Steeped in tradition, American karate pioneer Bernard Edwards

PACKING A PUNCH — Bernard Edwards Shihan, right, demonstrates karate at the Japanese American Association of Northern California Bunka (Culture) Hall of Fame induction ceremony earlier this year. A pioneer in American karate, Edwards said he is running the longest-existing martial arts organization on the Bay Area Peninsula.  photo courtesy of the Japanese American Association of Northern California

PACKING A PUNCH — Bernard Edwards Shihan, right, demonstrates karate at the Japanese American Association of Northern California Bunka (Culture) Hall of Fame induction ceremony earlier this year. A pioneer in American karate, Edwards said he is running the longest-existing martial arts organization on the Bay Area Peninsula. photo courtesy of the Japanese American Association of Northern California

Bernard Edwards Shihan (grand-master) has been a lifelong practitioner of karate. A competitive champion in the early part of his life, he won several prestigious tournaments both in Japan and the U.S.

He opened his own school in San Mateo, Calif. to teach Hakua Kai karate, which was the style’s first official school in America. A teacher for 45 years, he currently teaches some 120 students and the 15 dojo affiliated with the U.S. Hakua Kai Karate-Do.

He received a Golden Life Achievement Award in 2010 from the Masters Hall of Fame and more recently was inducted into the Bunka Hall of Fame at the Japanese American Association of Northern California in January.

Studying and Competing in Japan
Edwards was born in Charleston, S.C., the eldest of 10 siblings. He began learning karate while staying with his grandmother in New Haven, Conn., but he began competing while stationed in Japan while serving in the United States Air Force.

While at the U.S. Army Depot in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, Edwards joined the judo club on the base. He told the Nichi Bei Weekly that the club invited Katsushi Iwabuchi to teach the U.S. servicemen karate at the gym, and Edwards became one of his earliest disciples.

Iwabuchi started Nihon Karate Do Hakua Kai shortly after becoming Edwards’ instructor and the American serviceman followed.

While relatively small, the school produced strong competitors. “We had wonderful competitors, kata people, sparring people, we were great in championships,” Edwards told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Edwards became a strong competitor in Japan, earning several honors while studying there. He became the first non-Japanese person to earn a brown belt in Hakua Kai Karate-Do, followed by a black belt. While he acknowledged there were difficulties in finding acceptance as an African American martial artist in Japan, Edwards said they foremost stemmed from him being a foreigner, and after that it was because he was an American. “It was pretty tough to be accepted and also having someone willing to teach you, and Iwabuchi-sensei was that type of person — a very gentle, open, kind man. A lot of karate instructors were not like that,” he said.

Edwards was also the first non-Japanese competitor to participate in the All-Saitama prefectural tournament in 1968. He said it took months for Iwabuchi to negotiate Edwards’ entry. When Edwards was admitted, however, he was targeted by other fighters. “While I was in that tournament, a lot of things happened to me,” he said. “People will, even after the bell rung, they would hit me. They would come in, not to even do karate, but just to do as much damage as they can to me so I wouldn’t be able to go on into the next round.”

He said he faced similar issues in other tournaments, as well, and some outright barred him from entry, but he persevered because he was not only physically strong, but “tough on the inside.”

Teaching in America
Having spent years training and competing in Japan, Edwards was entrusted by Iwabuchi to teach karate in America. “Several people saw me off at the airport, at that time,” he said. “Iwabuchi Sensei said to me in kind of broken English, ‘teach in America.’”

Edwards said there were few karate instructors in Northern California at the time, and he knew he had something to offer with his extensive training and experience living in Japan. He set up his school to continue and honor the lessons Iwabuchi had taught him in Japan.

His first dojo was in Millbrae, Calif., and he said it was tough. After his students began winning and appearing in the papers, however, people took notice. “Being a person of African American background was tough for me, but the thing that I had was knowledge that people didn’t have. It was a thing people couldn’t buy,” he said.

Today, Edwards said he is running the longest-existing martial arts organization on the Peninsula. “All the way down from San Francisco to San Jose. There is no one teaching karate in this traditional fashion as I have been.”

Edwards found his true calling in teaching. “I was producing wonderful students at all levels and all ages,” he said. His students have won gold in national level tournaments and have gone on to represent the United States internationally. “I’m still doing it actually, but not so much on the competitive side.”

According to Edwards, karate has changed since he began studying. Foremost, he said most practitioners, both in America and Japan, are now children. “When I started there were no kids in karate,” he said.

With a new emphasis on children he now focuses on helping his students grow instead of training them for competition.“They learn about frustration. They learn about rejection … I try to help them with their communication skills” he said. Edwards said he wants his program to serve as a basis of discipline for his students when doing other things in life, may it be in sports or academics.

Diane Nishikihama, a parent who has helped at Edwards’ dojo for the past five years, said it was a “welcome sign” to watch Edwards teach.“My son learned patience through his guidance” she said in Japanese during a congratulatory speech to Edwards during the Bunka Hall of Fame induction and praised him for his appreciation of Japanese culture beyond just martial arts.

To learn more about Edwards’ dojo and his organization, visit www.edwardskarateschool.com.

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