By David Johnston
On Saturday night in April, 1965, I witnessed the most impressive demonstration of karate I’ve ever seen. And it couldn’t have been less specatacular.
It took place at the lower end of the strand, in London. A group of us, seven or eight I think, had earlier met with a quartet of young but already legendary senseis, taken them to a pub, and then a Chinese restaurant. They were Kanazawa, Enoeda and Shirai – all ex-All – Japan Champions, and 5th dan – and Taiji Kase, 6th dan. We were mostly beginners, and had been awaiting the arrival of these super-men for months, our excitement building as Vernon Bell, our first instructor, fed us stories of techniques too fast for the eye to see and uniforms that snapped like rifle shots. Of course, we were proud to be in their company – after all, we were karate-ka too! – and as we strolled around Soho, Kanazawa had to warn us not to swagger. “Walk naturally” he said gently.
After dinner, of course, another pub. Then, as we drifted South from Soho, we split into smaller groups, which casually formed and reformed throughout the evening, I remember passing the National Gallery with Shirai, who asked in excellent English about the French Impressionist collection there. I was naively impressed that he was so well-informed. Continuing across Trafalgar Square, we reached the Strand and that’s where I found myself alone with Kase.
The streets had been getting crowded. I realized that it was after 11:00pm – closing time (in those days British life revolved around the rituals of Opening and Closing times) – and the patrons of many pubs were spilling out through the open doors, along with the mingled sounds from many jukeboxes. I do remember after all these years that the Stones’ song “Satisfaction” – ‘I can’t get no girl reaction…’ – came through loud and clear at one point. Sensei was relaxed and smiling, talking about his family, which he said he missed. In his dark suit, white shirt and maroon tie he looked like just another Japanese businessman, comfortably rounded, not obviously athletic. But then I saw his face change.
A bunch of Irishmen had been shouting at us, unintelligibly but obviously aggressively. I guess that they had something against the Japanese, as many did in those days. At first, Sensei ignored them, continuing to walk and to smile; I, meanwhile, was getting quite excited. These drunken fools were messing with perhaps the most dangerous man currently in Europe. (These were the heady days of early ‘007’ and my imagination was no doubt colored by having seen ‘Dr. No’ quite recently). Boy, was I going to see some action!
Then it was over. It had become impossible for us to walk further because they were now blocking our path. And, as I looked at Sensei, his face, which had been glowing with affability, turned into something like stone. He turned his head slowly, eyes sweeping across each of their faces in turn but not stopping. And they were gone, not running but walking away very, very quickly.
Sensei blinked and his face became as it was. He simply picked up the conversation where he’d left off. He seemed disinclined to talk about what just happened, and I didn’t ask.