The much anticipated autobiography of John Jarvis has arrived and will find a ready market among karateka of all styles in New Zealand and Australia. Jarvis Sensei is one of the true pioneers of the Asian martial arts in Australasia and the story of his quarter century of full time training is very much the roots of the IOGKFNZ.
John’s writing style is a cross between the wry humour of a Spike Milligan autobiography, and the introspection of the classic account of a westerner’s journey in the Japanese martial arts given by C. W. Nicol’s Moving Zen. We are lead easily through John’s first martial arts training as a private in the NZ Army in the 1950, and later his time in the Canadian Army and a posting in Germany. For readers whose connection, and therefore interest in Jarvis Sensei relate to his role in karate, we have to wait until chapter 4 for his discharge from the army and his involvement in a London self defence club under the instruction of a brown belt in Judo. Lack of progress there prompted John to seek instruction at the London Judo Kai – where he was instead directed to a newly formed karate class. The tempo of training was soon raised with the arrival from Japan of Steve Arniel, and John gives us a fascinating account of the early days of Kyokushinkai in the UK.
With letters of introduction from Arniel, John departed for Japan to start his training in the Kyokushinkaikan under the Korean-born Mas Oyama. Full time karate training was apparently not enough and John also started training in jodo (short staff) and iaido (the art of drawing and cutting with the katana, the Japanese long sword). As one of the very few Westerners to be training under Oyama Sensei, John was often singled out for attention – from the Time Life photos of him meditating under winter waterfalls, to his appearance in early Kyokushinkai training manuals as the black gi-wearing recipient of numerous painful techniques, delivered of course by a Japanese karateka in a white gi. John’s training in Japan concluded with his grading to sandan and his completion of the gruelling 100 man kumite – only the fifth person to do so.
His return to New Zealand marked the establishment of the Rembuden Institute of Martial Arts and Ways, and as well as overseeing this fledgling organisation and the gradual building up of membership in New Zealand and Australia through demonstrations and competitions, John somehow found enough hours in the days to maintain his 15 karate kata, 36 jodo kata, and 24 iaido kata. There is an interesting account of the break up within Kyokushikai with the departure of the organisation’s number 2 Nakamura Sensei to form Seido Karate. By this time John had become concerned at the lack of a “central tree of knowledge” once Oyama had ceased formal training, and particularly by the way the Kyokushinkai kata were being subject to constant change by instructors; this, and the virtual absence of any bunkai (kata applications) practice, meant kata was being reduced to a meaningless dance. Clearly a change was necessary and John resigned from Kyokushinkai in October 1976 and turned his attention to finding a new style.
It is one of the treasures of his book that Jarvis has reproduced the crucial letter of recommendation that started our style in New Zealand. As with so many of the westerners who ventured to Japan to pursue martial arts in the 1960s, John soon came into contact with Donn Draeger, the ex-US Marine who was at one time the foremost Western scholar of the Japanese classical disciplines. In November 1976 Donn Draeger wrote to John: “There is no better one for me than the Okinawan Goju Ryu under Higaonna Morio here in Tokyo. Here is a man who exemplifies the word do: humble, resilient, skilled, friendly, strong, all at the right times. His technique is the best in Japan, and in a real fight I know nobody, including Oyama, who can best him. He is damn tough!”
And later, in May 1977 Draeger provided Jarvis Sensei a letter of introduction and the advice: “He will look out for you I am sure… but he is all business in the dojo… you’ll have no trouble, but be in shape.”
After some intense training under Higaonna Sensei, John graded to sandan and returned to New Zealand to convert the organisation to Okinawan Goju Ryu, and to prepare the members for Sensei Higaonna’s visit, first to New Zealand and then to members in Australia. They were prepared for a thousand-kick warm-up; they got two thousand. One of the Australian instructors wondered “… can you be so sore that you die?”
John is too much of a gentleman to write an exposé of the personalities and politics that seem to bedevil hierarchical organisations such as those in the martial arts. For example, of Chinen Teruo, once the number 2 Goju Ryu Sensei out of Japan, he writes only that he was suspended for trying too hard to be number 1. Nor do we hear much about politics of the New Zealand Okinawan Goju Ryu organisation, where he diplomatically restricts his comments to the effect that as head of the organisation the necessity of dealing with periodic “bushfires” left a bitter taste in his mouth. These, together with health concerns, lead to his decision to cease formal training and to leave the organisation.
Jarvis Sensei’s autobiography is essential reading for anyone wanting to know more about the history of karate in New Zealand. In addition, his insights into aspects such as maai (combative distance), and his discussion of the distinction between bugei (martial arts) and budo (martial ways) are real gems, serving to remind us what we all lost following his decision some twenty years ago to stop karate teaching.
It is a book I will no doubt dip into repeatedly over the years, and will find much to inspire me. I was particularly taken by John’s discussion of kiai, where he quotes a Chinese maxim:
“Civilise your mind but keep your body savage.”
I’d buy that T-shirt.
Kurosaki Killed the Cat (2006) by John Jarvis, Rembuden Publishing, Upper Hutt. Available from Dymocks Booksellers, Wellington; $28.99