feel is related to my life’s journey.
I actually met with Saotome Sensei last week for lunch. He’s a great teacher in the way that he’s not explicit in what he says. He’ll give you a little something – a saying or something else – and it will just resonate with you for a period of time afterwards. I always say that practice is what you make of it – what you bring to it. Practice is like an internal dialogue. Sometimes, people sit back and wait for or rely on the orthodoxy to find salvation, but they do so passively. Saotome Sensei may not realize it, but I turn his little sayings or statements into something meaningful. A good teacher is like having a marriage with the body of information. If done right, there’s an alchemy to it. I’ll have a conversation with Saotome Sensei, and I always find meaning in it. What practitioners are searching for in traditional martial arts is epiphany and traditional martial arts is that quest for epiphany. The meaning of that epiphany comes from the language of the body, hence body intelligence. Martial arts are the mechanism of metaphor in daily life, hence the do of every art. You find those lessons from the mat in the bigger sphere that is daily life. And the world needs that greater connection between self and society, but not a presumptuous one. This reminds me of a line in a book I read recently on tea: “When a society prospers, the spirit becomes impoverished.” And that resonated with me. When I teach, I try to draw attention to this type of connection to give a greater depth to my own and my students’ life experience – martial arts practice, I feel, can help do that. Fifty-two years later, I’m still on the hunt; I’m still hungry like I was when I was twelve.