Norman Robinson

A legend of South African Shotokan Karate, Norman Robinson, alongside Stan Schmidt, was responsible for introducing Shotokan into South Africa. Known as a ferocious fighter, JKA great, Masahiko Tanaka, once referred to him as ‘a monster‘.

Norman Robinson was born on 17 September 1936 in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was the youngest of eight children (five boys and three girls). His father Jack, was a famous Judo instructor who helped introduce the sport to South Africa. Norman Robinson and his brothers were made to study Judo. He would eventually reach the rank of 7th Dan.

As a young boy, Robinson had wanted to be a doctor. However, being a talented judoka, his father Jack pushed him in the direction of becoming an aggressive fighting machine. Until the age of 19, he competed in Judo tournaments around the world.

During one Judo tournament, he defeated Stan Schmidt in a match. The two soon became very good friends. They became aware of Karate and put together a small training group, together with Ken Wittstock and Eddie Dorey. The group used Mas Oyama‘s ‘Mas Oyama’s Book of the Five Pinan Katas‘ and Hidetaka Nishiyama‘s ‘Karate: The Art of Empty-Hand Fighting‘ to learn their Karate.

In 1963 Schmidt and Robinson approached the Japanese Consulate, looking to be put in contact with Japanese Karate organisations. Through the consulate, they were put in touch with the Japan Karate Association (JKA).

The JKA sent instructor Taiji Kase to South Africa in 1964. He taught at the Kodokwai Karate Judo Club of George Higginson, in Durban for three months. Schmidt and Robinson trained with Kase. After their first session with him, they realised they were complete beginners in Karate.

In 1965 a touring party from the JKA visited South Africa, from April to October of that year. The touring party, who had already visited the United States and Europe, consisted of Taiji Kase, Hirokazu Kanazawa, Keinosuke Enoeda, and Hiroshi Shirai.

The four JKA instructors were based in different cities for a six-month teaching stint. Kase was based at George Higginson’s dojo in Durban. Kanazawa, who arrived in South Africa later than the other instructors, was based in Pretoria. Shirai was the guest of Hugh St. John Thompson and taught in Cape Town. Enoeda was a guest or Stan Schmidt and the Karate Association of South Africa, based in Johannesburg.

Enoeda taught at the dojo of Schmidt. Robinson had the opportunity to train with Enoeda three times a day, five days a week. Despite working in the motor trade, Robinson would train before work; during his lunch break; and after work.

At the end of the JKA tour, the 1st South African Championships took place. Stan Schmidt became the first Grand Champion, winning both the kata and kumite events.

Before the JKA touring party left South Africa, gradings were held. On 4 October 1965 Robinson graded and was promoted to 1st Dan by Enoeda.

In 1970 Robinson visited Japan for a 16-week stay. He trained at the JKA Hombu located in Hoitsugan, Tokyo. He trained in the early morning classes at the dojo. Later in the day, he would train in the Foreigners class.

Robinson showed a lot of spirit in his classes. This led to that JKA Chief Instructor, Masatoshi Nakayama, inviting him to join the infamous JKA Instructors Class. The class was known as the ‘Hornets Nest‘, due to its toughness. Robinson was the first African invited to train in the class. Nakayama became a mentor to him.

During his stay in Japan, Robinson attempted to grade for his 3rd Dan. During the grading, he had to fight against Masahiko Tanaka, who was the 4th Dan at the time. Tanaka had already knocked out two students grading for 3rd Dan. During their encounter, the fight ended on the floor. Using his Judo experience, Robinson placed a ‘scarf-hold‘ on Tanaka. Nakayama stepped in and stopped the fight. Out of the six people attempting the grade, Robinson was only one of two people to successfully pass the grading.

In 1973, the JKA held an international tournament to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the introduction of Karate into Japan, by Gichin Funakoshi. The event was held the day after the 16th JKA All-Japan Karate Championships.

The JKA international tournament was held in Tokyo, in front of a crowd of 15,000 at the Nippon Budokan Hall. There were 1000 competitors from 29 countries. Japan dominated all the events. In the team kumite event, Italy defeated South Africa to reach the final, where they lost to Japan. In the battle for third place, South Africa defeated the United States. Robinson was a member of the South African team, that consisted of Robert Ferrier, Ken Whittstock, Stan Schmidt, and Eddie Dorey.

1976 saw Robinson make his movie debut in the feature film ‘Karate Killer‘. He and his good friend Schmidt starred as a pair of Karate fighters. He was also the Karate coordinator on the film.

In 1980 he acted in his second film, ‘Gemini‘ where he played a Karate instructor. The following year he played the character Gypsy Billy, in the film ‘Kill and Kill Again‘. He was also a Karate coordinator on the film.

On 15 April 1987, JKA Chief Instructor, Masatoshi Nakayama died. This eventually led to the JKA splitting into two opposing factions. One faction was led by Tetsuhiko Asai, and the other by Tokyo businessman, Nobuyuki Nakahara.

Robinson had been a long time member of the JKA South Africa. In 1991 he was approached by Asai through Mikio Yahara, to become the Chief Instructor of South Africa for the Matsuno Faction of the JKA. He resigned from JKA South Africa, becoming the Chief Instructor of JKA/JKS SA. Initially, his new association started with only three students. It took around two years for the association to become established.

In 1992 Robinson invited Tetsuhiko Asai and Toru Yamaguchi to South Africa. They taught a number of seminars. The following year he helped with the hosting of the Matsuno JKA World Championships.

Following a ten year legal battle, a Japanese High Court ruled in favour of the Nakahara Faction, awarding them the sole use of the JKA name. This eventually led to lead to a split of the Matsuno faction into the following groups:

On 1 April 2000, Asai formed a new group, the Japan Karate Shoto Federation. Because of his loyalty to Asai, Robinson joined this group. That same year he was awarded his 8th Dan by Asai.

The Shotokan world was saddened by the death of Tetsuhiko Asai on 15 August 2006. Robinson travelled to Japan, to attend a memorial service which was held in Tokyo on 1 September.

Robinson has built his JKS Association into a well-respected association in South Africa. In April 2007 he returned to Japan with a small team to participate in the World Karate-Do Championships.

On 17 September 2016 Robinson celebrated his 80th birthday.

September 2017 saw the announcement by Masao Kagawa, the Chief Instructor of the JKS, that Robinson had been promoted to 9th Dan. He was officially presented with a Certificate at the JKS Hombu in Japan.

Away from Karate, Norman Robinson and his wife Sally, have eight children. His son Mark has followed in his footsteps by becoming a successful judoka.

A karateka, present at the birth of Shotokan Karate in South Africa, Norman Robinson can be rightly thought of as a pioneer. Even today he still inspires his students in their practice of Karate.

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    • Julian Glyn on September 6, 2021 at 12:09 am
    • Reply

    My wife once tried to compile Norman’s biography, although he was unable to see it through. One story she did write up was that encounter with Tanaka. Norman had noted how Tanaka had floored the earlier two and was determined not to go the same way. Tanaka would grab his opponent and flick up a mawashi to the head. When he attempted this with Norman, Norman pulled him in too close for the kick, and then the fight went the way you described. During the following tense moments while the senseis discussed what to do next, Norman saw the fury in Tanaka’s eyes and decided that if the contest did resume he would have to go for broke or be annihilated. Fortunately that was the end of that bout.

    Tanaka would not speak to Norman from that moment.

    Years later they met in Paris (I think). After a session Tanaka said to Norman words to the effect of “Robinson, you, me go fight”. They did, for 40 minutes or so. It was after that that Tanaka uttered that comment “Robinson, you monster”.

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