Trying for your black belt

Extract from ‘Dogs on the Runway’ Roger Thyer-Jones

Chapter 23 Mountains to Climb

The study of martial arts, particularly karate, has consistently been a part of my life. The benefits of this consistency have been enormous for me in terms of health and happiness. I was extremely fortunate to stumble on Seido Karate during my time in Jamaica. My research then led me to discovering its roots which were linked with the legendary Kancho (meaning Founder) Masutatsu Oyama, of Kyokushinkai Karate. Kyokushinkai was synthesised from the elements of Goju-Ryu (meaning Hard-Soft Way), a style of karate that originated in Okinawa, Shotokan Karate (meaning Shoto’s House) developed by Master Gichin Funakoshi, and elements of Chinese boxing. At one time, Kyokushinkai was believed to be the strongest form of karate in Japan, emphasising both full-contact fighting and the development of breaking skills.

Kyokushinkai, or the School of the Ultimate Truth, has influenced many of the full-contact style of fighting schools, with realistic combat, physical toughness, and practicality in its ‘training’ curriculum. The ‘knockdown karate’ competition system pioneered by Kyokushinkai has also been adopted by many other karate organisations in existence today.

The head of the Seido Karate system, Kaicho Nakamura, was the former right-hand man of Kancho Oyama. Kaicho Nakamura’s own background as a fighter of renown is astonishing. He is famous for having completed the onehundred-man kumite (free-fighting) trial: on 15 October 1965, Kaicho Nakamura fought one hundred men, one after another, and defeated them all. This was an almost unbelievably difficult feat.

The trial had originated as a result of Kancho Oyama’s wish to assess his own fighting abilities. He chose the strongest students in his dojo to fight him, one at a time, and then repeated the process, which took all of three hundred rounds to complete. He defeated them all, never wavering in his resolve, despite the fact that he suffered severe physical injury. Each student had to face him four times over the three days it took to complete the test. Some never made it past the first day because of Kancho Oyama’s powerful blows.

Having set the example, Kancho Oyama started the one hundred-man kumite as a requirement for attaining the fourth or fifth degree black belt. He soon found that not everyone had the spirit to attempt the trial. The physical skills could be taught but the indomitable will, courage and determination needed by the contestant to complete the ordeal, prevented all but the most determined from succeeding. Imagine a fighter battling for one hundred rounds against fresh opponents with no breaks between each challenger. He would not be allowed to wear any head or face protection. He would wear only his gi, a groin guard and a mouthpiece. His opponent would not be allowed to punch to the face but otherwise full-power kicks to the legs, body and head would be permitted. He might knock out an opponent quickly or he might have to fight desperately in an energy-sapping bout. It would be impossible to avoid injury. Just to receive one full-contact kick to his thigh, where the peroneal nerve which supplies movement and sensation to the lower leg, foot and toes is situated, could lead to trauma and injury. It might destroy whole nerve cells resulting in a loss of feeling, muscle control, muscle tone and eventual loss of muscle mass. A fighter could be crippled by such kicks. To enter willingly into such a test needs an iron will. To succeed in the trial without incurring serious injury reflects the highest skill levels. My fighting master, Kaicho Nakamura had a formidable past.

At the time that I joined the World Seido Karate Organisation, I believed that the development of strength and power was paramount. I later discovered that this was far from the truth. Kaicho Nakamura founded Seido Karate after a long inner struggle. He was vilified by Kyokushinkai for speaking unpalatable truths. The World Karate Championship Tournament held on 1 November 1975 would be the catalyst for Kaicho Nakamura to break his ties with Kyokushinkai and set out on a path which would eventually lead me to him.

Kancho Oyama had declared that if Japan lost the tournament he would kill himself in the traditional Japanese manner by committing seppuku – ritual suicide using the Japanese sword. At that time, Kaicho Nakamura was the leader of Kyokushinkai in North America and his responsibilities were heavy. Not only was he required to train his American students for the competition but Kancho Oyama had also sent his own Japanese team for Kaicho Nakamura to polish their skills. Additionally, he had to co-ordinate all the teams which would arrive in Japan from Jamaica, Puerto Rica, Trinidad and Tobago and Canada. In addition to these responsibilities, he was ordered to return to Japan to take care of all the preparations for the tournament in Tokyo. On his return, Kaicho Nakamura found that while all other countries had been allowed four members to compete for each team, Japan had allowed itself eight team members. This was manifestly unfair.

Kaicho also found that no arrangements had been made for the foreign teams to train once they were in Japan. Additionally, the pairings for each fight were unfair as the strongest overseas competitors were matched against each other thus greatly reducing the chance of a Japanese competitor being beaten.

The overall judge for the tournament was Kancho Oyama. Kaicho Nakamura and Master Shigeru Oyama were special judges. Their role was to ensure fair play. In reality, many of the contests were anything but fair and Kaicho was ordered to make decisions that favoured a Japanese competitor. His refusal to do so was seen by the Kyokushinkai hierarchy as arrogance. The result of the competition was that Japan gained the top six places but even then Kancho Oyama was displeased as he felt that the Japanese side had done too well: he had wanted Japan to win first place, America second, Japan third and Europe fourth. Kaicho Nakamura was ashamed to be part of such a travesty of the spirit of bushido (The Way of the Warrior). He set his mind on a new way forward. In his own words,

‘I decided I would go on alone, or just with those I could trust, on the path I believe in.’

Thus Seido (Sincere Way) was born out of the crucible of infamy.

Kaicho Nakamura wanted a karate organisation where like-minded people could support each other following the path of sincerity. But he also had a vision of an organisation which would encompass the world. At this time, Kaicho Nakamura had only one club. He wanted a style of karate in which honesty was reflected in hard work, where a student was prepared to respond to disciplined training, and where race and religion were unimportant. An organisation where advancement would depend not only on your fighting ability but also would reflect the development of your character in terms of high moral standards. An organisation where difference does not mean deficit. His decision to leave the Kyokushinkai was heartfelt but the hierarchy turned against him and sought to discredit him. Despite Kaicho’s resignation from the organisation, Kancho Oyama issued a letter of expulsion, full of wrongful accusations.

Seido Karate was born in Manhattan in June 1976. Kaicho received wonderful support and understanding from his students but the Kyokushinkai organisation continued to slander him.

He was also nearly killed when one evening in spring, as he was getting into his car to go home after training, a gunman fired two shots at him. He was wounded in the thigh. Fortunately, the bullet went straight through his leg, otherwise he might have been crippled. Nobody was caught. Who was behind the attempted assassination? Speculation was rife and suspicions abounded but the would-be assassin was never caught. Despite more personal challenges, little by little, stone by stone, Kaicho continued to build Seido into a truly worldwide organisation that had a solid moral foundation and reflected his ideals.

Understanding Kaicho’s past history is also a key to understanding why I have followed the Seido path for so long in my life. His ideals reflect the best we can hope to aspire to in our society. But we all have feet of clay and are only human. Many influential students have come and gone over the years. A beautiful concept can turn to dust when the frailties of human nature tear it apart. Over the years, in martial arts generally, I have seen the distasteful side of human nature displayed: confidence tricksters, dojo predators, braggarts, scammers, thieves, and liars. From my years of experience, martial arts seems to be a breeding ground for the worst kind of dishonesty and misdirection. It abounds with false claims promising nirvana but only delivering dust and we lose good honest people as soon as they realise that they have been fooled. Karate competitions which should bring out the best in students often bring out the opposite with displays of egos, disrespect for referees and opponents and tiresome association politics.

The question of honour seems old-fashioned. I am not talking about taking offence at the slightest provocation and striking back, either orally or physically. I think that a sense of honour is an alertness and sensitivity to taking the right course of action when you confront adversity. Exactly what that action is depends on the circumstances at the time.

How would you know if you have acted dishonourably? A sense of shame would be the earliest indication. Good manners and good morals should underwrite your sense of honour. This is why the dojo is so important. It is a place where you can cultivate good manners, patience and be watchful of your own shortcomings. Patience not only with yourself but with others is so important. But doing what you believe to be the right thing will inevitably come at a cost. Our principles will always cost us dearly but I believe that not to take whatever action you hold to be right is to live poorly thereafter. It is dishonourable. These trials help us understand others better and appreciate alternative points of view. From this reservoir of experience, we can often assist our students to cross turbulent rivers themselves.

An incident occurred, in November 1997, concerning the disrespectful treatment of my wife and friends following a karate competition in Kingston Jamaica after which I felt compelled to offer Kaicho my resignation from the Seido organisation. It was a devastating moment for me. I resolved to leave Seido and start alone with students who wished to support me. I agonised over my decision before finally writing to Kaicho to explain my position. I didn’t even discuss my intentions with my own instructors, only with Michelle who said that I must do what my heart told me was the right thing. For me, to offer my resignation was the right course of action. I am happy to say that Kaicho persuaded me to not resign but this incident gave me some insight and understanding about what it cost Kaicho to resign from the Kyokushinkai organisation that he had loved so much.

Our Seido Karate organisation in the UK has survived over the past twenty-seven years because of clear principles. The Japanese phrase Go Gaku Shin means ‘keep your eyes open and learn’. Our organisation has done this. We have not only moved across the years to a more inclusive approach, developing special programmes to better reflect our community, but we have been encouraged to interact globally. Using outside the dojo, the skills developed inside the dojo, is the key to personal development. Not just to empower yourself, although I firmly believe that everything starts with you and that your cultivation of your character underwrites all else, but to give back what you can to others. I have been encouraged by others in my life in so many ways and this in turn spurs me on to seek to widely share what skills I have.

In our modern world, many dojos are based on a competitive structure – students compete against each other to raise fighting level skills. Whilst this is laudable, it can encourage aggression and imbalance. It is for our instructors to ensure that we not only teach the physical side but also ensure that the meditative side is fully explored. The thirst of a first degree brown belt for his or her black belt is understandable but it must not represent another goal, aim or trophy to be hung on the wall. Our Seido organisation should encourage us to focus as much on harmony and balance in the dojo as it does on producing strong and powerful students.

Black belts are no more than advanced students. Their technique is not yet refined and they execute technique to the level of jutsu, which is mechanical understanding.

At around the fourth degree level, having practised for some twenty years or more, the student should be practising waza where waza is intuitive skill that surpasses simple physical competence. Moving to fifth degree level, the student should seek to embrace ryuku which is a level where the physical and mental senses merge with a wider understanding and harmony between the body and the mind. It would be far better in many ways if we did not have an outward manifestation of rank. After all, you only have to enter a dojo and look around you to recognise levels of attainment, and I sometimes feel that the belt system reinforces the concept of ego, making us goal-oriented. Seido Karate tries to compensate for this by asking all students trying for a black belt rank to return to shoshin, or ‘beginner’s mind’, and wear the plain and simple white belt before and during the grading.

Our ranking system seeks to award titles to those persons who progress along the path of physical, mental and spiritual understanding but these things cannot be learned from a book. Students must carefully study under their seniors and seek to master their art, however long the journey, recognising the burden of imperfection. The dojo should firstly be a place of spiritual advancement which allows students to recognise their faults and weaknesses and seek to build a solid moral foundation. Every action within the dojo is a struggle against the self. All opponents remind us of our faults and it is in the struggle that we give ourselves a chance to grow. Any place designated as a place to try to develop yourself in balance, both physically and spiritually, can be a dojo. The Seido dojo should represent a spiritual waterfall that embraces and empowers us.

I have taken many promotions over the years in order to attain my current rank of sixth degree black belt. All of those promotions, except the first one in Jamaica, have been taken with Kaicho Nakamura as the examiner. At every level you must fight for your belt. This is most important. As we grow older, it becomes harder to maintain high levels of fitness. If we are not careful, we can provide a  stream of excuses about why we cannot meet the demands of the promotions. These excuses are simply unacceptable. When you fight, you continually face your own fears and have to deal with them. Facing your fears makes you stronger. I have seen students of every condition, including students with cerebral palsy, fight for their belts with the incredible support of their peers to get them through the promotions.

Many of you reading this will have little idea of what happens at a Seido Karate promotion so imagine that you are the one who is taking your black belt promotion under Kaicho Nakamura at our HQ (Honbu) in New York. You have been training for nearly six years, two to three times each week with me at my dojo in Kingshill, near High Wycombe. You started out as a beginner 1 with the rank of tenth kyu but you are now an advanced brown belt holding the rank of first kyu. You know that that it is a great honour to be invited to take your first black belt under Kaicho Nakamura in New York. You know that gradings normally take place over a four week period and test not only your basic technique, but your knowledge of basic and advanced free-fighting techniques, basic and advanced Seido self defence techniques and kata which is a series of prearranged fighting moves against imaginary opponents. Additionally, you will be required to demonstrate your fighting skills over a two hour period. This will test your fitness, stamina and spirit. You know that the key to a successful promotion is sound preparation which is aimed at improving your aerobic and anaerobic capacity. Fortunately, you began to lay down the foundation for your promotion four months previously and you are now in peak condition. Your technical skills are also of a high standard. You are ready for the challenge. Your fellow students wish you luck and give you a party on the last training session at your dojo. They all hope for your success. The expenses for the journey to New York, accommodation and training, are high but your club has contributed financially to your trip. You appreciate their help very much. You would not be where you are now without the help of so many other students, many who have become firm friends over the years. Your family has seen you develop over the years from a teenager with many personal issues to a confident young man who has matured in so many different ways through his training. They are fully supportive of your quest.

It is time. On a Sunday in September you arrive at Heathrow’s Terminal Four in time to catch the British Airways flight that will depart for John F. Kennedy airport at eleven o’clock in the morning. The flight is uneventful but your mind is restless, constantly turning over scenarios that you might face in the days ahead. On arrival at JFK airport, you pass through the passport formalities and get the bus into Manhattan. This is your first trip to New York and so you are impressed with the skyscrapers you see as the shuttle bus takes you over the Brooklyn Bridge and drops you near your hotel after eleven hours travelling. You are tired but wired. This is the eternal city so you find a nearby restaurant, have dinner and then go to bed. Sleep doesn’t come easily.

At eight o’clock in the morning you turn off the alarm and turn over in bed. It seems that you have slept for only a couple of hours. You will need to be at Honbu at eleven o’clock so that you can register, warm up and then take Kaicho’s midday class. Your mind is full of thoughts about the grading and you feel concerned.

You leave your hotel and walk down towards Honbu which is located at 61 West 23rd Street near the corner of 6th Avenue. You can see the Seido flag waving in the breeze above the entrance to Honbu. You feel those familiar butterflies in your stomach and you are apprehensive about how your first day will go. You open the door and take the lift up to the second floor. Students are already in the dojo and you can hear the sound of ‘Osu’2 as they make their bows towards the Shinzen3. When you leave the lift, you put down your kitbag and make a deep bow towards the Shinzen showing your respect and appreciation of being at Honbu. You are immediately greeted by the receptionist at the front desk who shakes hands with you and says that you are expected. He also says that there are quite a few other candidates coming from abroad to try for promotion and you feel easier at hearing this. You complete your registration and then proceed to the locker room to get changed. As you enter the dojo you are struck by the light filtering through the large plate glass window bouncing off the long sweep of the honey-coloured lacquered floor. Your eyes turn towards the Shinzen, and you make another deep bow and say ‘Osu’. Students who are warming up turn to watch you enter. You notice the racks of weapons on the walls on your right side, the kick bags, other training aids and the floor to ceiling mirrors lining the dojo on your left. The dojo smells fresh and there are flowers next to the Shinzen. You feel strangely calm as you change into your gi. Other students greet you in a friendly manner as you leave the locker room and go back into the dojo to warm up.

The dojo starts to fill up with students. You greet a few previous acquaintances, glad to have the opportunity to feel more at home in Honbu. There are now some fifty students waiting for Kaicho to enter the dojo. A senior black belt calls out, ‘Line up,’ and students spring into action, finding their places in their ranks. You are not sure about exactly where you should stand wearing your brown belt with its advanced tag but friendly hands guide you to your place. The class becomes silent as Kaicho enters the dojo and a loud ‘Osu’ thunders out. Student bow towards him to show their respect.

Kaicho has dark hair, a thick neck and broad shoulders that radiate power. His eyes are piercing and appear black. You notice his calloused hands. His gi is immaculate and almost glows white. The black belt around his waist is so worn that it appears tattered. His gaze sweeps down the lines of students and then rests on you. It feels as if you have been physically struck but he smiles and beckons you to join him at the front. You bow and come forward. He speaks your name and tells the students that you are from Jun Shihan Roger Thyer-Jones’ dojo in England. He welcomes you to Honbu. He then gestures for you to kneel in front of him and asks you to remove your advanced Brown Belt which you do. A senior Black Belt hands him a plain white belt and he asks you to stand up. He then ties the white belt around your waist. You know that this signifies the start of your promotion as the custom is that you should now act as if this is the first day of your training. Kaicho gestures and you return to the line but you are no longer at its front. You join all the beginners at the back of the dojo.

The training regime at Honbu kicks in. You take early morning class at 7.30 a.m. under the watchful eye of Jun Shihan Walter who teaches a strictly traditional class emphasising excellent basics. Sometimes there is a fighting skills class after this from 8.30 to 9.00 a.m. You take your shower and then head off to the nearby diner for a full American breakfast. After breakfast, you rest for a while before returning to the dojo at 11.00 a.m. to practise until Kaicho’s class at 12.30 p.m. At 1.30 p.m. there may be a conditioning or free fighting class. You are starting to feel the demands of the day by now. The classes are intense and you drip with sweat . You do push-ups on your knuckles and, even with toughened skin, they start to feel bruised. You are under scrutiny throughout the class so there is little opportunity to relax. In the fighting class the punches and kicks to your body take their toll. After lunch, you try to get some rest as you know that you have to be back in time for 4.30 p.m. in order to limber up for Kaicho’s 5.30 p.m. class. Kaicho usually mixes up his classes using conditioning training, technique development and kata practice. He is unpredictable and tests your concentration throughout the class. He pounces on errors and rarely misses them.

At 6.30 p.m. you take Kaicho’s fighting skills class which is non-stop, emphasising movement, speed and power development. Kaicho tells the students that if they feel faint they should just sit down until the faintness passes and then rejoin the class. You get to work out with a variety of students, ranging from lightweight to super-heavyweight. Often Kaicho will switch the emphasis of the class and say that you can only point-fight, which means exchanging techniques with very light contact but at a fast pace.

By 8.30 p.m. you are completely exhausted and then remember that this is only day one of your promotion. As you have travelled from abroad, Kaicho will condense the four-week promotion usually taken by Honbu students into one week for you so that the cost of living in New York is kept as low as possible. You complete your final bow of the day and leave the dojo. Every muscle in your body aches but you have started on the path and now must condition your mind to keep your standards high.

The days follow a similar pattern with classes varying in content and intensity. Twice each week there is a Seido Meditation class. On Tuesday evening you go up to the other dojo on the next floor of Honbu. The dojo is dark. There is one large white ceremonial candle burning in its holder in front of the Shinzen. Its flickering light makes large shadows. You line up in one of the four long lines of students who stand silently facing the Shinzen. In your hand you hold a seiza bench that has been specially made for meditation. Kaicho enters the dojo from a side room and you all make a deep bow towards him. He gestures for the students to kneel down in rank order and you do so. Kaicho invites the class to follow him in pre-meditation drills that calm the mind. You settle into your posture, monitor your breathing and listen as the big ceremonial drum sounds its bass note three times. Each drum beat signifies the unity of the mind, the body and the spirit and reflects the Seido principles of love, obedience, and respect.

A haunting flute starts. The flute’s notes rise and fall like the tide ebbing and flowing on a sandy beach. You half close your eyes and focus inwardly. The seniors slowly walk up and down the kneeling lines of students holding the keisaku which is a stick used to strike the acupressure point a few centimeters above the shoulder blade. You find yourself becoming drowsy and unable to concentrate. You request the monitor by placing both hands together near your chest. The monitor stops and you bow to each other. You place both hands on the top of your left knee, palms down and the monitor strikes you three times echoing the drum beats. You repeat this process on the other side of your body and then return to the upright position. You bow to each other and the monitor moves down the line. After thirty minutes the sound of the flute fades away and the drum beats three times again to signal that meditation is over. Slowly you rise. Your legs are numb and you feel pins and needles as the blood flows fully through them again. You now start kinhin which is walking meditation.

Kinhin begins by properly positioning your body and slowly moving forward starting with your right foot, almost gliding across the floor. You time your breathing, inhaling a breath as you raise your heel, exhaling as you slide the foot forward. As you walk, you feel how your weight is distributed at all times. You feel as if you are floating across the dojo floor. After a circuit of the dojo a handclap indicates that you must speed up until once again you come to rest in four lines in front of the Shinzen. At this point, after the formal bows, the meditation session is over. You feel relaxed yet invigorated. Your mind is clear.

Kaicho then asks all the students to sit down comfortably in front of him on the mats. He stands before a chalk board framed in the glow from a small spotlight. There is silence as he chalks Japanese calligraphy on to the board. He writes the English translation underneath. He then talks about an aspect of life on which we should reflect. At this time, he produces a book that was given to him by a friend in Japan. The contents of the book moved him. It concerns a Japanese lady without arms or legs since the age of three. It tells of how she overcame the negative pressures of society, faced unbelievable hardships but married and raised two children. The pages detail how she perfected her calligraphy and as a seamstress, produced fine garments and dolls. She died in her mid eighties.

Kaicho reflects on how easily we can be dissuaded from keeping to our chosen path. How minor excuses jump up to prevent us from moving forward. He uses training in karate as an example. The excuses can be: ‘I can’t train because I don’t have enough time; I have an old injury that pains me; it’s difficult to get to the dojo as I live so far away; we don’t do any new material and I am bored; I’m too old, too frail, too poor’ etc. Kaicho reminds us that continuity is the key to development. The aim is simply to train and not to look for rewards. To take what comes, but be consistent. He refers to the lady in the book. He asks us how this lady was able to overcome so much hardship with so few physical attributes to help her in daily life? The answer is that her strong spirit shone brightly in the darkness that surrounded her.

Kaicho continues, saying that it is easy to be strong and highly focused when you are in good health, but what about when one tiny virus makes you as weak as a child? Kaicho says that the spirit of the lady in the book is an example to all of us about what we can achieve in adversity. We grow when we have to struggle. We have a better understanding of others when we have endured hardships ourselves. This is the true meaning of our training in Seido Karate: to develop a non-quitting spirit in all circumstances. The dojo echoes as the students say a loud ‘Osu’ acknowledging this key point. You reflect quietly on your own life and the reasons why you are now here. The day ends.

Wednesday. You feel tired as you kick back the bed clothes, grab a banana, slurp a soft drink, get dressed and head for the early morning class. You know that this evening at 6.00 p.m. you will accompany the other eighteen candidates, together with senior instructors, to the Manhattan School of the Blind. Seido is running successful programmes for blind and partially sighted students there. After your training session, you will return to the dojo where you will demonstrate your knowledge of the Seido syllabus. The day unfolds and soon it is evening and time for the school for the blind. You meet up with the other candidates in reception and then the senior instructors line up all the students. You put on your blindfold. You know that this is an important part of your promotion. To experience what it is like to have an impairment will help with your understanding of people who have such difficulties. As you walk in New York, blindfolded at rush hour time, you know that this is an experience you will not easily forget. Mostly, you feel highly vulnerable as you cross the busy streets while holding on to the student in front of you.

You arrive at the School of the Blind where you will now take class with blind and visually impaired students. Everything seems strange to you and you have no idea of your surroundings. Helpful hands guide you to your spot in the dojo. The instructor at the front of the class welcomes you on behalf of all his students. Once again, you feel nervous as you have no idea what you will be asked to do. Your mind seems overloaded and it becomes more and more difficult even to remember basic parts of the Seido syllabus. You have a real fear of falling and you are constantly concerned about hitting someone close to you as you execute your techniques. You are often disoriented and sometimes cannot hear what the instructor is saying. You know that you are required to act but don’t know what action to take. You just stand there until someone tells you what to do. You feel stupid. One hour and a half passes and the class is finally over. The instructor tells the class to remove blindfolds but before you do so he asks you to think about all the feelings you have just experienced and to relate them to others with impairments. He asks you to appreciate the effort it costs a blind student just to get through the day in New York, perhaps crossing roads or using the subway. The light floods in as you take off your blindfold and then exchange observations and emotions with the other students. It is an experience that has had a profoundly positive effect on you.

But the evening is far from over. You make your way back to the dojo and climb the stairs up to the third floor where you wait until you are invited to enter the dojo. Kaicho’s black belt class is just finishing and over sixty black belts of all ranks have been training together. It is an impressive sight. You are invited in and all eighteen candidates line up facing the rows of students who are now seated in the chairs opposite you in rows from 8th degree black belt downwards. Kaicho is seated behind a desk in front of the students and looks on impassively. He splits the candidates up into groups. He then asks each group to demonstrate kata or self-defence. Some groups have to complete their task with their eyes shut, some have to execute moves painfully slowly and some in the normal manner. Over one hundred pairs of eyes are watching each move and you know that every mistake will be noticed. You will soon be exposed if your technical ability is found to be weak. Time seems to stand still but eventually this part of the promotion is over. Kaicho seems pleased with the standards although he has spoken sternly to some candidates when they have repeatedly made the same mistake. You leave the dojo and socialise with the other candidates discussing how the day had unfolded. You feel that you have done quite well so far and go to bed tired but quite content. Unfortunately, your brain seems to spin at a fierce pace as you review the day and think about what lies ahead. Sleep is hard-won but eventually comes.

Friday is the last day of your formal tests before the fighting part of your promotion which will take place on Sunday morning. You know that on this evening you will have to discuss your essay in front of Kaicho and all the black belts. The essay is an essential part of your promotion and is different for every rank. The aim of the essay is for you to discuss your progress in life in an open and honest manner. For many students even writing a formal essay presents formidable challenges while public speaking brings fear into many a heart. The essay you have written is available to all the black belts to read and they want to have a good insight into your character. Kaicho puts a high value on this part of the promotion saying that it reflects the highest principles of Seido Karate. This is not something to take lightly.

After more tests you line up together with your group and Kaicho ask you all to sit down. Each student then rises and speaks about his or her essay. At the end of each talk, Kaicho asks the black belts if there are any questions about it. Those questions can be penetrating and expose a lack of candour or a desire to cover up a key part of your background. Kaicho can get angry if he feels that you are not being honest and many a student has been prevented from proceeding further in the promotion at this point. It is nerve-racking. On the other hand, as you listen to the trials and problems of your fellow students you feel that you are closer to them and understand them better. This is indeed the human face of karate.

It is your turn. You complete your bows to Kaicho and all the seniors and compose yourself. You give your name, age and occupation and tell Kaicho in which dojo you study and for how long you have studied. You then discuss your essay and talk about many aspects of your life and those who have supported you on the path you have chosen. You gain confidence as you speak. Kaicho listens intently to you. His eyes never leave your face. He signals that you should stop and asks a perceptive question which you answer honestly. Two black belts have questions for you. Kaicho asks your instructor, Jun Shihan Roger, to speak in support of your promotion, which he does. It’s over. Kaicho signals for you to sit down. Your mind is blank and you smile weakly at students sitting near you before you focus on what the next candidate is saying. Later, you reflect on what you have said and how you answered the questions. You are unhappy about some aspects of your explanations but feel that at least you spoke in a straightforward manner and from the heart.

Sunday morning finally comes. In many ways it is the day you welcome most as all you have to do is fight. You know that you are a good fighter but when you train at Honbu you find yourself working out with fighters who are well above your skill level. Some of them have been on the competition circuits for years and have been champions. The Jamaican fighters are particularly strong, fast, and fearless. You will have to fight a wide range of black belts in order to gain your belt. At 5.00 a.m., you rise from your bed, shower, dress, and grab your kit bag. You don’t feel hungry and your stomach is churning but you know that you need to eat something. You grab a banana as you leave the hotel and walk down the street to the dojo. Manhattan is quiet at this time of the morning, with just a few yellow cabs cruising the streets.

The morning is cold but the sky is clear and blue. You set off for Honbu. When you arrive there, students are already entering through the door. You smile at some of the other candidates you know and exchange a few remarks. Your stomach is still churning as you enter the locker room and find a place to change into your gi. You smell the sharp tang of liniment and leather. You see some students wrapping their hands with a bandage to protect their knuckles and hear the crackle of gis being shaken out of kit bags before being worn. You tie your white belt around your waist and pull on the belt ends resolutely. You check your fighting equipment and put on your foot protectors and gloves, keeping your helmet and gumshield in your hands. You leave the locker room and make your way upstairs, past students who are warming up on the first floor. You can almost smell the tension in the air. You wonder if you should go to the toilet again and empty what is left in your bladder but decide that you will be fine.

You bow and enter the dojo on the third floor which is full of students. Some are already fighting as they warm up with each other. There is a buzz in the room. You find a corner where you can stretch out and start your warm-up routine. Joints are being loosened and you can hear the snap of the canvas of karate suits as students practise their kicks. All around you, there are candidates watching, thinking, picturing how to handle the expert fighters, conserving energy and becoming more and more silent. The dojo is now full of black belts. It is nearly 6.00 a.m. There is total silence as Kaicho enters, together with the most senior black belts. A voice whips out, ‘Line up,’ and the thunderous sound of ‘Osu’ hits the air as students quickly find their positions. All the candidates are together at the back of the dojo. The formalities begin. So many seniors to bow to. You just want it to start.

Kaicho lines up all the candidates in lines three deep and opposing each line is a line of black belts. Senseis (fourth degree black belts) are in charge of each group. You will have to fight all the black belts in front of you and then, once your group is finished, you will move down the line to the next group of black belts and start again. This will go on for nearly two hours.

Kaicho climbs a double-sided ladder that is used to reach and replace light bulbs. He sits on top of the ladder with a whistle in his hand. He now has a bird’s-eye view of the fighting and will control the fights from his perch. He tells the candidates to face their first opponent. You will fight for one and a half minutes. No punches to the face will be allowed and Kaicho insists that good control must be exercised. He doesn’t want to see any serious injuries. You feel nervous but calm inside as you face the black belt opposite you. She is tall, has blonde hair and is good looking. She smiles sweetly at you. Kaicho says, ‘Begin.’

You have thought about your strategy to cope with each fighter. You are of medium build, light and quick on your feet. You use both kicks and punches well and also like to unbalance your opponent with sweeps to his legs. You know that there are four main categories of fighter: the elusive fighter who attacks and retreats, moving in and out of range very quickly, cuts angles so that he isn’t hit and uses a lot of combinations and fakes; the aggressive fighter who attacks first and attacks relentlessly relying on power to win and who doesn’t like to retreat; the counter-fighter who almost never attacks first, shields or parries counter-strikes but wants his opponent to come forward and responding instantly to weak or over-committed attacks; finally there is the shadow fighter who likes to win at all costs, breaks the rules of the game and plays mind games with his opponent, trying to psych him out and hit him when he is off-guard, even looking for ways to cheat, and talks and uses body language to intimidate his opponent. You know that a top fighter must master all four fighting styles. First and foremost you must know yourself before you can understand others. You incline more to being an elusive fighter who likes to counter your opponents after they have committed themselves. At least you know what you need to do to improve your skills and this fighting test represents a great opportunity for your to measure yourself against fighters of all kinds of skills, body shapes and sizes.

A whirlwind of punches and kicks assaults you as she attacks you from every angle. She is not smiling now and as the first punches rip through your guard, you grunt as you feel her power. A lighting fast kick nearly knocks off your helmet and the Sensei supervising the fight stops it until you have fixed it back in place. You are breathing hard. Your thoughts drift back to advice given to you by one of your seniors. He reminded you that, above all, you should remember that everyone will be there for you. They will help and support you as well as test your resolve. You smile just as the first bout comes to a close.

The bouts seem endless. You are determined that in each fight, no matter how good your opponent, there will be at least one time when you will go on to the attack even though you know that it will sap your energy. The fighters respect you for trying, even though at times you show little in the way of power. The fights settle in to a rhythm and you are so glad that your fitness preparation was sound, otherwise you would be in no condition to carry on. You are now near the end of the lines and mentally let down your guard thinking that the promotion will be over soon. Suddenly a side kick knocks you to floor.

Your opponent is one of the top fighters at Honbu. He picks you up and then knocks you down again. He is not injuring you but you are winded each time you hit the floor. After you are knocked down the third time, you feel sorry for yourself and your mind starts to tell you to quit. You remember one of Kaicho’s lectures, ‘Nana Korobi Ya Oki,’ which means if you get knocked down seven times then get up eight times. You get up and hear encouragement from other students as you fight on. The bout ends and you move on to the next fighter. You hear a distant voice shout, ‘Last one,’ and as you begin the bout, you decide to throw your heart and soul into the last fight until you have nothing left. Like so many of the other candidates, you forget that you are fighting in groups of three or four and will still have another three men or women in your group to fight. At least one of your opponents is twice your size and the last opponent is one of the best fighters in the dojo. You fight on in a blur, kicking and punching with grim determination, soaking up the blows to your body. You feel empty, both physically and mentally. You hear, ‘Yame,’ which means ‘stop fighting’, and the two hours are over. You line up with the rest of the candidates and try to stand as tall as you can. You remove your fighting equipment. Every part of you seems battered but you have survived.

Kaicho and his senior black belts stand before you. You hear your name called out and you walk forward towards the Shinzen and Kaicho. You stop and make your bows. Kaicho asks you to kneel and remove your white belt which is sweat stained. Your gi is also soaking wet. You kneel and hold the belt in your left hand. Kaicho gestures for you to stand up. Every bone in your body seems to groan as you do so. He leans forward and ties a black belt around your waist which signifies that you are now a first degree Seido black belt. He shakes your hand and offers his congratulations. You then move down the long line of black belts waiting to congratulate you, shake your hand, pat you on the back or even hug you, if they are friends. It is only as you make your way around the lines of black belts that emotion wells up inside of you. Familiar faces pass by amidst smiles and tears. You appreciate all those people who supported you, realising that today happened as a result of your family, instructors and fellow students believing in your ability and giving so much without expectation of any reward.

It is over. After the celebrations with your friends, you return to your family and loved ones. A week of your life has sped by and yet you have learned so much about yourself and others during that time. You are not the same man that left the UK. You have so much to give back to others.

With the help of Michelle and so many fine instructors we have built a strong UK organisation which should survive long after I am gone. We have excellent leaders of all our dojos and good communication. Having a structure to support you, not only physically but mentally and spiritually, is very important and Seido Karate has provided this support for me over the last twenty five years, but having people who love and care for me despite my weaknesses and faults is the height of good fortune and I deeply appreciate this.

As I write this I am sixty three years of age. I try to train every day and I have my own well-equipped studio in my house to facilitate this. Of course it gets harder to keep in shape as you get older but I accept no excuses. My body is made for hardship and will cope extremely well. I am not as fast or as supple as I was thirty years ago. I am fortunate that I can still test my skills at karate, judo, and unarmed combat against great exponents of these arts. Sometimes I do well, sometimes I don’t. What matters is that I continue to cultivate a strong spirit as giving up easily is unthinkable. This non-quitting attitude that you should cultivate in the dojo can then extend into your everyday life. As I have said, I have learned that the most important approach to life is to be consistent in what I do, and training in Seido Karate has given me uncountable benefits. My hope is that some of you reading this autobiography will be inspired to find your own path and stick to it through thick and thin without seeking rewards.

I think that mentally I have climbed many mountains in my life. I know that my nature is that once I have reached the top I will always find another mountain to climb but I am content with this. I know that it is the journey, not the destination, that is important. I also appreciate more and more the value of family and friends and how the loss of loved ones can have such a lasting impact on our lives.

Notes

1 – A beginner in Seido Karate holds the rank of tenth kyu and wears a plain white belt. Kyu, meaning ‘grade’ is a designation signifying a level of achievement below black belt. The colour of the belt worn by kyu grades becomes darker as you progress towards black belt.

2 – ‘Osu’ is a contraction of the Japanese phrase Oshi Shi No Bu. It is a word that has a variety of meanings and is used as a greeting when bowing and addressing others. It is also used as a reminder for students as it implies patience: benefits from training only come with long, constant practice. When used in class it creates energy as students strive to do their best. It is an important part of training.

3 – ‘Shinzen’ is the spiritual heart of the dojo. Often there will be a traditional miniature wooden temple set above calligraphy that has a special meaning. In our Seido style, that calligraphy means ‘Seido Jukku’ or ‘Special Place.’

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