SI Vault
Mason Smith
August 18, 1975
Meet Hidetaka Nishiyama, a tough gentleman of Japan who is fighting to have karate accepted as an Olympic sport
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August 18, 1975

Smoke From An Urbane Volcano

Meet Hidetaka Nishiyama, a tough gentleman of Japan who is fighting to have karate accepted as an Olympic sport

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It is a shock to realize how new karate is in the United Stales. The karate boom started in the early '50s, when ex-servicemen who had learned it in Japan came home looking for converts to the sport. And although we tend to think of karate as traditionally Japanese, it is relatively new in Japan itself. When Nishiyama was a child in Tokyo, karate was unknown to most Japanese. Funakoshi had brought the old techniques from Okinawa in 1922.

In Japan other martial arts, especially kendo and judo, were very popular, and one or the other was required in middle school. By the time he was 14, Nishiyama was already a black belt in judo. But he never heard of karate until he was 17. When he asked where Funakoshi's dojo was, no one knew. He had to find it himself. So Nishiyama's career has coincided not only with the American boom but with the Japanese boom that preceded it.

He went through Takushoku University, training in karate while studying business. He had no intention of making karate his life's work, but instructors were so rare—and so bad—that he soon found himself coaching every evening. While the burgeoning college clubs and teams began to coalesce into regional and national organizations, he was traveling, organizing, administrating. Then the war swept away the whole middle generation of Japanese men who might have been the leaders and teachers. In the emptiness of national defeat, the Japanese took up karate passionately as a form of individual spiritual reconstruction. Nishiyama had gone to work for Shell Oil, but now he became so busy coaching and traveling for the newly forming JKA that he took a leave of absence from his job and never went back.

Ray Dalke, one of the first of Nishiyama's brilliant American prot�g�s, says that when the sensei came to the U.S. in 1961, "karate was like chow mein. Something you ate." There were about half a dozen clubs in Southern California and very few anywhere else. In the short time since then, North America has been colonized so well that now, if you are one of Nishiyama's best students, you are liable to be sent off to Lima or Montevideo to instruct. Karate is booming in South America, too.

A stable world organization will apparently have to be born of conflict. On the one hand is the year-old International Amateur Karate Federation, which, it is Nishiyama's feeling, democratically reflects the wishes of the majority of karate people around the world. On the other is the World Union of Karate-do Organizations, dominated by Sasakawa with his French ally Delcourt. The AAU, after a brief honeymoon with the AAKF, has tried to take direct control of amateur karate in the U.S. and represent it internationally and has thrown in with WUKO. Ignoring the AAU and WUKO, the IAKF is staging a "world conference" along with the Los Angeles championships. In turn, the AAU is ignoring the IAKF and running its own "world tournament" in Long Beach in October. Classic Japanese bickering aside, it seems likely that the IAKF will emerge as the stronger body.

While describing all this, Nishiyama is drinking beer with one of his students, Steve Ubl, who is so close to the sensei that he doesn't speak English with articles anymore. Only four years ago Ubl was a lonely jewel cutter, but his life has been transformed by karate. In record time he has reached third-degree black belt, lived and studied with the chief instructor in Japan and become the U.S. champion in kata. Nishiyama gives him a "big chance" to win the world championship in individual kata.

Japan's team, its strongest ever, is heavily favored. But with two-time Pan-American champion James Field and with the All-America champions of the past two years, Edwin Moise and Gerald Evans, the U.S. team has the seasoning to take second place over less experienced teams from Italy and West Germany. Still, the results will be less important than the progress the IAKF's world tournament is sure to make in legitimizing itself and the sport. Next, karate may be included in the Pan-American Games. That would seem to assure its eventual acceptance in the Olympics.

They say that karate has an hourglass shape, or is like a pyramid balanced point to point on a pyramid. You strive toward a narrow, uniform ideal, the mastery of basic techniques. When you achieve it after years of effort, you look up and find an expanding universe of potential development. You've just begun. On another level, that is what it will be like for Nishiyama. He has been keeping up a terrible pace: doing administrative work all morning, teaching all afternoon and evening, giving exams and flying to conferences all over the world on weekends, seeing his wife and 3-year-old daughter only at weekday breakfasts. Next weekend when several of his ad hoc responsibilities suddenly expire, his limited goals will be won. In that salutary quiet and emptiness he will be just beginning once more. His secretary, the only person around the dojo who feels free to tease him, insists that he is not a master yet. He has it in him, though, she says. If he doesn't make it, it will be because he's lazy. Nishiyama grins, agreeing.

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