By: Hidetaka Nishiyama
The Art of “Empty Hand” Fighting
By Hidetaka Nishiyama and Richard C. Brown
(Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1959, 71/4”x101/4”, 252 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
The first paragraph of the forward to Karate: The Art of “Empty Hand” Fighting reads:
“It became apparent a few years ago that the growing interest which many foreigners, both in Japan and abroad, had begun to show in karate was more than a superficial attraction to the exotic. Since there was virtually nothing available in English, we realized that there was now a real need for a thorough introduction to karate in all its aspects, with specific instruction in learning and practicing individual techniques.”
This paragraph, which contains the nut of the subsequent tree, might sound boastful regarding both the “virtually nothing” aspect and the “learning and practicing individual techniques” aspect, and I've taken other authors to task for making such boasts. But in this case, it's not a boast but simple fact. This was, indeed, one of the earliest English-language books on karate, being copyrighted in Japan in 1959, though it wasn’t published until the following year. And its characterization of itself as presenting “a thorough introduction to karate in all its aspect” also is accurate. I’m assuming that the year span between the initial copyright and the first publication was occupied by producing this handsome volume filled with excellent instruction and photos.
In fact, I probably could end the review right here by saying that this is a fine introduction to karate written by a true expert—Nishiyama—and someone who could handle the English language with some skill—Brown. But there’s no fun in that, so let’s take a deeper look.
Hidetaka Nishiyama was born in Tokyo in 1928. At the time, karate was not well known in Japan, and Nishiyama’s earliest martial arts experiences were with Judo and Kendo. By age ten, he was a judo black belt. His expertise in Kendo kept pace, and he eventually reached 3rd Dan in that art. He also began training in Shotokan Karate under its founder, the famed Gichin Funakoshi. An Okinawan, Funakoshi was largely instrumental in bringing karate to Japan and is widely considered to be the the father of modern karate. At Nishiyama’s death in 2008, he was the last surviving karateka to have studied directly under Funakoshi.
Following World War II, Nishiyama entered college, where he became captain of the karate team and, more importantly, helped establish the Japan Karate Association (JKA). He also co-founded the All Japan Collegiate Karate Union. After graduation, he began working for Shell Oil, but karate kept knocking at his door, and he left to take charge of the JKA’s instructor training program.
A few years later saw him teaching karate to U.S. military personnel from the Strategic Air Command and the publication of the book presently under consideration, which is now widely recognized as a seminal textbook on karate. He subsequently moved to the United States and founded the All American Karate Federation. In 1968, he organized the first World Invitational Karate Tournament. He also co-founded the Pan American Karate Union and served on its board and the boards of several other important karate associations.
I could go on and on with Nishiyama’s accolades and achievements because they go on and on. If you want more detail, check out the Wikipedia page devoted to him. But what is most important is that his skill level continued to rise unabated until he was undoubtedly one of the most superior martial artists in the world. A 9th Dan when he died, he was posthumously named 10th Dan—an honor he had refused in life, saying that accepting it would mean he had reached the pinnacle of the art, leaving him nothing else to learn. Karate: The Art of “Empty Hand” Fighting was his first book, and he produced the Traditional Karate Coach’s Manual in 1989. He also published in and was featured by Black Belt Magazine.
There isn’t much information on Nishiyama’s co-author, Richard C. Brown. The book’s dust jacket says only that he was an American member of the JKA. There was a career U.S. diplomat named Richard C. Brown, who served, among many other posts, as ambassador to Uruguay during the George H. W. Bush administration. But the exceedingly brief bio of Brown on Wikipedia gives no clue except that he was about ten years younger than Nishiyama. It is possible that the diplomat was Nishiyama’s student. Certainly the prose of the text is of excellent quality, as one would expect from a diplomat. But all that is supposition.
What isn’t supposition is this book’s superior quality, as recognized above by its notability as a seminal text on the art of karate. In structure, it conforms to the basis layout of most martial arts instructional literature, but being a seminal text, the authors aren’t just aping their predecessors. Instead, they are helping create the mold that such books would follow into the future.
The authors lead off with a definition of karate that takes into account the meaning of its name and its basic purpose as an art. Notably, the authors say, much—if not most—of this purpose is character building. They go into some of the aspects of what character building means and entails before moving on to a short history of the development of the martial arts. The earlier eras of this history conform to the standard story of Bodhidharma—here called Daruma Taishi—bringing Buddhism and the earliest seeds of the martial arts from India to China—specifically, to the Shaolin monastery. Like many karateka who relate martial arts history, the authors consistently refer to Shaolin or kung fu as kempo. From Chinese Shaolin and kung fu, the history quickly moves on to the creation of modern karate by Funakoshi Gichin and a somewhat detailed account of the development of karate in the twentieth century. It’s valuable to remember that Nishiyama was right there while all this was happening—and right at the top.
The next chapter covers essential principles, which theauthors break into two categories. The physical principles are maximum strength, concentration of strength, utilizing reaction-force, and use of breath control. The psychological principles are a mind like water, a mind like the moon, and unity of mind and will. I’ll let the authors tell you what they mean by each of these. They then discuss how the two principles can achieve synthesis via the mechanisms of focus and response.
In preparation to present the instructional material, the authors provide a chapter on the organization of karate techniques. The basic organization is into two main categories: blocks and counterattacks. In addition, there are three ancillary categories: throwing, joint locks, and techniques not covered by the other categories. Each of these is further broken down into six subcategories: hand techniques, foot techniques, stance, posture, body shifting, and other techniques. Then guess what? Each of these is further broken down into further sub-subcategories. All of this makes the learning very systematized, but the authors accompany their verbal descriptions with several complex charts that essentially show that everything flows from and is interconnected to each other. These charts are well intentioned, but essentially, they are pointless and, out of everything in this otherwise excellent book, are easily the least effective transmitter of information.
Details of the JKA training system come next, showing exactly what you are to practice, how long you are to practice it, and when you are to practice it—even down to the specific day of specific weeks. But recognizing that the reader of the book doesn’t have access to JKA instructors, the authors have structured the book to act as a surrogate instructor by organizing the instructional material is a logical sequence of instruction whose program is clearly laid out, leading with warm-up exercises. Then come five pages of hand forms (fists, beaks, etc.) and one page of the striking parts of the leg and foot. A two-page chart of vital points is next. There aren’t a lot of points shown, but they are accompanied by a legend that indicates the types of strikes that can effectively be applied to each.
Stance and posture training are next, followed by ways to shift weight and walk. Hand techniques comes next, about half of which are variations on punching, with the other half being divided among backfists, knife- and ridge-hand techniques, and elbow strikes. The section on blocking features lots of blocks, all of which are of the hard variety. Kicking winds up the basic instruction in techniques.
A chapter on techniques in combination sets the stage for two-person training, but before that plays out, there is a long section training in katas. The good instructions are accompanied by good photos—often showing sequences, not just static single postures. There also are useful foot-stepping charts to help you properly orient yourself. The solo katas are shown in a sequence of photos across the top of the page, and the instructional text is spread across the center of the page. Below that is another series of photos showing a person using that particular section of the kata in a self-defense situation against an opponent. This gives the reader a tangible sense of what the movements of the kata are intended to accomplish.
Sparring is the subject of the next chapter, which consists mostly of sequences of attack and defense, usually showing several possible responses to specific attacks. The chapter winds up with a list of the JKA’s rules and regulations regarding sparring in the dojo as well as on the competition mat.
A chapter on throwing completes this section of the book. However, the brevity of this chapter—only four pages as opposed to the fifty expended on hand techniques and the more than twenty on foot techniques—shows that Shotokan’s best-fitting suit is in the striking department.
The next thirty-five pages are filled with attack/defense scenarios in which specific techniques are demonstrated against an attacker. The last few of these are defenses against a pistol threat. I’m not really buying many of these. In one, the defender uses a side kick to jolt to shooter’s forearm. Sure. Most of the other scenarios show ways in which the defender most likely would receive a bullet wound instead of achieve victory. This is really the only weak section in this chapter.
This ends the major text, though an appendix on karate equipment and its use appears right before a glossary and an index. As a final note, I want to mention this book’s cover. The shot on the dust jacket is a dramatic one of Nishiyama executing a high-flying side kick. But underneath the jacket is a nice and very durable hard binding covered in rough burlap that is embossed with the title. The dust jacket of my copy is in tatters, but that burlap binding ought to withstand a lot of punishment. Newer editions are paperbound.
This is a really excellent book, as one would expect considering the background of the main author, Hidetaka Nishiyama. Informative, instructive, and well written and produced, it should be on the bookshelf of any karateka of any style. Its instructional material is clearly laid out, and the text is on solid footing. Other plusses are its acknowledgement of the psychological and spiritual aspects of the martial arts and its discussion on the use of the will. I’ve read some other good karate books (and some I’ve taken serious issue with), but none surpass this one.