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American Dream

Biography of Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

Chapter 5  - Kumite (Old School Fighting) PART 2

As I said before, all techniques were allowed when fighting in the dojo.  This meant that you had to be prepared for anything and use everything you possibly could to construct your fighting style.  Naturally, everyone was serious about training, because if they weren’t they’d be in big trouble during Kumite.  In 1959, I was 17 years old and had been training for 2 years.  The exterior of the dojo was a flimsy, rundown ramshackle of a building.  But inside, it was overflowing with energized Kiai’s and limitless spirit. 

            Around this time, I became better able to read each individual Black Belt’s fighting strategy their Tokui Waza (favorite techniques).  One Black Belt was stocky and muscular.  He had a powerful right hand, but wasn’t very flexible.  He would use a left hand uraken to the face to set up a powerful right hand reverse punch to the upper chest or chin.  He’d then close the distance and deliver a knee kick, right shita zuki, grab the opponent and throw him to the ground.  When facing him, as soon as I saw him to an uraken, I would attack with a mae geri to make him stop before he had time to execute his right hand reverse punch. 

            There was another guy that was tall and slender and very flexible.  He was left-handed, so his fighting stance was right foot front.  He had a lot of speed, but wasn’t so good in close.  His basic strategy was to use a lot of footwork and lead foot kicking to disrupt his opponent’s timing and keep him off balance.  After a lead foot snap kick, he’d deliver a left-hand reverse punch followed by a left or right kick to the head.  When I faced him, if I focused on his footwork, I became confused, so I tried to keep my eyes on his chest.  When I began training, I enjoyed Kihon and Kata practice, but was scared about Kumite.  After a couple years, the opposite was true; I looked forward most of all to Kumite because, since I understood it better, it was more of an exciting challenge for me to figure out.

            Once in awhile, I’d be able to land a clean punch or kick or even takedown on one of the Black Belts.  It would catch them by surprise.  Rounds in the dojo usually lasted 2 or 3 minutes, but the Black Belts were in charge of keeping time.  If a junior student landed a hard shot or takedown, suddenly 2 or 3 minutes would become 5 or 6 minutes.  In my experience, the round would last until the Black Belt and paid me back my knocking me out or until they eventually got winded and stopped the round.  It was always a struggle, but little by little I started gaining confidence.


            Each night when I went to bed, I would replay in my mind the fights I had in the dojo that day.  We were still a long way away from the days when video recording became common place and standard issue on most every cell phone, but I could clearly play back in my mind every punch, kick, takedown, face slap that I’d received.  I would go over every moment of every fight and try to figure out where I had gone wrong or what my opponent had done to set up his attacks.  It was like piecing a puzzle together.  I saw how each moment connected to the next tried to figure out what I could do differently next time.  Maybe I had the opponent had set a trap by deliberately opening himself for me to attack, and when I did, he was ready with his counter technique.  Maybe he’d used one technique to fake and catch me off guard and deliver something else I wasn’t expecting.  Usually I could figure out where things had gone wrong and what I should do differently, but every now and then I’d be stumped.

            If I couldn’t figure it out in my head, I wouldn’t be able to sleep.  I’d slowly stand up on my futon and start to re-enact the fight to help me think through it.  It would be the middle of the night and since my futon was next to my mother’s I’d be very careful not to wake her as I did my stepwork and various techniques.  Despite my best efforts, once in awhile I’d wake her up anyway.  Our apartment was pretty dark, but there was just enough light coming in through the windows from the stars and streetlights to make me look like a ghost flitting about the room.  “What on earth are you doing?  Are you trying to be a ghost?” she’d say to me.

            “Sorry, I just need to practice a little,” I’d tell her.

            “Are you crazy?  It’s midnight!  Lay down and go to sleep!”

            “I will in just a minute, mom.”

            “No, lay down now.  I can’t sleep with you moving around like that.”  But I couldn’t help it.  That’s how much I was consumed with Karate.

            I didn’t like Kumite when I first started, but after I’d been training for a couple years, I began to get excited about it.  I would develop different strategies in my mind for each Black Belt, the same way a chess player may practice their endgames.  When it came to academics, I had little motivation or imagination, but the opposite was true with Karate.  Even though I would visualize how to fight each Black Belt, if I looked into their eyes when we really faced each other, I’d become intimidated and all my movements would become stiff and ineffective.  I decided, then, that I’d look at their chests instead of eyes and that I wouldn’t think of them as Black Belt senpais, but rather just ordinary students, same as me.  That would allow me to relax.  I’d also kiai to myself and establish a rhythm to keep from freezing up.  When we fought, if I landed a good punch or kick, automatically my gaze would go to their face.  Their surprised expression would make me so excited and feel like I could handle Kumite after all—those were great moments.  I believe that someone who is chasing after something has an advantage over someone who is trying to maintain the position they already have.  People who are chasing something are naturally more driven and put more effort and sweat into their pursuit.

            I mentioned last chapter about “Mae Ri Mashita” and how saying it was an essential survival tool.  It means “I give up” or “You win” but the implication behind it is that, “Since I’m saying that I give up and you win, you don’t need to keep attacking me, so please stop.”  There’s another phrase that we used after fighting that was also kind of strange if you really think about it.  It’s the one that most foreigners learned first when they visited Japan—“Arigato” (Thank you).  Arigato is used between people of the same status/rank.  When saying “Thank you” to someone of a higher status/rank, the phrase Arigato Gozaimashita is used.  At the end of a fight, after some Black Belt had beaten me up, punched me, kicked me, bloodied my nose, we’d say “Osu!” and I would need to also say, “Thank you very much!”.  Western people couldn’t believe we needed to say that.  Even I didn’t think it seemed right.  But the traditional Japanese way thinking was that I appreciate you because you punched and kicked me so much.  I respect you because you threw me to the ground.  It was a privilege for me to receive so much punishment from you.  So, I would say, “Arigato Gozaimashita!” but inside, my thoughts were more along the line of, “I’m gonna beat you up twice as much someday, just you wait!”

            Some of the Black Belts were middle-aged or a little older.  There were some young Black Belts, though, that would still give these guys as hard of a time as possible during Kumite.  So, when I was 17 and had been training for 2 years and getting stronger, the older Black Belts started being nice to me.  They’d give me good advice, and sometimes buy me dinner after training.  When I saw younger Black Belts giving them a hard time, I sympathized with the older Black Belts.  Whenever these younger guys fought Haruyama or Senpai Yasuda, they’d always say, “Mae Ri Mashita!”.  But against the middle-aged and older Black Belts, they’d have no mercy.  It felt like they were showing off and getting in a bunch of cheap shots.  They were obviously at a stronger level physically, so it wasn’t necessary for them to be so hard on the older Black Belts.  It enraged me and I would try to get revenge on behalf of the older Black Belts whenever I fought the younger ones.

            When I officially started training at Mas Oyama’s dojo, at age 15, my brother would go with me each day to the dojo and back to my apartment for the first four or five months.  After that, I was able to handle going and coming back home by myself and his job also prevented him from coming to the dojo some days.  A lot of the older Black Belts, including Senpai Yasuda and Haruyama, took care of me and looked out for me since I was Shigeru’s younger brother.  After class one day, Haruyama spent some extra time training with me and giving me advice.  When we finished, he invited me back to his place for something to drink.


            I was 17, a senior in high school, and Haruyama was just a year older than me, but we looked like we were from two completely different worlds was we walked to his apartment in Ikebukuro.  I was wearing a school uniform, he wasn’t.  He actually already looked like a middle-aged man.  When we got to his apartment (it was his apartment, not his parents’ but his own) I saw that it was 100 times nicer than the one I lived in with my mother.  He pushed the door open and four guys were sitting down in the living room.  They all immediately stood at attention and greeted Haruyama with a loud “OSU!” and “Welcome back, sir!”  Some of the men were noticeably older than Haruyama, but Haruyama was the senior member of the group.  I didn’t know what to think.  I just stood in the doorway, frozen.  These guys weren’t ordinary, average guys.  I felt so tense and strange.  My mother and I had a single room apartment with and had to share a bathroom and kitchen with the other tenants.  But Haruyama’s apartment had a bedroom, kitchen, living room and bathroom. 

            I tried not to make eye contact with the men in Haruyama’s apartment or draw any attention to myself.  As Haruyama walked around, I closely followed behind him like his shadow.  I kept my eyes down and glued to his back.  When he went left, I went left.  He went right, I went right.  He went to the kitchen, I went to the kitchen.  He went to the bathroom, I followed him and stood in the doorway.  I followed him to his bedroom.  He took his jacket off and opened his closet door.  One the floor was a woman with a man on top of her, still clothed, but obviously in the middle of something.  They both jumped up.  He told the woman to get out and yelled and cursed at the man.  “Baka Yaro! (You stupid dumbass!)”, he shouted as he smacked the man in the head.  The man apologized profusely and scurried into the living room.  I just stared at the floor.  My heart was pounding and Haruyama laughed when he saw how bright red my face had become.  “A little too hot and stimulating for you, huh?” he teased me. 

            I followed Haruyama back to the living room.  Everyone was drinking liquor and bottles of beer.  “Yasuhiko!” Haruyama shouted, “What do you want to drink?”.

            “Um, orange juice,” I said.  Everyone in the room started laughing, but Haruyama shut them up.

            “So what!?” he shouted at them, “Orange juice is good!”  He looked at the man closest to the kitchen and asked, “Get the orange juice!”

            “Um…” the man hesitated, “we don’t have orange juice.”

            “We don’t have orange juice,” Haruyama said to me.

            “Water’s fine,” I said.

            “Water!” Haruyama shouted back at the man.

            “Oh yes,” said the man, “we have plenty of water!”

            As soon as I finished my water, I told Haruyama thank you very much, but I needed to get back home.  I was still in a state of shock as I walked the rest of the way to the train station.  Before I started Karate training, when I was hanging out all the time with my group around the pachinko parlor, we thought we were really tough guys.  We imagined ourselves as a real gang.  But Haruyama’s group made us look like a bunch of kindergarteners.  They were in a completely different league.  We had been kidding ourselves.  Haruyama and his group were the real deal.  They made their living from all sorts of illicit activities.  More than that, Haruyama was in charge!  He was a high school student just like me (although he never went to school anymore), but he was lightyears beyond me in the way he looked, acted, and the lifestyle he lead.  He never smiled.  People feared him.  But even so, he was still nice to me.  Whenever we fought and he’d knock me to the ground, he’d always help me back up.  After meeting Haruyama’s group and seeing his apartment, I realized that Karate had rescued me from going down a dark path from which I could have never returned. 

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