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American Dream

Biography of Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

Chapter 13  - NEW DIRECTION Part 2

Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

When I ran into Mas Oyama outside the public bath, I was already questioning whether or not to continue studying law and trying to pass the bar exam.  By that time, many of my friends that I had been studying with, including Inoue, had gone on to something else.  We were resourceful, but always poor.  That meant we had not time or money for girlfriends, dates, restaurants, movies, etc.  But studying nonstop day after day, week after week could drive a person crazy, so we had to come up with something.  One of my seniors in our group wasn’t really that smart, but he was always cheerful and in a great mood.  He is the one that suggested that I try going to the public bath when it first opens during the middle of the day.  “A cup of coffee, will cost you 65 yen,” he said, “but admission to the bath is only 30 yen.  Plus you can stay for as long as you want.  If you get there when it first opens, everything is shiny and clean.  There’s only a few old people there during that time, so you pretty much have the place to yourself—like a king”.

            A lot of my friends took his advice and went to the public bath when we needed a break from the study routine.  Once in awhile, there’d be an old man singing a very old song in the bath.  Going there always made me feel relaxed and energized.  When I saw Mas Oyama, my passion for studying was already fading away.  When Mas Oyama talked about how well my brother was doing in America and he put the 5,000 yen in my pocket, I was so drawn in to what he was saying.  He was a great Karate master, but in another life, he could have been a Hollywood star.  That’s how smoothly he talked.  Since I was so down and burned out from studying, the offer to come back to the dojo was very tempting.

            Talking about seeing the world reminded me of how when I was in high school and college, every now and then, I liked going to Haneda International Airport and watching the big jets land and take off.  I’d try to imagine what countries they were headed to and what kind of culture, food, lifestyle awaited on the other end of the journey.  Whenever I saw them in the lobby, I was always particularly struck by the Pan-Am Airlines stewardess in their bright blue dresses.  The pilots, too, seemed to glide through the lobby, always on their way to the next exotic destination.  For a couple weeks after running into Mas Oyama, I went back and forth in my mind as to what I should do.  Should I stay or change directions and see the world?  I realized that if I wanted to go off, I had to decide soon, before it was too late, and that training and teaching Karate was probably the best way for me to do it.

            During the 6 ½ years I studied, there were a couple times that I went back to the dojo.  The first was about 3 or 4 years after I’d left.  It was a beautiful spring day.  The flowers and perfect weather made it nearly impossible to stay inside and study all day.  I was reading and writing about criminal law and had reached a sticking point.  I became frustrated.  Added to that, it was in my nature, my blood, to get out and sweat and not stay cooped up indoors all day, especially when the weather was so nice.  I decided that I’d go back to the dojo and sweat it all out.

            On the train ride, I visualized what it would be like coming back.  I hadn’t done any training or other exercise since I left, but in my head, I was still just as good as ever.  When I got out at Ikebukuro Station, it was crowded like always.  People rushed past each other in every direction.  I started moving among them, twisting and sidestepping.  I could tell the lady ahead of me would step left, so I darted right.  When an old man in front of me stopped suddenly, I spun around to the right without even touching him.  With each person I avoided, I became more and more confident.  The closer I got to the dojo, the bigger my ego became.  I imagined myself punching, kicking and taking guys down just as easily as I’d always done.  I decided that I’d teach the class a good lesson.  They’d be so in awe of my power and speed and technique.  By the time I got in the dojo, my chest was puffed out and my head was swollen bigger than ever.

            When I walked in on the first floor, there were a couple Uchi Deshi I’d never met seated by the door.  Beyond them was a reception counter that a couple old ladies were standing behind.  “OSU!” I bellowed as I came in.  I expected that everyone would flock to see me and be so excited that I’d come back… but that wasn’t the case. 

            The Uchi Deshi stood up.  One of them walked over to me.  “Osu… um, may I help you?  Do you need class information?”  I couldn’t believe it—they had no idea who I was! 

One of the ladies from behind the counter recognized me, though, and was very excited.  “Oohhh!  That’s Shihan Oyama,” she told the Uchi Deshi, “he’s the one Mas Oyama is always telling you guys about!”  I was so happy she recognized me.  She was old, and not so pretty, but at that moment, she was gorgeous and I almost fell in love.

            My confidence returned.  The Uchi Deshis’ attitudes completely changed.  They greeted me with more reverence.  “I’d like to rent a dogi and sweat a little if that’s alright,” I told them.  One of them rushed downstairs and brought back 5 dogis.  I chose the one I wanted and a white belt.  As I was changing in the dressing room, I started moving around in front of the mirror.  My dogi made the familiar crisp “Psh-psh!” sound as I punched.  All the memories of my past training came flooding back to me.

On the way up the stairs to the training area on the 2nd floor, I could hear a barrage of loud kiai’s from the class.  Fujihira was the chief instructor.  Fujihira was one of the four top fighters (including me) that Mas Oyama had selected to travel to Thailand to fight that I wrote about previously.  As soon as I entered, he stopped.  “Osu!  Senpai, it’s so great to see you!” he said as he approached me.  The students there didn’t know me, but could tell from how Fujihira treated me that I was someone special.  “You don’t need to where a white belt,” he said.

             “No, no, that’s OK,” I answered.  “I just want to sweat a little with you guys if that’s OK.”

             “Osu!  Of course!”  During the Kata and Ido Geiko practice, I was able to keep up, but I got out of breath easily.  The class ended as always with Kumite.  At that time, it was customary for the Black Belts to line up at the front and take turns fighting the other students.  “Senpai, would you like to fight?” Fujihira asked, gesturing for me to line up with the Black Belts.  “Sure,” I answered.

              I fought with a couple students and they all said “Maerimashita!” (“You win!”) pretty often, which made me feel like I could still easily handle Kumite.  When we were finished, I asked Fujihira if I could fight with him.  I realize now that I shouldn’t have done that.  I had taken 4 years off, but he had trained hard during that time, and was now at a totally different level.  I used to have to use control when I fought him, but I was in for a surprise.  Fujihira was very reluctant, but I insisted.  All the students backed up.  When we went to face each other, I tried to stand in the junior student position, but he insisted that I stand up at the senior student position.  When we got into our Kamae, suddenly he seemed to be a giant.  He was a little shorter than me, but his spirit and energy were such that he suddenly seemed huge.  I realized I’d made a mistake asking to fight with him, but it was too late.


               As soon as we started, he attacked with a barrage of punches and kicks that seemed to come from every direction.  I backed up into the wall and said, “Maerimashita!”.  The “fight” was over.  All the students clapped.  Fujihira, though, was extremely humble and gracious. 

              “Senpai, I still feel so much pressure when I face you,” he said.

              “No, no, no,” I countered, “you are great!  I didn’t have a chance against you.”  It was great being back in the dojo.  Even today, Fujihira has the reputation of training harder than anyone in the history of Kyokushin.  He would often train until midnight, sometimes until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.  The neighbors in the apartments surrounding the dojo frequently complained to the police about the noise.  The police would show up with a decibel meter to measure the noise Fujihira was making.  According to the law, if the noise was below a certain level, there was nothing the police could do to make Fujihira stop.  Whenever they brought out the machine, Fujihira was very careful to stay within the legal noise limit.  This became a famous episode in the history of Kyokushin.   He eventually left the organization and became a Muay Thai kickboxing champion.  His name is well-known not only in Japan, but in Thailand as well.  He had the nickname “Little Giant” because he wasn’t very tall, but had a large heart.

               After retiring from kickboxing, he opened a successful restaurant.  About five years ago, he stepped down and gave control of the restaurant to his son.  Shihan Goda recently told me a funny story about Fujihira going to a local kickboxing gym to start training again.

              At the time, he was about 70 years old.  After coming a few times, the owner of the gym asked Fujihira to please not come anymore.  Fujihira trained as he always had—with nonstop full intensity.  The owner said that it made the other people in the gym uncomfortable.  He said he would gladly give Fujihira’s money back if he would agree not to come anymore.  I wasn’t there, but I can easily imagine the scene that unfolded.  Gyms today are crammed with people who look at their phone or socialize just as much as they actually work out.  They lift some weights or sweat or use a machine for a few reps, then immediately check their phones.  Sometimes they just admire themselves in the mirror, or start talking to whoever they are with.  This happens in places like the YMCA and even in kickboxing gyms.  Very few people in kickboxing gyms are professionals who are dedicated to their training.

              I can imagine Fujihira working on a sandbag in the corner.  He’d warm up with some punches, and add some elbows and knee kicks, then start moving in and out and adding spin kicks, back kicks and roundhouse kicks.  As his body got warmer, his training intensity would increase.  At first, the other people would notice him and say something like, “Wow, that old man is really getting into it.”  After 10 minutes, he’d start getting in the zone and find his rhythm.  When that happens, instinct takes over.  Fujihira would start growing and shouting like a wild animal, “Eeyah!  Ay – Ay – GRAW!”

              The whole mood in the gym would change.  Fujihira’s spirit would seep into every corner, like a thick electric fog.  People would become nervous about the crazy man in the corner.  A middle-aged woman trying to kick the sandbag would become self-conscious.  “Am I supposed to kick like that??” she’d wonder.  The young man half-heartedly hitting the mitts his trainer was holding would become acutely aware how lack-luster his technique and energy was compared to the 70 year-old Fujihira. 

              I’m sure the owner was worried about people quitting, but didn’t want to offend the legendary kickboxer.  I’m sure he was very nervous when he approached Fujihira.  I’m sure Fujihira must’ve given him a look that said, “Are you kidding me?  Is this a kickboxing gym or an adult daycare?”  But he responded by saying, “Sorry about that.  I didn’t mean to cause trouble or make anyone uncomfortable.  I guess times have changed.”

              There was one other time after that I went back to train at the dojo while studying law.  This time it was in the fall.  My attitude was much humbler on my way to the dojo; not like that last time.  The same Uchi Deshi were still there.  They remembered me and greeted me when I came in.  Fujihira had left Kyokushin by that time, and a younger guy named H.K. was the chief instructor.  H.K. was built like a bodybuilder and had been All-Japan champion.  I did the class and tried to keep up with the Kata and Ido Geiko training like before.  We ended class with Kumite training.

              Some of the students remembered me from before.  When we fought, they would say “Maerimashita!” after most every technique that I did.  My techniques and power were nothing special—they were just being polite.  But it made me feel good all the same.  At the end of Kumite, H.K. asked if he could fight with me.  I had heard rumors about how H.K. treated old Black Belts that came back to the dojo.  He’d beat them up pretty badly as a way of making sure they knew he was boss.


              I was reluctant to fight with H.K., but he insisted.  He put me in a position to where if I declined, I would lose face and diminish my reputation.  So I faced him.  Whereas Fujihira’s body seemed to double in size when I faced him, H.K.’s body seemed the same.  I’d watched him fight the other students.  Fujihira was a much better fighter, but also had a big heart.  He never hurt students, but rather tried to encourage them.  H.K., though, fought students at full-force.  He was more concerned with showing off then helping them.

I felt comfortable fighting him.  One of his favorite combinations was a right low kick followed by a left face kick.  Even though I wasn’t training, I could still read people and see their habits, strengths and weaknesses.  However, my body wasn’t equipped to follow up with what my mind could see.  It was best for me to fight with a Counter-Kumite strategy.  Whenever he tried to kick me, I’m blocked hard as a way of saying, “I know what you’re trying to do, but it won’t work on me.”  Twice he attacked me as hard as possible with his right low kick.  Both times I blocked it with my knee.  After the second kick, he started limping.  I could tell he was getting frustrated.  “Is that enough for you?” he asked me.

               “Sure, I’m fine if you are,” I said.  I hadn’t really beat him, but then again, he hadn’t beat me either despite his best efforts.  After these two experiences of returning to the dojo, I reflected how important it is for any athlete to maintain a consistent training regimen.  If you take a couple years off, or months, sometimes even weeks, you lose your sixth sense—your instinct.  Your body doesn’t move and react like it did, although your ego will tell you that nothing’s changed.  Even now, I point this out to my students.  Whenever they have to take time off from training because of work, family, business or other circumstances, I remind them when they come back that they need to be patient and work to get back to where they were when the left.

               Since my brother, Soshu, had gone to America, we kept in touch by writing letters to each other.  After I ran into Mas Oyama, I told him about it and how I was considering coming back.  He told me that if I started training again, I could probably handle it in the United States, just like he had.  But I had to decide soon.  I wasn’t going to be young forever.      


Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

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