There are martial artists who are known more for the work they do, then by their name or their titles. James Thomas is one of those people. Those of you who know Jim, or of his accomplishments, which span a martial arts career of more than 50 years, you are probably saying, “It’s about time Legends and Legacies did an article on Jim.” Others of you might be thinking, “Who is Jim Thomas?” For those of you who don’t know Jim Thomas, we mention simply: USA Martial Arts Hall Of Fame, The Hall of Heroes, The Martial Arts Alliance and the University of Asian Martial Arts Studies and present the following interview with one of the founding fathers of innovative thinking in martial arts training and instruction, Dr. James Thomas.
(G): Hello, Jim Thomas. How would you prefer I refer to you in the article?
(Jim Thomas): Jim Thomas is fine.
(G) Give us the short list of highlights of your awards, titles and accomplishments…a brief bio or resume that sets you apart from other martial artists.
(Jim Thomas): I started as a child in the martial arts, in 1960. I’ve studied now for 52 years or so…Of course, at the time I started, youth really didn’t do karate. Young people just sat in the dojo and were an object. At that period of time, women and children didn’t really have a place in the dojo. My father was an inspirational part of my becoming involved and being exposed to it at an early age has helped to make martial arts the biggest part of my life.
(G) What is the first style that you studied?
(Jim Thomas): Shorei Ryu and later changed to Shuri Ryu. That was in Phoenix, Arizona under Robert Trias. After my family moved from Arizona to Ohio and I started training under Don Madden, but I still kept my affiliation, my ties with Trias. I became very eclectic at that point, because in the 70s, 80s and 90s more styles were becoming available rather than just one closed-in system of teaching. People in America were dabbling in some jujitsu and judo. Boxing was becoming really popular. I did kickboxing for a long time in the PKA and the WKA world. I competed internationally. I’m currently the head coach for the United States National Martial Arts Team. One or two times a year, we go internationally and compete. The USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame has been a big part of my life since 1976. Education has always been an important, prevalent part of my life. You mix all that and what you have is an over-educated karate guy.
We all choose our own paths in life. Being a martial artist, I’ve always kept sight of my goals and my passions. I’ve been able to reach most of those goals through a lot of diligence and a never quit attitude.
(G) Do you think you can really be over-educated?
(Jim Thomas): No absolutely not. I say that in a very funny sense. I think that being educated sets me apart, especially in the martial arts world, because every corner of the United States, and the world actually, because every martial arts instructor has had competition move to town. Sometimes, though one instructor has dedicated many decades to training, someone will open a storefront who is only 19 or 20 years old and [claims to be] a 27th degree turquoise belt, 19 time world champion. The [general] public has no clue. They don’t understand that at age 20 years old [it’s impossible to have achieved such ranking. They just don’t know, because they can only go by what they read. So, by being educated in the martial arts, and educated over and above the martial arts I’m able to say that this is what sets me apart from the Joe Blow down the street.
(G) Let me ask specifically about the certification in Martial Arts? Many of the readers, even of this column don’t realize that there are no legal standards and recognized certifying bodies to become a martial arts storefront owner. You can pretty much open a karate studio without ANY real qualifications, but to open a nail salon you must pass stringent tests and prove education.
(Jim Thomas): Exactly. You know, in the 1970s we used to joke about it that there were a lot of Bruce Tegner schools of self-defense. Bruce Tegner was one of the first guys who published a book on the subject. You could go to any library and check out the basic book of karate by Bruce Tegner. Since then, there’s never been any recourse if you question someone’s credentials. Anybody can go to Kinko’s and print up any certificate that he or she wants. [Especially with the Internet today,] Anybody can make any kind of claim in the martial arts, and even if it is challenged…so what? There is no legal authority that can prevent this person from continuing.
(G) What do you think should be done about that, or what CAN be done?
(Jim Thomas): Well, I think that it’s all politics. If you involve the government in making standards you’re opening up another can of worms. There might not be anything that you can do about it, but the people who ARE legitimate can stand apart by establishing their own governing body or a system through which we can educate the public to do their research. In this way, they can understand what makes a martial artist a true martial artist and a good instructor. I really don’t have a problem with a guy who wants to open a business and calling it John Kwon Doe’s school or martial arts. I don’t really have a problem with that. He can do whatever he wants, if he has a good message. If he has a good format that he can teach well, and the student is diligent in their study and they are making up their own system or whatever…So what? That’s all O.K. Bruce Lee did it. A lot of famous martial arts, historical figures did it, martial arts geniuses as we call them now, started from scratch. They had a plan. They had a program. They had a message and they kept to it. Some of those messages are current styles that we all study now. But, really as far as a source or… as we’ve tried to do with the University of Asian Martial Arts Studies, or the USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame or some of the other projects that I’ve been involved with, if you are part of something like that it just gives you just a little bit more of an edge over the next guy.
(G) Where does the Alliance fit into this?
(Jim Thomas): The Alliance has been awesome because it is a non-political organization that accepts all systems, all styles, all walks of life. It wasn’t created to dictate or interfere with any current loyalties that an instructor might have. All the Alliance is a supplement to learning to adding more of a basis for us to reach out and gather more information. We offer projects for members to be part of that they can include in their own curriculum. I hate to have an Alliance member that thinks they know everything already, because they don’t. Nobody does. There are so many systems, and so many styles and so many people have so many great things to offer. I feel that the Alliance is good in that respect because there are a lot of people who want to continue their education and learning. I know I do and I’ve been training for 52 years. I still know that there are some great things out there and I want to learn those things. I want to be able to capture which either change, copy, rework or fix and work this knowledge into my program to make my students happier. I can teach them better.
(G) Let me ask you two related questions. If you had to pick ONE, what do you think is your greatest accomplishment? And, where do you want to focus your learning? What do you still want to learn?
(Jim Thomas): The first part of the question, what is my greatest accomplishment…Overall, my greatest accomplishment is becoming a passionate person, passionate about the martial arts in particular. But, my greatest accomplishment in life is being a father, being a man who is strong in family, and strong in my own, personal, spiritual beliefs. Those are my best accomplishments, I think. The other things about the martial arts, you know the awards or certificates, a lot of people are satisfied with that. I’ve never been a person who was really satisfied with anything. I think a person who is self-satisfied is an indication of low aims. I always have higher aims. I always have a goal or a project that is going on and when that is over, I want to do something else.
The second part of your question, what would I still like to learn…Anything that is exciting and appeals to me. That’s what great about America. We’re not limited to one certain type of system or style. In Korea you’re pretty much bound to learn Tae Kwon Do or the Korean arts. There are other things out there, but the Korean arts is the most prevalent thing in Korea. In the USA we have choices. We can do Judo; we could do JuJitsu. We could become an MMA fighter. We could be a kickboxer, study kung fu. It’s only limited by whatever we want to do or wherever we want to go. I want to keep up with the times and with what interests me. Krav Maga interests me a lot. I love the new sport of MMA. I don’t like the old style MMA, because it was very brutal, barbaric. The sport, now I think has evolved. There are more martial artists who are involved. I see the mentality has changed from the old days of the thug type of mentality to what it is now, an ongoing, honorable sport. I still love kickboxing and all the combative arts. However, the traditional roots and history of different styles and their origins are very appealing to me.
(G) Whose brainchild was the Alliance and could you please tell me about the USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame.
(Jim Thomas): The actual brainchild of the Alliance is myself. I had the idea in the 80s because I’d seen so many changes and so many splits. One group was breaking away from another and so on. With the Alliance, I just wanted to pull everybody together. I didn’t want any one ethnic group, Japanese, [Chinese, Okinawan or Korean people to influence completely the direction of development in the arts.] I wanted an organization to be a culmination of every[body’s knowledge and skill.] I think we’ve reached that, even though it’s going to be ongoing and growing.
The USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame was created in 1976. At that period of time it was called the Karate Hall of Fame. In the early part of the 90s we changed the name because a lot of things were developing and becoming popular. Tae Kwon Do schools were opening up everywhere. Kung fu was really [widely] recognized, perhaps because of the David Carradine series and the movie Kung Fu. Karate Kid influenced a lot of people. There were so many things out there that the need for the USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame was important, rather than just limiting it to karate. What I’d like to do in the next year is to have more regional awards and different regions recognizing the USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame. We want to allow everybody the opportunity to be part of this function. To receive an award by your peers and the selection committee is awesome. The true value of the USA Martial Arts Hall of fame is in the networking, the seminars; a lot of times it’s a reunion, the gathering itself. For me, getting together with friends and collegues, that’s the most exciting. But, I want to break this up into regions. I would like to give more people the opportunity to be part, because to be quite honest, if a person is in Florida they don’t all the time have the funds available to travel to L.A., or New York or Seattle and visa versa. So I think, a regional supportive network would be better. In fact, Dr. Alvin Mack, Goldie Mack from Dallas Texas has been appointed the president of the USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame. That’s something that’s new.
(G) Well congratulations to Dr. Mack. How many people are on your board?
(Jim Thomas): It’s broken up into states. Each state has a co-director—some states may even have two co-directors—and representatives of each state. These representatives are people who have been inducted in the past, alumni. The board consists of several people, Tony McSorley, Goldie Mack, James Webster from Florida. We have about a dozen on the board of directors.
(GR) And, you are no longer the president. You’re the CEO?
(Jim Thomas): Correct.
(G) Let me jump ahead to the University of Asian Martial Arts Study. How did that come about?
(Jim Thomas): It’s not a bunch of good old boys who got together and said, “Hey, let’s start a college!” It was created in the beginning as an honorary doctoral program that I started because there were so many guys who were being hurt by the MacDojos, the 29th degree Turquoise belts and so forth and so on. I hoped that the University of Asian Martial Arts Studies would assist qualified individuals an opportunity to stand apart from everybody else. The way we got this project started was that, at first it was going to be an honorary program with people on the board of directors who were martial arts masters, and grand masters, or involved in the martial arts for a very long time who ALSO had scholastic achievements issued by other universities. For instance, we have quite a few medical doctors, lawyers, quite a few doctors of education. We wanted to acknowledge people who had demonstrated a high level of education, but also had a strong martial arts background. Those people still are part of the board. Then, the need for accreditation became important. We wanted to take it to another level. In order to take it to another level, there were some things that we needed. For instance, we needed a physical facility. We saw that we needed a curriculum that met academic standards. There were just a lot of hoops that we needed to jump through. We had to establish a 501(C)3, a nonprofit corporation. There were so many things we needed to accomplish, and that is where we’re at right now. It has been a very costly project and I’ve funded it myself.
(G) Where do you stand on accreditation?
(Jim Thomas): We’ve been given the okay to issue transcripts to anyone who has any other formal education from any other accredited universities. As far as the U.S. Department of Education giving us any kind of a go-ahead for, gold-sealed and registered with the Library of Congress that’s still in the works. A couple of the attorneys who we have on our staff, are also working on this. It’s hard to get everything done as quickly as we want to, because number one there is a lot of financing that is still involved. Number two: many of the different boards and people who are involved in the accreditation process are not working for the summer, or someone whose signature is required is not available for three months, or whatever. This is a project that is a very long, long process. It’s something that I didn’t really realize when I agreed to pursue accreditation. However, if it takes another five or six months before we have the ability to become a bonafide university, accepting new students and offering them education at any level…that’s something that I’m not sure I want to take to that direction. That’s a lot of work and expense just to become a money-driven project. I’ve wanted, since the beginning of this project, and the others who’ve become involved have wanted to give this recognition to somebody who has really worked hard…such as yourself. You’re someone who has done so much for the martial arts world, but you also have previous education, degrees and credentials. That’s the kind of person this was meant for, someone who has been a certified teacher, an educator. I want that knowledge to be available to everybody. Many people can’t afford to go, nor do they have the time to attend college to get their Ph.D., but their life’s work has been enough to give them an edge over someone else who has not put in the time, or made the effort. Life experience is life’s work and a lot of times another college will even accept that as part of credit hours. For us, it’s not a bunch of good old boys saying, ‘Hey, let’s give that guy a doctorate!’ It doesn’t work that way, because the people who are making the decisions are also medical doctors, [lawyers, doctors of education who have an understanding of what the credential means.] These are people who can evaluate what a candidate’s life work has been about and what they’ve done for the martial arts world. [Each candidate must write a dissertation; it has to be looked at and approved. It’s more of a process than just sending in $1000 to some organization and getting a piece of paper in the mail.
(G) Just to let you know, that’s exactly what I have to do every five years to renew my Community College teaching credential.
(Jim Thomas): I never wanted to do that, and haven’t done it. Dr. of Education, Dr. Dustin Derby, whose full-time job was to get accreditation for colleges, sent me information about getting accreditation. He’s the one who came to me originally and said, ‘We need to get this accredited.’ I said, I’d love to but I don’t know how. He explained to me that within the last ten years, there are colleges online everywhere and that getting accredited can be done. Dr. Derby laid out the steps for me, one, two, three. I met every one of the hurdles set before me, after that point.
First of all you have to have an idea, a theme and a message. Then you need a plan. When [anyone is able to attach themselves to other successful projects] then their dreams can come true. It can be done. This IS America. Look at what’s been done in the last 20 years in the martial arts. We aren’t giving a Ph.D. to someone who has only been involved in martial arts since 1999. The people who have 30 plus years, the people who are [mature and successful] those are the people who are eligible. There is always someone complaining about the guy down the street, being 450 pounds and not able to get out of a chair comfortably…but who still has more students that you do. Why not have something like this that separates a dedicated teacher from the guy down the street who is 450 pounds? Or, separates the true martial artist from the 20 year old who hasn’t been alive as long as that teacher has been training? There has got to be something that can separate them.
(G) Didn’t you end up buying a high school building as part of this process?
(Jim Thomas): Yes, I dabble in real estate and I picked up an abandoned high school at auction, because I thought that I needed to have a physical building. As it turns out, I don’t think we DO need it and we’ll probably sell it. But, at first we were all excited and went in a started painting the rooms and fixing the place back up, until the first electric bill came in for $15,000. The heating bill for a month came in and it was $22,000. We didn’t realize all the maintenance expenses that were needed. In order to maintain such a building, we would need to fill the school to capacity. We’d have to say, ‘O.K. Joe, now to get your Ph.D. or masters it now going to cost you $3000 a quarter.’ Then we’d be back to worrying about making money to cover costs and be back into the same mentality that many martial arts instructors have at their schools: what do I have to do in order to keep my lights on? To keep my dojo rent paid? To pay myself to survive? That’s when some start selling out. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to start selling black belts.
(G) Can you foresee a time when we are learning and teaching martial arts, at a quality level online?
(Jim Thomas): That’s what I would love…but do you mean to learn martial arts, or to get a blackbelt ONLY online?
(G) That’s the natural extension, of course.
((Jim Thomas) I can see that this might be a great supplement, but there is nothing like hands-on training, learning from a professor or a master instructor.
(G) So how does that translate to the online model?
(Jim Thomas): I think the online model would have to be able to look at the student. We’re talking about two different things, though. Are we talking about someone trying to get martial arts education from scratch or someone who already has the foundation in education who is trying to advance their learning? For instance, with our University, the candidates are already educated and they still need to demonstrate their competence, with the board or review. As for new students, or people who are trying to earn certificates at a lower level, for online learning you would still need to have a way to demonstrate skill in a particular style, be it Japanese karate-do, Korean, kung fu or whatever.
(G) What we’re finding in education is that the SOCIAL aspects of learning are what draw people to choose conventional learning environments—such as a dojo or academic classroom—over online learning. If we can give people the feeling that they are part of a group, they are more likely to join into a conversation online, hence, the popularity of social-networking sites. A new model is called the FLIPPED classroom, where you can study from a series of videos that are housed online, but they you must go to a physical location to “do your homework” and ask questions directly to the teacher.
(Jim Thomas): I like that. The only problem you might have then would be that if the physical location of the instructor is in Phoenix and you are in some other state. At what point and how often does that person need to go to Phoenix?
(G) The demonstration of a physical ability and the fulfilling of the physical need of the student to be part of the group are two different things. The student can just as easily demonstrate his ability in front of a video camera, just as the teacher records his or her lectures.
(G) What are some of your other pet peeves in Martial Arts?
(Dr. Jim Thomas): People call me and they’ll start talking about somebody else that they don’t even know, and just start bashing the person who is not there to defend themselves. They just start bashing a person because they HEARD something. That just makes me madder’n Hell. First of all, if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t even say it. Too many people are on the Internet bashing others. The Internet’s a good thing. Freedom of the media is great, but there should be some boundaries. There are so many Facebook or [Cyber] bullies. These are the people who, if you cornered them in a room they’d be patting you on the back. The minute you leave their presence, they’re slandering you across the Internet…because they can and nobody is going to touch them. There are no consequences for their actions. That just makes me so mad and it goes on all the time.
(G) What is it about martial art that attracts you?
(Jim Thomas): For the most part—though I think we’ve lost a little bit of it—but for the most part, the loyalty…people need and desire the feeling acceptance. It’s not just about kicking and punching and breaking bricks and screaming. More important are the lessons of humility of being part of a family. A lot of dojos don’t have that. Mine does. My schools or those that I’m affiliated with are all part of a big family. And, my students are just an extension of my own personal family that I hold a high value to. When I was younger I was really attracted to Bill Wallace’s 65 mile an hour kick to the face, and I was attracted to Joe Lewis’s sidekick that would hit me an knock me into the mirrors. It was about watching strong men do feats of strength, but as I’ve gotten a little older I think my passions are in a little bit different area. That’s what makes us Full Circle, when we get to a certain point.
(G) You mentioned your father; who are some of your idols, or those who have had a positive impact on you?
(Jim Thomas): Shoshin Nagamine. He’s the founder of (Matsubiashi Ryu) a version of Shorin Ryu. There are three or four families that split from the original Shorin Ryu. I was able to meet Nagamine. That guy was truly amazing, so wise and way ahead of his time. I think Bruce Lee was too. Bruce Lee was very inspirational to me at an early age because he was very literate, very smart. It wasn’t all about his physical strength. He was a philosopher who was way ahead of his time. Not many people who are like that now. There haven’t been too many famous people in my time who are inspirational to me…maybe Bill Wallace. He’s a very inspirational person in my world. I’ve known him for more than 40 years and he’s still as active. He’s kept up with the times. Though he basically teaches the same seminar that he’s always taught, but the difference is that he’s better at it now. He’s wise to the T. He has been there and done that…He’s easy to get along with. I think very highly of Bill Wallace.
(G) Where did the interest in academic education come from?
(Jim Thomas): I think it was just the standards I had when I was a kid. You can’t want to grow up to hope you’ll be a karate teacher. You have to have something to fall back on. I see so many kids, my own kids and I want them to first excel in school because that’s the most important thing in the world. Being able to kick and punch can always come, but academic learning is a priority. To be educated is a very powerful thing. To be wise, without being educated…I don’t know if that can happen. If it can, I think you are actually educated, but in different ways.
(G) Is that an important lesson that you’ve learned from someone else?
(Jim Thomas): No, that has just happened to me with age. There are a lot of people out there who you can give a formula to and they can figure it out, but they might not be the wisest person who ever existed. Then there are others who are wise, and make so many great choices but they can’t add a thousand and a thousand together and tell you want the answer is. Education is the eyes of the perceiver.
(G) What one miracle would you hope to witness in your lifetime?
(Jim Thomas):) My daughter to make her bed without me telling her… Seriously? I’d like to see worldwide peace, all at one time.
(G) Isn’t it interesting the farther people get into martial arts, war-arts, the more peaceful they become?
(Jim Thomas): That is so true. When we are younger we are so full of [hormones and adrenaline] that we miss a lot of lessons in life. I guess that’s just part of being young and developing. When you get a little bit older, the more peaceful you get. I don’t know of any time in history when there wasn’t one altercation between on nation and another. Maybe there was a long time ago, when there were much fewer people than there are now. But, in this current age wouldn’t that be an awesome thing? Wouldn’t it be a great miracle to have worldwide peace?
(G) I would join you in hoping to witness that miracle.
(Jim Thomas): If we could end wars, our worldwide economy would be good. Love and passion would be better. Our whole mindset, no matter what civilization or country you are from, what your spiritual beliefs are or what your customs are, if there is worldwide peace it will affect everything.