Quiet Force, Gentle Power
A Profile of John Roseberry's Search For Answers On the Floor
The image is, perhaps, incongruous. On the dojo floor, the most down and dirty street fighter talks about the importance of Ju or softness in one's Karate and kata. This same person who wantonly broke the legs, arms, and faces of his opponents on and off the floor, now talks about the stupidity of fighting in words so quiet and soft that students must concentrate to hear each word. Here, the competitor who once saw how fast he could both knock out his opponent and get disqualified says, "Karate waza. Punches, kicks and blocks are only about this big." as he indicates an inch-sized circle with thumb and forefinger. "Karate-do is this big." as he circles his arms wide to the horizons.
Then he says, "Now I've been runnin' my mouth just to give you a little break." He ends his brief discussion, by looking intensely at each student and says, "This is a school of no-graduation. All the answers you seek can only be found on the floor." Soon, rivulets of condensation from the sweat and exertion of his students run down the dojo windows. Dojo passers by hear his Marine DI cadence barked out to the students who are moving up and down the floor performing intensive drills.
The enigmatic man is John Roseberry, Shihan who, for over forty years, has been a quiet force in the martial arts world. Shihan Roseberry focuses his life on training on the dojo floor. He pays little attention to talk, seekers of headlines, fame or fortune. "I see and hear many talkers. I sometimes call them Kuchi Waza-mouth technicians. They're not bad people. It's just that I'm only interested in training on the floor. I have little interest in talking about it. Tradition is the cornerstone of our study. Our tradition can be found only on the floor...only through our training. We don't talk about tradition, we just train. That is our tradition.
John Roseberry has trained and taught longer than some of the self-proclaimed Masters have been alive, and holds a 9th Dan in Okinawan Goju Ryu Karate-do; a 7th Dan in Judo; and a 3rd Dan in Aikido. Roseberry has trained and taught in China, Japan, Europe, Okinawa, Viet Nam, the Middle East and throughout North America. Such are the lofty martial achievements of one with a dubious beginning.
Street Fighting, Crime, Boxing, Judo Beginnings and the U.S. Air Force
John Roseberry was born on March 8, 1935 in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood North of Kansas City. As a youth, Roseberry ran with the hoodlums of his neighborhood and was interested only in fighting and street crime. He was a seasoned street fighter and was always looking for techniques that would enable him to better "beat the hell out of somebody." His street fighting led him to boxing. "My whole life back then was fighting, beatin' the hell out of people either in the ring, or outside the ring. I was happy only when I was fighting. I was not a good person then-I was crazy as hell. I was lucky that I lived through that period of my life."
In 1952, and as an accomplished golden gloves boxer and seasoned street fighter, Roseberry enlisted in the Air Force. One day Roseberry had fallen in, and was standing at attention. The commanding officer asked his corpsmen, "Does anybody have boxing experience?" Roseberry and one other stepped forward and were offered assignment to the Special Services. Says Roseberry, "Special Services basically meant troop entertainment. It was a great job. We trained and boxed in matches staged for the entertainment of the troops." As a Special Services boxer, John "Tank" Roseberry won many titles including the All-Services Championship.
In 1955, while stationed in Lincolnheath, England, Roseberry and the other Air Force boxers shared training facilities with Judo players. "I kept watching those judo players work out and figured this judo was good shit! A Captain Skrimik was taking judo classes there at the time and talked me into my first judo practice. That was my first class in an Asian martial art. I can remember they worked us out harder than I thought I could work. After that first class, I quit. But, like some people quit cigarettes every day, I quit judo about every practice. I kept coming back for more."
After his service in the Air Force, Roseberry returned to his old neighborhood,and his old street fighting ways. Shortly after his homecoming, Roseberry found himself in front of a Judge who offered him an alternative to incarceration, enlistment in the U.S. Marine Corps. Although in a different branch of the Armed Services, Roseberry found himself on familiar ground-boxing for Special Services and judo. Within a year of his mustering out of the Air Force, Roseberry found himself in his first judo tournament in San Diego at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot. As a white belt, he beat a white belt, a green belt, a brown belt and two black belt competitors.
Achievements In Judo, Okinawa and Asian Sensei
In 1956 Roseberry was stationed in Okinawa, another turning point in his life. He continued his judo training in Okinawa under Sensei Matsumoto. It was also his first exposure to an Asian Sensei. "Matsumoto, Sensei was probably the best teacher that I have ever been under. He would always tell me in broken English, "Thinkee-thinkee. All time, thinkee." He would usually tell me that as he thumped on my head with his knuckles. Now, over forty years later, I have a sign in our honbu dojo that says, Think...Think...Think."
Matsumoto, Sensei also taught another important lesson to Roseberry, "I remember one time I was in a tournament and faced a black belt who had the reputation of being a real killer. I was a brown belt at the time. As it came out, I almost beat him! The next class, my teacher called for me to come forward, and ceremoniously removed my brown belt. I figured that he was going to promote me to black belt, due to how I held my own with that killer. Instead he folded my obi over on itself, and slapped the crap out of me with it, telling me that I hadn't fought the competitor, I had fought the belt. He said I had let that belt intimidate me. Since that time I never let anybody or anything intimidate me. That's also what I teach my students."
In Okinawa, the judo players would make the rounds to other dojos so they wouldn't randori with the same people. Roseberry often trained at the Naha Police Academy where he also studied Kendo. "Basically, if you were a cop in Naha, you were a black belt in either Judo, Karate or Kendo. Sensei Miyazato Ei'ichi was in charge of martial arts training at the Naha Police Academy. He judged many of my judo matches and accepted me in his Police Academy dojo. When at the Academy Dojo, I always bugged 'em to let me pad up and do kendo. They would say no, and every time I'd end up practicing basic strokes with my boken, in the corner of the dojo along with the other junior students. One day I was particularly persistent and they let me pad up. I thought, 'GREAT!' Then the number one student beat the hell out of me. He beat me up so bad, the next practice I was happy to be back in the corner, practicing basic strokes with my boken."
Roseberry became a highly proficient judo competitor and went on to become a seven-times All-Marine Champion, and was the All-Services Champion three times. Roseberry was the first and, to this day, the only non-Asian to win the All Okinawan Judo Championship. Later (1964), Roseberry served as an alternate member of the U.S. Olympic Judo Team. "I cherish those early years of my martial arts training." says Roseberry. "I remember how everybody was so willing to help me. For example, I remember how the late Donn Draegger really helped me with my technique as we trained at the Kodokan. Given my build, I would often be matched with a competitor that was much heavier and larger than I was. I told Donn how I had trouble throwing the really big guys. He gave me one simple technique. After that, I had no trouble throwing even the biggest judo player."
Roseberry winning All-Marine Championship with ippon
Karate, Toguchi and the Shorei-Kan
Roseberry admits, "My judo accomplishments opened a lot of doors for me." One of those doors was that of Seikichi Toguchi's dojo. After seeing a Karate demonstration on board ship performed by Joe White, Roseberry became interested in training karate. In 1956 Joe White invited Roseberry to attend a karate class and meet Toguchi. Toguchi accepted Roseberry in his dojo, knowing of his early promise and accomplishments in judo. Says Roseberry, "I can remember that day so clear. That was a day that really changed what I am today. I was extremely impressed with Sensei Toguchi's muscularity, his skill and incredible flexibility. I remember, after class was over, Joe showed me around Koza City, we had a blast!"
When asked what training was like at Toguchi's dojo, Roseberry remembers . . . "Toguchi emphasized the use sanchin game and Chi-shees to strengthen our grip and hand strength. However, Toguchi avoided using a makiwara. His hands were not heavily callused, but were incredibly supple and strong. He often said, "Why do I need hard knuckles when I can use my fingers to gouge the eyes?" Kobudo was taught right along with the karate- bo, sai, tonkua, nunchaku, kama and nun-te were all taught in class. It was Toguchi's style to just burn you out working sanchin game, chishi, junbi undo, kiso kumite, lots of drills, then, kata Sanchin, he worked us till we had no starch left in us. Then, he would have us work our kata. His strategy was that if you weren't dog-tired and had energy left over, you would try to power the kata instead of relying on true technique. This is how I teach to this day. We don't start to work kata until everyone is completely beat."
One of the things Roseberry remembers about his karate training in Okinawa was the annual Kangeiko, or Winter training, held during the coldest month of the year. Recalls Roseberry, "Toguchi, Sensei would significantly increase the training intensity. Also, he'd open the dojo to the cold air during training. You had to stay on the move just to stay even. As well, he imposed strict dietary restrictions on us during Kangeiko: No alcohol, tobacco, sugars, fats and very little if any meat. Kangeiko taught me about nutrition and health thirty to forty years before it was a popular topic in the USA." Now, over forty years later, Kangeiko training is instituted every year in January at Roseberry's Hombu dojo in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Seikichi Toguchi, Sensei was the only student of Chojun Miyagi to teach karate full time. Says Roseberry, "Everybody else had other jobs. Toguchi only taught karate. Also, I feel there were some who were jealous of Toguchi's teaching and the depth of his curriculum. I know that in Chojun Miyagi's final years, he often discussed with Toguchi, his desire to create new katas and drills to develop a more complete curriculum of study for Goju Ryu Karate-do. Toguchi, in my opinion, was a genius in developing this teaching curriculum. The Toguchi curriculum includes nineteen katas: seven modern katas in addition to the koryu forms, Tensho, Gekisai da'ichi and da'ni, as well as kata bunkai for both modern and koryu katas. The teaching curriculum is rich in kata application drills, called kiso and jissen kumite. Regardless of his modern adaptations and additions, Toguchi always said that the basis for all instruction can be found in Kata Sanchin. When he worked with senior students, he would say that our lesson plan was available for us in our Kihon Kata."
Toguchi's Shoreikan Dojo--1959
The U.S. Military, Quick Promotions and 50's Training In Okinawa
During the postwar occupation of Japan, martial arts were discovered by many servicemen like Roseberry. Largely due to this military focus, the martial arts were positioned for explosive growth in the United States in the 1960's. Says Roseberry, "Training in martial arts was readily available. To encourage GIs to train martial arts, punch cards were given out to servicemen each month. You needed 10 punches to get a new card. The Okinawan martial arts teachers would punch your ticket, and then they'd get paid. Sometimes, the teacher punched three or four times for only one class, so they'd get paid more and quicker. I recall that Mr. Toguchi did the punch cards for only one month and said he didn't want to do it any more, because there was pressure on him to quickly promote people to black belt. In my opinion, people were promoted to black belt that were not even ready for green belt. It was not unusual to see a white belt, nine months later promoted to Sandan or even Yondan, especially if the serviceman was going home to the USA. I will not name names, for it would serve no purpose. Yet, the eagerness of the Okinawans to expand into the U.S. and the money that represented, plus the ambition of the Americans, to a large degree, formed a base of martial arts in America that was not altogether solid. So, today, we have a lot of ex-military people that have dojos, and sadly, there were a lot of accelerated promotions in the 50's and 60's in order to build dojos and organizations in America. The punch card system of the U.S. Military, in my opinion, encouraged and created a precedent of rank for sale and quick promotion."
Roseberry remembers that a lot of servicemen would quit training in Okinawa as quickly as others would begin their training. Says Roseberry, "Many came in the dojo, and about as many went out. They either couldn't humble themselves, or they couldn't take the physical level of training. It wasn't like today. Back then nobody asked questions or talked, you just trained. Monkey see, monkey do." During his early years of training in Toguchi's dojo, he remembers that dues were fifty cents per month. More so, Roseberry remembers his Sempai from those early-training years. "I especially remember Masanobu Shinjo, who went on to form the Shobu-Kan. Masanobu Shinjo was Toguchi's top Instructor at the time Toguchi moved to mainland Japan. He was one of the most powerful karate-ka on the island. He was well known for his strength and severe training. Another I especially remember was Yoshi Shimabuku. Mas, Yoshi and I would stay an hour or two after class and continued to train. I always appreciated their attention and their help in making my karate stronger. As they could speak a little English, especially Yoshi always wanted to speak English with me, mostly about Karate, which was OK with me."
Roseberry's judo prowess enabled him to be accepted by karate dojos of styles other than Goju Ryu. Says Roseberry, "While Goju was definitely my home and Toguchi, Sensei was my teacher, I did train other styles. For example, I trained Shorin Ryu under Shimibuku, Sensei." It was in Shimibuku's Shorin- Ryu dojo Roseberry first encountered Okinawans being secretive in their teaching. Says Roseberry, "We would be doing kata in this open-air enclosure and a head would pop up over the top. Shimibuku, Sensei would suddenly begin to do basics-punches, blocks. When the head would disappear, we went back to doing kata."
With regard to his treatment in the Okinawan dojos, Roseberry claims he was accepted in Toguchi's dojo as a serious student from day one. "Since I was the first American to win the All Okinawan Judo Championships, they took me serious and treated me as an equal." Roseberry was the second non-Asian to receive a black belt from Toguchi (Joe White being the first) and was awarded his Teaching Certificate by Toguchi. Roseberry remembers that in the mid 50's, promotional examinations were conducted once a year by the Okinawan Karate Federation. The promotional exams were for all styles, with everyone meeting in the same building, performing and being tested together. Later, in about 1960, Toguchi began conducting his own gradings. Only Instructor Certificates were initially awarded. "Back then, that was what he did." says Roseberry. "You just trained until such time he promoted you to an instructor level." Later Toguchi made Yondan (4th Degree Black Belt) the equivalent to what was the Instructor Certificate.
In 1959, and while stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois, Roseberry was, perhaps, the first American to teach Okinawan Goju Ryu in America, teaching military personnel. Roseberry continued to teach Goju Ryu to Marines and servicemen on bases in California, North Carolina and later in Viet Nam where he taught Goju Ryu to Marine Recon units and Navy SEALS.
For eleven years Roseberry continued his karate training with Toguchi, sometimes being stationed in other parts of the world, only to come back to Okinawa for training with his teacher. Roseberry comments about how he was treated upon his returns to the dojo, "The servicemen who would train there, return home, or get posted to another country, then return again to Okinawa, were treated more special each time they came back to train. This told your teacher you were a serious practitioner. Since I kept returning to train, I was treated very well."
Stateside: Shorei-Kan Politics, Creation of The Sho-Rei-Shobu-Kan
In 1968 Roseberry was part of a special NCO program for ROTC students at selected universities across the country. Selected to teach and train ROTC recruits, Roseberry found himself in Lincoln, Nebraska where he taught General Military Subjects at the University of Nebraska ROTC department and coached the UNL Rifle and Pistol Team. It was also the first time Roseberry was approached to teach nonmilitary students. Roseberry was, at best, ambivalent about these would-be, civilian students. Says Roseberry, "A few UNL students said they wanted to learn karate. I figured I'd burn their butts and put 'em through a workout from hell. I tried my best to make them all quit after the first session. Most did. Only a few hung on." Says Michael Dascenzo, one of Roseberry's first students, "My first experience with Shihan (Roseberry) was more like he was driving me away. We initially worked out in the vehicle bay of the Military and Naval Science Building. We worked out until our feet were raw and bleeding. Then, we'd work out in the park, regardless of the rain, snow or temperature."
Roseberry retired from the Marine Corps and opened a commercial dojo in Lincoln, Nebraska. "That first dojo was pretty rough." says Roseberry. "We had no heat in the Winter and the heavy bags would freeze solid, and you could always see your breath." Roseberry was one of three Shorei-Kan representatives of Toguchi in the United States at the time. As one of those early representatives of Toguchi's Shorei-Kan Karate, Roseberry spent from 1968 through 1981 trying to establish Toguchi's teachings in America.
Roseberry's eventual separation from the Shorei Kan organization had its roots when Toguchi was to visit each of the three Shorei-Kan dojos in America. Toguchi did go to New York and then on to Oklahoma. However, when training with Toguchi in Oklahoma, Roseberry was told by the Okinawan representatives that Toguchi would not be going to Lincoln, Nebraska, as planned. A disappointed Roseberry drafted his letter of resignation but did not submit it.
Following Toguchi's visit, the politics of the Shorei-Kan organization in America intensified. During a training visit to Okinawa, Roseberry talked with his teacher about the politics in the Shorei-kan. Toguchi told Roseberry he "was aware of the situation." Upon his return to the States, and finding no change in the political landscape, Roseberry resigned. "The politics, not anything Mr. Toguchi did, was the reason I separated from my teacher. Politics make people and organizations sick. All this kuchi-waza (mouth technique) does nothing but cause problems and take away from training."
Throughout this negative time, Roseberry kept seeing his students move away from the Lincoln area. "I wanted to create a means that we could network with and support one another even though we were spread out across the country. I remember we even had one senior student develop a dojo on board a submarine. Others left for Florida, the Southwest and Northwest. To develop this support organization I created the Sho-Rei-Shobu-Kan Budo Organization. I named it so out of respect for my teacher, Mr. Toguchi's Shorei-Kan and my sempai, Masanobu Shinjo, who had formed the Shobu-Kan Organization—Sho-Rei-Shobu-Kan. Our goal is to pass on traditional Goju-Ryu as I was taught by my teacher, and to focus on training, not talking or politics."
Reflections and Opinions On Contemporary Goju-Ryu Karate-do
When asked about the integrity of Goju-Ryu and the kata, Roseberry states, "Throughout the years I have gone back and visited and researched all of the dojos in Okinawa that were founded by students of the founder (Chojun Miyagi, Sensei). All of them are very close in the way they perform kata. There are personal differences or preferences, but in whole, they are very close. I have seen more changes to the actual kata here in the United States, even by some of the Asian instructors. What I see is that a lot of the softness (Ju) is missing from the kata, and without that balance of hardness and softness (Go and Ju), the art can never be whole. Ju is very important.
Many Goju instructors adhere to only the kata taught and created by Chojun Miyagi, Sensei, the founder of the system. Some feel Toguchi's expansion of the curriculum and the creation of katas to be nontraditional. With regard to this opinion, Roseberry defends his teacher, "My teacher was and still is a traditionalist. However, he believes one gains from building on tradition. I believe that to be true, as well. I must teach what I was taught, the way I was taught it. With regard to the koryu forms and those kata created by the founder, I teach them the way I was taught by my teacher. And from my research, we have not lost track of or changed those kata. However, we have built on tradition. I have added drills to our Sho-Rei-Shobu-Kan curriculum. As well, I have added one modern form and include Chinese Crane System katas that help students keep the Ju in Goju. As well, Sho-Rei-Shobu-Kan teaching includes ground fighting and throws, all of which are found in our kata. We have not broken with tradition, we have built on tradition."
When asked about the many who claim to teach original or authentic Goju, Roseberry responds, "Conditioning, circular sabaki and harmonized breathing are all ways to recognize Goju-Ryu. Yes, I've seen and heard some instructors claim their version is the most authentic and is even more correct than what the founder's senior students were or are doing. This is ridiculous, they weren't alive or even a twinkle in their mamma's eye when these men had already reached instructor levels. Arrogance and self promulgation is one sure sign that one has not matured into their rank. So, adhere to tradition, train hard, and look within the kata, all of your answers are contained within the kata, you just have to get out there on the floor and do it! Don't talk about it."
When asked about the current status of Goju-Ryu, Roseberry has mixed feelings. "The last time I went to Okinawa, I was relatively disappointed in the karate I saw. Today in Okinawa, many dojos just have more individual or solo training, compared to formal classes. However, I feel pretty good about Goju in America. I think we're doing a pretty good job, overall, here in the States. I feel there have been excellent instructors of Goju-Ryu here in the States since the late 1950's, early 60's. In my opinion, the quality of instruction here in the States is at least equal to our Asian counterparts. Americans ask more questions, are larger, and have excellent instruction opportunities here, so all they need to do is talk less, train more, and believe in themselves."
Roseberry's demeanor in the dojo or at seminars is one of humility and gentleness. Every class he shakes the hands of each student and asks about how they're doing or how their grades are, or how the new job is going, hugs his students, and shakes the hands of the parents watching their children train. "Shihan is always smiling, and he smiles with his whole body." say his senior students, many of which have been training with Roseberry for over a quarter century. A smiling Roseberry responds, "I believe I can help people the most on the floor. But I must also be aware that I can also have a good impact when I am technically off the floor. I seize that opportunity to do something positive for someone. I often say to my students, "Do a little . . . often."
Generally, when he speaks Roseberry is very quiet. He often asks, "Does that make sense?" Practicality and simplicity are benchmarks of Roseberry's teaching. "I believe in KIS and KIP, Keep It Simple and Keep It Practical. If it doesn't make sense to you, don't do it. One of my favorite sayings is, "Let it make sense." If something is taught one should analyze it, try it and then, if it doesn't make sense...let it go."
After nearly every class he tells his students, "Go reward yourself. Do something for you." Self-reward is one of the cornerstones of Roseberry's teachings. "One of the people that had a big influence on me was General Chesty Puller, the most highly decorated Marine in history. I remember I was at a training session with him and him saying "the session was mostly crap. The only thing good for you is you." General Chesty Puller made a big impact on how I must rely only on myself, in a positive way."
Roseberry's everyday activities include much outside of the martial arts. "I love to learn things. It keeps me young. So, I started to take music lessons. I've recently learned how to play the piano, trumpet and saxophone. I have one of my students teaching me Japanese and another has got me interested in Bonsai tree cultivation as another has got me diggin' in the dirt, actually gardening with my wife, Emma (the two have been married since 1960). Every year I kick back and do a road trip on my Goldwing motorcycle. I'm always listening to good jazz music and have recently taken dance lessons."
Roseberry trains and teaches every day in one or both of two dojos in Lincoln, Nebraska. Roseberry has created the Sho-Rei-Shobu-Kan Research Center, a place where he trains with his senior students, and sometimes in private. The Research Center also is an archive for Roseberry's lifetime collection of books, texts, photos, films and videos as well as martial arts memorabilia. Says Roseberry, "I learn more about Goju every day, every time I go on the floor. After all, I've only been training Goju for a little over fifteen-thousand days. That's not that much time when you think about it. The floor and my students have much yet to teach me."
As to the future of Goju-Ryu and the martial arts in general, Roseberry is philosophic. "We need to have less kuchi waza and more training on the floor. There is too much talking and running others down. It would be better if people could just come together and train. Also, it doesn't matter who you are, what you teach, what rank you are: You have to be a real person inside. That belt is a piece of material around your waist. I hope it's just holding your pants up, not letting the belt go to your head. Come off the pedestal and take care of your students. Teach your tradition. Teach so that it makes sense to your students. Teach your students to do a little often, and be their own person. Teach your students to reward themselves constantly. Teach your students that all the answers are on the floor. What more could you want of a student? What more could you teach?"
The students are being warmed up by Roseberry's number one student John Pitts, Sensei, Use-of-Force Training Officer for the Lincoln Police Department and SWAT Team. Roseberry is shaking the hands of the parents who are waiting for their children. Smiling, walking smoothly, Roseberry moves toward the dojo floor. All students bow, even some of the parents. Still smiling, Roseberry takes the floor, nods to his senior kyu and bows to Shomen. Smiling, he turns to face his kyus. Bows. Smiles broader, faces his Yudansha, bows. John Roseberry, Shihan has taken the floor again as he has so many times before, sometimes with the masters of Okinawan martial arts, Toguchi, Matsumoto, Higa, Miyazato, Matayoshi, Shimibuku. He looks at everyone and, smiling wide now, says, "We're gonna have a little fun." Time for words are over. The sweat pours and collects in puddles on the floor. Sweat sprays at the students' every punch, kick or block. Roseberry's drill instructor cadence is unmistakable, cutting through the heavy breathing and kiais of his students. Everything is now as it should be in the world of John Roseberry. He and his students are training and quietly searching for their answers . . . on the floor.