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A Death at the Dojo

On the night of January 19, 1979, Jerry Honda was feeling good. He was saying good-by to workout rust. He had, as so many karate students before him, let his foot off the gas after achieving his initial black belt rank. That was understandable. His wife and kids had claims on his attention. His job as a court reporter was demanding. Now added to that, he was thirty-eight years old. Keeping in shape was not as easily achieved as it had been when he was younger. However, faced with a realistic prospect of qualifying for a promotional examination, he had rededicated himself to training. It was paying off. He was, as they say, getting his mojo back.

Friday night workouts at the San Francisco Goju-Kai Karate-Do USA headquarters were often the showcase of something a little “extra.” Only a few people made a habit of attending both that one and the class session on Saturday morning, so for most, Friday represented a chance to cut loose, knowing they wouldn’t have to exert themselves again until Monday evening. Sore muscles? Bruises? No biggie, because of the prospect of recovery time. Grandmaster Gosei Yamaguchi knew this about his pupils’ tendencies, and was known to stoke the fire, cutting back a bit on fundamental drills and kata, and devoting more time toward the end of class to freestyle sparring.

That night, Jerry was paired with a female student. This was somewhat uncommon. Yamaguchi Shihan tended to square off men with men and women with women, not necessarily because of a division-of-genders policy, but because of the disparity in height and in arm strength. Jerry however was a reasonable option to resort to when a female student had no female partner to work with. Jerry was short for a male, but more important, he was friendly and not overly competitive. Those qualities were among the reasons he was well-liked within the club.

Mild-mannered or not, that night Jerry seized the opportunity to show off his improved level of conditioning. He sparred vigorously. His partner found his level of intensity a challenge to cope with. She kicked too tentatively. Three times, Jerry caught her attempts and caused her to flop backward onto the tongue-and-groove hardwood floor.

Yamaguchi Shihan was delighted and amused by Jerry’s enthusiasm. When the bout was done, he let the woman sit down, but had Jerry remain in place. And then he stepped into position as Jerry’s new partner.

Everyone present caught their breath. Now in his mid-forties, observing “distinguished elder” etiquette, Gosei Yamaguchi had reached a point where he seldom demonstrated his sparring ability. Some newer members had never faced off with him even once in all their training. All of them knew, however, and most of them had personally seen, how good he was. Jerry certainly knew it.

Jerry’s heart began to pound. If put in that situation, wouldn’t yours?

His heart pounded. No one yet realized what a problem it was. Jerry had less than a minute to live.

In the meantime, it was an all-smiles occasion. Some observers smiled because there they were, able to partake of one of the rare instances when Yamaguchi Shihan put on a performance. Others smiled out of a spirit of camaraderie, happy for Jerry that he had been chosen for special consideration. Jerry smiled because, well, he was as nervous as a fellow could be.

“Hajime!” The command to begin rang out. The two men slipped into “cat stance” — the standard Goju freestyle posture — and began to circle one another, teacher offering student the chance to initiate the first move, the student hesitating to do so. The were on the brink of physical exchange, but for a final, specific splinter of time, it had yet to happen.

Suddenly Jerry’s nervous grin went slack. He lifted up a hand, palm outward. Some of the witnesses would later say they weren’t sure if he was holding it out to say, “Wait. Something’s wrong,” or if he was waving good-by.

Jerry keeled over. He had suffered so profound a heart attack that he was dead by the time he hit the floor.

Those who knew CPR rushed forward. Others stood by in shock. One person ran to the phone to summon an ambulance.

The dojo was situated only a few blocks from the nearest emergency room. Paramedics arrived within minutes. Attempts at resuscitation continued even as Jerry’s unresponsive form was transported, and in due course staff at the hospital gave it a go as well. A number of students accompanied Yamaguchi Shihan to the facility. At no point did Jerry show signs of life. As a doctor explained to the group, whatever level of exertion or excitement had been involved was immaterial. Jerry’s heart condition — possibly congenital — had been so dire it had simply been “his time to go.” Had he not succumbed when he did, the attack would have occurred within another day or week or month, and who was to say what collateral tragedy might have accompanied it. If he had been at the wheel of a vehicle when it happened, it might have resulted in multiple deaths, perhaps even the deaths of his children. Instead, he had expired without having to suffer through a prolonged episode of dread. He had been surrounded by friends and colleagues. He had been immersed in an activity that mattered to him.

Gosei Yamaguchi was devastated. And not just in the moment, as part of the process of grief. He was existentially affected. He would go on to cancel class on the nineteenth of January through 1982 as a form of memorial. In late 1990, when speaking to a group of us senior students about the dozen-years-gone incident, he lamented, “I simply killed him,” even though, as I described, the bout had ended short of any degree of contact. Amido Hicho, one of the veteran students in attendance that night, reminded the grieving teacher of the exonerating words the ER doctor had spoken. Yamaguchi Shihan refused to be consoled.

If all I wanted to share was an account of a vivid event, I would raise a glass, toast the memory of Gerald Masao Honda (1940-1979), and conclude with no more words than I’ve set down to this point. But Jerry’s death was more than an incident. It was a catalyst. It was one of the junctures that affected the way Yamaguchi Shihan regarded the subject of freestyle sparring, and that in turn has shaped the regimen of several generations of his direct students.

Gosei Yamaguchi’s attitude toward sparring had always been a complicated matter. His father, Gogen Yamaguchi, had been the man who established the element as a required component within formal karate training. Before that, as practiced within small dojos or private backyards on Okinawa, the teaching of karate did not include episodes in class when students would face one another and try out their techniques against one another in a freeform mode, as was done in judo with that art’s randori exchanges. Instead karate practitioners were limited to prearranged, choreographed performances, or were not even partnered at all, but instead given no other option than to develop expertise in the techniques of the artform through kata, drills, and other individual-person exercises. True, outside of class students (or more often groups of students) would issue challenges to one another and would “see how it went.” But that sort of acting-out was unofficial and unsanctioned. What Gogen Yamaguchi did was make freestyle sparring — jiyu kumite — a part of the curriculum, an aspect of karate identity. Gosei, as his eldest son, was required not just to become familiar with that sort of training, but to be masterful at it. The reputation of his family and the reputation of goju-ryu as a leading style of karate depended upon him rising to the occasion.

And indeed, he fulfilled that destiny. First, he did it in the way his father might have. In his late teens, he entered Takushoku University, home of the most elite of karate clubs (especially in that era, the 1950s), and as the lone goju player in a sea of Shotokan practitioners, defended the honor of his father and of his father’s organization. That is to say, whenever called upon to engage in jiyu-kumite, or even to do choreographed matches — yakusoku kumite — he never lost.

His time at Takushoku planted the seed of his ambivalence toward kumite. As he described to me and others at black-belt-only classes at the Collingwood Street headquarters, he “became tired of the blood.” Tired of seeing eyes dangling, knocked from their sockets from impacts to the head. Tired of punching out teeth. When he spoke of that sort of mayhem, he was not speaking figuratively. Departing workouts at Takushoku, he deliberately varied his route home so as to avoid being ambushed by Shotokan colleagues eager to take revenge upon him.

He mentioned one memory that plagued him in particular. His opponent, a higher-ranked player, lifted his leg out of the way of Yamaguchi Shihan’s thrust-kick. Instead, the kick connected with the standing leg, shattering the femur and causing the bone to jut into the air. It was half a year before the poor soul on the receiving end of that was able to put away his crutches.

Eventually Yamaguchi Shihan was rescued from those hellish, extreme-stress circumstances. He thereafter dedicated himself to crafting something more out of kumite than a means to be formidable or uphold honor. His freestyle became something extraordinary. He didn’t need to depend on strength or force of will or speed, he would overwhelm with technique. As it manifested in him and in his performance, kumite was not battle. It was a part of class during which a player could demonstrate the full range of elements. It was art.

That creation, a full-fledged all-the-bells-and-whistles version of freestyle sparring, at full speed and intensity but without undue amounts of mayhem and outside the context of competitive tournaments, is one of his greatest legacies. It goes along with the importance of his work as a karate scholar and as a designer of a teaching program, but with an added excitement that is unmatched by those accomplishments. I am a beneficiary of exposure to, and long training in, that form of expression. I would never be so bold as to call myself a master of it, but I know it well enough to know what an amazing creation it is. I stand in awe of it.

And yet for thirty-five years now, at his headquarters dojo, Gosei Yamaguchi has not included the practice of jiyu-kumite as part of the repertoire. I can’t help but ask myself if that would be the case were it not for the death of Jerry Honda.

I want to be very clear. The setting aside of jiyu-kumite was the result of many factors and happened over a long period of time. The first adjustment took place nearly a decade before Jerry fell to the dojo floor. The ultimate step occurred a decade after his ashes were in the niche. Even in the absence of the tragedy, some version of the process would have happened anyway.

I would contend that the shift began as a result of the 1970 Goju-Kai world championship. Yamaguchi Shihan arrived in Tokyo bringing with him a sterling cadre of tournament contestants, only to be confronted with blatant bias on the part of the judges that ensured the top honors would never go to any of the American players, no matter how good they were, but only to the “home” contenders from Japan. Yamaguchi Shihan was incensed. He saw little point in continuing to groom elite players with the goal of winning trophies. Instead it became his mission to look at each of his students as someone to raise up, not cull out, someone to guide to improvement as measured only by their own personal capabilities and effort, not subject to how much “victory” they could derive from peers.

Among other things, this meant Goju-Kai Karate-Do USA soon was no longer sending contestants to tournaments. And by the time I began training in 1975, Yamaguchi Shihan was no longer allowing examinations for rank to include scores for the sparring segment. I and the other male students had to demonstrate jiyu-kumite, but we did so for exhibition purposes only. The test results — and therefore our new ranks — were based entirely upon the marks we earned in the portions of the examination devoted to basics and kata. This was a policy meant to lessen the glorification of violence and competition, and increase the emphasis upon form, beauty, and precision of technique.

These developments steered Goju-Kai Karate-Do USA away from the popular course, which is to say the path that would have brought it along through the evolution of the martial-arts scene to where it is now, a status where mixed martial arts cage matches fetch in crowds and make celebrities of those with the most impressive win-loss records. And yet it was not necessarily a radical change. Throughout the second half of the 1970s as I climbed through the ranks from raw beginner to black belt, the classes I attended just about always included at least a few minutes of freestyle. Yamaguchi Shihan believed that because karate was an artform based upon combat, it had to include something resembling combat. Hopefully it was something that also embodied artistic expression and certainly it should incorporate control over brutality, but nevertheless would involve a struggle composed of improvised exchanges of strikes, kicks, and blocks. A balance between “too much kumite” and too little seemed to have been reached.

But then Jerry died. Over the next few years, weeks might go by when, aside from black-belt classes, headquarters students did no freestyle at all. At other times they would be called upon to “catch up” and for a few months or so, things would be as before, but the trend was clear. In the summer of 1984, Yamaguchi Shihan declared there would no longer be demonstrations of jiyu-kumite at promotional examinations. It had never been the case for the females being tested; now it was also true of the males. In the summer of 1989, jiyu-kumite was dropped, period.

The explanation was that it was a temporary situation brought about by insurance regulations, and was not to be viewed as an official change in curriculum. Moreover, the subsidiary dojos — assuming their own insurance situations allowed it — did not have to abide by the restrictions. At my club in Sonoma County, led by Don Buck, the senior student of GKKD USA, we continued to do as much jiyu-kumite as ever. But at headquarters, the landlord required coverage of a sort that Yamaguchi Shihan could only afford from an insurer familiar with martial arts clientele. That company insisted that gloves and other protective gear be worn if sparring (be it freestyle or tournament style) was performed. In GKKD USA, the only thing a student wears during kumite is their uniform and belt. Yamaguchi Shihan refused to resort to the use of gear. But neither was he willing to continue as before because he could only have done so by lying to the insurer.

Imagine. He was the foremost authority of a unique aspect of an artform, and he wasn’t actively teaching it. While I know there were many factors contributing to this choice, I see a possible “feather that broke the camel’s back” item on the list. I find it easy to imagine a world in which Jerry Honda did not die while at the dojo, and in that world, Gosei Yamaguchi’s decision process played out differently, and he did not take a thirty-five year break from teaching freestyle.

A final note: At long last, the headquarters — now located in Hayward — has no landlord to issue dictates about insurance coverage. Yamaguchi Shihan has been saying lately he might have his students engage in jiyu-kumite again, and has even spoken of how jiyu-kumite is a part of the Yamaguchi family legacy, and he feels an obligation to acquaint his pupils with it. There are some high-ranking students who, because they began their training after 1989, have never been the recipients of that instruction.

Perhaps it will happen. The man is about to turn eighty-nine years of age, and one would think it’s too late, but he is still leading classes and given modern medical science, who can say what is possible?

 

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