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Teaching Karate-Do

Interview with Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura,
founder and Chairman of the World Seido Karate Organization

By Christopher Caile

Photo of Nakamura

Nakamura still speaks with somewhat of a Japanese accent. His use of words and sentence structure in this interview has been retained as much as possible to give a better sense of the person and flavor of his speech.

Caile: Do you think with the rise in popularity of karate that karate-do is still understood and taught today?

Nakamura: What I would like to say is that modern karate is now quite popular compared to the past. There are more people studying karate, more people teaching and more schools compared to before, not only in America but in Japan and elsewhere too. One good thing is that now people have more places to study karate. But, at the same time, I'm a little afraid of the kind of quality of teaching. Something is missing. The spiritual and mental aspect is getting less and less. This has happened as karate has become more popular and taught in more and more places. People are just taking karate as a kind of exercise, for self-defense, as a type of aerobic exercise that is also good for a diet. Others just see a flashy way, or way that looks good, but the mental spiritual aspect is getting less which I think now is a very dangerous situation. This means that while there are now many karate dojos, or schools, available, the instructors, what we call shidosha or sensei, are teaching only karate, but not karate-do. This is the big difference compared to the past.

My experience is that karate should be for, not just how to fight or defend yourself, but it should also be more rounded to include mental and spiritual aspects. Particularly what we call traditional karate should include physical, mental, and the spiritual. They should be well balanced but right now, even though there are many instructors available, they are teaching only how to kick and punch and missing "do." Now since modern karate, also more emphasis on competition and tournaments. Result is people always more pay attention to who is going to be grand champion, or who is going to fight who and say, "maybe he is going to win" or "she is going to win" -- a kind of game is only concern. Just only who is strong physically, who is strongest. People are paying most attention to the way people compete.

Nakamura lectures his students on karate-do and other subjects in one of his weekly meditation classes.

Caile: So how do you teach karate-do versus regular karate and what do you emphasize?

Nakamura: So the way we call dojo, it means a place you find out about yourself, place you find enlightenment, place you find your way, your sincere way. It's not a gym, club, a place of socializing or getting a date, but place to study own self, to learn techniques but also gain spiritual and mental knowledge. I hope each student studies karate, their dojo is also like a second home. Each time you come you feel so comfortable, but also appreciate and feel more serious too, similar feeling to when you go to church, or when you go to special ceremony place. You feel like, kind of dignity.

It's also very important, the way as teacher to make a good program, what we call curriculum - it means the way you study. You have to make sure you have a good system. Each level has a certain amount of material a person has to learn, step by step, instead of all right way. In some systems right away after you a little bit understand basics, you begin fighting. The dojo is not just to produce fighters. The karate dojo is not like a factory for producing strong fighters. This way so often people get injured, they get discouraged or uncomfortable, then discontinue training. That's why it's very important, way you set up the system the proper way so people continue. Then everyone can benefit.

Karate is not just fighting but also how you control your mind, which is your temper, your discipline and your morals. We request student have to take meditation class. At end I give a simple lecture about karate-do attitude, spirit, practice or way to live. In these classes students learn and have a better chance to understand themselves, to look at themselves, more inside and see what they are, what is missing, and reflect also on other people. Maybe they realize, "I'm still immature and that I have to grow and to continue to polish myself." As a teacher I am concerned individually because each student is physically and mentally different. Conditions not exactly same for everybody, and some physically not well. But karate should be for everybody, so especially in Seido we open to everybody, even mentally learning disabled people, homeless children, deaf students, blind people - there is room for everybody, even some domestic violence situation people. Still they can study karate to develop more inner strength to take care of your life.

A student taking a written exam as part of her promotion. Students are asked to write short essays explaining what they have learned, such as: "Why do you study Seido Karate?"; Why do we bow and say "OSU'"?; or for a discussion of the meaning of a particular Japanese saying or phrase.

So in the Seido system during promotions we ask students to write down their thoughts on training, our organization and philosophy, and what they have learned. At the black belt level, students talk to other students and teachers about essays they have written. We expect their words to be genuine and sincere and to come from their heart. We also stress etiquette, not just in the dojo but extended to everyday life too. It teaches respect of others, and it is also mental training toward a way of the spirit. Those who have difficulty with etiquette show their difficulties inside, maybe ego, lack of self-respect or other problems. Courtesy and manners require self-control, discipline and sensitivity to others -- what is necessary to change one's self, what is necessary to take control of one's life and future.

Way I believe, to study karate-do is the way of your life, but as karate-ka each karate-ka has responsibility to be more open, to use whatever you learn from karate-do to apply in your every day life - the way you control your emotions, your temper, morals, discipline, how you behave. To the extent you are using, you are becoming more true karate-ka. That means a strong, true karate-ka is not just how many tournaments you compete and how many times you get to be champion, first place, or grand champion. It is not. People think, "How many times I have received Grand Champion, that's why I am a great karate-ka." Sometimes people feel like this. But how strong you are inside which means how you dedicate your life, how you carry on your discipline, that is important. That's why it is so important to maintain and show discipline in the dojo. Especially in Seido, we have so many different types of people, handicapped people, learning disabled, all different, but still those people seriously learn karate. Then we all more realize and appreciate what we have and how lucky we are.

Caile: What about spirit?

Nakamura: Through study of karate students can develop a non-quitting spirit. It doesn't matter if you are a woman, your sex or age, but as long as you study karate you can develop a strong spirit, a non-quit spirit. This because throughout our life there is always something happening, but each time something happens you take it as a challenge, and even if you fall down you take it as your challenge. You say, "This is a way I can grow. This way that I can enrich myself." Then with positive attitude, can face problems, can face obstacles. You can kind of fight back. You develop an attitude as how to carry on and live life. A good punch is fine. A good kick is fine. But what really is really important is your strength inside. That is what allows to meet life's challenges. That is what people respect -- how you dedicate yourself, how you dedicate you life.

Caile: You mentioned before that karate-do leads to enlightenment, what do you mean by enlightenment?

Nakamura: Yes, enlightenment, word has so much of a big meaning. In a way, we don't realize the reality of our daily life. Even with important things, we don't pay attention. So, kind of funny -- when we study hard and train hard in karate-do it sometimes, kind of, hits you. "Why I so much complain and blame people when the problem is the way I am inside." That is a great thing, a great understanding. You can say this is one type of enlightenment because you find out where lots of problems really are. In yourself.

In my meditation class lectures I talk about old Japanese saying: "It is easier to find thief in a mountain than thief in your heart." When thief runs away to a big mountain and somewhere hides, he is difficult to find. There are hundreds and hundreds of acres, caves and crevices. But really more difficult to find thief in own mind. That thief takes from you, denies something that is yours. That thief is our ego, something that always tries to grow. It robs spiritual progress, hinders learning and making of deep relationships. Ego builds walls inside and tells us, we must protect ourselves, or that we already know so we don't have to listen. So easier to find thief in mountain than ego in mind. It is true. We think we have no ego problems, but as we cannot spot thief in mountain, may not see ego in our own mind. So we must constantly guard against.

Caile: So what do you think about so many karate-ka no longer wearing plain white uniforms that symbolized "do" and instead using those that are multi-colored?

Nakamura: Sometimes people, too much commercialize. They have different color uniforms, patches all over, stripe all over, flashy-- but you know, its not how you look, how you impress or enjoy the color. Pure simplicity, that is such an important thing. That's why our uniforms are white. The way we study karate, each time we do kiai with strong punch, strong kick --- There is an expression in Japanese, "Ichi Geki Hissatsu," meaning, "To kill with one punch" It means not really killing someone else, but killing own ego. That's why important to have good etiquette and show respect. It's not always easy but by doing we control ego. It's important. Make sure your ego is little. Make sure your ego cut. Make sure it not grow. Polish self and help in dojo. Do little things, like helping clean floor after class. This is still part of each one's training. Respect yourself, respect others and make sure dojo clean for people who come later. Help dust off, polish, mirror clean, spotless if possible. Make sure floor no dusty.

Caile: So in Japan, with so much emphasis on competition and being strong, is real karate-do being lost?

Nakamura: Still some people continue karate-do, but unfortunately often more the opposite way with people teaching only competition karate, but not karate-do. More and more people, they extremely just concerned with fighting aspects -- who is going to be strong, who is champion, who will be next. It's too much becoming like a game and less mental and spiritual. It's missing karate-do. I'm not 100 percent against a tournament or championship. It's OK. You can do it, but sometimes people think karate equals tournament, karate equals full contact, karate equals championship. Then if you are not involved, don't compete or participate in tournament, people think you are not a strong karate-ka, or maybe you are not qualified as a good karate-ka. Some people think like, "How many times did you compete, did you compete all Japan tournament, or world tournament?. If you did not compete -- "ahh, you must not be a strong guy." You know, that's ridiculous way of judgment. That's really missing karate-do. It doesn't matter if you didn't get a place, that you didn't get the grand champion. What matters is the way you dedicate your training and study of karate-do and dedicate yourself, how you help your community, how you contribute to your country or society -- that's a big difference.

Kaicho Nakamura, 9th dan, was formerly the top student of Kancho Masutatsu Oyama in the Japan Kyokushinkai organization. Already a top Japanese fighter he became internationally famous with his 1966 victory against the famous Thailand kick boxing (Muay Tai) champion known as the "Green Tiger" as part of a three member Kyokushinkai team that was victorious over their Thailand challengers. Soon afterwards he was made Chairman of the North American Kyokushinkai Organization and traveled the world giving demonstrations, clinics and seminars. Later he was awarded his seventh dan in the organization. In 1976 Nakamura founded and became Chairman of the World Seido Karate Organization ("Seido" meaning Sincere Way) and established the Seido Juku headquarters in New York City. It has grown into one of the largest and most respected dojos in the city. He is the author of many books on karate including Karate, Technique and Spirit, The Human Face of Karate, and One Day, One Lifetime, An Illustrated Guide to the Spirit, Practice and Philosophy of Seido Karate Meditation. Nakamura's karate is noted for its focus on teaching of the mental and spiritual aspects of karate and for his belief that karate should benefit everyone, not just the young and the strong. In his dojos Nakamura stresses the importance of having a feeling of family and sense of mutual support rather than competition. This has not hindered the development of top tournament fighters, however, with many become national champions and grand champions. Unlike many karate organizations Seido is also noted for both the number of adult students (some still practicing into their 70's) and women students . There are also special teaching programs for the physically handicapped. Nakamura, himself, projects a strong charismatic personality and image that would be intimidating if it was not punctuated by an engaging sense of humor and warmth. He voices strong beliefs about karate and his organization but also projects a genuine caring about his students. As a leader he has engendered a fierce loyalty and dedication among students. This has produced a base of long-time seniors many who have followed him for 20, 30 or more years and helped his organization grow worldwide.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Teaching karate, karate-do, do

Read more articles by Christopher Caile

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