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American Dream

Biography of Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

Chapter 12  - NEW DIRECTION

Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

After my experience training for Muay Thai, the dojo seemed quiet and empty again.  Haruyama was gone, I wasn’t allowed to fight my brother, and I already knew how to beat all the other Black Belts.  For me, Kumite was like chess; I would develop various strategies and methods for fighting each individual Black Belt.  By this time, though, I felt I’d exhausted all the possible opening gambits and endgames.  It was no longer challenging the way it had been before.  After Sensei Kurosaki came back from Thailand, I thought maybe it was the beginning of bigger business and more opportunities for me to compete in Kickboxing.  But, Mr. Noguchi disappeared and had no more contact with Mas Oyama or the Kyokushin organization.  Like I said, he was a bigtime TV and entertainment producer and was always moving on to the “next big thing.”

            From age 15 – 22, about eight years, I had consumed myself with Karate training.  I woke up thinking about Karate, thought about Karate all day, dreamed about Karate and sometimes even woke up in the middle of the night to practice.  I channeled all of my energy into it.  But now, everything seemed different.  I knew that I hadn’t yet mastered Karate and needed to train deeper, but my motivation and passion for training was gone.  I didn’t have a big goal I was working on.  I was also about to graduate from college, so I needed to find a steady job.

            As I mentioned, I worked many types of odd jobs throughout junior high, high school and college.  But when I graduated, odd jobs wouldn’t cut it; I needed a full-time job with steady income.  I struggled to figure out what I could do.  At that point, I had no inclination for opening a dojo.  I needed something that would support my mother as well as myself.  Something to help us get out of the tiny one-room apartment to a place where we could at least have our own bathroom and kitchen.

            The most common career path for college graduates was to find a job with a large company.  But I couldn’t imagine myself in that world—waking up at 6:00 a.m. every morning, putting on a dark and tight suit and tie, eating a quick breakfast and rushing out to join the millions of other people making the morning commute.  I’d work a full day plus overtime every Monday through Friday.  In the Japanese business world, working overtime is not anything special like it is in the U.S.  You’re expected to work overtime as part of the normal business day.  Some companies pay overtime wages, but some do not.  Even if I could get a job like this, I’d have a hard time surviving.

            When I tried to imagine myself in this world, I’d see myself scurrying to the office to punch my time card just a couple minutes before being late.  I’d sit at my desk and open up the big folder of paperwork and start crunching numbers or writing reports.  My boss would come by and tell me what to do, and I would just answer, “Yes sir, yes sir!”  Then later, I’d bring my report to his office and he would start yelling at me about mistakes I’d made, and again I’d bow and say, “Yes, sir, sorry sir, yes sir, sorry sir!”  I’d go back to my desk.  Lunchtime would come, and for a couple minutes, I could catch air.  After lunch, I’d work some more, but start getting sleepy.  When it got close to time to go home, my boss would but another large stack of paperwork on my desk and tell me to do more.  I’d be hungry, thirsty, tired… eventually I would explode!  I’d tell my mother, “Sorry, mama, I just can’t do it.  I promise I won’t borrow money from you, I’ll support myself, but I just can’t do it anymore!”

            P.E. was always my favorite subject since I was in kindergarten.  My next favorite subject was art.  No music, though; I’m tone deaf.  I can sing, but only if it’s just me singing.  If I have to follow music or sing with a group, forget it.  In college, I majored in Law.  I really liked it, actually.  We studied all areas of law—constitution, politics, civil and criminal law.  There were about 25 – 30 Law majors in my graduating class.  Before graduation, two of them actually passed the bar exam, which meant they could go straight to work as attorneys or prosecutors or judges.  To me, these two guys were nothing special.  In class and in debates, they weren’t much different or smarter than me, really.  The only difference was that they were able to study and study and study for long periods of time.  I had to work and was also training Karate, so I had no desire to study like they did.  For me, a “C” or “C-“ was fine.  I didn’t need all A’s.  If I got a “D”, that was OK too; at least it was a passing grade.  If I got a “B+” I’d be suspicious.  Why was the teacher giving me a hard time?  Didn’t he know that I worked and trained all the time?  There’s no way I studied enough to get a “B+”!

            A little before graduation, I had coffee with a guy in my law class named Inoue.  He was a senior too and very smart and intelligent.  When I asked him what he was going to do after graduation, he surprised me by saying he wasn’t sure.  To me, he seemed a perfect fit to the white collar business world that I couldn’t picture myself in.  He did really well academically and also helped me out.  A lot.  Especially during exams.  I don’t want to say what kind of help he gave me, but it was very good help.  At our university, Meiji University, there were 5 post-graduate internship programs in the Law department. You had to take a test to qualify.  If you qualified, you’d have a spot in the training program and your own desk.  Every week was a new seminar that was taught by professors, judges, attorneys and prosecutors to lecture.  It was like an apprenticeship/internship; the idea was that they would train you with the understanding that you would come back and lecture and help instruct seminars for a couple years after passing the bar exam.  Each program had about 5 – 10 openings for new students each year.  Unlike graduate school, there was no tuition, plus you had your own study desk.  I decided to try the test with my friend.  We both passed!

Saiko Shihan (middle row, 3rd from left) with law school group

           The prospect of working in the law field appealed to me because I could rely on my own knowledge and skill and wouldn’t need someone always telling me what to do.  I’d also be able to control how I spent my time… plus it would be a good-paying career.  We studied hard all week.  From Monday – Saturday, we would study a specific part of law or case study.  Sunday morning was the test.  Then, we’d start all over with another area of study on Monday.  We studied like this year-round, every week.  The only problem was finding a way to support ourselves financially while we were studying.  Some of the more senior members of our group had wives that worked to support them both.  Others came from rich families that supported them.  Most of us, though, had to find some kind of work.  One of our seniors told my friend and I that the best thing to do was to get a job with a company, work for 6 months, then quit and collect unemployment from the government.  That sounded like a great idea!


            So my friend and I poured over the “Help Wanted” ads in the newspaper.  I figured that a sales position would be best for me, so I wouldn’t be stuck in an office all day.  I applied at a fairly large trading company.  They bought all sort of products from suppliers and sold them to other companies and factories.  I sent in my resume and went in for an interview.  I approached it with the same spirit I had at the dojo.  My attitude was one that said, “I’m dying to work here!”  When the supervisor asked what type of experience I had, I told them I’d worked as a painter, so they assigned me to the paint and industrial chemicals division as a sales representative.  I would visit various factories and manufacturing companies and talk to division heads and sell them paints as well as other painting equipment, industrial chemicals and items needed for application.  At one point, I was sent to a factory owned by Hitachi, which is a large electronics company.  This factory produced a lot of refrigerators and other appliances that required white paint.  Somehow, the supervisor at Hitachi liked me and I was able to make some big sales, even though I’d only been working for a couple months.

            When I told my manager about the Hitachi sales, he was really excited.  In the Japanese business world, it’s customary for a sales company to wine and dine a client after a big sale to show appreciation and keep a good relationship.  My manager invited me to go with him to entertain the Hitachi supervisor.  That was the best part of the job!  I got to go to an expensive restaurant and high-class nightclub all for free.  The night club was very fancy and filled with expensive food and drinks.  We ate and drank… and drank… and drank.  I had to keep my professional composure.  Eventually, though, the Hitachi executive began to relax more and more.  My manager also got more relaxed and flatter and catered to the executive all night.  At one point, the Hitachi executive suddenly turned to me and said, “Mr. Oyama!—”

            “Osu, yes?” I answered.

            “You like working at this company?”

            I looked at my manager’s face.  It was an unexpected question.  “Um, yes, I love this company,” I said.


            “Really??” the Hitachi executive shot back.  My supervisor and I exchanged nervous looks again.


            “Yes.” I nodded and took a big drink.  For a little while, there was a nervous silence between the three of us.  Then the Hitachi executive started again, saying, “You know, I don’t think you’re cut out for the business world.  It doesn’t fit you.”

            Inside, I was thinking, “Wow!  He’s right.  How could he tell so easily?”

            My supervisor tried to defend me, while also not contradicting the executive.  “Oh, no, Mr. Oyama is a great fit in this company.”

            “Yes, I’ve learned many things from him,” I said, gesturing to my supervisor, “I’m still new here, so I have a lot more to learn.  But I like this job.

            “No,” the Hitachi executive said, shaking his head, “You don’t fit in this world.  Also—” he pointed at my supervisor, “his company is a tiny company!  Why don’t you quit??”


            My supervisor became very uncomfortable, but tried to hide it.  I knew the Hitachi executive was right, but I couldn’t say that, so I just answered, “Oh, no, I love this company.  I don’t want to leave.”  After six months, though, I did quit.  I began collecting unemployment and was able to study full time.

            I studied every day, at least 7 – 10 hours.  Japan is a “civil law” society, in that all the laws are created by the government and are not subject to change without their approval.  This system of law was adopted from and based on that of European countries.  In contrast, the United Sates is a “common law” society, meaning that existing laws are open for interpretation and adaptation over time by judges and precedence.  The American system was originally based on that of the United Kingdom.  So, I would study the big volumes of law books all day, every day.  As I said before, though, I had a hard time studying for such long stretches of time.  Especially after lunch and dinner.  During those times, the words on the page would start singing me lullabies.  I’d start hearing other people in the room snoring at their desks, and I’d begin nodding off.  I had to figure out how to keep myself awake, so I asked one of my seniors who seemed to be able to study for long periods of time without falling asleep.

            “When your sleepy, just slap your face or pinch your cheek really hard,” he told me.  “Or, if you don’t want to do it yourself, ask somebody else to do it for you.  There’s plenty of people around who’d be happy to slap you.”  I knew, though, that if someone slapped me, I would most likely hit them back twice as hard… that wasn’t going to work.


            “What else can I do?” I asked.

            “Well,” he said, “you can drink lots of coffee.”  But I would have to buy coffee and there was no way I could afford to buy the amount of coffee I would need every day.  So I asked him what else I could do.  He said I could do some quick exercises to wake myself up when I felt tired.  But after doing exercises, I felt more tired than before, especially in the winter when it was nice and warm in the room.

            “Is there anything else I can do?” I asked him.  He said that another good way to stay awake was to get a sewing needle, a really big one, and jab myself in the leg whenever I felt tired.  “You really do that?” I asked him.

            “Yeah, all the time,” he said.  “I have an extra needle you can use.”  So the next time I felt drowsy while studying, I used the needle.  He was right; the sharp pain sent a jolt of electricity through my body and made me wide awake!  Eventually, though, the sensation would wear off and I’d get sleepy again.  So, I’d have to keep stabbing myself periodically to stay awake.  It began to become a sort of torture, so I asked one of my other seniors if he had any ideas.

            “If you get really sleepy,” he said, “don’t fight it.  Go ahead and sleep for about 5 – 10 minutes.  Then get up and go to the bathroom to wash your face and come back to your desk.”  That method worked best for me.  I especially liked it because I didn’t need to keep stabbing myself.  As time went on, I became better and better at studying, which made me better at the debates we did on Fridays and Saturdays before the Sunday morning test each week.  My professors also told me I was doing really well, which made me excited.  After a few years of this regimen, it was time to take the bar exam.

            At that time in Japan, passing the bar exam was a year-long process (that was more than 50 years ago; I’m not sure if the process is still the same today).  There were four stages.  In February, there was a general exam.  In the spring, there was a multiple-choice exam.  It’s a tricky exam because sometimes the correct answer to a question is deliberately omitted from the answer choices.  For each question, there is potentially NO correct answer, which means you can’t just guess and get lucky.  In the summer, the third test was an essay test.  In the fall, the final stage of the exam was an interview test.  Students have to pass each test before they move on to the next stage.


            Every year, about 20,000 – 30,000 take the initial test in February.  After that, most don’t pass, and only about 2,000 – 3,000 take the multiple-choice test.  More than half of those people fail that stage and less than 1,000 people are left taking the essay test.  Only 400 - 500 of the people make it to the final interview stage out of the 20,000 – 30,000 that started.  I passed the first exam in February.  After the 2nd exam in the spring, Shihan Goda drove me in his tiny car to the Ministry of Justice, outside of which was a big board where the results were posted.  Every test-taker had an ID number.  If your number was posted, it meant you passed.  When Shihan Goda and I saw my number, we were ecstatic!  I felt like I’d already passed the entire bar exam.  We went out and celebrated.  In the summer, I failed the essay test.

            A guy in my study group passed the essay test.  He wasn’t particularly smart and his essay was nothing special.  However, he had great handwriting and spelling.  I, on the other hand, had always been told by my teachers since elementary school that my handwriting was sloppy and sometimes illegible.  My buddy, Inoue, was convinced that the only reason that guy passed and I didn’t was because of neat handwriting and spelling.  (In those days, of course, we didn’t have computers.  Everything was handwritten.  I think even today the essay part of the bar exam is handwritten).  “Think about it,” he said.  “If you’re the test-grader, you have to sit there and read hundreds and hundreds of essays.  If you came across one that was hard to read and had a bunch of misspelled words, you wouldn’t waste your time with it—you’d just throw it away.”  I agreed with Inoue.  Maybe we were both jealous, but there didn’t really seem to be any explanation.  In college, the neat handwriting guy was voted top of the class by the professors.  He wasn’t any smarter than the rest of us, but his handwriting was near perfect.

            After Inoue and I failed the essay test, we kept studying and studying and studying.  Monday – Saturday we studied.  On Sunday morning was the exam.  Sunday afternoon/evening was the only time we ever had to relax attempt to enjoy ourselves.  We didn’t have much money, but for about 30 Yen (30 Cents) we could go to a public bathhouse (Sento).  The bathhouse had a large hot bath and a smaller not-as-hot bath.  There were also shower stations.  Everyone had to bring their own small bucket with towel and soap (nobody had shampoo or conditioner in those days—everything was just washed with soap).  After showering, we’d sit in the oversized steam bath for 45 minutes to an hour and feel like kings.  After going to the bathhouse one Sunday evening, we stopped by a Yakitori pub nearby.

            The yakitori pub wasn’t like a restaurant as we think of them today.  It was a tiny ground-level room with about 3 small tables and a tiny counter.  They served beer and a small selection of food.  The only staff was an old married couple who owned the pub and lived in a tiny apartment directly above it.  Inoue and I sat at a corner table with our small buckets of washing supplies and wearing getta (traditional Japanese wooden sandals with a high platform).  The only other customer was a young guy at the bar with a mean face and a mustache, drinking by himself.  Like us, he was wearing a school uniform, but his had a really high collar.  (Students in Japan all wore a standard uniform.  Some guys, though, would try to alter their uniform by wearing really baggy pants and having a really high collar in an effort to look tough and intimidating.  Most people tried to avoid these types of guys because they were known for being bullies and starting trouble.)

While Inoue and I were discussing the constitution, he suddenly came over to our table and barked, “What’re you talking about??”

            “Um, the constitution,” I answered.  Inoue started to tense up. 

The guy then slammed his shuto (knife-hand) down hard on the middle of the table.  We tried to hold on to our drinks and washing buckets to keep them from falling to the floor.  “You guys are lucky because the law protects you, but you need to keep quiet!” he shouted.

            “Oh, OK sorry,” Inoue stammered.  The old man pleaded with the guy to leave us alone.  Inside, I was getting mad, but I told him we’d try to be quiet (even though we hadn’t been loud to begin with).


            The guy sat back down with his beer at the counter.  “Should we just go?” Inoue whispered.  He had no idea about my Karate background.


            “No, it’s OK,” I told him.  “We still have food and drinks left.  We can finish.”  We resumed our conversation, making a point to talk quietly. 

Before long, the guy came over and hit our table again.  “Be quiet, damnitt!” he shouted.

            “We’re being quiet,” I said.

            “Yes, mister,” the old man chimed in, “they’re being quiet.  I couldn’t hear anything.”

            “No,” the guy shot back, “they need to learn some manners.  I’m going to teach you a lesson!” he said, pointing at me.

            “OK,” I said, “what kind of lesson?”

            “Outside!” he shot back.  He started heading for the door.  I stood up to follow him, but Inoue was petrified and pleaded with me not to go.  I told him not to worry.


            It was getting late and dark outside.  We followed the mean-faced guy down a side alley that was lit only by a single streetlight.  He strutted, and we shuffled behind him in our getta and holding our washing buckets.  Everything was quiet, so the sound of our getta hitting the concrete as we walked made everything that much more dramatic and suspenseful.  The guy turned around took his top off.  His undershirt was dingy; totally different from the look of the uniform.  “I’m gonna teach you real good,” he said pointing at me.

            “I’ve never been in a fight before,” Inoue whispered to me, “I don’t know what to do.”

            “Don’t worry,” I said and handed him my bucket.  “If something happens, you just run.”

Saiko Shihan (L) and Inoue

           The guy got into a deep stance with his hands held out in front at waist-level.  He gave a loud scream as he did.  His mean face, voice and big movements made him look like a Kabuki actor; not a real person, but more like a cartoon.  I just looked at him and thought, “Oh, man, this is going to be too easy.” 

I got into my Kamae and asked him, “You ready?”  He just shouted and narrowed his eyes.  At that point, I did a right foot Jodan Mawashi Geri.  My getta hit him squarely in the jaw.  His body froze for a moment, then went crashing to the ground like a tree.  Once he hit the ground, his body began to shake.  Inoue just stared with his eyes and mouth wide open.  The guy groaned at first, then started snoring and drooling.

“Wow, Oyama, you’re so strong!” Inoue said with a shock expression.  Then he added, “Is he dead?”

“No,” I reassured him, “he’s snoring.  Dead people don’t snore.”

“What do we do now?” Inoue said.

I knelt down and slapped the guys face a couple times to revive him.  Once his eyes flutter open, Inoue and I ran back to his apartment, which was close by.  Soon after we got inside, we heard police sirens.  Shortly after that, we heard an ambulance.  We looked at each other.  Our hearts sank.  If the police found out and we had a record, we’d be ineligible to take the bar exam or practice law.  That would be the end of everything we’d been working on for so long.  The whole time we were running to Inoue’s apartment, we didn’t see a single person.  How on earth had the police and ambulance shown up so quickly?  We figured the only explanation was that the old man or woman had called them.

Around midnight, we still couldn’t sleep.  We went over to the yakitori bar.  It was shuttered closed.  We started knocking.  The old man came from upstairs and opened the shutter.  “We’re sorry to wake you up like this,” I said, “but we’re worried about what happened to that guy.”

“Oh, he came in a little after you guys left and asked for some ice to put on his face, then walked home.”

“Really?  So the police or ambulance didn’t come?”

“No, nothing like that,” the old man said, “He just apologized for making trouble after I gave him the ice and went home.”

Inoue and I were so relieved that our future hadn’t been destroyed that night.  A couple days after that night, I was by myself at the bathhouse in the afternoon.  The bathhouse opened at 3:00 p.m.  That was my favorite time to go, because it was virtually empty.  As I was sitting at a shower station washing my face, that same guy came and sat next to me.  When I turned to look at him, he recognized me and grabbed his stuff and ran out of there. 

I studied law with the same intensity that I had when I was training at the dojo.  I found that if I dedicated myself 100%, I could handle 10 hour study days, 7 days a week.  I believe that is true for any pursuit.  If you invest yourself wholeheartedly, results will come.  Not instantly, but gradually you will be able to accomplish what you set out to do.  You have to fight yourself.  Little by little, I trained myself to sit and study for about an hour, then take a quick break to revive myself and study for another hour.  I could feel myself getting better at studying; I began dreaming about my future as a prosecutor or attorney.  I saw myself succeeding and having a nice house, nice car.

Every year, two or three people from the four different sponsored law groups at the university passed the bar.  Some of them were dumb, but had great handwriting.  Inoue and I watched them pass and wondered why we had failed time after time.  After a few years, it became harder and harder to find my motivation to maintain my study regimen.  I began to question my choice to study law and the way in which the government administered and graded the bar exam.  One fall afternoon, I think it was October, was on my way to the public bathhouse.  Like I said, my favorite time to go was right when it opened at 3:00 p.m.  When the bathhouse opened, everything was still fresh and clean.  There was a little yard too outside the bath with a small Koi pond and a couple trees; just like the big hot springs outside of Tokyo.  There were only a very few people who went to the bathhouse at that time of day; mostly elderly and retired people.  It was highly unusual for someone my age to go to the bathhouse in the middle of the day.  But I didn’t care. 

As I was walking down the street in my getta and carrying my washing supplies, I heard a loud deep voice roar behind me, “Ooossssuuu!”

I turned and saw it was Mas Oyama.  He started giggling when he saw me.  “What are you doing?” he asked.

“Osu, I’m taking a bath,” I said.

He started laughing harder.  “What?  In the middle of the day?  You’re taking a bath now?”

“Osu, yes.” I answered.  We had a short conversation and I told about how I was studying all the time.

“You talk to your brother?” he asked, referring to Soshu. 

“Yes, we send letters every now and then.”

“You know he’s in New York now, right?  He’s very successful teaching over there.”

“Osu, yes, I heard about it.”  I tried to let it be a big deal that Soshu was in New York.  Mas Oyama didn’t say it directly, but I could tell from his eyes that he was making the point that my brother was a big success now because he had stuck with Karate.  On the other hand, I had quit, so was losing out and doing strange things like taking a bath in the middle of the day. 

            “Why don’t you start training again and go see your brother?” Mas Oyama asked.  Nowadays, travelling to another country or continent isn’t such a big deal.  But back then, when I was 28 years old, going to the United Sates was the same as going to the moon.  I didn’t want to say “no” or “yes” to the idea of training again and going to America.  I hesitated.  From his pocket, Mas Oyama pulled out five 1,000 – yen bills, folded them up and stuffed them in my shirt pocket.  Here I was, feeling rich if I had 35 yen to go to the public bath, and now Mas Oyama had given me 5,000 yen.  After he walked away, I immediately thought of all the food and drink and baths I could buy with 5,000 yen.

Mas Oyama (L) and Saiko Shihan

            After meeting Mas Oyama, I began entertaining the idea of stopping by the dojo.  Even though I studied all the time, my body was still hard-wired to want to sweat and exercise.  At the time I left, I was the top fighter/Black Belt in the dojo.  I assumed it would still be the same way if I went back.  But guess what—it was totally different.  In my head, I was still just as good as when I’d stopped 6 years before, but the reality was a rude awakening… I’ll tell you more about that part later.  Around this time too, Inoue also decided to take a break and return to his home in Shizuoka prefecture.         




When I first wrote about this part of my life, it was in Japanese and was uploaded to the website of the main branch of Oyama Karate in Japan.  Somehow, Inoue saw my essay on that website.  He emailed a picture of he and I to the Japan branch and said how he was and that he wanted to talk to Mr. Oyama.  After more than 50 years of no contact, we reconnected.  He said that after he went back to Shizuoka, he got married and worked at a company for a year.  But, he still had a desire to practice law, so he tried the bar exam again.  This time he passed.  Not only that, but in the same year, his first child was born and he got a winning Japanese lottery ticket.  We were so excited to get in touch after such a long time.  Both of us now have grandchildren.  He’s retired from practicing law, but still volunteers to work pro bono for people in need of legal advice and assistance.

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