Spotlight: Henri Plee – The Father of European Karate

Considered the double “Father of European Karate”, Henri Plee is a true pioneer. He studied many martial arts with some of the world’s top masters. He held a 10th Dan in Karate, a 5th Dan in Judo, a 3rd Dan in Aikido and a 1st Dan in Kendo. He made it his mission to promote martial arts in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He did this partly through the various books and magazines he published and by inviting many renowned masters to conduct courses and seminars.

Henri Plee was born on the 24 May 1923 in the French city of Arras. He was the only son of Alcide Plee, a noted sword master, and Raymonde Bastien.

In 1940 Plee’s studies were interrupted by World War II. He and his family had to flee the Southern French city of Toulouse to avoid the German invasion of France.

Following the end of the war in 1945, the play family returned to Paris. Around this time Henri Plee started practising Judo at the dojo of Mikonosuken Kawaishi. A gifted student, Plee progressed through the ranks quickly. He would eventually be awarded a 5th Dan in Judo.

In 1948 Plee started publishing Judo International at his own expense. The book contained a list of Judo clubs found in France and the rest of the world. It also contained the name of 3000 practising Judoka.

The October 27 edition of Life Magazine, published in 1948, featured an article on Karate. The article had a picture showing black belts he Hiroshi Kamata and Gojuro Harada, both from Wasada University, engaged in a sparring session. It is thought it was this article that led to his interest in Karate. He acquired some Japanese textbooks on Karate. He had them translated and for the next couple of years used them to practice alone.

On 23 January 1949 Plee was graded to his Judo 1st Dan under Kawaishi. He became the 16th Judoka to attain this rank in France.

Plee started publishing several magazines in 1950, which were some of the first French magazines on martial arts. The first of these was Budo Magazine Europe which was published in both French and English. The other was Judo Kodokan which was the translation of the Japanese magazine Kodokan Tokyo.

In 1951 Minoru Mochizuki, a student of Jigaro Kano (Judo) and Morihei Ueisheba (Aikido) arrived in France. He had founded his Yoseikan dojo in Shizuoka, Japan in the 1930s. At the dojo he taught all the arts he had learnt. Between 1951-1953 he travelled around France teaching Judo Aikido. It was around this time that he encountered Jim Alchiek, who would go on to become a pioneer of Aikido and Karate in France.

Plee was graded to 2nd Dan In Judo under Kawaishi on 6 July 1952.

Plee met martial arts historian Donn Draeger in 1953. Draeger who was living in Japan sent him a 15 minute 42 second film showing Shotokan Karate training. The film featured Isao Obata and Masatoshi Nakayama, two students of Gichin Funakoshi. The following year Plee wrote the first book in Karate to be published in Europe. The book, Vaincre Ou Mourir: Karate-do (vanquish or die : Karate-Do) generated interest in the little-known art of Karate.

In 1955 Plee founded his dojo at 34 rue de la Montaigne-Saint Genevieve, Paris. The Karate Club de France (KCF) which would eventually become Academie Francais des Arts Martiaux (AFAM), taught the four pillars of Japanese martial arts, Karate; Judo; Aikido and Kendo. He also became a founding member of the Federation Francais de Karate et Boxe Libre, which was established on 2 March. He became the Federation’s General Secretary. Later that year Minoru Mochizuki visited in Europe spending ten days in Paris.

On 14 April 1956 Plee was graded to 3rd Dan by the great Judo master Ichiro Abe.

Hiroo Mochizuki, the son of Minoru Mochizuki arrived in France on 12 July 1956 to conduct several Karate courses. Mochizuki conducted the first ever Karate course in Europe at Plee’s Paris dojo. Vernon Bell of England, Jürgen Seydel of Germany, Vladmiro Maltesti of Italy and Bernard Cherix of Switzerland were invited to attend the course.

Plee had formed an association with Jim Alchiek, who has studied under Minoru Mochizuki at his Yoseikan dojo in Japan. Together they laid the foundation of what would become the French Karate movement, in 1957. By 1961 he had around 200 students studying Karate.

On a visit to Japan Plee saw Yoshinao Nanbu perform. He was so impressed by what he saw, that he invited him to his Paris dojo in 1964. Nanbu was just the latest expert invited to teach at Plee’s dojo. The list of masters include:

Karate had taken a hold in Europe by 1967. That year Plee became the Secretary-General of the European Karate Union. He also had his book Karate-Beginner to Black Belt published.

In 1972 Plee was awarded his 8th Dan from Japanese master, Tsuneyoshi Ogura. Three years later the Federation Francais de Karate (FFKAMA) also awarded him an 8th Dan.

1984 saw Tsuneyoshi Ogura award Plee his 9th Dan. In 1987 Ogura awarded Plee his 10th Dan.

At the 14th Martial Arts festival of Bercy held in April of 1999, thirty-three martial arts masters considered the most remarkable of the century were nominated for “The Professor of the Century”. Plee won the nomination and received his award from Yoshinao Nanbu.

On 15th May 2008 Plee was awarded the National Order of Merit by French President Jacques Chirac. The award was in recognition of his martial arts expertise. He was awarded the rank of Knight. Later that year on 12 December Jacque Delcourt presented him with the Knights Insignia of the National Order of Merit. At an event held at the offices of the European Magazine in Paris. Delcourt gave a speech detailing Plee’s life and his close links to the history of French Karate. He also read two congratulatory letters from Jacques Rogge of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Antonio Espinos of the World Karate Federation (WKF).

At the 25th Martial Arts Festival of Bercy was given the title “Katana d’Honor”, Voted for by the readers of Karate-Bushido Magazine. A ceremonial Japanese katana was presented to him by French Karate legends Dominique Valera, Roger Paschy and Alain Setrouk.

On 19 August 2014 Henri Plee, the “Father of European Karate”, died aged 91 years. It was through his inquisitiveness that many of us have had the opportunity to practice the art we love. His encouragement of the likes of Vernon Bell and others has seen Karate spread across Europe and become a martial art practised by many. Plee is a true pioneer of European Karate.

Author: Patrick Donkor

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