Spotlight: Doug James- The Karateka’s Karateka

Considered one of the corner stones of British Karate, Doug James has been involved in Karate for over 50 years. He has been a competitor; a world class referee and judge. He is also the founder and Chief Instructor of his own association. He has trained over 200 black belts and been the third man in many of the matches for some of the most iconic of British fighters.

Doug James was born in 1946, in West Hartlepool, North East England. As a teenager he was a keen rugby player, playing for his local West Hartlepool Rugby Club at under 18 level. Like most people of the time, his first experience of the martial arts was through the sport of Judo. He trained at a local club for a year, before it went out of business. In 1963, Walter Seaton, an early pioneer of Karate in the North East, gave a demonstration in James’ hometown of Hartlepool. Seaton was looking to start a new club in the area. James was impressed by the demonstration. However, James would not start Karate for a couple of years. He concentrated on his rugby, making it into the senior team. 

By 1965 James had left school and was working as an apprentice engineer in the city of Middlesbrough. It was during this time that he met his future wife, Rita. 

A work colleague of James was training Budokan Karate Club run by Fred Kidd. James went with his colleague one night to see what it was all about. 

The Budokan Karate Club, established by Fred Kidd and Walter Seaton, was one of the first Wado-ryu Karate clubs in the North East of England. Both men had received their 1st Dan from Wado-ryu legend, Tatsuo Suzuki. The club was affiliated to the ABKA, whose Senior Instructors were Peter Spanton, and Ticky Donovan. Seaton was no longer at the club, having left to start his own club in Stockton on Tees. The club also offered Judo and Kendo classes. 

James began his Karate training in the May of 1967, aged 20. After his first lesson he was hooked. As an instructor, Kidd would go on have a big influence on him. The dojo was situated above a garage and classes took place on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday nights and on Sunday mornings.  Children were not permitted to train. Prospective students required character references. They also required a doctor’s note indicating they were fit and healthy. Training was not for the faint of heart. In tough training sessions, some of which would be considered illegal today, students often sparred with no form of protection. It was not uncommon for students to have bloodied noses, black eyes, or cracked ribs.

In September of 1967 James married Rita and moved to Middlesbrough.

By 1968 James had reached the rank of 6th kyu. Two years later he was graded to 3rd kyu (brown belt) by Spanton.  Spanton, who was based in London, would travel North several times a year to conduct gradings and courses at the Middlesbrough club (typically on the weekend).  Noted as a phenomenal kicker, Spanton would be a major influence on James’ own kicking style. It was during this time that James began to show an interest in teaching. 

James received his 3rd kyu from Spanton in 1970. Eventually he progressed to the grade of 1st kyu (brown belt). It was around this time that he stopped training for a period., mainly due to work commitments and the birth of his first son Steve, in 1973. 

James and his family, moved to Carlisle in 1974, because of a job opportunity. Wanting to continue his training he looked for a Karate club to train at. Ray Young had a group of clubs in the Cumbria area. He had returned to training after taking a small break. He was taking private lessons with Peter Spanton. He decided to open his own club in Carlisle.  

On 17 October 1974 James ran his very first beginner’s class at the Harrarby Community Centre. The name of his club was the Cumbria School of Karate. This club would eventually become the headquarters (Hombu) of his association. 

1975 saw the birth of James’ second son, Michael. The year also saw him open his second Karate club, in the coastal town of Whitehaven 

James had a busy year in 1976. He was graded to 1st Dan by a BKA panel in London. He also began teaching Karate fulltime, after he left his job. He opened a chain of 12 new clubs in Cumbria, North Lancashire and the Noth East of England. His early years as a fulltime instructor was difficult, but he stuck with it. He was the main instructor at all of his clubs. He would travel across Cumbria, often teaching at several different clubs in one night. He would also teach at several clubs during the weekend. He also started a residential Karate course that would be run during the summer. The first course was held at Silloth Lido. 

James established the Cumbria Open Championships in 1976, which was a tournament open to all styles. James had been disillusioned by the lack of tournaments in the North of England. Northern competitors typically had to travel to Birmingham or London to get top competition.  He hoped the Cumbria Championships would attract top competitors from Northern England and Scotland. The Cumbria Championships eventually became a top tournament and over the ears has attracted top competitors such as Eugene Codrington, Pat McKay, David Coulter, and Abdu Shaher and Junior Lefevre, to name a few. 

In 1976 James begin to training with Wado-ryu master, Toru Takamizawa at his Temple Club dojo, based in Birmingham. James credits Takamizawa as being the one teacher he managed to get the best out of him. He would travel to the Birmingham club once a month to train with him. James recalled Takamizawa as being a perfectionist, always stressing correct technique. James had the opportunity to spar against some of Takamizawa’s top students, such as Eugene Codrington.

By 1977 James was running several clubs, that had seen membership steadily grow. Although the early years as a fulltime instructor had been difficult, especially with the amount of travel, he persisted with running the clubs eventually having over 300 students across his various clubs. He was able to call on top instructors, such as Ticky Donovan, to teach courses to his students. He affiliated his clubs to Takamizawa’s Tera Karate Kai association, becoming a founding member of the association.

James continued to expand the number of clubs he had. He opened further clubs in Newcastle, Durham, Sunderland, Morpeth, Prudhoe and Hexam in 1978. He also opened a small martial arts shop in Newcastle. 

In 1980 James took a squad to the Tera Karate Kai National Championships. They won a third of all the medals on offer. Still competing at the time, he was a double gold medallist at the championships. He won both the Wado kata and the Open Kata events. He also established another tournament 1980, the Newcastle Open Championships.

James was graded to 3rd Dan, in 1980, in front of Tera Karate Kai panel, in Birmingham. He had received his 2nd Dan several years earlier by a BKA panel in London.

The British Karate-Do Chojinkai Association (BKCA) was founded by James in 1982. With clubs covering the Cumbria and the North East of England and with over 400 students, he wanted an association that that was local to the area, rather than one based in Birmingham. Although it was not an easy decision to break away from his teacher Takamizawa, James received his blessing and plenty of advice on how to run a successful association. It was in fact Takamizawa that helped with the naming of the association. Takamizawa also believed that there comes a time a student may need to leave a teacher in order to expand their horizons.  James became the new association’s President and Chief Instructor. His wife, Rita, became the association’s secretary. Boasting over a thousand members, the BKCA was affiliated to FEKO. 

After retiring from competitive Karate in 1983. James felt the need to give something back to the art he loved. In 1980 he had become interested in refereeing, training under Barry Tatlow, the Chief Referee of Tera Karate Kai. In 1983 James qualified as an England official, enabling him to referee at domestic matches in the UK. He felt qualifying as a referee would benefit his students. It would improve the standard of fighting success of his students, through knowing the correct rules. 

In 1983 James opened another club, in the town of Kendal. The year also saw him run his first summer school abroad, in  Torremolinos, Spain.

James was awarded his 4th Dan by WUKO in 1986. He also qualified as European Judge. That year he officiated at the European Championships held in Madrid, Spain. Three years later he qualified as a European referee.

Away from teaching and officiating, together with business partner, Tim Eyrl, James started the martial arts magazine VMA (Video Martial Arts) in 1988. Initially they had made a set of videos in 1988 to cover the Wado-ryu syllabus he taught.  The videos were well received and the following year they made a video on Vic Charles. The VMA was not just limited to Wado-yu stylists. They interview martial artists from various disciplines. 2002 saw the release of the acclaimed video and DVD, “Heroes & Legends of British Karate“.

Apart from overseeing the growth of the BKCA, James’ officiated also expanded. In 1989 he qualified as a European referee. Three years later he qualified as a World judge, officiating at the Karate World Championships held in Granada, Spain. He was fast becoming a sought-after official at domestic and international tournaments. In 1996 he officiated at the Junior European Championships held in Germany.

Toru Takamizawa, James’ mentor and friend, died from throat cancer, aged only 57 years, 1998.

In 1998 James qualified as a World referee. He was a judge at the World Championships held in Sun City, South Africa and a referee at the World Championships held in Rio, Brazil.  He was appointed to sit on the European Referee Commission. In 2007, after a successful refereeing career he retired from international referring. He retired from domestic refereeing in 2009. 

James was featured in an article in Martial Arts Illustrated in 2007, celebrating his forty years in Karate. 

James a former board member of the EKGB, was elected onto the EKGB Management Committee, with the responsibility for refereeing. In 2005 representatives from the EKGB and NAKMAS, worked in conjunction to create a new governing body for English Karate called English Karate Federation (EKF), as a founding member. The following year he was appointed to the EKF’s Senior Grading Panel.

In June of 2008, the EKF approved the promotion of James to 8th Dan. This was later endorsed by the World Karate Federation (WKF).

James was inducted into the Combat Hall of Fame in 2011. He was also inducted in 2016 to the Martial Arts Illustrated Black Belt Hall of Fame at an awards dinner in Burton-on-Trent. Other recipients included Molly Samuel and David Coulter. 

2014 saw James celebrate the 40th anniversary of opening his first club in Carlisle. The anniversary celebrations included a Summer Course in Tenerife, Spain. There was also a social trip to Las Vegas. Finally, the celebrations culminated with a dinner and presentation evening.

Although semi-retired from the day to day running of clubs (handing this into the good hands of his senior Chojinkai senior grades), James is still the President and Chief Instructor of the Chojinkai Association. He sits on the panel for senior gradings and teaches on the associations course. Now involved in Karate for over five decades, his passion and love for Karate has seen it flourish in the North East of England.  His skill at teaching has been transmitted to some of his students, such as Iain Abernethy and Chris Denwood. He also helped bring a certain amount of professionalism to officiating at major tournaments. His passion for Karate has not dimmed and he continues to be a beacon for traditional, pragmatic Karate. 

Author: Patrick Donkor

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