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Interview with Keith D. Yates

September 29, 2008

Keith D. Yates, author of The Complete Guide to American Karate & Tae Kwon Do, started teaching karate in 1967 while still a brown belt (there were not many black belts back then). In addition to his 40+ years of martial arts experience, Yates has written over 400 articles and authored or co-authored 9 books. He is the founder and president of the American Karate and Tae Kwon Do Organization, and travels the country teaching and lecturing on the American martial arts. In the following interview, Yates discusses how he began his lifelong pursuit of martial arts, the nuanced differences between the terms “karate” and “tae kwon do,” and why video games and energy-drink commercials are both good and bad for martial arts.

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The Complete Guide to American Karate & Tae Kwon Do “is meant to be a comprehensive reference to American methods of karate and tae kwon do.”  What inspired you to write this guide and how does it differ from the other books available on the market concerning similar subjects?

Of course there are many other books on the shelves but I have found them to be either very basic (meaning only of interest to raw beginners) or very highbrow (meaning new or intermediate students won’t understand much of it). I always prepare a reading list for my own students but there didn’t seem to be a definitive text on the American approach. So I tried to use my decades of experience to bridge the gap and write a book that all students could enjoy and benefit from.

The comprehensibility and easily decipherable language of The Complete Guide make it approachable even for beginners.  Do you intend for this book to reach such an audience or is it designed with someone else in mind?

One of the things my students, my editors and my readers have always told me is that I can take a complicated subject and make it understandable. So yes, this book is for those who don’t know much about American karate and tae kwon do. But I’ve included enough interesting and little known facts about these arts that even the most seasoned instructors will learn something new.

In the introduction of your book you explain, “American karate and American tae kwon do aren’t really so much styles of martial arts as much as ways of approaching the martial arts.”  Can you please expand on this?

America has been called a “melting pot,” and that is certainly true when it comes to taking activities and sports from other cultures and stripping them down to the essentials. Because Americans don’t have the prejudices that someone from a certain country might have concerning their martial arts we can pick the techniques that work best for us. Bruce Lee, ironically not American born, was the man who popularized this approach in the United States.

You use the term “traditional” to refer to martial arts practice that places the emphasis on the “self-defense and character building aspects” and you use the term “modern” to refer to martial arts as sports, those geared toward “tournaments and competition techniques.”  Are both found equally in America?  Do you believe either one to be superior?

Well, I think it boils down to what you want out of your training. If you want to add another sport to your lifestyle, if you like competition and the spoils that come with winning them then you’ll enjoy the more modern approach. If you are interested in things like getting into better shape, improving your self confidence and self discipline, then you’ll probably be drawn to a more traditional approach to the martial arts. Having said this I doubt you will find many schools in North America that totally ignore one or the other of these aspects. It’s more a matter of degree. I will say that the more traditional the approach, the longer the students probably stay with it (I’m talking decades here). You probably won’t want to be competing in tournaments into middle age.

Your book addresses the martial arts of karate and tae kwon do and you, like many tae kwon do specialists, use these two terms interchangeably.  You also explain that karate is the general term for “any striking martial art.”  Will you please clarify any important differences in the history or practices of karate versus tae kwon do?

The term karate (empty hand) came into practice in the 1920s. The term tae kwon do (way of kicking and punching) was coined in 1955. So both are fairly modern names. Karate became popularized in America after servicemen returned from World War II. When I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, we read tales of “karate experts” in comic books and saw them on TV (“I Love Lucy” and “Dick Van Dyke” to name a couple). So when the new Korean martial art of tae kwon do was introduced into this country, the first teachers used the term “karate” because it was already in common usage (and, of course, early tae kwon do WAS karate—read the book).

By 1988, when tae kwon do was introduced into the Olympics, the art had enough of a following that the term was recognizable by most Americans. So most of the Olympic style practitioners (call them the Korean Kuki schools) hate using the word karate. And if your karate school proudly traces its lineage directly back to Japan proper you, no doubt, refuse to use the term tae kwon do. Still, there are hundreds of thousands of Americans who just call what they do American karate no matter the origin of their systems (remember the “melting pot”).

Throughout all of the chapters there are profiles of martial artists, providing the readers with a great deal of information on many of the most influential people in the field of martial arts.  Do you have any personal heroes?  Is there anyone you believe to have had an unsurpassed influence on martial arts and its history?

The two who wrote the introductions to the book are my martial arts heroes. My relationship with Jhoon Rhee (the man who brought the Korean martial arts to the America) goes back forty years. And although I also met Chuck Norris in the 1960s I didn’t really get to know him until ten years or so ago when I started working with his Kick-Start Foundation. Both of these guys have had a tremendous influence on the arts in this country and the world. I think it is safe to say that the martial arts would be totally different without the influence of these two.

You are a 10th-degree black belt and someone who has dedicated his life to martial arts.  How did you become involved in the arts originally?  What fueled your interest and training?

I started at the age of 14 when my mom saw an ad for “karate” lessons at the local community center (even though it was technically tae kwon do we called it karate). We had a neighbor by the name of Marian Erickson who had just started training with the same instructor (Allen Steen) and she told my mom how great it was. Three and a half years later Marian and I tested for black belt the same day. Sometimes I don’t know how I lasted in Steen’s school. I was practically the only kid (admittedly I was small for my age) and Marian was just about the only woman. Karate, in those days, was an activity for testosterone-filled men. Still, I never even considered quitting the martial arts and today I am about the only one of Steen’s original black belts still active and teaching. I guess, for me, it became a lifestyle. That’s what I try to instill in my students—and maybe even those who read my books.

At the end of each chapter you provide a list of questions from that chapter.  How does this aid the reader in using The Complete Guide?  Why did you decide to include this section?

One of the things I do in my rank exams is have both a written and oral test. The questions serve as a starting point for instructors who might want to do the same thing. Of course, it also acts as a reminder of what the reader has learned from his or her reading (I am, after all, a teacher).

One section in the introduction of your book recommends ways to choose a martial arts school.  What are some institutes at which you trained and how did you choose them?  Is it more important for a student to select a school based on an individual instructor or the institute as a whole?

Well, you must take everything into consideration but ultimately I think it comes down to the teacher. Is this someone you can learn from? Is this someone who makes you want to learn? And is this someone whom you want to emulate? Just like you’ll find good and bad teachers in public schools you’ll find good and bad sensei (actually there is even a broader spectrum because karate teachers don’t have to take any classes on teaching methods—they don’t even have to be high school graduates for that matter). I have earned multiple black belts and that’s the way I have chosen my own teachers. I am attracted to instructors who model the characteristics that I’d like further develop in my own life.

Before delving into the chapters on history, philosophy, procedures, physical aspects, training patterns, sparring and self-defense, you provide a question and answer section addressing the basics of American karate and tae kwon do.  What are the most common questions you are asked by readers and students?

Those question are the ones I am most asked by both beginning students and those people I run into who don’t know anything about the martial arts other than seeing Jackie Chan movies. There are so many “myths,” if you will, about karate and tae kwon do that I wanted to address some of them in an easy to access format. People are most surprised, I think, to find out there are no standards for black belt. A black belt in one school might be equivalent to a green belt in a school down the street. And I’m just talking about physical skills—the knowledge level of instructors varies wildly. I hope that’s one of the things this book can help correct.

Your book considers aspects of karate and tae kwon do ranging from history and culture to competition to religion.  Is it fair to say that martial arts involve spirituality, sport, art, and culture?  How are martial arts a lifestyle more than merely a form of defense or exercise?

Yes, they involve all the above if you want them to. It depends on your motivations for training and the competency of your instructor. You can do karate for a couple years, win a few trophies and then move on to another sport. You can even stick around long enough to earn a black belt but then find you don’t have time to devote to it anymore. But if you have learned to love the art then you can become an artist much like a musician or painter or writer.

Recently the martial arts have been more and more present in American media—from energy drink commercials to martial arts fighting video games.  How do you feel about this trend and the way in which our country’s media portray the practice of martial arts?

I have to say I have mixed feelings. On one hand any exposure for the martial arts is good because it creates an interest and brings more people into the schools. On the other hand TV and video games serve to create those “myths” I alluded to before. Perhaps with more people involved in the arts there will be a greater understanding of what they are truly all about (hint: it’s not Zen meditation and/or extreme violence).

Is there anything that you have learned throughout your lifelong participation and achievements in karate and tae kwon do that you would like to pass on to those who are just beginning their pursuit of the martial arts?

I used to believe that the martial arts were for everyone but I don’t anymore. Oh, everyone can benefit from a little more self-discipline and could probably stand to exercise some more but you can get that from plenty of other activities. And knowledge of self-protection tips are certainly needed by all but you can attend a neighborhood watch group or take a self-defense class at the rec center for that too. The martial arts are a serious pursuit and while a good instructor can make it enjoyable he or she must also strive to impress the student with the fact that it’s more than sport, more than fun, it’s a way of life (however corny that may sound).

CLICK HERE to learn more about The Complete Guide to American Karate & Tae Kwon Do
CLICK HERE to read more about Keith D. Yates

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