Tadanori Nobetsu hands a letter to his karate students every month containing a warning of deteriorating Japanese morality and encouraging them to maintain their discipline. At his dojo, he requires “rei” (civility) and “aisatsu” (greeting.)
“My job is to provide an environment for children to grow healthy, both physically and mentally,” said Nobetsu, the 72-year-old president and chief instructor of Goju-ryu Karatedo Nisseikai in Ageo, Saitama Prefecture. “That’s what this country needs now more than ever.”
Nobetsu, who often travels to the United States, Germany and other countries as an executive of the International Martial Arts Federation, is not happy how little he is helping junior high and high school children, the age group he believes needs mental education the most.
“Their state of mind is very unstable. Spiritual training is important for them,” he said.
Many parents send junior high and high school students to cram schools to prepare for entrance exams, while schools also keep them late for club activities, but Nobetsu said he doubts children develop mental discipline through such activities.
Referring to the suspect in the random killings in Tokyo’s Akihabara district last month, who allegedly held a grudge against society for his misfortunes, Nobetsu said, “He obviously did not have the chance to experience mental discipline at school, with his family and friends. If he had had friends to shed beads of sweat with, he would not have become like that.”
Nobetsu currently has about 400 students, 80 adults and 320 children, at 14 locations in Saitama. Of the kids, more than 90 percent are elementary school pupils or younger.
If he had the chance, Nobetsu would like to teach karate at junior highs and high schools or guide physical education teachers on how to teach karate, but he said most schools currently teach either judo or kendo — which they consider the only martial arts that originated in Japan — and tend to look on karate as unnecessary.
Karate was born in the 17th or 18th centuries in Okinawa, which Nobetsu said was not truly viewed as a part of Japan until the end of World War II. Also, the kanji originally used for the “kara” in karate means China. The character that means emptiness or sky started being used for the word about 100 years ago, he said.
Karate is superior to judo, Nobetsu said, because karate results in symmetrical muscle development and proper breathing. In karate, speed and technique are more important than weight, so it is easier for a 50-kg contestant to defeat a 100-kg opponent than it would be in judo, he added.
While some of his students want to develop their physical strength, others, including Baba Tucker, 25, an American from Olympia, Wash., started learning karate for a spiritual purpose.
His motive for moving to Japan was to learn rei and aisatsu.
“In the U.S., a greeting is casual, like ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ But in Japan, aisatsu means something very important,” Tucker said. “I thought I can’t learn it without experiencing it.”
He came to Japan as an English teacher last year, and a few months later a student told him about Nobetsu and took him to the Nisseikai dojo.
Tucker was drawn in by Nobetsu right away. The American said he wants to be part of a history in which masters pass on to their students what they have learned from their own masters. As the proud master, Nobetsu promised to make Tucker a karate master himself some day.
Regardless of the noble concepts to which Nobetsu now subscribes, he was first attracted to karate at the age of 16 simply because he wanted to beat up bigger guys.
“I was small, but I fought a lot. Back then, high school kids fought when they made eye contact in a train,” Nobetsu said. “The funny thing is that they became good friends after fighting. It was a good time back then.”