Biography of Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama
As I said before, when I was a senior in high school and had been training a little over 3 years, I found myself “in the zone” when it came to Karate. For a long time, I hadn’t been able to see any improvement or tell if I was getting stronger or not. But at this point, I could feel myself getting better every day. At the same time I was riding my wave up, Haruyama’s wave was starting to descend. He was coming to the dojo less and less. At first, it relieved pressure on me to not have Haruyama there all the time, but after awhile, I began missing him. I remember one particular night that he showed up after a long absence.
One evening, the Karate club from a big university in Tokyo came to our dojo. They weren’t there to challenge us, but to grace us with their teaching. Before I go further, I need to explain a little more about what the Karate world was like in Japan during that time. Mas Oyama’s dojo had not yet developed into the Kyokushin Karate Organization that we think of today. It was still as a single dojo. Some people knew of Mas Oyama from his fighting with bulls, but beyond that, nobody really knew anything else about him or his dojo. The Karate world was pretty much dominated by styles belonging to the Japan Karate Association. This association was comprised of the big traditional Karate styles including Shotokan, Wado Ryu, Goju Ryu and others. The Japan Karate Association member styles had established an international presence in addition to a strong presence throughout Japan and oversaw the All-Japan Championships. All the major universities had Karate clubs that were part of this organization.
Of course, the university club that visited our dojo that day was part of this organization. The senior member of the group wore a traditional Hakama. They were very quick to show everyone how wonderful and traditional they were. When the group arrived, they greeted Mas Oyama and the captain of their group talked with Mas Oyama for a little while. Mas Oyama then turned to the rest of us and said, “Today is a special day. These guys have generously offered to teach you today. Enjoy.”
Haruyama and I just looked at each other. Was he serious? While everyone started warming up, Mas Oyama stepped outside and called Haruyama and I over. “You don’t need to use control,” he said with a sly grin, “beat these guys up.” He started chuckling as did Haruyama. I was excited too. I felt at that time that I could fight anybody, even Superman or Godzilla or Tarzan. We came back in and the university students were showing off their punching and kicking skills. Their dogis were heavyweight fabric and made a very crisp “p-shu p-shu!” sound every time they punched or kicked. They were doing their best to impress us. Also, their kiais were a series of loud shrieks and screams. I looked over at Haruyama and his eyes were wide open. Every time they did a technique with their dramatic noises he would applaud or say, “Wow!” or “Whoa…!” I didn’t catch on at first, but later figured that he was just pretending to be excited. Whenever they did something really dramatic and showy with shrill screaming, Haruyama would get even more pumped up. Mas Oyama was sitting at his desk in the corner and pretending to do paperwork, but I could feel him smiling.
After the elaborate demonstrations, it was time to free fight. Mas Oyama said that the Black Belts didn’t need to fight. Haruyama and I were both Brown Belts, so he called us up to the front. We faced two of the university Black Belts. Before we started, Haruyama bowed and said with a very polite smile, “Osu! Onegaishimasu! (please teach me). He never smiled, but he was putting on a really good act for these guys. I smiled and said the same thing to my partner. As soon as the fight started, my opponent got into a very deep zenkutsu datchi with the back knee slightly bent. His hands were out in front at about stomach-height. He started bouncing around. I couldn’t believe it. There was no way we could ever survive in our dojo with that kind of stance. We always stood with our feet about one stride apart and hands up covering the face and jaw. This guy was serving up his head and groin; I couldn’t decide where to attack first!
I could easily tell by his wide stance and hand position that he wanted to use a powerful reverse punch. He wouldn’t be able to kick very well from that position, especially with his lead foot. As he bounced around, I moved sharply left, right and toward him. Every time I did, he tensed up. I had him. I kicked him with a left foot jodan mawashi geri hitting him in the temple with the ball of my foot. He froze, then slowly came crashing to the floor. Immediately following that, I heard another loud thud and saw Haruyama had beaten his opponent into a corner and thrown him down hard. The club captain was shocked. Haruyama and I fought all the other members of the club. By the time we were through, their faces were swollen all over and their bodies were covered in bruises. The captain told Mas Oyama that maybe today wasn’t such a good day and that the lesson was over. On their way out, Haruyama and I thanked them very much for such great instruction.
I have one other memory of fighting a visitor to the dojo. It was around the same time period. Pro wrestling had started getting really popular in Japan. One of the most famous pro wrestlers in the country was Rikidozan. A friend of his, a Karate master named “T.K.” trained him in part and taught him his signature “Karate Chop”. One day, T.K. came to the dojo. He wasn’t much taller than me, but was stocky and bursting with muscles. As with the university club, Mas Oyama told us, “Tonight, you guys are lucky! Mr. T.K. has graciously offered to teach you.” This time, though, Haruyama wasn’t there. T.K. stepped behind the curtain to change, but he came out just wearing his pants and holding his top and belt in his hands. He strutted around, showing off his muscles. He looked just like Tarzan and was either in his late 20’s or early 30’s. I was only 18. I’d never seen a body that huge before. I wondered what in the world he ate to get that big. I was always hungry. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d eaten hamburger, and even less than that, eaten steak. When I was sick, my mother would fry and egg for me; that was about as close I got to meat with protein.
He started moving and stretching his upper body dynamically, growling and grunting. He was obviously showing off how big and strong he was. Eventually, he put on the rest of his dogi and we started practicing basic techniques. He looked good and strong from the outside, but his body wasn’t suited for Karate. His punches were so sloppy and had no speed. His kicks were a joke. After basics, he said, “OK, let’s fight.” I caught Mas Oyama’s eyes, and they told me to do it the same way as before.
While I stood in front of him, Mas Oyama said, “Don’t hesitate to learn from him.” The fight started and I began moving around. T.K. moved very slowly and heavily. He would never be able to catch me. I kicked him hard in the stomach and punched him in the chest. He was surprised and stumbled backwards a few steps, but didn’t go down. The fight continued. I kicked him, punched him, slapped him in the face. His eyes became wider and wider. He would try to grab me, but I was too quick. After about 2 minutes, I kicked him hard again and he said, “You should use more control. I’m using control, so you should too.” Mas Oyama and the Black Belt started grinning.
I apologized to T.K., but continued doing the same thing, using him as my human sandbag. As the minutes passed, he became slower and slower. I knocked him out a couple times, and each time he got up, he told me to again to use more control. “But I’m just a Brown Belt. You’re a grandmaster!” I thought to myself. After about 10 minutes, T.K. had had enough. He said the lesson was over. “Thank you very much. I appreciate you teaching me,” I said to him.
Some years later, T.K. came to Los Angeles and started teaching there. I heard from a senior Black Belt that T.K. would go to a park every day and do board and brick breaking demonstrations. Karate wasn’t well known at that time, so everyone was really impressed and his reputation started getting bigger and bigger. Around the time I first came to the U.S., one of my students showed me a Karate magazine. On the cover was T.K. “He’s the most famous Karate master in America,” my student said. I didn’t let him know that I knew T.K. Even now, I still remember T.K., but I’m sure he doesn’t want to remember me.
After fighting the university students, Haruyama didn’t train for a long time. He only came to the dojo 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.
I watched Haruyama closely. During Ido Geiko and Kata training, he didn’t have as much enthusiasm and sharpness in his techniques as he had before. He used to be so dynamic and explosive in everything he did. His Seiken was like a bolt of lightning shooting through the air. His kick was like a tornado wreaking havoc on everything it contacted. Something was different about him now. He had lost his passion. During Kumite, though, he was back to his old, monstrous self. It made me happy to see him like that; my rival was back.
During the first round of fighting I did, Haruyama watched me closely. I dominated the Black Belts. When I was done, I saw Haruyama smiling at me and nodded his head slowly as if to say, “You’ve improved—I can tell.” When it was Haruyama’s turn, of course, he beat everyone. At the end, he called me up to face him. I was so excited since it had been a long time since we’d fought each other.
He was still intimidating, but I put my kiai inside. As usual, he fought with his right foot front and left hand out. When he did his right foot snap kick, I knew his right hand straight punch would be following immediately after. When it did, I used a left soto uke and moved to the outside. From there, I delivered a diagonal snap kick (sankaku geri—one of my favorite techniques) to his right ribs. I didn’t drive the ball of my foot deep enough to knock him out, but his eyes still popped open. I felt a jolt of electricity shoot through me. I’d finally done it, I’d gotten to him! It was the moment I had been waiting for since that first night I came to the dojo. He smiled and said, “Oh, mm… that’s good.” Towards the end of the fight, after about 2 ½ minutes, he kicked me with a left foot snap kick followed by a left hand Seiken. I used my right hand to soto uke and tried to get to the side of him to take him down. But he was too big. When I tried to move in, he pulled his left hand toward him and hit me with his elbow and knocked me off balance. He followed that with a right hand punch to my cheek. He used control, but I still when flying back. He picked me up and smiled. So, I had 1 point and he had one point; we were even.
After class, Haruyama walked with me back toward the station. “You’ve gotten a lot better,” he said, “that’s good.”. He was genuinely congratulating me. At that moment, I could feel that we had a very deep friendship. A little while later, he said that he’d take me to dinner at a Korean barbecue restaurant, which made the night even better. I followed him as he took a shortcut through the slums surrounding Ikebukuro station. Although the area was full of gangs and yakuza, I didn’t hesitate to follow him.
In the recent past, the police and government in Japan have really cracked down on the yakuza and their activities. Members can be arrested simply for handing out their business card or for hanging out in public. As a result, the yakuza have had to redefine their public image. Many of them now try to blend in and look like ordinary businessmen. But in the late 50’s, they acted and dressed in a way that made it obvious to everyone that they were yakuza and not to be messed around with. Even though they were everywhere around the shortcut we were taking, Haruyama didn’t seem to care. Eventually, one of them stepped in front of Haruyama. “Hey!” he shouted as he pushed Haruyama.
“What!?” Haruyama shot back. Three other guys joined the first and started surrounding us. Haruyama handed me his dogi and told me to go straight to the station and go home. Two other men started cussing at Haruyama. My heart was racing and I had no idea what I should do. Should I stay and try to help Haruyama, or turn back and go to the station like he’d told me. I decided to go to the sation.
After a couple blocks, I looked back and could see that eight guys were now surrounding Haruyama. They were pushing him and he was pushing back. I could see him moving powerfully and two of the guys were sent flying backward. Haruyama started running, and the others followed. Every once in awhile, he’d turn around and knockout they guys closest behind him, then start running again. I hurried to the station and my heart was pounding the whole way home.
The next day, I saw a big article in the newspaper about a “former high school student” involved in a large street brawl. He’d put everyone in the hospital. When police questioned Haruyama, they discovered he was still 19 years old (since he was under 20, he was considered a juvenile). I was glad that Haruyama was safe. At the dojo that day, Mas Oyama told us not to fight outside of the dojo. My brother told me that whenever a student was caught fighting in the street by the police, they would find out that they’d learned how to fight at Mas Oyama’s dojo. Eventually, the police would show up and give Mas Oyama a hard time.
I didn’t see Haruyama for awhile after that night. I told my brother about our dojo fight and how I’d read Haruyama’s attack and countered. “You see,” he said, “I told you you could do it. You need to keep doing more and more.”
Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama