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C.W.Nicol

Warrior of Peace

 

An Interview with C.W.Nicol Part 1

 

 

C.W.Nicol with Takehito Okuda in 1963

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)     Can we initially say a major thank you for this opportunity to interview you? We have wanted to do this interview for a long while so we are thrilled to have an opportunity to put our questions to you and learn your thoughts and gain an insight into your experiences.

 

(C.W.Nicol)     You are very welcome and I am pleased indeed to be able to reach many old friends throughout the world through this interview.

 

(SB)     You are a Welshman; can I ask whereabouts in Wales you were born, as I too am a proud Welshman?C.W.Nicol the westler

 

(CWN)     Yes, I am Welsh and was born in Neath in 1940, but was taken away and went to school in Ipswich and Cheltenham.  However, whenever I had a holiday I always insisted on returning to Wales, even though it meant going through London up until we moved to Cheltenham when I was thirteen.

 

(SB)     Can you please tell us how you initially got introduced to the Martial Arts, as you had experience in Judo prior to your journey to Japan am I correct?

 

(CWN)     I got a new dad when I was ten, and he was in the Royal Navy.  I was very proud of him and that induced me to join the Sea Cadets when I was twelve.  I had been badly bullied up until then by a bunch of sixteen and seventeen year old sadists at school.  In the Sea Cadets we had an instructor who taught us some rudiments of what he called Jujitsu.  I found out soon that a few techniques can quickly dissuade a bully. The trouble was that the techniques were rather crude and brutal, and after my Dad was called to school because of the damage I did to one seventeen year old he talked to the Sea Cadet instructor who advised that I take real Judo training.  I therefore joined a Judo Club at the Cheltenham YMCA.  Our instructor was an ex-marine commando, with war experience, and he was TOUGH.  However, at fourteen I met a true master of martial arts, the renowned Koizumi Gunji sensei.
   

Koizumi sensei came from the Budokai in London to teach us for three whole days.  It was an eye-opener.  This extremely courteous, rather diminutive Japanese gentleman could toss the great big ex-commando around like a rag doll.  I'd never seen anything like it. It made me remember what my Welsh grandfather had always said; a really strong man is first and foremost a gentle man.

The other hero I met at the Judo club was a young American MP from Chicago, Mike Devito.  Mike was stationed at a nearby base and used to come to our Judo club when he got the time off.  It was Mike who first told us about this almost mythical art of Karate.  There were no genuine teachers of Karate in UK at the time.

 

I went on my first expedition to the Canadian arctic with Dr. Peter Driver when I was seventeen.  I went again with him the next year to the arctic, and it was a time when the Inuit still hunted from kayaks.  What with the hard arctic life, then with Judo and weight training back in the UK, I was a husky young fellow.  I got recruited by 'Chunky' Hayes and his West of England Promotions in 1959 to wrestle under the ring name of  'Nic Devito' - of course a lot of pro wrestling is, shall we say, orchestrated, but still, there are some really tough, fight-savvy wrestlers, and it was a good experience.  I had about twenty or so pro 'fights' before I got called on to return to Canada for an over-wintering expedition on Devon Island

 

(SB)     You mentioned that there were no genuine karate teachers in the UK. Were there teachers around, but not teaching good karate?

 

(CWN)     I asked around the Judo community in Britain, but could locate no Karate teachers. I did find one book, by Harrison I believe. I think it was in 1955 or 1956 that  Life’ magazine did a big spread on Karate. I never saw anybody practise ‘real’ Karate until I visited Ari Anastasiadis’ dojo in Montreal.

 

(SB)     And how did your trip to Japan come about? Can you please tell us about the Journey that initially took you to Japan and what you had originally hoped to achieve?

 

(CWN)     The Arctic Institute of North America's Devon Island expedition had scientists from America, Canada, Britain and Sweden, in many fields from geology, oceanography, archaeology, limnology, glaciology and so on.  I was a general assistant, which meant I worked with everybody.  In the long winter there were only five of us and we were either at the Base Camp doing meteorology, or out setting up caches for the coming summer.  Devon Island is pretty big and we were the only five humans on the island.

 

When the expedition ended I had about $6000 Canadian in the bank.  That was a lot back in 1962.  I was now 22 and still had an ambition to go to Japan and learn Karate.

 

Of course I knew by then that Karate as we know it was formed as an art in Okinawa, but I was idealistic about the world, and did not want to go to a place still
under the rule of the American military.  Judo people in Montreal introduced me to Ari Anastasiadis, who had a Karate club in Montreal.  Ari said that all the great styles were taught in Tokyo, and it was he who first introduced me to the JKA.  As it happened, I had an old friend from Cheltenham, Klaus Naumann, who wrote to me while I was still in the arctic, telling me that he was in Japan, and studying Karate at a dojo in Yotsuya. When I went to Tokyo I enrolled in the Kodokan for Judo, and took lodgings there. The JKA honbu dojo was just up the road (a ten minute or less journey on the subway, in Yotsuya). Klaus Naumann was the one who first took me there.

 

(SB)     When you arrived in Japan, you met Takagi Sensei at the JKA who was of course then director of the JKA. What was your impression of him?

 

(CWN)     Takagi sensei was a very worldly, wise and well-travelled man.  He was very impressed that at 22 I already had three arctic expeditions under my belt. It was Takagi Sensei who advised me to see some of the other great styles, then to make my choice.

 

(SB)     C.W.Nicol demonstrating the opening movement from Kanku DaiHe was a businessman, but also a karateka. Did you ever see him train or teach?

 

(CWN)     I never saw him teach, but out in the front office he would sometimes tell us or the younger instructors to do this or that technique.

 

(SB)     You say that Takagi Sensei encouraged you to visit all of the major styles being practiced there. Why did you choose Shotokan as the style you wanted to follow?

 

(CWN)     I deeply respect all genuine school of martial arts and have long since abandoned the fruitless discussions of which one is 'best'. I chose to study with the JKA at the honbu dojo in Yotsuya because of the character of the several instructors, inspired by the great gentleman warrior and master Nakayama Masatoshi.  The Shotokan style was deep, fast and precise. It appealed to me.  The other factor is that having been through a lot of danger already, I was too mature in at least a part of my character to revere anybody as a guru.  Nakayama Sensei expected to be respected as the Chief Instructor, he never demanded any kind of quasi-religious reverence.  Also, with the many other instructors you could see real genius, but each one was unique, even though they all followed the same style.  I liked that.

 

(SB)     Your first lesson at the hombu was taken with Sasaki Sensei, who was to become a good friend of yours. Can you please tell us a little about him, as some of our readers may be a little unfamiliar with him?

 

(CWN)     I think that Sasaki Sensei now lives and teaches in the Phillipines, although I've lost contact with him.  He was very friendly and kind once off the dojo floor, and he had a great sense of humour. He was about my age, and enjoyed a beer after training, and although he could have easily thrown his weight around with the newcomers, he never did. He was very fast, and coming up to be qualified as an instructor.

 

(SB)     Do you know anything of his career in the Phillipines?

 

(CWN)     Sorry, no I don’t.

 

(SB)     Your other Sempai – Sensei’s Seto and Okuda, can you please tell us about them also, the time you shared with them, and the things they taught you?

 

(CWN)     Okuda Sensei was also a yudansha in Judo.  He was strict as a sempai, but extremely kind, thoughtful and courteous as a friend.  He went to teach in Brazil and I haven't seen him since.  Seto sempai is still a lifelong friend.  We have been into the mountains to hunt wild boar together, done lots of things together.  Seto sempai did not become a full-time instructor, but he was certainly good enough to be one. Small, but very, very fast.  Fighting with him was like trying to get the best of a cross between a hornet and an eel, with a kick like a mule. Once I lost my cool and grabbed him in a wrestling hold.


He just pounded the top of my cranium like a little pile driver.  Very undignified for me, and a huge laugh for the other instructors.

 

C.W.Nicol practicing kata(SB)     You have already mentioned Masatoshi Nakayama - who was the Chief Instructor of the JKA when you arrived, but can you please tell us a little more about him and his karate, and possibly share some stories or memories that you may have of him?

 

(CWN)     In that first two and a half years in Japan I had lived for about a year with Donn Draegar in his big rented Meiji period house that he shared with martial students from all over.  Donn was doing a series of books on 'Practical Karate' together with Nakayama Sensei.  Donn recruited me to be one of the young 'thugs' trying to use street fighting tricks on Nakayama Sensei.  He easily defeated all of us, and would get quietly cross if we did really put out and come at him, whether it be with boot, fist, choke, crotch-grab from behind, even broken bottles.  It says a lot for his mastery of Karate, and for his innate chivalry, that none of us were injured.  Nakayama Sensei was firm and always in control of the younger, sometimes stroppy instructors.  They never tried to mess with him.  He was always ready to lend somebody his time and wisdom, and to give gentle advice.  It was a great personal sorrow that beset me and many, many others when he died.  I went to his funeral, by the way.


When I returned from Ethiopia to Japan, Nakayama Sensei helped me with an inward searching and a new fear of jiyu kumite.  I had fought bandits and poachers in the Ethiopian mountains, and Karate had saved my life several times, but with deadly effects on the other guys.  I was scared that I might not be able to control my techniques and hurt a dojo-mate.  He got me over that, because he knew exactly what was bothering me.  When he finally talked to me he just looked at me for a while with that quiet stare of his and just said "It was either your life or theirs, forget about it.  Train harder and if there is every another time like that, you might be more in control.  Keep training, and don't lose your sincerity”.

 

(SB)     And did that advice help you overcome your new fear of jiyu kumite? How did you go about developing your confidence in dojo fighting again?

 

(CWN)     I mostly train alone now, except for when I got to Okinawa.  I am no longer ‘afraid’ of jiyu kumite, but I can only enjoy it as a practice between myself and a trusted dojo-mate, not as a kind of competition.  Ippon kumite is more to my taste.  Remember, I am not a full-time professional karateka, and will be 69 this year, that may be a factor.

 

(SB)     You trained at the Yotsuya hombu dojo. Can you please give us a brief description of the building, as it was a far cry -  I would imagine - from the fancy dojos of today… and did it have a certain atmosphere that could not be found anywhere else?

 

(CWN)     The old honbu dojo in Yotsuya was small and old.  It had one Japanese style toilet, often a disaster area.  The changing space was hopelessly crowded and over-flowing with sweaty Karategi and people's clothes, but nothing ever got stolen.  Takagi Sensei and a secretary were in a tiny office in front, and all of us had to file past him coming and going to the dojo itself.  The showers were a joke, outside, cold, and usually dribbling like a little puppy peeing on your head.  The makiwara were outside too, very grubby and often bloody. The building was owned by a film company, and sometimes we would have to stop training while they projected some of their clips.  It is amazing that the place generated such spirit and talent.

 

C.W.Nicol training

 

(SB)     The other very significant figure in your karate life back then and to this day is of course Hirokazu Kanazawa. In his introduction to ‘Moving Zen’ (which I would like to speak about later in the interview) he states ‘C.W.Nicol and I are like brothers now’. Can you initially please tell me about him as a man and possibly share some fond memories that you have of him? How would you sum up your relationship with him? Do you feel the above assessment is correct?

 

(CWN)     When Kanazawa Sensei returned from Hawaii he asked all the foreign students if they intended to teach Karate when they returned to their countries.  I said that I would not, not full-time anyway, because I had other work to do.  When he asked me why I studied Karate, I answered that for me, it was a way to gentleness. He liked that, and for several months gave me private lessons, an hour each time, before the dojo opened in the morning.  He would take no payment, and it was because of his teaching that I was able to scrape through my shodan exams.   Kanazawa Sensei has brought students to where I live in Kurohime to work out on natural ground.  We have shared meals, talks and dreams. His Karate, of course, was and is awesome in the real meaning of the word.  He is a gentleman, with a huge sense of humour.  I am not gay, but I love the man.  Memories?  Oh, so many!  However, one springs to mind:  We were asked by Takagi Sensei to go on a television program in Tokyo. The program was a sort of quiz game.  Four foreigners would stand there in Karate gi, and three of them would lie to the panel about their training. One was to be genuine...that was me.  Kanazawa Sensei was standing there, just smiling. 

Then he called on another karateka, a young American called Gary, and told him to attack the real student, who would counter.  None of the panel guessed it was me.  Afterwards Kanazawa Sensei took us out for a meal at a restaurant that specialized in the sumo wrestlers food, 'chanko nabe'.


By this time I could get along in Japanese and I told Kanazawa Sensei of a great faux pas that I had made when I first went to the Seto house for dinner.  I asked somebody to pass the 'chinko’- - which means 'little penis' - when I meant to say 'shinko' which means pickles.  It greatly amused the Seto menfolk.  We made jokes about any possible mistake in ordering the wrong kind of hotpot...'chinko nabe' instead of 'chanko nabe'.

 

C.W.Nicol training under Master Kanazawa

 

(SB)     What a wonderful story. Were there any other cases of confusion in your years of learning and developing your Japanese speaking skills; as living in a foreign country with a foreign language must have been at times quite difficult would you say?

 

(CWN)     You want me to write a book?  Many, many times!  You’ll have to use editorial discretion on this one, but in the early years I sometimes got a little bored with questions such as ‘Can you use chopsticks?  Can you eat raw fish?  Do you like rice? And so on.  Japanese men will even ask these questions to a foreign stranger in a public bath.  I mean, would you go up to an Oriental stranger and ask him if he could use a knife and fork, or eat fish and chips? 

 

Let’s say that a certain Welshman went into a public bath when there was nobody else around, took the little washing bucket, reversed it, pushed it down in the water and sat on it.  Eventually, when Japanese came and started asking those questions, the Welshman said ‘Yes, yes, I love Japanese food but it tends to give me gas.  At first the Japanese men were sympathetic, and suggested various folk remedies, that is, until the Welshman lifted one buttock and released all the air in the bucket.  A huge upwelling of air bubbles came to the surface, horrifying all the other bathers who leapt out of the hot water to wash themselves all over again.  Everybody was disgusted, except one old fellow who had been sitting on the edge of the bath, listening and watching.  He spotted the bucket, and let out a huge guffaw of laughter.  Eventually the others joined in.

 

(SB)     While we are on the subject of living in a foreign land, can I ask, were there any times where you suffered any racism?

 

(CWN)     Not really.  However, I recognised that there would be Japanese who would not like or want to associate with foreigners, so I respected that and refused to let it bother me, that is, as long as they didn’t come into my space and shove it in my face.  I think that it was remarkable that a young Brit could travel all over Japan, visiting all kinds of communities just sixteen years after World War Two, and never get anything but kindness, courtesy and incredible hospitality.

 

When I became famous however, there was one extremely racist weirdo who started phoning and faxing all over inventing amazing lies about me being a CIA assassin, practising black magic in my basement, teaching ‘pure’ young Japanese the ‘evil, barbaric, blood-licking habits of the Inuit’ – and so on.  I couldn’t let that go and took him to court.  We nailed his ass to the wall and he had to leave town.  That was really, really an exception.  Mind you, the yakuza bullies are prone to using any kind of insults, but I don’t ever take it as an insult to my race.  After all, I am a Japanese citizen, have published novels and plays which I wrote in Japanese, and am a bona-fide karateka.  If they want to call me an ugly, red-skinned, wrinkled old devil, then fine…sounds like a good description to me.

 

(SB)     Coming back on track again, can you please tell us about the training that you have undergone with Sensei Kanazawa over the years, and tell us what you feel are the most important things he has taught you both technically and philosophically?

 

(CWN)     One of the many things that Kanazawa Sensei taught me that has greatly helped in my life is that you may defeat another man, but never humiliate him.  There is no need to prove or show that you are the winner.  He brings a special dignity to the whole art and way of Karate.

 

C.W.Nicol practicing kata

 

(SB)     Is this also a product of the Japanese culture would you say, as pride is of great significance in Japan – to lose face at the hands of someone who humiliates you?

 

(CWN)     I think you find this kind of pride in most cultures, but it can manifest itself in different ways.  In Japan, as in Arab cultures, showing the bottom of your foot or using a foot or footwear to attack can be a hideous insult.  The mountain people in Ethiopia could be really insulted by a friendly slap on the back.  I do think that being in Japan has made me more reticent about initiating any kind of body contact with Japanese that I do not know.  Japanese manners, mixed with my British upbringing (standing up when a lady or somebody older comes in the room, taking off your hat to address somebody, etc. etc.) were a great asset with the very proud mountain Amhara warriors of the Simien in Ethiopia. 

 

(SB)     Sensei Kanazawa places much emphasis on the breath in karate, not only for efficient karate, but also for health and meditation. In your own karate, do you put significance on the breathing, and what were the most important things Sensei Kanazawa taught you about breathing for karate, and health?

 

(CWN)     It was not Kanazawa Sensei, but a doctor friend from the National Police Hospital in Tokyo who told me that if you were to spread out the entire surface area of an adult human’s lungs, it would cover a tennis court.  That is a very sensitive and reactive area, obviously.  In our daily modern life we typically use only a fraction of this lung surface area.  Deep breathing in a natural forest is especially therapeutic, and can stabilize blood pressure, increase the body’s immunity system and reduce stress.  Many systems, yoga for example, promote this.

 

What I did learn from Kanazawa Sensei were the practical methods of deep breathing, as in the kata we do.  He was very wise to stress this to his students, and of course we have talked about it.

 

I personally would hope to see a lot more training done in unpolluted natural surroundings, where the deep breathing would really have good effects.

 

(SB)     In our correspondence in the setting up of this interview, you mentioned Sensei Taiji Kase – who is sadly no longer with us. Can you please tell us about him as you said he was one of your favourite instructors from the old hombu dojo in Yotsuya. Would you please recall some of your experiences with him as you said ‘He was a young man, in the navy, when the war ended, and had that special and unique navy way about him, all steel, but ever ready to throw out a line or lend a hand to anybody floundering.’

 

(CWN)     Sensei Taiji Kase was a special teacher and friend to my other dear friend, Stan Schmidt.  I only knew him in the dojo or at Karate drinking parties.  He was impressed when I told him that my father was a navy man (who in fact fought the Japanese in the Java Sea in the Second World War).  He was the one who first told me of the long lasting good relationship that the old Imperial Navy had with the Royal Navy, during and long after the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.  Kase-sensei was very, very strong and had superb control, not only of his Karate techniques, but also of the hearts and minds of the people around him.  A lot later, after I had gone to live in the old whaling village of Taiji for a year, in order to research a historical novel (Harpoon) I talked to him at an event somewhere and told him that I used to think of him as a bear, but after having lived in Taiji, I figured that he was more than half whale.  Taiji, by the way, was famous for raising big, strong men and very beautiful women.

 

(SB)     What were his classes like when you trained with him, did his karate seem at all different from that being taught by others at the Hombu?

 

(CWN)     I especially remember a class that Kase sensei took with all the new black belts.  He spent an hour doing Heian shodan kata, whacking us, kicking us, tripping us, and more awfully, laughing at us.  He really did make us understand that ‘shodan’ means ‘first step’ and that we were all really a bunch of toddlers.  He just was not about to let any of us feel uppity.

 

On the whole though, he would always step in and help anybody who was really trying.  He was not as scary as Enoeda sensei, but he was a man to be obeyed.  He was a stocky kind of guy, very powerful, and you could feel and sense this, but his Karate, as I saw it, was pure Shotokan.  As I said, all the teachers were unique, but they adhered to the Shotokan way.

 

C.W.Nicol with his teacher Master Hirokazu Kanazawa

 

PART 2 IN THE NEXT EDITION OF TSW