Described as “Embodying the spirit of Karate-do”, Eddie Whitcher started training at the dawn of Karate in the United Kingdom. He was the first British subject to earn the grade of 3rd Dan from the Japanese Karate Association (JKA) at their Tokyo headquarters, in 1971. In his book “Shotokan Dawn Vol 2”, Clive Layton describes Whitcher as “probably the finest Shotokan practitioner this country has ever produced”.
Christened Edward Arthur Whitcher , he was born on the 21st of October 1941, in Dagenham, Essex.
Like many karatekas who started training in the mid-50s to early 60s, Whitcher’s introduction to the martial arts came via judo. He had practised judo for two years, reaching green belt level. However following a motorcycle accident he suffered nerve and muscle damage to his shoulder. This made the throwing and grappling aspects of judo difficult for him to perform.
Looking to find an alternative to judo, Whitcher came across Yoseinkan Karate (a version of Shotokan Karate) and started training at Vernon Bell’s Upminister dojo in 1963. His initial lesson left him a little disillusioned, as he spent the entire lesson standing in a forward stance. However, he did not give up and stuck with the training.
The following year saw Bell and his students, including Whitcher, appear in a film by Pathe Pictorial. At the time Whitcher was a Blue belt. In the film, he can be seen performing some basic techniques alongside Bell’s other students.
In 1965 Bell, as head of the British Karate Federation (BKF), arranged for the JKA to visit the UK to demonstrate their brand of Shotokan karate. The party include Shotokan masters Taiji Kase (6th dan), Hirokazu Kanazawa (5th dan), Keinosuke Enoeda (5th dan), and Hiroshi Shirai (5th dan). The party were invited to view a class at the BKF’s London dojo. Whitcher was now a senior grade at the club and by the time of the party’s arrival in the UK, had been training for two years. Kanazawa and Enoeda gave an impromptu lesson, demonstrating some basic techniques. The gathered students had never seen karate performed to such a high standard. Whitcher later recalled he felt like throwing his belt away and starting his training from scratch.
The JKA toured England giving three big demonstrations in London, followed by demonstrations in Blackpool, Manchester and Liverpool. Whitcher was among the students selected to help with the demonstrations. The Karate performances received favourable press coverage and audiences at the events were high. Membership of the BKF increased.
After the JKA tour, Vernon Bell arranged for Hirokazu Kanazawa to stay and teach for the BKF for one year. Students who were fortunate to train with Kanazawa during 1966, credit this period as a time when Shotokan karate improved beyond leaps and bounds. During this time Whitcher earned his 1st kyu grade from Kanazawa.
Whitcher, alongside fellow students Michael Randall, Mike Peachey, Will Mannion, Jack Johnson, Nick and Chris Adamou were playfully known as the Seven Samurai. They had formed a great relationship with Kanazawa through their training. They attended all of his classes and were extremely passionate about their training.
On the 20th of April 1966, Whitcher graded for his black belt and passed, becoming the first British student to achieve this grade from Kanazawa and the JKA.
Much to the dismay of many students, Kanazawa’s contract with the BKF came to an end and was not renewed. Kanazawa had built a fierce and loyal devotion from his students, especially those from the London area. On the 11th of May 1966, he departed the UK for South Africa. The London students felt directionless and wanted to be taught by no one other than Kanazawa.
A meeting was organised by Bell in response to a request from some of the senior BKF members, mainly from the London and Liverpool dojos. The meeting was lively, with a lot of the senior students expressing a wish to continue training with Kanazawa and the JKA. Subsequently, this led to a split in the BKF. The Karate Union of Great Britain (KUGB) was formed, with around two-thirds of the BKF membership moving to the new association.
As the senior grade at the London dojo, Vernon Bell blamed Whitcher for the split. Feeling bitter and betrayed, especially by the JKA, Bell took the remnants of the BKF and severed ties with the JKA, returning back to the Yoseikan style of Shotokan Karate. It should be noted that Bell later acknowledged that the split was not because of disloyalty to him but rather because of the admiration members had for Kanazawa and his method of teaching.
In 1967 Whitcher earned his 2nd Dan from Kanazawa. With encouragement from Kanazawa, Whitcher travelled to Japan to train at the JKA’s headquarters. This was a difficult period for Whitcher. He struggled with the language, food and humidity. He persevered and ended up staying in Japan for a number of years. In that time he attended classes in the JKA’s instructor program. In these classes he was pushed to the limits, training and sparring with some of the best JKA practitioners. This included Masahiko Tanaka, Takeshi Oishi, Masaaki Ueki, Norihiko Lida, Keigo Abe, and Mikio Yahara to name a few. It should also be noted that at this time training was very hard. Non-Japanese were regularly pushed to their limits.
On 23rd May 1971, Eddie Whitcher earned the impressive distinction of becoming the first British man and the second European to receive 3rd dan from Masatoshi Nakayama at the JKA headquarters in Tokyo.
On returning to the United Kingdom, Whitcher established the Kenshinkai Shotokan Karate Club in Dagenham, Essex. The name of the club was given to him by Kanazawa.
In 1979 with Michael Randall, Whitcher set up the English Shotokan Karate Association (ESKA). Both men were joint chief instructors for the association. However, Whitcher left the association two years later to train independently with a few select students.
In 1990, at the young age of 49, Whitcher died from cancer. He was survived by his wife Toshiko and their two children.
Whitcher death at such an early age was an extreme loss to the Shotokan world. It robbed British Karate of one of its most talented practitioners who had much to offer. He was stepped in in the history of British Karate and had tested himself in the hard world of the JKA instructor program. At the time of his death, he had reached the rank of 5th dan. To re-iterate the words of Clive Layton:
….probably the finest Shotokan practitioner this country has ever produced.