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Japan Book Reviews

Moving Zen: One Man's Journey to the Heart of Karate

Author : C.W. Nichol
Publisher: Kodansha International, Ltd.
ISBN: 4-7700-2755-9. First edition, hardback, (2001)
pp. 160

Reviewed by :

Mark Flanigan
Nagasaki Ken Kyouiku Center

"See the enemy! If you practice hard you will develop a mind that is as calm as still water. Karate is moving Zen, and it is the Zen state that you must strive for."

With that stern criticism of his performance, a young Welshman in Japan begins to understand the deeper nature of what he has dedicated two years of his life to achieve. C.W. Nichol, young and hot-tempered, first came to Tokyo in 1962 to study Karate. Speaking virtually no Japanese, he nonetheless dove headfirst into his newfound challenge. Along with countless hours of seemingly endless Kata (forms) and Kumite (free sparring), his demanding instructors imparted upon him various lessons on how to live outside of the Karate dojo. His often-frustrating experiences forced him to confront his own pre-conceived notions, and ultimately led him to a new life of tranquility.

During the course of this engaging and extremely readable book, Nichol expresses his feelings plainly and with candor, as if he were chatting with an old friend. He shares many tales of good and bad times alike, and is refreshingly honest in his even-handed perspective on Japanese life as a foreigner. While clearly enamored of the Japanese people and their fascinating culture, he never glosses over any of the negative experiences he had. His various encounters with culture shock, racism and alienation only made him that much more determined to reach his goals.

As Nichol trains and learns more about Karate and other martial arts, his understanding of the Japanese lifestyle deepens as well. In the dojo, he finds a place to belong. He gains greater insight into the sempai-kohai relationship, and sees just how this vital balance plays out in Japanese social interaction. Using the analogy of a vehicle, Nichol notes that "If the teacher is the driver, and the class the engine, then the sempai are the rods that force the rest of the engine to work."

As the two years pass, his life continues to change in many ways. His once-violent temper remains, but he gradually learns to control it more effectively. His admiration and respect for his Karate instructors grows ever stronger, even as they become more and more severe with his training. He falls in love and marries a young Japanese woman, moving in with her family and enjoying the peaceful life of a small town outside of Tokyo. Most of all, he begins to understand the profound nature of Zen that exists in all of the Japanese arts, and how it comes full circle to include all things, both living and non-living alike.

This moment of understanding comes to him as he waits alongside his fellow students to take the Shodan (1st-degree Black Belt) Test at the dojo. Having trained hard and advanced quickly through the ranks, this moment is the culmination of all his blood, sweat and tears spent learning Karate. As Nichol sits patiently and waits for his name to be called, he feels that he has finally become one with the dojo and all who have passed through it before him. As he relates it, "My personality permeated the walls and floor, mingled with the others. I was a valid, true, inseparable part of the stream of its being. I belonged there, along with the others, and it no longer really mattered if I passed or failed the test this time."

For anyone interested in Karate or other Japanese martial arts, Moving Zen is highly recommended. Indeed, it has already become something of a modern classic. Even more than that, I believe that this eminently readable work provides invaluable insight for foreigners living, studying and working here in Japan. C.W. Nichol, an author, educator, martial artist and long-term resident of Japan, personifies the ideals of international exchange in the global community. By generously offering his personal insights and examples to the reader, he invites us all to move forward and face our own challenges, both great and small. In doing so, we can follow our own paths toward peace and tranquility.

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