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American Dream

Biography of Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

Chapter 4  - Kumite (Old School Fighting) PART 1

During those first months of training, it was winter and cold.  Getting punched and kicked made me hurt all over after every class and I was always so hungry.  But when Shigeru stopped and bought us noodles on the way home, I instantly forgot all about that.  He believed that I had a chance against Haruyama if I dedicated myself and trained hard.  That night changed everything for me.  I felt more inspired and highly motivated.  From morning to night, from the time I woke up until I went to sleep, I thought about Haruyama.  I even dreamed about him. 


           I was so determined fnd focused in my training that before I knew it, six months, then a year had gone by.  My body was changing and beginning to understand Karate.  I was getting stronger.  Even though we were poor and I usually didn’t have enough nutritious food or protein to eat, I still managed to get stronger.  As my body got stronger, I also grew stronger mentally.  Now, when we did 100’s of punches and kicks, I wouldn’t get tired.  It wasn’t such a big deal anymore.  Haruyama was always at the front of my mind during Kihon training.

            If we were doing Seiken, I’d imagine my fist hitting Haruyama’s enormous chest.  When I kicked, I imagined driving my foot into his stomach or head or groin, then grabbing him and slamming him to the ground.  When we did basics and Kata, I could see myself fighting Haruyama.  But when it came time for Kumite, suddenly my imagination disappeared.  The real-life Haruyama was so much bigger and stronger and more intimidating than the Haruyama in my head.  He was like a huge mountain that I had no hope of ever scaling.

            Haruyama wasn’t the only guy I felt scared of facing.  The entire Kumite portion of class was brutal and terrifying.  There were basically no rules when it came to fighting at that time.  We also didn’t wear any protective gear.  At that time, the Japanese economy and society as a whole were still recovering from WWII.  Resources and money were scarce, so naturally we didn’t have mouthpieces, gloves, groin cups or shin pads.  Every sport had a short supply of gear, but this was especially true for Martial Arts.  Even if we could find gloves, we wouldn’t have been able to afford them.

           During my first few classes, though, I noticed that people would wrap a thin layer of bandages around their knuckles before fighting.  I assumed it was to protect the other guy, to somehow soften the impact of the bare knuckles.  After a couple weeks, though, my brother told me it was to protect the hands, not the other guy.  When punching and hitting someone’s face, especially the mouth, it was easy to chip the teeth or get have one’s hand cut by the teeth.  A cut caused by a tooth is very prone to infection, so students would use the wraps to protect their own hands!

            Reflecting back now, I have so many vivid memories of Kumite in the dojo back then.  I remember that we always had a problem keeping a mirror in the dojo.  Once in awhile businessmen or politicians would come and talk with Mas Oyama.  They would donate a large mirror with their company logo or campaign information on it.  It was always exciting to have a new mirror.  But within a week, inevitably, somebody when get thrown into the mirror during kumite and break it in half.  The next week, another half of the mirror would get busted and before long, we’d end up with just a tiny piece of mirror.  Within a month, the huge mirror would be no bigger than the type of mirror a woman might keep in her purse.

            As I’ve said, the type of fighting we did in the dojo had almost no rules.  Face punches, eye pokes, scratching, biting, groin kicks, takedowns, joint locks—all were OK.  Often, someone would try to use dojo itself as a weapon.  People would be thrown into the concrete weights in once corner or into the hot stove or against the wall.  One wall had large nails sticking out that were used as hooks for students to hang up there dogi and belt.  We didn’t any type of locker room – just the hooks.  Even when the dogis were as clean as they could be, they still gave out a powerful smell of sweat that hit you as soon as you opened the door.  I clearly remember one fight that was between a Brown and Black Belt.  At one point, the Brown Belt shoved the Black Belt hard against the wall with the nails.  When the Black Belt tried to continue fighting, he was immediately pulled by the nail on the wall that had become deeply imbedded in his back.  So, although I was constantly thinking about beating Haruyama during the day, as soon as Kumite started, the ferocity and brutality of the fighting would cause my mind and spirit to shrivel up.

            Little by little, though, I improved.  I began to be able to fight back some against the Black Belts.  Not against Haruyama, but some of the others.  My techniques became sharper.  I developed combinations that fit me and began recognizing the habits and fighting styles of the other students.  Today, Karate tournaments are a major part of any Karate style.  They put a lot of focus and emphasis on tournament fighting.  But 60 years ago, in 1957, we didn’t have any tournaments.  Our full-contact fights were done in the dojo.  Once in awhile, Mas Oyama would have us compete against each other in a tournament fashion with the winner advancing to the finals and so on.  But it was just occasionally.

            Most of the general population believes that what they see in a Karate tournament is the entirety of what Karate training consists of, rather than tournaments being just a part of something larger.  Fighting in Karate tournaments falls into two main categories – full contact and point system.  Most likely, full contact fighting is done with bare feet and bare hands.  Hand strikes to the face are not allowed, but are allowed to the body.  Kick techniques to the face and head, however are allowed, as are kicks to the legs and body.  Fighting is done at full-force, continuously, until one opponent is incapacitated or time is called (usually after 3 minutes) and the judges declare a winner by deciding who was the more aggressive fighter.

            In this environment, the fighting tends to gravitate towards close-distance with an emphasis on punches and low kicks.  Once a fighter has damaged their opponent using these techniques, they look for their opportunity to kick the head.  Fighting with this type of strategy in mind dictates that fighters spend a lot of preparation time on squats, low kicks and punch training.  Whereas full contact fighting requires powerful techniques, point system fighting places a higher premium speed.

            In a point system, fighters deliver techniques with light contact or pull them at the last moment and make no contact at all (called “Sun Do Me” in Japanese).  After a technique is successfully delivered, the referee stops the fighting and points are awarded.  Safety shoes and safety gloves are worn, and although hand techniques aimed at the head/face are permitted, making hard contact (or any contact at all, depending on the rules) is not allowed.  This means that to be successful, a fighter needs to deliver techniques with speed and control.  The Kamae of a point system fighter tends to have a shorter stance and higher hips, with allows techniques to be done faster.  They spend a lot of training time working on developing speed and control in their techniques.  Some examples are a reverse punch that is delivered quickly to the face but pulled at the last second or kicks that use the lead foot (since the lead foot is closest to the opponent, it is usually the one that can reach them fastest). 

            The first Karate tournaments in Japan were all Sun Do Me.  Mas Oyama revolutionized the Karate world by insisting on full contact tournaments and training.  This led to a worldwide boom for the Kyokushin Organization and its full contact style.  However, full contact fighting didn’t appeal to everyone, so after awhile, point system fighting became popular again. 

            Back in 1957, though, there were no tournaments, so any and every technique was used and allowed when fighting in Mas Oyama’s dojo.  This meant that fighting styles varied greatly from student to student.  Some people were very loose and relaxed.  Some attacked directly with full power.  Some preferred to use hand techniques to get close, then throw an opponent.  Some loved to use sneaky techniques like groin kicks and head butts.  Haruyama and my brother weren’t the only ones that gave me a hard time during fighting.  Many of the Black Belts would slap my face and make me see stars.  They’d kick me in the groin, which made me feel near death, or they’d hit my stomach to where I couldn’t breathe.  But each day, when class was finished and I’d survived, I would feel like I’d taken one step further in the right direction. 

            After training like this Monday through Friday for a year, my body began to get used to fighting.  I could take more punishment.  It still amazes me how my 15/16 year old body was able to adapt to this harsh environment.  I began to study everyone’s habits and fighting styles.  Some liked to kick the groin first, then hit the face when the hands went down.  Some preferred to get close and throw the opponent, while others preferred to move around a lot on the outside.  I could see people’s personality reflected in the way they fought.  Some were aggressive and loved to beat up the other guy.  Others beat up the other guy, but at the same time, offered encouragement.  Senpai Yasuda was in the latter category.  He was 6’ 2”, just as tall as Haruyama.  His legs were like telephone poles and he was masterful in his use of Sokuto and Chusoku.  I saw him knock out so many people with those techniques. 

            One such person was a master of Chinese Kenpo.  I still remember that fight very clearly, and I’m sure everyone else from my generation does as well.  The Chinese Kenpo master, Mr. S-, was friends with Mas Oyama.  Once in awhile, he would train with us and fight with us.  He had great movement and fighting ability.  Mr. S—was very famous guy in Japan.  He was in his mid 30’s and Senpai Yasuda was a senior in college at that time.  One time when they were fighting, Senpai Yasuda did a hard snap kick to Mr. S—‘s ribs.  Mr. S—collapsed nearly died.  We had to call an ambulance.  The dojo didn’t have a phone, so someone had to run down the street to the pay phone.  This incident made big news in Japan at the time and is still clearly remembered by Kyokushin people of my generation.  Senpai Yasuda, though, was very kind.  He fought hard, but he would also look out for other students and give them advice.  But whenever his switch was “on” during Kumite, he was a completely different person.

            Whenever he and Haruyama fought, it was like watching a lion and tiger do battle.  They were both so big, and fought so hard, but somehow never seemed to injure each other.  One other instance I remember well involved Haruyama fighting a Black Belt.  He dominated the Black Belt and chased him around the dojo.  Towards the end of the fight, I started noticing his pants seemed darker.  There were also dark spots on the floor around him.  When Mas Oyama stopped the fight, his pants were really dark.  “What’s the matter with your pants?” Mas Oyama asked.  Haruyama touched his pants.  They were soaked in blood.  Mas Oyama loosened the pants and saw that Haruyama’s penis had been sliced open and was gushing blood.  “You gotta go to the hospital!” Mas Oyama screamed.

            We all raced down the street in our dogis.  Mas Oyama banged on the doctor’s door.  The doctor said that Haruyama would need stitches.  “Can he still use it?” Mas Oyama asked.  I used that memory and Mas Oyama’s words in my novel, Uchi Deshi in America and the movie based on the book, Take a Chance.  During editing of the movie, we worked with a very experienced Hollywood editor.  She said we should cut the “Can he still use it?” line, but I told her no, it stays in.  We argued back and forth.  Eventually, the producer, Scott, said that it was my story, so the line should stay in if I wanted it to.  I think about how many movies come out of Hollywood week after week and month after month.  So few ever become hits because the people in charge have developed narrow minds.

            Watching other students fight was scary, but watching Haruyama was even more so.  Whenever he kicked someone, I could feel it as if he’d kicked me too.  When he slapped someone’s face and their nose bled, I felt my own nose hurting.  Everything he did to other people, I felt like it was happening to me, so it became impossible to visualize beating him.  I watched him with my entire body, not just my eyes.  I studied his movements and habits, but I had trouble seeing weaknesses.  One reason was that he fought differently from day to day or depending on who his opponent was.  Some Black Belts he fought close, with others he used a lot of stepwork.  He was very strong, but didn’t rely solely on his strength; he strategized too.  Whenever he was fighting—punching people, knocking people out—that’s when he was his happiest.  That was favorite thing in life.  So, when I watched him, I was so intimidated that I couldn’t think clearly when I was trying to figure him out.

            Fighting in Mas Oyama’s dojo back then was harsh.  But from that dojo, Kyokushin became and remains the largest Karate organization in the world.  In my opinion, it was because we had so many different types of people with so many different fighting styles, the quality of the Black Belts was extremely high.  To me, each one was like their own shining star, the seeds of the Kyokushin Organization.  I’m still feel very lucky and proud to have trained with those people, although most of them are now gone.

            After Mas Oyama’s death, quite a few people claimed the right to carry on as head of the organization, so today there are so many different “Kyokushin Karate”.  But I believe that Kancho Matsui was the one Mas Oyama wanted to succeed him.  So does Shihan Goda and many other high-ranking Kyokushin members.

            One other thing I remember about fighting in those days was saying the phrase, “Mae Ri Mashita”, which basically means, “You win.”  Not only in Karate, but in Kendo and Judo and other martial arts, whenever someone lands a clean shot, the recipient acknowledges it by saying, “Mae Ri Mashita”.  After my first year of training, I started developing my own strategies against most of the Black Belts in the dojo.  But for Haruyama, Yasuda and my brother, my strategy was just to say, “Mae Ri Mashita.”  I still couldn’t imagine beating them.  Especially Haruyama.  That’s how I felt 99% of the time.  But the other 1% of the time, I’d think, “Someday I will catch him.  Someday, I will beat him.”

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