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Those Who Have Torches Will Pass Them… Phillip Starr

November 19, 2008

Pete Starr

November 8th of this year (2008) may have passed by quietly for most of the world but for the world’s martial arts community, it marked a very significant event. Hidetaka Nishiyama, 10th dan and one of the greatest karate masters of our time, passed away after a long struggle with cancer. A direct student of Gichin Funakoshi (who introduced karate to Japan from Okinawa), Nishiyama was instrumental in the formation of the JKA (Japan Karate Association). He was the first person to write a book on karate in english (his book is still available and remains a classic) and developed and chaired JKA International after moving to Los Angeles back in the 60’s. Later on, he formed the International Traditional Karate Federation and was ultimately named as a “National Treasure” by the Emperor of Japan. He was a legend in his own time and his contributions to the art of karate are truly immeasurable.

For some years now, my students have had to put up with me telling and re-telling the following story but I feel that it must be repeated one last time. It took place back in the mid 1980’s in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where I had opened a full-time kung-fu school. The head of the Iowa branch of the JKA and I had become close friends. Mr. Chris Smaby (now a 7th dan in the Shotokan style of karate as taught by the JKA) had studied under Master Enoeda in England and was currently one of Mr. Nishiyama’s senior instructors. Chris had arranged for his teacher to come to Cedar Rapids and spend a weekend teaching seminars on the mechanics of karate.

And so it was that I found myself seated at a dinner table with my good friend and the legendary karate master who had deeply impressed me with his profound understanding of the principles of human movement, and his remarkable physical skills. In fact, I was sitting right next to him and found him to be very amiable and easy to talk to. The three of us shared “war stories” and compared our ideas regarding the development and the future of martial arts.

Just two weeks prior to Master Nishiyama’s visit, another good friend of mine had come to Cedar Rapids. Seiyu Oyata, a 10th dan in Okinawan karate who was in much demand to teach seminars around the United States, had shown up unexpectedly on my doorstep with two of his senior students. He simply wanted to pay me a visit and teach me a bit more about genuine karate. During that weekend we also discussed the current problems and the uncertain future of authentic karate.

I told Master Nishiyama that Mr. Oyata had lamented the decline of true karate in his homeland. As he saw it, the problem was that young people in Okinawa were no longer interested in studying real karate. They didn’t want to sweat, strain, and put in the long, painful hours of training that karate demands. Instead, they wanted to be more like American teenagers. Nishiyama nodded his head slowly, indicating that he understood the problem only too well.

I had been to China only a few years earlier and had seen what passed for Chinese martial arts. I was not at all impressed. Mr. Zhang was the head coach of the Provincial Wushu Team (Zhang is not his real name but I prefer not to use his actual name for obvious reasons). Zhang, who had also trained in a traditional form of kung-fu for many years, told me that real martial arts were almost non-existant in China. Like Oyata, he complained that the young people weren’t interested in learning traditional kung-fu. Instead, they preferred to model themselves after Westerners – or how they perceived Westerners.

Both Oyata and Zhang told me that their respective traditional arts had been transplanted in the West. It was, they insisted, the only way that such arts could survive. Had these arts not been taken to the Occident, they would have surely died out. It was a very sad state of affairs. What, I asked, was the “state of the arts” in Japan? Was it any better than in Okinawa or China? Master Nishiyama looked down and sighed. It was, he said, no better than China or Okinawa. Then he looked up and said, “My generation is retiring or dying out. Soon we will all be gone…”

He pointed at each of us with his forefinger. You are the next generation of Nishiyamas, Oyatas, and Zhangs. The future of karate and kung-fu lies in your hands. You can preserve them or you can destroy them; it’s your choice. But if you allow them to be destroyed, they will never come back. It took too long to develop them in the first place.”

I felt a shiver run up my spine as I realized the truth of his words.

“You have been given a great gift and a great responsibility”, he said. “So, remember what I have told you because there isn’t much time left for you to prepare yourselves.”

Three of the finest martial arts masters in the world had all said the same thing. Their arts had been transplanted in the West and it would be our responsibility to nurture this unique garden, lest the beautiful martial fauna of it shrivel and die out forever. I don’t know about the other instructors who were seated at that table, but I shuddered at the thought of having to shoulder such tremendous responsibility. And I knew that although most of us would go home and tuck Nishiyama’s words into the furthest corners of our memories, we could not prevent the inevitable. Sooner or later, our time would come and it would be up to us to preserve the arts to which we had devoted our lives.


On November 8th, the torch was passed.

CLICK HERE: to read other posts by Pete Starr on the Blue Snake Books blog

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