Shane Y. Higashi: A Life Lived in Karate

The following is a piece I wrote about my teacher, Shane Higashi – 9th dan, head of the Canadian Chito-Ryu Karate Association –  for the program given out at the celebration of his 50 years of teaching karate, held last April in Toronto.

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To the cheers of 1,500 enthusiastic fans a 24-year-old Torontonian was crowned the new Karate champion of Canada. Shane Higashi, 1st Degree (Shodan), star pupil of Karate master Mas Tsuruoka, kicked and carved a path through some of the best Karateists in North America to capture both the Black Belt and Grand Champion titles during the 2nd Annual Canadian Karate Open Championship held at the YMHA in Toronto last October 19th.

 Some 150 contestants representing clubs from such places as Detroit, Toledo, Ottawa, New Haven, Harrisburg, Peoria, Rochester, Erie, Montreal, Warren, and the United States Karate Association, representing 10 states, sent men from as far as California and Hawaii. Also, for the first time in its history, the United States Marine Corps sent out a Karate team for this meet.

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So opened the Black Belt magazine article, written by Kei Tsumura, describing the second annual Canadian Karate Championships, in 1964. The previous year, Tsuruoka-Sensei’s top pupil, a young brown belt named Shane Higashi, won second place in the tournament, losing only to a third-degree black belt named Gary Alexander.

 And while the young nisei (second-generation Japanese) karateka’s fighting spirit was undeniable, his life lived in the martial arts is more a story of character and dedication than being the toughest guy on the block.

 Shane Yukio Higashi was born the third youngest in a family of 11 on October 14, 1940, in Chemainus, British Columbia. Forcibly removed from their home by the Canadian government during the Second World War, a large part of the Higashis, including Shane, moved to Japan in 1946. A decade later they returned to Canada and settled in Toronto.

If today Higashi-Sensei tends to treat Canadian Chito-ryu karateka as his extended family, it is because family was always at the centre of his life as he grew up in Toronto’s Riverdale district. A friend of the family recalls that if ever one of the four Higashi daughters didn’t have a date for a high school dance, a brother would accompany her instead.

Shane had a growing interest in the martial arts fed by a brother-in-law in Canada who was a fourth dan in judo and a relative in Japan who practised karate. At the age of 21, he began training under Masami Tsuruoka, quickly becoming his star pupil. Within a year, he had earned his shodan in Chito-ryu and was to became the Canadian Karate Open grand champion.

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In his first match, Higashi was pitted against an old foe from the first tourney, Russ Hank, 1st Degree (Shodan), of the Wyndotte Michigan Karate Dojo. 

Higashi attacked with a high flashing Front Kick which fell short. However, a follow-through with Forefist Punch connected to Hank’s breadbasket for an “ippon” (one point). An unexpected Side Thrust Kick delivered by Hank was blocked by Higashi who, then, countered with a punch to score his second point. Higashi’s next opponent Peter Musacchi, First Degree (Shodan), of the U.S. Marine team went down with two lightning-fast roundhouse kicks.

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Higashi-Sensei was apparently a quick study. The next year, in 1965, he received his nidan from Tsuyoshi Chitose, the founder of Chito-ryu

and karate master. This began a lifelong student-teacher relationship that would extend until O-Sensei’s death, in 1984, and beyond, motivating Higashi-Sensei to spread Chito-ryu in Canada and abroad.

Under Tsuruoka-Sensei, he travelled to Atlantic Canada and over the years helped to establish Chito-ryu in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, P.E.I. and Newfoundland.

In 1966 Higashi-Sensei returned to Japan to receive personal instruction from Dr. Chitose. He studied and trained intensively in Japan for seven months, attaining his fourth dan and a special instructor certificate. Two years later, he received his fifth dan from O-Sensei, and then, in 1972, his sixth dan. In 1979, he was awarded Kyoshi-go (elite master instructor licence) as well as his seventh dan. In 1997, Higashi-Sensei received his 8th dan from the son of O-Sensei, the current Chito-ryu Soke.

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In 1963, Higashi-Sensei opened his first dojo, on Danforth Avenue. With his rough-and-tumble tournament background and severe training under Tsuruoka-Sensei, he was a formidable teacher who drove his students relentlessly. One early pupil recalls that on a winter day the class came to the club to find a window had been left open, with snow and ice accumulated on the floor. Higashi-Sensei made his students assume their stances

barefoot in the snow and conducted the class as if everything were normal. In the blood-and-gut days of karate tournament fighting—done bare knuckle without weight divisions and leaving the “light” or “no contact” rule open to interpretation—he produced some of the country’s most successful fighters. He was also never afraid to mix it up with his students himself. Even on the hottest summer days at his job as an architectural draftsman, he always wore long-sleeve shirts because his arms were so battered and bruised from training.

In 1969, as a young boy at Higashi dojo’s second location, on Eglinton Avenue, in Leaside, I recall being worked so hard by Higashi-Sensei that my lips were white and salt-rimmed and my gi soaked with sweat right through to the outside of my belt. As a teenager, I grew long hair, which Higashi-Sensei didn’t like. So one class he had me assume a low shiko-dachi and took up a shinai (a hardwood sword replica) and started whacking me on the legs, trying to exact a promise from me to go to the barber. I kept my mouth shut and eventually he walked away, shaking his head.

Higashi-Sensei was a contradiction. His workouts were gruelling beyond most people’s experience but he was loved as a teacher. The difference is all about attitude. If someone drives you but doesn’t really like you, the workout feels like a sadistic punishment. But Higashi-Sensei, always deeply empathetic to his students (and very cheerful as he punished us), and had a open-door policy, often listening to the problems of his students’ lives and providing sage advice.

Another thing that separated him from typical martial arts teachers was his openness. Rather than being jealous or angry with students who wanted to try other martial arts or schools, he would encourage them to do so. He would tell them that if they preferred the other school, to stick with it. But if they wanted to return to his dojo, they could do that anytime. But please show what they learned at the other school.

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One of the best counter-fighter of the meet, Jean Paul Randeau of the Favreau Karate Club in Montreal was to challenge Higashi. . . . Higashi started off badly by playing right into Randeau’s counter-attacking game, narrowly avoiding an ippon. He wised up fast and before finishing Randeau with ippon kicks to the ribs, he had the Montrealer chasing him.

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In recognition of his hard work and accomplishments, in 1979, Higashi-Sensei was designated as the leading authority in Canada for Chito-ryu karate by O-Sensei. He formed the Canadian Chito-Ryu Karate Do Association to co-ordinate the development of the style. Working with vice-councillor David Akutagawa (1937-2008), Higashi-Sensei not only established Chito-ryu across Canada but helped spread it around the world in places that include Norway, Scotland,  Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

He led the development of Chito-ryu’s first-ever comprehensive technical manual and helped to establish grading criteria that are applied across the country to ensure the overall quality of students. At the same time, he encouraged Canadian students to participate in the National Karate Association tournament system, as well as to run traditional Chito-Ryu tournaments with bogu (protective equipment). Canada would host two Soke Cup tournaments, in Vancouver (1989) and Richmond Hill (1998), drawing Chito-ryu competitors from all over the world.

Over the years, Higashi-Sensei put many other accomplishments under his belt. For example, he officiated at the first Canadian Black Belt Championships in Alberta and has held a number of executive posts within the NKA, working to grow karate in the country. In 1975 he was designated as the leading authority in Canada for kobujutsu (weapon arts) of the Ryukyu Hozonshin Ko Kai (The Society for the Promotion and Preservation of the Ryukyu Classical Martial Arts) by its founder, Inoue-Sensei.

 While Higashi-Sensei is mostly known for his karate, he is equally impressive in his kobudo practice. I recall one demonstration we did in Toronto in the 1970s, with different martial arts groups. When Higashi-Sensei demonstrated his Hamahiga tonfa kata, with such sharp focus that the strikes reverberated through the auditorium, he received the loudest applause of any demonstrator. Back at university, a kendo student I knew said to me, “That’s your teacher? Wow! He was amazing.”

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This was the bout that everyone was waiting for; it would determine the championship of the main division, the Black Belts. Higashi faced a veteran, Sam Pearson, 4th Degree (Yodan) of the U.S. Marine Corps. Pearson with his chop (Shuto) hand high above his head and his spear hand (Nukite) pointed at waist level attacked continually with feints and shouts. Each time Higashi would charge for attack, Pearson kangarooed back fast to an apparent low pre-stance position (Shiko-dachi) and was ready and waiting to counter with a whipping chop slash.

 Suddenly Higashi saw his opening. He attacked. Blunting Pearson’s razor chop (Shuto) with a Rising Block and delivered a devastating groin kick, scoring the first point of the match. The experienced marine fought back vigorously. The telling and final point had to be earned by Higashi. A Downward Block was used to stop a coil-springed Side Kick thrown by Pearson and which struck like a rattlesnake. After dodging a chop aimed at shaving off his ears, Higashi smashed home a scoring punch to Pearson’s solar plexus and captured the Black Belt title.

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After O-Sensei died, in 1984, Higashi-Sensei, as the Canadian Hombucho, continued to spread Chito-ryu karate under the new Soke. In 2008, Higashi-Sensei led the process that would see the CCRKA become an independent association, deciding that it was the best way to

continue to promote O-Sensei’s karate at home and abroad.
Today Higashi-Sensei continues to teach classes morning, noon and night at  Higashi School of Karate on Curlew Drive. Old students from years and even decades past keep popping up on his doorstep to say hello and sometimes even don an old, ill-fitting uniform, so they can sweat once more on the dojo floor.

His karate life has come full circle, connecting again with his original teacher, Masami Tsuruoka. Tsuruoka-Sensei, now a 10th dan, not only taught a class at Higashi dojo but recommended that his first black belt receive his ninth dan. In the fall of 2008, Tsuruoka-Sensei was present as the executive of the CCRKA awarded Higashi-Sensei his red belt and a special certificate, signed by his teacher.

If you listened carefully, you could hear the sound of a kiai echoing through the decades as a young man scores the winning punch of the tournament.

—Peter Giffen
Barrie Ryusei Karate