By: Sensei Avi Rokah 8th Dan
On November 8, it will be 12 years since the passing of my teacher, Sensei Nishiyama.
He was like a second father to me since we spent most of our days together. Sensei Nishiyama was very pragmatic and a philosopher at same time.
His greatness was that he merged the old wisdom of Okinawa karate, with the old traditions of Japanese Budo (martial arts) and with latest sport science.
In his teaching he was very methodical and scientific, and every detail had a reason and had to work and be part of the whole picture.
His karate was no nonsense, everything was for application, and every detail meant for more efficiency.
Over the years he created a clear system that meant to bring the full mental and physical potential of the karateka.
When I first came to LA at 1981, I expected hard training, but I also expected karate to be spiritual, and I remember that after my first class, it was the Friday noon class, Sensei told me “put white belt on, step by step, understand?”
Only that I did not understand any of that. Sensei “understand” sounded to me like “Zen” and I was walking around all day wondering what words of wisdom did I miss.
Later I realized, that the philosophy that Sensei was taught was in the action, in doing, not in words.
As realistic as he was, he understood that just because we cannot see or prove something it does not mean it is not true, and as much as science proves many karate concepts, there are concepts that we know to be true from experience, and science cannot yet prove.
He taught concepts that were intangible such as “don’t use eyes”, “think by heart, act by ki”, “condense ki energy to body center and than give ki energy from center through contact area”.
Sensei Nishiyama did not spend a lot of time talking philosophy, for him it was through action that one applies philosophy, he summed his philosophy in few words such as “keep trying”, “only dead no come to training”, “always do your best”, “target is self”, “best fight is no fight”.
If someone talked and didn’t do, Sensei would call it “Kuchi Waza” (mouth technique), or he would tell me: “when the body does not move, dreams move”.
He cared about how you bow, because doing it right meant dignity and thanking your partner for being your teacher, being humble, doing it sloppy meant everything you do follows the manners and will be sloppy.
One night he made bow for 15 minutes till he was satisfied. He cared that you always respect your opponent in kumite, and never be sloppy “Karate is fighting with dignity, like a samurai, not like Yakuza”.
He appeared rigid at times, but in a long run he was usually correct, and had reasons, for example one day he came to my dojo, and in the kids class one of the students dropped the belt on the floor.
Sensei Nishiyama was upset at that and kept reminding me of the incident for few months.
At first I did not understand why he was so stubborn about that belt, but later I understood the importance of that.
It is the small details and the way you manage yourself outside of class that will influence how precise and attentive to details you will be in training.
Sometimes after 5 hours training I was exhausted and slouched and he used to sneak behind me in the hallway and hit my back really hard explaining that I must keep good posture all the time.
He said training is only few hours a day, but rest of life is much longer and therefore have much more influence on developing good or bad habits.
When I was sparring it was not the results that mattered to him, sometimes when I felt that I was doing good, he was not pleased at all “don’t do it the convenient way, do it the right way”, and that was one of the great lessons in my life.
Don’t look at the results, but rather did you use the right means to achieve the desired result. It is easy to fall into habits, especially when you are advanced and things work for you the way you do them over a long time, but don’t be satisfied with that.
Keep reflecting on yourself and do not lose the fundamental principles to achieve temporary results.
It is better to lose in the short term and develop in the right direction than to win and create bad habits along the way.
I hear his voice every day in my training, and I actually miss the strictness and the shinai chasing me.
Sensei Nishiyama taught me much more than how to fight and be a technician, but he gave me guidelines of how to live my life according to karate principles. Related: Interview with Sensei Nishiyama
Sensei Avi Rokah 8th dan, is one of our Master Senseis who we invite to the Dojo every year to Grade our High ranking Karate Students and give Seminars. We are very grateful to be able to call him our Sensei. Sensei Rokah is a World Champion in Kumite, the head of the World Budo Karate Association, and has a Dojo in Los Angeles, CA. You can also read more of his Karate Articles on his website.