Interview with Tsutomu Ohshima sensei


An interview with Funakoshi student Tsutomu Ohshima

By William Beaver,Karate/Kung Fu Illustrated Magazine

Many words describe Tsutomu Ohshima, a direct student of karate founder Gichin Funakoshi – warm, honest, friendly. But Ohshima could just as easily be thought of as a living martial arts legend.

Ohshima came to the United States from Japan in 1955. He had studied Shotokan Karate under Funakoshi from 1948-1953 and had been the captain of the Waseda University Karate team. He founded Shotokan Karate of America (SKA) and began teaching karate at the California Institute of Technology in 1957.

In the years since, Ohshima has tried to keep his version – Funakoshi’s version – of Shotokan Karate, the way it was originally taught. Even today, SKA members earn one of three ranks – white, brown and black belts. And though Ohshima has practiced karate over 40 years, he has never accepted rank higher than fifth-dan black belt, simply because that was the highest rank that Funakoshi ever gave. Ohshima translated, into English, Funakoshi’s landmark martial arts book, Karate-do Kyohan: The Master Text [by Shigeru Egami’s & Shotokai’s request], and only teaches the 19 kata found in the book.

In this interview, Ohshima talks about many things important to him and his karate. The most obvious lesson one learns from the man is that he shares something in common with other living legends – he is first and foremost accessible as a human being.

Karate/Kung Fu Illustrated: Let’s begin with tournaments. Although many people claim to have created the concept of tournament competition, were you not the first to use tournaments?

Tsutomu Ohshima: Yes. The tournament I created used two referees and four judges. What is most important is why we started competition style karate. Jiyu kumite (freestyle sparring) became competition. When I came to this country to start a karate organization, there were no other organizations. There were several karate masters here, but they did not appeal to the general public. My peers in Japan in 1951, 1952, all went into different sports baseball, volleyball–all the western sports were attractive to them. The mass public was crazy about baseball. You could not get tickets to baseball games. I went to see the baseball games and there were many pretty girls there. I thought to myself, “Gee, nobody comes to watch our karate practices”.

At that time, many people wanted to join karate clubs–at one university club we had over 150 members. But the seniors kicked them out, because we would not have room to train. I hated that atmosphere.

They didn’t treat the university students as young gentlemen; they would just throw them out.

– I told my friends that if we wanted to keep these traditional martial arts, we had to appeal to the general public–then someday young ladies would want to come and watch the karate events. So, how do we do this? Well, we could make rules like other sports. We could make it very formalized and then we could publicize it.

Back then when I made the karate competition, I didn’t make it for all levels–not beginners or brown belts or even shodans (first-degree black belts). I didn’t have confidence in their mental maturity or their complete skillful control. So I made up a demonstration with my rival who was also a sandan (third degree black belt). Sandans, at that time, were top-level in all of Japan. Maybe only one or two third-degree black belts would come out every year. The year I became a sandan, only eight came out in all of eastern Japan. One of the 8 of them was Mr. Teruyuki Okazaki, of Philadelphia.

‘I said that we had to be careful, because this was for publicity for the general public. The tournaments were just for the public, because the students who become experts – sometimes you say “real karate men” they don’t talk about it to you. For instance; I never talked about it with my family. For. many years, my family didn’t even know I was practicing karate. They never saw it, and my friends never saw it. We tried to be normal, ordinary people ‘ and we never talked about our own practice.

But when we started the tournaments, we knew people would see it and say, Oh, this is interesting, so we only wanted top people who could do clean techniques with clear control–not just street-fight techniques.

The captains of the university teams did not fight. They were there to make sure we kept a nice atmosphere. If the fighters went too fast, or started to make a bad fight, we could step in and separate them. Before that, our fights were always very physical– blood all over the floor– but we wanted this to be nice.

We all knew the object of martial arts was not competition. Competition was only to bring martial arts to the general public, so that we would have enrollment in the traditional martial arts from the next generation.

KKI: When you came to the United States, how did Americans react to your martial arts?

Ohshima: After the war, and into the 1950s, everybody in Japan thought material things that were American were best, things like Coca-Cola and jazz music. l came over here and America had so many sports–football, baseball, basketball. Everybody could play them and they knew how to enjoy the sports. So I thought, Why would they come to learn martial arts from me?”

They were not expecting to learn another sport from me. The American people had a hundred sports they could already play. Some of my friends said that we should change martial arts into a sport, but I said no. Why should we change martial arts into another Sport and lose the traditional mentality and the understanding of the techniques? I said it was ridiculous, because the American people did not want to learn another sport.

I told them that we have to show the American people through the martial arts that our culture is not second class, not stupid, but that we are quite normal, intellectual, and serious, people training in karate.

So the inventor of tournament competition became, at the same time, a traditional martial artist.

KKI: What do you think of the state of martial arts as they are today?

Ohshima: Individual influence is very limited. Even some of my own members didn’t know that Nisei Week (the annual Japanese cultural celebration in Los Angeles) was the first open public demonstration of martial arts in this country. So they don’t understand why I stay orthodox and try to teach in American society what I learned from Master Funakoshi.

But at least my black belts know that what they are learning is not for appearance, or just for use in the street or competition, but for their own soul and their own life. After a few of our special trainings (editor’s note: The SKA special trainings are marathons of continuous martial arts training, such as thousands of front punches, and hundreds of kata, etc.) they start to realize, “We thought that we are strong and good human beings, but we are very immature, very weak and very dishonest.” But to recognize this weakness or this ugliness is the human spirit, which you can be proud of.

In any field, we always have good people and some dishonest, screwed-up people. But at least we have people who are trying to be genuine and honest and strong, and they don’t give up to the crooked people in this world. One little stone in a big lake makes a ripple that spreads out very far and that’s what we try to do in the martial arts.

The problem is that right now society recognizes someone as successful when they have lots of money or lots of materialistic things, but there is no connection between having a lot of material things and the owner’s mental maturity. There are many immature so-called upper-level people or successful people. But what is heaven and hell?

Heaven on earth is when there are good people–mature people have the leadership and take care of immature people, sick people, and lonely people. But hell on earth is when the bad, immature people have the power and push all the good people into suffering. That connects with martial arts. We have to realize that to end the ugliness, the selfishness and dirtiness, we have to cut out our own ugliness and selfishness first.

KKI: You translated – Funakoshi’s Karate-do Kyohan and still teach only those kata found in the master text. What are your thoughts on people who make up their own kata? And have you ever made up your own.

Ohshima: One guy invents one kata. After five or ten years’ practice, his students, ten students, make ten kata. By the next generation, a person wants to study karate, and there are ten thousand kata. Which one is the authentic one? They have trouble. Imagine one teacher in the United States makes up one kata. There are maybe 100,000 karate teachers in America, so maybe 100,000 new kata come out. That’s the worst situation I can imagine. Before Master Funakoshi went to Tokyo from Okinawa, he visited experts to learn their kata. He knew that the general public would ask how many kata he had learned. Maybe he learned 60 or 80 kata and maybe he did each kata 100 times or 200 times, but not that much. If he did each kata 100 times that’s 6000 times. So with only one or two years’ preparation, he couldn’t do each kata – 1,000 times. After a certain age, he said it’s ridiculous to memorize all these forms. He never told me this, I never asked him, but I know. When I came here in 1955, people would ask me , “How many kata do you know?” I’d say ,”maybe 25″. They’d say, “Only 25, I know a man who knows 30 kata”.

They’d think that the guy who knows 30 kata is more an expert than the one that knows 25. I realized that the general public asks this kind of question – their mentality is variety, different kinds, the actual number. For the martial artist, it has to be completely opposite. We have to simplify, simplify, simplify. If you know 20, you have to make 10 kata better. If you know 10, you’ve got to cut to five, five kata that are really, really good. Even five kata are too many. Cut it to two. Each one performed 50000 times. Do them 100000 times, you realize that one kata is a little better than the other. Do the one that is better 50000 more times. When you reach 150000 or 200000 times, then I think that kata is yours.

Kata is in that direction. It is not to memorize just numbers of kata or to create more kata after only a few years of experience. I’m very creative. I could make up my own kata, but why? So that I could make a demonstration and everyone would be clapping? No. Kata is completely the opposite of that. Kata is for your own spirit, your own maturity. If you digest the kata, then you become one.

What does it mean to become one. Your unconscious and your conscious directly connect to your physical movements. If your unconscious and your concentrated mind move with your body, then idealistically this will take a long time. To become one with one complete kata is something you could really pride yourself on. You can say, “This is my karate, this is my kata.” You can say, “I felt today that everything was one; now I know that no matter what kind of opponent I face, I can express my best, best energy.”

Karate is for that direction. Kata is for that. Everybody knows this. At least it used to be. I don’t know right now. I invent a new kata to impress a bunch of people is not karate, it’s being a Hollywood star.

KKI: In a previous interview, you said that “the person with the higher rank and power should sacrifice himself for the benefit of others.” Could you talk a little more about that?

Ohshima: I think everybody has a right to live on earth. But there are different levels. Some are mature, some are immature. Usually the older generation is more mature and the younger generation is less mature. Usually. But sometimes with wrong education or a wrong life, getting older can be immature. The real problem is when someone grows up and becomes very selfish and greedy. They don’t care about others. They take all kinds of time and money and everything for one person’s luxury or easy life.

Everyone knows this, that sometimes there are people like that. There is a hero everyone likes, but; he goes all the way to the top and suddenly, he becomes selfish.

Only one thing I think – martial arts- can contribute to the human society in this way. We are racing toward who can be strictest with himself, honest with himself. This was martial arts’ original ideal. Many people don’t get this message yet in American society. But originally this was the most important thing about martial arts – to reach a higher level, to become a strong human being. Strong doesn’t mean big arms. It means who can be a more strict human being with himself. That is the ideal of martial arts.

The second important thing is an educational system. We don’t spoil the younger generation. I hear people say, “Top guy has to sacrifice. All other people work hard and you give to me.” That’s American society’s big mistake, because you don’t train the younger generation as the leader. Leader means first class human being. He can stand by himself, he works hard, but not for himself. For others. Everyone has to understand that when you join the martial arts, we are racing towards who can be strictest with himself. The leader can’t just talk. He has to prove it and has to show it. The American people don’t trust–“Ah, you just talk big.” I think now my senior students understand this–that they have to be strict with themselves. For example, during the 1950s, when we finished practice, I cleaned up the dojo myself.’ Everyone was watching, but I never asked them to do it. Some of the American students said, “Hey Mr. Ohshima, you like cleaning, eh?” I said, “Yes.” I didn’t ask them and just kept cleaning. I said, “We had a habit of cleaning, because it means I appreciate the place that gave me a chance to practice.

Polishing the floor is cleaning my own mind. That’s what I learned and I thought someday these guys will understand. After a few months, the American students know they should, but they don’t want to work. But they started to follow me. After one or two years, everyone wanted to clean. After finishing practice, the black belts rush to clean and the white belts are watching and white belts start to think, “The black belts are doing it, so I’d better.”

It’s not “Hey you white belts, go clean!” We don’t have slaves in this country. The top guy has to work harder. That’s why other people will respect and follow him. Somebody who can’t demonstrate shouldn’t be respected in his position just because of the size of his arms. Only sometimes for educational reasons should we give a hard ‘ time to the younger generation. They have to learn. If a person really believes in the next generation and wants to take care of them, the younger generation will say, “He’s not pushing us for him, he’s pushing us for us.” This is the ideal of the martial arts

Article facilitated by Julio Bronfmann, SKA Santiago, Chile.