iC: Our new online magazine, iCombatives, is dedicated to reality-based martial arts. Can you tell our readers how and why you became involved in martial arts? What was your motivation?
SK: Hollywood. More specifically: Hollywood movies. Everyday after work my father would stop by the video store and rent a movie. (I think he loved action movies from Hollywood and Hong Kong more than he loved me, or my brother… Haha!) And the rest of our family began to really enjoy them as well, since there was only one television in our household we didn’t really have a choice. I mean, it was either watch with him, or go to our room and study. What else do you expect an elementary and Jr. High School student to do?
When the film was over, my brother and I would immediately challenge each other and would horribly try to replicate the action scenes we just witnessed. Unfortunately, this would usually escalate into real physical confrontations between the two of us, and our mom would bust into our room and throw us out of the house until we were done.
After years of watching these films, I too, wanted to be an Action Star. I couldn’t think of a career more exciting and exhilarating. In order to do so, I realized that I needed to excel better than anyone else. So I began training in gymnastics and Keishinkan Karate. My ultimate motivation was to become successful. To be successful, I needed to be better than everyone else. And to be better than everyone else, I needed to train harder and longer than everyone else. So I did.
iC: For our readers, could you tell us a bit about your martial arts experience?
SK: Well, I believe that a martial artist should have a solid core, so I trained in gymnastics. Subsequently, I figured that gymnastics would help soften my falls, should I get my butt kicked in training, which happened more often than I’d like to admit.
In my early teens, I began training in Keishinkan Karate under Master Tadashi Yoshii in Okayama, Japan. Currently, I’m a 3rd degree black belt, but am soon looking to test for my 4th. Upon arriving in the USA I immediately became enthralled with Northern Shaolin Kung Fu, and therefore trained at the Harmonious Fist: Chinese Athletic Association here in Los Angeles under Sifu Kisu. I spent the majority of my free time training in Kung Fu, specifically because I was mesmerized by the weaponry and techniques. From there I entered numerous competitions and ended up becoming a 5 time United States National Champion in Northern Shaolin Kung Fu.
I also have a 2nd degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and a 1st degree black belt in Kung Jung Mu Sul ( a Royal Korean Martial Art.) And in high school I also participated in Kendo and Judo, although I wouldn’t say I’m proficient in either. Haha. (They both hurt.)
iC: Have you ever had to use your martial arts in a real fight?
Yes and no. I’ve never physically used my martial arts training in an actual fight, although I’ve used my martial arts discipline to (1) keep calm when problems arose, (2) deescalate potential violent confrontations in a subtle manner, and (3) knew when to walk away.
Prior to training in martial arts I was fighting all the time as a kid. That’s just how it was back then. I wouldn’t say any of us were disciplined, as we were all pretty much using the classic “windmill punch” for self defense.
iC: In your opinion, how much of your training in the various arts do you think would be useful in a street self-defense situation? How much of it was fantasy?
SK: Well, people have always told me that in an actual street fight you tend to resort back to your initial martial arts training and/or discipline. And I believe this. It’s a foundation that you build upon from. But when the proverbial “sh*t hits the fan,” people tend to rely and revert to what they know.
I think that there are a lot of elements of EVERY martial art that are applicable and aren’t applicable in a street fight / self-defense situation. People tend to forget that martial arts have countless artistic applications as well. Kata’s (forms) for example, which of course, if utilizing in a real confrontation could potentially get your butt kicked. Although, a persons confidence, self-discipline, and overall techniques of traditional martial arts could be all the necessary tools an individual needs as a deciding factor in a street fight. In the end… it really depends on the each of the combatants mind set and training.
As for the fantasy aspect, that’s where the showmanship comes in. And in my opinion, that’s what a lot of people like to see when they go to the movies. I mean… the fantasy aspect of martial arts is what really motivated me to get where I am today. I’m a fan, and truly enjoy it basically because it looks really cool in person and on film. Is it plausible in a real fight? Probably not. But it still looks boss.
iC: You made your film debut in the Last Samurai opposite Tom Cruise. That is a great
accomplishment. Can you tell us about the training you underwent specifically for that film? You looked Hawkeye-sharp with the archery in the movie!
SK: Oh man, that was some scary stuff. At the audition I didn’t think I would get the role because of the lack of skills required. The casting director and producers began asking me about my archery and horseback riding experience. And I thought to myself there was no way I could land this role, so I was 100% honest with them (because I couldn’t fake these skills) and said I had zero experience. Luckily they liked me enough to hire me anyways, and immediately began my archery and horseback training for 2 months prior to leaving for Japan and New Zealand for the next 8 months.
I trained EVERYDAY in pre-production, and during production. I absolutely loved Kyudo (Japanese archery.) I was fortunate enough to pick it up fairly easy, which in turn, afforded me more time to focus on horseback riding, which scared the crap out of me… and still does. I never realized horses were so big. I mean, the thing is a real beast, and I was so scared to touch it. Learning to ride a horse proficiently took a ridiculous amount of time for me, in addition to recovering from my countless falls. Honestly, I don’t remember how many times the horse threw me off, but I do remember it was a long way down from on top of the horse, to the dirt track below. With each fall, time slowed down slower and slower. And each fall became scarier and scarier. If that wasn’t enough, they tasked me with learning Yabusame (Archery from atop a horseback.) I thought to myself: “Great. This is all I need. Another fall from the horse, but this time with sharp arrows in my hand.”
Japanese yabusame professionals said it was impossible for me to learn it in such a short amount of time, and that on average takes approximately 10 years of yabusame training to do so effectively. With strenuous training everyday, I was extremely fortunate enough to at least appear proficient, which seemed to blow everyone away. Could I do it again? I don’t know. Maybe I was just in the right mind frame where failure wasn’t an option. Then again, maybe I was just ridiculously lucky.
iC: In the Last Samurai, your character Nobutada tried to teach Tom Cruise’s character about the concept of “mushin” (no mind). It’s a concept that is hard to find an exact equivalent for in English but it’s an essential mindset for fighting. What does mushin mean to you and in what ways is it a useful skill to cultivate for real combat? Do you have any tips for developing mushin?
SK: For me, “mushin” is an intuitive reaction. It’s all about “letting go,” and allowing your natural actions/reactions to take over, especially in an emergency situation. It’s extremely useful and beneficial on numerous fronts, but absolutely necessary in a life-and-death situation. For example, in a potentially violent confrontation on the street, you might just have a few seconds to decide the correct course of action. Although, those few seconds might also be the difference between life and death, mushin allows your natural instincts to take control and thus, the course of the fight. What I mean by this is, if you take a few seconds to (1) intake and decipher what is going on, and (2) without panicking, decide what you should do… it might already be too late. Mushin is that “split-second” where you react, before it is too late. It truly is a game-changer.
Reverting back to my earlier comments about riding a horse… mushin saved me day in and day out whence I was thrown from the horse everyday. Due to gravity, I only had a mere 1 or 2 seconds to “ungracefully” tuck and roll when the horse threw me to the ground. I could have easily broken multiple bones had I panicked and froze. Your body is very resilient, if you can relax and allow it to naturally takeover.
I believe everyone can develop mushin, and what works for me might not work for someone else. Everyone has their own way; they just have to figure it out for themselves. Having said that, the best advice I can give about developing mushin is to meditate. Meditate everyday before you start your day and before you go to sleep. Just close your eyes and don’t think. (It’s actually VERY hard to do, but does takes a lot of practice.) The simplest way is to walk without thinking. Just walk (unless you live in a rough neighborhood.) Or even just begin writing. Write without thinking. Don’t stop, just keep going. Its almost as if looking through your eyes is a distraction. There’s just so much more information your brain is processing, that its almost impossible to focus on this simple task. Eventually with practice, time will begin to fly by while meditating, walking or writing. For me, my way was to do martial art “forms” without thinking about the next step. I just allowed my body and mind to react naturally knowing and trusting that it would occur organically. And it did.
iC: Within the martial arts, there’s always been the classic “my style is better than your style”, and it’s sadly still like that today. The so-called “Traditional martial arts” (Karate, Wing Chun etc) often get looked down upon by the big tough MMA guys and even some reality-based self-defense (RBSD) circles. In your opinion, what do the traditional martial arts offer to the reality-based martial artist (MMA and RBSD)?
SK: Martial Arts was developed as a system of self protection for yourself, loved ones, and even your country. Traditional martial arts teach you discipline, manners, respect, how to achieve goals through the belt and ranking system, they condition you physically, building your health and making you mentally strong. Not to mention, it builds your character and morals to a higher standard than the average Joe Schmo on the street. More importantly you learn compassion for other people. What I mean by this is that you quickly understand what its like to inflict injury upon another person. You understand the consequences of your actions via live sparring in class. Now, I admit that you are taught to hold back quite a bit in traditional martial arts classes, and I believe that many people feel very comfortable with that (especially parents), although I do feel that it is creating a false sense of security in most individuals. And in my opinion, this is the major difference between traditional martial arts and MMA and/or RBSD. Traditional martial arts are not perfect, whereas MMA and RBSD are very practical. The only flaw that I see in the latter is that there seems to be a lack of morals in MMA and RBSD. I mean, after a guy is on the ground… there really is no reason to continue pounding his head into the mat nor permanently blind and/or kill someone in a self-protection situation. If your skills are good enough, and you’re as badass as you really think you are, then you should be able to inflict the right amount of damage to an attacker in order to get home safely without any further threat to yourself. (Insert any example of “Master Ken’s Ameri-Do-Te” videos here.)
iC: When not undergoing specific training for a film role, what does your general training consist of? What do you do to stay in fighting shape?
SK: Well, believe it or not I constantly practice my “forms” and “stances.” I do this to build up my legs and more importantly my stamina. (THIS is important so you can run away if possible.) I also like to practice endless kicks (from all angles) and extend my kicks holding them in position for as long as I can. At the gym I normally do lighter weights with a lot of repetitions. Also, I run and bike for an hour each, at least three times a week. Depending upon how my legs are holding up after all that, I jump rope for 20 minutes. As you can see, I’m all about legs. My rationale is if I were in an all out marathon (whether it’s a fight, or I’m running away) with my opponent… who would win? I’m not training to be the best fighter in the world, I’m training to survive.
iC: What does the near future hold for Shin Koyamada? What are your goals for both your career and your martial arts?
SK: Well I don’t have anything too extraordinary in the near future, although I plan on continuing to promote martial arts for underprivileged children. I want to pass the true meaning of traditional martial arts onto children, such as self-esteem, morals, respect, honor, courage, etc. I believe this is extremely important and beneficial not only to the children themselves, but to society as a whole.
I also plan on expanding the Koyamada Foundation to a point where we are able to grant hundreds of martial arts scholarships every year to children throughout the US, and eventually worldwide. This will take time however can be expedited should any of your readers decide to offer a helping hand. (Hint, hint.) Aside from acting and producing when I can, I plan on being a martial arts student for life.
iC: Martial arts student for life? Are there any particular styles / disciplines that you’re dying to try… once you have the time?
SK: Actually, I have really been wanting to try a military / special-forces type of combat training. Something that would force me to challenge and push myself beyond my wildest expectations. Something that would really scare the crap out of me, but wouldn’t kill me. Haha. I guess it would be like a hard core, REAL, and practical combatives boot camp.
iC: Do you have any parting thoughts or advice to our readers?
SK: I would just like your readers to question why they are doing martial arts in the first place. I think it’s very easy to be carried away. You see martial arts isn’t about hurting people… its to protect yourself as quickly and efficiently as possible. And in my opinion, more importantly it’s about controlling yourself. Something which is very hard to do if you’re not a martial artist. What I mean by this is that it’s very easy to become desensitized to violence by knowing and/or learning lethal techniques (via television, film, social media, etc.) People who don’t know how to control themselves tend to quickly escalate the level and severity of violence to a point of no return. (If you don’t believe me, watch any YouTube street fight. Time and time again, people are stomping or soccer kicking someone’s head while they’re already knocked out. Its unnecessary and utterly absurd to take violence to that level.) Our human anatomy isn’t designed to handle that much violence, although resilient, our bodies are still fragile. Someone who isn’t able to control themselves will most likely end up doing permanent damage to an opponent, which in turn, will probably land them in jail, not to mention a sea of legal fee’s.
At the end of the day, you’re basically training your hands and feet to be weapons… so my question to you is what do you really want to do with those weapons?
Find out more about Shin at the following sites:
www.shinkoyamada.com (personal website)
www.koyamada.org (charity / foundation)
www.shincaentertainment.com (production company)
www.usmafest.org (U.S. Martial Arts Festival)