Lessons from my Karate Master…


– – – by Jolene Starr

(comments and discussion welcome at starr.jolene@gmail.com)


Hanshi​ Isao Ichikawa,​ a Japanese man who founded Karatedo Doshinkan in the 1960’s, was only about 5’6” tall, but he had a huge presence.​​  ​

When he walked into a room, you  ​did not have to be coached.  You ​​automatically stood up.  ​ ​My first training with him was in June 1980. ​ ​

He died in 1996 when he was in his 60’s, but until death took him away, he  looked vibrant and full of life. His face shone and his skin glowed. I ha​ve​
a picture of him in a hot tub holding a large goblet of beer; he  ​is​  luminous, almost a halo around him. In another picture, taken by a friend of mine in a dark gymnasium without the use of a flash, he fairly radiate​s​  light. I  ​did not​ see him in the last months before his death, but I was told that his eyes still shone like small flashlights and he had an aura of peace and  ​love​.

I ​remember how accepting Hanshi was. He never criticized or judged me. He never even corrected my terrible technique. When I punched, my elbow would fly out, and instead of being calm, I greeted everything with an intensity as though I had to put out a fire in a Romanian orphanage or stamp out communism in five minutes. No, instead of disapproval or  condemnation, he greeted me as though I was a precious child that he wanted to keep close to him because he enjoyed my company so much.
Once, I was seated at his table after dinner along with the trusted black-belts who were his closest aides, drinking beer, talking and joking. I was the only woman at the table, ​a lowly​ brown-belt and I felt uncomfortable in this group of “superiors.” I stood to tell Hanshi good-night before I went up to my room in the hotel. “No, no, sit down,” he said. “Still too much night. Sleep later.” I sat down and ordered another beer. An hour later, I again tried to say good-night. Again, Hanshi coaxed me to stay.The third time I tried to leave, Hanshi turned to the man seated on his right, “Renshi Rick, you move over, Jolene sit here.” Rick dutifully moved over and Hanshi motioned for me to take the seat. This time I stayed until the whole group disbanded.Hanshi’s home base was in Vienna, but twice a year he made visits to the United States. After a training that I attended in Chicago ​ in 1993​, my plane was leaving about an hour before Hanshi’s, so we stopped to pick him up on our way. We were a little tight on time, so I was surprised when instead of immediately getting into the car, Hanshi told us to get out and had the five of us line up across the residential street.Although we were in street clothes, we got into formation as though we were at a training. Hanshi stood in front of us. “​RENSHI ​JOLENE,” he thundered. “GODAN!” I was promoted to fifth-degree black-belt! After accepting brief congratulations, we piled back into the car and proceeded to the airport.

At the airport I was dropped off first, then they drove on to the international terminal so that Hanshi could check in for his flight. I had checked in and was standing in line waiting to go through security, when I saw Hanshi racing toward me, yelling “Jolene, Jolene.” He was out-of-breath. “Oh so happy I found you before you left. I forgot to wish you good journey,” he said, reaching for my hand and shaking it vigorously. “Good journey and ​A​ll the ​Best,” he said, continuing to pump my hand and looking deep into my eyes. Anyone watching would not have realized that we had said good-bye just 30 minutes ago when I had gotten out of the car. Apparently he had not felt that good-bye was adequate.

For the first five years after I began training, whenever I trained with Hanshi, he would have me come up in front of the group to act as his partner to demonstrate for all to see. He never criticized or corrected my posture or my movements; he just showed me how he wanted me to stand and the movement, a punch or a kick, that he wanted me to do.

I realized years later, when I was in my training to become a psychiatrist, that Hanshi gave acceptance and approval through his actions, not necessarily with words. By using me as his partner in front of the whole group, he was in effect saying, “You are good. You are even good enough to be my partner. You are my equal.” During the last few years as I tried valiantly to overcome my depression, I thought often about this lesson I had learned from Hanshi, and it gave me strength to keep going.



I began training with Karatedo Doshinkan in 1980, and each year I trained at least once, sometimes twice, with Hanshi Isao Ichikawa.   In 1985 I attended a week-long training in Geras, Austria.There were nearly 300 people at the training, which was held outside on a soccer field. About an hour into the three-hour morning training, my karate master, Hanshi,  stopped and asked one of the blackbelts to come up. He talked to him briefly. Then Hanshi had the whole group turn toward the back of the field, where a number of people had pitched tents. Camping was a low-cost option for people to participate in the summer training. I had splurged and had a room in the nearby hotel.

Hanshi told us to begin shouting, “Ra-Mon, Ra-Mon, Ra-Mon.” It was the name of one of the Mexican members. After a minute, he had us pause. Our shouting seemed to have had no effect, so Hanshi had us repeat the exercise, almost 300 people shouting in unison, “Ra-Mon, Ra-Mon.” Over and over. Finally, a sleepy-looking man stuck his head out of one of the tents.

“Ra-Mon, come here!” Hanshi roared.

Ramon disappeared into the tent for a minute, then reappeared dressed in his gi. He went up to the front of the group and Hanshi talked to him. Then Ra-Mon begin running laps around the field while Hanshi resumed the karate training with the rest of the group.

I knew I should pay attention to Hanshi’s instruction, but we were doing some fairly basic and routine movements, so I periodically glanced at Ramon running the laps. I especially could not help but look when his path crossed right in front of the group.

Ramon had done about five laps when he stopped almost directly behind Hanshi, untied his black belt, threw it on the ground and began to walk away. I and a couple of other people near me audibly gasped. Hanshi stopped the exercise we were on, and told us to wait. Then he turned, walked over to Ramon and bellowed, “Ra-Mon. . .”

What followed was in German, so I do not know what was said, only that the tone was furious and Hanshi was inches away from Ra-Mon. I involuntarily held my breath and my heart was pounding. I was afraid that Hanshi was going to kill him. If this had been medieval Japan, I’m sure he would have. But that day Hanshi did not touch Ramon except with his angry words.

Later, as we stood in formation for the closing ceremony, Hanshi talked to the group about discipline, respecting our body’s limits, and taking responsibility for ourselves and for our friends. Hanshi had noticed that Ramon was absent, and when a friend told Hanshi the reason for Ramon’s absence, Hanshi was not pleased. Ramon had stayed up late with the group the night before, drinking heavily, and he had not come to class because he was hung over. Hanshi emphasized that whether and how much we drank was our decision, but we needed to respect our bodies’ limits and not let our partying interfere with our responsibility to come to training the next day.

That day Hanshi taught us about discipline, recognizing our own limits and taking responsibility. But what had amazed me the most was Hanshi’s awareness that one person out of a group of nearly 300 was missing.  I had heard tales of his legendary memory for people and names, but this episode convinced me that the tales were truth and not mere myth.

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