South African karate is regarded and respected internationally for its strong, spirited and dedicated establishment of Traditional Shotokan Karate. We have interviewed several significant members of the South African karate lineage, and I am so excited to bring to you another such interview with Nigel Jackson. Conducted over a period of weeks in 2010 – with updates in 2011 – this interview is a ‘straight down the line’ discussion of some significant points in his long training career.
With vivid and colourful detail, Nigel discusses a wide and varied list of topics, ranging from his time in Japan, his experiences with instructors there, and his more recent direction in the Martial Arts.
May I take this opportunity to thank Nigel for kindly giving me his time and sharing his stories, and also to members of THE SHOTOKAN WAY for providing suggested questions. – Shaun Banfield
QUESTIONS BY THE SHOTOKAN WAY
(Shaun Banfield) Sensei Jackson, please can I start this interview by saying a very big thank you. I know you are very busy man, so I deeply appreciate your contribution…
(Nigel Jackson) You are welcome! I always enjoy discussing my karate-do. I consider it the main reason for the richness of my life.
(SB) Where in South Africa were you born and raised? Could you also tell us a little about your youth and life in SA?
(NJ) I was born in Springs, a gold mining town east of Johannesburg. Soon after my dad returned home from service in the 2nd World War he became a gold miner and realised that the abhorrent political situation presented our family with poor prospects for a good life. He heard about the better prospects available in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) on the Copper Belt, so he moved us to Mufulira, a mining town situated just 10 miles from the Belgian Congo border (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). I was raised, educated and married there.
My early youth as a British colonial child was straight out of a story book. I preferred boxing to scouting. A few of my friends and I defied our parents’ warnings never to venture into the bush because of dangerous animals. As time went by, I became quite skilled in bush craft and survivor techniques and I believe these helped me to cope with the difficulties of the kenshusei training in Japan.
I had some unique experiences as a child. I went on professional crocodile hunting expeditions; I walked in the middle of uncountable herds of wild game on the great wild Kafue River flat lands of Zambia, I trekked into a few African villages in the Congo where White people never went. In our early teens my friends and I regularly swam in the crocodile-infested Kafue River. I still wonder how we escaped an attack. All this and I never contracted malaria or bilharzia [a stagnant water-borne disease].
(SB) So you had a very active life. Would you say you were a natural athlete?
(NJ) I was an average athlete but I always gave100% to the sports I played and I had a strong will to succeed.
(SB) And where did you get your introduction to the Martial Arts?
(NJ) During my teens I realised I needed better fighting skills than my very basic knowledge of judo and boxing. I joined two older guys who were receiving instruction - more like demonstrations - from a man who had just arrived from the neighbouring town of Kitwe to work on our mine. One in our group teamed up with Steve Arneil from Kitwe, the two of them went to Japan to train with Mas Oyama ‘s Kyokushinkai organisation.
Our teacher/demonstrator had worked on Japanese fishing boats that docked in the South African port of Durban, where he had seen some moves from the Japanese sailors. We also learned some moves from a few British expatriates who had been commandos / prisoners of war during the Burma campaign.
I was in my early twenties when I met and married my soul mate, Yvonne. We had a small bundle of money (a lot for two twenty year olds) and a fancy new German sports car. All we needed was to experience life in a big city.
Most of my friends went to the UK where they did menial jobs and worked on construction sites for two years before returning home to work in regular jobs. Yvonne and I didn’t find that appealing, so we moved down south to Johannesburg. We quickly realised our mistake. The colonial system in Zambia was based on social and cultural differences, while the South African system of apartheid was brutal and repressive, like a police state. We could feel the danger and hostility, and Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment and the Sharpeville massacre had created great anger and anguish in the African people. Although Yvonne and I were not politically motivated, we decided to get out of this crazy country and return to our home town, but we were delayed by the imminent birth of our first child.
It was during this unsettling time that I joined Stan Schmidt’s Karate Centre in Johannesburg. He was on his way home after being awarded his Black Belt (Sho dan) in Tokyo. I also learned that a Japanese karate master was about to visit. I had never seen any Japanese person in real life. I began serious training to prepare for the arrival of Keinosuke Enoeda, which coincided with the arrival of my son, Gary.
Arriving late for the class, I observed this Japanese man wearing only gi pants and a black belt performing a series of movements which I later discovered were the first two Tekki kata. I was mesmerized by his coordination, grace and power, and I was sure that I could successfully use a few of those moves in a fight. At that moment I resolved to go to Japan to study under the Japanese.
Yvonne was still in the maternity home when I suggested we return home as soon as our son could travel - she would have agreed to go anywhere as long as we left South Africa. So we planned our adventure: I would work on the Copper Belt and save enough money to finance a year-long stay in Tokyo so I could study the fighting art of karate and Yvonne could study Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging ).
(SB) In today’s current society, making a trip to Japan to pursue a hobby or an interest would seem perhaps of secondary importance over building a home and cementing a life for your family. Did you have concerns about this at the time?
(NJ) No, it didn’t concern us at all. It was the done thing in that part of the world to move on, to experience life in another industry or country for a few years before settling down to a permanent job. Besides we were very young, I had excellent technical qualifications and would have had no trouble finding lucrative employment.
(SB) Before discussing your karate in Japan at length, could you tell us about the karate you practiced prior to the trip?
(NJ) Like everyone else in Southern and Central Africa at that time (1957) we met in back yards and other places with like-minded young guys and practised out of any Karate book that we could find.
We tried breaking rocks and bricks with our bare hands; we punched and kicked sand bags; and we punched at each other in toe to toe stances until we were bruised and bleeding. The only thing we didn’t try was punching a bull on the head. African bulls are much larger and fiercer than Japanese bulls!!
As mentioned before, our small group had a demonstrator who had once done maintenance work on a Japanese vessel in Durban harbour. He showed us what he had picked up from the Japanese crewmen.
Ex 2nd World War commando’s who had been captured by the Japanese forces in Burma also showed us their commando attack techniques and a little that they had picked up from their captors.
Our training did not remotely resemble Japanese karate.
(SB) So in what year did you first travel to Japan?
(NJ) My brief encounter with Enoeda Sensei in Johannesburg and my desire to study karate in Japan, plus the fact that for some reason I felt the need to prove to myself that I could do it on my own, prompted my decision to go to Japan.
Yvonne, baby Gary and I landed in Japan in January 1967 during one of the coldest Japanese winters in decades. Our clothing was inadequate; we had to shop for new clothes in stores unaccustomed to foreigners like us. It was also difficult to purchase food and to navigate the underground railway system. We were the proverbial “jungle bunnies.”
I had written to Mas Oyama about training in Japan. He replied that I would be welcomed at his dojo and that he would delegate members to assist me in settling in Tokyo.
The JKA ignored a similar letter.
In a chance meeting with fate, we repeatedly walked right past the Kyokushinkai dojo, then received directions from our hotel reception to a nearby dojo. We walked straight into the JKA HQ in the Korakoen suburb.
I recognized the type of karate that I had done in Johannesburg and signed up immediately.
Yano Sensei took the new group through the very first of the basic moves. Later, Takagi Sensei summoned me to his office before training began later in the week. He said “You said you are a beginner but we can see you have had experience in basic Karate?”
I said “Well yes I have trained at Karate up to 4th Kyu (Purple Belt)”
“Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” Where was my Kyu Grade certificate? Who did I train with? I blurted out Enoeda’s name. Silence and blank stares came from everyone in the office.
He then said “Enoeda Sensei! He is a very famous instructor! Why didn’t you say so when you joined? Where did you get lessons from Enoeda Sensei?”
I got that sinking feeling; I didn’t reveal my experience with Enoeda Sensei. I didn’t have an introduction letter from him or a Kyu certificate as I was in a hurry to leave SA and didn’t collect them.
I was born in S. Africa, hardly lived there but insisted I was not South African but Zambian. Where was Zambia and if Zambian, why wasn’t I black? “Your grandparents came from Scotland? Then you are Scottish?”
“No, no I am not Scottish, my grandparents were, not me”, followed by more blank stares. And worst answer of all, “Why did you come to Japan?”
I answered “I came to learn your fighting art”
“Why fighting? You had better first learn Karate-do and Kihon first.”
“OK, OK”, I replied.
I got off to a poor start. I sensed, however, that they were impressed by the fact that I had insisted on starting as a beginner in Japan. It took about eight weeks to almost straighten out my confusing answers and for the Japanese to realise that this gaijin (a non-Japanese person) was indeed different to the others who pitched up for a short spell of karate training.
I didn’t claim to have a black belt nor was I a karate champion at home. I didn’t need to be given another black belt quickly while there for only a short period, and had no interest in getting diplomas and medals. All I was interested in was their fighting art classes?
I didn’t move to other more accommodating organisations or dojo like so many other non-Japanese did when they didn’t get their way. The Japanese eventually often referred to me as “the different gaijin”. During those Kyu grade times, many Europeans, Americans, a few British, two French Canadians and other Northern Hemisphere nationals arrived at the JKA in Tokyo to experience karate training. All disliked the unfriendly manner in which they were treated by the Japanese instructors and other JKA officials. Except Takagi Sensei - once he had decided that you were a genuine karate-do student, he would go out of his way to help and be friendly.
As a result, many moved to the nearby Goju ryu dojo of Gogen Yamaguchi and Higgaona where they weren’t treated like aliens and unwanted trespassers. Only the two French Canadians, Eddie Dorey and I kept going at the JKA. We were later joined by the late Horst Handel from Germany and an American, Peter Labassi All of us had our own separate agendas to follow.
(SB) Can you please tell us about your kyu grade training experience in Japan?
(NJ) The morning sessions were physically exhausting and repetitive, the instructors took the class on a rotation basis, usually one instructed and one assisted. They were Ochi, Oishi, Okuda, Abe, Takashina, Yano, the late Takahashi, Majima and Tabata.
Every single day for seven days a week the program was exactly the same: first kihon training, then Heian kata training – practicing only the kata at one’s kyu level - and finally kihon kumite training. We had one short break in between, and drinking water was forbidden
Many of the non-Japanese couldn’t stand the pace and left for home or another Dojo. I recognized the long-term benefits of repetition training and just kept on going. I wasn’t in a hurry to go anywhere and, unlike most foreigners there, I had nothing to prove to my dojo members back home. I was interested only in learning karate in Japan from the Japanese.
In the beginning and for a long time afterwards the instructors did not correct my technique. However, I quickly realised that whichever Japanese was training next to me received a double dose of correction and I understood this to be directed at me, so I then made the necessary adjustments to my technique. It worked to my benefit.
(SB) And how were kyu grade examinations structured?
(NJ) Every three months kyu gradings were held in the Dojo on a Saturday. They were so nerve racking for me as I tended to be hard on myself when it came to karate progress and especially as I wanted to measure my planned progress.
On the grading day the Dojo was divided into three sections with long tables behind which sat the examining sensei. The exam paper was divided into three squares, one for kihon, one for kata and one for kumite. One had to go from one section to the other by following the route of your exam paper.
My 6th kyu exam and my San Dan exam were easily the most difficult in my career. Under the Japanese kyu system you keep your white belt until the 6th kyu exam, a long wait and a big deal to eventually earn the green belt!
We all sat in front of the examining table waiting to be called. When your name was called you had to jump up with a loud “OSS!” in response and immediately take up the yoi position.
Renald Le Bouff, the French Canadian, and I were waiting nervously for our names to be called to present our kata when Nakayama Sensei, the chief instructor, walked over and took a seat at our exam table.
My name was called – I leaped up and did the obligatory response of OSS!!
The next thing Renald Le Bouff was tugging at my Gi pants, urging me to sit down. I had completed my kata in a blank mental state and didn’t remember doing it. I sat down and Renald calmed my nerves by telling me that I did my kata without any mistakes.
Every kyu exam followed the exact same procedure and every exam was nerve-racking for me. The Monday morning after the grading, results were posted at the top of the staircase. Everyone came early to check the list. I never failed a kyu grading exam.
To this day when I officiate at a grading table I feel my nerves rattling as though it is me doing the exam.
I began to enjoy and appreciate jyu kumite practise, but was surprised at how difficult it was to forget the street fighting way and adapt to the more scientific karate jyu kumite methods.
I was progressing. This was confirmed when a well-built 1st kyu Japanese man, who trained in our morning session group and whom I learned had remained a 1st kyu for more than two years by choice, began to have difficulty in getting the better of me in jyu kumite. Eventually I defeated him in every session. I noticed that Okuda looked the other way. My 1st kyu colleague vanished from the session.
The day of the Dan grading examinations drew near. A new experience was a few months away.
(SB) The JKA at that time contained some huge characters. Who in your early time there made a big impact you? Could you elaborate and shed some light on them, and possibly share some memories of them?
(NJ) During the time leading up to my Dan grading I found it difficult to get a good impression because the majority of the instructors would arrive for the morning class, do the instruction, then seclude themselves in their change room until their instructors’ training. A curtain was drawn across the dojo to prevent lower grades still on the floor from observing this class.
Most impressive were the late Takahashi, Ochi, Tabata, Okuda and Oishi, all friendly and good-natured, unlike so many of their surly and aloof colleagues. Takagi and Shoji stood out among the older instructors, Takagi with his helpful, fatherly approach, and Shoji with his impeccable manners and poise. He was exceedingly shy and private but such a fine karate example, actively training while instructing in every instructors class. Nakayama may have started the instructor program but Shoji implemented and managed the tough ordeals given to the kenshusei.
I would position myself on the other side of the curtain, pretending to do stretching exercises, so I could get a view of the instructors’ training area. Ochi, then at his peak, was flexible, fast, powerful and accurate, and had a devastating yet controlled jodan mawashi geri – an uncommon technique in those days – which he executed without any sign of aggression. He was phenomenal.
Tabata was an unusually big and powerful man with beautiful technique, I admired his ability to move his large frame effortlessly in low stances. A shy man, he performed best when he thought nobody was watching.
The late Takahashi, a small, smiling, vibrant man had a leadership aura. He always had time to spare for anyone who approached him in the dojo. Despite his size he was a good fighter and had excellent kata technique. In my opinion, had he not died so young he would have been the natural future leader of the JKA and would have ensured it did not become the narrow-minded disappointment that it ultimately did.
Okuda was my fighting role model, a strong man similar to me in build and height. A friendly, reserved, very controlled person, he had the technique, spirit and presence of a genuine karate man. I considered him to be like a Samurai.
Oishi had not yet reached his prime but already exhibited his legendary speed in jiyu kumite. He must have done judo before karate because he threw many opponents to the floor if they tried to grapple with him. He was a refined person who kept to himself most of the time.
As a kenshusei I got up close and personal to all the JKA instructors and was able to observe their contrasts: inspiring, technically excellent, savage, prejudiced and unpredictable.
Those were the good times!
(SB) One of the big characters that many people talk of from the early JKA is Sensei Yano. Did you ever encounter him, could you tell us about him?
(NJ) Yes, he was an obnoxious man, hostile and angry towards all, irrespective of rank. He did not possess that much karate skill and relied on his enormous physical power to assail his opponents. I could never understand why he was allowed to run amok in the dojo unrestrained or censured by his peers for his boorish, non-budo behaviour.
Amazingly, Yano never caused serious or permanent injury to anyone, but I recall one example of his wild approach. An instructor senior to him scored a few strong mae geri to his ribs. Yano grabbed his senior by the Gi collar and smashed a vicious empi strike to his jaw, breaking it. The injury prevented the senior from training for about six weeks. No action was taken against Yano – perhaps he was well connected in the JKA hierarchy.
Eddie Dorey learned to handle Yano’s charging by assuming a high stance, using his long reach, and placing his large hand on Yano’s head to keep him at a safe distance. This was a comical sight!
I didn’t have Eddies height and bulk and had to use another method to manage him. I perfected tai sabaki techniques to avoid his charging. I used to wait till the last moment, then flick my hips to the side and allow the wild charge to go by. This worked well in my Ni Dan and San Dan periods.
The late Horst Handel of Germany, who later followed me into the kenshusei, perfected the same technique to repel Yano’s liberties.
My lasting memory of Kase Sensei included Yano. Kase visited the JKA once and joined the kenshusei training for a session. He had been away from Japan for a while and wasn’t that young. We lined up against each other for jiyu ippon kumite. After a few attacks, everyone moved one place to the left. We kenshusei could then look up the line and work out who we would be facing. I was relieved to see that I would miss Yano for that session but noticed that he would be facing Kase, who was next to me in the line. Yano charged wildly into Kase. One of the resident seniors ran up and tried to chase Yano away and take his place. Kase calmly told the senior instructor to step back and not to worry.
With every attack, Kase swept Yano off his feet. Shoji, who directed the class, played the game and didn’t order a change in partners for at least four times longer than usual.
In my view Yano was a bully and never practised karate-do. I was pleased to hear recently that he has quit karate and transformed into a cultured, well-mannered Japanese gentleman.