Monday, December 08, 2008

Remembering Nishiyama Sensei

They say that bad news always comes in threes, and though I don't really believe that, this week it seems to be true. Already saddened by the deaths of Jim Cawthorn and Forest J. Ackerman, I also learned from my friend Lanny that Sensei Hidetaka Nishiyama had passed away recently. This is a far more personal loss than the other two, for while I admired the work of Ackerman and Cawthorn, Nishiyama Sensei was someone whom I knew and who had a major influence on my life. He was my sensei's sensei.
There are any number of websites that you can visit for biographical information on Nishiyama, so I won't spend a lot of time on that here. Suffice to say that he was the senior student of Gichin Funakoshi. Funakoshi Sensei was the founder of Shotokan Karate and the man who coined the name karate for the Japanese system of empty handed martial arts. Thus, my brother and sensei was only one man removed from the founder of the style. Anyone who knows a lot about martial arts will tell you how rare that is. Most martial arts are into their umpteenth generation of permutation. But traditional Shotokan karate remains very close to the source and one of the primary reasons for that was Hidetaka Nishiyama.
What I remember about Nishiyama was his total dedication to Shotokan. He was a tireless proponent of the martial art, with emphasis on the art. Far more than a method of self defense, Shotokan was a way of building character through the seeking of perfect technique. You knew that you would never achieve that perfection, but the attempt was something worthwhile. If anyone came close to having perfect technique though, it was Nishiyama Sensei. His reverse punch and his front kick were lightning quick well into his 60s. His front stance was a thing of wonder. Feet turned just so. Body angled just right and weight distributed perfectly. Hard styles of karate like Shotokan can appear stiff and jerky, but not with Nishiyama. His movements were fluid and graceful.
We all tried to imitate him. To phrase our kata like his. To make our stances and our kicks and punches as much like his as possible. We even talked like him, snapping off the Japanese commands in the almost guttural way that he said them. My counting came to sound more and more like his after each time I trained with him. Ichi! Ni! San!
The word 'master' is bandied about far too readily these days and applied to far too many people who don't deserve the title. But Hidetaka Nishiyama was without question, a master of karate. Anyone who ever trained with him came away with an appreciation of the art of karate and a determination to improve. He was a patient, intelligent, and quietly funny man. He taught through example and through a variety of stories and demonstrations.
I can remember that after one of the marathon seminars I attended with Nishiyama Sensei I was absolutely exhausted and yet didn't really want the weekend to be over. At the end of the final class of the last day, Nishiyama Sensei would always have the entire class sit on the floor and he would take questions. Most of the questions would be about techniques and he would leap up and show how the kick or punch or stance should be executed, punctuating his points with a shinai (bamboo kendo sword). As I said, we all hated for those grueling weekends to end, but eventually we would line up for one final bow. And so I'll end this rambling bit of reminiscence the same way. For Nishiyama Sensei.

Sensei Ni...Rei!!