Karate is the most popular martial art in the world and is commonly associated with Japan, but it did not originate there. Karate actually started out as the art of Te, meaning “hand”, on the Ryukyu Islands, modern day Okinawa. Known as the Ryukyu Kingdoms, these islands were a client kingdom to China and were a great center of trade and commerce. These kingdoms did a great deal of business with Chinese traders and cultural exchange began as well. The empty hand striking art of Te began to meld with Chinese martial arts to become what is called Kodate, translated as “Chinese Hand”.
In the late 1500s tensions arose between Japan and the Ryukyu kingdoms, and in 1609 the Shogun of Japan issued orders to the Satsuma samurai to invade Ryukyu. The Ryukyu’s contacts with China were very valuable as the Chinese refused to trade directly with Japan. The Satsuma quickly overpowered the defenders and Japanese went to great lengths to conceal their invasion from the Chinese so they could profit by the trade. So the Ryukyu found themselves in the position of being subject to both the Chinese and the Japanese at the same time.
In 1872 Japan officially transformed Ryukyu into a province, then in 1879 Japan annexed the islands turning them into the Okinawa Prefecture and making them officially Japanese land. At this point the Okinawans began to adapt their culture to fit Japanese culture and this included the art of Kodate. The name was changed to Karate, meaning simply “empty hand” and the students adopted the Judo gi and belt system to make the art more Japanese in appearance.
Since then the art has grown by leaps and bounds and has diverged into many different styles, the most violent of them would be started by a young man from Korea.
more after the jump…
Masutatsu Oyama was actually born the Korean name Choi Young-Eui in southern Korea in 1923 during the thirty year Japanese occupation. His family owned a farm and Oyama worked the land as a child. He got his first martial arts experience learning a Chinese form of Kenpo from a farm hand.
As war in the Pacific continued to grow, Oyama enrolled in the aviation school in 1938, with the goal of becoming a Japanese Army pilot. While living in Japan he officially changed his name to Masutatsu Oyama. One day he noticed a Karate class and decided to give it a try. He began training under Shotokan Karate founder Gichin Funakoshi and progressed very quickly, earning a 4th Dan black belt before his twenty-first birthday.
Masutatsu Oyama as a young man
Oyama’s aviation career did not pan out and he joined the Imperial Japanese Army. He was sent to the Butokukai, a Japanese Military academy the specialized in, among other things, unarmed combat. There he began training in boxing and judo. Oyama showed a great talent for Judo and progressed quickly, in just four years achieving the rank of 4th Dan black belt.
When the war ended in 1945 the Imperial Japanese Military was disbanded destroying any chance Oyama had at a military career. Oyama decided to focus on martial arts training and began training in Goju Karate under Master So Nei Chu, a fellow Korean living in Japan.
Chu was the leading expert of the Goju style of the time, being the star pupil of the style’s founder, Chojun Miyagi. Goju focused on both hard physical training, designed to condition the body, and soft spiritual training. This combination of hard and soft is also reflected in the techniques taught, which include the hard, linear strikes iconic to Karate but also softer defensive techniques with included joint locks and other grappling.
Oyama was a troubled young man at this point in his life, still angry at Japan’s defeat and the loss of many friends in the war. He routinely got into brawls with American soldiers stationed as part of the peacetime occupation. His anger at world affairs was further compounded when Korea, now no longer part of Japan, became embroiled in a bloody conflict over political ideologies.
Chu saw how much turmoil his student was in and suggested a mountain retreat, where Oyama could remove himself from the troubles of the world and focus on strengthening his technique and spirit. Oyama agreed and departed for Mt. Minobu in central Japan with his karate gi, basic cooking supplies and copy of The Book of Five Rings by famed Samurai swordsman Miyamoto Mushashi with goal of training for three years in isolation.
Chu sent a student with Oyama, but after six months of training with Oyama the man secretly fled in the night. Oyama himself began to doubt if he training in isolation was good idea and wrote his mentor. Chu replied by telling him to shave off an eyebrow, reasoning that that embarrassment of being seen with only one eyebrow would remove all temptation to come down off the mountain.
Mas Oyama toughing his knuckles by striking a rope bound target attached to a tree trunk
After fourteen months Oyama was forced to come off the mountain for lack of supplies. While falling well short of his three-year goal, the training had a pronounced affect on Oyama’s technique.
Shortly after coming off the mountain he won the Japanese Nation Martial Arts Championship in Karate. He then returned to solitary training, this time on Mt. Kiyosumi for 18 months. The training was intense and combined harsh physical training with periods of studying classic philosophy. When Oyama returned to civilization he was a change man, in clear control of his own life.
Oyama then traveled the world demonstrating Karate, and one way he would seek to prove his skill was taking on bulls empty handed. He fought 52 bulls in total, three of which he killed and another other 48 he broke their off their horns with knife-hand blows. These matches are highly questioned in martial arts circles and remain a point of contention in his legacy.
Mas Oyama grappling with a bull
Oyama also fought countless challenge matches against human opponents. He always won, often with the first punch. Oyama believe that this decisive blow was the heart of karate and he trained to land a single, devastating strike. The fancy movements and complicated techniques were secondary in his mind to simply causing your opponent damage. He famously stated that his goal when he thew a punch was to break a rib and if it was blocked he wanted to break the arm.
And when he opened his own dojo in 1953, landing decisive blows was the central idea for his new style of karate. Named Kyokushin, translated as “the search for the ultimate truth”, Oyama trained his students very hard. He focused on simple, yet very effective techniques: straight punches, hard low kicks to the legs and roundhouse kicks to the upper body.
The centerpiece of the style was full contact sparring with no protective gear known as Kumite. These were rough affairs that often result in injury, but students who wished to temper themselves in that fire flocked to Oyama. In the early days there were no rules in a Kumite but since then rules have been established as a sporting context developed. Gloves are not allowed and thus only punches to the body are allowed, but knees and kicks to the head are legal. True to Oyama’s philosophy most Kyokushin matches do not feature only as much movement as necessary, as fighters exchange techniques until one of them is knocked down.
It is a positively brutal contest that tests both fighters physical and mental strength.
One of the toughest tests in the entire martial art was fighting consecutive kumites, which is required to earn a black belt. Oyama wanted to again test his mental and physical toughness, so he endured 100 rounds of kumite over a period of three days. He accomplished the “100 Man Kumite” three times in his life and has only ever been attempted by a few other brave martial artists.
In 1964, Oyama created the International Karate Organization Kyokushin Kaiakan to oversee his martial art. He has sent students across the globe to spread his teachings and began hosting the World Full Contact Karate Open Championships, welcoming any style of Karate to come fight under Full Contact rules.
On April 25, 1994 Oyama died of lung cancer despite never having smoked in his life. His impact on the world of karate was deep, as his style has produced accomplished fighters in Karate, Kickboxing and MMA alike. His influence continues to be felt for generations to come as students of his style continue to practice Kumite. Masuatatsu Oyama is most certainly a modern day God of War.
There is almost no video of Oyama, what little there is available is here in this short Youtube video.
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