Robin Rielly

Our quality of life is much improved by continued training.
Since Karate also requires a great deal ofself-discipline, this carries over into other aspects of an individual’s life. I believe that we are more likely to take on tasks that others may not attempt, since we have already challenged ourselves continually through Karate practice.

Robin Rielly

Within American Shotokan Karate, Robin Rielly is a true pioneer. Practising Karate in the early 1960s in Okinawa, he went on to become one of the first Americans to be promoted to 6th Dan in Shotokan. He was also the first American appointed to the International Shotokan Karate Federation (ISKF) Technical Committee.

Robin Rielly was born on 20 May 1942 to Robert and Rosalia Rielly. Robert Rielly had served in the Navy during World War II.

On graduating from high school in 1959 Rielly enrolled at Fairleigh Dickinson University. There he joined the wrestling team. On the team, he met Sophjan Rophy, an Indonesian student. The teammates became good friends.

To supplement their wrestling training, Rophy opened a small Judo and Karate club on the university campus. Rielly trained with Rophy for two years but never graded under him. They used Hidetaka Nishiyama’s book “Karate: The Art of Empty-Hand Fighting“, to train from.

By his own admission, Rielly was more interested in extra-curricular activities at university rather than studying. He dropped out of university in 1961 and enlisted in the US Marine Corps.

In March 1962 Rielly was deployed to Japan after completing his basic training in the United States. He was stationed at the Atsugi Naval Air Base, located about an hour and a half by train from the port city of Yokohama.

During his downtime from naval duties, Rielly and friend Don McNatt decided they wanted to learn Karate. They travelled to Yokohama in search of a dojo. Not knowing where to go they asked several policemen for directions to a dojo. They were eventually directed to a dojo in the Chinatown area of the city. They eventually found and joined the dojo of Fumio Nagaoka. He taught Shin Kage Ryu Jujutsu which was a mixture of Karate and Jujutsu. Rielly and McNatt practised at the dojo several nights a week. They also cross-trained with a JKA group that also used Nagaoka’s dojo. McNatt would go on to become the first American promoted to 2nd Dan by the JKA.

Rielly also studied Shorin Ryu Karate under Eizo Onishi, in the town of Yamoto which was near the naval base. He trained seven nights a week, fitting it in around his duties as a Marine.

By the time Rielly had finished his tour of duty in 1963, he had been promoted to 1st Dan in Shin Kage Ryu Jujutsu by Fumio Nagaoka.

On his return to the United States, Corporal Rielly was stationed at Camp Lejeune, located in Jacksonville, North Carolina.

In the May 1962 issue of “Strength and Health Magazine“, Rielly came across an article on Teruyuki Okazaki of the JKA, who had recently moved to the city of Philadelphia. Having some time before taking up his post at Camp Lejeune, Rielly travelled to Philadelphia where he joined Okazaki’s Philadelphia Karate Club as a guest student. He joined as a full member the following year.

Even though Rielly was a black belt he was asked to wear a white belt, which he did without any question. Six months later he graded in front of a panel consisting of Okazaki, Masataka Mori, and Katsuya Kisaka. He was promoted to 1st Dan. Until he left the army, Rielly would travel to Philadelphia from Camp Lejeune to train, whenever he had leave.

In 1963 Rielly opened his first Karate club, Kobukan Karate Club, at Camp Lejeune. He taught a combination of Shin Kage Ryu Jujutsu and Shotokan Karate.

At the 1963 Marine Corps Championships held at Camp Lejeune, Rielly took part in his first-ever tournament. In the time he had been training he had never participated in Sport Karate. He took 1st place in sparring and 3rd place in kata, becoming the tournament’s Grand Champion.

In 1964 Rielly was selected to be part of a 15-man team representing Camp Lejeune’s first Marine Corps Karate team. The team represented the Corp at Mas Tsuroka’s North American Karate Championships held in Canada.

Rielly’s enlistment in the Marine Corps came to an end in August 1964. He decided to return to education, enrolling at Rider College, New Jersey to study Political Science. He was also teaching Karate at three locations.

In 1967 Rielly graduated from Rider College with a BA degree in Political Science. He enrolled at Seton Hall University, New Jersey on a Masters course. At the University he established a Karate club. Two years later he graduated from Seton Hall with a Masters degree in Japanese Area Studies.

Between 1965-1969 Rielly had the opportunity to train with two of the JKA’s finest in Katsuya Kisaka and Keinosuke Enoeda. During that time, he also competed against a who’s who of American Shotokan Karate in tournaments such as the East Coast Championships. His adversaries included the likes of Frank Smith and Kenneth Funakoshi.

In 1969 Rielly was promoted to 2nd Dan by Okazaki. During the grading, he broke his big toe. Now that he was a 2nd Dan he was asked to stop competing and concentrate on being a tournament judge.

From 1970 to 2004 Rielly authored several books. These included:

  • 1970 – The History of American Karate
  • 1973 – The Kobukan Manual
  • 1985 – Complete Shotokan Karate: The Samurai Legacy and Modern Practice
  • 1989 – Japan’s Complete Fighting System: Shin Kage Ryu
  • 2000 – The Secrets of Shotokan Karate
  • 2004 – Karate Basics
  • 2004 – Karate for Kids

In 1989 Rielly became the first American to pass to 6th Dan grading examination. In the same year, he became the first American appointed to the International Shotokan Karate Federation (ISKF) Technical Committee. The ISKF was founded by Okazaki in 1977. Until Rielly’s appointment, the ISKF Technical Committee and only consisted of senior Japanese instructors.

Apart from being a prolific author and serving on the Technical Committee of the ISKF, Rielly is a graduate of the ISKF Instructors Training Institute. The course, based on the JKA Instructor Course, was created by Okazaki. Okazaki’s aim was to produce high calibre instructors, thus building a quality organisation. The course took students three years to complete.

An experienced instructor, Rielly has served as chairman of the Technical Committee for the East Coast Shotokan Karate Association. The Association was created in 1963 by Okazaki, two years after arriving in the United States. Rielly is also a qualified examiner and tournament judge.

In 2007 that ISKF terminated its thirty-year relationship with the JKA. Karate had grown since its introduction from Japan, to include masters from other countries affiliated to the JKA. These affiliates wanted to have their voices heard and to play a more active part in the JKA’s decision-making process. The JKA did not do anything to accommodate this concern. Out of loyalty to members of the ISKF organisation, Okazaki felt he had to leave the JKA.

The ISKF was not immune to its own internal politics. Some American instructors, such as Ray Dalke were unhappy with the direction of the ISKF. They eventually left the organisation. However, Rielly remained with the ISKF and continued to train with Okazaki.

Over the years Rielly has faced several injuries that have caused him to change how he trains. He injured his lower back, making it almost impossible to throw sidekicks. In a subsequent injury, he developed a problem with his right knee. However, with proper rest, he managed to overcome these injuries.

Robin Rielly has had an influence on the landscape of American Shotokan Karate through his teaching and writing. Although he has remained a dedicated student of Teruyuki Okazaki, he is not a person to follow someone blindly. Through his writings, he has questioned the direction Shotokan Karate needs to take outside of Japan. With all the experience he has had, Robin Rielly continues to be an important voice in the Traditional Karate movement.

Author: Patrick Donkor

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