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A great martial arts book "Moving Zen"


27 Nov 2003
By C.W. Nicol. An autobiography of an Englishman who traveled to Japan to study Karate in the 1960s. One of my favorite books. Nicol still lives in Japan today and works as a novelist, environmentalist, and karate teacher. I once had the pleasure of modeling for the cover of his novel "Harpoon."

Here are some excerpts from "Moving Zen":

I decided to accept Donn [Drager]'s offer, and took a room in his house, sharing the facilities, responsibilities and rent. I moved my kit bag up from the Kodokan the next day.

Now, this was more as I had imagined living in Japan would be. I had the biggest room. It had no less than ten tatami mats, and three sides of the room were windows, glass on the outside, and then a few inches of space, and then screens of wood and paper. I bought a low Japanese table, a Japanese mattress and quilts. I even bought a tanzen and a silk sash to tie it with. Now, in the evenings, I could retreated into the austere but airy beauty of my room, sip the roasted tea that I came to love, read a book, write a letter, think a thought. The hill was quiet, and the narrow lane that led up past the house was too narrow for any but the crazy kamikaze taxi drivers to drive fast on. The city whispered. It did not roar as it had in the Kodokan. In walking from the station I passed little carp ponds where Japanese men and boys went to pay their money, hire a bamboo rod, line, hook and bait, and then sit elbow to elbow and catch carp and goldfish to take home in plastic bags of water. I passed a few small bars, two coffee shops, a cake shop, greengrocer, fishmonger and butcher. The shop people began to recognize me and to call out the greetings of the day, and as I walked from the station I began to feel, if not at home, then at least in place.


My own background was not pro-Japanese. My deep adolescent interest in things Japanese horrified my family. The British too are an island people, often closed in their thoughts, and they had been soundly and well beaten by the Japanese. Britain, in my youth, still resounded with tales of tortured prisoners, beheadings, jungle railways. Donn showed me a different side of the coin. He had fought in the Pacific war, seen friends die beside him on the beaches of Iwo Jima, faced and killed Japanese under circumstances of hate, and yet here was a man who loved and respected the Japanese, who understood that gentleness was the way of the warrior. Bigotry is left to those people on the fringe.


To be narrow in thought about different arts and different styles was only to foster a weakness. Nakayama sensei, our chief instructor, was certainly not narrow. He had studied many arts, and he had studied in China. Once I asked him if he thought Karate was the best of the unarmed fighting arts. He answered that he thought it was. In that case, I countered, what about Tai Chi Chuan? Nakayama sensei laughed, and with a smile he said, "For human beings, Karate is the best way. But there are some men who are super human, and perhaps a few of the Tai Chi sensei are just that."


Life as a young husband in a Japanese family was a many-faceted jewel. It was as if Japan teased, and then praised me, and thereby, through her mysteries, set deep roots into my heart.

At first neighbors and others persisted in using my wife's Japanese family name, her maiden name, and would never call her "Nicol," which was her married name. I felt anger and annoyance and imagined all sorts of insults in this, but then that faded into a kind of pride when they started to call me, the foreign husband, by Sonako's Japanese name. Why? Perhaps I had fitted into the order of things. Certainly I was greeted like any other man around the village, and when community groups went out with shovels and rakes to fix the road, I was called on to do my bit. I felt at home, but home was all new and exciting as well as being old and comfortable.


The war. It was a subject that figured in many conversations. My father and my uncles had fought in it. Sonako's father had died of starvation in Russian hands, and her uncles had spent their lives and left their bones in jungles here and there in the Pacific and Asia. On both sides of nations ostensibly at peace, wartime propaganda still persisted, tainting opinions and obscuring truth. How often had I read or heard of how cruel and savage the Japanese were, and indeed, only recently I had been reading a book called The Knights of Bushido, very popular and in paperback form, written by Lord Russell of Liverpool, describing and decrying the Japanese atrocities--to quote--"lest we should forget."

And of course, as many Britisher or American, or even Australian will sanctimoniously tell you, our side never did anything like that . . . .


"One of us comes here [to the American bomber plane crash site] everyday, usually Grandmother. [The crew] all died in the explosion, and our house and that house over there were damaged by the blast. We found them"--he made a face--"and we made their grave there." He shrugged his shoulders and added, almost apologetically, "It was the best we could do." I looked around at this simple little garden, sitting now on land which was immensely valuable to the land hungry speculators of greater Tokyo. I nodded, and mumbled thanks, for I did not know what to say.

"What does the character on the stone mean?" I asked my wife.

"Peace," she answered. "They did not know the names of the Americans who died. You know, they did this before the war had finished; the Americans were still our enemies then."
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