More than 46 years of hard work and passion have paid off for two local senseis who have become the first husband and wife in the world to together achieve their 8th Dan promotion in karate.
At the same time, senseis Elias and Lilian Kattan from Langeberg Ridge also achieved their 6th Dan in Matayoshi kobudo (Okinawan weapons mastery).
Within Okinawa Goju Ryu Karate-do Kyokai (OGKK) this promotion places Lilian (66) as the highest ranking female in the world and Elias, who is on the brink of 70, as the highest ranking male in Africa. He is one of only four male Westerners to have reached 8th Dan in this style of karate.
The couple heads up OGKK in Africa and also teaches several karate classes a week – to karateka of all ages from white to black belts – at their own OGKK Durbanville dojo.
They told TygerBurger they are humbled and extremely honoured by this recognition. “The level of recognition and promotion from Okinawa is entirely different to a promotion issued by a national federation” says Lilian.
“Okinawa is officially recognised as the birthplace of karate. The promotion and certification from Okinawa supersedes any form of promotion at national level.”
Lilian adds that from 7th to 8th Dan, one has to train for eight years and also be involved in the organisation on a global level.
To grade, the couple travelled to Okinawa at the end of 2022.
The grading itself and training six hours a day over a period of six weeks in Okinawa was however the easy part, according to the Kattans. “We were due to grade in 2021, but then covid hit.”
With Japan being one of the last countries to relax their travel restrictions due to the pandemic, the Kattans had their grading delayed by an entire year.
“We were the first foreigners that were able to get into the country to grade,” says Lilian.
With the physical part of the grading done and dusted they were also faced with challenges within the organisation. “We were the first husband and wife in the world to reach this level together, not only in karate, but also in kobudo. The organisation had to rewrite its regulations to be able to award the promotion for both karate and kobudo under its constitution,” Lilian explains.
The couple received the news that their promotion is official a few weeks ago and their official certificates from Okinawa arrived via courier on 28 April. “We framed and hung it up in the dojo immediately,” Elias says, adding with a laugh that he couldn’t wait until December when the association’s technical grand master, hanshi Masanari Kikugawa, is visiting to South Africa. The Kattans are considered senior students in Kikugawa’s dojo in Okinawa, and the only foreign students of the grand master, according to Elias.
Lilian adds that Kikugawa was awarded the title of Intangible Cultural Treasure by the government of Okinawa, an accolade that formally recognises him as the world’s most knowledgeable grand master in Okinawan Goju Ryu karate. When deciding not to accept anymore international students into his dojo, the Kattans – Lilian, Elias and their late son George – were the only ones still recognised as official students of his.
Both Elias and Lilian started practising karate during the early years of martial arts being introduced to the West.
Elias who has been practising karate for more than 48 years, says he was introduced to a different style of karate that originated on the main islands of Japan, by a United Nations representative who taught it in his homeland of Israel.
Lilian, who was working in health and fitness at a ladies gym in Bellville, was invited to a karate class by a friend at the male gym next door. That was about 46 years ago.
When the pair met they were both 2nd Dan in their respective styles.
“I went to work in Israel and was asked by the local Okinawan branch to help teach at their club at the university. I met Elias in one of the local gyms and invited him to come train at our karate school,” Lilian says.
By the time he moved to South Africa, Elias had officially joined OGKK. Grading ranks from other associations are respected by OGKK and Elias integrated and adapted to Okinawan style quickly. He did however have to learn a whole new set of katas.
“It was a challenge that I enjoyed,” Elias says.
Their son George also took up the sport – reaching 4th Dan and also teaching at the Durbanville dojo before he passed away in December 2020.
“His widow, Giana, also does karate,” Lilian says.
“They had plans to grade to their next Dan together. She went ahead and did her 3rd Dan grading in his memory,” she adds.
As for the rest of the family, “our grandson, Kai (6) makes guest appearances at the dojo from time tot time,” says Lilian.
No age stamp, expiry date
Their advice to beginners – “Live in the moment, don’t be overwhelmed by what lies ahead and look back and appreciate what you have achieved,” says Lilian. “There are three important things to remember,” adds Elias. “Time, patience, and laugh when you make mistakes.”
“And it’s never too late to start,” says Lilian adding that the eldest white belt to train under them was 70.
Their fondest memories are the relationships they built over they years, says Lilian. “A very big world has become small through relationships all over the world despite cultural and language differences and time zones.”
Of course the Kattans have no plans to hang up their belts any time soon. “We’ll continue as long as our health allows. There is no expiration date on practicing karate.”