Founder Shoshin Nagamine and My 60 Years in Karate – By Frank Baehr

Dear WMKA Members,

At the end of January we had a Zoom meeting celebrating my 60th Anniversary in Karate. I thank all of you who participated in this event, and also those who could not participate in person, but sent congratulatory written or video messages.

However, I must make one thing clear: My anniversary was for 60 years IN KARATE, not only in Matsubayashi-Ryu. Like so many of you, I started with a different Karate style and only later switched to Matsubayashi-Ryu. My first 4-1/2 years in Karate were with Chito-Ryu, under Mr. Tsuruoka Masami, Yondan, a student of Chitose Tsuyoshi Sensei in Kumamoto. I joined his Dojo at the end of January 1961, which was 60 years ago. However, I first started to study Matsubayashi-Ryu on September 16, 1965 in Hawaii. Last September was therefore my 55th anniversary in Matsubayashi-Ryu.

Among the congratulations were a written message from WMKA President Taira and a video message from Vice-President Arakaki. Taira-Sensei asked me to put some of my experiences with O-Sensei Nagamine Shoshin in writing. I am honoured to do that, especially in light of the fact that we had to postpone the celebration scheduled for November 2020.

Many of you know me and my background in Karate. For those who don’t here is a quick summary:

I was born in Berlin, Germany in February of 1939, just a few months before the start of WWII. In December 1956, I immigrated to Canada with my parents and 2 sisters and have lived in Toronto since that time. My start in the Martial Arts was in September of 1959, while I attended the University of Toronto and joined the U of T Judo club, taught by Frank Hatashita, one of Canada’s leading Judo instructors and also an Olympic coach for Canada.

While I was studying Judo, I heard about Karate which seemed more suitable to my (then!) skinny physique (178 cm, 60 kg). In January of 1961 I heard about the opening of a new Karate Dojo by Mr. Masami Tsuruoka. Mr. Tsuruoka was born in Canada, but his family moved back to Japan after WWII and that is where Mr. Tsuruoka grew up and learned his Karate. He later returned to Canada and became one of the prominent pioneers of Karate in Canada. I went to this opening, was immediately captivated by what I saw and joined the new Dojo. I did both arts at the same time for a while, but then realized that you cannot get anywhere if you take 2 different roads at the same time and so I dropped Judo in favour of Karate,

While I was at U of T, I found a copy of Eugen Herrigel’s book “Zen and the Art of Archery” which introduced me to the spiritual side of the Martial Arts and I joined a Zen Temple in Toronto.

I soon realized that studying an Eastern art, while living a Western life, was not the best way and in 1965, I decided to go to the Orient. My initial plan was to go to Kumamoto and to become a student of Dr. Chitose, when I stopped off in Hawaii on my way to Japan, I first encountered Matsubayashi-Ryu, taught by Tomotsugu Morita, 7th Dan, who was at that time Nagamine Sensei’s representative in Hawaii.

Morita Sensei asked me why I wanted to go to Japan and what exactly I was looking for. I explained that I was looking for the cultural and spiritual aspects of Karate and he told me that I would not find that in mainland Japan. He explained that Karate was still relatively young there and the teachers were not yet sufficiently mature. Morita Sensei suggested that I go to Okinawa where Karate was an important part of the history for centuries and there were a number of good teachers. He also recommended that I study Matsubayashi-Ryu with Nagamine-Sensei. His arguments made a lot of sense to me and I agreed. Morita Sensei started to teach me Fukyugata Ichi and Ni. This was my first contact with Matsubayashi-Ryu and it was in September of 1965. When I left Hawaii, Morita-Sensei gave me a letter of recommendation for O-Sensei.

It was not easy for a non-American civilian to get into Okinawa at the time. I had to get special permission from the American military authorities (Okinawa and Guam were their main bases for Vietnam), as well as from the Civil Administration of the Ryukyus. I was finally able to get all necessary papers and traveled by boat from Kagoshima to Naha on October 28, 1965, arriving in Naha 20 hours later at noon on October 29. I booked into the Kokusai Hotel for a couple of nights and then went to the Hombu. There I met Nagamine Takayoshi San, who spoke English. He explained to me that his father had gone to mainland Japan on business and would not be back until Nov. 8, but that I would be welcome to practice at the Hombu until his return. I had my first training at the Hombu at 7 o’clock in the morning on October 30, with Chotoku Omine Sensei teaching. He spoke excellent English since he worked as a darkroom technician at the Naha Air Base. Later he would often act as interpreter between O-Sensei and myself, especially when we discussed more complicated concepts.

When O-Sensei returned, he confirmed that he would accept me as a student at the Hombu. Since I had come there strictly to train in Karate and had no other obligations, I was free to take part in all 4 classes every day (morning, noon, afternoon and evening), as well as training on my own while there were no classes (the Dojo was open 7 am to 10 pm). For the first 2 months, I had an apartment close to the Hombu, but after the New Year Takayoshi Nagamine moved to Japan to study and O-Sensei asked if I wanted to rent his room and live at the Dojo. I gladly accepted his offer and therefore lived at the Hombu for the next 6 months.

O-Sensei, himself, taught the morning classes (7-8:30 during the week and 8-9:30 on Sunday). They were mainly meant for business people before they went to work. O-Sensei preceded the actual class with about 20 minutes of Zazen meditation. He would then have a brief warm up and basics followed by Kata (all 10 basic Kata, every day, regardless of rank) and ended with strength training (various exercises with weights) and a brief cool-down period. His formula for the structure of a class was 20% for warm-up and basics, 60% Kata and 20% for strength and cool-down. Little or no time was spent on “teaching and correction”, you were just expected to follow the class as best as you could. All actual instruction and training in higher Kata was outside the normal class.

The time I spent with O-Sensei, actually living with him in his house, has made a lasting impression on me as a person and I think of him and his teachings every day. It gave me the opportunity to get to know him not only as a Karate Master, but as a human being. I saw him as a husband and father to his family, as a friend and boss to the people he worked with, and in his dealings with anyone coming in from the street to want to talk about Karate or anything else. I came to think of him as my spiritual father, along with my own parents. I was 26 years old at the time and had my 27th Birthday in Okinawa. I think that the middle of your 20’s is the time in your life when you finish growing up and your final character is formed. Therefore O-Sensei had a very strong influence on the rest of my life. In our conversations we found much common ground. Although I came from Canada, I was born and grew up in Germany, and we often found interesting parallels between Japanese and German teachings. I went to Okinawa to get to know the spiritual side of Karate and O-Sensei did his best to teach me in this respect.

Even now, 55years later, much of what we talked about and what he taught me is still fresh in my mind. He strongly believed that Karate and the life outside the Dojo are one and the same. What you learn in the Dojo is applicable to life in general and vice versa. Karate does not stop when you leave the Dojo. You are only one person and not different depending on your activity. This idea strongly influenced O-Sensei’s creation of Matsubayashi-Ryu. Your actions and movements should be natural and not become artificial just because you are now in a Karate class.

Here are some of O-Sensei’s teachings which reflect his approach to Karate and daily life:

  • He told me once that you cannot be a good Karate-ka unless you are first a good human being.
  • Once I asked him for a brief definition of a good Karate-ka. He smiled and said “Kisshu Fushin”, Oni te, hotoke kokoro” (A hand of a demon, a mind of a saint).
  • Another time we talked about priorities in life and he said that the order must always be;      1. Family, 2. Your Work, and 3. Your Karate. You must never change that order.
  • O-Sensei said that you should never depend on Karate for you livelihood, but have other sources of income for support. He said that you should not be a full-time teacher until you retired and had achieved financial independence. Not doing so will pressure you to compromise your beliefs and principles in order to attract and retain students.
  • You cannot be a true Sensei until you have experienced life. You must have experienced most of life’s problems that your students will encounter. Only then can you help them as a true Sensei should. This was the reason why only older, more experienced teachers with at least a Renshi certification were allowed to open their own Dojos in Okinawa. Being in the Dojo full time cuts you off from everyday life and your connection with the outside world.
  • He taught me humility when he said: No matter how high you will eventually get in rank or any titles or words of respect people will use to address you, in your heart you must remember that you will never be a Master of any Martial Art, but only a student, as long as you live.
  • He also said that we are all links in a long chain. There have been Karate-ka before us and there will be Karate-ka after us. Our task is to make our link as strong as possible so that the chain will not break.
  • He also advised how to deal with students: When you correct a student, always find 3 positive points and 2 negative ones. Thus the student is encouraged, but he also understands that he must keep working to improve. I am still applying this idea to myself, as well.
  • O-Sensei’s view on resolving conflicts: It is only a true victory when both of you win. Understand what motivates your opponent to fight and try to find a solution which both of you can accept, only then will the conflict be permanently resolved. This one is applicable to so many situations in daily life and O-Sensei felt that this is the direction that Karate should take, rather than promoting physical conflict. I have applied this successfully at home, at work and to myself and believe very strongly in the importance of this teaching.
  • The most difficult battle you will face in life is the battle against yourself. This is so because you are so clever in deceiving yourself. Compared to that, the battle against an outside opponent is easy. When he told me that, I said that we have the same idea in the West: “To fight against yourself is the hardest of all battles, but to defeat yourself is the noblest of all victories!” He laughed and said that this is exactly what he meant.
  • I asked him why he accepted Western students, when so many other Okinawan teachers would not and there was a general idea in Japan that no Westerner could ever really understand the Martial Arts. He answered that in his opinion the Martial Arts influenced a person at a much deeper level, where cultural veneer no longer mattered and all human beings were the same.
  • The same thought came up again when he told me that you should never judge a person from an initial superficial impression, but that you should always go by what you see in his heart.

These are just a few examples which came to mind as I am writing this. Many others come back to me when I am faced with certain situations. Although O-Sensei passed away in 1997, in my mind he is still very much alive and teaching and guiding me every day. I presume that this is true of most of his students.

Since I had an active part in the English translation of his first book, The Essence of Okinawan Karate, I thought that I should include my thoughts about the book.

In one of our conversations in 1966, I suggested to O-Sensei that he should write a book about his thoughts and understanding of Karate, which were often different and even unique compared to what I had known to that point. He knew that I was writing down my own notes as a reference for my later life in Canada. He pulled out a handwritten manuscript, saying that he had thought about it, but had his misgivings about such a project. He thought that there were not enough people interested in his ideas to make the effort worthwhile. I tried my best to convince him otherwise. However, he also voiced other, more serious objections. He was 58 years old at the time and was hoping to live for many more years. He knew from experience that your ideas and your understanding of the art changes continuously as you progress and publishing a book would “freeze” this process. Also, he noted that a book was a one-way street because it tries to transmit ideas to you, but will not allow a dialog or a verification that the reader actually understood what the author is trying to say.

However, when he came to North America, he brought several copies of a typed manuscript in an early attempt in translating the book into English. He gave copies to me and several others and asked us to polish the translation, correct the vocabulary and grammar, and see if it actually reflected what he was trying to say. I, and the others, came up with our versions and gave them to O-Sensei before he returned to Okinawa. Here, the various ideas would be amalgamated and a final version would be created. Two of my students (Mr. and Mrs. Sampson) were in Okinawa in the early 1970s and helped with that phase.

Historical documents in the West try to convey facts, while such documents in the East try to convey ideas. You have to keep this and O-Sensei’s thoughts in mind when you use the book. Yes, it is the only authoritative document we have detailing our style, but we also tend to get too ‘fussy’ on the details and lose sight of the overall picture. We tend to get hung up on angles, distances, exact hand and foot positions and weight distribution and forget these are are snapshots of an instance in time, taken out of a dynamic, ever changing action. The book is a guide to the sequence of a move or complete Kata, but it cannot teach you the path from ‘A’ to ‘B’. Only an actual teacher can do that. I have seen people who have tried to learn Matsubayashi-Ryu using only the book and the result is unrecognizable.

I have also seen a great increase in activities by lower ranking students to teach seminars and to post videos on the internet. Please keep O-Sensei’s objections to writing a book in mind. You may look at such videos in 10 or 20 years and be horrified at how naive and even wrong you were. We do have an obligation to help lower ranks and to try to teach them, but we must always keep in mind that we are not Masters and may change our outlook in the future as we evolve.

The same goes for students who feel that they have outgrown their teachers and decided to ‘go on their own’. It happens everywhere, including Okinawa. I have taught Matsubashi-Ryu in Canada now for 54 years and many students have left me and started their own Dojo, or even group of Dojos. Looking at their students often shows me how little they actually learned in the years they spent with me. Also, a student often forgets that his own teacher is still learning and evolving. We never outgrow our teachers and the time when they pass on and we no longer have their advice will always come too soon.

There are very few of us left who knew O-Sensei personally and were able to spend an extended period of time with him. This is even truer for non-Okinawan Matsubayashi students. There are many younger people in our group with excellent knowledge and ability to carry on the style. Soke Takayoshi Nagamine and others have done a wonderful job passing on O-Sensei’s style and promoting it outside Okinawa, so that it has become worldwide. There are now plenty of books and videos available to teach techniques. However, it has long been my thought that you cannot truly understand Matsubayashi-Ryu unless you understand the man who created it. What kind of a person was he? What was his view of the world? What were his hopes for the style he created?

Therefore I have spent much time trying to pass on to students and other Matsubayashi friends my experiences, views and memories of O-Sensei, in class, on the internet and in personal seminars. Many students have passed me in physical ability which makes me happy. When I left Okinawa in June of 1966, I promised O-Sensei that I would always try my best to teach what he called ‘true Karate’. I have tried to fulfill that promise, but I still feel obligated to him that I must keep that promise until I die. What he tried to give us is something very special and precious. We owe it to him that we keep working at it and pass it on to the next generations. That is what has been driving me all my life since I left Okinawa.

I have also tried to portray O-Sensei not just as the formal teacher you see in most pictures, but as a very warm and caring human being. He had a great sense of humour and an often surprising insight into the human psyche. It was impossible not to like him.

I went to Okinawa to learn about the culture and history which produced Karate. O-Sensei very much supported that. He gave me letters of introduction to several of the Masters of other styles, notably Yagi Meitoku (Goju-Ryu), Kanei Uechi (Uechi-Ryu) and Shugoro Nakazato (Kobayashi Shorin-Ryu). I was warmly received by all of them and it showed the mutual respect and cordial relationship between all of them, despite their differences in styles and ideas. This was in sharp contrast to Japan, where the various groups and styles fiercely competed with each other, confirming Morita Sensei’s argument for going to Okinawa instead.

O-Sensei also sent me, and sometimes even took me, to various classical theatre and dance performances, and to visit Masters of other arts, e.g. calligraphy, who were his friends or acquaintances.

Since 1965 I have practised and taught only Matsubayashi-Ryu. In one of our last talks before I left Okinawa in June of 1966, O-Sensei told me that I had already been taught most of what there is to know about our style, and there would be no need to look at other styles or martial arts to further my knowledge. However, now the main task would be to study and actually understand what I had learned. He made it clear that this task would take a lifetime. Now, so many years later, I am still working on that.

I am 82 years old now. Why do I keep on practising? Other than some arthritis in various parts of my body and a couple of bouts with cancer, my health has been good and remains so. None of these problems are caused by Karate, but Karate has helped me to overcome them. O-Sensei once told me that he regarded Karate as the best physical activity of all: it needs no special equipment or location; it can be done by anyone, regardless of age or gender or physical condition; it benefits your body and your mind.

O-Sensei was quite unhappy with the direction Karate was taking in Japan and elsewhere. He felt that there was too much emphasis on just the physical fighting and self-defence aspect. He said that it is now the mental, psychological aspect of life that is more important and where most of our current problems and battles occur. A century or more ago, physical danger from attack was commonplace, but it is relatively rare in our present life. Now the predominant problems occur at work, with others, in our families and in our general relationship with the world around us. That is where the principles of Karate (Karate ni sente nashi, etc.) can be successfully applied, but this aspect is largely neglected in modern Dojo. Again and again I found this to be true in my own life.

Again, I thank all of you who joined me on January 30, in person or in spirit. It was O-Sensei’s hope that his Karate would help to bring people from all over the world together in common practise and spirit. I think this has been largely successful and our Zoom meetings with practitioners from many countries and different continents prove that this is so.

I want to close this article with another saying by O-Sensei Shoshin Nagamine which was quoted to me by President Taira in his congratulatory message:

「まだ足らぬ 鍛えこなして あの世まで !  Mada taranu Kitae konashite Anoyo made !」which means “Not enough yet, continue training, to the heaven”.

Best wishes and keep training to the best of your ability. 

Frank Baehr, Kyoshi, 8th Dan, Toronto Canada

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Posted in Matsubayashi-ryu.