Shihan Neville Claasen
Shihan is a Japanese martial arts term used as an honorific for senior karate instructors. The 45-year-old Claasen, born in Vredendal in 1976, a rural area of the Western Cape, is one of the handful who has qualified for this title.
He started karate as a 7-year-old under Willem van Zyl in the Karate Kai system, a Goju based style. Living in the “coloured” area means travelling by foot a distance of 10km to the “white” area where the dojo was located. Soon after starting, his dad dies in a motor vehicle accident and young Neville has to walk alone to and from the dojo, so much is he wanting to learn this art. At that time, there was no street lights, so after training, it was walking in the dark. Great determination from this young boy.
Neville Claasen obtains 1st Dan after 12 years of training. The dojo by then had switched to Kyokushin Karate. In the year of obtaining black belt, the dojo instructor is seriously incapacitated in a water-sport accident. Claasen is by then the highest ranked student, but because it’s a white dojo, one brown belt, a Riaan Nel is promoted first to 1st Dan to take charge of the dojo and then later overtakes Claasen in rank as it was not fitting for a “coloured” to be in charge or hold a higher rank in a “white” dojo.
Due to Apartheid, I was never treated equally at the “whites-only” dojo, and often had to find my own way to Cape Town for tournaments because Sensei Nel was not happy that I would normally perform better than my fellow “white” students and he told the parents of my fellow “white” students not to give me a lift. So many other similar cases from the “non-white” communities, but sadly, the rigours of daily life under Apartheid killed the ambitions of many.
I was totally committed to the hard and rugged full contact style of karate. So i bided my time, establishing myself on the tournament circuit and improving my knowledge. Fuelled by the passion, Claasen never looked back. “In 1999, I founded my own dojo [karate school] in my community of Vredendal. The dojo would become the headquarters for the IKKA.
As Kyokushin started splintering into various groups, Claasen belonged to several of them with the hope that they would actually take care of him as a person. Finding that non-existant, he resigned from the last organisation - the Kyokushin Union of Bas van Stenis who had never taken the time to travel to Vredendal as had the others who only wanted affiliation fees and other.
It was only when he left the Kyokushin Union, that things started happening for him as he now was associating himself with people that had excelled on their own without being with those who were “advantaged” by the system. Then shihan started travelling to various countries around the world. When he achieved his fourth and fifth dans, he fought in Thailand and Japan, respectively.
To get to where he is was not easy, says Claasen, for each dan he was promoted to, he had to fight equally talented and strong opponents.
Shihan Claasen currently runs a dojo in Vredendal, known as the Honbu Dojo.
He is currently preparing for his 6th dan (Rokudan) promotion test and is the founder president of the 1-Kyokushin (Ichiban) Karate Association (IKKA).