The Chief Instructor (Shihan)

The following account has been taken from Shihan’s The Beginner’s Guide to Shotokan Karate and can be found under the heading ‘One Man’s Journey’, a brief biography of the author’s life – so far. It covers a period of 71 years – his life to date. The 49 years of his association with Karate-do, and the 22 years prior, which undoubtedly had an influence on his life.

This brief biographical chapter should hopefully be of interest to most martial artists but especially those who tread the traditional path. It attempts to portray, how a third generation student of Gichin Funakoshi, in a first generation Western environment, interpreted the master’s philosophy via the teachings of his own instructor – Hirokazu Kanazawa, arguably one of the finest teachers in the world today.

Whether or not John van Weenen would have arrived at the same conclusions naturally through experience and maturity, without the influence of a martial art, is a matter of conjecture. Suffice to say, his forty years as a student and teacher of Karate have left their mark. They changed his thinking considerably and that of many thousands of his students worldwide, and his personal philosophy of helping his fellow man whenever the opportunity arose, has been frequently ‘put to the test’ in recent years.

The transition from ’empty hands’ to ‘helping hands’ has been undertaken. The gulf between aggression and compassion has been bridged, with no inclination to reverse it. As John made very clear: “The last fifteen years have been the most satisfying, rewarding and humbling of my life.To be with people who have virtually nothing, who genuinely offer you what little they do have, has been an enormous privilege.”

So just what happened in the years between 1941 and 2012? To find the answer, it’s necessary to firstly travel back into the past, where we find a teenager in the ‘fifties, struggling to come to terms with an almost hostile environment in a working class area of north London. Endowed with little more than average intelligence, he desperately wanted a way out – a chance to be his own person.

For the young van Weenen, swimming provided the perfect escape hatch. At 12 years of age, he finally overcame his fear of water, and three years later, after countless hours of arduous training, emerged as one of the country’s fastest 100 metre breastroke swimmers. His success, fuelled to some degree by his own single mindedness, was mainly due to the unstinting perseverance of his coach, ‘Tubby’ Edwards, whom to this day, John holds in the highest regard.

Seven years later, in 1963, his interest in martial-arts began to surface after a chance meeting with ‘master bowman’ Jim Hemmings. Walt Disney Productions had just released the epic version of ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ with Richard Todd in the lead role and Jim had been hired to perform all Todd’s ‘difficult’ archery.

The bow he used was an American ‘Pro Hoyt’, equipped with the latest revolutionary stabilisers, and it was with this bow that he taught John the fundamentals of toxophily, coupled with various self-defence techniques he had used whilst working in the film business over many years as a stuntman.

Several months later, John sailed for Australia with his two brothers Garry and Jeff aboard the SS. Iberia. They were amongst the last British migrants to take advantage of the Australian Government’s assisted passage scheme. The cost from Tilbury to Adelaide was by any stretch of the imagination reasonable – just £10.

Voyage to Australia

Had it not been for an unfortunate incident during those early months in South Australia, he may never have started Karate. One evening, the boys were attacked by a gang and severely beaten up. They spent some weeks in the Adelaide General Hospital and it was during this time that John’s mind turned to the possibility of learning Karate, not for the right reasons, but purely to seek revenge on his attackers.

Together with Jeff, he joined a Karate club ran by Moss Hollis, a 3rd Dan who originally hailed from Birmingham. He became so engrossed in Karate training, spending four or five evenings a week in the dojo, he quickly progressed through the grades. Without realising it, the revenge factor had disappeared, and he almost felt a debt of gratitude to those who had attacked him.

Two and a half years later, he was awarded his black belt.

The reoccurring dream that manifested itself most nights centred around his desire to train in Japan, so in August 1966 he wrote to Masutatsu 0yama Sosai at the Kyokushinkai headquarters in lkebukuro, Tokyo. He never expected the reply that arrived a month later, and 0yama Sosai invited John to train as his student at the Honbu (head-quarters) in Tokyo.

Karate training in the 60s

Like most other Karate students at that time, he was in awe of this man. Physically, he was one of the most powerful men in the world, and on countless occasions he had pitted his strength against fully-grown bulls in the arena. Each encounter had been a fight to the death and Oymna Sosai had downed the animals with one mighty knife-hand strike. Today this would be unacceptable in many countries, but 45 years ago, attitudes were very different.

In October 1966, John returned to the UK with his two brothers aboard the SS Northern Star. En-route, they visited New Zealand, Raratonga, Tahiti, Mexico and Curacao before arriving at Southampton. Two months later he, Masutatsu 0yama Sosai, opened the Enfield School of Karate, and was besieged by countless people wanting to learn of this new and fascinating martial art.

Although a great temptation to stay in England and ‘spread the word’, John left for Japan on August 10th, 1967. Two colleagues, Eddie Whitcher and Mike Peachey, joined him for the trip across Europe and Russia by train to the far eastern Russian city of Chabarovsk. From there the journey took them to the port of Nachodka followed by a two-day sea voyage to Yokohama. Within two days they had found accommodation and registered with the ‘Japan Karate Association’ (JKA) to begin training in the morning sessions. Six months later he left the JKA and boarded the Shinkanzen (bullet train) on its long run to Kyoto, Nara and then on to Himeji in southern Honshu. It was here he stayed for some time, and lived amongst the local people.

Karate Training in Russia

The Route to Japan

Eventually, he left Japan and visited the Hawaiian Islands to see the world surfing championships. Two weeks later, he arrived in Los Angeles, and so began another memorable time in his life walking 3,000 miles across North America to New York and with only $11 in his pocket.

Fortunately, a ticket to London was waiting for him in New York City and the following month, John began his career as a professional Karate teacher. In the 44 years since, he has taught literally thousands of people, from all walks of life, and indeed many of today’s senior instructors began their Karate life in one of his dojos.

Since the early ‘sixties, his life has appeared to run along two parallel tracks. The emergence of Karate as a dominant influence with its associated physical, psychological and philosophical connotations became more evenly balanced with the passing of time. This was due to a strong compassionate desire to help the underdog or those less fortunate, which gradually assumed greater and greater importance.

In Australia, he worked for the Good Neighbour Council, a voluntary organisation where he assisted in the rehabilitation of British migrants and dealing with many of the problems associated with settling in a new environment. Throughout the eighties he organised a number of successful fund-raising swimming events, the proceeds of which benefited Bedfordshire’s mentally handicapped children.

About this time, he read Karate-do Kyohan by Gichin Funakoshi. In the chapter entitled maxims for the trainee, two particular lines leapt out at him. “Make benevolence your lifelong duty. This surely is an important mission. It is a lifelong effort, truly a long journey. “During the next 10 years those two lines would change his life beyond recognition.

In 1990, after discovering that his old friend Eddie Whitcher had been diagnosed as having terminal cancer, John decided to raise much needed funds, with the help of his students, for the Research Unit at the Royal London Hospital. One year later, he handed the unit’s director, Professor Norman Williams, a cheque for £158,000.

A few months later, in September 1991, Bill Hamilton’s harrowing report from Albania appeared on British television screens. It depicted orphaned children, for years neglected by the state and locked behind bars in isolation.

One particular child Jessica Nexhipi, who sadly died of malnutrition aged five months, weighing one pound less than when she was born, had such an effect on John, he departed for Albania immediately.

John takes up the story in his own words: “Time and time again I have been asked the question – why Albania? Some people have been quick to make the point that there are numerous worthwhile causes here in Great Britain that need supporting, a fact which I totally agree with. After all they add, ‘shouldn’t charity begin at home?’

Ironically, when I first learned of Albania’s plight, like most British people, I had no idea where the country was. I assumed it could be found in the Middle East or perhaps even further afield. When I finally discovered just how close it was to the United Kingdom, it was indeed difficult to comprehend.

How was it possible for a country in 1991, within the confines of Europe, to be so incredibly poor? Was it conceivable that a Third World State could exist so close to the affluence of Greece and on the very doorstep of Italy?

At that time I knew, nothing of its history and the previous 47 years, when the restrictive bonds of communism had virtually strangled the lifeblood out of the Albanian nation. I was totally ignorant of the hardship and the torture inflicted by the ‘Sigurimi’- Albania’s secret police. I knew nothing of the atrocities, and the ordeal of political prisoners, destined to spend years in confinement for doing little more than verbally opposing the regime.

That was soon to change and a film clip lasting 2.8 seconds on BBC television would be the catalyst for the forming of Task Force Albania. Within four months, the largest single convoy of humanitarian aid since World War II would leave Britain for Albania, and in the years ahead, many would follow in its wake.

Seven years later, as 1998 dawned, he had led 31 relief missions and safely delivered an estimated £7 million of humanitarian aid to northern and central Albania. Undeniably, many owe their lives to his determination and persistence often against all odds.

One of his most rewarding experiences was in bringing three Albanian doctors to London to develop their skills at some of London’s top teaching hospitals. A few months later he arranged for an ophthalmological team to visit Tirana to perform sight-saving operations on 20 orphaned children.

Transporting the children from the northern town of Shkodra to Tirana brought more than its fair share of problems. Belligerent local council officials refused to allow the orphans to leave. Many thought these abandoned children did not warrant such special treatment. After all, there were countless normal children who were far more deserving.

As the word spread that the English doctors had arrived, 300 people queued outside the hospital for help on the morning of the operations. News of the English doctors’ visit had been circulated on their ‘bush telegraph’ and every single person waiting was seen and examined.

With the need for humanitarian aid receding, John turned his thoughts in the direction of development. An idea was formulating in the back of his mind to create a British Children’s Library Network. As 1999 dawned, the first library in Albania’s capital city Tirana was nearing completion. The inauguration was to take place in April but as the threat of war in neighbouring Kosovo became a reality, all plans to open the library had to be put on the back burner.

By June, a cessation of hostilities had taken place and John followed NATO troops into Kosovo to help the returning Kosovar Albanians. In the months that followed, he spent much of his time distributing aid to the 60,000 refugees in the Macedonian camps of Chagrane, Senekos and Neprostene.

In November 1999, Earl Spencer opened the British Children’s Library of Tirana, and the building was dedicated to the memory of his sister, Diana, Princess of Wales, who had hoped to visit Albania before her tragic car accident. 50,000 English books lined the shelves and the poorest children of the city could avail themselves of computer classes and English language courses.

Four months earlier as John was teaching Karate at his Flitwick dojo in Bedfordshire, a rather familiar looking man carrying a large red book surprised him. It was of course Michael Aspel from the BBC’s ‘This is Your Life’. To his delight, many of John’s Albanian friends had been flown over especially for the show and the final guest was former President, Professor Dr Sali Berisha. John was thrilled to see everyone, especially Terry O’Neill and Bob Poynton who had travelled from Liverpool to be in London that night.

In 1993, Albania bestowed upon him the order of Mother Teresa, the country’s highest civilian honour, which he accepted on behalf of all Karateka, and in 1999, he was awarded the MBE in the New Year’s Honours list for services to the children of Albania.

It’s a strange fate that conspired to allow John van Weenen to exchange the martial ways of Karate for the more gentler pursuit of benevolence. Ultimately, his story is inspirational and worth telling if only for one aspect alone. It reaffirms the importance of the individual and reminds us, as we enter the new millennium, that one ordinary person, and in this case, a Karate-ka, can still make a difference.

To see “A One Man’s Journey” on This Is Your Life, please watch the video of the BBC television programme.