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American Dream

Biography of Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama


                As I’ve said before, when I began training, Kumite (free fighting) always made me nervous.  I spent a lot of time and energy trying to come up with excuses and reasons why I couldn’t train and needed to skip class (none of them worked, though).  But after a couple years, I could handle it better and started to become excited about Kumite.  After 3 ½ years, I achieved the rank of Brown Belt.  When I put that belt on for the first time, I instantly felt like, “Yes, now I am a Karate man!”

            I looked at the Black Belts differently, even Senpai Yasuda, Haruyama and my brother.  I used to think of all of them as large, insurmountable mountains of men, but after I got my Brown Belt, I began to see them as just humans.  Big, strong and tough humans, but still humans—same as me.  That Brown Belt was magical for me mentally and physically.  Even though I had started reading the fighting habits of the Black Belts, they were still able to beat me because I lacked confidence in my abilities.  But once I became a Brown Belt, all that changed.  All the memories came back to me of all the times they had punched me, kicked me hard, taken me down, and how some had even grabbed my head and smacked my face even after I’d said, “Mae Ri Mashita”.  I formed a “most wanted” list in my head like the one the FBI has.  It was my turn now.

            I would pick one or two of them before class and make my plan for revenge.  Some had taken me down hard, so I would take them down hard.  Some had done a hard snap kick to my ribs, so I was going to do a hard snap kick to their ribs.  They’d punched me hard in the face, so I was going to punch them hard in the face.  Whatever they had done to me, I paid them back twice more.  After awhile, my brother told me I needed to take it a little easier.  I never imagined in a million years that he would say something like that to me.  “Why?” I asked.

            “Mas Oyama thinks you’re a little too rough with the other students.”  I couldn’t believe it.  I was only doing to them what they’d been doing to me for the past 3 ½ years.  But I went along with it so as not to get into trouble. 

            Before I got to Brown Belt, I got to a point where I could feel that my fighting skills had improved.  Once in awhile, I was able to get in a good Seiken, furi uchi, mae geri or mawashi geri.  But I had a difficult time getting in close and engaging.  Fear made me hesitant.  If I punched my opponent, I knew he’d punch me twice as much.  If I kicked him, he’d return a barrage of kicks.  If I was able to take him down, maybe the fight would last 10 minutes and be over only when he had taken me down twice as hard.  This kind of fear made my timing always late.  After Brown Belt, I was totally different.  I didn’t care if they hit me, I’d hit them twice as hard.  If they kicked me, I’d return the favor and bust their head.  I’d been hit, kicked and taken down so many times that I didn’t care anymore.  By getting over the fear of crashing, I was able to control timing and distance, which made the door wide open for me.

            I felt myself getting stronger and improving more and more each day.  I wasn’t able to do what I attempted 100% of the time, but I was successful a majority of the time.  At the same time I was getting stronger after attaining Brown Belt, Haruyama began coming to the dojo less and less.  For the first couple weeks that I went and Haruyama wasn’t there, I was excited.  I felt that it was my chance to push harder and catch up to him.  After a couple months, I started missing him in a way.  Something was missing when he wasn’t there.  After about six months of him coming less and less, I began worrying about him. 

            I asked my brother what had happened to Haruyama.  My brother said that Mas Oyama had him and the other senior Black Belts that Haruyama had gotten a new job.  “Oh, that’s good, I guess.  What kind of job?”

            “He’s a bodyguard for top Yakuza boss,” my brother told me.  Being the boss’s bodyguard meant that Haruyama was on call day and night for whatever the boss needed or wanted.  I told my brother about visiting Haruyama’s apartment before.  I mentioned how he had a bunch of strange guys that followed his every command; even the ones who were older than him.  I had a lot of mixed feeling about Haruyama not coming to the dojo very much anymore.  We didn’t have any All-Japan Championship or World Championship Tournaments in those days.  We just had the people in the dojo.  Without top fighters like Haruyama in the dojo, guys like me didn’t have as much of a big goal to work toward.  However, Haruyama was already one of the top fighters in the dojo.  So for him, I guess he began to lose passion for training since he didn’t have many people to chase like I did.

            I began to construct my own fighting style.  In Japan, I’m taller than many people from my generation.  (I have a funny story about my height.  Recently, I’ve been to a lot of doctor exams.  Sometimes my wife goes with me.  When they ask me my height, I tell them I’m 5’7”.  One time my wife said, “No way you are 5’7”!  You’re 5’5’’.  I told her that I was definitely at least 5’6”.  She just rolled her eyes.  At my most recent exam, I told the nurse that I was 5’7”.  But after she measured me, she said I was a little less than 5’6”.  I told her, no, no, I need at least 5’6” so she allowed me to have 5’6” as my height.  When she checked my weight she said I was 148 lbs.  “No, I’m 155 lbs.” I told her.  “148 lbs. is good,” she said, “most people like to be lighter than they thought.”  I told her I didn’t to be that skinny, that 155 lbs. suited me better.  So she ended up letting me have 155 lbs. as my weight.  Anyway, back to the story…)

            Since most of the people were bigger than I was, I had to use a lot of stepwork and quick movements front, back, left and right.  Before, my stepwork was slow and my feet were heavey because I felt intimidated.  But after Brown Belt, it was like I had 4 pairs of Dr. Scholl’s inserts in my feet.  I was so fast.  Sometimes, opponents could read me moving left or right, so I’d first crash and get in, then use soto uke or gedan barai or punch them to make them lose balance, then grab and take them down. 

            I was very limber, so I could do a wide variety of kicks from a wide variety of angles.  Sometimes I’d do a quick mae geri and they would put their hand down to block.  The next time, I’d hold my knee up in mae geri position and when they blocked in anticipation of the kick, I’d change my knee position and to a jodan mawashi geri.  I’d kick them with the ball of my foot in the head.  I would pull the power at the last moment, but it was still enough impact to knock them out.  After awhile, they caught on to this, so I would change to doing a hard roundhouse kick to the head, then fake the roundhouse kick and deliver a hard snap kick to the stomach, then punch their face and take them down.  After awhile of knocking people out cold and busting their teeth and jaw, I started to feel bad, so I would stop for awhile.  But every now and then, someone would attack me hard, and I’d be back at it again.

            Karate uses so many different basic techniques for Kumite.  My brother always told me that Kihon training was important.  But when I first started, we did basic techniques over and over and over… for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 60 minutes on and on and on.  It became boring and monotonous.  I wanted to do something with a little more action.  When I became Brown Belt, I realized that I could fake and trap opponents during Kumite because I had such a good foundation of basic techniques.  Each basic technique requires you to use your body a certain way for setup and execution.  So, I could move my body as if to deliver a right hand reverse punch, for example, and when they blocked in anticipation, change and do something they weren’t expecting.  I could control where they focused and use it to my advantage.  I was able to do this because I understood basic techniques deep within my body.  It was fascinating.

            I looked deeper at Kata training for fighting strategies.  Even within the more ancient Katas, like the Pian and Heian Katas, I was able to see that such-and-such movements were created with this or that attack in mind.  I began to appreciate more the connectedness between Kihon, Kata and Kumite.  I believe that there are waves that come and go during the course of a person’s life.  When you begin dedicating yourself to something and work on it tirelessly with 100 or even 110% effort, you can ride the wave.  Things begin to fall into place; success begets further success.  This is true in Martial Arts, sports, business, art and any number of other things that people dedicate themselves to doing.  During this time, I was riding my wave.  I felt like I was walking on the clouds.  Even when a hard wind blew my way, I was able to turn and ride rather than be pushed back by it.  As a result of my persistence and dedication, things became natural to me.  Sometimes, when I was fighting a Black Belt, the action of a split second would seem to slow down, enabling me to see clearly and easily how to punch, kick, take them down and step on them. 

            I felt more and more that I had created my Karate world.  Haruyama would still come to the dojo then, but only occasionally.  One night, we had just finished 1 ½ hours of basics training.  Haruyama entered the dojo.  None of the instructors or other Black Belts dared to say anything to him about being an hour and a half late to class.  Only Mas Oyama said, “You’re late!”

            “Ooosssu…” Haruyama replied in a deep voice.  He changed into his dogi.  I used to see him as a real-life Godzilla.  But now, when I looked at him, I just saw a guy.  A guy that was bigger than me and had a harder and meaner face than mine.

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