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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The central dojo of the All America Karate Federation is just another of those empty storefronts on profitless streets that say KARATE in big block letters over blank windows and are similar in appearance to the cheap massage parlors located in such places across the land. The building's blank wall on the side street is covered with spray-can graffiti, unintelligible but not Oriental. Next door on the other side is a storefront office of the United Farm Workers, its windows as colorful with exhortations against Ernest and Julio Gallo as the dojo's are plain. This is 1440 West Olympic Boulevard in downtown L.A., where most so-called natives claim they never come, are you crazy? But for Hidetaka Nishiyama, the United States' ranking karate man and chairman of the AAKF, it is the boulevard to the Olympics, or else. From this unlikely base, Nishiyama is attempting, simultaneously, to clean up karate's brutal commercial show-biz image and win its acceptance as an Olympic sport.

To students in the hundreds of American schools that teach the authentic Shotokan, or Japanese Karate Association style, this reserved, polite, incredibly powerful little man is anything but a promoter. He is the most inspiring sensei (teacher) of karate in the country. He is hard, distant and cool, but gut-wrenching workouts with him become a kind of addiction. He exemplifies the way as much as the technique; he is incorruptible in a time rife with schismatics and opportunists. When Nishiyama's paperwork for the 40-nation World Karate-do Championship Tournament, which will be held in Los Angeles next week, cuts into his students' workout time with him, they are hurt, angry, jealous.

Nishiyama's technique is fearsomely advanced, well into the realm of art. "He has never been defeated in a match in his life by anybody at any level," says one black belt. When second-and third-degree black belts are asked to demonstrate an attack against him, says another, "You don't want to go in. You know you're not going to get hurt, but you don't want to go in. He'll totally break you down. Crumble your mind. Something comes out of his eyes. Say he demonstrates a kick to your stomach. It just touches you and stops. It doesn't hurt. But your skin burns for hours afterward. He fully extends his arm, knuckles against your breastbone. He just exhales hard and you are knocked back three feet."

Nishiyama's dojo is no more imposing on the inside than it is from the street. If you want a place that looks like a Zen monastery, try a restaurant. The left half of the long room has an oak floor and bare walls painted brown below and cream above. Just inside the front windows, which have blinds to diminish glare and distraction, there are a few hard benches where children coming in off the street sit and wonder at the goings-on. In the middle of a side wall an American and a Japanese flag are crossed beneath a portrait of a round-faced, silver-haired, unsmiling gentleman, the founder of modern karate, Gichin Funakoshi.

The varnish is worn off the floor except in the corners and close to the walls. At the far end are two large mirrors, originally about six feet square. Both are missing big chunks, and raw plywood stares out from where the glass has been broken away. There is a round clock. A ventilation shaft drops creamy light into the room. Across a half-partition on the other side of the building, a young Oriental woman works in the office. In a small lobby with no seating, plants, carpet, anything, just a little counter and an opening in the office wall where you pay for lessons, there is a dusty glass case containing gimcrack trophies.

It is impossible to understand a word the sensei is saying. The little man is out there walking barefoot back and forth in front of two rows of black belts. This is a special class for instructors, big frogs in some pond like Grand Forks, N. Dak. Apparently they have room to improve. The master's voice sinks to a vibrant bass with a shaming, disappointed oo-o-o-o. Grinning, he mimics someone's boxer-like tendency to put his shoulder into an imaginary punch to the head, which is supposed to be started with a flick of the hips and done with the back straight and shoulders low. Speed and focus, not blundering mass. Karate is difficult for Americans to understand.

They love it, though. They gleam with humility and effort. The hour will be too short. After 1,000, even 10,000 iterations, the hope of making one simple reverse counterpunch correctly is an eager dream on their perspiring faces. And not because the punch will have a force of about one ton per square inch, compared to a good boxer's 400 pounds or so, but because—well, it is preferable not to verbalize exactly why. Karate has a way of avoiding the brain in these messy matters. It is a thing of the spirit. But these black belts seem to understand what Nishiyama means. They respond with unintelligible noises of their own. The hard surfaces inside the old store bang the words around until they become as obscure as the graffiti outside, but you have the unmistakable sense of harmony, of good communications.

The command voice is driven from Nishiyama's diaphragm; it has a deep whir of power, a gearbox hum. He demonstrates a basic block and counter-punch, then puts the black belts through it by the numbers, stressing the placement of feet, the motion of hips. He holds them frozen in midexecution, turns to the wall and illustrates correct body action. Then he adds another block, a kick, a strike, a punch, creating an ad hoc sequence. The students are so zonked on selfless struggle that now and then they shout "Osu!" seeming not to know they are doing it. "Osu!" means "yes!" or "right on!" Going slowly at first, Nishiyama puts them through the new sequence over and over. "Un! Tsoo! Tree! Hoa! Hi-i-i! Sssseece! Heaven!" On reaching 10, the pupils all shout "Osu!" or "Ai!" or "Argh!"

It looks easy, punching and kicking thin air, but at the end of one of these brief exercises students have streams of sweat running off their chins. Nishiyama does not give them five seconds' rest. He tells them very little. He whacks a belly—sharply—then a back, the student visibly grateful. The typewriter clicks in the office. The cries sound more and more like people being sick. In the final sparring practice, the lone female black belt blinks and flinches. Her cheeks look terribly hot.

In a motel caf� farther out Olympic Boulevard, the instructor-students drink beer very moderately and approach the subject of their sensei very carefully, tugged opposite ways by the desire to protect Nishiyama and to glorify him. He is, technically, one of the best teachers of karate in the world, they say. He has everything broken down to a science, can isolate the most important things to work on. He evokes more spirit than any other sensei ever. He can drive you to your breaking point. In Japan he is feared because his classes are physically so difficult, so brutal.

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