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American Dream

Biography of Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

Time has passed by so quickly.  It’s been 46 years since I arrived in Birmingham from Tokyo.  Before going to Birmingham, I stayed and trained with my brother, Shigeru Oyama (Soshu), at his dojo in New York.  That gave me a little time to get accustomed to American culture and lifestyle.  I was really impressed by the high level of quality of Soshu’s teaching and that of his students. 

            Before coming the United States, I was the chief instructor at the Kyokushin Karate Headquarters (Honbu) Dojo in Tokyo.  Besides teaching, I was responsible for publishing the monthly Kyokushin magazine and dealing with branches across the world and within Japan.  Inevitably, disagreements between branch chiefs would arise from time to time (just like at the White House) and it was my responsibility to try and resolve disputes before they got to Mas Oyama.  When foreign branch chiefs visited Kyokushin Honbu, it was also my job to take them out to dinner, coordinate their accommodations, etc. 

  

            I was born and raised in the middle of Tokyo.  All of my childhood, up through graduating college, was spent in Tokyo.  So, when I landed in Birmingham, AL on October 3rd, 1972, it was a complete shock.  Our plane didn’t even pull up to a main terminal building.  We sat on the runway while a flight of stairs was wheeled out and set up under the front door behind the cockpit.  We walked down the stairs and retrieved our luggage from underneath the plane.  We were surrounded by grass and wildflowers.  I wondered if maybe I’d been on the wrong flight.  There was no way that this countryside airport was part of the America I had imagined.  As we walked across the runway to the main terminal building, there were no TSA officers or security checkpoints.  Everyone just smiled and said, “Hi, how ya doin’?”  At the time, I was bewildered as to why all these strangers I’d never seen before were so friendly and smiling at me.  I found out later that this phenomenon was referred to as “southern hospitality”.

            Shihan Ron Epstein picked me up at the airport.  He drove an old VW van full of shoes (he sold shoes for a living at that time).  He drove me to my apartment in Homewood, a suburb of Birmingham.  The apartment was on a street called “Hollywood Blvd.”, which was very strange because there was nothing at all “Hollywood” about it.  Just a bunch of trees, grass, birds and squirrels.  When we entered my apartment, I first noticed the nice furniture—sofa, chairs, two twin beds.  Near the sofa was an old 10” black and white TV and a rotary phone.  There was a bathroom with a shower and sink, a living room with the sofa and beds and that was it.  No kitchen.

 

            “Where’s the kitchen?” I asked Shihan Ron.  “Where are the dishes?  Chopsticks, knife and fork and spoon?”  Sohsu had given me an old electric rice machine and I was planning to be cooking all my meals.  “I need a sink for washing rice,” I said.

 

            Shihan Ron smiled.  He pointed to the little bathroom sink next to the shower.  “You can wash rice in here, I guess.”  He laughed and I just shook my head.  “Just try it,” he said.

            “OK, I’ll try.” I told him.  Often in movies, and sometimes in real life, people fall in love when the first meet.  They see each other from across the bar or in the street and know instantly that they were destined to be together.  Well, Shihan Ron and I weren’t quite like that, but we did have an instant connection.  Upon meeting him, I could feel he had a warm heart and that I could trust him.  Even so, I already wanted to go back to Tokyo.  I always thought of America being like New York with big buildings and lots of people.  But nothing I saw in Birmingham fit that image.  I asked myself what the hell I was thinking when I agreed to stay here for an entire year.

Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama (L) and Soshu Shigeru Oyama (R) at Kyokushin Karate International Headquarters (Honbu) Dojo

The Beginning of My Adventure

Chapter 1 - Introduction

Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama (R) and Shihan Ron Epstein (L)

           Before leaving, Shihan Ron said he’d return a little before 6:00 to take me to the dojo.  Hearing the word “dojo” brought me some relief.  It was something familiar, a place where I could be comfortable.  I tried to pass the time until Shihan Ron came back.  I turned on the TV.  It was some gameshow, in English of course, so I couldn’t understand it.  I turned off the TV and stepped outside.  There were some pretty pine trees and a picnic table.  It was very peaceful with the sounds of birds and small clouds moving across the blue sky.  I thought of John Denver’s song, “Country Roads” as I looked at the abundance of nature surrounding me.  I went back inside and unpacked.  I waited and waited and waited… Finally, it was time to go to the dojo.

            Traditionally in Japan, a dojo is a rectangular place with hardwood floors.  I assumed Shihan Ron would be taking me to a dojo just like one in Japan.  However, we pulled into the parking lot of the Shades Valley YMCA.  “This is the dojo?” I asked.  “Well,” he said, “this is the YMCA, but the dojo is in here.”  The locker room was full of people that weren’t there for Karate.  They’d come to exercise, lift weights, go swimming, etc.  I felt strange sharing the locker room with people who wanted nothing to do with Karate.

            After we changed, I followed Shihan Ron down the hall.  We passed by the gym, which was large and had hardwood floors.  Maybe that was our dojo?  No, we kept walking.  The gym was on the first floor.  We went down to the basement and passed a smaller, but still large, rectangular room with a nice floor.  Was this the dojo?  No, that was the room for Judo.  We kept walking down the hall.  All the way to the end.  It was noticeably darker.  Shihan Ron opened the door at the end of the hallway and I immediately heard industrial and mechanical sounds—it was the boiler room.  This was the dojo.   

            “Oh my gosh…” I thought to myself.  I was shocked, but tried to just breathe deeply and stay calm.  Shihan Ron puffed out his chest and said, “It’s a good dojo isn’t it?”

            I felt like I was in some kind of haunted basement.  It took my eyes a minute do adjust to the dim lighting.  When they finally did, I noticed a couple men and women warming up on the far side.  They all sorts of different dogis on, some black, some white, some with just pants and t-shirt.  A guy came up to me, chewing gum loudly as he talked.  “Hey, how ya’ doin’?” he asked.

            “Osu.” I replied.  A woman with large hoop earrings greeted me with a shrill, high-pitched, “Hi, how are you?”  I couldn’t believe it.  Soshu’s dojo in New York was full of quality students with good attitudes and dojo etiquette.  But this was a completely different story.  It was like comparing the sky to the ground.  All I wanted to do at that moment was turn around and leave and never look back.  That was October 3rd, 1972.  My first day as an instructor in the United Sates.  Between that day and now, so many things have happened.  I’m reminded of the saying that “truth is stranger than fiction”.  After 45 years, I’m now an Alabamian.  And I love it.  I want to tell you how I began on this journey and lifelong endeavor in the wonderful world of Karate.