Biography of Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama
Chapter 16 - BLACK BELT CLASS
Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama (Center) with Shihan Miura (L) and Kishi (R) at Summer Camp
After the winter camp, more and more of the Black Belts began returning to the dojo. There was an exciting and fresh feeling in classes. At that time, we only had adult classes, no kids’ classes. But we added a 壮年部 (Sounenbu) class for students who were middle-aged and older. The following year, we also added a women’s class. Besides teaching class, I had numerous other responsibilities. I managed the daily operations of the dojo and also dealt with the increasing number of foreign visitors who came to train there. At the same time, we also began publishing a monthly Kyokushin magazine, which I was responsible for editing. Mas Oyama also started working on a Karate book for children. I was the liaison between Mas Oyama and all of the publishers, businessman and other professionals. Everything came to me first. If I deemed it was important enough, I’d bring it so Mas Oyama’s attention. So although I was the chief instructor, the majority of my time was spent coordinating things and managing the Kyokushin organization. It made it difficult to find time to train and build up my condition.
A couple years before I returned to the dojo, Kyokushin Karate had established a yearly All-Japan Knockdown Tournament. This event had made huge waves in the martial arts world and was a big hit with the public. It was held in Tokyo stadium, which could hold about 10,000 spectators. There was a lot of work that went into putting on the tournament and it fell to me to make sure everything went smoothly. We also sold advertisements in our tournament program to cover the costs.
It became very apparent to me that I needed at least 4 or 5 other full-time instructors who could share all of these responsibilities. In any Karate style, the students who are most motivated and passionate about training are usually the Brown Belts. The Black Belt is within their sights, and they are excited to finally reach it. Now, in 2018, I honestly have a big question about the value of a Black Belt since they seem much more common. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, though, a Black Belt was every valuable and much rarer. It was the symbol of power, strength and technique and carried and almost mythical status.
A 1st Degree Black Belt is referred to “Sho-Dan”. “Dan” meaning “Degree” and “Sho” meaning “Beginning”. Other degrees of Black Belt are numbered, (Ni--, San--, Yon—Dan, etc.) but a 1st Degree isn’t “Ichi” but “Sho”. The idea is that once someone reaches Black Belt, their training truly begins. For the 3 or 4 years leading up to getting a Black Belt, a student spends so much time with each basic technique. They start talking to him, telling him what he needs to do to improve, and why some techniques don’t fit him yet (conditioning, strength, effort, etc.). After working with each technique and applying them in Kata and Kumite, they can finally understand what they need to do continue improving on their lifelong training journey.
This is the ideal. What often happens, though, is that once a student reaches Black Belt, they slow down. They start losing the passion they had before and become complacent. It was for this reason that I told Mas Oyama we need to add a Black Belt class so that the Black Belts could continue challenging themselves in training, which in turn would insure that the quality and excitement in the dojo continued to increase. We added a Kurobi Kenkyu Kai (Black Belt study class). It was also referred to as “Obi-Ken”. The class met twice a week—one weeknight and Sunday afternoons. Mas Oyama was in charge of teaching the class. One the weeknight, it started at 8:00 p.m. The first night, he came down from the 4th floor with a toothpick in his mouth, having just finished dinner.
“Black Belt Class” sounded like it should be something mysterious and deeply meaningful… however that didn’t turn out to be the case. “You guys need to build up your condition,” Mas Oyama bellowed, “so we’re going to do just kicks!” So, we did the following combination: Mae Geri—Mawashi Geri—Ushiro Geri—Mae Geri—Mawashi Geri (Snap Kick—Roundhouse—Back Kick—Snap Kick—Roundhouse). We did the combination, then turned around and did it again… and again… and again… For 2 hours we did these kicks, in this order, nonstop! There was nothing mysterious or deeply meaningful about any of it.
Shihan Goda and I still laugh when we think about these special Black Belt classes. “Training that way is why I can still stand under the waterfall and sprint up the stairs at Tokyo station even though I’m 78 years old,” Shihan Goda told me. Nobody complained about these classes, but it was far from what we had expected. After a few weeks, I asked Mas Oyama if we could perhaps practice something different too.
At the next class, we did the 5 kicks for about 45 minutes. Then Mas Oyama declared, “OK, now we’re going to spin after every technique. Circle, circle!” So we started spinning 360° after every single punch, block and kick between each repetition. We spun nonstop for the rest of class. Everyone got extremely dizzy. Even when class was finished and we were sitting down on our knees with our eyes closed, our heads were still spinning. After about 3 months of doing classes that were just 5-kick combinations and endless spinning, Mas Oyama decided we needed to add jump kicks.
Mas Oyama’s design for our jump kick training was to hang a bunch of tennis balls from the ceiling. We were told to run and jump and kick the tennis balls. It was the end of class, though, so everyone was already exhausted. Some people jumped, but could only hit the ball with their head. “Kick it!” Mas Oyama shouted, “This is Karate, not soccer!” Some days we practiced jump snap kicks, sometimes jump roundhouse or back spin kicks or jump knee kicks—it all depended on Mas Oyama’s mood. Sometimes we had to do all 4 in a row, but would be so tired by the end, we’d just punch it instead of kick. Even Mas Oyama would laugh at that point. “You guys don’t have enough spirit!” he said.
So the 5-kicks, spinning and jump kicks were the extent of our “special” Black Belt classes. Mas Oyama never offered us any individualized training guidance or indication of what we needed to work on—he said we needed to figure that out for ourselves… The image we had of Obiken initially was that it would be a great and deep-training class. But it turned out to be a twice-a-week training hell.
Even so, we made a lot of great memories during that time, especially after class. After showering, we’d always sit down together in the dorm behind the dojo and drink ice cold beer together. At that time, Shihan Goda didn’t’ drink and would request orange juice, but we made him drink beer instead, even if it was just a tiny bit. (Now, though, he can drink anything. After tournaments, executive meetings, Black Belt gatherings, he has no problem drinking beer, sake, liquor. He never gets drunk or loses control, though, just smiles and sometimes hums)
In this type of setting, traditionally, nobody is allowed to start drinking until the most senior member of the group starts. I was the most senior member, so nobody could drink until I did. Sometimes, I’d tease them. The cold beer would be poured in glasses in front of everyone. Everyone was incredibly thirsty, but I would start making some kind of speech. Then I’d grab my class, almost drink, but put it down again before saying something else. At first, everyone would listen and be as patient as they could. I enjoyed torturing these young, powerful Black Belts. I could see them salivating over the beer but would make them wait as long as I could.
After the 2nd or 3rd time I did it, the 2 guys sitting next to me would grab my hand and try to force it to my mouth, pleading, “Shihan, please just take a drink.”
“I still have more to say,” I protested.
“Just take a drink, then you could say whatever you want—we won’t care.” Through the hard training, we developed such great friendships in the Kurobi Ura no Kai. As I write even now, I can feel the warmth of the time we shared. We loved Kyokushin and worked with tremendous energy to develop the organization.
I was always looking for Black Belts who I could recruit as assistant instructors. For that reason, I told the Black Belts at all of the dojos near Tokyo (including Josai University) that they needed to come to Black Belt class at least once a week. Araki, who was the captain of the Josai University Kyokushin Karate Club, came to the classes. He also brought Miura and a couple other juniors with him. With finding assistant instructors in mind, I began fostering the relationship with Araki and the Josai University Black Belts.
When I returned to the dojo, the understanding I had with Mas Oyama was that I would train and be the chief instructor. But I ended up being responsible for managing the Kyokushin organization as well, which meant that I had to spend more time doing managerial tasks than teaching classes. The worldwide popularity of Karate started booming during that time, so there was a sharp increase in the number of students at the dojo, not only from Japan, but ones that travelled from other parts of Asia, Europe and the United States. Mas Oyama put me in charge of dealing with publishers, photographers, outside businesses and ghost writing the monthly Kyokushin magazine. At first, he hired professional writers to help him with the articles in the magazine, but they didn’t know anything about Karate. Mas Oyama didn’t like what they wrote, so he fired them on the spot (just like Donald Trump in The Apprentice). We wondered how the magazine would get produced without a writing staff.
“Yasuhiko!” Mas Oyama shouted, “You handle it!”. Since I’d studied law and tried to pass the bar exam, he figured I’d be able to write intelligently enough. With a monthly magazine, though, it’s important to have a variety of content and new and interesting viewpoints and articles. That meant a lot of planning had to be done and I had to keep up with current events and the news of the world. Often, Karate instructors are content to immerse themselves in solely in the Karate world. They begin to lose touch with what else is happening in the world around them; doing so would be detrimental to writing interesting articles on a monthly basis.
With all of the responsibilities I had, I figured I needed 4 or 5 assistant instructors. I would be able to develop a fundamental instructor training system, send them out to different countries before going myself. As I mentioned, Araki was my first choice for an assistant instructor, but his familial obligations prevented him from doing it. Miura was a good choice too. He was tall, had great technique and a lot of guts. Yoshioka, one of Miura’s buddies, was also a great choice. After one of the Black Belt classes, I told them both that I wanted to take them to dinner in Ginza. Ginza is a very posh part of Tokyo, so both of their eyes popped open at the invitation.
I made a reservation for later in the week. The restaurants in Ginza are the type you need to dress up a little for. I didn’t wear a suit and tie, but had nice clothes and shoes. I waited for them outside the restaurant. When they showed up, Miura was wearing flip-flops and a t-shirt and Yoshioka as wearing naga-gutsu (rubber work boots).
“What the hell are you guys wearing??” I asked when I saw them. “We can’t eat here if you look like that.” I cancelled the reservation and took them to a Ramen and Gyoza (fried dumpling) place instead. At first I was mad about their clothes, but really it made me like them more. They weren’t pretentious. They didn’t care about appearances or being anything other than themselves.
Both of them were studying economics at Josai University. I couldn’t imagine them having a job in the financial world, wearing a suit every day. “So what are you going to do after graduation?” I asked them at dinner.
“Um… well…” they both hesitated. Yoshioka said his father owned a small company, so he would probably end up there.
“What about you?” I asked Miura.
“Hmm… ahhh…” he didn’t really have a plan yet. At that time, all the big companies in Japan usually only hired graduates from top, well-established universities. Josai University was relatively new, so Miura and Yoshioka didn’t have much chance of getting in with a big company. I pointed this out to them, along with the fact that their grades were probably average at best. Also, I told them that being a Karate instructor was their best chance of seeing the world and being successful.
They both thanked me for the offer, but didn’t give me an answer that night. A couple months passed, and still they hadn’t made a decision. At the beginning of the new year, we had a Kagami Biraki. (This is a traditional New Year’s ceremony/party that signifies the beginning of the year of training in the dojo). After the ceremony, we sat around eating, drinking and talking with Mas Oyama. Miura and Yoshioka were there, as was their friend Sudo. I had made the same offer to Sudo as the other two. After Mas Oyama left, I brought some beer over to them and began pouring.
“Did you think about what we discussed?” I asked Miura.
“OSU! Yes,” he said.
“Did you decide?” I asked.
“Umm… oh…” he started.
“Listen,” I told him, “we talked about 4 months ago. It’s not your style to postpone things. It’s not my style either. So you need to tell me now, tonight, what your answer is.”
Miura finished his glass of beer in one drink. I poured him more. He drank that down too, slammed the glass on the table and shouted, “OSU! I’m gonna do it!”
Sudo and Yoshioka did the same with their drinks, slammed down their glasses and also declared that they would do it. That was one of the most exciting moments I had during the time after I returned to the dojo. After I came to the United States, Miura went on to become All-Japan Champion and complete the 100-man Kumite.
In the end, Yoshioka wasn’t able to do it after all. But I succeeded with two out of the three guys, so that still wasn’t bad. There was one other guy name Kishi that I wanted as an assistant instructor. He was as tall as me, but twice as big. He had a daytime job, but loved training. He was a strong fighter but also had a pure heart. He looked out for other students. Kishi had a great Ushiro Geri (Back Straight Kick). I wasn’t there, but Miura told me how one night Kishi was fighting an Israeli Kodokan Judo guy that was about 3 times his size. Kishi weighed about 150 lbs., and this guy was tall and well over 230 lbs. With a single back kick, Kishi sent the guy flying across the dojo. After hearing about this, I started observing how he executed Ushiro Geri to figure out how he was able to put so much power into it. Most people execute Ushiro Geri by turning the front foot toward the target then kicking. But Kishi’s turn originated from springing off of both feet at the same time and planting the supporting heel facing the target. He would remain relaxed in his Kamae and footwork to set up his movement, which enabled him to turn in a split second. This method requires a lot of practice but generates a tremendous amount of force.
Kishi and Miura were very close, like brothers. Kishi’s father owned and operated a pretty big farm in northern Japan in Yamagata prefecture. Traditionally, since he was the oldest son, he was expected to eventually take over the farm after his father. It was customary in families like this to allow the oldest son to go out for a set amount of time and have adventures when he was young (in Kishi’s case it was training Karate in Tokyo) with the understanding that they would then return and take over the farm. Even though I knew Kishi’s situation, I still hoped there was some way it could change.
Kishi’s passion for training surpassed that of other Black Belts. In training, most Black Belts tended to lose their excitement, to some degree, when doing the same techniques over and over through the years. Kishi, though, trained like someone who wanted to make the most of his time and put 100% of his effort into whatever he was doing at the moment.
The culmination of Kishi’s training was Mas Oyama sending him to Taiwan to teach for a few months. Shortly after he returned from Taiwan, it was announced that he would be returning to his family home in Yamagata. We had a farewell party for him. A couple months after Kishi left, Mas Oyama called me and Shihan Goda up to his office. Usually, he just called me up to the office, so we figured this must be something different.
“What do you think about Kishi?” Mas Oyama asked us.
“He’s a great Black Belt and a great guy,” we answered.
“I know,” said Mas Oyama, “Don’t you want him as an assistant instructor?”
“Osu. Yes, but it’s not possible with his family situation,” I answered.
“Did you talk to his father?” Mas Oyama asked.
“Then how do you know?”
“That’s what he told us.”
“You think that Kishi wants to train more?”
“I think so.”
“Do Kishi and Miura get along?” Mas Oyama asked.
“Osu, yes, like brothers,” I said.
“So, why don’t you guys go up to Yamagata and talk to his father? Ask if he can come back for a couple more years.”
Shihan Goda and I didn’t think there was much chance it being successful, but Mas Oyama would be paying our travel expenses, so it would be a couple days of vacation, which was exciting. We called Kishi ahead of time and let him know we were coming for a visit. We didn’t mention anything about getting him to come back. He was so excited when he met us at the train station. Yamagata was a beautiful place, especially compared to Tokyo. It was covered in picturesque mountains and rice fields. The air was pure and the sky was even a deeper color of blue. Yamagata is famous for producing high-quality rice. There’s a contest every year to see who has the best-tasting rice. A lot of people don’t realize it, but there is a wide range of quality and tastes of rice, just like there is with wine.
We ate dinner with Kishi, his father and younger brother. Both Kishi’s father and younger brother were very stout and had a dominating physical presence. Kishi’s brother played soccer in a top-level team. It was a great dinner and Kishi’s family was very hospitable. I had a hard time relaxing, though, because I was nervous about how and when to bring up the subject of Kishi returning. Shihan Goda, though, didn’t seem at all bothered; he just ate and ate. I was tempted to not bring up the subject at all, to just go back and tell Mas Oyama that we tried but weren’t successful.
After dinner, we sat drinking tea. “By the way, Mr. Kishi,” Shihan Goda said to Kishi’s father, “we’d like to have Kishi back at the dojo.” I guess I didn’t need to worry anymore about bringing up the subject.
“Um, yes…” I started, “you still look very young and healthy. Maybe you could allow Kishi to come back for a couple more years, train and be an assistant instructor and compete in the All-Japan Championship.”
Before I finished speaking, the temperature in the room became icy cold. Kishi’s father and brother remained cool on the surface, but inside I could see their anger was about to boil over. From their point of view, Kishi had just returned from being away a few years, and here we were trying to pull him away again. His father and brother were very strong in their response, and let us know how wrong it was of us to even ask such a thing.
“I know, I know,” I said, trying to keep the peace, “I understand perfectly. It’s just that my teacher, Mas Oyama, told us to try and ask.”
“Did you come here to visit or just to try and take Kishi away from us?” his father asked.
“Well, to visit... mostly, but kind of both. I’m sorry. I can see that it’s something I shouldn’t have asked.”
At that point, Kishi became angry with his father and brother for insulting us, his seniors. This wasn’t at all what we wanted to happen. Eventually everybody calmed down. We spent the night there. The next night, Kishi’s family paid for me, Shihan Goda and Kishi to stay at a really nice hot springs and hotel. We ate and soaked in the hot springs and didn’t talk about Karate at all.
When we got back to Tokyo, I told Mas Oyama that we had tried to talk with Kishi’s father, but weren’t successful. Things went back to normal. One night, about a week later, I slept at the dormitory. We had our morning meeting with Mas Oyama every day at 8:30 a.m. At about 5:00 a.m., there was a loud pounding on the door. I was angry about being woken up when I answered. There was Kishi carrying only his dogi.
“OSU!” he shouted, “I’ve come back!”
I couldn’t believe it. Both of us had tears in our eyes. “What about your father and brother?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, “I’m back for a couple more years and want to start training.” For me, that was an 一騎当千 (Ikki Tou Sen) moment. Ikki Tou Sen is an ancient proverb about a single Samurai fighting against 1,000 opponents and winning easily. I had Miura and Kishi, against all odds. I felt that I’d finally accomplished my goal of setting up a teaching and training system and Headquarters Dojo. With these two, we could build up the strongest organization in the world. By the way, besides being great fighters, Kishi and Miura were also great singers. Whenever we drank together, we always asked Kishi to sing. He would sing very old traditional songs with an enormous and powerful voice. The songs were full of images of mountains, rivers and fields from his home. The emotion he had when singing made me feel like I was there with him. To me, listening to him sing was like listening to opera. I wish I could hear him just one more time.
Coincidentally, as Sensei Karl and I were writing this section of the biography, I received a phone call from Shihan Takahashi in Atlanta. He informed me that Kishi had passed away the day before (April 23rd). Kishi and I hadn’t talked or seen any each other for many, many years. I heard about him occasionally from other people. He was still training and taking care of his family’s farm. Sometimes in life, there are invisible strings that connect our souls to those of other people in our life that we often aren’t aware of. I called Shihan Miura in Chicago. He hadn’t heard the news yet either and was shocked to learn of Kishi’s passing. We reminisced about all the great memories we had training together and what a great man Kishi was. I hope that he is resting in peace and that when I pass on I can see train with him again.
Kishi (R) and Howard Collins (L) during filming at Kyokushin Headquarters in Tokyo