An excerpt from an interview of Sensei Toru Shimoji by Uruguay Karate Organization about Sensei Shimoji's experience as a student of Hidetaka Nishiyama, master of Shotokan Karate
How and when did you meet Nishiyama Sensei?
"Under Fujiwara Sensei, I got to 1st Kyu Brown Belt and was getting ready for the shodan examination. After getting my shodan, my plan was to go to Japan to continue my training. During those years, a JKA instructor Masataka Mori Sensei, based out of New York, would come to Hawaii once a year and give a black belt examination. Due to schedule conflict that year he could not come to Hawaii, so Fujiwara Sensei suggested a couple of options. I could go to Los Angeles, train under Nishiyama Sensei and test for shodan under him, or go directly to Japan and train at the JKA headquarters. I decided to do both, going to LA first and then to Japan after I got my shodan. In January 1982, I walked in to the Central Dojo in downtown LA and started my journey under Hidetaka Nishiyama Sensei. I still recall my first class with Nishiyama Sensei. His presence in the floor was something I can’t describe. His life-force was so strong and large, filling up the entire dojo. The energy that would come out of his body was just something! After that first class, I realized I knew nothing about Karate, and I need to start afresh from the beginning. Even though I wore a brown belt in his class, I felt very embarrassed since I felt I knew nothing."
What led you to continue practicing the line of Nishiyama Sensei?
"Shortly after [my training partner] Avi and I passed our shodan examination, we attended the International Camp in San Diego. There, we saw many high level Karate instructors and practitioners. We were very impressed with them, but all of them respected Nishiyama Sensei as the main teacher, which shocked and pleased us. The shock was that we realized we were training under the best, period. And what pleased us was the fact that we didn’t need to go anywhere! So we decided to stay. My initial plan for six months lasted over nine years, training directly under Sensei at his dojo. I remember having endless conversation with Avi regarding Sensei’s teachings. We would get together regularly and compare notes, making sure that we comprehended all the details of the methods and principles he would cover in his classes. We felt that we couldn’t keep up with the amount of information Sensei would teach us. We thought that if we wrote them down, we could figure them out in the future. You see, when you study under Nishiyama Sensei, you always feel inept, that you just don’t know enough, and time is running out. It leaves you a little desperate, feeling guilty that you’re moving too slowly. Avi and I both felt strongly that we were very lucky to be training and studying directly under Nishiyama Sensei, but we needed to push each other and remind one another that we couldn’t get lazy."
Do you have any anecdote with Nishiyama Sensei that you would like to share with us?
"There once was a kickboxer that came to Sensei’s dojo while Avi and I were training after class one afternoon. He didn’t hesitate to tell us about his exploits in the sport. He said that he was a former kickboxing champion in Japan and wanted to give us some fighting tips. Soon he came on the floor and sparred with each of us. We kept things light and friendly, and made sure not to let it get out of hand. He might have been a good fighter at one time but after sparring with him, we knew that he was not in good fighting form. Soon, it became a regular thing where he would show up after class and try to coach Avi and me. One day, he came to the dojo earlier than usual, and since Nishiyama Sensei was still at the dojo, we introduced him. Like with us, he began to tell Sensei about his great kickboxing career. Sensei smiled and politely listened to him but I remember seeing a change in Sensei’s demeanor as he slowly squared up to him. It was subtle but distinct. It was as though Sensei’s energy got bigger and started to press heavily into this kickboxer. Sensei didn’t physically move, but his Ki energy was applying Seme-waza to the kickboxer. Soon, the kickboxer, turned his body and broke his eye contact with Sensei. He started stuttering his words and lowered his voice. Before long, his posture slumped, and looking bit confused, he did a quick bow and left the dojo. Avi and I never saw him again. Later, as Avi and I recalled the incident, it became apparent that we witnessed a dual. Sensei gave us a great example of how to “win without fighting”, just using his Ki energy. I still remember this incident like it was yesterday. Nishiyama Sensei was truly a master in control. Even today his lessons, examples, and talks are fresh within me, alive and well. He keeps teaching me even now! I guess that’s what you call legacy. I can’t express in words how grateful and honored I am to have trained under such a Sensei."
Karate students often ask about a reading list that would enhance their experience in traditional Karate. So this month, I made up a list, divided into three categories: Shotokan Karate, light reading, and heavy stuff. Of course there are many more books on the topic, but if you are new to Japanese martial arts, the list would get you started on the right track.
“Karate-Do My Way of Life” by Gichin Funakoshi: Beautifully written narrative of life, recollections and philosophies of the father of modern Karate.
“Moving Zen” by C W Nicol: A memoir of a foreigner who lived and trained Karate in Japan during early 1960’s.
“Karate The Art of Empty Hand Fighting” by Hidetaka Nishiyama and Richard C. Brown: A very comprehensive technical book of Shotokan Karate published in 1960, still valid today.
“Musashi” by Eiji Yoshikawa: An exciting and highly entertaining novel of Japan’s most famous samurai Miyamoto Musashi.
“Sunzi Speaks: The Art of War” by Tsai Chih Chung (translated by Brian Bruya): Sun Tzu’s famous Chinese military treatise from the 5th century BC is illustrated and explained through cartoon characters.
“Usagi Yojimbo” by Stan Sakai: Classical samurai tales wonderfully depicted in this cult classic manga series.
“Zen in the Art of Archery” by Eugen Herrigel: A German philosopher who studied Japanese archery under a famous master, recollects his experiences.
“Zen and Japanese Culture” by Daisetz Suzuki: In-depth book outlining Zen and its influence on Japanese culture, including martial arts.
“The Unfettered Mind” by Takuan Soho (translated by William Scott Wilson): This treatise written by a Buddhist priest during the 17th century contains three essays that he wrote in response to inquiries from famous samurais.
For hardcore readers, the list below are some of other books I’ve enjoyed reading.
“Shotokan Karate A Precise History” by Harry Cook
“The Karate-ka” by Joel Reeves
“There Are No Secrets” by Wolfe Lowenthal
“The Sword Polisher’s Record The Way of Kung Fu” by Adam Hsu
“Samurai Painters” by Stephen Addiss
“Dynamic Karate” by Masatoshi Nakayama
I also enjoyed reading books by these authors:
Donn Draeger: his 3 volumes on Budo and Bujitsu are excellent.
William Scott Wilson: his translations of samurai classics are superb.
John Stevens: his works and translations of various Budo, Aikido and other related topics are great reads.
Am I Getting Better?
A student recently told me that instead of improving, he was getting worse in Karate. Being so discouraged, he was even contemplating quitting Karate. So I asked him to elaborate. He went on to explain that when he first started, each class was an adventure, learning new techniques. It was exciting to feel his body move through space performing new moves. Then, when he got to green belt, everything stopped. All he felt was the frustration of not being able to do the techniques correctly. Instructors would constantly correct him on everything, as though he was a pure beginner…nothing was right.
This is a common sentiment while studying Budo, Japanese martial arts. I explained to him that your mind comprehends concepts readily but your body is another matter. The quest to experience what you know is an ordeal; it simply takes lots and lots of work. An old adage says embarking on a Budo path is like walking up a sand dune: you have to take 10 steps to make one, and if you stop stepping, you start to slide backwards. My experience is that the hill gets steeper with each new rank.
So what is the purpose for such torture?
I explained to him that I am also where he is, except I have no desire to quit training in Karate. I accept that my mind is steps ahead of my body, but the persistent search to find the next puzzle piece keeps me excited, honest and, most of all, youthful.
It’s not for the weak of heart, I said. Your ego has to be tame enough to keep going, but not so much as to give you the illusion that you have arrived. Along the way, you will reach certain milestones that act like a pat on your back for work well done. You study human movement and behavior from their core essence, and the practical application goes far beyond just kicking and punching. I concluded by telling him that the arduous path of Budo will keep you curious, exuberant, and present.
At the end of the conversation he said he felt a little better and that he would keep going and see. I replied: that’s how it usually works.
- Toru Shimoji