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American Dream

Biography of Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

Chapter 19  - UCHI DESHI LIFE

With the global rise in popularity of Kyokushin (and Karate as a whole) came an increase in the number of people wanting to become Uchi Deshi.  The first step in becoming an Uchi Deshi was to send an introductory letter to Honbu Dojo that included detailed information on the applicant’s background, education, physical condition, etc. along with a picture.  We would receive two or three letters per month.  First, Mas Oyama would read them, then he’d put them on my desk for me to read.  Afterwards, he and I would discuss each applicant’s letter.  We received letters from people in Japan as well as other countries.

            Since the popularity of Karate was just beginning to spread, a lot of the applicants from foreign countries had big misconceptions as to what becoming an Uchi Deshi meant.  Many of them offered to train for Mas Oyama; if he gave them money and paid their expenses, they were willing to learn from him and go back to their countries to build up the organization.  Once in a while, we would get crazy letters from guys who listed pages and pages of all their training experience and degrees of Black Belt in Taekwondo, Judo, Kung Fu, etc.  One guy claimed to have a combined total of over 100 degrees.  Other applicants would go on an on about how they would be the best student in the world and better than anyone the dojo had seen before.

            Teaching Uchi Deshi is a hard job.  Mas Oyama didn’t really get directly involved other than the daily morning lecture about how we needed to train harder and that we should be kind to others but hard on ourselves.  This is something he would drill into us whenever we messed up.  The senior instructors and I had big callouses in our ears from listening to him preaching about this so many times. 

            Since the senior instructors and I would be the ones overseeing and living with the Uchi Deshi, it was important that we didn’t admit anyone who would become a big headache for us.  We didn’t want the added burden of being responsible for people from other countries, so we tried to discourage them from coming in our response letters.  Mas Oyama’s secretary would send the responses to people who wrote to us asking to be Uchi Deshi.  The letters would say things about how expensive Tokyo was, how expensive lessons for Uchi Deshi were, how expensive food and drinks were in Tokyo.  Because of that, the letters would say, we needed full details on their financial background and proof of their insurance because we were a full-contact style and medical treatment in the case of an accident was very expensive.  At that time in Japan, anyone under the age of 21 was legally considered a minor.  So the letter said that anyone under the age of 21 had to bring a parent with them and stay with that parent while they trained.  After sending this type of response letter, we usually never heard back from them again.

            The Japanese applicants were a little different.  They would send more formal resumes and introduction letters.  There was a required fee to pay, like a tuition fee, for becoming an Uchi Deshi.  This fee was pretty high because it covered food, living expenses and instruction fees for 3 years (1,000 days) of living as an Uchi Deshi.  Some applicants had jobs and saved money to become Uchi Deshi, others had parents or other family members that paid for them.  After submitting their paperwork, applicants that we approved were summoned for an interview with Mas Oyama and I. 

            During the interview, 99% of the candidates had overwhelming conviction that they were ready to completely dedicate themselves to training.  They would say things like, “I’m ready to die for Kyokushin Karate”, or “All my life, I’ve dreamed of nothing but becoming an Uchi Deshi and a full-contact champion”.  Others declared, “I’m ready to dedicate myself 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to training.  I don’t need TV, music, vacation—just Karate.”  The details of the speeches varied from person to person, but the overall tone was pretty much the same. 

            At the interview, we made sure they understood what the Uchi Deshi lifestyle entailed; there was no free time, just training, cleaning, working, training again from morning to night.  Whatever the senior instructor said to do, they had to do, no questions.  If he said go run 10 miles, they had to go run 10 miles.  If he said start cleaning, they had to start cleaning.  Lastly, the fee for Uchi Deshi was not cheap and they had to pay the total amount for 3 years up front.  Furthermore, there would be absolutely no refunds.

            On the day we admitted the first 10 Uchi Deshi, they were completely gung-ho.  Their chi and enthusiasm were overwhelming.  They all stood inside the tiny dorm, each with a stern Samurai face.  However, it didn’t take long for the realities of Uchi Deshi life to sink in.  First of all, the food was basically always the same—sautéed vegetables with meat—either pork, beef or chicken. 

            Once in awhile, the parents would accompany the prospective Uchi Deshi to the interview.  Usually, the father wouldn’t say much, but the mother would be full of things to say.  One mother told us that her son didn’t like to eat fish skin or broccoli.  Mas Oyama and I didn’t know what to make of this comment at first, but soon realized that the guy was a real mama’s boy.  We just listened with a straight face while she gave other detailed instructions about how to take care of her son.  On this guy’s first day as an Uchi Deshi (as we usually did in cases like this), we gave him fish skin and broccoli for every meal.

            We put the food in front of him and everybody watched him eat.  “How’s it taste?” I asked him.

            He tried not to make a face while he chewed.  “It’s, um, very good,” he answered.

            “OK, great.  Tomorrow, you’ll have the same thing again.”  (By the way, everyone that graduated from being Uchi Deshi was a terrific cook.  They came to know everything about preparing meat and seasoning food.  They could easily get a job as a chef at any restaurant).  There was only water to drink.  Very occasionally, we would have juice or milk, but food and drink were consumed in order of seniority, so the newest Uchi Deshi only got what was left after everyone else had finished.  If they wanted something more to eat, Uchi Deshi couldn’t just go to the store and buy it.  They had to ask permission from the senior instructor.  In fact, they had to ask permission for everything—there was no free will.

            For the first couple months, new Uchi Deshi spent all their time cleaning and cleaning and cleaning.  They also did conditioning training.  During the first few months, they didn’t do any training with techniques; it was just cleaning and conditioning.  Before the end of the 1st day, the shining eyes of the new Uchi Deshi would start to cloud ever so slightly.  By the 2nd day, their powerful energy and enthusiasm started waning.  By the end of the 3rd day, their spirit was gone and their shining eyes were full of rain clouds.  Miura, Kishi and I would observe this same pattern time and again.  There was such a huge gap between their expectations and goals and the work it actually took to get there. 

           Within the first week, many Uchi Deshi began coming up with clever stories and excuses to escape.  We could see the wheels in their mind churning, trying to think up some elaborate, yet believable excuse to tell us to get out of training.  Maybe they could say that there had been a huge earthquake at their family’s home??? … no, that wouldn’t work; it was too easy to check the news.  Maybe there had been a fire??? … no, that wouldn’t work either.  Most likely, they’d come up with stories about how some relative or family member had become very ill or died, so they had to go back home and be with their family.  At first, we believed these stories and made whatever arrangements we could to help them.  But after awhile, it became too much of a coincidence to believe that every single Uchi Deshi’s family members suffered serious illnesses within the first week of him being there. 

            Whenever we saw the conditions under which this type of behavior began (long faces, dull and lifeless eyes), we would start mentioning the previous Uchi Deshis’ elaborate stories at dinner time.  How suddenly a person’s world could turn upside down… you never knew what the future had in store.  Talking about these things would plant a seed in the struggling Uchi Deshi and the elaborate stories would soon start.

One day, one of them said, “Sensei, I forgot my belt in the dorm.  May I go get it?  I’ll be back in 10 seconds.”  We let him go and watched the clock—10 seconds passed… 30 seconds passed… eventually, an entire hour passed and he still hadn’t returned—he just vanished and that was that.

            Honestly, we never gave new Uchi Deshi a hard time.  We didn’t haze or bully them, but rather tried to get along with them.  Even so, about 99% ended up leaving before the end of the 1st week.  I guess the tremendous gap in their mind and reality was too much for them to handle.  They started with the idea of easily becoming world champion or a great Karate master, when in fact, those dreams were at the top of Mt. Everest and they were beginning at the very base, not already halfway up the mountain like they thought they would be.  If 100 people started out as Uchi Deshi, only 1 or 0 would last until the end.

            Those that lasted longer, usually would still end up escaping at some point.  They would make up elaborate stories, like how their father was very ill and they needed to take a week off and take care of him.  Even though, we knew it wasn’t true, we’d let them go anyway.  In one instance, we received a letter shortly after one of the Uchi Deshi returned home.  He said he really appreciated everything we had done for him, but his father was very ill, so he wouldn’t be able to return.  A little while later, we happened to see the father on the street.  When we asked about his health, he of course had no idea what we were talking about.

            Once in awhile, guys from a foreign countries would just show up with their suitcases at Honbu Dojo.  “Excuse me, may I see Mas Oyama?” they’d ask.

            “Do you have an appointment?” we’d reply.


            “Is he expecting you?”

            “No, I just want to train here.”  When we gave them a class schedule and suggested a couple reasonably-priced hotels where they could stay, they’d interrupt and say, “No, no, no, I want to live here and train here with you.”  Almost always, we’d tell them that the dorm was full.  As I mentioned before, Howard Collins showed up like this (although he had sent a letter ahead of time, but it never reached us).  A Frenchman named Jacques also started training with us shortly after Howard Collins.






Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

One day, an Australian named John also showed up at Honbu Dojo with a suitcase.  Somehow, we ended up liking him.  He told us that he had been a sailor and travelled around the world on ship.  But he was through with all that now.  He was still young, so he wanted to learn Karate and become an Uchi Deshi.  When we suggested hotels to him where he could stay, he asked about the dormitory.  Although we had a couple open beds, we told him that the dorm was full (before we would let someone live at the dorm, we had to know first what kind of person they were).  So, he found a hotel and began coming to the dojo from morning to night.  After a couple months, we started getting to know him.  He got along well with Howard Collins and Jacques.  Once in awhile, we’d invite him over to the dorm to eat with us after class.  As we got to know and like him more, we allowed him to move into the dorm.

            As I mentioned earlier, the monthly salary we got was very low.  We usually ran out of money for food and other necessities before the month was over.  Somehow, I still managed to get us enough beer so we could have a couple after training, especially in the summer.  Aside from the adult class, we also had a “middle-age” class.  A lot of these students were business owners, particularly bars, restaurants and clubs.  It’s customary in Japan for students to show appreciation to teachers in the form of gifts and favors.  Once in awhile, these students would invite me to their restaurant or for a night out at their club.  If instantly accepted every offer I got, it would make me appear cheap and desperate, so I would only go occasionally once the student had been persistent and insistent.  

            Kishi and Miura had a sixth sense about when I had been invited out.  At dinner time, they’d start dropping subtle hints, saying things like, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had some cold beer?” or “I wish we had something besides meat and vegetables to eat every day.”  Jacques and John would also chime in.  They’d come at me from all sides until I said, “OK, let me call (so-and-so).  There was a guy named Mr. Fukuda who owned a big nightclub with lots of beautiful women who was a member of the Honbu Dojo Committee.  At our monthly meetings, he’d always ask me to come out to his club.  He also got Mas Oyama to go out there from time to time.  Sometime I would give special lessons to him and members of the nightclub staff (waiters, managers, bartenders, bouncers, etc).  They enjoyed training, so would always be excited when we went.  I wasn’t ready to take John and Jacques out there, though, since they were good looking guys, and the women would be all over them.  Instead, when Kishi, Miura and the other guys pushed for going out somewhere, I’d call another student who owned a pub.

            We went there from time to time.  It was a great place to eat and drink.  The owner would bring us all sorts of appetizers and snacks—as much as we could eat.  Howard Collins loved to eat, but wasn’t so big on drinking.  Kanamura always said that he loved to drink, but really, it only took him half a glass before he’d get tipsy.  Kishi, Miura, John, Jacques and I enjoyed drinking.  On one of our nights out, we had a great time at the pub.  As we were getting ready to leave, the other guys begged me to go to just one more place before heading home.  Kanamura had already returned to the dorm. 

            At the next place we went, we drank more and sang and danced… well, actually, just John danced by himself.  Eventually, Jacques started dancing with him too.  We had a great time.  When we got back to the dorm, Kanamura was already asleep downstairs.  We tried to keep quiet.  John was drunk and in a good mood.  He kept laughing and Collins had to keep quieting him down.  As soon as everyone got in bed, they fell right to sleep.  At that time, I didn’t stay at the dorm, so once I saw that everyone was asleep, I went home.  The next morning, we all stood in the dojo at attention for Cho Rei at 8:30 as we usually did.  (Choe Rei was the time every morning where we lined up at attention and waited for Mas Oyama to give us our orders for that day).  Something was strange, though.  As we stood waiting for Mas Oyama to come downstairs, Kanamura’s expression seemed really angry.  Kishi and Miura were trying to keep themselves from laughing.  Collins had his usual poker face, but Jacques looked extremely tense.  John, however, wasn’t quite all there—he was still recovering from the night before.




Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

Mr. Kanamura

That morning, Mas Oyama didn’t show up, which was a great relief to us.  I instructed everyone to go ahead and start cleaning and doing their daily chores.  Miura and Kishi approached me.  “Shihan,” they said, “we need to talk to you.”

            “What?” I asked.

            “Something bad happened last night,” they said.  Even though they said “something bad”, they were trying their best not to laugh.  They told me the following story, which I’ll recount now.  I may stretch it out a little bit to make it more visual.  First of all, the dormitory building was very old and rundown.  There were holes and cracks in the ceiling, walls and floor.  A mild earthquake could’ve reduced it to rubble in a few seconds.  Kanamura slept downstairs.  The other guys slept in bunk beds.  John and Collins shared a bunk, with John sleeping on top.

            In the middle of the night, John woke up and started groaning and moving back and forth, eventually climbing down to the floor.  Of course, this woke Collins up too.  Collins halfway opened his eyes and watched John stagger across the room to a wall.  John looked side to side, then dropped his pants and prepared to pee against the wall.  When Collins realized what was happening, he jumped out of bed, shouting, “NNNOOO!!!”  Collins hurried to the corner and grabbed the mop bucket, but it was too late.  There was a long and powerful sound of “PPYYJJJYYAAAAAA!” as John’s stream hit the wall and ran to the floor.  Everyone was awake now.  John was groaning with relief.  Once he was finished, he picked up his pants and climbed back into bed and fell asleep.  Collins was left to try and clean up the mess with a towel.

            Since the dorm was so rundown, the pee started flowing to the first floor through the crack where the floor and wall met… which just happened to be directly over Kanamura’s bed.  After the first few drops hit Kanamura’s face, he began to wake up and wonder if it was raining.  I don’t want to imagine it, but I’m sure that at least one of those drops found its way to his lips.  It’s common practice for sailors and other men on boats for extended period to pee off the side into the ocean.  With the waves rocking them up and down, they grab the railing to steady themselves and let it out.  I think that when John woke up he was still drunk.  The sensation of going up and down made him think he was back on the ship and he forgot all about Karate and being an Uchi Deshi.  I imagine that he lay in his bed for awhile, the pressure building up in his bladder before finally he made his way down to the floor.  He must have felt tremendous relief to finally get all that out of his system.  I can relate to that feeling.

            So that’s why Kanamura looked like he was a bomb ready to explode at Cho Rei.  Soon after Kishi and Miura told me what had happened, Kanamura approached me and said that the wanted to give John a private lesson.  “Why?” I asked him, “Because he peed on your face?”

            “No,” answered Kanamura, “because he needs to understand more about how it is in the dojo and how he’s supposed to act.”

            “Hmmm,” I said, “OK, but don’t send him to the hospital or anything.  That would give us a bad reputation.”

            So Kanamura took John up to the 2nd floor dojo to start his lesson.  Kanamura shut the door, but we could still hear them.  Kanamura’s kiai was sharp and powerful.  John’s was a little deeper and not as sharp.  “Are you sure about this?” Miura aske me as we listened, “John’s pretty tough.”

            “I guess we’ll see,” I answered.  The fight continued, but we never heard John say “Maerimashita!”  He hung in there for 1 minute… 2 minutes… 3, 4, 5, 6 minutes… Kanamura’s kiai was becoming milder.  His chi was going down, his tempo was getting mixed up and he was getting tired.  John’s kiai was the same.  Eventually, we couldn’t tell who was who.  Eventually it got quiet.  The lesson was over.  Had Kanamura knocked John out?  No, if that had happened, we would’ve heard a loud thud from him hitting the floor.  The door opened.  Kanamura was dripping with sweat.  So was John, but John also reeked of beer and liquor.  We John’s face.  It was still intact—just red.  Once Kanamura had left, John began limping.  We asked if he was OK and he said he was fine.  When Kanamura came back, John started walking straight again.  We were impressed; John had a lot of guts.  He proved that the reputation sailors have for being tough was true.  After that day, whenever we lined up, John made sure to never stand next to Kanamura.

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