Memories of Karate do overseas

Hiroshi Nakajima,

Japan Karatedo Federation (JKF), official instructor

Japan Karatedo Chidokai (JKC) Global Coordinator

Episode 1

The phone rang very loudly. I was due to travel to the United States in two days’ time to serve as a Karate instructor. It was one of my Chidokan Senpais calling me: “Nakajima, what are you doing? Everyone is waiting for you, come over here, right now!” As I had already spoken with Sasaki Sensei to explain the situation and had asked to be excused, I could hear him saying “stop it” to the Senpai on the other end of the line. Still I said: “Yes, I’m coming”, despite the flu and very high fever I had contracted. I seem to remember the venue was a good Japanese restaurant in Tokyo’s Uguisudani district (on the Yamanote train line). I managed to drive myself there (and back) to thank Sasaki Sensei and my Senpais, though it now strikes me as nothing short of miraculous that I was able to do so in my state of semi-consciousness.

Even two days later, as I stood in front of everyone who had come to see me off, I could see the ceiling swim before my eyes above the escalator to my departure gate at Haneda Airport. The date was 20 June 1974.

It was the first flight of my life; I was leaving to a place I knew nothing about, whose language I was virtually unable to speak. I was certainly ready to give it everything I had, with high hopes and anticipation of the unknown – not to say a youthful spirit of challenge.

On the plane I was lucky enough to meet Okano Tomosaburu Sensei (from the Hachioji district in Tokyo) who gave me advice on transit procedures inside the United States. He was on his way to visit one of his students, Mr. Sugimoto, whose organization was based in Florida. (I subsequently met Mr. Sugimoto during a WUKO championship for which I was refereeing.) Thanks to his advice, I arrived smoothly at my destination – Detroit.

Episode 2

There were three Chidokan dojos in the Detroit area: the Central Detroit Dojo, the Mount Clemens Dojo and the Ann Arbor Dojo at the University of Michigan.

When I landed at Detroit airport at the end of the afternoon, David Kostenchuck, the Head of the local Chidokan organization – and a very big man – was there to greet me. Chuck, as he was nicknamed, took me to my hotel and then invited me to his place for dinner. He called his wife “Bancho san from home” (“Bancho” means something like “gang leader”). The next day I had to get up at 5:30 am for the All-American Karate Championships.

The indoor stadium was fairly large and filled with people. It was originally Sasaki Sensei who had been invited and who was expected to serve as the main referee. Half the referees seemed to be from the Japan Karate Association (JKA, or “Kyokai” in Japanese) – one of the members of the Japan Karatedo Federation (JKF). I was drenched in cold sweat and running a fever of nearly 40 degrees Celsius, barely managing to sit up straight in the main referee’s chair as Sasaki Sensei’s substitute. Somehow, I had to endure this until the close of the competition. But then Chuck asked me to give a demonstration in the afternoon. Of course, I had no choice but to accept, and made no excuses. Fortunately I managed to perform Kanku-Dai.

Perhaps because there were few Japanese around at the time, I received a big round of applause. I just felt happy that my fever had broken towards the end of the tournament, around 6:30 pm.

Episode 3

After closing the competition successfully at about 8 pm, Chuck took me to a diner where light music was playing. Both the hamburger and the ice cream were absolutely huge and impossible for me to finish. Much to my surprise, Chuck presently announced that he was going to introduce me to a girl. Whereupon a beautiful young Latina, not very tall and with dark skin, walked towards me from the other side of the room, saying “Hi Hiroshi!” She kissed me on both cheeks. “How are you doing?”, she asked. I could only stand still and stare.

She wanted to take me out to dinner. Another dinner!!! But with Chuck encouraging me too, I could not but accept the invitation. In those days, all American cars were huge. It was a truly strange sight: she sat, so petite, at the wheel of the big car. She drove me to her home and served me a very thick steak and some wine. After dessert, she took my hand and asked me to stay for the night. But there was no way I could get involved! After my stint in the United States, I had to fly to Switzerland to become an instructor in a fully formal sense. I asked her to drive me back to my hotel. She did so, reluctantly. I confess I too hesitated for a moment … It was around 1 am when I finally went to bed.

Episode 4

The next day, Chuck asked me to teach Karate classes at all three of his Dojos, for 2 hours in each – a total of 6 hours every day. Chuck himself drove me to each class. When I asked him how far the next Dojo was, he would simply answer: “just around there”. But the distance between the Dojos was actually an hour’s drive on the highway each time. When we arrived at the Detroit Dojo, the students obviously felt I was somewhat smaller than they had expected. They could hardly conceal their doubts. They were all muscular and tall – averaging about 6 feet. Faced with a new instructor almost a foot shorter, several of them were eager to do Kumite with me. After that, however, they followed me through the training curriculum with respect and politeness. Every day our Karate-gis were soaked with perspiration. I felt satisfied to see them practice with enthusiasm – except that my mouth felt parched and tacky from the endless counting and countless Kiais – 6 hours per day, every day, at 3 different Dojos!

Episode 5

13 July 1974. I departed from Detroit to Geneva, with a stopover in New York, where I visited a friend of mine – Mr. Nobuo Kobayashi. We were colleagues at the first job I had held after my graduation from school. He and I were our firm’s best salesmen for a certain product.

He agreed to let me spend the night at his place. The door to his 6th floor apartment was equipped with a special mechanism: closing the door engaged three large horizontal iron plates and a sturdy diagonal bar on the inside. He called this the “police lock”. He had been burgled at gun point thrice already – including once with an automatic weapon – and he had lost everything. He told me not to go out after 10 pm, fearing for my safety on the streets.

It was quite a while since we had last seen each other, and we had a lot to talk about. He now had a Karate black belt from the JKA, and he lived with his girlfriend. I explained to him that, after winning the last Tokyo tournament, I was on my way to teach Karate in Switzerland with letters of recommendation from the Tokyo Karate Union and the President of the Japan Karatedo Federation (JKF). “Well done!”, he commented, with a broad smile.

Episode 6

15 July 1974. Minutes before the plane touched down, I saw Lake Geneva through the window – and the fine driving rain. Mr. and Mrs. K were at the airport to pick me up. Mr. K had a Dojo in Geneva where he offered Judo, Aikido and Karate classes. With 140 tatamis, his dojo was one of the largest in Europe at the time. He had some 500 or 600 students, including about 120 children from the age of 3. The younger children would occasionally wet the tatamis with urine, or smear excrement on the walls. They were also very noisy during classes. No one could control them – except for one person: Mrs. K. Whenever she entered the Dojo she procured instant, absolute silence. If she dragged a 4-year-old out of the Dojo by the hair it scared the other kids who stood watching. It was rumored that one of her relatives had been a member of the Nazi Gestapo.

Episode 7

Three days after I arrived in Geneva, I started teaching at Mr. K’s Dojo. In order to secure a residence permit and rent an apartment, I had to register as a student and complete the administrative procedures accordingly. Swiss residency regulations made no provision for obtaining a permit as a Karate instructor, though I did feel very grateful for the opportunity to teach Karate in such a different and beautiful country.

Three days later, however, I began to have serious doubts. Mr. K asked me to report to the Dojo in a Judo-gi and black belt to teach Judo! Evidently, Mr. K’s sole purpose was to make money by any means, even by lying. But that was out of the question as far as I was concerned! I was so furious and incredulous. Was he not aware of the extent of the offence he was committing against the spirit of Japanese martial arts? Of course, I refused. As part of his “martial arts classes”, he went so far as to teach exercises / gymnastics on the radio, on a programme called “Radio Taïso”. Besides, he also had Mr. S who had been teaching Aikido and Judo at the Dojo for a year prior to my arrival.

Episode 8

Mr. S was the heir to a large shipbuilding company in Kagoshima, but he had left home to go his own way in life. One day in a café, he pointed to a young woman sitting opposite us, reading a newspaper. With his very strong Kagoshima accent, he asked me: “what do you think of her?”

“Not bad”, I answered, but he insisted and repeated the question with a serious look on his face, “I don’t mean like that, but really?” He later married that young woman.

A few days later, Mr. K asked us to repair the frayed edges of the Tatamis and clean all of the windows in the Dojo over the coming weekend – Saturday and Sunday. It took us from 9 am to 5 pm on both days. We could not really complain because Mrs. K prepared picnics for us from time to time; but it was always the same: cold-wet rice – either too wet or undercooked – with Umeboshi or a sausage. Sometimes we could not finish it and had to take it home.

On the Sunday, Mr. K showed up to check on our work. “Oh, it has become clean”, he said. “Thank you! You must be thirsty. Help yourself to as much Coke or Fanta as you want, from there (he pointed to the cabinet at the back of the Dojo). You can pay for your drinks later.” Mr. S and I stared at each other but did not know what to say.

I remember Mr. K as a stocky, bandy-legged judoka. However, he once showed me a book on the Heian Katas and asked me about Shuto Uke: when he performed it for me his thumb was completely outstretched. Whatever his expertise in Judo, it was obvious that he had not even mastered the basics of Karate. Mr. K had apparently applied to the JKF President, Mr.Sasagawa, for the grade of 5th Dan but he received only 4th Dan, via Sasaki Sensei.

All of this was most unfortunate for those who learned from him. Some of his former students eventually doubted that he truly was a “grand master”, but as they went on to teach Karate themselves, their own students – who had no means of knowing any better – were bound to suffer regrettable consequences. In turn, some of these students may well have gone on to win matches and thus mislead others. Admittedly, Karate is extremely difficult to judge. Depending on whether techniques are assessed in terms of gymnastics or of traditional Karatedo, any given performance can give rise to diametrically opposed refereeing decisions. Of course, part of the problem can be attributed to refereeing standards and the fact that the standards applied by judges are not uniform.

Episode 9

Two or 3 months after I had started to teach at Mr. K’s Dojo, he asked us to sign a contract stipulating, inter alia, that: “Should I ever resign from K Dojo, I promise to return to Japan or leave Switzerland. Failure to respect this commitment shall entail acceptance of such penalties as may be imposed. ”

I immediately sent Sasaki Sensei a copy. “This is totally unexpected”, he replied. “Nakajima, you are being taken hostage. Do your best. Do not be discouraged.” As for the duration of the teaching contract with K Dojo, I proposed two years but Sasaki Sensei advised me to keep it to one year, as I could always renew it if all went well. Thanks to this precaution, I was able to leave Mr. K’s Dojo after one year. Using the excuse of English language study, I went to England.

Episode 10

By August 1975 I had moved to Notting Hill Gate in London to study English. I shared a triple room in a hostel for young men. Two or 3 times a week I taught Karate free-of-charge to some of the residents of the hostel. In England, people seemed to possess a strong sense of tradition, pride and elegance in the way they behaved. The men genuinely seemed “gentlemanly”.

From the perspective of a first-time visitor from Japan, however, there were some interesting nuances. One day, although it was raining, one of the hostel residents asked me to go shopping for food with him. But then, as we had only one umbrella, he seemed to hesitate for a long while. “So let’s go”, I said. The reason for his hesitation was revealed right away: he felt he had to explain to everyone we passed that we were not gay! At the thought that this might have been the obvious assumption, the images of “gentlemanly” and “homosexual” formed a strange connection in my Japanese mind…

Soon it was Christmas. Then, at the beginning of the New Year, I started to get phone calls every weekend from one of my former students in Switzerland. He beseeched me to return and teach Karate again. He said he had found a lawyer who could help me.

When I reported this to Sasaki Sensei over the phone, he asked me: “Do you have enough money to get yourself back to Switzerland?” “Yes, I replied, but only for a one-way ticket.”

“Idiot !! Go ahead then, even if there is no money!”

How happy I felt at that moment! I remember it even today.

Episode 11

15 February 1976. I started teaching in Geneva again. I had only two students at first. I punched the Makiwara that I had made for myself 200 to 400 times each day. I lived in a storage room at the home of one of my students and ate only potatoes and bacon. But it did not matter: I was only too happy to be able to practice and teach Karate again.

Some months later, I had a few dozen students. From 1 July to 19 August, for 50 days, we organized intensive training sessions open to the public at a major track-and-field venue in Geneva every morning from 7 am. The poster ads were everywhere. This stadium featured a race track measuring 400m on the inside and 600m on the outside. From Oitsuki to Mawashi-Geri, we thus performed each of the six basic techniques 400 to 600 times per lap, and we did two laps of each. On average, we thus performed 6000 Tsuki and Keri every day. All Kihon exercises were repeated twice, as were all Katas, including the Kihon-Katas. Although this regimen was surely a lot less taxing than some of the intensive training we used to undergo in the old days in Japan, fewer and fewer students showed up with every passing day. I ended up with no one at all for a whole week. Yet this did not really bother me, because I was quite prepared to start the exercises alone and finish them alone. Besides, students from other Karate schools in Geneva came to watch me every morning.

Episode 12

We then started to practice seriously at a rented gym. I would manage to get dozens of students, but they invariably dropped out after two or three months. Sasaki Sensei visited Geneva to hold a special seminar, bringing with him H. Sempai and M junior of the youth group. (M junior got so tired that he was practicing Unsu in his dreams!) Mr. M from Chidokai, who had recently won the French cooking contest, had also come along. Sasaki Sensei made H. Sempai and Mr. M do Kumite. Mr. M first scored a Waza-Ari, with an incredibly fast Jodan punch. H. Sempai received a cut in his lip. Sasaki Sensei yelled at him: “What are you waiting for! Go!” H. Sempai then let fly with his Oi-Ni-San Tsukis – learned directly from Sasaki Sensei – which caused Mr. M to back off all the way across the gym and made him give up.

By then Sasaki Sensei had already visited Mr. K’s Dojo, accompanied by K.Sempai. Sasaki Sensei had ordered K. Sempai to do Kumite with one of my students, Liborio (of Italian origin), who later became Chidokai’s first Shodan in Switzerland. At first, the two remained motionless, then it was Liborio who lashed out with Chudan Mae-Geri and scored a Waza-Ari. So Sensei yelled at K. Sempai: “Go for it! Now!! ”

Liborio promptly received a quick succession of Jodan and Chudan Tsukis and was driven back across the Dojo. Finally, Empi on the head gave him a bump – and caused him to give up.

Sasaki Sensei later acknowledged that his hand had instinctively signaled the well-deserved initial Waza-Ari for my student’s successful Mae-Geri.

Episode 13

1980. In order for Chidokai Switzerland to join the Swiss Karate Federation (SKF), we became an associate member of the established Karate organization in Geneva. SKF meetings were held several times a year in the Swiss capital – Bern – but the proceedings were entirely conducted in German, of which I had no understanding whatsoever. The records were translated into French later, but this did not help much even when I did attend. For the first time I understood the importance of languages ​​.

In those days, Karate competitions were appalling to watch. Losers would routinely throw their belt on the floor, shout insults, swear and spit. The coaches screamed at their contestants to hit hard, to kill! There was no discipline whatsoever. The refereeing followed the mirror system – with the main referee and the assistant invariably associated with the opposing sides and favouring their own to win. I wanted to do everything I could to raise the standards of both referees and contestants. So in 1986 I became a member of the SKF Referee Commission and exerted every possible effort on that front. Then, having become a referee representative for Switzerland, I started attending the various competitions on the international circuit so as to qualify as a European Referee – paying for everything myself, including my plane tickets and accommodation.

Prior to sending me to Switzerland, Sasaki Sensei had introduced me to Mr. JB, who was a member of the Swiss team at the World Championships. When I first tried to establish a connection with the SKF, I paid him a cautious visit, as I had not seen him again since that initial introduction. However, he cold-shouldered me and made me feel unwelcome. To him I was just a stranger and an outsider, albeit Japanese, from the birthplace of Karate – a connection whose very existence he clearly dismissed as irrelevant. I sensed some sort of warped nationalism.

Sometime later, I visited Mr. HJ whose Geneva-based Karate organization was a member of the SKF. I proposed to join his organization on the understanding that Chidokai would retain its technical autonomy as a distinct sub-group and that it would eventually seek full membership of the SKF through independent affiliation. But this route turned out to be nothing more than a political obstacle course.

In the late 1970s and well into the 80s, I also did my best to help SKF members who wanted to go to Japan for training – still in the hope of making a meaningful contribution to the development of Karate in Switzerland. I made all the arrangements with Sasaki Sensei and our Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. Some of them subsequently became quite senior in the SKF. That was a wonderful thing in itself : the basic skills and philosophy of Karate they were taught in Japan must have given them a foundation; however, the problem is that they afterwards unfortunately reverted to their own self-righteousness, instead of seeing the value of succession or continuation in the tradition, perhaps on account of nationalistic narrow-mindedness.

For anyone who wants to pursue martial arts, the correct path is that of succession based on such notions as “ON” (indebtedness), “TCHU” (fidelity) and “GI” (righteousness). Those who fail to understand this are beyond help. For Budo-ka, the practice of a martial art embodies the way of Samurai warriors connected by trust for life, and its pureness must be protected from egoism and excessive familiarity. Some would-be students, however, failed to appreciate the seriousness of this value because they could only see Karate as a sport and competition. Admittedly, a proper understanding of this would have required a breadth and depth of knowledge of “the Way” (Do) which could only have been gained from extensive study of the written sources on Budo and its history, not from a few weeks (or even months) of Karate practice in Japan.

Episode 14

It is not easy for foreigners to stay in Switzerland. Every year, they have to apply to the immigration authorities for renewal of their residence permit, failing which they must leave the country. Non-compliance means expulsion by force. So every year I hired a lawyer to process my residence permit application. In 1979, however, he told me that it would not be possible to have my residency renewed for the following year because of the limit on the number of renewals of my student permit (which also allowed me to work for up to 15 hours per week). According to him, I would have to return to Japan.

I informed Sasaki Sensei of my predicament. He had little choice but to accept that there was no alternative. I felt really sorry at the thought of having to go back to Japan. But as I was still considering every possible option, I found out that Japan’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations Office in Geneva had opened a competition for a job vacancy. Though many candidates had presumably applied already, I took a chance and submitted my application within days of the deadline. I was fortunate enough to win the competition. My destiny was thus determined by this stroke of good luck. (I shall always be very grateful to everyone who supported me.)

Episode 15

The following anecdote comes at the expense of the chronology I have followed so far.

Just before leaving for Japan at the end of his 1976 visit, Sasaki Sensei was due to have lunch at a restaurant. He ordered spaghetti but the service was slow while he was in a hurry to get to the airport in Paris to catch his flight. After we had waited for almost an hour, a middle-aged waitress finally brought the plate of spaghetti and put it down loudly on the table, uttering “Voilà!” Sasaki Sensei seemed astonished and turned to me inquiringly. I explained that, contrary to the custom in Japan, in Europe people spend a long time over their meals, and that “Voilà” in French meant something like “Here you are.” And that was that. Sasaki Sensei said he was going to miss his flight from Paris. Everyone felt quite desperate, till one of the students said “It’s OK, I’ll take him.” Leaving us all in disbelief, he drove Sasaki Sensei to Paris. It turned out later that his Ferrari covered the 550 km from Geneva to Paris in 3 hours. (Admittedly, he was an airline pilot, and in those days speeding was not frowned upon as it is today.)

Episode 16

In 1978, I started teaching at the Shung Do Kwan Dojo in Geneva. Built in 1947, this martial arts centre offered tuition in Judo, Aïkido, Kendo, Karate and several other martial arts. Its Dojo could easily accommodate 100 people, and it had adjoining showers and changing rooms that were quite adequate by the standards of that time. It had only one shortcoming. As it was a large Dojo, several different kinds of martial art were practiced concurrently. While some people were being thrown to the floor right beside you, others were screaming out; still others would engage in loud conversation while practicing some Judo technique on the floor (Newaza). In the midst of their practice, some would even be debating their choice of restaurant for dinner after training.

It was not easy to find “sacred space” for Karate practice amidst this turmoil. After some trial and error in my attempts to improve students’ concentration, I decided to have mirrors put up on both sides of the Dojo – even though I had to pay for them myself. This made everyone practice with heightened dedication. It was this experience that made me realize that mirrors are indispensable in a Dojo.

Episode 17

1982 European international referee – 1984 WUKO international referee

I attended international refereeing courses. The venues were always elegantly decorated and featured 6 surfaces for matches. The courses were held just before competitions, obviously with the aim of improving the quality and standards of refereeing during the forthcoming event. First, each referee had to perform a Kata. I was speechless at how low the general standard was. Then, all of us had to form a circle inside which one of the contestants performed a Kata. To my surprise, the chief judge standing beside me whispered to me asking how many points I would award, before he blew his whistle. All of the others followed suit and awarded the same score, by keeping their 5 fingers on the point sticks (Tensu-Bo), imitating our finger positions and raising them as soon as we did.

I was chosen to be the chief judge for the individual Kumite final. So I invited the two contestants to enter (Naka-e) and they proceeded to their respective starting positions. However, the entire hall resounded with the noisy excitement of the public. It was impossible for me to start the final. I pointed my finger to the seats full of noisy spectators and just kept gazing at them. After a while, the hall quietened down and I was able to go ahead with the match.

Team Kumite was often marred by poor refereeing. Such was the case during the team Kumite final on this occasion. There were three Referee Commission judges sitting up on the podium – in principle, they were there as world-class authorities to oversee our refereeing. But one of them took the microphone to announce that they were going to show us an example of good refereeing. The team Kumite final got under way. The red and white teams were tied and the match was indeed extremely close. The incident happened during the final re-match between the captains. At that point, two of the three judges – the principal and his deputy – were on the tatami while the third sat outside the perimeter, behind the principal, to serve as supervisor or Kansa. At the close of a heated match that had lasted about 3 minutes, the red and the white both performed techniques at the same time. The principal asked his deputy whether it was the red or the white who had scored first, but the deputy covered his eyes and said he had been unable to see; the principal then asked the Kansa, who also covered his face and reported not seeing what had happened. Questioned by his deputy, the principal also said he had not seen. Of course the result could not be known like this. The members of the Referee Commission had come to supervise the referees, critically assess them and set an example, but they thus only ended up revealing their own poor standards.

Episode 18

In May every year, the World Health Organization holds its annual conference in Geneva – the World Health Assembly. The late Mr. Ryoichi Sasagawa, the President of the Sasagawa Foundation (and of the Japan Karatedo Federation and the World Karate Federation), used to visit the Assembly every year, as he donated huge amounts for the elimination of Smallpox and other global health causes. During each of his visits, his secretary would ask me to take care of Mr. Sasagawa and attend to him. Once, however, my supervisor did not agree to release me for this purpose. I reported this to the secretary. Next day, the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo sent a telex directly to the Ambassador at the Japanese Mission and it turned the situation around – I was going to attend President Sasagawa. Early every morning I would meet him at his hotel and accompany him throughout the day until his bed time. I had many opportunities to hear stories from him. Once, he suddenly said to me “Mr.Nakajima, why don’t we build a big martial arts Dojo in Geneva”. While discussing this with his secretary, he asked me “Do you have a Dojo, Mr.Nakajima?” I do not know why I answered “Yes” without thinking, perhaps out of some vacuous sense of pride. Had I answered “No” instead, we would perhaps be organizing international championships in Geneva every year.

Episode 19

A number of Swiss contestants have distinguished themselves in major tournaments both at home and abroad. At the World Championships in Taipei in 1982, Javier Gomez won the Kumite title in the 75kg category, giving Switzerland its first gold medal in the World Championships. One of my students, Christian Barthélemy, won second place in the Rengo-Kai championship in Japan (Mr. N from the Japan Chidokan won first place); my student Birgit represented Switzerland in the ISKU championship organized by Sasaki Sensei. At the 1992 Women’s World Cup in Fukuoka, Swiss Karatedo Chidokai won 5th place in the team category. Throughout the 1980s and 90s our contestants often made it to the Swiss finals in individual and team competitions alike. Among the women, Birgit did well in both Kata and Kumite, and so did Patrick among the men. Mr. S, who taught at the JKA school in Zurich, once commented to me that he could not understand Patrick’s Kumite technique (it was based on Renzoku-Waza …).

On one occasion when I accompanied a group of my students to the Swiss Championships, they performed poorly on the first day so, that evening, I invited them to slap me hard in the face. To help them overcome their initial reluctance to do so I urged them to slap each other as well, as hard as they could. This session of extremely harsh “practice” bore fruit on the second day: we left the championships with gold!

In 1979 I was awarded the title of official JKF instructor (appointment No.79). Over the years, I took Swiss students to Japan several times for training at the Chidokan Hombu Dojo or at the JKF Dojo, and also for sightseeing in Kyoto, Kyushu and Okinawa. Not only did this give my students opportunities to practice Karate and take part in tournaments in Japan, but it also gave them some exposure to Japanese culture and helped them to understand Japan better.

Episode 20

Two girls, B and F, who had joined our Shung Do Kwan Dojo at the age of 13 and obtained their brown belts at 16, went off to compete in a tournament in Zurich.

But I then got a phone call: “Sensei! One of your students broke her leg during a match and had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance!” – I was informed. The next thing I knew, the same student had attempted suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills and had been rushed back to the hospital. The doctor managed to save her life, but she insisted, in tears, that she had to get back to Geneva before midnight on that very day. When I spoke to the doctor, I was told that she may not survive if she left the hospital before the following morning, and that I would have to sign her discharge documents and take full responsibility if she insisted on leaving prematurely. We managed to persuade her to stay overnight and she returned to Geneva the following day.

To my great surprise, it turned out that the reason for her broken leg was heroin abuse, which had made her bones fragile. On the 16 year-old girl’s arms there were hard black lumps where she was in the habit of injecting the drug into her veins. I learned that she was made to carry drugs every week from Geneva to Zurich by motorbike, and that she was subjected to physical violence whenever she returned after midnight. She could not inform the police, because of the threat to her family, she said. I do not know what has become of her.

Episode 21

I was in the JFK building to take the examination for the grade of 5th Dan. The candidates are called up by ID number in groups of 10 to enter the examination room. The Kata exam comes first, followed by Kumite. In Kumite, I faced a candidate from Tachikawa (Tokyo). At one point, even though the examiner had called “Yame!”, my opponent gave me a Jodan punch in the face and then a knee strike in the ribs while holding my shoulders. We both failed the examination, but I suffered a broken rib and, for the next two years, I would wake up on a blood-stained pillow every morning, from nose bleeding.

Except for my 6th Dan (on which the chief examiner later praised me in front of Sasaki Sensei), every one of my JFK Dan grading examinations featured some particular hardship or other. One obstacle I consistently had to overcome is that it takes 16 hours (including transit time) to get from Geneva to Tokyo, which was a drain on my energy. Also, the jet-lag resulting from the 8-hour time difference invariably prevented me from sleeping properly at night on arrival. Each time I showed up for the examination, I was thus not as fit as I should have been. I had to take courage from the thought of the late Sasaki Sensei and my Senpai leading the JKF, scolding myself for the weakness inside me.

Episode 22

Switzerland is a country of tourism, with its breathtaking natural scenery and beautiful cities. It is also a haven for many of the world’s rich and famous. Not only do the Rothchilds, Picasso’s grandchild and many others – corporate tycoons and aristocrats – entrust their assets to Swiss banks, but they also own mansions on the shores of Switzerland’s many lakes, where lavish parties are held every night.

One such character was the painter Balthus (whom Picasso called “the last maestro of the 20th century”). Balthus hated photographs. He was from a Polish aristocratic background and lived in the Canton of Vaud, in the so-called Grand Chalet de Rossinière, which is a famous historic building. I was once invited to a dinner party at his estate, where in an atmosphere of tenderness his two former wives were both sitting together with his current wife, Countess Setsuko.

During a certain period, the Lady Setsuko used to organize charitable activities for disadvantaged children at the Grand Chalet, and I would participate as an instructor.

The Grand Chalet is a wooden building dating back to 1754 – a gem of typical Swiss architectural style, where Balthus hosted worldwide celebrities such as David Bowie, the Dalai Lama or the Beatles.

One of Balthus’s sons is called Stash (possibly a nickname for Stanislas); and his daughter by the Lady Setsuko, Harumi. Although the Grand Chalet has about 30 bedrooms, Stash invited me to use his room for a stay. He was a tall man whose garb and hair style (with long plaits down to the hip) looked positively medieval. He also behaved in an extremely aristocratic manner. For instance, he would greet me saying “SENSEEEIIII”, bowing exaggeratedly deeply and slowly (up to 20 seconds), in a way which bewildered me. He was a student of mine and was recommended to become the first Honorary President of Swiss Karatedo Chidokai.

Episode 23

In the late 1990s, the trend in world Karate was to transition from the traditional rules of Kumite – i.e. Ippon Shobu – to the WKF “Shobu system” with 8 points. About then, I myself felt the need to develop a set of training practices that would serve as a bridge between basic technique (Kihon-Waza) and free sparring (Jiyu Kumite). This was the origin of our Renzokuwaza 1 to 16, and then Renzokuwaza-Kata.

The Swiss Karate Federation (SKF) has a Referee Commission, but it has no grading panel: each member organization conducts its own grading examinations. Once, as an experiment, 4 member organizations conducted a joint examination for the SKF, with each organization’s representatives in a separate corner of the room. Our Chidokai has established basic techniques (Kihon-Waza) such as Taisabaki, Ukegime and so on. When we started showing Renzokuwaza 1-16, the representatives of the other organizations all stood to attention, especially those of the JKA organization, I think. After that, however, the idea of holding joint grading examinations somehow dropped off the agenda.

Episode 24

One of the gyms where we used to practice in the early 1990s had a concrete floor covered with linoleum. It was basically too hard and unsuitable for our purposes (Fumikomi-Waza). One day, I was unable to put my foot down even for a single step. The doctor who examined the MRI diagnosed tears in the meniscus of my knee.

In those days, I combined work with daily Karate instruction, plus judging at international competitions or other Karate events, which took up all my annual holidays and weekends. For example, on returning from my grading examinations in Tokyo, I would go straight from the airport to my office. The intensity of this way of life was probably responsible for a urinary condition I developed at the time which called for an examination under general anesthesia. This, in turn, caused a deterioration of my eyesight.

Given that experience, I was determined to have only local anesthesia for the operation of my injured meniscus. However, hospitals now practice only general or epidural anesthesia and no longer use local anesthetics for surgery. I finally found a doctor who agreed to perform the procedure under local anesthesia, involving only 6 injections around my knee. I told myself that this would be nothing compared to surgery performed without any anesthesia, e.g. on soldiers in times of war. But I was in for a nasty surprise. For the first time in my life, the 6 injections notwithstanding, I experienced such excruciating pain that I could not help groaning. Looking at a monitor screen, the doctor used a pair of remote-controlled scissors to cut away about one-third of the meniscus. The scissors cutting into the cartilage made an evil, gloomy snipping sound.

Episode 25

The doctor’s assurances that I would be able to walk and drive within 2 weeks were a far cry from what actually happened next. Western bathtubs typically have a rounded bottom, so I was unable to stand up in mine. Washing one’s hair involves inclining one’s head, which I was not able to do either. It took me 8 years to be able to perform Kata normally. I had undergone the surgery during the summer holidays and had not told my students about it. Nor did I skip practice. However, I obviously could not perform Kata or Kihon to my usual standard, and this setback gave me huge stress. Then, bad luck struck again. One day, in 1996, as I was walking into the driveway to my workplace, the open security barrier malfunctioned and suddenly dropped on my head. The resulting concussion subsequently gave me headaches that woke me up every morning around 4 am with the feeling that my head was icy cold.

Episode 26

X-ray, CT, MRI – none of them showed anything wrong, the doctor said. Yet the mere sight of printed letters made me feel nauseated. The doctor prescribed a painkiller. Since the MRI showed nothing, I wondered whether the impact might have damaged some capillary arteries in a way that impaired the blood flow during my sleep. (It has now been proven that capillaries can wither and die.) I was extremely anxious at the thought that I might have to give up teaching Karate sometime soon.

It was about that time that someone in Japan introduced me to the development of inner Ki energy through the practice of breathing techniques. With regular practice, I made a miraculous recovery from my ailment. Then, my mother, aged 86, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, which had spread from her intestine to her lungs. I hurried back to Japan and, drawing on the breathing techniques I had learnt, I applied Ki energy to her daily. Within 10 days or so, she too had miraculously recovered. She went on to live for another 20 years, to the age of 106, without a relapse. I believe that the breathing techniques saved both my mother’s life and my own.

Episode 27

Overseas instructors

In the 1950s and 60s, Japanese Karate instructors who went to teach abroad must have started off by showing their students how to perform techniques rather than explaining them in words. For example, they might have demonstrated a technique by letting someone punch them in order then to show students how to defend. The ways of the JKA school (Kyokai-Ryu) might thus include some elements that were “re-imported” from outside (this needs to be verified). Compared with Chidokai, for instance, the most obvious differences centre on Zenkutsu-Dachi and Kokutsu-Shuto-Uke. Originally, Kokutsu-Dachi was derived from Nekoashi-Dachi, eventually evolving into complete Hammi (sideways orientation) with a wider distance between the feet (this also needs to be verified). However, if you stand in Kokutsu with complete Hammi, the resulting stance restricts the speed at which you can move into the next stance, thereby impairing mobility.

In the Kata Unsu, the first Ippon-Nukite is given at the Chudan level (according to the late Sasaki Sensei, the late Nakayama Shihan of the JKA, and other schools too), while the JKA school now makes the strike Gedan (to attack the knee). Also in Unsu (and other Katas involving a jump), the JKA form shifts the front foot forward just prior to the jump. Furthermore, in Gojushiho the right arm is stretched forward, but the JKA has changed this so that the arm sweeps to the right (this needs to be verified).

Yet the JKA has made a great contribution by sending its instructors to countries around the world and thereby spreading Karate. With their numbers, the name of JKA (or Kyokai) has become so well known that the term Karate is now virtually understood as synonymous with Shotokan. In the process, however, the JKA has turned the term ”Shotokan” as a style (Ryu) into a proper noun, “Shoto-Kan”, referring to a particular group. Am I the only one who feels they are somehow insisting on something that other schools are not?

By contrast, Chidokai practice is rooted in a different fundamental principle, consisting of basics such as Kihon-Yon-Dosa, Ukegime, Taisabaki or Happogeri, on the basis of which the techniques and Kata can be built. These are the great achievements of the founder of Chidokai, Sasaki Takeshi Sensei, who also oversaw the federation of the different styles and schools (thereby preparing the ground for the World Karate Federation), served as president of the executive committee of the First World Karate Championship, and headed the Tokyo Federation for 15 years.

I have followed his spirit and ventured to develop training practices such as Renzoku-Waza and Renzokuwaza-Kata, which provide a bridge between the basic techniques of Karate-Do and free sparring in Kumite. In greetings and exchanges, we do not use “Oss” like other schools do but say “Haï” as in normal Japanese conversation. Following the example of the Japan Karatedo Federation, our Chidokai International federation is an organization driven by the work of volunteers.

Just as there are varieties in ceramics, such as Arita, Kiyomizu and so on, I believe that Chidokai’s raison d’être among Shotokan schools lies precisely in the variety it contributes to Shotokan-Ryu.

Episode 28

International Karate Rengo-Chidokai Karatedo International (IKR-CKI)

In the mid-2000s, I started considering possible ways of collaborating with other followers of the Chidokai tradition who were scattered across the world. This was not going to be easy, however, because these overseas organizations had discontinued their connection with Japan Karatedo Chidokai some 30 or 40 years earlier and were basically operating independently in their respective countries (while still using the Chidokan logo).

Times had indeed changed since the days of Sasaki Sensei (when Chidokan had up to 19 overseas branches), and my name was not sufficiently known outside Switzerland to mobilize much support for this venture. Sadly, moreover, David Kostenchuck – at whose Detroit-area Dojos I had taught in 1974 – passed away before we were able to contact him. After much international correspondence and long-distance travel on the part of its dedicated members, IKR-CKI now has affiliated organizations in Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia and India, and I hope Canada will be joining the list shortly. It goes without saying that membership is conditional on a commitment not to distribute Dan grades or teach bits and pieces of the Chidokai curriculum for money. It is based on the understanding that IKR-CKI’s activities are strictly not-for-profit, whether politically or materially, and conducted in a spirit of giving and sharing.

Episode 29

Obviously, ways of thinking and of expressing oneself change over time, just as they do across cultures and countries. Here in the West, the winner often raises a fist and lets out a beastly roar – presumably as an expression of power and triumphant gratification. Such an attitude is very far from the ethics of Budo, which emphasizes modesty as a virtue. Nowadays, some Japanese contestants also exhibit this attitude without consideration of the mindset it reflects. A few years ago, I watched a Japanese win the women’s individual Kata at the World Championships in Paris. Her conduct conformed to what one should expect in such circumstances. She obviously felt relieved, not so much at having won the competition per se as at having discharged her responsibility as a representative of the traditions of Japan. In some sense, her attitude made me feel proud. I saw it as the reflection of my ideal of the true Japanese spirit of Budo – universally relevant and timeless, the pure spirit of innocence (Shosin) which must never be relinquished.

Episode 30

The world of Karate has witnessed much fragmentation. The founders of styles and schools from the post-war generation of the 1950s have passed away one after the other. Not only Shotokan but also other styles and schools have all splintered to varying degrees. Why? Because of professionalization. Not everything in this process has been bad, but professionalization ultimately does imply running a business. And even if the old spirit is still professed to be a guiding principle, this inevitably leads to divisions along the fault lines drawn by business interests. Against this background, our Chidokai school is remarkable in that it has not split up and has maintained its unity. This, I believe, may owe a great deal to the exceptionally successful record of our predecessors (Senpai), but it is also due to the fact that all of us have had another occupation (and not professionalized our Karate), while continuing to practice regularly and persevering in our efforts to analyse and diversify our techniques.

Today’s Olympic Games are descended from the holy sports festivals of ancient Greece. They were launched in 1896 based on the Olympic Constitution, which emphasizes amateurism and originally restricted participation to non-professionals. Sasaki Sensei – himself a management consultant who also worked on the Standing Committee of the Ministry of Sports – told us all to pursue a gainful profession and practice Karate separately so as to avoid conflicts of interest. I am convinced that his foresight and profound policy vision are still embedded in the spirit of our Chidokai/Chidokan.


Switzerland is known for its mountains (the Matterhorn, etc.), for the story of Heidi, and for its neutrality. It has a population of slightly less than 8 million, and a small land area – about the size of Japan’s Kyushu island – almost the setting for a fairy tale. From the shores of Lake Geneva, the view of the Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain, is amazingly picturesque – just like a postcard. However, the country also has explosives ready to be detonated along its frontiers, erectable iron border walls to stop invasion by enemies, motorways that can be turned into runways, hollow mountains with concealed storage space, a nuclear shelter and automatic weapons for every household, and the steaming cooling towers of its nuclear power plants in the mountains. An air raid would be met with instant counter-attack. Switzerland is indeed a heavily militarized State whose every male citizen is trained to turn into a battle-ready soldier within minutes. Particularly high security is maintained around the Geneva-based European headquarters of the United Nations and the premises of other international organizations and embassies. All of this makes me realize that it is not easy to secure the status of a “neutral State” for the good of the world and the maintenance of peace. I feel truly grateful to be able to practice Karate in such a country, and to conclude my report from abroad on this note.