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Interview with AMY SPERLING SENSEI




Amy Sperling Sensei, in a few words, can you introduce yourself?

I’m Amy Sperling. I live in the middle of the United States, just south of Canada, in the city of Minneapolis, Minnesota. I’ve been training in karate for 42 years. My husband and I have owned our own dojo, Kitsune Karate, since 2015. I trained most of my time under Sensei Robert Fusaro who was one of Sensei Nishiyama’s longest students. I believe he trained with Nishiyama Sensei for close to 60 years. I competed mostly in kata and team kata both nationally and internationally on the US Team.



How did you start practicing Karate-do and how did you come to meet Nishiyama sensei?

I started training at University when I needed a physical education credit. My choices were aerobics or karate and I thought karate could be my “angry" dance. I met Nishiyama Sensei when Sensei Fusaro would bring him to Minnesota twice a year for a seminar and black belt testing. I had the pleasure of participating in many of Sensei Nishiyama's International Camps in San Diego.


For those who didn't have the chance to know that time, it's hard to imagine what the life and the trainings with Nishiyama sensei could be like,

can you tell us how the trainings were going?

My primary experience training with Sensei was during local seminars and at the La Jolla International Camp. The camp was always very intense and intimidating. An added level of intensity was the elite Team Training on the second floor of the gym. This was very hard and he was very demanding on all of us. I did visit and occasionally train at Sensei’s main dojo but it was limited. Many of my friends that that trained with Sensei regularly at his own dojo said that that experience was much different and more personalized - although still intense.


One thing that people sometimes forget is that Nishiyama Sensei was constantly changing his technique and concepts from year-to-year to seek improvement. He also exaggerated some techniques and the shapes he made for dramatic effect, but never intended those dramatizations to become dogma. His speech impediment also led many students to misinterpret his teachings in this regard.



Did you meet any other sensei who had an influence on your practice? Yes, my three favorite sensei in the U.S. are Toru Shimoji in Atlanta, Rick Hotton in Florida, and (the best in my mind) Steve Ubl in San Diego. They are all very skilled and have made their karate their own in an amazing and thoughtful way, without compromising principals.


What was the place of women in traditional karate at that time? men have an annoying tendency to put themselves forward,

and to stifle the skills of our female comrades (if I believe my darling who strangely enough is often right!) ... what do you think?

Being a women in karate has been difficult. Back in the day, women’s kumite was just starting. We fought regular kumite. I received many broken bones, black eyes, fat lips. I think we have a better control today. I was disappointed when Sensei changed to a requirement that women only do fuku-go.


I have often seen you on pictures, can you tell us about your experience as a competitor and practitioner when you were part of the US national team? Is competition an essential element for you?

Yes, I was on the USA team for many years. At that time in my life, competition was very important. It was a goal and it fed my competitive spirit. We enjoyed traveling to different countries and learning their cultures. We made many friends in the US and throughout the world. Today, I have a different feeling about competition. After Nishiyama’s passing, it all got fractured. The competitions are only as good as the judges.




Question for a joke; in mixed embu, it's always the woman who wins! My wife has massacred me for years, is that normal?

I believe that in a successful partnership, the woman always has to win. “…happy wife, happy life”. Enbu should be the same. The idea of a man destroying a woman in a fight is also rather contradictory to the principles of self-defense in karate.


Would you like to add something about Nishiyama sensei and the influence he had?

I have many things left from Nishiyama as he was there through most of my journey. He gave me a sharp eye and taught me that it is better to listen, than to speak.



Where and how do you teach karate-do today?

My husband and I own a dojo in Minnepolis. We start children at 7 years of age and we have a lot of the old black belts from the Fusaro dojo. Michael Fusaro is an instructor for us and his brother Darrell Fusaro also trains and teaches sometimes. After Covid, we are kind of struggling. We had a group of 40 very talented children before Covid and we have about 15 now — it’s very sad for us. We continue to grow, but find it hard to retain students like we did in the past.


We have evolved some of our technical practice and we move and create stances that may differ from the way Sensei moved later in his life. We will bring our heels up during kumite, we explore bunkai more than in the past, and we don’t lean back in our posture when making technique. However, the principles are still there or creating maximum force through good body dynamics.


We actually started our own national organization - The Shuhari Institute - and we had a good run with some great seminars and a national tournament, but it was always hard to get older sensei to work together. Now we just test our own students with the examination criteria we established with Shuhari.


In Europe, Nishiyama sensei's karate is still quite confidential, what about in the United States today?

Yes, I would say that Nishiyama had a large organization in the USA, but since his passing it has split into many pieces. I went outside the system and found some amazing practitioners. One thing that many U.S. instructors are struggling with is that there are very few practicing karateka that actually trained with Sensei. While his principles are still being taught, It is harder to do when so many students have no personal reference point to understand his legacy.



Do you think that karate-do can help women in their daily life?

I believe that karate gives women self-confidence, an incredible artistic outlet, and a voice. It also as helped my in defensive driving : )


Do you think it is more difficult for you to gain the respect of men when they start practicing karate-do? Not too macho-men ?

Oh, my. The long list of disrespectful experiences I have endured is a little embarrassing . When I first started judging at the International level, the center judge would never even look at my numbers or my flags. Women weren’t supposed to be “strong." Let’ s not forget that the sexual harassment was real and prevalent.


For my part, I have often wanted to offer free self-defense sessions to women in my profession (home nurse) but as I am a man of 1m80 and 105 kilos, I don't feel legitimate... what is your point of view on self-defense and how do you think traditional karate-do can be interesting compared to the numerous disciplines that are blooming and appearing regularly? (in the United States, I don't know, but in France, we have a fertile ground for it, and probably a density of great masters per square kilometer, that we must have difficulty to equal elsewhere in the world!)

I think that teaching women self-defense is a great thing, but it is different than karate. Much of the karate bunkai that is taught doesn’t work for me, as I am pretty tiny and a small frame. Being self aware, with good posture and alignment, and being in shape and able to run, are the best. I’m in my 60’s and I’ve never been in a street fight and I probably won’t ever.



I would like to ask you what advice you would give to a beginner to persevere and progress in the way of karate do ?

A beginner may forget that this is an art. When I was small, I started playing classical piano at age 6. I continued my practice throughout University, so I was lucky to understand the pedagogy, or how to learn an art. Something that may help a beginner understand is that Kihon are your scales, kata is like a piece of music when you start to put the shapes and patterns together, and Kumite is like jazz - anything goes, but it has a purpose. You can’t make beautiful music until you understand the shapes and patterns, coupled with technique. Be patient.



On which points of improvement would you like the current practitioners to focus ?

I believe the the fundamental basics have started to decline. Stomping and endless repetition of poor technique are the primary causes of many hip/knee replacements and shoulder injuries. Stop stomping and learn to move quietly and efficiently! More study of proper mechanics would eliminate all these injures in the future. All sports continue to seek the way to improve, but karate sometimes seems like they just repeat bad habits without thinking.


What do you have left today from the years spent in the sensei organization?

I am left with the knowledge that karate-do is a serious endeavor that requires great effort and time to practice. I appreciate the integrated system of principles that Sensei left us with. I also see the difficulties in getting the older generation to work together towards a greater goal of spreading the art.


Question for a joke; the logo of my club is a panda, nothing to do with the cartoon, at the creation of my dojo 6 years ago I had chosen this animal for the inclusive side; it is white, black, asian, clumsy, it seems inoffensive but its bite is however formidable... I liked it well as a logo... then I allow myself to ask you the question; why did you choose Kitsune, the fox?

We thought it was silly that so many dojo were named after their location (Midwest, Southeast, etc…) it was like they were “marking their territory”. We had a fox living in our back yard. We thought it was cute and clever, so we chose Kitsune - the Japanese word for fox. Fox also have mystical powers in Japanese mythology, connecting us back to the culture of that country.



I would like to know if you still have projects, dreams to realize, training courses in Europe to organize maybe ?

As many female karate have experienced, it is very rare that I get asked to teach a seminar or guest instruct. I’ve always focused on my own training and teaching my students locally, which is best for me.


What are the wishes you could formulate for our discipline if by chance a genie came out of a lamp and offered you three wishes?

• Ranking above Godan is almost entirely subjective and political - it should be eliminated and dan ranking should return to a purely technical evaluation.

• Sensei should not be treated like gods and should learn to take criticism and be held to higher standards in their teaching and interactions with students.

• Karateka should work together and stop in-fighting. No more cults.





To go further, you can visit sensei Amy's website : https://www.kitsunekarate.com/


I hope you've enjoyed this interview, follow us, share, comment , give us your opinions , and still give support to Ichi Gan Karate Traditional , located in Auribeau sur Siagne , close to Cannes, French riviera !


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