Exclusive Interview: Cezar Borkowski – Canada’s Progressive Karate Pioneer

You can’t deny it:

There’s something magical in seeing how other people interpret the way of Karate.

In fact, it’s more of a rule rather than an exception that whenever I interview elite Karate athletes, world-renowed Karate researchers or political Karate leaders; you’ll always learn something special from the obstacles and joys they share from their journey towards the summit of mount Karate.

Hanshi Cezar Borkowski – Northern Karate, Toronto, Canada.

And today’s guest, sensei Cezar Borkowski, is no exception to that rule.

Borkowski sensei, who’s authored popular books like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Martial Arts and Modern Shotokan, is largely responsible for igniting 11 full-time dojos with nearly 9000 active students all around Canada, truly embodying the traditional Confucian sentiment of “in order to understand the future we must learn from the past” (“on-ko-chi-shin” in Japanese).

This becomes further evident when you consider the fact that Borkowski sensei put together his teaching system for Karate based not only upon his vast learnings from the plethora of traditional Karate masters he’s met during his intense travels throughout Japan, China, Okinawa and the rest of Asia, but also his journey into martial arts like MMA, FMA (Filipino Martial Arts) and kempo.

So here’s what I wanted to know:

How has Borkowski sensei managed to fuse traditional teachings with modern concepts to amass such a dedicated martial arts following?

Let’s find out together, as I pick his brain below in my exclusive interview with Cezar Borkowski – Canada’s Progressive Karate Pioneer.

Here we go:

J (Jesse): All right! Starting from the beginning: When, where, with whom, how and why did you start practising Karate?

CB (Cezar Borkowski): “Well, my family immigrated to Canada from Poland in the mid 1960s. One week after our arrival, I enrolled in a Karate self-defence course in a local YMCA that was run by a young, British, Hakama-clad woman. However, at the time, I spoke no English and hadn’t the vaguest idea what style Judy (the sensei) taught, possibly Wado-ryu, but I learned kata Pinan 1, 2 and 3. After she left the YMCA, I began practicing Chito-ryu instead, with David Usher, who would in turn introduce me to Monty Guest. Sensei Guest was as a head instructor at master Tsurouka’s north branch, and later at Kai Shin Karate. For those who are unaware, Tsurouka Masami is regarded as the Father of Canadian Karate, and as a teenager I also had the opportunity to study at his hombu dojo (head dojo) in Toronto.”

J: Sounds like a real old-school beginning! So, what is your connection to training Karate in Japan/Okinawa then? When did you first go there, who did you meet and where have you trained?

A classic old-school Karate magazine pic of Cezar Borkowski.

CB: “In the mid-1980s I was a member, and later Canadian Director, for IMAF/Kokusai Budoin of Japan, and trained with masters like Sato sensei, Kanazawa sensei, Yamaguchi sensei, and Kai sensei. Although Kai Kuniyuki sensei, a Goju-ryu 8th dan, actually encouraged me to travel to Okinawa, my first trip to Asia led me and my wife, Marion, to China where we attended the 1988 World Koshu Championships in Hong Kong.

A few years later I made my first trek to Okinawa, and over time I have returned to ‘the Birthplace of Karate-do’ and hosted Okinawan guests dozens of times. I’ve also enjoyed many other research trips to mainland Japan, China, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

All in all, for nearly a quarter of a century, I’ve been fortunate enough to develop strong ties with Matayoshi Shinpo, Akamine Eisuke, Hokama Tetsuhiro, Nagamine Soshin, Nagamine Takayoshi, Nakazato Jyoen, Higa Seikichi, Kinjo Masakazu, Kishaba Chogi, Miyazato Eiko, Gakiya Yoshiaki, Nakamoto Masahiro, Tomimoto Yuko, Nakasone Kenzo, and the Shacho of Shureido, as well as cordial relationships with others, like Sakumoto-sensei and the Shinjo brothers.”

J: Wow. So, using all the above experience in both Karate and Kobudo, what does your own martial arts system look like today, and how exactly has your vast experience shaped your current teaching model of Karate?

CB: “Established in 1972, our dojo Northern Karate has grown from a handful of teens in an after-school program to 11 full-time dojo and nearly 9,000 active students. In addition to schools in Canada, NKS have several international affiliates. The syllabus features a blend of traditional Okinawan Karate and Kobudo, boxing, submission grappling and Silat, branded Seishikan Bujutsu.

NKS’ evolving curriculum reflects my own continuing martial arts journey, and while on the surface it might appear to be a departure from Okinawan martial traditions, it’s my opinion that it also mirrors the path that masters like Miyagi, Kyan and Motobu would follow if they were alive today.”

J: That’s a great comment, and I always say the same: If our old pioneers could’ve had access to the incredible opportunities we have today, Karate would most certainly look very different! So, speaking of evolution, how do you think traditional Karate has evolved during your career? Is there room for “ancient” martial arts in a modern MMA-influenced world?

In front of Shuri Castle, Okinawa.

CB: “I truly believe it’s important to honor tradition, but never be limited by it. We are not medieval re-enactors, but thoughtful practitioners adapting to modern conditions and needs! Thus, to remain relevant, Karate and all Budo training should be an organic, expanding – and thriving – experience.”

J: That is good advice on many levels. So let me ask you this then: What is the best advice you have personally ever received yourself in Karate or Kobudo from a sensei?

CB: “Over the years, several martial masters have generously shared their advice with me.

For instance: Nagamine sensei said the secret of Karate is to practice every each day, including your birthday, while Hokama sensei advised to show respect to the source, but question everything. Ko Uehara sensei recommended to make your unique training apparatus – because only you know the skills that need developing, and Nakazato sensei said that when you show a kata it’s not about improving your skills, but honoring your teacher. Shiroma sensei (Udun-di) often repeated that softness conquers perceived strength, because we injure ourselves by attacking too violently.

I really treasure these gifts of wisdom and try to apply them to my daily practice.”

J: That’s some actionable advice! So, since you are a passionate historian of Karate too, what is your personal favorite Japanese proverb (‘koto-waza’) and how does it relate to Karate?

CB: “Well, in my view, if there’s a single koto-waza, or paramount Okinawan tenet, it had to be “shin-gi-tai”, the balance of body-mind-spirit in training. While derived from Japanese mythology, it has really taken root in the Okinawa Karate tradition.

The 8th century Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) details the legend of Amaterasu (The Sun Goddess) and her brother Susanowo (The Storm God) like the following: After committing various bad acts, Susanowo was banished to the ‘outlands’ of Japan, and was only permitted to leave this hell on Earth after performing several good deeds and collecting three precious items: a sword, a jewel and mirror.

The sword represented physical martial training and valor (the body). The jewel symbolizeed knowledge and benevolence (the mind). The mirror signified self-reflection and spiritual development.

Now, some experts suggest that this tale may have been borrowed from the Yamato Rekishi, and is a foreign concept. That argument notwithstanding, this koto-waza and the concept of the three ‘jewels’ – or three areas of martial development – should be incorporated into the training and daily actions of all Karate-ka.”

J: Thats an awesome koto-waza with a fascinating story. Speaking of your own story, could you share a special moment from your fascinating Karate/Kobudo life that has made a strong impact on your journey?

Kata bunkai (applications) in Okinawa.

CB: “Oh, there are countless, wonderful memories that spring to mind, including attending a 7:00 a.m. class with Nagamine Shoshin which included a 60-second sit-up competition where the 87 year-old grandmaster won himself… handily. Performing kata and sparring at Nagamine’s Jubai (88th birthday celebration) and demonstrating at the Naha-matsuri (tug o’ war) with Matayoshi sensei also come to mind.

There are also some sad ones, like visiting my dear friend Shiroma Kiyanori sensei last year, as he lay dying in a cancer clinic. Shiroma passed away the following day and will be greatly missed. I was grateful for the opportunity to say goodbye and attend his memorial service, and hope to honor him and his teachings in my practice.”

J: In my opinion, memorable experiences are always valuable – good or bad. It’s time to wrap this interview up, so I want to finish by asking you a last question: For people who have a background in traditional Karate but wish to expand their knowledge into modern martial arts, what is your #1 advice for making that transition in a sensible way?

CB: “I recommend practicing what you do diligently, and expanding the ‘original method’ while always honouring the source. Changing things for the sake of change is futile, but changing to improve, to grow, that’s the true path of martial arts.

In closing, I believe change is a vital part of the maturing process. As evolving martial artists, we may reinvent ourselves – technically, physically, mentally, spiritually, even politically (i.e. for reasons of rank or affiliation), but even as we chart our own course it’s important to remember our origins and pay homage to those who’ve paved the way. To quote T.S. Eliot: ‘We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.'”

J: Great quote with a great moral. Thanks for your time Borkowski sensei, and good luck with training, teaching and traveling!

CB: “Thank you Jesse-san, it was my pleasure.”

16 Comments

  • Andi
    Thank you both for this excellent interview!
  • Szilard
    Next time you see him please ask him the 3 kata question: if you could learn only 3 kata but you could learn them with absolute perfection, with bunkai,the different performing stiles and attitudes, and all the shebangs, which 3 kata would you choose? Why those three?
  • Terry Maccarrone Shorinryu Ueshiro-ha Kancho
    Thank you for sharing. Cezar Borkowski and his wife Marion are completely dedicated to martial arts. They work together as one and have done it all. Their insight to people are ego less and show respect to everyone. They are more than pioneers but they are the Ford Motor company of Canadian Karate. They made karate accessible to everyone
  • ANDREY
    HOSSU !!CONGRATULATION !!IT IS VERY INTERESTING !!!THANK YOU .....HOSSU !!!!ANDREY.
  • I can tell you Szilard and other with interest that my sensei Inoue (Gansho) Motokatsu (1918-1993) told me when I asked him the same question. If you are bussy some times and have no time to do all your kata, wich 3 katas your should do? His answer was, Kushanku Dai, Naifanchin Shodan and Sanchin.
  • Robert
    I'm sorry to tell you Jesse, but Cezar's dojos (Northern Karate Schools) have become McDojos and when I say that I mean it I've seen 9 year old children at his locations that already have black belts when they can't even make a proper punch.
    • Rooshman
      You could not be more wrong. The principles of our dojo are not to reward progress on some objective scale, but to strive for "personal best". It is all about the student surpassing their own limitations, to achieve personal milestones. At age 9, does it matter if the child can disable an attacker, or break a block with his or her hands? No. What matters is that the student has shown an ability to focus and commit to learning. Our dojo has students of all shapes and sizes, both able bodied and challenged. We have handicapped children, autistic children and even elderly adults. One of our past students was even a paraplegic, and she surpassed not only her own limits, but the limits society would seek to place upon her. Her Black Belt is more deserved than that of any able bodied individual who could break a board with "a proper punch." McDojos? Not on your life. I'm proud to be an NKS student, and always will be.
      • Rooshman
        Directly for Hanshi: "Regarding the issue of children attaining a black belt rank... Years ago the chosen age of 16 was used as a general benchmark of martial art maturity. Most people do not know how that came to be. In the post war Okinawan school system Karate was made available in the middle school. After enrolling to practice at the age of 12 or 13 they would make black belt by the age of 16 or 17. The norm has drastically changed over the years, with better teachers, effective curriculums and more extensible schools opening. Most children start training at the age of 3 and 4 now. Stripes and belts are only motivational tools used to build a great martial artist, and black belt is not the end of the road in NKS, but a great beginning. As for the term of McDojo, it's one of those term circulated by the "message board" trolls. Any real experienced practitioner or teacher of Karatedo knows the time, effort and incredible commitment needed for significant success of a dojo, group or system. As for producing black belts, a sudo traditional dojo, the kind with the pants cut just below their knee, with active count of 100 students produces 3-4 black belts a year. At NKS there over 9000 people trying weekly. We produce about 250 black belts a year... which is actually a lower number of rank recipients. Lastly, there are often comments and opinion posted. That's OK, after all we live in this the age of rapid sharing. There is a huge difference between opinion, and experienced based knowledge. The problem is is not the lack of knowledge, but the illusion of having it. - C.Borkowski"
  • Paul Dupre
    Wonderful interview of a very innovative and cutting-edge Modern Master of Martial Arts. As someone who attended several competitions where Sensei Borkowski was a fellow competitor or fellow judge, he was both gracious and giving even when he was the Grand Winner ! A wonderful human being and one of the Greats of Canadian Martial Arts. A Director of Canadian Black Belt Hall of Fame as well as a past recipient ! My utter most respects to him !
  • Thank you for the interview . I met Cezar Sensei this summer and I tried to help him translating the interview with grand master Minoru Higa during his visit to Okinawa . Cezar sensei is a gentleman and humble , it was really good to meet him . I lived myself in Okinawa in 1985/86 than Japan for 15years and went nearly 50 times to Okinawa to study Karate but I was surprised about Cezar sensei's knowledge. I hope we will meet again . My profond respect ! Warm regards Patrick Rault Kyudokan France
  • Yuri
    I have no doubt in Sensei Cezar's best intentions but...unfortunately commercial success of NKS did bring with it quite a bit of devaluation of the black belt level. Kids that spent a few years at NKS do get their dans mostly as a recognition of their "effort". But when they show up at the local WKF tournament many can't get past the first round of either kata or kumite simply because they are not skilled enough. I wish them to focus more on Karate and a little less on commercial side of things. But maybe when the franchise becomes too big that's inevitable. Good luck.
  • Khanh Vu
    Hello Jesse-san, Wonderful interview and I have a lot of respect for the sensei. However his schools, Northen Karate, have became a McDojo line.They have stuffs that Jesse has written about signs of McDojo. For examples: - Lots of kids have black belt. - Very expensive membership price but little class per week (2 I believe) -Black belt club membership at very high rate. - Require to buy their gi and have to buy everytime a new rank is aquired. - Parents cannot see the class while in session. - No observation while class is in session.
    • Pinoy Karate Nerd
      Khanh Vu:Not sure how you came into a conclusion that Northern Karate Schools are categorized as "McDojo Line".NKS have lots of kids with blackbelt rank - Yes, however, they have earned them based on their personal best.Very expensive membership with 2 class per week (you believe)? - Have you done your intensive research on membership of all dojos? Get your facts straight. 9 of the 14 NKS Dojos are open 7 days a week.Require to buy gi and buy everytime a new rank is acquired - NKS do not require students to buy gi and they don't charge additional fees when students tests for their next belt level.Parents cannot see the class while in session - Are you serious? Go to any NKS Dojo and parents are watching their kids while they are in class.No observation while class in session - I don't think I completely understood this.
      • Daniel Boiani
        Correct!
    • Daniel Boiani
      Complete nonsense.
    • Fernando
      Hello Khahn, Since your comment is recent, allow me to offer my perspective. I arrived at this interview with Hanshi Borkowski as I research for writing my mandatory essay as I just completed the test for my shodan-ho designation. Feel free to discount my comments based on bias, but I wanted to comment on factual aspects. Membership is not expensive, particularly compared to other sports. 2 classes per week? I regret to say but you're mistaken: at the dojo we frequent it's 2 classes per *day* for kids per progression level (2 for novice, 2 for intermediate, 2 for advanced), and 1.5 per day for adults. "Black belt membership at high rate"? I don't quite understand what you mean. As for parents watching class, let me say that the reason I joined is that I was always watching my son's class, and liked it. Bleachers at the dojo are usually full. You're certainly entitled to your opinion, but I wanted to provide first-hand insights that at least some of the aspects you mentioned are not accurate. Respectfully, Fernando

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