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Karate, Japan, Culture And Karma

I watched a brilliant couple of documentaries about life and culture in Japan. One was called “The Art of Japanese Life” presented by Dr James Cox, and the other was called “Guy Does Japan”, about mechanic and motorbike racing champion Guy Martin. Watching the enormous contrast in both style and content of both episodes showed two hugely different views of this fascinating and unique country.

From the fundamentals of Shinto and Zen and their incredible relationship with nature, and the fundamental mysteries of life, and man’s constant yearning to find answers that Shinto suggests can never be found.


The paradox of Japan’s desire to harmonise with nature is at contrast with the often violent relationship with nature, be it earthquakes, hurricanes, or tidal waves, it has co-existed in an ever-changing relationship of respect and danger.


So, just how does that fit in with my own quasi-Japanese world of training in traditional Shotokan Karate? Surely, just a small scratch on the surface of Japanese life. As I get older, although maybe not wiser, I am increasingly drawn into the intrigue of Japan and its uniqueness. One of my regrets is that I did not take that leap of faith and actually visit Japan myself when I had the chance. My own Sensei for 31 years, Cyril Cummins, went and trained at the JKA headquarters in Tokyo. He got a letter from the Boss himself, Sensei Enoeda, verifying his credentials, and off he went. He loved his time there and although he had to fight hard in the dojo which he really enjoyed, he always said that he was glad that he went, as he experienced training in Japan at the Holy Grail, as it were. Funnily enough, until I was diagnosed with cancer, I had not really thought about going myself, and then when it dawned upon me that actually I might not actually get the chance, the shadow of regret snuck upon me. However, there is absolutely no point in ever looking back in life, as it serves no purpose. It got me thinking about all the truly excellent positives that my soon to be 48 years of training have bestowed upon me. My life and character has been forged by my life as a Karateka. It is not just in the dojo that I have benefitted; I truly and genuinely believe that the life lessons that Karate has given me have been instrumental in my ability to cope with life, and more recently the prospect of death.


Not that I want to be negative, because that is simply not who I am, but when I reflect on the fact that cancer almost killed me last year, but did not, and then after surgery and chemo I was told that I had the all-clear in July, only to discover in October that the cancer was back in the bowel in 2 and possibly 3 places. It required some mental adjustment; not just accept the return of the cancer, but to the fact that from now on, I would require treatment for the rest of my life, and frankly tough treatment. But, then you step back a bit, take a deep breath and re-group. First: still alive. Second: an amazing support team of NHS professionals. Thirds: still fit, still training and teaching and still strong. Suddenly that famous Japanese Samurai saying popped back in my head: get knocked down 7 times, get back up again 8. And from what I have learned about living with cancer, the most important and fundamental principle of survival is mental strength; things like courage and fortitude are of course good, but unless you have a strong mental, physical, and emotional regime, it is flawed. And that is exactly where for me training and teaching Karate have been the rock of my determination, even through the bad times and there were plenty of those. I refused to give up and I refused to give in, and to this day I remain resolute in my determination and fortitude, and that for me has been the greatest gift that my life long study of Karate has given me.


No, it may not be Japanese, but to be fair, I am not Japanese; I am a just a man born and bred in this great nation. But I have been physically and mentally enriched from what my life with Karate has given me, and continues to give, to be fair. I do not know how my battle with cancer will end. All that I can do is continue to do what I have learned, and simply keep fighting and follow the precepts of Karate as taught by O. Sensei Funakoshi himself that ring true today as much as they ever did, that ultimately Karate is about perfection of character and trying to be a better person.


A worthy and noble mantra, I believe, and one that I will cherish and hang onto as long as I can.


Domo Arigato


Sensei Austin Birks