The Karate Tapestry – Part 14
By Robert Hunt
Osamu Ozawa in make up for a film part
Osamu Ozawa, known among karateka for the Las Vegas tournament that bears his name, was an eyewitness to karate in pre and post war Japan. I had the opportunity to travel with him on various jaunts for films or karate in the 90’s. Mr. Ozawa produced Japanese TV programs at one time and helped Dan Ivan in his Japanese movie endeavors, in which I had the good fortune to take part.
One balmy evening in the early 80’s my wife, Robin, and I picked Mr. Ozawa up at the San Diego airport, at the request of a friend, and ported him to a tournament in Ensenada, Mexico. That evening, in a quiet hotel, with the window ajar and the cool Pacific breeze drifting through the room like a fragrant wraith, he recounted a story that illustrates the political fanaticism that was Japanese karate in the 1955.
After the war, the Japanese were trying to pull karate together under the Japan Karate Association, the JKA. The idea was to unite the styles under one political umbrella and spread “Japanese” karate around the world, some say to refurbish the Japanese image as a balm on the still open wound of Japanese imperialism. The JKA eventually wound up as only a Shotokan group, but it was supposed to be more ecumenical.
Not all Japanese wanted the JKA, however.
Mr. Ozawa recounted to us that evening how he was sent to a meeting of martial artists on some Tokyo back street. Because he had studied with Funakoshi, he was part of the loosely affiliated Shotokan organization, a fragment of which he was supposed to represent.
Karate has never been ecumenical, that’s why, through 60 years it has yet to enjoy Olympic status – no head instructor would ever concede authority to any other and every pretender to his own throne craved control. I suppose the adage “follow the money” was as much the cause as anything.
On that dark street, in a seedy section of Tokyo, Ozawa was suddenly confronted by two thugs, one with a sword. They were probably Yakuza, Japanese mobsters who were trying to influence the art (which they eventually did.) They apparently didn’t want Ozawa to attend the meeting.
When I asked him why, all he said was – politics.
Whatever the reason, the thug with the sword raised it and attacked. Ozawa said the guy looked amateurish but still wielded a blade that was now slicing the air toward Ozawa’s head. Ozawa, fired up with fear and adrenaline and hardened by the cruel pre- war days of Shotokan training, jammed his left arm up in an instinctive rising block. The sword slashed his forearm. Ozawa shouted and slammed his fist into the man’s face.
Rising block and punch, two of the first moves many of us learned in karate, proved their usefulness that day. The defiance took the men back and the shout brought attention.
The two thugs ran. Ozawa dragged himself home, bandaged his wound and forgot about karate politics for 25 years, until, in fact, the evening I picked him up at the San Diego airport. He was about to start his new political career in karate which ultimately ended up with the aforementioned Las Vegas tournament. He rolled his arm over that night in Mexico to reveal the scar, lifted his Tequila and shook his head in wonder.
Politics defined Japanese karate in those early days. In many ways it still does.
In answer to a question about karate politics one evening, Demura Sensei casually tossed back that all human interaction is political. And he may be right. But politics seems to be uniquely embedded, right along with the fascination for the sword, in the Japanese soul and the very structure of their language and hierarchical society.
Tokugawa Ieyasu unified Japan in 1600, after years of political maneuvering – cajoling, promises, betrayals, alliances, murders and ultimate victory at the battle of Sekigahara. He was a master politician.
The Japanese occupation of Okinawa, arguably the impetus for the development of karate by a people deprived of weapons, was, in itself, political. The Satsuma, part of the faction who lost at Sekigahara, were allowed to “conquer” Okinawa. Tokugawa wanted them focused south, instead of on revenge against him, at Edo. A brilliant political move -sacrifice Okinawa, preserve your dynasty.
The Japanese have lived on a few small islands with a too many people for 5,000 years. Polite politics were essential for the society to survive. Their language and their culture reflect it. Everyone has a sempai (senior) or a kohai (junior). Very few sit on equal planes, and everyone seems to instinctively know who bows lower.
This ingrained inclination towards a smooth running society with an interwoven hierarchy fueled (and fuels) Japanese karate. Money, power, rank, influence and prestige are second nature, with position often more important than ability.
Years ago, when I was a Sandan, a Japanese teacher from a completely different style offered to promote me to Godan if I would join his organization and help spread it in the United States. Even as a callow, naïve young man, hungering for recognition, I sensed that was a bad idea. After decades of reflection I understand why. If we work towards a goal, a rank, and finally attain it, no matter what happens, we will always have the abilities we honed along the way. If we accept a political position, just for the sake of recognition, we will never gain the knowledge. Had I accepted that offer, I never would have become a martial artist, but instead would have always been just another politician.
In Okinawa, karate is generally an individual art. A makiwara and a sweaty gi are non-political. An Okinawa dojo more likely than not will be occupied by a random group of students practicing on their own, with a few black belt instructors floating around correcting and explaining.
Every dojo in Japan, on the other hand, (and often in the west, by extension) has lines of students performing the exact same techniques, trying to look exactly alike, with a senior counting cadence.
Karate sprang from a gentleman warrior culture as a way to prepare oneself for individual battle. Endless repetitions of strengthening exercises and the practice of fighting basics epitomized the training, much like one might see in the UFC, or any wrestling team. Japanese karate, in contrast, is defined by working one’s way through a color hierarchy to achieve the ultimate award of the black belt. The ability to actually survive battle is secondary.
Nothing says that one is better than the other. In fact, a good argument can be made that turning karate into a political sport and motivating people through belt colors is what created a worldwide phenomenon and preserved the art.
Whatever the case, this is the karate tapestry. It grows and expands, with so much interwoven fabric that a fighting art that is sport, philosophical path, physical education, hobby, way of life, political organization or occupation assumes so many realities that it is impossible to unravel.
At 21, Osamu Ozawa was chosen by the Japanese military to be a kamikaze pilot near the end of the war. That privilege was a death call. Kamikazes didn’t return. They also didn’t use very good airplanes and, as fate would have it, his rickety one flipped over on takeoff and he ended up in a hospital. When he came to, the war was over. Talk about resigning oneself to death.
In later years he moved to the United States and became a dealer in a Las Vegas casino, a much less noble pursuit than sacrificing life for country, but, in the end, I would expect, much more pleasant. He remained close to karate, and got serious about it again in the 80’s (after that trip to Ensenada) and lived the rest of his life as a karate “master”.
His life spanned a rare corner of the modern karate landscape, from brutal pre-war training, to near death at the hands of a fanatic military government and then again at the hands of a fanatic Yakuza thug at the time of the political birth of our art, to running one of the biggest
tournaments in the country.
That life developed within him an iron will. Although, in the end, sickly and frail, he vowed to remain alive through one last tournament. It was a self-declared obligation he fulfilled. He died shortly after.
Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Ivan passing time on a film set.
Was he any good at karate? Was he a figurehead? Was he a politician? Was he the creation of a smart promoter? Or was he a classic warrior?
I don’t know. But he certainly reflected the politics of our art and was a colorful thread in the tapestry that we are all weaving together.