Since its inception in 2004, The Shotokan Way has been host to over 100 interviews with some of the greatest Shotokan Instructors in the World. Here you will find those interviews.
Please note, that for the purposes of posterity, all interviews have been republished exactly as they were originally. We appreciate that many of the interviewees will have differing opinions and experiences now, and will be part of different organisations amongst other changes. If you wish an addendum to be added to any interview to highlight these changes, then please do contact us at email@example.com
An Interview With C.W. Nicol Part 2
Warrior of Peace
Visit the local bookstore or go online, and you will find a wide array of karate books on just about every topic. It has even become somewhat of a cliché for many of these to claim to be the ‘only’ book needed for a fulfilling study of karate-do. There are karate books, and then there are must read karate books that are so groundbreaking and impactive that they become international bestsellers and have countless reprints throughout the world for decades to come. ‘Moving Zen – One Man’s Journey to the Heart of Karate’ by C.W.Nicol is one of these books. I remember the very first time I read it. The vividness of the storytelling gave the many anecdotes and descriptions a certain magic that every writer wants to capture. Giving writing this fleshy quality – so much so that you can smell, hear and feel the story – brings 1960 Japan alive in a way that no film could ever deliver. As you can tell, I adore this book and have read it countless times.
I tried, for a long time, to get this interview. I searched and searched, I asked around and I could not get reliable contact details for this gentleman, not surprising really considering his celebrity profile in Japan. However, by happy accident, I contacted a work colleague (who I emailed bearing a only the tiniest glimmer of hope that it would lead somewhere) who then passed my details onto the man himself. You can just imagine my glee.
When I received the email from him I immediately started to scribble the many questions that I have gathered from years of re-reading this superb book. Then over the next few weeks we put this interview together. Boxing Day 2008 was particularly special for while the rest of the family ate and drank, I was enthralled by the first draft of this interview – and set about putting together the second batch of questions forward.
I sincerely hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it. It was simply an honour for me to have this opportunity, one that I will forever treasure.
Can we say a big thank you to Nic himself (C.W.NICOL) for being so generous with his time, Kenji Minami for use of his wonderful photographs (Taken at an outdoor camp in Kurohime with Master Kanazawa in 1993), Schlatt at schlatt-books.de for photography from the book 'Moving Zen', and finally to readers of The Shotokan Way for suggested questions. – Shaun Banfield 2009
(Shaun Banfield) You arrived in Japan just 5 years after the death of Gichin Funakoshi. How was he spoken about by students of his that you met, and was the pain of his passing still fresh and present there?
(C.W.Nicol) All the older instructors remembered and deeply, deeply respected Funakoshi Sensei. We others felt that he was not only a pioneer, but a great martial scholar.
(SB) As with all of our interviews, we open the interviews up to readers of the online magazine, so that they can pose questions that they may have for the interviewee, and we have literally had countless numbers of questions submitted via email. One of the re-occurring questions regards ‘Bullet Head’ who you refer to in Moving Zen… can you reveal who ‘Bullet Head’ is, or would you prefer to keep this person’s anonymity?
(CWN) He was a student then at Takushoku University. I heard that he went on to become an instructor, but I never learned his name and bear him no animosity at all. If we met now we’d share a beer and laugh about it.
(SB) Can we now talk about ‘Moving Zen’? This book was quite literally groundbreaking, and its impact is still, to this day, felt by all who read it. Can you please tell us why you decided to write this book?
(CWN) When I was in Winnipeg, Canada, working for the Freshwater Institute of the Fisheries Research Board, I used to help out with a University of Manitoba Karate club. After training we'd go for beers, and I'd tell everybody some of the stories from the old days in Yotsuya. It was my kohai at the club who urged me to write the book, and I wanted it to be the simple story of a journey from white to black belt, I never expected it to be such an international best seller.
(SB) The title of the book in full of course is ‘Moving Zen – One Man’s Journey to the Heart of Karate’. Can you please tell us, what did you find was at the ‘Heart’ of Karate?
(CWN) The heart of Karate? If I dare say so, and be read by so many other karateka, many of whom will know much more than I, I would venture to say that the heart of Karate is true Bushido. Not the fanatical and often brutal false Bushido of the Japanese Army before and during World War Two, but the 'warrior's way' in which being true and sincere was paramount. To have the courage and morality to stand up and protect those creatures who are weaker, more vulnerable, unable to protect themselves. To speak out against evil. Never to be a bully. To respect your sensei and sempai. To be a steadfast friend to karateka all over the world. To endeavour to be somebody that your teacher can be proud of. To have dignity in defeat, sorrow or illness. To never stop studying.
(SB) You have said that you had a temper in your younger years. What parts of the karate training help nurture your control over this do you think?
(CWN) Ha! Anybody who loses his or her temper will soon learn quickly in a dojo. Finding out very quickly that it wasn’t just the big guys who could work me over, but the little guys too was a big help in losing ego I suppose, but it was all a part of growing up and of facing the consequences of uncontrolled violence. I did not want to get kicked out of the dojo, nor expelled from Japan.
(SB) In your book "From the Roof of Africa" you describes an incident where you had to use your karate to save your life (against 2 armed attackers). Do you consider your training at the Hombu to be have been more "budo" than modern day karate?
(CWN) I don’t know and won’t generalize. However, when we were taught kata we were taught the applications of the techniques. One movement can have several applications. Age uke (rising block) for example is first and foremost a block, but it can also be a lethal attack to break an arm or, in close, a neck.
(SB) Did you follow Sensei Kanazawa to join SKIF when he left? Can you please tell us what you remember from this time?
(CWN) I would follow Kanazawa Sensei to the ends of the earth, but I have never severed ties with JKA. I can take this stance because I do not run my own dojo to recruit and train students. I do wish that all the branches of the Funakoshi Gichin tree could be united somewhere at the roots. Who can do it?
(SB) Do you think this will ever be possible?
(CWN) Quite honestly, I doubt it, but if it happens it will be from leaders outside of Japan.
(SB) Would I be accurate in my assumption that you are still a member of Kanazawa Sensei’s SKIF?
(SB) Your experiences, as accounted in Moving Zen, are very well known. I would like to speak more now about life after Moving Zen. Can you please give us an account of what life brought to you in the immediate years after that which are detailed in the book?
(CWN) A few months after I got shodan, I returned to Canada to work as a marine mammal technician for the Arctic Biological Station, Fisheries Research Board of Canada, in Montreal. I expected to be sent to the arctic, but was instead sent to Vancouver Island, Coal Harbour, there to learn how to measure and take biological samples from great whales. The Japanese had a joint whaling venture with a Canadian firm. After a month there I was sent to the Nova Scotia, where a Norwegian-Canadian firm were hunting fin whales. When not in the field, I either taught some classes for beginners at a college in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, or went downtown to train with Ari Anastasiadis.
After a couple of years of that, I did get to go back to travelling with the Inuit and studying seals in the Arctic. Then I was recruited by Haille Selassie to go and be the first game warden of the proposed new national park in the Simien Mountains.
After the situation in Ethiopia started heading to chaos and a brutal Marxist military rule, I came back to Japan for a couple of years. This time I studied Japanese and fisheries, as well as attending dojos whenever I could.
Two years later I was employed by the Freshwater Institute based in Winnipeg, to be a senior technician on field studies in the western arctic, mostly to do with a proposed pipeline. It was at that time that I trained with guys from the Karate club at the University of Manitoba.
I got promoted to being an Emergency Officer with the Environmental Protection Service, based in Vancouver. I trained there with Narumi Sensei.
In 1974 I got seconded to be the Assistant Manager of the Canadian Pavilion at the International Ocean Expo’ in Okinawa. My first time to the heartland of Karate! When I could get any time off I was either snorkelling, diving, or travelling around to visit dojos all over the main island.
In 1978 I quit my job and life in Canada to come back to Japan, lived for a year in the ancient whaling village of Taiji, then got invited to sail to the Antarctic as an unpaid observer on the whaling fleet. I wrote my historical novel ‘Harpoon’ at sea, and it was that novel that really launched my writing career. Japan has been my base and home ever since.
(SB) How important, from a karate perspective, was your trip to Okinawa? What did you learn about Okinawan karate and the history of karate?
(CWN) We are all in truth disciples of Funakoshi Gichin, an Okinawan, and you have already written excellent articles on Okinwan Karate. In the last twenty-five years however, going to Okinawa at least once a year, I have been fascinated by the way that martial arts have been woven into the tapestry of traditional dancing. It was reputed to be a way of practising the forbidden art, disguised as dance. More recently I have met a genuine master of ‘Ti’ or ‘Te’. He is a stocky little guy in his early sixties, but deadly, oh so deadly. He is also very reclusive, and wary of the media, so please don’t ask any more, his name and so on. Let me just say that he lives in Naha and makes the three stringed traditional Okinawan ‘sanshin’ banjo. There are martial arts dojos throughout Okinawa, and the people are so friendly. It is a place, in my opinion, worthy of a kind of pilgrimage. The best way to do it, to be accepted, is to travel alone, with your karategi. If you go into a school different from your own, and are allowed to practice, always ask the teacher if you can borrow a white belt. That is etiquette. He will probably be pleased, maybe a little puzzled, but will usually tell you to wear your black belt, if that is what you are. Each and every school of martial arts in Okinawa firmly believes that it is the best. Don’t try to rock that boat, even if you think you are better.
(SB) You seem to have lived a very exciting life outside of karate. With a life this full, what kept you interested in training?
(CWN) You can practice kihon and kata wherever you are, but for me, it was always easier to do it where nobody was watching, in the wilderness for example. I have honestly found that after a long journey in a boat or a kayak, lugging heavy gear around to set up camp, going through all the motions of making tea and a meal, then it is actually very relaxing to go through a couple of kata, slowly at first, then gradually speeding up. It may not be a full workout, but it gets all the kinks out of your body and helps you to get to sleep. In a base camp it is a simple thing to set up a makiwara with a buried post and some padding, or to fill a small bag with something and hang it up. For many years I had a canvas bag, about the size of a head and neck, filled with rice. The rice was an emergency ration for long trips. I have been on fifteen arctic expeditions, the shortest being three months, the longest nineteen. Even going down to the Antarctic on a whaling ship I could find a corner somewhere to go through kata that does not take up a lot of space, Tekki Shodan, for example. I must confess to being very lazy in hotel rooms, however.
(SB) In speaking about the Makiwara training, you described it as a ‘deeply personal fight’. Is this still your feeling and do you still face this opponent regularly now?
(CWN) Now I use a heavy body bag rather than a very stiff makiwara, because I am nearing seventy, and I don't think continued pounding is good for bones as they get older. I travel a lot, and now I only train when I know that I can be in one place for at least two weeks. Otherwise I can easily injure myself, which would hinder my work. I have found that training with the sai helps, but that's a later question.
(SB) There are beautiful pictures of you practicing with Japanese weapons such as the sai – and in looking at them they got me thinking about some of the wonderful photographs that I have seen of Sensei Kanazawa practicing Sai kata. Practice of such weapons, in the west at least, has been to some extent disregarded. What value do you think there is in practicing with such weapons?
(CWN) I practise especially with the sai and the bo. The sai training helps to keep your mind and muscles focused. If you lose control you can really hurt yourself. I have talked this over with Kanazawa Sensei, who has done a great deal of study in Okinawa, and he agrees with me that the sai is an excellent training tool. I will run through our basic kata using the sai, then put the sai down and do the kata again. I find greater focus and power doing this. The steel of the sai become a part of your own psyche, even if you are not carrying them around with you. Remember it was the sai and the bo that were the main weapons of the Ryukyu warriors who no longer carried the sword, and they often had to use it against the swords of the occupying Japanese.
When in the woods I always carry some kind of staff. An Okinawan teacher once told me that carrying a staff, learning to use it as an extension of your own body, takes ten years off your age. You learn extra balance, power and reach with a bo (staff). I would never want to use the sai in real conflict with another human, other than myself of course, but if one of the yakuza who rings up in the middle of the night threatening to harm me or my family, comes into range then yes, I would love to take a bo to them should they pull a weapon, give them a good whack across the shins or a poke in the ribs. (I stand up against the yakuza involved in the dumping of toxic waste in wooded watershed areas. They can be very nasty people, and love to bully and threaten older countryfolk). I know that's not a good feeling, and not worthy of an older karateka, but I am human, and very protective of my family, and I have come to think of Karate as being the art of an open hand rather than an empty one. But don't let me digress.
(SB) I am fascinated to learn more about this, as in an earlier questions I ask what you found was at the ‘heart’ of karate and you said that ‘To have the courage and morality to stand up and protect those creatures who are weaker, more vulnerable, unable to protect themselves. To speak out against evil…’ Your work against the Yakuza is doing exactly that, standing up for what is right in protection of those who cannot protect themselves. Are the Yakuza a big problem in Japan? I know it’s a little off topic but I would be interested in learning more about what they get up to and your experiences with them.
(CWN) The yakuza of old were reputed to be just and to protect the innocent. However, now they (and other Asian gangs) are deeply involved in drugs and in the dumping of toxic waste. In our area alone we have over 40 illegal dumps. In Nagano prefecture over 2000. These all pollute the atmosphere and the water. It also pollutes the very soul of Japan, because this generates incredible sums of invisible or opaque funds that can bribe or buy lawyers, officials and individuals. The yakuza are very dangerous and I do not under-estimate them. My friend, a scientist fighting this pollution was threatened by having his daughter kidnapped. They threaten me, but you see, I am high in the public profile. It would be unwise for them to raise a hue and cry, but I live in a rather remote area, and am nearly always alone at night. If I am killed violently it will most likely be a yakuza-connected event. That is the only way they can shut me up. Corrupt officials or politicians won’t stand a chance in trying to kick me out of the country, because I am a Japanese citizen.
However, they also have a very big, thick, long and sticky finger in the mass-media pie, and their media minions are very adept at character assassination. That evil beast has raised its head a couple of times, but so far we have faced it down by forthright honesty. Hell, the police investigated me extremely thoroughly before I got citizenship, and, as I say, members of the Imperial family visit my home and woods. If I was even slightly bent, that just would not happen.
(SB) I had no idea that they were so influential, is their influence on the increase would you say or have the police been effective in shutting down their activities?
(CWN) The yakuza are still very powerful, and like the Mafia or whatever they are called, they have branched out into all kinds of things that seem legitimate. Construction, golf courses, you name it. One of our local waste disposal firms is a direct branch of the yakuza, and I am not scared to state that, and you are far away enough to be safe. If the police would nail them then the waste disposal firm would declare bankruptcy then pop up a little later under another name. The present governor of Chiba prefecture told me once that the police did an undercover investigation into the toxic waste business. The sums of money were big enough to fund the national budget of a small country. The officer in charge was able to do nothing, because that money bought or threatened anybody and everybody. He quit the force and now lives in seclusion in the wilds of Hokkaido. You can believe me on this, I have been an advisor to three former prime ministers of Japan. As far as toxic waste is concerned my answer is that it should all be open, and money put into it, with the people who work at it well paid and covered with health insurance and so on. It is very unfair to legitimate waste disposal firms that the yakuza-linked firms can cut corners and thus make huge profits.
(SB) You are obviously an avid conservationist? Were you always this way and what prompted this desire to work hard to protect the environment?
(CWN) I have loved wildlife and nature ever since I was little. I always wanted to work in conservation, research and wildlife education. It is very obvious that the natural wild things need protection. For me, studying martial arts has helped. I couldn't have done what I did in establishing the Simien Mountain National Park in Ethiopia, for example, without Karate and the state of mind it brought. For example, even though I was armed with a Walther PPK pistol and a rifle, I never used them in making an arrest, even when the other guy was armed.
(SB) You seem to have travelled a great deal in your work. Do you still travel now? Did you ever try to do some karate in the countries that you visited with work?
(CWN) When possible, and if I don’t work out I can always watch, and talk with fellow martial artists wherever they may be. Let me share a story with you. I was doing a documentary in Zaire, and we were filling the great volcano of Niiragongo. One evening we gere going along a dusty road outside of Goma when I spotted about twenty African lads doing a version of Heian Nidan. None of them had karategi, and their instructor was perhaps at 3rd kyu level. I told the driver to stop, jumped out, went up to the instructor, took off my bush hat, bowed, and then went through the kata myself. The instructor asked where I had learned, and when I said ‘Japan’ the lads got very excited and asked me to teach, which I did. I was in bush clothes and boots, a ruddy complexion, blue eyes, beard. They were all African, and initially wary of Caucasians. The driver and director wanted me to come, but I said go on, I can walk back. They said it was dangerous, and I said “Not with all these young bucks with me.” I taught them for an hour, until it got dark, and then we all walked back to Goma, laughing and joking like the oldest friends. Karate can open door like that.
(SB) You have stated that the ‘In Japan, karate is followed as a religion is followed. The students can only follow one way, he cannot switch and change…It is not the Karate way.’ Have things changed in Japan do you think in all the time you have been there and do you think this mentality is a healthy mentality for a karateka’s Martial Art education?
(CWN) That is the way I was taught. However, I think that as you become more secure in your art, you can show interest in other arts. Kanazawa Sensei sincerely practises Tai Chi, for example. Has Japan changed? Oh, very much so. I am not totally sure that placing so much emphasis for sport Karate has been all good. However, the soul of Karate, if I can use that concept, is still very much alive, thanks to be due to the huge efforts of all the great teachers who spread out across the world, and the great students they taught.
(SB) The Kohai – Sempai relationship in Japan is of great significance, but is not adhered to so much in the west. What do you think are the most important aspects of this relationship and should it have more emphasis placed on it here in the west do you think?
(CWN) Yes indeed, the kohai-sempai bond is important, especially to a potentially deadly art like Karate. It teaches mutual respect and trust, a trust that goes beyond your social status, education or what-have-you. You learn respect and trust face to face, and if it is good, it lasts throughout your life. As for this relationship in the West, I think it's doing fine in the truly sincere karateka. It doesn't have to be a sort of public school system based on mere seniority; that can lead to awful bullying...which, by the way, is not unknown in Japan. I might be bigger and more famous than Seto sempai, but he will always be my sempai and I will always bow to him first, in or out of a dojo.
(SB) You have spoken about the Japanese saying ‘When a nail sticks up, knock it down!’ Can you please relay to the readers the signifance of this saying, and tell us if you think this is still an accepted method of developing a student, as most Western people would not have the steely determination to withstand it and keep going. Maybe that’s a product of the softly-softly lifestyle in the west and the emphasis on positive reinforcement. What do you think?
(CWN) Bashing down the nail that sticks up is very traditional in Japanese training. It was meant to prevent hubris. In school I suppose it discouraged ‘teacher’s pets’. In a good dojo it means that although there is the relationship between kohai and sempai, and the respect and obedience you show to the sensei, there are no arrogant bullies or wannabe heroes. However, in the Japanese education system, especially when it comes to high school, college or university students, it makes it especially hard for a teacher to feel that he is getting across to the students because they are so reluctant to respond or react.
I guess that it really depends on the quality of the teacher and his or her rapport with the students.
In Japan we still get very nasty occurrences of severe peer bullying, which I despise. And if you are a nail that sticks up, do it quietly, and try to toughen yourself for the bashing, you will soon recognise the difference between bullying and an attempt to make you a better karateka.
(SB) You are now of course a Japanese citizen as of 1995 am I correct? Why did you stay and not return to the UK if you don’t mind me asking?
(CWN) Yes, I am a Japanese citizen. I have lived longer in Japan than in any other country, and citizenship does both permit one to own farmland and to show commitment to the country that feeds and protects you. To establish a woodland trust really required citizenship. I am as proud to be a Japanese citizen as I am of being Welsh. A Welsh Japanese. As a country for wildlife, it is amazing. For example, more than 70% of Nagano prefecture is covered with forest, in which there are bears, wild boar, monkeys, deer and so many other creatures. If you don't include Alaska, Japan has a longer coastline than the United States. We have sea ice in the North, coral seas in the South. I look out of this study window to see Mount Kurohime...the Black Princess...a dormant volcano, forested to the top, and standing twice as tall as Ben Nevis. You have freedom of speech, freedom of movement and freedom from religion. You can be of whatever creed you like, nobody will judge or attack you because of it.
Believe me, Japan's armed forces are very capable of defending the country, but Japan has sworn to peace since the end of World War Two. I am a follower of the martial arts, but like most of you I am sure, I despise war.
As for my own life here, I am well and happy. I have been asked to run for parliament (I won't). I count simple country folk, members of the Imperial family, famous writers, actors, politicians and people from all works of life as true and steadfast friends. We have managed to bring back 22 endangered species of wild creatures and plants to our woods, and I am proud of that. Fifteen years ago I helped establish a college that trains young people to work in wildlife, conservation, research and eco-tourism. We graduate about 80 a year. Really, Japan is a beautiful and varied country if you get out of the big cities.
Ever since we 'twinned' our woods with the Afan Argoed Forest Park in Wales I have come to Britain once a year and love it, especially the countryside, the humour and the pubs.
I don't like what is happening to all too many children and young folk in the big cities in Britain, and I hate the tension between the followers of Islam and the rest of the population. Soccer hooliganism also appals me. I despise people who cannot love their country. I hope, aye, and even pray, that sincere karateka of all faiths, races, beliefs and inclinations can do something to remedy this tension and hatred.
And for this old Welsh-Japanese karateka, it was a proud moment indeed when the Prince of Wales came to visit our woods on October 30th. of 2008!
(SB) You have spoken about the ‘Ritual of kata’. Can you please explain further what you mean by the term ‘ritual’ and how this ‘ritual’ has an effect on the karateka’s development? Would I be accurate in my assumption that you experience kata as a spiritual act as well as a physical one?
(CWN) Absolutely! Takagi Sensei was the one who said that 'Karate is Moving Zen' - and he meant the empty-mind state you can get through practise of kata. If you do it, you know it; it can't be described adequately, at least not by me, to people who do not practise kata sincerely. All the top martial arts teachers have told us this, throughout the ages.
(SB) What is your favourite kata and why?
(CWN) Favourite kata? It used to be Kanku Dai, but now as I am older and nearly always train alone, I have come to feel that our basic kata have real meaning and beauty, and you can go on practising them even if your knee joints get creaky.
(SB) In ‘Moving Zen’, you accurately predicted that ‘Karate as a sport is very fast developing, and we will end up with weight divisions, rounds…’ all of which are now in place. Could you see this development even back then, and what are your personal feelings on sport karate and its effects on ‘Traditional’ karate?
(CWN) Yes, I predicted that, having seen what happened to Judo. I now think of 'sport Karate' and ' classical Karate' as being very different. I respect both, but love the older and, I think, more pure form.
(SB) How big an impact has sport WKF Karate had in Japan would you say as the WKF World Championships recently took place in Tokyo in November 08?
(CWN) I no longer go to see championships. They are probably necessary in this modern media-hyped world, but I have little interest in them.
(SB) You mention earlier in the interview that your training consists mostly of personal training alone. What does your typical training regime consist of and what are you working on most now, at almost 70 years of age?
(CWN) Simple warm-ups. Slow, steady practise of basic kata. Using ankle weights for leg raising and kicks. Body bag for punches, strikes and kicks. Sai. Some light weight training with a machine. Deep breathing.
Now, you rascal Shaun, you asked me so it means that I really will have to try to do it each day I can in the New Year! It’s much easier to walk in the woods and swing a staff when nobody is watching!
(SB) Are you still able to set aside time to see Sensei Kanazawa, in either the karate or personal setting?
(CWN) Oh dear, that question hurts! We are both very busy and travel a lot, he even more than I, but in my heart I must always be able to find time to spend with him. Please understand though, that I do not live in Tokyo.
(SB) Finally, do you have any advice for karateka around the world who want to follow the ‘way’ as dedicated as you have?
(CWN) We can’t all be champions. We all grow old. If you have been sick, or stressed, gained weight, have weakened your heart, got creaky knees or whatever, Karate always offers a way back. You can go through kihon very slowly, do the most simple of kata at your own speed. Always try to focus in your mind, even if your body has weakened. Strength and confidence will come back.
(SB) Any final thoughts that I have neglected to ask you about that you would like to mention?
(CWN) Karate is the balance in my life, and has brought me friendship all over the world. I am profoundly grateful to all of you who are a part of that. We should all endeavour to be warriors for peace and tolerance.
(SB) I think that is the perfect sentiment for karateka around the world, ‘Warriors of peace’. Will you be returning to Wales in the near future? If you do so, please do drop me an email and let me know as I would love to come and buy you a beer!!!
(CWN) I visit the Afan Argoed Forest Park every year now. What, just one beer?
(SB) Can we please say a very big thank you for this opportunity. May we wish you all the success and happiness for the future!
(CWN) You are very welcome Shaun, and may I take this chance to wish a happy, peaceful New Year to all of you. Osss!