The sun shone brightly on that clear Fall morning. Obviously, no one had informed the sun that it was October 26th, as the temperature had already reached the low 70s by 9:30am. I reached for my Maui Jim’s as I started the car and noticed my hand shook a bit. Nerves brought a chill to my bone, not autumn weather. The belt promotion test day had arrived and eight karatekas would face the physical and mental challenge of testing their abilities: perform kata – open hand and with weapons, spar against multiple opponents simultaneously and display working knowledge/practical application of martial arts techniques. This must occur after enduring an extremely physically challenging work-out. Each karateka must able to execute self-defense techniques, translate Japanese words and phrases and articulately respond to questions about training.
When I thought about the physical part of the test, I wasn’t worried. I had complete faith in my current fitness level. My training included cardio, hula, and karate. And the fundamental blocks, kicks and punches came back to me, just like riding a bike. Sensei Richard Rabago always said, “The basics are everything.” We would drill our blocks, kicks and punches for 30 to 45 minutes a night before the actual work out would begin.
The one thing that made me nervous was wondering if it would be hard for me to control my emotions. The last time I talked to Sensei Rabago about training, I had mentioned that I was ready to come back, as soon as my work life settled down. He responded, “Good. We are ready when you are. You should have been a black belt by now anyway.” That was about three years ago, when my manager at work became unexpectedly “separated” from the company and I suddenly found myself burdened with triple the workload and no additional resources at work or at home. Before I knew it, two years had passed and Sensei’s health had slowly begun to deteriorate. The dojo may always be ready for me but it never dawned on me that Sensei Rabago would not be there to guide my training.
Back in the day, I spent four days a week in the dojo. My week revolved around working out and sweating on the dojo floor. I would pack food to eat in the office at 5:00pm so that I would have enough energy to burn. My wardrobe consisted of long sleeved blouses and long skirts to hide the bruises from blocks and practicing techniques. I loved training so much, it was the best part of my day.
Those evenings would go a little something like this: A sempai (brown belt) or more junior black belt would lead warm up exercises. Military style jumping jacks “1-2-3-ONE! 2-2-3-TWO!” and so on, for at least three sets of ten. We would then stretch for 10 -15 minutes, and not some light head-shoulders-knees-and toes baloney, we would loosen up our quads, hamstrings, calves, knees, ankles, groin and move into splits before working on the appendages of our upper body. This would start the perspiration before any sort of kicking or punching was even mentioned.
Once we were sufficiently warmed up, if Sensei Rabago would walk out on to the floor we all kind of took a deep breath in and side eyed each other. We knew we were in for a work out. Two sets of ten punches each chudan zuki – middle punch; jodan zuki – upper punch; gedan zuki – low punch, with ten push-ups between each set. When you do the math, that adds up to a lot of push-ups. Follow that up with triple punch sets to work on speed with either squats or sit-ups in between each. Between karate, hula, tennis, volleyball and basketball, my knees have suffered abuse for my entire life. We followed the same routine for blocks: jodan uke – high block; soto uke – outside block; uchi uke – Inside block; and gedan barai – low block. Then we started kicks: Mawashi Geri, Yoko Geri, Mae Geri, etc. My favorite kick is the roundhouse, mawashi geri, because I feel like I can get so much power out of turning my hip over and adding the pivot. It always felt like a combination of throwing a baseball and doing a dance pivot, thrown with the intention of breaking an opponent’s femur. I also enjoyed the gedan barai – low block because the best way to block is to try to make yourself the smallest target possible and that means turning your shoulders and bending your knees. Something about that motion always felt like a dance move to me.
Training in the dojo taught me about much more than just self-defense. Sensei Rabago emphasized that women and girls learn to defend themselves against attacks. But when I think back to my training, I realized that my career success and life accomplishments can be attributed to the self-confidence and self-respect that Sensei instilled in all of his students. We represented more than just ourselves when we wore that gi or competed in tournaments. We were committed to training to improve ourselves. We were dedicated to perpetuating the tradition of Okinawan Shorin Ryu through our studies. We were warriors. I am a single mom of a biracial child with multiple learning disabilities and I hold down a demanding career, that makes me a working warrior.
Martial arts training teaches self-reliance and independence because you are the only person who can perform the kata or defend in kumite. However, Sensei Rabago nurtured his students in a way that can only be described as a family environment. The young students had to complete their homework before they could train. We weren’t allowed to walk outside with our gi on, and definitely restricted from wearing our belts outside. Sensei always said, “it doesn’t matter what color your belt is, all it does is hold your pants up.” This, from a 7th Dan Master. Humility and hard work, that was the biggest lesson I took away from Sensei Richard Rabago. His philosophy on the dojo, “Money is important, but we don’t live our lives by it. We want to keep the doors open, train dedicated students and make good people.”
On May 8, 2003, in Sensei Richard Rabago’s dojo, I broke a board for the first time with a reverse punch. He told me, “Good job, Girl. Pi’i, if you can break a board, you can break a bone”. I’ve kept it in my office to remind me that I can achieve anything if I’m willing to work hard (and I can break someone’s bone if they deserve it). Bam.
Today, I am lucky to study under Sensei Butch Togisala, Sensei Rabago’s number one black belt. Sensei Togisala has more trophies than one can count and has been a black belt as long as I have known him. I see the same family spirit in his new dojo. Even though he isn’t as hard on the kids as Sensei Rabago was, I love watching him teach. Sensei Togisala knows who to push hard, who to encourage and who to nurture. And I appreciate that he doesn’t train me “like a girl.” He trains me like a Warrior and I push myself to be a better karate-ka every day, in everything I do, starting with the basics: Punch-Kick-Block. The basics are everything.
May 25, 2012
Sensei Richard Rabago, 7th Dan
Sensei Richard Rabago was born August 14th, 1943 on the Island of O’ahu and raised on the garden isle of Kauai. As he was growing up on the Islands, Rabago Sensei had the opportunity to experience and study many different forms of martial arts. Rabago Sensei martial studies included: Judo, Aikido, Kempo and boxing. After completing high school Rabago Sensei moved to California in August of 1961. Then, he began his training in Shotokan Karate under the instruction of Tsutomu Oshima and Hidetaka Nishiyama.
Rabago Sensei trained and studied the principles of Shotokan until 1968. In
1969, he began his study of Shorin-Ryu Karate under Senseis’ George Terukina and Seikichi Iha. He progressed through the years and earned his title as “Sensei”. Rabago Sensei then opened his own dojo and for the past 30 plus years taught Kobayashi Shorin-Ryu and specialized techniques in use of force in Torrance, California.
Rabago Sensei has the experience, training credentials, and Budo skill to have earned the right to be called “Master” several times over. If you call him that, however, you’ll most likely get a roll of the eyes, a slightly embarrassed laugh, and the words, “just call me Sensei – that’s enough”. A throwback to the age of Budo and Honor, where a Karate-ka earned respect through skill and dedication, not by self-given titles, Rabago Sensei measures himself against a higher standard than is commonly used in martial arts today. Rabago Sensei has learned his most important lesson. “The basics are everything”.
Sensei Richard Rabago, 7th Dan
Me, 4th Kyu