For the past week I’ve been vacationing on a beach in Mexico with my family. A vacation meant to relax, which it has been, but I couldn’t stop working out either. With all the food I could eat, a gym and sauna, plus running, it has been pretty awesome. On top of that, I was reading Blue Eyed Samurai: 1000 Days Inside the Lions Den, by Nicholas Pettas. It truly was inspirational and a must read for not only Kyokushin students, but anyone who is interested in what it must be like to live and breath martial arts as a foreigner in Japan.
Nicholas Pettas was the last uchi deshi (live-in student) of Sosai Oyama Masutatsu, the founder of Kyokushinkai. From Denmark, Nicholas made the journey to Japan at the age of 18, to spend three years in the arduous life of an uchi deshi.
You learn first hand what life was like. From the food, the language, the life-style and, mostly, the karate. His journey is a fight for survival on a daily basis. Unlike many 18 year olds, myself included, Nicholas found strength internally and maturity beyond his years. He develops on his own, what are known as the seven virtues of the samurai. Rectitude, Courage, Benevolence, Respect, Honesty, Honour and Loyalty.
This might be in great part to advice given to him by his Shihan from Demark, who had trained in Japan for some time in his youth. He told Nicholas to follow and do as the Japanese do, not the foreigners. The Japanese students tend to dislike the Western students, and the westerns students in turn tend to be disrespectful to their Japanese counterparts. Except for Nicholas, who not only learns their Karate, but also their language and culture, completely immersing and assimilating himself.
While reading the book, you can’t help but fantasize what it would have been like to do what he has done. I think back to my youth and I would have loved to make that journey. I had an opportunity in my youth to go to Boston College of Music for three years, but lacked the courage to go. Perhaps this was because I was a small-town boy from a different country. I don’t know. But I admire Nicholas’ courage to leave his friends and family at such a young age to go halfway around the world, to a country whose language he couldn’t speak, culture he didn’t know, for three years without returning home.
Though I am now in my 40s, returning to martial arts after a long layoff, I found the whole book about a young boy becoming a man inside the Lion’s Den incredibly inspirational. Nicholas was a wise young man and had a natural ability to know right from wrong and what it would take to survive. I learnt a lot myself through his story. In particular about respect, gratitude and humility. He speaks about a saying in Japan that expresses the true meaning of virtue and respect. “The bigger and heavier the rice gets the lower it bends its head to everyone”. The true essence of not only Nicholas’ journey is found in that saying, but of true martial arts.
The young Nicholas teaches us that by controlling our inner desires and temptations through training of the mind and body we can make the changes we desire in the world, but it starts with each of us on a personal level. He says it all boils down to being kind to your fellow humans and hard on yourself. Wise words from this young man.
The book has inspired me to return home to my family, my work and my dojo, to work hard and not allow age to be a factor, but to still accomplish the dreams I had in my youth. To be the best karateka and person I can be. To make a good impact on the world and the people around me.
I can’t recommend this book enough, and it is easy to understand why the last non-Japanese to complete Master Oyama’s course, today, Nicholas Pettas is known in Japan as “The Blue-eyed Samurai”, an acknowledgment of his true Samurai Spirit.