On my first trip to Japan back in 2966, I arrived at a very small and icy dojo (gymnasium) in the middle of nowhere, and was told to sweep the floor before the lesson. The black belts looked down at us as if we were scum, and made funny noises of disapproval. Then, with a horrific scream, the sensei (teacher) ordered us to line up. Being the newest student, I was the last in line. He began, “Ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, hichi, hachi, ku, ju,” etc., all the way up to one hundred. We, in the meantime, were doing push-ups. Mr. Enoeda, our sensei, walked around the class carrying a large wooden samurai sword. Whenever he saw someone too tired to continue, he would whack him rather hard with it.
Sensei Enoeda, who is still my teacher, is a traditionalist. He teaches in the classical Japanese manner, which freely translated means teaching in a cruel way, but with a soft heart. When I returned to New York that winter and pursued the art under one of Mr. Enoeda’s students, I noticed that classes kept getting smaller and smaller. One time only I showed up. Finally the owner of the karate dojo, who was into the art for the money, called the sensei in and told him that his lessons were too tough for American students. Apparently sensei Miyazaki said, “Ah, velly, velly good, weak students no good.” He was fired forthwith, and I followed him back to Europe.
Needless to say, the Japanese were and always will be the nonpareils of karate. This is because of their attention to detail and basics. There are terrific athletes everywhere who have taken up karate but who simply do not look good while executing a kick or a block. It has to do with posture, stance, breathing, and manner. There is a manner of standing as well as of fighting, and the Japanese seem to have it in their bones. Even if they had their eyes slanted, very few Westerners (in fact, I don’t know of more than two) could pass as top Japanese senseis.
Given that Westerners think karate is a sport, it is not surprising that they look “light” when performing a kata. This is the traditional form that is at times described as a dance, but is in reality a pre-arranged form of movements designed to practice countering multiple opponents. Knowing a kata but performing it without power and whip-like speed and varying it with soft blocks is a common mistake. 1 have seen terrific sport-karate fighters who look dreadful while performing a kata. (It is like seeing a ballet dancer trying to keep his balance.)
Age of relax
Now, at age 55, I rely on soft, relaxed blocking techniques against hard attacks. Rather than use those familiar bruising blocking techniques of ninety degrees, I try to divert or deflect my opponent’s charges. It’s less painful, though I miss the time when after a hard session we would wear our bruises with pride. One thing that I’ve kept up, however, is the traditional way of bushido, the way of the warrior: respect for the sensei and obedience to one’s superiors.
Last month, after a cruise around the Greek isles with NR’s editor-at-large, I steamed into Athens having spent five days lying on my back doing absolutely nothing. And just as well. Three Japanese senseis had flown in for a brutal five-day course. Athens was broiling, but the senseis didn’t seem to notice. We trained from ten to twelve, and four to six, each day, and by the end even I wanted to cry uncle. But when the final bow was over I felt as well as I ever have; and just as I relaxed and began thinking of ice-cold beer, sensei Yahara suddenly started, “ichi, ni, san,…” Everyone was down doing pushups but sensei did not have the heart to smack me as I stood aside. He is, after all, 15 years younger than I.