Tsutomu Ohshima

by Tom Sulak
originally presented in Black Belt magazine in July 1975


Tsutomu Ohshima, karate practitioner, exponent of humility and quiet spoken advocate of spiritual excellence, is human enough to make mistakes-at least one, anyway.

After arriving in the United States and, upon seeing the con men and shysters dragging his beloved karate into the commercial depths, he naively proclaimed the karate phonies would perish under the wake of martial arts purism.

Attempting to project his own idealism into the competitive American people, he believed they would be able to distinguish between the truth and the phony and opt for the truth. Well, the karate phonies are still phony and Ohshima has taken another step toward humility.

If many of the old-time karate men could be polled on who best typified the orthodox creed, Ohshima's name would definitely be at the top of the list. At the minimum, his own students hold the man in such reverence, he has become a legend in his own time.

But it was naive for Ohshima to think that good alone would prevail over evil and counteract the cheap shamanism eroding his beloved art. Completely in character, he puts the blame fully on himself. Consistent with his philosophies and humility, Ohshima recants his first quick statement by offering that he didn't work hard enough to combat this force.

That's his life-a never-ending battle toward perfection. It's taken more time than he thought, but he still has faith that with the proper examples, the American people will see through the conniving phonies who have only their selfish monetary interest at heart.

Ohshima originally came to the United States not to teach karate but to study at one of the universities. His ascendance to a legendary figurehead of one of the largest shotokan organizations in the world was purely coincidental.

While studying economics with Ohshima, some of his fellow Japanese students had heard of his fame in Japan and persuaded him to teach them. He agreed. That was the start of the humble prophet of American shotokan karate. Soon more and more students filled the ranks of the reluctant sensei, and the exclusively Japanese enrollment began filling up with eager Americans.

But when he started training the Americans, Ohshima realized their size and strength were too much to fend off with the power techniques he utilized in Japan, where he was bigger and stronger than many of his countrymen. "But when I arrived here," he recalls, "I was a small guy. When I practiced arm blocks, I found out I couldn't use my power. Then I had to follow my seniors. What the masters said, my practice, actually started when I came here."

In parable-like fashion, Ohshima explained his revelation. "If you are a big man and punch some kids, nobody will say you are a karate expert. But if you face a two-hundred-fifty-pound, seven foot guy-then ..."

Ohshima said he felt an obligation to represent karate to the American people, the way his seniors would have wanted it. "When I came here, I wasn't good enough," he said clasping his hand to his chest. "My practice actually was started after I came here. But you may want to know, I always get information from seniors."

The contact with the less proficient, yet sturdy, Americans forced Ohshima deeper into karate, re-evaluating all his previous training. In 1960, he returned to Japan for some personal contact and advice from his seniors. While there, the family of his master, Gichin Funakoshi, approached him to translate Funakoshi's book into English. The idea both honored and excited Ohshima. Now the authentic formula of the master would be available to the anxious Americans.

It was on this visit that he felt the overwhelming simplicity of karate. His eyes began to open under the responsibility of his tasks and, thinking back on his early training, Ohshima realized he had finally lost a lot of his initial doubts. "I was trained by my seniors, and they gave me lots of projects I was never able to understand at that time anyway. So I have a full project which I have to digest myself."

Like most fledgling karate practitioners, Ohshima himself couldn't help thinking some of his superior's feats were some kind of illusion. "I thought they were crazy or mysterious," he recalled. "But I knew traditionally that this is actually martial arts level."

It was the way his seniors could perform astounding feats of strength effortlessly that challenged Ohshima's skeptical mind. Feats like impressing the focus of a karate punch through as many as 12 pillows or blocking the most powerful punches with slight relaxed movements rather than muscle-flexing blocks. But these were only physical techniques. Much more significant subtleties of the art lay beneath the surface. He wanted that secret. He needed it. From a very early age, Ohshima felt he was missing some thing, something he could find in the arts.

"When I was the leader of a small high school," he explains, "I was threatened by people. And I could find out for myself, I am not courageous enough to do anything, no matter how I thought, no matter how I found out some theory or logic. It does not work.

"One day I was going to Tokyo. This group was beating one young student because he was a quiet boy. And this was a ridiculous reason. But these guys were beating this young boy-same age as me, 15 or 16. I got so mad. Mad, because the person next to me said, 'Don't go, you'll get beat up.'

"I was ashamed of myself. I knew this was injustice. Why couldn't I put myself out there? I could be beaten up, but I could stand it. But I just sat there and overlooked. I said to myself, 'I am a coward guy.' I knew somebody was getting beat up, but I couldn't help him. Therefore, when I was practicing karate, every time I asked myself, 'Are you ready to put yourself into something that you believe is justice?"'

The years of training, claims Ohshima, finally relieved him of his weakness and now he says, "After a few years, I said now I am ready. You have to do it with your name, with your man's life into it and with my best, no matter what they do. I can do it."

It wasn't simply a matter of a few years as Ohshima condensed it. It was long years of sweaty, bloody training. In his curiously thankful way. Ohshima blesses the manner of training thrust upon him.

"Fortunately, I have great seniors," he says enthusiastically. "They punch me, knock me down every day. I got injured, so I was really hopeless. I was scared every day when I go back to the dojo when I first started. The first three years, I hated to go back to practice because I was beaten very badly every day.

"But one day, in my third or fourth year, I started to enjoy it-even getting punched out. Maybe sadistic, but I never really got fear for a long time."

Ohshima wasn't the only person who was able to cash in on his early traditional training. To hear his students tell it, they wouldn't want it any other way.

One of the first Americans to enroll under Ohshima's tutelage was Caylor Adkins, who became president of the American Shotokan Association. Adkins, recalling his first association with Ohshima, says, "The thing that struck me was his intensity, his level of concentration. He is totally involved with his teaching. The welfare of his students was his major concern. In fact, most of his students weren't paying dues. The man has few failings," says Adkins, shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders. "But on e of his worst is his attitude about money.

"I used to be really concerned about Mr. Ohshima. He just doesn't have any money sense. He's never really had much money, but he doesn't seem to care about that. What little he gets comes from his teaching job at Cal Tech, where he holds a faculty position in physical education, and the rest comes from what the ASK board allots him."

But apparently, Mr. Ohshima thinks he's very well off. "My students take care of me," Ohshima beams. "I get money from heaven. Look, they fix my house," he says, displaying his refurbished miniature mansion below the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles, California. "They come all the time, my students, and fix my house. They are good to an old man."

Ohshima exudes vitality and moves like a man half his age. "I practice every day," Ohshima says, a broad grin wrinkling the corners of his eyes, "but I am very busy, and I don't practice like before."

But if he doesn't practice like he used to, he still encourages his students and instructors to do so. And it's not all that different from what he underwent as a young student in Japan. Particularly the special training sessions he instituted for the shotokan organization.

Special training is an intense, brutal period of training, and it is not for the weak of heart. It is designed to push one's limit of endurance beyond what the conscious mind settles for. It is this kind of training that Ohshima claims will teach you how to go beyond the limits you have placed upon yourself. Once that is accomplished, you begin expanding the discovery into other parts of your life. Stamina from physical demands teaches mental stamina. Ohshima conducts about three of these special training sessions a year and encourages all his students to attend.

It's possible these training sessions may have been conceived from some of Ohshima's own early experiences in Japan. One of his instructors had taken Ohshima and his class to an island for "special training." As they rowed to the island, their sensei pointed out to the shaken students, "We are going to this island so no one can escape from training."

Some think training like this would turn a person into a maniacal thug, pulverizing people for pleasure. But not so, says Ohshima. "I am not that kind of a nasty guy, but people get that impression. Among Japanese, they look at my face and think I am crazy or nasty." His face is rugged-looking, especially those icy cold dark eyes.

Paul Morgan, one of Ohshima's black belts, related one of his personal experiences with his sensei, "I just wanted to hit him once," he said. "Everyone wants to hit him." Apparently Ohshima is held in such awe by his students, it's a major accomplishment to make contact with him.

"I was a shodan (first-degree black belt)," he said, "and we were facing, at Ojai special training. I ended up facing Mr. Ohshima. I attacked a few times, feeble attempts, and Mr. Ohshima kept throwing me back and he would say, 'Again, again. No, your mind's not ready. Again, with your hips, stronger!'

"And one of my last attacks, I was looking him square in the eye. I tried to give him a really mean look. And all of a sudden his eyes got so huge, like his eyes covered half of his face. I remember it so well. It was like the brown of his eyes, it was really great somehow. And it was like the whites of his eyes got completely dark, like just nothing but eye, looking at me like an owl. And it made me feel really insecure. I heard Ohshima could do this and yet when I looked at him, I was thinking, 'Well, this is it.'

"We must have looked at each other for 15 or 20 seconds at least. There was something in his mind that made me really scared. A crazy look. You know how a crazy man looks just before he kills. He had a crazy calm about him ... like he was hypnotizing some body. And then I attacked, we bowed and that was the end of practice. And afterward, I didn't know what to do. I wanted to talk to somebody about it, but I couldn't talk to Mr. Ohshima. What are you going to say? So I went up to Caylor Adkins and told him. And he said, 'We all experienced that-his subtle sense of humor."'

Adkins says he's experienced this mysterious power of Ohshima many times during special training. He thinks Ohshima's level of concentration is far beyond his own level and unique in the realm of karate practitioners. "He's just up there," is all he can explain about the experience.

Ohshima himself claims it is the subconscious mind that produces this mental focus. He feels that you're not out there trying to beat your opponent physically, but mentally. You're trying to see yourself through him. Ohshima also claims his concentration on subconscious mind control gives him the jump on the other guy because it enables him to tell what the opponent is going to do before it's done.

"Now when you face each other and really become serious and want to destroy me," Ohshima says, his eerie brown eyes widening as he explains, "and I stand in front of you, I look at you. You suddenly realize, if you have any particular idea, 'Now I want to destroy you.'

"In other words, if there is certain emotion or feeling, you try to erase it. So you don't want to show you are going to punch. It can be very obvious without words; we can communicate already. And, of course, I can see it."

What Ohshima says parallels a recent upsurge in American group therapy consciousness, where the aim is to tear away the protective barrier of self-consciousness. The theory is, you bare yourself open and feel relief in its therapeutic effect. And once you're willing to see yourself as you really are, your life will take on a new meaning. And at the same time, it will teach you the barriers of others and help you understand why people cling to psychological curtains.

To Ohshima, it means karate is more than just being good at punching and kicking. It reveals the selfishness and fear we all have in ourselves by telegraphing our movements before doing them.

Continuing with his explanation, he says, "You don't want to hold it; for me, it is obvious. Because I've already thrown away this kind of feeling, because I've already prepared my best mentality, which is not very small or weak. It is open, strong and straight, and you want to do it the same way.

"Actually, if you don't, you don't have any chance. If you stick with some other particular small selfishness and small techniques and so on, I can feel it. Because my feeling is in your mind already."

How does Ohshima get his mind into yours? "l throw away my ego," he replies happily, "and I am ready to exchange a life with you.. No small particular plan, because when I get it, you can see me right away."

Ohshima stresses to his students that the mind and the body are one, and that any weak mentality we might have reflects itself through our movements. "Human behavior and physical movement," he insists, "is directly connected with the deep part of the mind, of the unconscious part of the mind. Consciousness connects to words and thinking."

"If you read, you understand. But will it sink into the deep parts of the mind or not? We are not sure. But if you repeat the action over and over, the body and mind should be one. Subconsciously, you are learning.

"Repeat," he urges, "repeat in your action with your mind, willpower and emotions. Then, someday, your body and mind will say, 'yes, I understand.' that is basic in martial arts. Otherwise, what else?"

It goes back to Ohshima's earlier ideas. You can't rationalize. You must experience. Only then will you know totally with mind and body. "The beautiful part," he explains, "is not just making physical movements as much as the mental strength. In a way, that is the opposite. Martial arts is beautiful because we find out our dirty weak mentality away."

Ohshima doesn't worry whether some possess the physical prowess in karate. To him, it's the mind that's the most important thing. "Somebody who doesn't even have any power, any talent, but beautiful mentality and they want to make use of it, that is all."

Obviously, Ohshima's involvement in karate is deeply rooted in idealism. It goes beyond purely self-defense or a part-time activity. It is therapy, a way of life and a goal. "A person who can face himself straight, honest, open, warm-hearted, could face the person who is prejudiced, small-minded, selfish, no-good, evil. That is the reason I stay in martial arts. If we don't have this, how can we keep the dream of society, human history? It seems to me, all good people have surfaced in suffering."

Ohshima practices what he preaches. He has developed a following through the world in shotokan karate, and he has won the respect of his peers in other styles.

Black Belt Hall of Fame member Dan Ivan said, "Mr. Ohshima is a humble man and the kind of person someone with 15 years of karate training under his belt should seek out and train under. He is an instructor's instructor. He's one of the few men who have retained the basic principles of what karate is all about. And, while he's mellowed some through the years, he is still a strong believer in hard training." Ivan believes the reason more people haven't heard of him is simple. "He just quietly goes along teaching a higher grade of karate."

Maybe that's why the karate phonies haven't heard of him, because he isn't an activist, waging war on them. But one thing is sure: He will carry on his ideals and quietly expand the horizon of his beloved karate.


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