Master of his art

KICK START: Hiroyuki Kumai is gentleness personified when dealing with children. — Photo: K. Ramesh Babu

KICK START: Hiroyuki Kumai is gentleness personified when dealing with children. — Photo: K. Ramesh Babu  

IN A judo club in Japan, a fresher was asked to close his eyes and go down on his knees. Experts in the art then showered the newcomer, Hiroyuki Kumai, with kicks and blows till he almost collapsed in a ruthlessly rude welcome. If not a foul case of bullying, it was a fallout of the feudal system that had infested the land for centuries.

Taking the Kyoshunkai Karate Black Belt First Dan (degree) exam a few years later, a fresh opponent stepped in every 30 seconds during `kumite' or freestyle sparring. Sixty adversaries later, the only thought that kept Kumai from fainting was that he'd forego his belt if he fell. After 100 contenders had tested his endurance to the limit, he had a price to pay — a dented left shinbone.

A quarter of a century later, Kumai could be one of the foremost spokesmen for non-violence. "Karate is not about physical prowess," he says, "but more about moral integrity." In accordance with this viewpoint, the most advanced stage of training — jiyu kumite — involves little or no physical contact. All skills acquired are employed to penetrate rival defences but all strikes and punches are pulled.

One's attitude to the art is vital. In India, some instructors have more than a soft corner for the pretty women students in their class. Discipline is enforced through fear and `instructors' range from tyrants to megalomaniacs. Power is flaunted through demonstrations, if not posters.

Compare this to the practice of Kumai's teacher in Japan, Yoshikazu Matsushima, who takes up the most menial task of cleaning toilets in the `dojo' (school) himself. Of the remaining chores, the higher the belt, the more degrading will it be, whether it is sweeping or swabbing the floor.

The hierarchy pyramid is thus turned on its head. If humility is the hallmark of discipline, honesty too comes shining through in Matsushima's disciple. "I used to show off when I was young and to be physically strong was my highest aim," Kumai concedes. Now he is quick to pick up the broom and clean the training floor.

His fallibility he makes known now and then, pointing to his right ankle that has been operated upon twice. As a result, to wheel on his right heel and kick, a ploy frequently employed, has become impossible. "My master hates high-handedness," he says, harking back to his master's teaching methods, where increased greatness called for more modesty.

A true teacher should relate to all kinds of students, he recalls Matsushima telling trainers. The six-foot Black Belt IInd Dan is gentleness personified when dealing with children, his kid-glove treatment is as soft as an elderly patriarch's.

Never one to lose his cool when taking classes at the YMCA in Secunderabad, his hawk-like vigil picks up flaws swiftly. For the slow learner, his words cannot be more encouraging. "The longer the time taken to learn, the better the grasp of knowledge gained," he says.

Have the baser instincts overcome him, we ask him and he confesses to one such instance. Teaching physical education to juvenile delinquents back home, he came across a boy who became defiant. His sheer physical power subjugated the youngster although he never resorted to the judo and karate skills he possessed. On introspection, he repented.

The atrocities inflicted by Japanese soldiers during the World War II on its neighbours come back to haunt him. He ponders, "to this day, the Koreans and the Chinese hate us." Admissions of guilt are frequent and as heartfelt as the apologies.

"It is now our responsibility to right the wrongs as much as it is the obligation of rich nations to serve their less fortunate brethren," he suggests in restitution. The choice of India is thus obvious.

Not that his homeland is heaven itself on earth. In addition to teaching at the Tokyo YMCA and its sub-centres, most of his day is taken up in distributing food to the homeless. And what spurred him to such altruism?

Admitted to hospital for the first operation on his ankle 12 years ago, he shared the room with a boy, whose leg was amputated when he was two. And here was Kumai, keen to become more and more strong physically.

Realisation of his selfishness dawned on him. Of what use are rippling muscles and sporting success if they fail to serve society, felt the new karate champion of the Gunma Prefecture. For one who revelled in kumite, Master Matsushima's wisdom now held greater meaning. "Focus on katas," the sage had said of the defensive and offensive combinations of moves performed in a set order.

And how does he discipline himself against the pulls and pressures that threaten to explode in one who is virtually a walking stick of dynamite? Frequent introspection and adherence to the oath administered before each class help him exercise restraint. Members vow never to use force for violence or hate anyone and to respect everyone.

What's the highest plane Karate should aspire to reach? A highly underrated and misused objective — peace.


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