Wednesday, June 30, 2004

An Afternoon with Ohshima Sensei

Arnold Howard

It was 1:30 a.m. when I finished sorting interview questions. I slept for two hours, then drove to Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport to catch a plane. Though having slept little, I was wide-awake when I landed in Los Angeles that morning. I had come to interview Tsutomu Ohshima for a book I am writing.

As I lugged my bags out of the terminal to the street, I spotted godans Ken Osborne and Don DePree. They heaved my bags into the back of Ken's Ford Escort wagon. Then they insisted that I sit in the front passenger's seat while Ken drove. Don sat in back, leaning forward to hear the conversation.

As we drove off, I noticed the close bond between Don and Ken. They joked about getting older and losing their memories. I had seen their youthful photos in the 30th Anniversary Shotokan book. Though older, they looked just as fit.

Ken's mannerisms reminded me of Dustin Hoffman. I hardly noticed the passing scenery as he talked. Don, sitting in the back, was so unassuming, almost shy, that one could forget he was still a formidable fighter. Ken considers Don one of the most dangerous fighters he's ever met. Don had once beaten the legendary Louis Delgado. Yet he didn't boast about it when I brought it up. Ken had to prod him to talk about the match.

I had heard that the world of traditional karate was closed to outside stylists. Yet Don and Ken welcomed me into that world. I found myself feeling their excitement as they shared stories. Their eyes sparkled as they relived memories of Ohshima Sensei.

I had first read of Ohshima Sensei years earlier in The Secret of Inner Strength, by Chuck Norris. Just before my trip, Texas karate pioneer Pat Burleson told me, "Ohshima is one of the premier Shotokanists of this century. I trained in Japan, so I respect that art tremendously." I was curious about Mr. Ohshima. Would he fit the stereotype of a strict, formal Japanese sensei? From the photos of a youthful Ohshima, I remembered his serious, penetrating eyes.

After almost two hours, we drove up a small mountain on a winding road, then came in view of Mr. Ohshima's Oriental?style house. Near the top of the mountain, the house overlooks the coastal highway near Santa Barbara. We stretched from our long drive. As we walked to the porch, Mr. Ohshima's two pit bulls barked from behind a wire fence.

The door opened. Mr. Ohshima, dressed casually in blue, welcomed us with a smile. I had figured he would be serious, formal. Instead, he was like a jovial father.

Ken, Don and I sat on couches in the living room while Mr. Ohshima disappeared into the kitchen to fix lunch. As we waited, I noticed the view from the floor?to?ceiling windows. The sky was pristine, away from the Los Angeles haze. The green hills descended in the distance, giving the feeling that we were high up, above the noise of the fast?paced 90's. Even the occasional barking of pit bulls outside didn't disturb the serenity.

About twenty minutes later, we went into the kitchen for the lunch Mr. Ohshima had prepared. Ken and Don protested that the tuna sandwiches piled on their plates were too much. Mr. Ohshima joked that he was fattening them so he could beat them in kumite. He had prepared a four course vegetarian lunch for me.

As we ate, I had the impression that Mr. Ohshima was a man of intuition. He confirmed that impression by telling us about the time one of his pit bulls was missing. Mr. Ohshima quieted his thoughts, and sensed which direction to search for his dog. He walked in that direction, and found the dog in the bottom of a deep pit.

Then he talked about another dog he had owned years earlier. When Mr. Ohshima was leaving on a trip, the dog whined. Mr. Ohshima sensed that the dog would be dead when he returned from the trip, and that the dog was trying to tell him goodbye. The dog seemed sad. Mr. Ohshima looked intently at the dog and said, "You're 13 years old. That's longer than most dogs live. We've had a good life together. Now face death bravely. Do not be sad." The dog died while he was away.

The story reminded me of my late mother, who believed that death, merely a transition from one world to another, is nothing to fear. When I mentioned this, Mr. Ohshima told us about his mother's death. She knew when she was going to die, and when the time came, she, too, was fearless. We talked about the samurai, who cultivated the awareness that they could die at any moment. That awareness helped them to live each day to the fullest, without worry.

After lunch we returned to the living room. Mr. Ohshima sat in an upholstered chair, silhouetted by the sky from the large windows. Ken and Don, though both approaching sixty, seemed like schoolboys. They sat quietly on a couch opposite me, listening intently for over two hours during the interview.

As I said earlier, I had been under the impression that traditional Japanese karateka did not welcome outsiders. Mr. Ohshima, however, said, "Master Funakoshi never called our group by a particular name and segregated it from others. I wanted to keep that spirit, so anyone interested in karate could join our group and practice with us." This is why Mr. Ohshima's first group in America was called the Friendship Karate Club.

He said that for many years, he had hated martial arts practice. As a child, he would throw up outside a window from exhaustion. But he stayed with it, because "I needed really hard training to face myself every day. I wanted to be a genuine human being." I wasn't sure what he meant by "genuine human being."

I thought of the intense special training Mr. Ohshima is noted for when I asked, "When you stood in kibadachi (horse stance) for extended periods, how did you occupy your mind?"

"I didn't want to show ugliness to others," he said. "I didn't want to be the first one to pass out." We laughed.

Mr. Ohshima said we gain strength if we accept life's difficulties as a form of special training. He mentioned seven years of hardship he had endured from 1963 to 1970. "Accept the worst situations in life courageously, with a smile," he added.

I mentioned Admiral William Lawrence, whom I had interviewed several years ago. Admiral Lawrence had been tortured and nearly starved in a Hanoi prison during the Vietnam War. When released after seven years of captivity, the Admiral had gained inner strength. Instead of destroying him, hardship had strengthened him.

Mr. Ohshima commented, "Great people always improve while in jail." I thought of Mahatma Gandhi and Anwar Sadat.

We talked about money. Allen Steen, a pioneer of Texas karate, favors commercializing karate. He told me that the traditional karateka argue against commercializing, so I asked Mr. Ohshima what he thought.

He remained silent for a moment. Then he said, "I'm not against it." He explained that if he drives to a restaurant, he benefits from the commercialism of a car and the restaurant. And if the martial arts had not been commercialized, it would never have become so popular.

He added, however, that anyone who taught serious, hard training would never make much money. "I'm a poor guy," he said. "But there is no connection between money and happiness. In this society, a millionaire is considered successful, happy. Someone who does not have money is considered unhappy, unsuccessful. So I tell young people we cannot judge the value of a human by how much he has."

We talked about Mr. Funakoshi. I asked about the legend of Mr. Funakoshi standing in the kibadachi on the roof of his hut during windstorms. Mr. Ohshima confirmed that Mr. Funakoshi had, indeed, told the story.

"I really loved and respected him, because he always told us that our job was to go past him, higher. He said, 'Don't hesitate to correct my mistakes.' He never said, 'I am a master. I can do everything.'"

Mr. Ohshima said that one time Mr. Funakoshi, when he was over eighty years old, said, "I think I understand this now," performing a simple knife?hand block. He didn't mind anyone knowing that he had gained an insight into a simple beginner's move.

"He didn't care if other people recognized his greatness," Mr. Ohshima said. "He never knew he was famous. That's what I consider a genuine human being." I began to understand what he meant by "genuine human being."

Mr. Funakoshi taught non?violence. In following this precept, Mr. Ohshima has talked his way out of a number of fights. Just recently, he had been accosted by criminals. They left him alone after he said, "You are about to make a big mistake."

Ken added, "Mr. Ohshima has been noted over the years for his intense stare, and I'm sure he can use that in situations where he has a problem." Mr. Ohshima laughed.

When I mentioned Bruce Lee, Mr. Ohshima said he and Bruce Lee had been friends. It was only after Bruce Lee's death, when Mr. Ohshima watched some of his movies, that he found out Bruce Lee had made Japanese karateka look foolish. Mr. Ohshima found that humorous.

The hours seemed like moments when I came to the end of my questions. The three close friends made small talk for a few minutes. Then we left a smiling Mr. Ohshima, pit bulls barking as we drove away. All the way back to Los Angeles, Ken, at the wheel of his Taurus wagon, told stories. The traffic sounds died away as Don and I listened.

It was dark when Don and Ken let me off at Los Angeles International Airport. In the midst of cars roaring by and people with suitcases waiting for taxis, I felt alone with my thoughts. For the first time that day, fatigue was catching up with me.

I thought about Mr. Osborne, Mr. DePree and Mr. Ohshima. Their decades of martial arts training had made them gentle, yet inwardly strong. As I faced the crowds, I resolved to become more that way myself.