A Black Belt Extravaganza

Yesterday I traveled to Indianapolis to attend Herb Johnson Karate’s black belt promotions. This was a bit somber of a trip for me because Herb Johnson Hanshi passed away recently but I promised I would attend this event the last time we spoke a week before his untimely passing.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect since I have never attended such a large grading of students going for various black belt ranks but I will state it was a very good experience and definitely a positive one. During the exam I was fortunate enough to sit next to Ken Piper, a senior instructor under Hanshi Johnson, who graciously explained their system to me while the students performed their required materials. I have competed against many Shorei Goju Ryu students over the years but never really knew much about what all entailed their system. Shorei Goju was the system that Robert Trias O’Sensei (father of American Karate) had assigned to Hanshi Johnson to be responsible for in 1979. Over the years Hanshi Johnson melded his entire background of experience into this art. What is important to note is that Hanshi Johnson’s experience is legendary in the world of martial arts to say the least. If you don’t know who he is then do some research because he was one of the most accomplished martial artists, instructors and school owners in the USA.

The grading process began with a formal bow in of the students. Introductions were made of the honored guests (which I was lucky enough to be there for) and then they began with Kata, Bunkai, Weapons and Sparring reviews. It was incredible to witness an entire gym floor filled with spirited karate students demonstrating their skills for their next rank. Most black belt exams I have attended, or held, typically have around 3 to 15 people. I would guess there was at least 40 testing this day.

During the entire exam I sat on the edge of my chair soaking it all in. Watching adults all the way to young children showcasing what they have learned in honor of their Sensei and Hanshi Johnson. You could see how they all supported each other and I even watch instructors get up, go out on the floor and do things right along their students to encourage them. It was amazing to watch people who held high rank positions get up and go out just to be the Uke (partner) in the Bunkai for others who didn’t have one. The entire day was filled with hard work, effort, sweat and struggles but in the end they were all part of a huge family that supported each other and helped one another face the challenging of ranking up to black belt and beyond.

Hanshi Johnson first talked to me about this type of event he holds over three years ago. His eyes would always light up as he described the process and why he loved this aspect of his dojos so well. Until I experienced it myself I can honestly say I had no idea why they called it an “extravaganza” but now I truly know. My heart was filled with great joy watching so many people display their love and respect for Hanshi Johnson during this event. It was very clear his spirit was present in the room as the day progressed and I am positive that he was smiling while looking down on this day’s activities. Hanshi Johnson loved Karate and it showed in everything he did…and this day it showed through all of his students and their Sensei.

At the end of the day I was so completely honored to be present and watch as a great martial artists and friend, Phil Morgan, was promoted as style head of Shorei Goju Ryu. This was Hanshi Johnson’s wish that he spoke to Glenn Keeney Hanshi (a living legend in the martial arts, founder of the Professional Karate Commission and Komokai Karate in Anderson) about in case anything should ever happen to him. Keeney Hanshi announced this huge responsibility to the students, parents and instructors present. It was apparent that Morgan Hanshi is distressed about the loss of his Sensei and his new appointment but knowing him I can attest that he will do an incredible and amazing job as the new head of the Shorei Goju Ryu and Shorei Goju America groups.

At the end of the day I was able to step into a photo shown on this blog post. In the photo are (left to right) Mike Kincaid Hanshi, Phil Morgan Hanshi, Glenn R Keeney Hanshi, Eddie Bethea Kyoshi (my Sensei), Donnie Michael Renshi (my Sempai) and little old me. To be in a photo with these amazing Karate people is truly humbling. I grew up in Indiana Karate knowing who all of these men, and many more, were. Never once, in my lifetime, would I have ever guessed I would be in a photo with them and call them friends. It was another amazing aspect to an incredible day. The men in this photo (not including me) are some of the most accomplished martial artists in the entire world!

As I drove home that night I reminisced on all the discussions I have had with Hanshi Johnson over the past six years. We talked about business things all the way to how the arts have changed and how we, as Sensei, need to adapt and conform to those changes yet maintain the traditions and aspects of what makes martial arts incredible for people. For a little while a few tears rolled down my cheek as I thought of him and knew that I was going to miss our talks and seeing him at events. It was always a highlight of my day to see Hanshi Johnson walk into a tournament because I knew he was going to share something with me that day at the end of the event. I was honored to be invited to this event, honored to know many of the people there testing that day and honored to share in it as part of remembering Hanshi Johnson…a great man, loving father and Sensei as well as one of the most accomplished martial artists in the world. He will be missed greatly but his art, his schools and his love will carry on through those students and instructors that were there at the event. That is as amazing a feeling any Sensei could ever wish for when they pass on…just amazing!

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