top of page

American Dream

Biography of Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

Chapter 17  - SUMMER CAMP
summer camp pic issue 1.jpg

Finally, we had a great group of Black Belts and assistant instructors at the dojo.  There was constant excitement in the air.  There were so many dedicated and talented people in that group.  We sweated with each other and pushed each other to become stronger.  Anyone that took a step into the dojo could feel that we had created something special.  All of those Black Belts created big waves in the Japanese Budo (Martial Arts) world.  Some became All-Japan Champions and other were World Champions.  The waves created in Japan rippled across the globe.  It was a golden age in the Kyokushin organization.  I’m very proud of the group we had.  Some of the Black Belts went on to form their own international organizations that are still going strong to this day.

During the 2-hour Black Belt class (Obi-ken), we still focused on the 5 kicks, and “circle-circle, spin-spin, jump-jump-jump”.  One day, though, Mas Oyama decided that we would practice with Bo.  (He periodically had ideas like this pop into his mind depending on the change in the weather, what he ate for dinner the night before or some other trivial occurrence).

            We all had a basic knowledge of how to use traditional weapons.  But we never practiced fundamental basics like different ways of holding them, swinging, hitting, etc.  For our Bo practice, Mas Oyama just started with the Chion Kata.  The Kata is relatively simple, so we caught on pretty quickly after a couple times.  Afterwards, he told us to grab the Bo horizontally and practice jumping forward and backward over it while holding it.  “You need to jump in and out without letting go or dropping the Bo!” he shouted.  We were stunned.  Of course, nobody said anything, but inside, we were all thinking, “First we did kicks and spins and jumps… now we’re training to become acrobats???”

            As we started jumping, I was the only one who was able to do it without letting go of the Bo.  Everyone else knocked theirs out of their hands while attempting to jump over.  The dojo echoed with the sounds of wooden Bos crashing to the floor.  As it got close to Summer, there was one class where Mas Oyama wasn’t there.  I was in charge, so I decided we would just fight for the entire class.  We rotated partners and fought the entire time.  We didn’t try to kill each other, but we still fought pretty hard.  The All-Japan Tournament was already a big deal during that time.  But for Black Belt class, we fought the old-fashioned way where we could do whatever we wanted—not just what was allowed in tournaments.  Even so, times had changed since I started training.  We still used face strikes, grabs, takedowns, joint locks, but the intensity was a little milder.

            At 130 lbs., I and Shihan Goda were about the smallest Black Belts in the dojo.  Being in our early 30’s, we were also the oldest.  All of the other guys were young and strong and were still getting stronger every day.  There techniques had more power and speed than ours, plus I had taken more than 6 years off from training, so my techniques and movements were a little rusty.  Since I couldn’t out-power them, I had to out-smart them.  I’d use counter attacks and blocks to make them lose balance, then move in and take them down.  Towards the end of class, I was fighting with a Black Belt that was about 220 lbs.  We were kicking and punching each other.  At one point, I blocked his punch, got in close and tried to pick him up to throw him.  As I attempted to take him down, he resisted me.  Since he was so big, I couldn’t complete the throw and we struggled for a bit before we both went crashing to the floor.  He landed on top of me and I could feel instantly that I had severely injured my back.  I was able to finish class, but the next day, I couldn’t stand up straight and my left leg was numb. 

            Even so, I still had to take care of my responsibilities at the dojo.  For the following couple weeks, Kishi and Miura would massage me at the end of the day, which helped.  They’d start by using their palms and thumbs.  As those got tired, they’d start using their forearms, then elbows, then knees.  Being after dinner, I was already tired.  The massage took away the pain and made me relax to the point that sometimes I’d fall asleep.  One time I woke up to go to the bathroom.  Kishi and Miura were both asleep on either side of me with their legs draped across my back.  I threw them off and they woke up.  Miura explained that I’d fallen asleep.  They didn’t want to stop the massage, so they laid down on either side of me and began rocking me with their heels, but ended up falling asleep too. 

            Eventually, I had to tell Mas Oyama that my back was injured and was getting worse, not better.  He said that doctors couldn’t do anything for injured backs and knees and that if I had surgery, it wouldn’t work, and I’d have more and more surgeries and end up not being able to move.  (That was in 1970.  Surgical procedures for knees and backs have come a long way since then.  At that time, though, they were still pretty primitive and extremely invasive and required lengthy recovery times).

            “What should I do, then?” I asked him.

            He said the best thing was acupuncture, Shiatsu, and Okyu (placing herbal medicine on the back, heating a small glass cup and placing it on the skin over the herbs to draw out the bad blood).  “You also need to heal yourself with your own chi,” he added. 

            I just nodded.  I had no idea how to heal myself with my own chi.  Seeing a specialist who could do these things, though, was expensive.  At that time, Kishi’s and Miura’s salaries were $150/month.  Mine was $200/month.  We only had enough money for food, but since Miura and Kishi were always eating, we usually ran out about halfway through the month.  There was no way I could afford these kinds of treatments. 

We ran out of money but didn’t run out of food.  My two best friends from childhood, Rikio and Sekene both owned very profitable meat companies.  Rikio’s company was particularly large.  He owned farms, livestock, slaughter houses as well as meat packing and distribution centers.  Whenever we ran out of money, I’d call them and tell them to bring us beef and steaks as well as rice and vegetables.  They always came through for us without any argument.  One day, Rikio brought us a large package of nice ribeye and NY strip steaks.  Everyone was excited.  As usual, we stored them in the dormitory refrigerator.  Periodically, Mas Oyama would come check on us at the dorm on Sunday afternoons.  He’d inspect the kitchen, bathroom and beds to make sure everything was clean and in order, which of course it always was.  One Sunday, he came to check the dorm.  When he opened the refrigerator, he saw all of our steaks.

“Whoa!  Where’d these come from?” he asked, eyes wide open.  Mas Oyama loved steak.

            “My friend owns a meat company.  He gave them to us,” I explained.  I knew that Mas Oyama loved steak, so I offered him some.

            “Are you sure?” he asked.

            “Well, not all of them,” I said, “but you’re welcome to have a couple.”

            “Osu!  Thank you!” he said.  After Mas Oyama left, Kishi and Miura had long faces.  I could tell they were thinking something like, “First he doesn’t pay us enough for food and now he’s taking our steaks!”

            Eventually, Shihan Goda found an acupuncturist/chiropractor near the dojo named Dr. Koyanagi.  He was a really nice guy and loved Karate, so he gave me a big discount.  The treatments helped a lot, but there was no way I could afford to continue going regularly like I needed to.  At that point, I believe, God was looking out for me and provided me with what I needed.

            One day, Shihan Goda and I were making a delivery for Mas Oyama in a small country town.  We took a train out, then had to take a taxi the rest of the way.  There was only a single taxi company in the town.  After we made our delivery, we took a taxi back to the train station.  In those days, of course, there were no airbags or other safety features and we didn’t wear any seatbelts.  The road we were on was straight, with farmland on either side.  It was also a bright sunny day, but somehow the taxi still managed to have a head-on collision.  Because of my back, I had to sit up straight and keep my hands on the back of the driver’s seat to be as comfortable as possible.  When we crashed, I felt a jolt of pain in my back, but the way I was sitting allowed me to absorb the impact without getting hurt.  Shihan Goda, though, was sent flying towards the front.  We hadn’t been going very fast, so nobody got injured by the crash. 

Shihan Goda, though, looked at me and smiled— “It’s your lucky day,” he said.

            When the taxi driver checked on us, I slowly made my way out of the car and told him that my back had been badly hurt and it was hard to move.

            “Uh oh!” Shihan Goda chimed in, “Better call an ambulance!  This is serious!”  To make a long story short, Mas Oyama had his lawyer contact the taxi company and they agreed to pay for my visits to Dr. Koyanagi for treatment.  I saw him for 6 months, every other day.  I was happy, so was Dr. Koyanagi.  I believe my guardian angel was looking out for me that day.  A couple months after that, it was time for summer camp.

            There were about 300 of us that went to summer camp.  It was during the hottest part of the year, but compared to winter camp, summer camp seemed much easier.  Whenever we had some kind of event, like a camp, Mas Oyama would always contact news outlets, photographers, magazine publishers to come attend as a way to promote the Kyokushin organization.  Mas Oyama stayed with the publishers and photographers in a nearby hotel.  The rest of us stayed in an elementary school gymnasium.  As you can imagine, close to 300 guys sleeping in the same place wasn’t at all ideal.  Every night, traditionally, the captain (in this case me) would yell, “Lights out!”  At that moment, everyone had to stop talking or doing whatever they were doing, turn off the lights and go to sleep.  When lights were turned out at night, the noises would start—a symphony of snores, farts, groans, coughs would echo throughout the gym.  Both Shihan Goda and I had the feeling that we were too old for this.  But Shihan Goda had no trouble sleeping.  Eventually, I was able to sleep too, but not very well.


summer camp pic issue 4.jpg
summer camp pic issue 2.jpg

Mas Oyama always had a lot of creative ideas about what kind of dramatic training images he wanted the photographers to capture.  Us Black Belts were always on standby for whatever he wanted to do.  If we were around today, he’d probably be a very successful movie director.  The first shot he wanted was us doing jumping side kicks… out of the tops of pine trees.  He pointed to a bunch of trees and told us to climb 20 feet up to the branches and jump down while doing side kicks.  We all looked at each other and thought, “Here we go again…”.  It seemed crazy.  “I guess now we have to be Tarzan,” one of the Black Belts whispered.

“I can be Tarzan… if I have Jane,” another one said.

“Well, we don’t have a Jane, but we got plenty of chimpanzees.”

Fortunately, he knew I had the back injury, so I wasn’t made to do it.  There was nothing but the ground to land on.  When I mentioned that it could be dangerous, and people might break their legs, Mas Oyama said to bring a bunch of futons from the gymnasium and stack the under the trees.  After we tested them out, the Black Belts climbed up.  When they jumped out and did their side kicks, they were just trying to land in one piece.  Mas Oyama wasn’t happy with it.  “You need to Kiai!” he shouted, “You need more of a Samurai face!”  So they tried it again.  When they shouted on the way down, nothing about them resembled a samurai.  Their shout sounded more like, “Help me!  Help me!”  Mas Oyama just growled and shook his head.

That night, Mas Oyama had his next great idea.  In the beginning, he had us jumping over some belts that were tied together and held by a couple guys at each end.  This didn’t have much dramatic appeal, though, so his next idea was to create a large bamboo hoop for us to jump through.  The guys holding the belts tied them to opposite sides of the hoop so it could be suspended.  It was a little trickier to jump through the hoop, but still manageable.  Mas Oyama still wasn’t satisfied.  Suddenly, his eyes lit up—he had another “brilliant” idea. 

He told us to wrap the hoop in cloth, pour gasoline on it and light the entire thing on fire.  “So now we’re training for the circus…” we thought.  None of the Black Belts wanted to jump through the flaming hoop.  Eventually, we found a junior student with a background in gymnastics.  He was a white belt but be put a Black Belt on him and made him jump.  After the first time, we shouted at him, “No, no, do it again!  You need a face like a samurai!”  The second time around, Mas Oyama was satisfied.  Afterward, the newspaper guys said they would really like to have shot of Mas Oyama doing something.  We kind of chuckled to ourselves picturing Mas Oyama jumping out of trees or through flaming hoops… that wasn’t going to work out.  Instead of something like that, Mas Oyama said he wanted a shot at sunrise with him running along the beach and all his Black Belts behind him.  He envisioned the deep red clouds and dramatic light before dawn.  It was meant to be a very spiritual and dramatic shot.  As he described it, we could hear the powerful beat of drums in our heads. 

Sunrise began at 5:00 a.m., so we all met on the beach at 4:30, ready to go.  As I mentioned, Mas Oyama stayed at a nearby hotel.  We waited… 4:45 came, then 5:00.  At that point, the sky was a deep, beautiful red before the sun started appearing.  We figured we’d be going at any moment.  We started jogging in place splashed ocean water on our face to make it look like sweat for dramatic effect.  At 5:30, the deep red sky started turning white.  By 6:00, the sun was nearly finished coming up and Mas Oyama was nowhere in sight.  Finally, at 6:30, Mas Oyama came.  He’d overslept.  “Sorry to be late,” he said to the cameraman.  Since we were there already, we ran anyway.  Mas Oyama started giggling, which made us giggle too.  If he was happy, then we were very happy.    


summer camp pic issue 3.jpg

The climax of summer camp was an event called Kiba-sen (Battle on "horseback").  Traditionally, there are 2 teams—the Red and White teams.  Four people made up each "horse"—1 person was the chest and head; he needed to be big.  He would hold his hands and arms out behind him for one guy on either side to grab to create the saddle and legs/body.  The 4th guy was the rider.  The object was to knock the lord of the opposing team off his horse.  I was the lord of my team and Kanamura was lord of the other.  All the other people were soldiers on “horseback” battling each other.  The rule in Kiba-sen, as was the case in historical battles, was that if the lord was killed in battle, that was it—that group/country was defeated.   No matter how the war was going, once the ruler was killed, the entire army was defeated.  Howard Collins, who was a green belt at the time, was on my team.  All of the strongest Black Belts were on Kanamura’s team, including:  Kishi, Miura, Big Sato, Ōishi—all of them were top class All-Japan Champion and World Champion fighters.  In the dojo, they were the kind of guys who made their opponent give up just by looking at them.  Mas Oyama was the chief referee of the battle.

            The odds were stacked against us.  Both sides had about 90 soldiers, but all of their soldiers were bigger and stronger than us.  Before our battle, I called my troops over to me.  "You scared of those guys?" I asked.

            "Osu, yes," they answered, "If we knock them off their horses, maybe they will beat us up the next time we train at the dojo." 

            “I’m scared of them too,” I said.

            “Really?” my soldiers asked with surprise.  I wasn’t actually scared of them.  After all, I was in charge of them and yelled at them every day.  But saying I was scared too helped the other guys feel closer to me and more willing to follow my lead.

            “If you’re scared,” I said, “scream and yell—just like a Kiai.  That way your power will come back to you and we might have a chance to win.  But don’t look at their ugly faces.  If you do, you might start shaking in fear again.  Look at their chests instead, then you can fight!”

            As I pumped them up and we started shouting, the other team just laughed and clapped their hands.  They were so cocky and sure they would win.  I pointed this out to my team and said that them being so cocky meant we had a chance now.  I borrowed a strategy from history.  The Genpei War took place in Japan during the 12th century.  One of the sides, the Heikei, stationed themselves up against a steep cliff facing the beach.  They figured that no attackers could come down the steep cliffs, and they would have a clear view of any frontal attacks. They were completely confident in their chances of victory.  However, General Yoshitsune, the leader of the opposing side, talked to the local farmers and villagers at the top of the mountain.  He asked them if horses could possibly go down the steep cliff.  They said it was impossible and that it was extremely dangerous for people.  General Yoshitsune asked if there were any animals that went down the cliff and was told that a special kind of deer was able to do it.  The general considered this and figured that deer had 4 legs, same as horses, so if deer could go down the cliff, then horses could too.  And that's what they did.  At midnight, they mounted a surprise ambush down the cliff and defeated the Heike.  The Lord Nobunaga also used this same strategy when his army just 3,000 defeated Imagawa’s army of 30,000 samurai.   

            I told my troops that we would also mount a successful surprise attack.  The plan was that I would be at the center, facing Kanamura.  At the signal to begin, I would lead the charge and we would all rush towards the opposing team.  Soon after that, I’d let everyone else pass in front of me and fight while I snuck around back to get Kanamura.

Mas Oyama gave the signal for the battle to begin.  We charged at them as planned.  The other team just waited for us; they were so cocky and arrogant.  I screamed and yelled as loud as possible.  The rest of my team did the same.  By doing this, we captured the opposing team’s attention and focused it where we wanted to.  The allowed me and my horse to slowly back away from the action.  Nobody noticed us moving around the back.  Kanamura just sat on his horse barking orders, completely smug.  I made my way behind Kanamura.  He still had no idea I was there.  "Hey, Kanamura!" I said, tapping his shoulder.  He turned around, shocked to see me.  I grabbed him by the head and belt and through him off his horse into the water.  "We won!  WE WON!"  I screamed.  Mas Oyama laughed so hard that tears rolled down his cheeks.

            The other team couldn't believe what had happened.  “You lost!” I shouted at them, pointing at Kanamura in the water, “I killed your lord, WE WON!”  The other team immediately said that they wanted a rematch.  But I told them, "No way.  There are no rematches in a real battle.  Once you're defeated, that's it."  But they kept insisting.  They finally appealed to Mas Oyama.  But I told Mas Oyama that there was no way we could do it again.  But Mas Oyama said, "Go ahead, give them one more chance."


summer camp pic issue 5.jpg

            Before we started, I told my soldiers that we won the real battle, and that wouldn’t change.  But the other team kept crying, so we had to do a rematch.  When we battled again, the other team just charged me and ripped me off my horse.  I didn't stand a chance.  Even though I was sent crashing to the water, I still felt like I had won and kept smiling to myself.  There were now three leaders of a successful surprise attack in history—General Yoshitsune, Lord Nobunaga and me.  In the years to come, whenever we talked about summer camp, I always brought up this battle.  The other Black Belts would point out how they beat us the 2nd time, but I would always remind them that in real battle, there are no second chances.


bottom of page