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American Dream

Biography of Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

As I’ve said before, P.E. was always my best subject.  That was my chance to shine, to show the world who I was.  I could handle math, science and literature, but none of those subjects excited me.  But in P.E., it was my chance to show the mean teachers that I was good after all, that I was talented in something.  It was my chance to say to my classmates, “Look at me!  I’m beautiful!”

            Eventually, I started enjoying Karate.  At the bottom of my heart, I wanted revenge on Haruyama and my brother, so I was motivated to learn.  Gradually, I started enjoying practicing all the basic punches, kicks and blocks.  Even the more mysterious stances and movements that I didn’t quite understand were interesting to me.  Every class we practiced basic techniques on and on and on for hours at a time.  We’d all be shouting, “Ei-yaa-yaa-yaa, ei-yaa-yaa-yaa!” nonstop and Mas Oyama’s Tarzan-like “EEYA!  EEYA!” would prod us along.

            Since I was in good shape, the repetitive basic practice wasn’t so hard for me after a couple weeks.  Seiken, Uraken, mae geri, mawashi geri, hiza geri started to fit my body.  In my head, I sometimes believed that I’d already mastered these techniques.  I’d visualize hitting Haruyama with a Seiken – hiza geri – mae geri combination and send him flying.  Or blocking Shigeru’s punch and following up with an uraken, grabbing his head and executing hiza geri.  To tell the truth, it was difficult to imagine doing these things against Haruyama and my brother since they were so much stronger than I was.  But I could imagine doing it against other students.

            When I woke up in the morning, I thought about Karate.  At school, I thought about Karate.  During class, I’d slip off my shoes and practice making Sokuto and Chusoku under my desk.  It was difficult for me to make my foot do these things, so I had to practice all the time.  My face looked like I was listening and paying attention to the teacher, but my mind was consumed with Karate.

            When I took the subway and held on to the overhead ropes, I’d practice squeezing my fists.  Mas Oyama said it took 3 years to learn to make a proper fist, but I didn’t want to wait that long, so I practiced all the time.  I tried to remain undetected as I practiced hitting the walls of the train and my desk with the first two knuckles.  When I got off the train in Ikebukuro, the station was always packed with people moving in all directions.  I practiced footwork by trying to move through the crowds as quickly as I could without touching anyone.  (If the NFL were to have had scouts in Tokyo in those days, I’m sure they would’ve recruited me as a running back and given me a multi-million dollar contract… maybe…)  In junior high and high school, I was on the soccer team.  Everyone had to choose a sports team to join, so I picked soccer.  When we practiced after school, even then, I was thinking about Karate.  I’d use my footwork and movement to win possession of the ball.  I was so excited about training in those first few months.

            (As an instructor, I often see myself during this time in new students.  After a couple months, basic techniques start fitting their body.  They become excited and start imagining themselves using these techniques and beating everyone… but the reality is very different than what goes on in their heads.)

            Even though I was constantly thinking about Karate, I still needed guts to go to the dojo every day because of Kumite.  I wanted to practice basic techniques, but was still afraid of getting beat up during the Kumite part of class.  Whenever I thought of Kumite, whispers started popping up in my head.  Part of me told me I needed to keep practicing to get better, but another part of me said, “Don’t you have homework to do?” or “You practiced really hard yesterday, don’t you need a break?” or “You can’t train on an empty stomach.  Why don’t you find something to eat instead.”  I felt like Hamlet every time I went to the dojo:  To be or not to be… To go or not to go…

           

            In the end though, my feet brought me to the dojo every day, despite my best excuses.  Mas Oyama would stand in front of us at the beginning of each class and growl and shout, “Kiai-Irate!!!”  It felt he was Tarzan and the dojo was a jungle.  As soon as I heard his voice, all excuses were wiped out of my mind and I put myself 100% into training.

            After a few months, I started catching on to basic techniques.  I could feel punches and kicks fitting me and was able to use my total body with each one.  I felt my body getting stronger and it made me more excited.  Compared to other students at my same level, I was way ahead.  I was even excited about condition training.  There was a large hurdle in the dojo that we practiced jumping over back and forth, back and forth.  I loved it.  I was excited about everything except Kumite.  That still made me nervous.

            When we were sitting down waiting for our time to fight, I always tried to make myself as small as possible, hoping I wouldn’t be called.  But of course, everyone had to fight at the end of every class.  I always came out with a headache and bruises, but I was also exhilarated with the feeling that I’d survived another day.  I had done it.  I began seeing a different world.

            One winter night, after training, Shigeru took me to one of the noodle shops in the slums near Ikebukuro station.  I hoped that he would get us once of the nicer dishes, maybe noodles with tempura, but that wasn’t his style.  I was still happy to get food, even though it was kake soba, which was the cheapest option—just hot broth, noodles and a little bit of red chili pepper and scallions.

           

            Before our noodles came, my brother said, “Hey, Yasuhiko…” he stopped for a moment.  I could tell by his expression that he wasn’t just making small talk.  He was a little more serious than usual.

 

            “What?” I asked.  I should’ve said “Osu,” but he was still my brother, so I forgot.

            “You like Karate?” he continued.

            I almost blurted out that I loved Karate, but I tried to remain cool about it.  “Yeah, it’s OK,” I said.

           

            “Just OK?” he asked.

            I was at the stage where I started understanding basic techniques and how they could be put together like pieces of a puzzle to attack effectively.  “I like it.  I do, I like it.” I said. 

            Shigeru seemed pleased to hear this and smiled.  “Good,” he said.  He remained quiet for awhile, then got serious again.  “You want to be stronger?” he asked.

            That was a dumb question.  “Of course.”

            “No,” he said, narrowing his eyes, “I mean do you really want to be stronger?  Really?”

            “Yes,” I told him, “I really do.”

            “Good,” he smiled.  Our noodles came and I started eating mine, but Shigeru did touch his.  He just watched me for awhile.  “Oi,” he said with a deep voice, “Haruyama is strong, isn’t he?”

            I looked at his stern expression and stopped eating.  “Yes, he’s strong.”

            “Listen—you want to beat Haruyama?”

            “Yeah, I want to beat him.”

            Shigeru’s voice and face became fiery and dynamic.  “Good!  Yasuhiko,” he pointed his finger at me, “Every day, you think about Haruyama!  Everything he does, you watch him.  Whenever he kicks, punches, blocks, moves, you watch him!”  Shigeru’s eyes were burning now.  I can still feel them because that moment changed my life.  “If he punches 1,000 times,” he continued, “you punch 2,000 times!  If he kicks 1,000 times, you kick 2,000 times!  If you do that, maybe you can catch him.  You need to train twice, even three times as hard as he does.  Understand!?”

            I felt so pumped up, “Yes!” I shouted.

 

            “Good,” Shigeru smiled, “let’s eat!”  I devoured my noodles as if I were fighting Haruyama already.  Before that moment, I knew I wanted to get stronger and be better, but now I felt like I had a clear path in front of me—all I had to do was follow it… but the reality was a little different.    

            I pumped myself up everyday before going to the dojo.  I was going to train harder than Haruyama, I was going to beat Haruyama.  But as soon as I actually saw Haruyama, all that went out the window and my spirit shriveled up.  He was so powerful and strong.  Even the Black Belts didn’t really want to face him.  He was gifted with a great body.  He was really big, but could move like an animal.  He was right-handed and right-footed.  Most right-handers fight left foot front, but Haruyama would put his left hand out and right foot front.  He’d do a mae geri with his front right foot.  When the opponent blocked, he’d follow up with a right hand face punch.  Since he was so tall, the punch came down from above, making it difficult to block.  It was like he was on the 2nd story, punching me way down on the 1st floor.  After that, he’d follow up with a combination of kicks and punches.

            I was determined to beat him, so even though I lost every time I faced him, at least I hadn’t run away, and for that I felt like I was accomplishing something.  He was a real-life Godzilla.  I would try to visualize beating him, moving close to him, but every time I thought of him, he seemed to get bigger and bigger in my mind.  But if it weren’t for him and my brother, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama (R) and Soshu Shigeru Oyama (L) at Kyokushin Karate International Headquarters (Honbu) Dojo

Chapter 3 - Chasing My Rival