Who is Sensei Frank Nowak?

Written by Ron Richmond

It’s hard to believe that 20 years have already gone by since the passing of Sensei Frank Nowak in 1991. In two decades, his organisation, Zanshin Shotokan, has continued to grow with new students and even some new instructors who have never trained with him or seen him in the flesh. Many of Zanshin’s new generation only know Sensei Nowak as the founder via the stories of other instructors and older students who still speak of him in reverent tones. And the many karateka who have sprouted in Australia over the past decade or two might rightly ask, ‘Who is Frank Nowak?’


Born in Germany in 1947, Frank Nowak started training in karate in early 1963. At that time, karate was very new in Europe and there were only 12 Black-belts in all of Germany. Nowak practised five-to-six times per week at his local dojo under the direction of head instructor Sensei Nagai and also under Senseis Kanazawa, Enoeda, Shirai and Kase during their frequent trips through Europe. He also trained with Sensei Ochi when he established himself in Germany.

After four years, at the age of 20, Nowak won second place in the German National Kata Championship a day after being graded to 1st Dan Black-belt, making him the youngest Black-belt in Germany at the time. He earned his 2nd Dan a year later from a panel of instructors including Senseis Nakayama, Kanazawa, Enoeda and Ochi. Sensei Nowak represented Germany a number of times at international competitions, including the 1968 European Championships, where the German team took third place in team kumite. During that time he was a German team champion as well as kata champion.

At the age of 22, Nowak was invited by Sensei Kanazawa to Tokyo for two years of rigorous training in the instructors' class at the headquarters of the Japan Karate Association. Colleagues in the course included such luminaries as Senseis Osaka, Yahara, Yano, Tabata and Takahashi. In April 1971, Nowak was awarded the 3rd Dan by Nakayama Sensei (now deceased), the 9th Dan chief instructor. This grading included kumite with Yahara Sensei and other senior Japanese colleagues. Upon finishing the instructors' course, Nowak was given by Sensei Nakayama the option of going to Canada or Australia to spread Shotokan karate. Fortunately, he chose Australia.

Frank Nowak migrated to Australia in November 1972 as the country's first fully qualified JKA Shotokan instructor. He began teaching at Miranda and South Sydney and helped to expand dojos elsewhere in the Sydney suburbs and in Brisbane. He later followed his main teacher, Mr Kanazawa, when he established the Shotokan Karate International organisation.

As a teacher, Frank Nowak was known as a remarkable demonstrator and an inspirational model. His own performances set extremely high standards that became the goal for his students. He was also extremely flexible and had the extraordinary ability to land a spinning mawashi-geri (round-kick) directly above his head and do the splits between two chairs. On one festive occasion, he even demonstrated his ability to sit atop a bottle with his legs raised and light a candle without losing his balance.

One sacrifice Sensei Frank made in coming to Australia was dedicating all his time to teaching Shotokan karate and growing the art rather than continuing his remarkable competition career in both kata and kumite. Indeed, a common comment among the German competitors who came to Sydney to participate in the 1986 WUKO championships was that Nowak should still have been competing rather than officiating.

Many chief instructors struggle to balance their own training needs with those of their students, but Sensei Nowak managed this by often practising kumite with his senior students before classes, as well as spending much of his free time jogging and training solo on Maroubra beach. He also travelled to Japan more than 20 times to further his own progress in the art. As a result, in 1981 he was promoted to 6th Dan by Mr Kanazawa, and in 1984 he was awarded the senior teacher's rank of Kyoshi.

Sensei Nowak was also active in the all-styles karate environment and had provided leadership to all Australian karate-do as chief judge of the Annual National Championship of the Federation of Australian Karate-Do Organisations (FAKO, which became the Australian Karate Federation) 10 times within a 15-year period. He was also the initiator of the establishment of the National Referees Council in 1983 (including the establishment of referees' councils in various states) and served as the inaugural chairman of both the National and NSW Referees Council.

Sensei Nowak was a world-class referee and officiated at six world championships and various other international events. He was chief judge at international tournaments in Jakarta (1978), Madrid (1980), Taiwan (1982) and Tokyo (1983). From 1978 to 1981 he served as one of the six members of the Referees Council of the World Union of Karate-Do Organisation (WUKO), now WKF, and in '82 he was the first person to receive the organisation's ‘Best Referee' award.

One of his joys was travelling to international competitions with his good friend and council colleague, Sensei Tino Ceberano. The path paved by these pioneering karate men has since been followed by Aussies like Sensei Con Kassis, who was recently appointed chairman of the World Referees Council. Indeed, there are still referees today who try to emulate Nowak's style of officiating and fondly remember him as the master referee.

In 1985, Sensei Nowak formed the Kokusai Karate-do Shihan Kai with his close friends Senseis Paul Starling (Goju Kai), Phil Kear (Wado-ryu), Kenshu Watanabe (Goju-ryu) and Tino Ceberano (Goju). All were chief instructors of their organisations and all known as exceptional karateka. Senseis Kora Nowak, Sandie Starling, and Robert and Reg Kear were also added as members. It was an inclusive group and instructors from all the members' groups frequently trained together, as well as joining in training sessions with the visiting Japanese instructors of each other's organisations.

Sensei Frank Nowak was a gifted karateka who inspired hundreds of students with his extraordinary abilities. Not only was he a great athlete as a kata and kumite champion, he also became a master teacher, as well as a master organiser and internationally acclaimed referee. Many articles have been written about him in magazines including Blitz, Budo, Fighting Arts International and Australasian Fighting Arts, which called him "the best Western Shotokan karateka in the world". Not surprisingly, he graced the covers of these titles several times.

Today, Sensei Frank Nowak is remembered by his friends and colleagues in karate for enriching the lives of hundreds of karateka with his presence and leadership.

In celebration of Sensei Frank Nowak's contributions to karate, this year's annual Zanshin Seminar (to be held at the Narrabeen Sports Centre in Narrabeen, NSW, on 17-20 November) will be dedicated to his remembrance and will feature demonstrations, videos and pictures of Nowak's time in Australia.