Biography of Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama
I was born in the middle of Tokyo in the summer of 1942. The skies in those days were full of B-29 bombers as far as the eye could see. They flew in the air constantly, like flocks of birds, dropping cluster bombs throughout the city. Some of my earliest memories were of seeking shelter underground during bombing raids.
I am the youngest out of four children. After the war, my father’s business began growing and was successful. After kindergarten, however, my parents divorced and my father’s business failed. During that era, men dominated women in most areas of life, including family. During the divorce, the judge awarded full custody of all 4 of us kids to my father. I didn’t like that arrangement, though, and to make a long story short, I escaped and went to live with my mother just outside of Tokyo. Sometimes my brothers and sister would come and visit, but we never lived together again.
After my oldest brother, Hiroshi, graduated from Rikyo University, he became Mas Oyama’s first student. Mas Oyama didn’t have a dojo at that time, they just trained in his yard. When I was almost 14, he showed me how to do Seiken, Mawashi Geri and Kin Geri (groin kick). I caught on quickly. After all, my best subject in school had always been P.E. My favorite technique was groin kick because it was easy to use in the street. That was my first experience with Karate. I didn’t really think it as anything special, just something that could give me more confidence in street fighting.
My mother and I lived in a tiny one-room apartment. There were seven apartment rooms in the building. All of the residents shared two toilets and three gas ranges for cooking. My mother worked two or three jobs, so had to leave early every morning. She would prepare my lunch and dinner and leave it in the ice box for me. (It’s probably hard to imagine now, but a “refrigerator” back then was nothing more than a small box on top of a block of ice. Every morning, a delivery man would bring a fresh brick of ice to put under the box. That’s how we kept food cold. A lot of people in our area couldn’t afford one; we were lucky.)
After school, I was always on my own with a whole lot of free time on my hands. Of course, no one I knew had a TV, so there was nothing much for my friends and I to do in our apartments, so we’d always meet up on the street. I was 15 years old at this time. I was always hungry. All over the city, neighborhood kids would get together and form groups. They weren’t gangs like we think of them today, but just groups of punk kids roaming the streets and making small-scale trouble.
Our group had some older boys (17/18 years old) that would lead us around and tell us what to do. (These boys were under the control of other guys who answered up the chain to a local yakuza boss.) We’d protect our “territory”, among other things. Sometimes they’d give us food or snacks or cookies, and since I was always hungry, I readily did whatever they asked. (Years later, when I saw the movie Goodfellas with the little boy moving around, doing things for the gangsters, it reminded me of myself during this time).
One of the older boys that I always hung around with was named Koji. One day in the early afternoon, we were outside a Pachinko parlor, which was part of our territory. Pachinko was and still is a very popular game in Japan (you can find out all about it on the internet). The best way to describe it is a blend of a slot machine and pinball. However, the payouts are in prizes, not cash. The pachinko parlor was an ideal spot to hang out because, unlike a café or coffee shop, you didn’t have to buy anything—we could stand around for free.
Koji went to get something to eat and told me to stay at my post outside the pachinko parlor. I saw two guys I didn’t recognize approach. They were in their early 20’s and had nice suits with mean faces. Real wise guys. They gave me hard looks as they walked in, and I gave them hard looks back. I tried to look tough, but they just laughed and said, “Dumb kid…”
From my post outside, I watched them play. I couldn’t hear anything, but by their body language, I could tell that they were losing money and getting upset. After they’d lost all their money, they came out again and looked at me as they passed. “What’re you looking at!?” one of them said.
“I’m looking at you!” I shot back. In my head, I was already a man, but when dealing with these guys, who actually were men, I was scared. I was all talk, with nothing to back it up.
“I’m gonna teach you a lesson!” one of them said and grabbed my left shoulder. He drug me behind the building to the bicycle parking lot. I was so scared. I thought they were going to kill me, but I tried to show guts. I tried to resist and pull away, but the guy was much bigger and stronger than me. He pulled me into a corner, out of sight from the street and told the other one to keep a look out.
“He’s just a kid,” his friend said as he lit a cigarette, “take it easy on him.” When the guy holding my shoulder turned back around towards me, I punched him in the face as hard as I could with my right hand. I struck him just above the left eye. He went crashing to the pavement. As he hit the ground, blood starting spraying from his head. I couldn’t believe it. I just stood frozen with my eyes and mouth wide open.
The guy watching the street stared at me, just as shocked as I was, with the same expression. We just looked at each other for a second. The cigarette dropped from his mouth, then he started charging toward me. He had to maneuver around the rows of bikes to get to me. When he tried to jump over the last bike before reaching me, I kicked him in the groin and he fell in a heap on top of the bikes. I ran away as fast as I could. Eventually I found Koji and he gathered up the rest of our group. We went back to where it had happened, but the two men were gone. There was still blood on the ground, but that was it.
From time to time, I got in fights at school. The teacher would call my mother down to the school or visit us at our house. She’d had enough of me getting in trouble, so I didn’t tell her about this incident on the street. A couple months went by, and everything was back to normal. One day, I came home after school and noticed a brown envelope in our mail slot. I looked at it and was surprised to see it was addressed to me. I opened it. It was from the police. I had forgotten all about the fight in the street, so couldn’t figure out why in the world the police wanted to see me. I figured it must be a mistake, so I tore it up and threw it away.
A week later, another letter came. I did the same thing. “What’s wrong with these people?” I thought. The next week, a third letter came. The tone of the letter was stronger this time, but I still couldn’t understand why they sent me the letter. I threw it away too.
One night, my mother and I were in our apartment. We’d finished eating dinner and were listening to the radio, getting ready for bed. There was a knock at the door. My mother opened it. Two men in suits, one young and one old stood outside. They showed my mother their police identification. The older one took a step inside and saw me (there was nowhere to hide). “Is this your son, Yasuhiko Oyama?” he asked my mother.
She turned pale. “Yes. Why?”
“The police station sent him three letters,” he said, “but never got a response, so that’s why we’re here. We need you both to come down to the police station tomorrow morning.”
“Why? What happened?” my mother asked.
“We’ll talk about it tomorrow,” the younger one said. After the two officers left, my mother turned to me. She was beside herself with fear and anger. “What did you do??” she yelled. I honestly had no idea. She grilled me, pinched my cheek hard, yelled, cried, begged, but still I told her that I had no idea. It must be a mistake. Eventually, she calmed down. “Maybe you’re right,” she said, “maybe it’s some kind of misunderstanding.
The next morning, we sat in a small interview room at the station. The two officers came in. The older one sat down across from us and the young stood behind me. “You remember these guys,” the older one said as he put two pictures in front of my mother and me. They were two mugshots. We both shook our heads.
“We don’t know them,” my mother said.
“You sure? Look at that one’s left eye.” the younger one said to me. I looked, but still didn’t remember.
“I don’t know him,” I said.
“Yes you do, you’re the one that did that to him,” the older one said.
“Oh… yes, now I remember.” It turns out that the two guys I fought at the pachinko parlor were later caught committing a robbery. One of them had stitches over his left eye. During questioning, the detective asked what had happened. He answered that this really big guy had attacked him. After looking into it, they realized that I was the one who had done it.
I explained to them what happened, how I was just defending myself. My mother’s tone changed after my story. She began scolding the officers for picking on me, that I was just protecting myself. “Why are you going to all this trouble to bother with us,” she said, “you should be out chasing real criminals”.
“Calm down, ma’am,” the older one said, “We know he was just defending himself. But these guys he’s running around with are going to get him in a lot of trouble down the road. He needs to straighten up now before it’s too late. This is also part of our job.”
After we left the station, my mother was upset with me again. “What am I going to do with you?” she said. She called my oldest brother, Hiroshi. He told her that I had too much free time on my hands and should go to the dojo or do something to keep myself occupied. Hiroshi wasn’t training anymore and said he didn’t have time to come talk to me because he was busy with his business.
She called Shigeru (Soshu), my other older brother, and asked him to come and talk to me. Soshu was a Black Belt and was training/instructing at Mas Oyama’s dojo. For a little while after going to the police station, I was on my best behavior. But eventually, I went back to doing the same things. One night, Soshu drove up in his truck in front of the pachinko parlor.
“Get in,” he said, “I’ll buy you dinner.”
I got in the truck without hesitation. He took me to get ramen and gyoza (dumplings). I was so excited. “You know I do Karate, right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said with my mouth full of ramen.
“You should try it. You’re so talented and have great coordination. It would be a piece of cake for you. You could be a Black Belt in no time!”
“Really?” The ramen and gyoza made me more and more receptive to his flattery. I liked the idea of being a Black Belt. “Could I break roof tiles and bricks?” I asked.
“Of course!” Soshu said. “After a couple weeks you’d be able to break a whole bunch of them in one shot!” My head started getting bigger and bigger. My brother had me hooked.
“What about jump kicks?” I asked.
“Hey, after a couple lessons, you’d be able to do double and triple jump spin kicks, no problem; I guarantee it.” I was getting excited. “What do you say?” he asked.
“Well…” I hesitated.
“If you take Karate, I’ll give you an allowance.” Soshu added.
My eyes popped open. “Really? How much?”
“30 yen,” he said. At that time, 10 yen could buy bread with imitation peanut butter. 15 yen could buy a bowl of hot noodles. When I didn’t respond, Soshu increased the offer. “OK, 50 yen,” he said.
“OK, I’ll do it!” I told him. He put five 10-yen coins in my hand. I felt like I’d hit the mega-jackpot. I never imagined what kind of monstrous things and people would be waiting for me at the dojo.
A couple days later, Soshu came and got me. We took a subway to Ikebukuro in the center of Tokyo. Around Ikebukuro station, there was still a maze of tiny shacks and underground bunkers from World War II days. It was a vast slum area. Everything was either under a makeshift roof or below ground in little rooms—pawn shops, noodle shops, living places. The sun and sky were completely hidden from view. At each corner, there were yakuza members who would keep an eye on everything. I’d never seen anything like that. I followed Soshu through the maze of people. When we got further from the station, things were more in the open. We walked another 10 minutes to Rikyo University. Behind the university were rows and rows of flimsy wooden housing structures like the one my mother and I lived in. Outside the door of one of them was a simple wooden sign that said, “Karate Dojo. New students welcome.”
We went down a small dark hallway. There was an old rickety door that opened into a small area that had a tiny water fountain and 3 toilets. On the other side of that was the door to the dojo. It looked like you had to know how to move it just right in order to open it. “Osu!” Soshu said after opening it and entering. I followed him in.
The dojo used to be a ballet studio. There were old hardwood floors and windows on two sides of the room. The space wasn’t that big, about 30 x 25 feet. One corner had a pile of free weights made out of concrete. Another corner had a small wood burning stove we used in winter that had a tiny fence around it. There was also a small hanging sandbag in one corner that we would pull back and secure during Kumite training. One wall had a row of large nails that were sticking out used for hanging up dogis.
A little table was beside the stove. There was a big guy in a dogi sitting behind it. That was Mas Oyama. “Osu!” Soshu said.
“Ooossuu!” he growled. His voice was so powerful. Everything about him was dynamic and larger than life. “Is this Yasuhiko?” he asked, pointing to me.
“Osu! He’s starting today.”
Mas Oyama flexed his chest and pulled back his right arm. “You can knock him out with one shot!” he barked at me. I was so surprised. I’d never seen anyone speak and move with as much action as Mas Oyama. Somehow I ended up wearing a Judo dogi. I changed behind a tiny flimsy curtain in one corner that was held up by a string between 2 hangers. When I came out, I could tell that I was the youngest one there. There were a couple women, but all the other people were men. They didn’t look like normal men. One was a Black Belt that was a little taller than Soshu. He was Sensei Yasuda. There was another guy, a brown belt, that was even taller than him. He had a shaved head and a face full of pimples. He was Haruyama. I just pretended that I didn't know anything about fighting, that I was just an innocent goody-goody boy.
Training started with Mas Oyama, my brother, Sensei Yasuda and all the other Black Belts making a large circle. All of the beginners were placed in rows inside the circle. We started doing all hand techniques—Seiken, uraken, shuto, blocks—in the same spot. Over and over and over. Screaming the whole time as we did. A Judo dogi is much heavier than a Karate dogi, so I began sweating in no time.
Next we did kicks. We started with 100 mae geri, 100 mawashi geri, and on and on—kiai never stopping. I tried to show Mas Oyama and my brother that I was trying as hard as I could. My kicks started high, but as I got tired, they got lower and lower, then someone would scream at me, and they’d be higher for a little while, then drop again, then someone else screamed at me and they would be high for a little while on and on and on. We did all basic techniques non-stop for an hour and a half straight. After basics, we had a short break for going to the bathroom and getting water. There was only one water faucet, and since I was the newest student, I was last in line. By the time I got to drink, I could only get a sip before we had to start again.
Next we did Ido Geiko. I caught on pretty quickly to Zenkutsu Datchi, Kiba Datchi and Kokutsu Datchi. After Ido Geiko, we did Godo Keiko (condition training). We did sit ups, push-ups, leg exercises, handstand push-ups. I was so tired. Next we did Yakusoku Kumite. We trained techniques with a partner. After 3 hours of training, we were told to sit. It was time for Kumite (free fight). I sat in the corner and tried not to make eye contact with anyone. Some Black Belts started fighting. At that time, ours was the only dojo that sparred with contact. People would get poked in the eye, kicked in the groin, knocked out, and would have to be dragged outside. I felt like I was in a slaughterhouse. I was terrified. There was no way I could do this. It was completely different than fighting at school.
After the Black Belts finished, Sensei Yasuda pointed at me and said, “You, c’mon!” I looked to my right and left. Surely he didn’t mean me.
“Me?” I asked.
“Yes, you!” I stood up. “But I don’t know how to fight,” I said innocently.
“Just like fighting in the street,” Soshu said. I realized at that moment that he had trapped me. I was so mad, but it was too late. I stood in front of Haruyama. It was like a cute little ant facing Godzilla. He smiled, but not a nice smile. More like, “I’m gonna kill you—and like it.” Once we started, he moved closer and closer to me. It seemed like he got bigger and bigger. I knew I had to do something, but I just froze. He slapped my face and sent me to the floor. He picked me up, then kicked me in the stomach. I crumpled. He stood me up again and continued punching me, slapping my face, throwing me to the floor. Each time he’d say “C’mon, c’mon!” as he stood me up.
The room started spinning. I felt like I was in a tornado. Finally I heard, “Yame!” and we stopped. I could barely stand up. I tried to sit back down, but Sensei Yasuda stopped me. “No, not yet,” he said. He put me in front of Soshu. Soshu was just smiling, he seemed so happy. Soshu beat me up just like Haruyama had done. I was back in the tornado. At one point I was on my hands and knees. I couldn’t breathe and my fingernail came off because I was clawing so hard at the floor. When I think about it now, I believe that Haruyama and my brother actually used control when fighting me. They beat me up, but didn’t hit me with full power. If they had, I’d have been in the hospital. But at the time, I felt like they were trying to kill me.
When we finished class, I was in tears. My body was aching and my head pounding. I felt so mad that I’d been set up. It wasn’t fair. On the way home, Soshu chuckled and asked if I was OK. I just stared straight ahead, too mad to speak. When he brought me home and my mother saw my face, she screamed. “Oh my god, what did you do to my son?”
“Oh, he’s OK,” Soshu said. “A little sore, but still in one piece. He can still walk and has all his teeth. He’ll be fine.” When I went to bed that night, I couldn’t stop crying. I was so angry and decided at that moment that I was going to get revenge on Haruyama and my brother someday. That was the real start of my Karate training.
Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama (L) and Soshu Shigeru Oyama (R)