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Heart of our City: Wade Wilkins shaping Rupert’s karate kids

It wasn’t the allure of the black belt that led Wade Wilkins into the world of karate.

It wasn’t the allure of the black belt that led Wade Wilkins into the world of karate.

In fact, the old Okinawan discipline didn’t even originally use the coloured belts to designate skill level.

“Back in the day there was no such thing as the belt system. They just worked out and trained and that’s how it was and you get the skills, especially when they moved it to the west and they moved karate from Okinawa to Japan – they started adopting the Judo way of things with the belt ranking system,” said Wade last week.

Rather, it was the fanaticism around Bruce Lee and his presence as a martial artist around 1974 that attracted the Prince Rupert Karate Club’s head instructor to the art.

“Everybody was loving that stuff,” said Wade.

The Prince Rupert Karate Club is a member of Renshikan Karate-do International and a club that studies Shito-ryo karate.

Wade has taken it over after a long line of predecessors, including its founder, Corp. Bill Pitcher of the RCMP, who started it in 1974.

“It was tough,” recalled Wade.

“He was a tough instructor, but it was good.”

Just 14 at the time, Wade got his feet wet in the martial art here in Prince Rupert and over time, was never attracted to the competitive side of karate, but more for its potential to help the youngster come out of his shell a little bit.

“There are three types of karate [people are interested in],” he explained.

“Sport karate, karate for fitness and karate for self defence and self-growth and I lean more towards self-growth ... So you want to teach self-discipline and humility and respect and perseverance, to become good people. You transfer the [skills] from the dojo to everyday life,” said Wade, who said after he took karate his public speaking skills and self-confidence shot right up.

Born in Prince George and raised in Rupert, and an alumnus of the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) in Burnaby, Wilkins also played some puck in minor hockey while in town and in intramurals at BCIT.

“I played three games in the super-league where all the best played and I got third-star in a game, so it was kind of fun,” he said.

“I like to head out to the pond here to play when it freezes up.”

After taking a break from the katas and bunkais from 1976 until 1984, Wade got back into it full-force.

He went through the coloured-belt ranks without issue, but when the time came for Wade to achieve his black belt status (also known as first-dan or Shodan), he wasn’t able to acquire it his first time testing in Kitimat, but finally obtained the iconic band during the 1989 Northern Winter Games.

“During the competition I won gold for the kata (various offensive and defensive techniques) and then for the kumite (pre-arranged free-fighting) I won my fight but I couldn’t continue anymore because the guy had smashed my nose. During my exam I had my nose all plugged up trying to do every kata. I was supposed to do throwing techniques and break falls but I couldn’t because of my nose, so [the tester] said don’t bother,” Wade explained.

“So I passed, but it was tough.”

The instructor’s greatest influence was David Akutagawa sensei, an eighth-dan karate master.

“He’s passed away but he was head instructor for our organization in Canada (Renshikan Karate-do International). He was a short guy, sort of stocky and he kept on going into his 60s,” said Wade.

Akutagawa sensei travelled to the Kitimat-Terrace area two or three times per year and even resided there for awhile where Wilkins would train at various camps under his tutelage.

Akutagawa sensei later moved to the Lower Mainland as a chief referee for Canada and international judge.

“He had a really good attitude. A lot of knowledge ... the training was really intense, like all day, but a lot of the fun stuff was the social stuff afterwards. You get to see people from all over Canada and train with them and socialize. [Akutagawa] considers us family,” said Wade.

The Prince Rupert dojo head even travelled to Japan for 10 days in 2009 to cement relationships with the contacts there that Akutagawa sensei had made before he passed away, and to meet with Kenei Mabuni Soke, 10th dan and head of Shito-ryu karate. He was the successor to Kenwa Mabuni, his father, and founder.

Wade and company spent six days in Tokyo and three days in Osaka and even presented a demonstration, complete with drummers, Japanese dance and weaponry and suits of samurai armour.

“One of the senseis cleared his backyard out and pulled plants and put mats down [so we could perform],” said Wade.

Nowadays, Wade runs the Prince Rupert Karate Club out of Fisherman’s Hall with the help of Kevin Forssell (2nd dan) and wife Dale Campbell (3rd dan) who he met through karate. Their son, Aidan, is attending UNBC.

Wade teaches a children’s class and an adult class, with and without weapons, though the weapons teachings are more individualized due to the customizable nature of the weapon (different-sized handles, etc...) and is dependent on who buys them.

Most of all, Wade just likes to see his students succeed in karate and outside of it.

“Parents have come back to us and told us that their kids’ schooling’s really improved since they started taking karate ... some kids work their way up to adult class and become a black belt but one’s a lawyer, one’s a doctor, one’s a dentist, two are becoming optometrists, one’s an engineer, one’s a pharmacist,” he said.

“That’s where I feel my greatest pleasure is – when I see these kids succeeding, that’s what it’s all about as far as I’m concerned. Karate, generally speaking, is about self-defence but I’ve never really been attacked or anything. It does happen and you have it there for that purpose, but my sensai told me karate is not just about self-defence, it’s about self-preservation [in all aspects of life].”