Passing of the flame: Sensei Tetsuji Nakamura

By: David John Lambert

The successor official successor of IOGKF International, Sensei Tetsuji Nakamura has been entrusted with the responsibility of keeping Okinawa Goju-ryu alive for future generations. A university graduate, he has now become synonymous around the world with the name Goju-ryu on a journey that has been one of hard work and dedication...

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Karate and the Martial Arts of today has become the centre piece of action movies, the corner stone of Saturday night bar & pub viewing thanks to the cage fighting revolution and is something creeping towards becoming an Olympic sport. Living in a modern world such as this makes it hard for many young and aspiring martial artists not to fall prey to the lure of fame and show fighting. But on the island of Okinawa, 300 miles south of mainland Japan, 73 year old Goju-ryu Karate Master, Sensei Morio Higaonna has taken steps to ensure the future and legacy of his true and ancient martial art is not lost within the modern world.

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As one of the of the planets most highly regarded martial arts masters, renowned for his immense knowledge and awesome power, Sensei Higaonna has spread the art of Okinawan Goju-ryu to the four corners of the globe. This was this wish of his own master and the founder of the style before him.  Sensei Higaonna’s work to trace the lineage of his Karate back to the Shaolin temples in China has proven the clear survival of this deadly fighting art throughout the ages. His achievements are many and his reputation legendary. But at the age of 73 years old, Sensei Higaonna has been faced with the challenge of ensuring the art will continue to survive in our rapidly changing and developing world.

While many traditional styles around the world are separating after the death of their senior master and from the political & power struggles following, Master Morio Higaonna has had the humility and the wisdom to not let the same happen to Goju-ryu. The worldwide following he receives through his ‘International Okinawan Goju-ryu Karate-do Federation’ (IOGKF) has always been overwhelming and while he and his style continue to be as strong as ever, he has surprised many with his decision to step back from his position as World Chief Instructor.

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Enter Sensei Tetsuji Nakamura, the man entrusted by Master Higaonna to fulfil a life time’s duty of protecting traditional Goju-ryu and passing it on the next generation. In July 2012, Sensei Higaonna announced to his senior students around the world that he would be passing the flame of Goju-ryu onto Sensei Nakamura – a man who has been one of his closest and loyal students.

At the age of only 47 years old, Sensei Nakamura claims that as he is young he still has a lot to learn as a Karate-ka; demonstrating the kind of humility we have come to expect from his own instructor. He has committed himself to spend the rest of his life to further protect and develop Okinawan Goju-ryu Karate-do.

BEGINNINGS

Sensei Tetsuji Nakamura had no idea that when he began martial arts training at the age of 12, that his journey would become as serious of a life’s pursuit as it has. He was born in Osaka, Japan on April 3rd, 1965 and took up Judo at the age of 12, beginning the practice of Karate in Senior high school at the age of 15. He continued his Judo practice for six years, achieving the level of 2nd Degree Black belt in the art. His commitment to his martial arts training began at an early age, with him training in Judo a minimum of five times per week.

As he entered senior high school he experienced his first introduction of Karate, practicing in a Goju Kai club for three years. Although he admits that his focus was more on Judo at this time, there was obviously a passion and appreciation for Karate that lead to him joining another Karate school upon attending university.

Sensei Nakamura attended Kagawa university and while there began training with another Goju style club. The training was physical, but focused on a lot of free fighting as the club was full of eager young men out to prove themselves on the dojo floor. Sensei Nakamura was one to hold his own and when he told the club instructor that he was heading with some friends to vacation on Okinawa during his university break, his instructor insisted he should get in contact with one his own Sensei’s.

Always the loyal student, upon arriving in Okinawa Sensei Nakamura telephoned a man name Shuichi Aragaki. Unto his knowledge, Sensei Nakamura was calling a Karate Master who was one of only two private students of the Goju-ryu style founder, Bushi Chojun Miyagi, following the devastation of World War II.  Aragaki Sensei was very kind to this young stranger and invited him to his home for dinner.  During the meal, Aragaki Sensei told him about his training with Chojun Miyagi Sensei and what is true karate was all about.   After Nakamura Sensei returned to the main land, he started thinking about Aragaki Sensei’s stories often.  He decided to return to Okinawa and visit Aragaki Sensei one more time to find out more out his Karate from him before he graduated University.

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(Goju-ryu Master Shuichi Aragaki)

Upon returning to Okinawa, Sensei Nakamura contacted Aragaki Sensei and visited with him again.  The Karate master then took the young man and led him to the Uehara dojo in Okinawa. Following introductions, training began. The aging Master asked the young Nakamura Sensei to punch him. Realising the age different, a Sensei Nakamura punched slowly for Master Aragaki who was taken aback. He asked again for the young man to punch him with full power. Sensei Nakamura charged in and quickly found himself on the ground numerous times. He later explained that each of Master Aragaki’s punches landed precisely on vital areas each time and that he felt as if he could have been killed by the Sensei had the choice been made. Training eventually moved on to Kata training. After the Master saw the performance of his Kata he asked him ‘what is this? This is not traditional Karate.’

The meeting ended, but those words continued to echo within Sensei Nakamura’s mind, especially when returning to the university dojo. Later the same year, Sensei Nakamura graduated from university with a law degree and a degree in politics. His had hoped to become was to become a high school teacher, or business man, which had changed from his original choice of wanting to be a policeman in High School. Regardless, Sensei Nakamura had the education and degree’s to enter any occupation that he chose. But with the words of Master Aragaki rolling through his head again and again, he decided he must return to Okinawa.

As you can imagine after achieving such high profile degrees at a university level, his mother was not impressed with his decision to move to Okinawa to practice Karate. With all this sitting upon his young shoulders, Sensei Nakamura still decided to pursue Master Aragaki and called to tell him he was returning to Okinawa.

Arriving at the Masters house, Sensei Aragaki explained to the young man that he did not have time to instruct him. Instead he took the young Sensei Nakamura to the legendary Higaonna Dojo, the Okinawan home of the famous World IOGKF Chief Instructor, Sensei Morio Higaonna.

The World Master was living in America at the time, but Master Aragaki had a plan for the young man. He showed Sensei Nakamura how to use traditional supplementary training tools (Hojo Undo), such as Chishi, Nigiri Game and Kongoken. He told Sensei Nakamura, ‘you must do this every, train hard’.

In the time of Goju-ryu founder, Bushi Chojun Miyagi, a student who applied to the dojo was subjected to several years of Hojo Undo and Sanchin training. If the student had the patience and the focus to survive this ordeal, then he would be taught Kata and more about Goju-ryu. Although this Hojo Undo still holds a large part in the training of a Goju-ryu Karate-ka, it is an old custom that today is no longer set in stone, in an attempt to ensure Karate remained popular. Karate was already popular with Sensei Nakamura and Master Aragaki recognized this to the point where he subjected him to the same ordeal as that of a new student some fifty years before.

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Determined to find true Karate, Sensei Nakamura listened to Sensei Aragaki and practiced hard every day. However, after a few weeks Master Aragaki had not visited the Dojo. Sensei Nakamura would often have dinner at the Masters house on the weekend, Aragaki Sensei gave him lectures about Karate and life, but he visiting to the Dojo was never mentioned. Training continued and the weeks continued to pass, still no Master Aragaki.

It was not until six months had passed, that Master Aragaki had confirmed that Sensei Nakamura had the drive and discipline of a student from the olden days. He went to the Dojo and began to train Sensei Nakamura once or twice per week. First he taught him Sesan Kata, followed by other Goju-ryu Kata; Sesan Kata is Nakamura Sensei’s favourite Kata to date.

Sensei Nakamura continued to train and when Master Higaonna returned to Okinawa in 1991 to visit and train at his Okinawan Dojo, he immediately identified the young man’s ability and training style. When he managed to win the IOGKF World Championships Hard style free sparring (Irikumi Go) and 2nd place in the Kata competition in the same year, Master Higaonna saw the value in Sensei Nakamura and asked him to come to America with him so he could continue his training.

Very nervous, Sensei Nakamura told Master Aragaki of Higaonna Sensei’s invitation and he urged him to go. ‘Higaonna Sensei is the best Master in the world. You should go learn from him.’

MOVE TO THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

So once again, Sensei Nakamura packed up his life for Karate and set off to America to pursue training under his new Master. When first arriving in California, Sensei Nakamura was living with Master Higaonna and his family, becoming an Uchi Deshi (literally a house student). He would train every morning with the Goju-ryu Master in his garage and then again with him in the afternoon and evening at his Dojo in San Marcos – the Institute of Traditional Karate. Class training with Master Higaonna is physical as it, let alone being one on one with him and having no place to hide or leave room for error. The training was gruelling and helped forge Sensei Nakamura into the Karate warrior he would become.

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He was soon promoted to assistant instructor at the San Marcos dojo and spent time assisting Higaonna Sensei’s wife, Alanna, in the IOGKF office, who was administrative director of the International Federation at the time; a role he would one day inherit from her. Sensei Nakamura was also responsible for teaching junior classes and when Higaonna Sensei was away teaching overseas Gasshuku’s he would instruct the senior classes.

As anyone who has had the fortune to train with Master Higaonna knows any session under him drastically improves your Karate in all aspects, Sensei Nakamura has spent years continuously training under the Master and benefiting from his knowledge and traditional methods. This was proven when he again claimed gold at the 1994 IOGKF world championships in the free fighting competition (Irikumi Ju) and Kata. In 1995 his name became well known among the IOGKF and Goju-ryu world as he was direct assistant to Master Higaonna in his legendary video documentary ‘Power Training’.

BACK TO JAPAN

In the same year, Master Higaonna realised the need for mainland Japan to have a strong headquarters and decided he would return to Tokyo to establish the Ryubukan, a Dojo that would become the centrepiece of Goju-ryu in Japan. He asked Sensei Nakamura to accompany him and two moved to Tokyo together...

More on the life and Karate journey of Sensei Tetsuji Nakamura in the December 2012 edition of the International Newsletter

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