Make your own free website on

The following is reprinted from the April, 1987 issue of Black Belt Magazine



John Richard Derose

 The chipped red paint flaked away beneath the gentle touch of the old man's rough fingertips. He stepped back and closed his eye, remembering the warm summer day when he painted this sign and nailed it to the doorway. The background was red with two large Japanese characters, one above the other, painted in black paint. The upper character was "Kara" meaning "Empty'". The lower character was "Te", meaning, "Hand". Back then his was the only dojo (karate school) in the city.

He opened his eyes and raced 31 years back to the present. The sign was old and warped; the red paint was cracked and peeling. The sign fit the building and his dojo perfectly…tired and worn out. He stepped toward the entrance and allowed his eyes to focus on another sign. This one was new, white on red, made of cardboard, brought in a supermarket and thumb tacked onto the front door: "Out of Business". He felt as if these three words summarized his three decades of teaching karate - out of business, finished, no more.

He opened the door and walked into his dojo. The wooden floor was wearing away from years of being rubbed by a thousand bare feet. One of the corners was covered with an old orange wrestling mat, brought secondhand from a local junior high school, and now cracked, brittle and almost as hard as the floor itself. The rest of his equipment was simple, mostly handmade, worn and weary but still usable. The items hadn't changed much over the years: one heavy bag, one light bag, three makiwara (punching board), two buckets filled with sand and gravel for developing the fingertips, one target glove and a half-dozen sets of wrist and ankle weights. In a far corner was the heart of the dojo - a small shrine decorated with a ceramic Buddha. Above the shrine, hanging on the wall, was his only family heirloom; a not-too-expensive samurai sword handed down from a great, great, great grandfather who was a retainer for the Tokugawa shogunate.

 The old man walked over to the shrine, knelt down, and began to wonder about the life he had made for himself in his small world of sweat and callous. At one time it had meant everything to him; the learning, the teaching, the training, the practice - walking the endless path. For a brief instant, a light seemed to flicker in the old man's eyes and the corners of his mouth curved into a sad smile. He had always liked that ancient analogy - the endless path - and once he even believed it was true, believed that karate would be his "Way" for a lifetime. But now it was over, and he was starting to think it wasn't even worth the journey.

Closing his eyes once again he could almost hear the past, the shuffle of feet, the slapping of canvas. In the beginning, he had dozens of students, eager to learn and dedicated to the art, but as the years passed the students changed; their attitudes manifested a selfishness the old man could not understand. They came and then they went, with ever-increasing frequency, duration of their pupilage becoming shorter and shorter. At first they were lured away by the franchise studios owned by big-name tournament fighters and offering guaranteed promotions. Then came the fascination with more exotic arts like kung fu, kali, and now ninjutsu. Some of his students could not resist the spa-type dojo with saunas, swimming pools and health bars - the most for your money. The old man could offer none of these things; just a simple dojo and a way called karate. He lowered his face into the palms of his hands and hid the moisture in his eyes.


The old man raised his head.

"Mr. Tsutaka?"

He looked around and saw a young man with a rolled-up karate gi (uniform) tucked under his arm, standing in the doorway.

"Mr. Tsutaka?"

"What is it? Tsutaka answered in his orneriest voice. The young man came through the door and partway into the dojo.

"Sir, I was wondering if I might ask…"

"I'm closed," the old man interrupted, "out of business! Read the sign, young man, read the sign!"

The intruder did not move, and it spite of the coarseness of the old man's speech, he continued in a soft and mild voice.

"Sir, I know you're closed down, and I was wondering if I might use your dojo until you rent or sell the building."

The old man said nothing.

"I'm afraid that I can't pay you anything, but maybe I could take care of the place, keep it clean, make a couple of repairs, just until you dispose of the property."

Again, the old man said nothing.

The young man shifted uncomfortably under Tsutaka's gaze, them moved backed toward the door.

"I'm sorry I bothered you, Mr. Tsutaka. I really didn't think you would mind."

"How do you know my name?" the old man asked.

"I came in a few years ago and tried to arrange to take some lessons, but I just couldn't afford it."

Tsutaka stood up and walked across the room, trying top recall the face of the stranger. The young man was tall, muscular, in his early 30's, but not familiar.

"You wish to use the dojo, yet you've had no lessons?"

Again the young man shifted uncomfortably under the gaze of the dojo owner.

"I know a little, Mr. Tsutaka, just a little."

The old man looked at him suspiciously.

"Where have you studied? What is the name of the dojo?"

The young man cleared his voice and answered in almost a whisper.

"The library."

Tsutaka said nothing but looked deeply into the other man's eyes. Then, with a wave of his hand toward the inside of the dojo, he said in an offhanded manner,

"This place means nothing to me anymore. Do whatever you want!"

The young man thanked him and re-entered the dojo. He walked across the room and behind the dressing screen, reappearing in a few minutes wearing an old and worn gi, patched in several places. Around his waist was a tattered belt of dubious color, once white, now stained to a darker black by years of sweat and frictional wear. The old man remembered the stories of how the original masters earned their black belts in this same fashion, the white of the belt eventually turning black from years of constant training. He stepped into the darkness of the doorway and watched.

The young man began with stretching and warm-up exercises. Tsutaka noticed the ease and smoothness of each movement, his body meeting the resistance almost effortlessly. Then the young man turned to the ankle and wrist weights. For the next 45 minutes he moved through dozens of basic techniques, some at full speed, others at a painfully slow, muscle-burning speed. At the end of the weight practice, sweat was pouring from the stranger's body, soaking the old cotton gi. The old man was impressed.

After a few minutes of rest, the young man began practicing kata (forms). Tsutaka recognized the form as a basic and practical exercise known as Heian Number Four. He watched the stranger move through the sequence of the movements, seeing for the first time a serious flaw in the man's training. Learning from books, the young man was unable to acquire the proper speed and timing of the individual parts of the form. He also needed instruction in bunkai (application), misinterpreting movement number 13 as a middle-inside block instead of the actual downward backfist strike.

Without thinking, Tsutaka walked into the room and began correcting the mistakes. His advice was readily accepted by the young man who soaked it up like a sponge. Once the stranger was executing the movements properly, Tsutaka went back to the doorway and watched the young man practice the correct form over and over again until he flowed through it both gracefully and powerfully.

Without rest, the young man started in on the makiwara, his fists pounding with such force that the vibrations could be felt through the floorboards.

"This strength was not developed in a library," Tsutaka interrupted.

The young man stopped and smiled. "I've strapped several empty canvas mailbags around a telephone pole behind my apartment complex. It may not look much like a makiwara but it sure works good."

The old man smiled, thinking about his first homemade striking board of burlap sacks tied around a tree in the yard of his father's home. He watched as the young man moved to the heavy bag, practicing kicks and thrusts. Tsutaka left him to his training and stepped out of the front door.

If only his other students had been this dedicated, he thought, perhaps things might be different today. To them, it was more of a sport than a way of life. They were more interested in trophies and rank than skills. In 31 years, he had only promoted nine students to black belt rank, and none of these had earned it in less than seven years. Maybe this was severe, but Tsutaka believed in excellence and mastery of both the physical and spiritual concepts that developed a person into that special entity called a black belt. In his opinion, the modern student lacked the commitment to follow the endless path, preferring instead quick promotions and easy training. They were quitters who would not stay on the path and believe in the "Way".

The pounding of the heavy bag within the dojo was beginning to hammer an ugly realization into Tsutaka's mind. Was he any different from all of those frivolous students who had come and gone from his martial art so quickly? Was he not leaving his art because of disappoint and lack of achievement? Whether it was one year or 31, the result was the same - abandonment of principle and desertion of belief.

Tsutaka turned and looked through the doorway at the young man practicing with the enthusiasm of youth, and could not remember the first time that money and commercialism had dictated what students he would accept or reject. That attitude was not the "Way". It was not the way his teacher lived or the way he was taught to walk the "Path". Somewhere along the way things had changed; he began to look at karate as a business and not bushido (the way of the warrior). This young man was the true spirit of karate, and now the spirit had returned.

The old man looked at the warped and faded sign next to the door, once again rubbing his rough fingertips over the cracked and flaking red paint. He suddenly felt like he had 31 years ago when he first nailed it by the doorway, full of excitement to live the way of life he had chosen for himself. He felt young again, ready to practice, ready to train, ready to teach. He glanced through the door at the young man inside, a man who had re-taught Tsutaka something he never realized he had forgotten. Lacking proper instruction, this young man had taught himself; lacking equipment, he had made his own; lacking a place to train, he practiced outdoors. The reward of his art was not in final achievement, but rather in the course of a simple continuance toward never-attainable perfection. Tsutaka looked at the young man and saw a fellow student, someone he could help along the "Way", just as the young man had helped him.

The old man looked into his dojo with a new sense of pride and respect. Pulling the cardboard "Out of Business" sign down, crumpling it between his hands, he walked inside. His step was light, his heart was happy. Once again he was following…the endless path.

April, 1987, Black Belt Magazine