By Garry Parker
One Friday evening after training, Takamiyagi Sensei called me to the side; “Pa-ka, ashita… hima aru? (Do you have free time tomorrow?)”
Sure, I told him, excited that I may get extra training on Saturday.
“Jo-to,” he replied.
Sensei then proceeded to tell me that a few people were meeting in Koza near Nakanomachi (Koza’s entertainment district, usually off-limits to foreigners) at 9 p.m. and I was expected to be there. “Don’t drive,” he exclaimed.
Hai Sensei, wakarimasu (I understand).”I wasn’t sure exactly why I received an invitation to go out with my sensei and senpai for the first time, but I was thrilled nonetheless!
I met Sensei at our planned location, and was surprised that it was only Sensei, Naoki (Sensei’s son, and my senpai), and Keida-san – another senpai. We walked past the “gaijin discos” Pyramid, 8-Beat, Apple House, and turned right toward the not very “gaijin friendly” area of Nakanomachi. We were met with scowls, stares, and glares from the middle-aged Okinawan patrons as we all graced the doors of the first establishment. I realized pretty quickly that I was the only foreigner in the place, and that they didn’t welcome “my kind” there.
After Takamiyagi Sensei had a few words with the hostess, we were welcomed, and settled into a table for the evening. In a blink, we were served tsukemono (pickled vegetables), tofu with shaved katsuo (bonita fish), and edamame (soybeans in the pod); this was only seconds before a large bottle of Kumisen Awamori was brought to the table. As the night went on, we talked about karate, life, women… and the Awamori flowed. It seemed that everyone was focused on me; even when I tried to steer the conversation toward someone else, they quickly turned it back to me. Honestly, I didn’t think anything of it; as an American who spoke Japanese, I had become accustomed to being a novelty amongst Okinawans. Eventually, the topic turned to the upcoming promotion test that was scheduled a few weeks from that night.
Sensei asked me if I thought I was ready for shodan.
I laughed it off, and said “No, Sensei. Not for a couple more years.”
Sensei, said, “No, next month.” I thought the Awamori was talking, so I asked him to repeat what he’d just said. He told me again, that I was expected to test for shodan the next month. I laughed again, thinking he was joking!
He looked at me sternly, and said, “Honto dayo (seriously, really).” I began to protest, partly because I knew that I wasn’t ready, and partly because I thought that Sensei was administering some cruel test of my character and intentions. After a few minutes of going back and forth with him, he stopped and lowered his voice: “Pa-ka, why are rejecting my decision to test you? Do you think you know better than me if you’re ready? Do you not trust my judgment?”
I was silent; the entire table went silent, as I slowly processed what I’d just heard. I realized quickly that I had just insulted my teacher by questioning his judgment. As my stomach started to churn and the lump in my throat grew larger, the only words that I could choke out were: “Gomen nasai (I’m sorry), Sensei.”
Naoki had already refilled our glasses. Takamiyagi Sensei lowered his head slightly and peered over his glasses at me and said, “Daijiyoubu Pa-ka. Kanpai! (It’s ok. Cheers!)” We lifted our glasses and finished our conversation and the Awamori.
The next morning, I rose early and contemplated everything that happened the night before; I didn’t understand it all, but I was determined to break the gaijin stereotype, and be the best student I could possibly be.
The next few weeks flew by as I trained harder than ever before in preparation for my upcoming test. On test day, I thought I was going to vomit; I’d never been that nervous about anything in my entire life! I made it through, and was promoted to shodan that day in 1994, and although I was happy to have the ordeal finished, I didn’t feel different at all. Later, as I was speaking to my senpai, Naoki mentioned something that brought extreme clarity to the late-night conversation with Takamiyagi Sensei the previous month in Nakanomachi. “Congratulations, now you work harder, Sensei will be proud of his new shodan!”
That was it? Sensei’s new shodan? So, after all the hard work, gallons of sweat, blood, broken fingers and toes, and bruises, it wasn’t mine. It wasn’t my black belt? No! It was Sensei’s! Then it became clearer. A black belt is certainly a great goal, but every black belt is a reflection of the teacher. While the student works hard to earn the promotion – we would be nothing without our teacher to guide us along the way. So I realized a simple truth; we work hard, we train, and we sacrifice. A symbol of mastering the basics is the black belt promotion for the student, while the teacher is validated with every black belt student as well.
Sensei Garry Parker details his adventures on Okinawa studying traditional karate
in his memoir, Chanpuru. Grab Your Copy Today!
“Since 1990 when Mr. Parker first came to Okinawa… I have watched him learn and grow beyond my expectations and am proud to see Parker become such a fine ambassador for Okinawan Karate.” —Takamiyagi Hiroshi, Okinawa Goshukan-ryu Karate-do
“I want to say how much I loved this book…. I’m recommending this book to any martial artist, not just those who practice karate.” —Jaredd Wilson, Martial Thoughts
“I enjoyed this book very much. The importance of respect, friendship and gratitude in cultivating long lasting relationships… is a message that comes through strongly in Garry Parker’s stories.” —DOJO Bar, Okinawa
“Chanpuru… is a wonderful recounting of a young man’s journey through traditional Okinawan Karate-do.” —Jake Burroughs, The Ground Never Misses
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GREETINGS! Although my experience on OKINAWA is extremely limited (only 2 visits so far), I was quite surprised to read in your blog about the “not very ‘gaijin friendly’ area”….when I was only ever exposed to nothing but the friendliest, most accommodating and courteous people every day and at every location I frequented during my brief stays there. Aside from the stereotypical ‘Anti-American Military’ sentiments, I would not have believed that OKINAWA was capable of being “not very ‘gaijin friendly'”
Hi Edward, I am happy that you experienced the very best of Okinawa’s wonderful culture and friendly people, I loved all the years that I lived there, and for most tourists/visitors that stay on the beaten path, the experience is always positive.
I do hope you take the time to read the entire book, and not just this exerpt.