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American Dream

Biography of Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

Chapter 14  - HOMECOMING

Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

When I told my brother, Soshu, that I was considering coming back to the dojo, he told me that the window of opportunity was closing fast; I was still young enough to restart this journey, but wouldn’t be for long.  My mother felt the same way.  “You only have one life,” she said, “whatever you choose to do with it is fine.  But you’ll only have the strength for an adventure like this while you’re young.”

            I wasn’t quite 100% committed to come back when I stopped by the Kyokushin Headquarters Dojo.  By that time, H.K. had left, and a Brown Belt named S.H. was the chief instructor.  I couldn’t believe it!  The chief instructor at the Kyokushin International Headquarters Dojo was just a Brown Belt!?  When I asked one of the office ladies about it, she said that most of the Black Belts had left.  She was reluctant to say why or talk about it any further. 

            Although I’d been away, my heart had never really left the dojo.  My mindset was much different from when I had first started training.  In the beginning, I was motivated by wanting revenge on my brother and Haruyama.  I pushed myself hard to catch up to their level.  After I did, my passion started dying down.  Then there was the period of training for fighting Muay Thai in Thailand.  When that didn’t work out, I changed my focus to studying law and passing the bar exam.  In coming back this last time, I didn’t feel I was there to catch up to or compete with other people.  I believe, subconsciously, I was motivated by a desire to understand Karate on a deeper level and to share my experience with the younger generation. 

            Since I’d been away, the dojo had out of the flimsy shack where it had been to a location closer to the train/subway station.  The value of real estate increased the closer it was to the main station.  Also, the dojo was now a 4-story building, both of which were signs that the organization was growing and prospering.  The locker rooms were in the basement, the office and reception area were on the ground floor and above that was the main dojo.  The 3rd floor had Mas Oyama’s office and a meeting room and above that was a living area on the 4th floor.  At that time, Mas Oyama had the title of “Kancho”.  Later, the top people from a lot of other styles gave themselves the title of “Kancho”, so he changed it to “Sosai”.


            On a side note, it’s a funny situation about the evolution of rank/titles in the Karate world.  Around the time I came to the U.S., in the early 70’s, if a group of 10 Karateka were walking down the street and someone called out to them, “Sensei!”, only one, if any of them, would turn around.  A few years later, out of the group of 10, nearly all 10 of them would turn around when someone called out, “Sensei!”  A few years after that, if someone called out “Shihan!” only one, if any, of a group of 10 would turn around.  A few years after that, all 10 of them would turn around.  So, I understand why Mas Oyama changed is title from “Kancho” to “Sosai”.  (Coincidentally, some top executives of national banks in Japan also have the title of “Sosai”).  There aren’t any laws or regulations that dictate what title someone in the Karate world can give themselves.  Even a small group of ten people can claim they are an international organization and the leader can give himself the title of “Sosai-Super-Spiderman” if he wants to. 

            Traditionally, a title is a symbol of power and a special position, as in “president”, “prime minister”, “king”, etc.  Titles are used in almost every business and organization to distinguish the holder with importance and seniority.  Even TV news reporters use titles like “Senior Economic Correspondent” and “Chief Political Analyst” and so on.  The Kyokushin organization was growing around the world.  If small little groups could get together and give their leader the title of “Kancho”, then it took away from the prestige of the title for a large organization like Kyokushin.  Titles are extremely important in the martial arts world, even more so than in politics, news organizations and business.  So, Mas Oyama gave himself the big title of “Sosai” to help him stand out in the Karate world.  Anyway, back to the story…

            I had a long talk with Mas Oyama.  He said that there weren’t many quality instructors at the Headquarters dojo right now.  He said that over the years, most of the Black Belts had quit because they didn’t have enough passion for training.  I knew there was probably more to it than that.  Most likely, there were misunderstandings between the Black Belts and Mas Oyama about their financial compensation and prospects for the future.  During this time, Karate had started a wave that was getting bigger and bigger by the day and spreading across the globe.  Black Belts at the Headquarters dojo trained hard in hopes of riding this wave and opening up their own dojo somewhere in Japan or even another country.  The amount of training required, though, meant that keeping a full-time job at the same time was not really possible.

            Mas Oyama would tell these guys to dream big and see the world.  So they dedicated themselves to training with that goal in mind.  However, Mas Oyama didn’t have any real concrete plan in place, so their plans of travelling abroad to teach Karate got postponed and postponed until eventually they left out of frustration.  I believe that Mas Oyama wanted these passionate Black Belts to be able to open their own dojos across the world and build up the organization, but he was so busy that he wasn’t able to layout a concrete path for them to follow.  He needed someone (like me) who could manage and organize one.  A growing international organization like Kyokushin needed quality, professional full-time instructors.  Some of the top instructors (like my brother) went off to other countries to open dojos.  For the ones that stayed, Mas Oyama didn’t pay them, so they left because they couldn’t support themselves.  I told Mas Oyama that I wanted to build up and systematize the training for future instructors.  I committed to stay at least 2 years and send some of my Kohai (juniors) out as instructors before I, myself, left in order to ensure that the system would continue running smoothly in my absence.  After the 2 years, I said I wanted to go to the USA for at least on year to teach Karate.

            A lot of foreigners had become excited about Karate and were making the trip to train at the Headquarters dojo in Tokyo.  If they were to come and see that a Brown Belt was the chief instructor, they would be disappointed, and it would be detrimental to the worldwide reputation of the Kyokushin organization.  In that way, I feel that Mas Oyama was waiting for someone like me who had a history of training and understood how to take the quality of instruction at the headquarters to the next level.

            Mas Oyama said that the dojo didn’t have the money to pay instructors.  I knew he would answer that way.  I told him it wasn’t necessary to pay a lot.  Instructors wouldn’t need bonuses or vacations, just the amount necessary to have enough food and a roof over their heads.  He agreed to that and I agreed to come back.  Now that it was official, the first thing I wanted to do was get the old Black Belts to return to the dojo.  I told Shihan Goda to get in touch with them and let them know I wanted to have a meeting (Today, Shihan Goda is the Executive Advisor of the International Kyokushin Karate Organization.  At this time, though, even he had left the dojo).  Shihan Goda didn’t have a big head.  He wasn’t snobby and took care of people and was always honest.  That’s why even the Black Belts who left still held him in high regard.

            Shihan Goda lived with his parents in a house that was very close to the dojo, so he arranged for all of us to meet there.  In Japan, it is very common for children (especially the oldest son) to live with their parents even when they have a full-time career, are married, and the means to be independent.  In the U.S., it’s normal for children to go out on their own and make their own way once they become adults, but in Japan it’s the opposite.  Part of it has to do with strong familial bonds.  The other reason is economics.  The cost of living in Japan is very high, especially in big cities like Tokyo. 

           One night, we all crowded onto the 2nd floor of Shihan Goda’s house.   Although they had left, the Black Belts knew me, my history and reputation, so were willing to hear what I had to say.  I told them that I was coming back.  The Kyokushin organization was expanding and a lot of people in Japan and across the world wanted to train and come to the headquarters.  It looked really bad that the head instructor was just a Brown Belt.  I was asking them to consider coming back and helping me build up the Kyokushin Organization.

            Most all of the Black Belts at that meeting had left because of a falling out with Mas Oyama for one reason or another.  Many of them felt that Mas Oyama had not delivered on his promises or come through for them in the way they had been told he would.  I told them what I had discussed with Mas Oyama, how I was committing to stay for 2 years and establish the instructor training system.  I would add a special Black Belt class and create a Black Belt Association.  (Today, so many of the people who were part of that Association have formed their own organizations and made great contributions in building up Karate across the globe.)   

              I said that I would help smooth over whatever grievances they had with Mas Oyama.  We were still pretty much the only Karate style that did full contact.  It scared people but also drew them closer out of curiosity of how training like that was possible.  I believed if we had strong fundamentals in our training, we could really expand the scope and quality of the organization.  The majority of the Black Belt were very receptive to the idea.  One of the most junior of them even tried to make an inspirational speech about how Mas Oyama had done so much for us and now it was time for us to give back.  His name was K. and he was a 1st Degree Black Belt.  In a meeting like this, traditionally, the lowest-ranking and most junior members of the group don’t speak, but rather listen and defer to the views expressed by the senior members.  These Black Belts were in the position of depending on Karate and teaching Karate to make a living.  This guy, though, already had a full-time job.  Karate for him was more of a hobby.  But he couldn’t help himself from chiming in.  He obviously had no understanding of the position the other Black Belts were in and by speaking out was disregarding their frustrations with not being able to earn a living doing what they loved and for something they had sacrificed so much time and energy for. 

            It was like an atomic bomb had gone off.  Everyone shouted back at him, ready to rip him apart.  I told K. to shut up and was able to calm everyone down eventually.  This was only the first of many instances when K. would open his mouth when he shouldn’t—that was just who he was.  He couldn’t help it.  To this day, he doesn’t have many friends.  Whenever he opens his mouth, nobody listens because they know doesn’t have any credible history in Karate, just a big mouth.

            A couple of the Black Belts said that night that they would come back, but even more of them said they would very seriously consider it over the coming days.  To me, that meant the meeting had been a big success.  Shihan Goda kept his fulltime job but returned to train at the dojo, as did a couple other Black Belts.  The energy in the building changed dramatically.  Even the office ladies on the first floor noticed it.  But I struggled to build up my condition after such a long absence. 

            By that time, I was 29 years old.  I trained hard every day to get back to the level I had been when I left.  I was reminded about what Musashi says about “Hyoshi” (“Rhythm”).  When you push yourself hard in training, push beyond your limits, you reach a point where you see a new “you”.  You question whether you are still human or have become some sort of superman.  Suddenly, you are in the zone.  In my earlier training, while I was chasing Haruyama and my brother, I was at this stage.  My body automatically knew how to read my opponent, the distance, angle I needed to be.  I acted before thinking; everything was instinctual.  When I returned, all that was gone.  I realized that there was no magic to getting back to that state.  There were no shortcuts or meditation tricks—it was just a matter of sweating and sweating and sweating.     

            I came back to the dojo in the fall.  The following winter, in early January, was the winter camp.  Still today, the winter training camp is held atop Mt. Mitsumine in Japan.  The top of that mountain has a Shinto shrine and large area for guests and a big bathhouse.  In the time between when I returned and the winter camp, Howard Collins showed up at the headquarters dojo.  He was a Kyokushin student from Wales.  He had a large bag with him and looked like some kind of homeless guy.  He said that he wished to stay and dedicate himself to training for a year.  At that time, we still didn’t have an Uchi Deshi system in place.  He said he had nowhere to stay and had enough money with him for a year’s worth of basic necessities, but that was it.

            I didn’t want to turn him away, so arranged for him to stay in a small apartment behind the dojo.  This building later became the dormitory for all uchi deshi.  Howard Collins went on to become European Champion and did a lot to build up the organization in Europe. 

            It was near the end of the year when Howard Collins showed up.  We were preparing to go to winter camp at Mt. Mitsumine at the start of the new year.  This is a very famous mountain where Musashi stayed and trained.  In his lifetime, Musashi fought nearly 60 duels and never lost.  He wrote books about fighting strategy, the most famous of which is probably A Book of Five Rings.  Mas Oyama had great respect for Musashi, which is why he chose that location for the winter camp.  The camp was near Tokyo, so a lot of the smaller dojos in the area were able to attend too, including the Josai University Karate Club.  Since the meeting at Shihan Goda’s house, some of the Black Belts had started to come back and train, but no one had yet committed to being a full-time instructor, so I was always on the lookout for my successor.


Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama (L) and Soshu S. Oyama (R)

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