An interview with Daniel Chemla

August 17 1997.

by Pamela Logan

Note: Daniel Chemla holds the rank of godan, or fifth degree black belt, the highest rank awarded by Tsutomu Ohshima. He is also a senior physicist at Lawrence Berkley Laboratories in California. Originally he came from France, and was the founder of France Shotokan, one of Mr. Ohshima's international family of karate organizations.

Q. I was asked to interview you because you were recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences. What exactly does that mean?

A. Well ...it’s a big honor. The purpose of the National Academy is to advise the US government about science policy. It’s not something you apply for. When you start to be known in your field and your peers appreciate what you’re doing and consider that your opinion is important, then they elect you.

Q. When did that take place?

A. Every year there is one formal meeting of the Academy in the springtime. That is the time when the members elect new members. I was elected this spring.

Q. How many people are in it?

A. Each science has between 100 and 120 members. You have physical sciences, chemistry, mechanics, biology and so on. I’m a physicist.

Q. Which did you start first, physics or karate?

A. I never felt there was a difference between science and martial arts, especially physical sciences. In terms of goals and also in terms of methodology, they’re the same thing. What we are trying to understand is the world, and us in the world. The process is very similar in the sense that understanding is extremely artistic, intuitive. But in order to select what is right and what is wrong, we must confront nature. You can have the most crazy or beautiful ideas about something, then you make an experiment. If the experiment works, your idea is right, if it doesn’t work then you’re wrong. The slightest disagreement with nature means that you are wrong, so you also must be very humble.

Our method of practice is that if I feel something about martial arts, I can face an opponent and check it. If I get a punch in the nose, I was wrong.

I started to practice judo and boxing when I was fifteen. That’s about the same time I decided to become a scientist. From the very beginning I never felt there was any difference between those two aspects of my life. The parallel continued when I went to college. (The system is slightly different in France, we have a more selective way to get into university.) I started karate in a commercial dojo immediately when I arrived in Paris in 1960. Mr. Ohshima arrived in 1962. The first six months when Sensei was there was exactly the same time I was preparing my exam to get into the college, so it was quite a tough year. I had 3 practices a day with Sensei, and all my courses.

Q. A problem that everyone faces in our lives is maintaining a balance between career, family, and practice. If you read the Kyohan, it tells us all about practice, but it doesn’t tell us how to fit it in as part of a whole life.

A. The answer is: that’s your whole life. Sensei tells us that when Funakoshi woke up every day, he would first make a thousand shuto uke before washing his teeth. That’s life! So when you wake up, you think about karate, about practice, and you organize your life around this. Because it’s important. I think people find contradiction only because there is contradiction in their own heads I have a very busy life in Berkeley, and my secretary knows about my practice. She knows that every Tuesday night, and Sundays, I’m not available. You experience contradiction--that’s something very important. One aspect of research and one aspect of martial arts is to solve contradictions. A contradiction comes up because of our mental blocks, because there are different pieces of our personality that are not integrated. We feel bad because we are pulled in different directions: your family against your practice. But if you look deep inside, there is no contradiction. If you don’t practice, and are so frustrated that when you come home you make a hell for your family, that’s not solving the contradiction. You should integrate your family life in your practice.

Q. By bringing your loved ones to karate events?

A. No, it’s not this; you are trying to impose something on something else. First when you fall in love, you choose somebody who understands you, and understands that you practice. It’s not that you’re going to bring somebody to an event, it’s that this person will feel natural to come to the event because that’s part of your family life. When my wife met me, she knew I was practicing twice a day. After less than a week, she knew that I would not change. So she eventually decided that that was okay.