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American Dream

Biography of Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

Saiko Shihan Y. Oyama

Chapter 8  - BLACK BELT

After my fight with Haruyama, his attendance dropped dramatically.  He started only coming twice a month, one or two times every two or three months.  However, I was training harder and improving more than ever before.  Eventually it came time to try Black Belt promotion.  During my Brown Belt promotion test, I had been a star; I figured the Black Belt test would be more of the same—but I was wrong.  Too make a long story short, Mas Oyama failed me the first two times I tried Black Belt promotion.  It was a shock to me and all the other people in the dojo.  It felt like my entire world had collapsed.  Before I tell you more, I first want to tell you what Black Belt means to me.

In over 60 years of Karate experience, since I first started practicing with my oldest brother, Hiroshi, I’ve seen Karate develop across the world.  In Asia, Europe, South and North America, I’ve seen the growth of Kyokushin, Oyama and many other styles of Karate.  From my observations, if you want to be successful in the Karate business (just the business part), you need to sell your Black Belts.  In most styles, students never fail when they test for a higher rank.  But in my organization, World Oyama Karate, it’s not uncommon for students to fail, especially as they get up to testing for Brown and Black Belt.  Some even fail multiple times.  After failing, some students become discouraged and quit, which of course hurts my business.  But to me, the requirements and standards of reaching Black Belt have core fundamentals that cannot be compromised, especially for the sake of making money.

Karate is an individual pursuit, not a team sport.  Some people have great coordination and natural abilities, while others don’t.  Often, a person who has good coordination can catch on to basic techniques quickly and are always eager to move on to the next thing.  Because of this, they don’t see the need to spend time practicing a particular technique over and over.  As a result, they don’t get deep enough into their training.  A person who doesn’t have naturally have great coordination, on the other hand, has to spend more time learning each basic technique.  By doing so, the techniques get deeper into their body and subconscious mind.  They might not quickly learn a wide variety of techniques, but they can use the ones they know even when under pressure from an opponent.  A person who just learns a technique on the surface, however, won’t be able to use it when under pressure.  This is not always the case, but has often been true in my experience.

I was training Monday through Friday.  Every class lasted a little over four hours.  With that amount of training, after about a couple years, I began to feel that I had a good understanding of each basic technique and how to use my total body with each one.  That is one of the beautiful parts of Karate—that each block, punch, kick and each other technique require you to use your arms, legs, knees, shoulders in a particular way.  Using the body correctly for each basic technique requires that you practice it over and over and over until it becomes second nature; part of the subconscious.  People who learn techniques quickly often believe that once they can do it so it looks right on the surface, they are done.  They are only training in their heads.  To put a technique into your body, you need to work on it over and over.  Beyond that, you need to figure out how to connect each technique to other techniques and how to use them with stepwork, timing, angle and rhythm.  Each individual is different, but the bottom line is that adequately learning basic techniques takes time—there are no shortcuts.

I was lucky because having Haruyama and my brother in the dojo motivated to train as hard as possible and practice over and over again.  I poured my soul into Karate.  I even dreamed about it and, like I mentioned before, would even wake up in the middle of the night and practice.  If I applied myself to academics half as much as I did to Karate, I’m sure I would’ve had multiple Ph.D.’s by now. 

I was 18 years old when on my first test for Black Belt.  We started with basic techniques and movement then did Kata.  Since Kata is a fighting strategy, I made sure to show how dynamic my imaginary fight was—I even used my voice and face to give the best performance I could.  There was also a conditioning part of the test where we stretched, jumped over hurdles and did jump side, snap, back and knee kicks.  I was spectacular in all of it.  The last part was Kumite.

I felt that Kumite was my chance to really shine.  I already knew the habits and fighting styles of all the Black Belts and advanced students.  I could handle them all.  Some of them obviously didn’t want to fight me.  (In his famous work on fighting strategy, A Book of Five Rings, Musashi said that whenever you fight, you should use everything at your disposal—if you have a sword, use a sword, if you have a rock, use a rock.  When I first started training, Mas Oyama said the same thing.  When we fought in the dojo, we should use every part of our body—legs, arms, hands, feet, etc.  If you didn’t have legs or hands, use your teeth.  I was so surprised about the seriousness of Kumite in the dojo.  We fought like everything was on the line.  During my promotion, I made sure to show off as many techniques as I could when fighting—my backhand, punch, snap kick, takedowns, even head butts.)

There was no paper test, so the Kumite was the final part of the promotion.  When it was over, I thought to myself, “I did it!  That promotion was a piece of cake!”  My brother, S. Oyama, was smiling strangely, but I didn’t give it much thought.  After a week, the results were not posted.  Every time I got to the dojo, the first thing I would do is check to see if the results were up.  I had no doubt my name would be up there, so it was lake waiting patiently for a present.  In the meantime, I acted as if I already was a Black Belt.  I had a big head in the dojo and told other people what to do.  I began to get resentful of Mas Oyama—why was he teasing me?  It would be so easy for him to write down the results.  He was at his desk all day anyway pretending to look busy.  After a couple weeks, the results were finally posted.

I looked at the paper before class… but didn’t see my name.  Maybe he forgot?  I told my brother that my name wasn’t up there and asked if he thought maybe Mas Oyama had just forgotten to write it.  “Um, no,” he said smiling, “I, uh, don’t think he forgot.”  Soon after, Mas Oyama came to the dojo and we started class.  All I could think about was my name not being posted.  I went back and forth as to whether I should ask Mas Oyama about it.  When we finished, I couldn’t help myself.  “Osu…” I said, “my name isn’t on the results… Maybe you forgot?”

He just smiled and said, “No, I didn’t forget.  You need to try again.  Need to work harder.”  I couldn’t believe it.  My brother was smiling as he heard our conversation.  My head felt like an erupting volcano.  I was furious.  The way I saw it, I had two choices:  I could either quit or prove myself by beating everyone one up all the time.  Of course, I made the second choice.  After my I failed my test, I made it a point to show how strong and deserving I was of a Black Belt every time I went to the dojo.  Especially when Mas Oyama was there.  During Kumite, I tried to destroy whoever I faced, especially those who had been promoted while I had failed.  Although Haruyama, my brother and Senpai Yasuda were powerful and dominated other students during Kumite, they also knew when to stop.  They would push students to the edge, but there was always an invisible line that they didn’t cross.  But for me, I didn’t care about any lines.  I tried to inflict as much damage on everyone as possible. 

One day after class, one of the older Black Belts talked to me.  He was a successful middle-aged businessman with a warm heart.  He told me that most likely, in any dojo, the strongest students are not the Black Belts, but the Brown Belts, especially at Mas Oyama’s dojo.  They are the ones carried forward by huge momentum and determination to improve.  Black Belts have already reached their initial goal, so their spirit is different.  While the Brown Belts are fiery hot, a Black Belt is often milder.  He added, “You’re still young.  So, don’t worry so much about whether or not you are a Black Belt.”  What he said was true, but more than that, he was telling me indirectly that it wasn’t necessary to bust everyone up all the time, that I’d already reached a level higher than those that were Black Belts.  But I still wanted to get my Black Belt.

As time passed, though, the rage I felt when training and fighting began to pass.  After about 6 months, I tried the Black Belt promotion again.  Again, I failed.  I began to think maybe I’d never advance higher than Brown Belt.  There were students who had started training after me, who I’d given instruction and advice to about their Katas and basic techniques.  They passed me by and were now Black Belts.  I could tell by how they looked at me that they felt sorry for me.  After failing the second time, I once more became enraged and was hard on everyone during Kumite.  After awhile, I calmed down again, though. 

One night, as we were walking together after class, my brother said, “You know, being a Black Belt isn’t just about being a strong fighter.  You need to challenge yourself mentally and physically and prove yourself, not just beat up other people.”  I was still young.  The first thought in my head was, “What are you talking about!?”  After all, at my first day in the dojo, Mas Oyama had told me to knock out my brother with one shot.  He would also tell us repeatedly that “Karate is not dancing, it’s fighting!”  But Shigeru’s words stayed with me.

Later, I began to reflect on how, after I’d started training, I wasn’t hanging out in front of the Pachinko parlor and getting to trouble in the streets the way I had been.  My approach to fighting in the dojo began to change.  I still fought hard, but I also took into account each opponent’s age, ability, weaknesses and level of conditioning.  I began to see Karate as more of a way of life, not just fighting people.  It was a means to improve the quality of my own life, so it was necessary to improve myself mentally and physically.  I didn’t think this way all the time, but little by little, I thought that way more often.  After awhile, we had another promotion test.  (During that time, Mas Oyama didn’t have a set timetable for promotion testing.  He would observe the students, and then one day announce that there would be a test in a couple months.  If he didn’t feel anyone was going to be ready yet, he’d wait until they were before announcing a test date.)

After my third promotion, guess what—I passed!  Everyone congratulated me and seemed very happy.  But I knew they were mostly happy because since I passed, it meant I probably wouldn’t start fighting them so hard again like I had done after failing the last tests.  I have one other Black Belt promotion story that I’d like to share with you.

When I graduated high school, I didn’t pass the entrance exam to go to college.  I had to wait an entire year before I could retake the exam.  I spent that year preparing at a special study school.  On my second attempt, I passed.  This story happened after my first year of college.  Earlier, Mas Oyama had published the book, What is Karate?  The book was a big hit around the world and was the beginning of Kyokushin Karate’s rise in popularity across the globe.  My brother, Shigeru, appears in much of the book.  Mas Oyama planned to follow up his first book with a second, titled, This is Karate.   

One of Mas Oyama’s Black Belts, Sensei Kurosaki, had a dojo just outside Ikebukuro.  His dojo contained a studio that was used to take pictures for Mas Oyama’s book.  Mas Oyama would select students that had great bodies and were very photogenic, so I was surprised when he told me he wanted me to be in the book.  I was so excited!

The photographer for the book was very well-known and respected in the publishing world.  Mr. O and Mr. N, Black Belts who had great bodies and nice faces, were there, as was Mas Oyama and some other Black Belts.  When Mas Oyama saw me in my dogi he said, “No, no, no.  You don’t need to wear that.  I have a different one for you.”  He brought me a black dogi.  I didn’t understand.  After I put it on, he sent me over to a lady who did makeup.  He explained that I would be demonstrating all of the mistakes and wrong ways to do techniques—bad balance, not bending the knees, sloppy form… that was my job.  I couldn’t believe it.  Why me?  My techniques were great!

To make a long story short, we took the pictures for the book.  I demonstrated all the wrong ways to do things while other people showed off their great form and physiques.  We took a lot of tamashiwari pictures for the book—breaking rocks, bricks, tiles, boards, etc.  There was one particular rock, though, that no one was able to break.  Mr. O and Mr. N took turns trying to break it.  They were the ones who would take off their tops in some of the pictures to show off their muscles.  I’d never broken a rock before, so I just watched them.  They would take turns hitting it and hitting it and hitting it.  Each time, the cameraman would try to get the shot, but each time they’d have to reset and try again.  Mas Oyama, the other Black Belts and I watched them beat their hands up more and more as they hit the rock over and over.  Suddenly, Mas Oyama looked over at me.  He had something in mind. 

After Mr. O and Mr. N had tried about ten times each to break the rock, the cameraman looked over at Mas Oyama and shrugged.  Mas Oyama uncrossed one of his arms and started tapping slowly on his forehead, which he always did when he was getting an idea.  He pointed at me and said, “You!  Try it!” 

“Osu?  Me?”  As I said, I’d never broken a rock before. 

“If you break it,” Mas Oyama said, “I’ll give you 2nd Degree Black Belt today.”  Everyone was so excited when they heard this.  Even the cameraman.  I was so pumped up.  I held the rock and concentrated.  I could feel my chi going through the rock and splitting it in half.  I hit it… it didn’t break.  “Try again!” Mas Oyama shouted.  On my second try, the rock split down the middle like it had been cut in half with a laser.  (In This is Karate, 3rd printing, 1966, page 247 is me breaking the rock.)  I was ecstatic.  Everyone was cheering.  Even the cameraman was shouting, “Ni-Dan, Ni-Dan! (Second degree, Second degree!)” 

But Mas Oyama was quiet.  “Well,” he said, “Everyone before you hit that rock really hard, so that’s why you were able to break it.  So, no 2nd degree today”.  I was so deflated.  However, not long after that, I passed my test for 2nd Degree Black Belt.

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