The young man walked briskly down the dark, deserted streets of Seoul, Korea. It was late and he was alone. Suddenly three punks stepped out of a doorway and blocked his path ahead. Trying not to betray his apprehension, he kept on walking. With each step forward he repeated to himself, "I've got enough power. Enough speed. Enough techniques to beat them." Finally there was no more distance between him and the three hoodlums. They moved in to corner him. But Jae Chul Shin kept his cool and maintained his ground. Before the men could touch him, he calmly said, "I'm not a street fighter. I don't want any trouble. But I'm not afraid of you."
Thoroughly shaken by the man's surprising confidence, the three toughs changed their minds and ran away. "Confidence. Strong confidence in myself overcame them," Shin recalled. "This is what long training in karate has taught me."
It is his success at passing the same self confidence on to his thousands of Korean and American students over the years that distinguishes Shin among instructors. Speaking with a heavy accent, the Korean sensei emphasized that a black belt in karate is no guarantee of invincibility. "I'm a karateman. Black belt. I can do kicking and other defenses. Can protect myself. This is no guarantee. Maybe you didn't think about it, but you could be attacked from behind and knocked down. Karate techniques very good. But depends on how you use them. Depends on the man himself." If conditions are right, Shin feels a proficient karateka can protect himself against four attackers, since he has four ready weapons at his disposal-two hands and two feet. If he uses his head as a butt, he may be able to handle five attackers.
Comparing American and Korean karateka, Shin observes that Americans are stronger, not only physically, but also in their knowledge of techniques. However, the superiority of American karateka ends with techniques. "Americans train hard to become black belts. When they become first degree, most stop." Further elaborating on American karateka, Shin says they "Do not study the mental part of karate. They do not study the old masters and try to find out what they teach. What they mean. Neglect the philosophy! " The diminutive moo-duk-kwan stylist feels that philosophy is neglected because of the emphasis placed on tournaments. An American, Shin explained, thinks, "I go to tournament to be a good karateka. I must win." This kind of thinking is wrong, he feels. In Korea, karate experts do not stress tournaments. They say competition is all right for judo but not for karate. Tournaments in his country, he says, are for developing athletes, not winning trophies. "Tournaments are similar to demonstrations. Only certificates awarded."
Although Shin has attended tourneys, he has never competed. Neither does his dojo here in the U.S. But if one of his students expresses interest in competition, Shin tells him, "Go to tourney and learn something from another style. Get experience. Find out your weak points." And should a student come back with a trophy, Shin beams like a proud new father.
Contestant Feels Cheated
In his soft-spoken way, this Korean sensei argues against U.S. tournaments because he feels the officiating is too often handled by biased and incompetent sensei. "The familiar 'Because I think so' is not good enough explanation from an official questioned about a decision," he says with a smile. He also criticizes tournaments for their negative effect on contestants. He explained that a loser can develop a psychological trauma and harbor resentment against the officials. The contestant feels cheated, and sometimes he is. In future competitions he may not follow the rules and may be ousted. Then he'll hate all tourneys.
Another effect of losing is the competitor's feeling that he isn't a good karateman. He thinks winning is the only proof of ability, so he takes a devil-may-care attitude in future matches and becomes careless with his kicks and punches, inviting injury to himself and his opponents. In short, the tournament loser is in danger of becoming a bad karateman. His loss of interest in training and developing good techniques results in sloppiness and, all too often, in giving up karate. Who knows? He may have become a great karateka if he hadn't placed excessive importance on a tournament loss.
Shin concedes that tournaments in the U.S. may be necessary, but suspects that they will run their course into obscurity like all fashions. His hope is that tomorrow's U.S. tourneys will evolve in the direction of Korean competitions, where the feeling is close to that of an athletic exhibition.
Momentarily dropping his ever-present smile, the New Jersey-based sensei pauses to regret the passing of karate's old "closed-door" policy. "Secret karate," he reflects, "open to members only." He feels that a return to this approach would produce more selectivity by instructors and, in turn, better karatemen. "When karate is trained in secret, the students have more respect for the history and tradition of the art," he stresses. "This is pure karate. This is the soul of karate!"
Shin's students don't hesitate to attest to their instructor's devotion to the art of moo-duk-kwan (which translates as "martial virtue"). Students who object to his two hour non-stop training sessions are reassured by Shin that he is only making sure they get their money's -worth. He teaches and trains his students in the Korean manner, lamenting the commercial competition in the U.S. that forces a sensei to be "soft" on his students if he is to have a popular dojo: "American students look for fancy club, even if instructor is bad. They bypass the unpainted dojo, even if it has good instructor."
A graduate in political science from Korea University, Shin would like to see more control exerted over who can open a dojo.
He notes that in Korea an instructor must acquire at least a fourth-degree black belt before he can teach. "Candidate must be good character and be able to teach," he says. "Anyone with fourth degree should have enough leadership, enough experience. Good karate students come only from good instruction."
Although Shin has been teaching karate for over 20 years, he still considers himself a student. "When I studied in Korea, I never thought myself expert. I'm a student. I've not reached master belt (9th degree). When I reach this, then maybe I call myself expert. Now, I'm still learning like my student. There are no ends in the ways of karate."
Varied Teaching Assignments
In addition to teaching at his own dojo in New Jersey, the dedicated sensei also instructs at Camden County College and Gloucester County College. When not busy teaching, he is the acting sergeant of the Rutgers University Campus Patrol.
Among his most recent and challenging teaching assignments has been the instruction of F.B.I. agents. The challenge results not from reluctant students, but from the chore of teaching karate in such a way that its use would not seriously injure a suspect. "Mister Shin," the agents complained in their early lessons, "we don't want to kill anybody-just arrest them. Your techniques are too rough." Never easily defeated, Mr. Shin is presently incorporating some aikido techniques into his own so that suspects can be subdued without injury.
The determined instructor hopes to eventually matriculate at Rutgers University and finish his work towards his master's degree. His coming to the U.S. meant interrupting the two years of graduate study he had already spent at Korea University.
So far, he has never had to put his karate training to use in the U.S. With a wide grin, he comments, "When I'm on campus patrol and go through the neighborhoods, people say, "There goes the Korean karate-man. Maybe that's why no one bothers me."
He has had occasion to use his training in the past, however. When a gang of nine hoods once crashed a college picnic in Korea, all the young men ran for safety, leaving Shin to fend for himself and three hysterical coeds. Shin's first impulse was to run away, too, but something stopped him. "No one to protect the girls, so I just forced myself to stay," he recalls.
Shin stood fast with the girls as the gang taunted them. "I was young then and not afraid to fight," he says. "But I had to find a vantage position to fight that many." He quickly readied himself, then challenged them, "O.K. You want to fight? Who will come first?"
The nine men edged towards him. Shin sent the first attacker sprawling to the ground with a strong side kick. then executed a roundhouse with the same foot to dispense with the second candidate. The rest of the gang "took off like scared rabbits," and all those long hours spent training had paid off in a hurry.
Shin takes justifiable pride in the 150 black belts he has taught and promoted in the U.S. For a man whose involvement with traditional karate leaves him indifferent to tourneys, it is ironic that his best known student is a competitor who captivated the karate world by winning almost all the tourneys around the world and against all comers--Chuck Norris.
By George Stromeyer
Karate Illustrated, July, 1971