Spotlight: Stan Schmidt – Pioneer of South African Shotokan Karate

Stan Schmidt can be a considered a trailblazer when it comes to Karate. With over fifty years training in Karate he was at the forefront of the development of Shotokan Karate in South Africa and has been refereed to as the “Father of South African Karate”. His passion and determination saw him become one of the highest ranked westerners in the Japan Karate Association (JKA). He has been described as the best non-Japanese Shotokan sensei by the likes of Terry O’Neill and Dave Hazard and also as “A teacher of teachers“.

Stanley Owen Schmidt was born 6 October 1936 in the South African town of Kokstad. As a child his family moved to the city of Johannesburg where he attended the King Edward VII School, with golfing great, Gary Player.

Schmidt recalled having a great childhood, even though his father died when he was ten years old. He had converted his Mum’s coal shed into a makeshift gym where he and his friends would lift weights, box and wrestle.

In 1957 Schmidt began training in Judo under the guidance of Jimmy White, with the help of Claude Chanu. He would eventually earn a 1st Dan in Judo. He started his own Judo club teaching every other night. At this time he was also working as a bank teller, a job he had held since leaving school. He worked in this job for over eleven years.

Schmidt first came into contact with Karate following a training accident where he had broken his leg. Jimmy White had given him several Karate books written be Masutatsu Oyama and Hidetaka Nishiyama. He was fascinated by Karate and set up a small training group that included Ken Wittstock, Norman Robinson and Eddie Dorey. For the next couple of years they used the books on a daily basis as their training manuals.

In March of 1963 Schmidt married his girlfriend Judy and they honeymooned in Bombay (Mumbai), India, before travelling on to Japan. Schmidt used this as an opportunity to train. He travelled to the JKA’s headquarters located in Yotsuya in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo.

For the next three months Schmidt had the opportunity to train under Masatoshi Nakayama, the Chief Instructor of the JKA. It was a grueling but rewarding experience. He had the opportunity to train with renowned Shotokan practitioners like Hirokazu Kanazawa, Keinosuke Enoeda and Hiroshi Shirai. Shirai, who had become the 3rd All-Japan Grand Champion the previous year, was the first person that Schmidt sparred against. Although his techniques were still raw, compared to that of the Japanese, he managed to land a back kick on Shirai. The Japanese loved his fighting spirit. Enoeda, know for his strong spirit, took Schmidt under his wing, giving him free private lessons after the daily classes.

A day before he was due to return to South Africa, Schmidt took and passed his 3rd kyu grading under Nakayama.

In 1963 the JKA gave Schmidt the authority to start a JKA association in South Africa. He opened his first dojo in Orange Grove, Johannesburg, later opening a second one. In the same year he founded the South African JKA Karate Association. The association would go on to have over 15000 members and over 200 dojos. It would also have several 6th Dan or higher graded in the JKA headquarters in Japan.

Taiji Kase, a JKA master and top instructor arrived in South Africa in April 1964. Primarily located in Durban, he spent the next three months teaching Karate. Schmidt and his fellow students would train three times a day, everyday with the JKA master. During this time Schmidt graded and was awarded his 1st Dan by Kase.

Schmidt’s 1st Dan grading took place at 9 pm at night. During the grading he made the mistake of performing the kata Kanku Dai instead of his grading kata, Bassai Dai. Kase gave him another chance to perform the correct kata. In the training session following the grading the class had to perform Kanku Dai 65 times.

The following year Kase returned to South Africa with fellow instructors Kanazawa, Enoeda and Shirai. The four instructors, who were on a world tour for the JKA, stayed in the country for six months with each them being assigned to a separate province to teach in. Enoeda stayed with Schmidt at his home in Johannesburg.

The 1st South African Championships took place in 1965. Schmidt became the first Grand Champion winning both the kata and kumite titles. It is entirely possible that he would have gone on to dominate the event for the next couple of years. However, he was advised to retire from competition and concentrate on teaching and judging. This was so that he could support the growth of Shotokan Karate in South Africa from a different perspective.

During the visit of the JKA instructors in 1965 Schmidt graded for and was awarded his 2nd Dan by Kase. During his grading exam he had to spar against Shirai. Enoeda was also present at the grading.

In 1965 after over ten years working as a bank teller, Schmidt left his position at the bank to concentrate on his Karate.

In 1965 Schmidt was invited to enrol on the infamous JKA Instructor Course. He returned to Japan to train. Other students taking the course during this included Keigo Abe, Takeshi Oishi and Yukichi Tabata. Instructors on the course include Suguira Motokuni, Masaaki Ueki, Masahiko Tanaka and Tetsuhiko Asai. Schmidt graded for and was awarded his 3rd Dan by Nakayama.

For the next couple of years Schmidt continued his work on building Shotokan Karate in South Africa. In 1972 he was awarded his 5th Dan from the JKA and in 1979 awarded his 6th Dan. In 1988 he became the first non-Japanese JKA practitioner to take and pass his 7th Dan.

Schmidt became the first foreigner (and for a long time the only one) to be invited to join the Shihan-Kai masters guild of the JKA. Fellow South Africans Ken Witstock and Keith Geyer (Schmidt’s student and son-in-law) would eventually become Shihan-Kai members. Members of  the Shihan-Kai hold the rank of 7th Dan or above.

Schmidt established a grueling Karate class in Johannesburg called the “Early Birds”. The class derived its name from the early start of the class; typically 6.00 am. The class was typically aimed at 4th Dan and above. Lower grades were only allowed to train by special invitation. The class was modeled on the JKA Instructors Course and was designed to be very challenging. Students who missed a class had to perform a penalty of thirty kata or six kumite matches before being allowed to rejoin the class.

In 1987 Schmidt’s mentor, Masatoshi Nakayama, died. As previously mentioned he had first come into contact with Nakayama in 1963 and trained with him whenever he visited Japan. He was visiting Japan at the time of Nakayama’s death. He stayed on to attend the three funeral services held for the JKA Shotokan Master.

Schmidt was involved in a car accident in 1990. He received serious soft tissue damage to his hip joint which resulted in surgery to replace his hip. Two years later he suffered a set back which resulted in an operation to replace his other hip.

With two operations to replace his hips Schmidt was forced to re-assess his approach to training. He started to analyse his techniques from a different perspective. During his recuperation he developed his own kata, Uki Kata (meaning Floating Log/Tree Kata). There are certain techniques like the side snap kick (keage) that he no longer practices due to the pressure they put on his hips. It should be noted that this has not proved a hindrance to his training. He still trains daily.

In 2012 Schmidt established the College of the Open hand. The organisation was intended as a forum for the evolution of martial arts through conversation and collaboration between different martial arts styles. It provided a forum for forward thinking martial artists to explore other styles and arts. Schmidt firmly believes that all martial artists have something to learn from each other.

On 14 February 2015, Schmidt was awarded the rank of 8th Dan. He was the first non-Japanese to be awarded this honor by the JKA.

Schmidt emigrated from his beloved South Africa to Melbourne, Australia with his entire family. He sometimes taught at Keith Geyer’s dojo and was a much sought after instructor/teacher on the seminar/course scene. His Karate knowledge and his ability to transmit it, was second to none.

Stan Schmidt died in the early hours of the 7 October 2019, from Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF), a lung condition he had been suffering from in the later years of his life. He had just celebrated his 83rd birthday.

It is arguable that through Stan Schmidt’s dedication, Shotokan Karate established a strong foothold in South Africa. Even though he no longer lives in the country his the foundations and roots he established continue through his many students.

Author: Patrick Donkor

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