The karate world has lost a true luminary and keeper of the old ways. Oyata Seiyu (Title: Taika), 10th Dan of Ryu Te, passed away in Aberdeen, South Dakota this week.
The following is a detailed clip from the Kansas Star Obituary:
He married Robin Swope on Feb. 12, 1977, in Louisburg, KS. Oyata is survived by wife Robin; daughter Masami Oyata-Slocum and husband, Jeremy Slocum of Seattle, WA; son Masaki Oyata of Las Vegas, NV; two granddaughters, Ashlea and Amberly Slocum and two grandsons, Jacoby and Isaacson Slocum, all of Seattle, WA.
He was born on Oct. 19, 1928 in Kita- Daito of the Ryukyu Islands, located 200 miles east of Okinawa, Japan. He was educated in Osaka, Japan, and then returned to his native Okinawa after World War II.
Oyata Sensei's exact age is subject to some speculation, reported alternatively as 1928 or 1930.
This loss comes on the heels of the passing of Jim Logue, one of Oyata's senior students.
A Unique Heritage
Oyata Sensei was integral in the transmission of old style karate to the United States and eventually the world. He was one of a scant few Okinawans both knowledgeable and willing enough to share some of the more subtle aspects of complete karate life protection. He served as an extremely important catalyst in the broader understanding of concepts like tuite and kyusho.
Despite his reputation Oyata Sensei may actually be underappreciated for how unique his story is, starting with an ancestral line that stems back to the bold martyr Janna Teido Oyakata. Janna was a councilor to King Sho Nei during the fated "Satsuma Era" of Okinawan history. Janna was Pro-Chinese/Anti-Japanese and often voiced his opinions on the matter of trade and fealty. More than once he convinced his king to shirk the heavy tributes demanded by the Japanese.
In 1609, when the Satsuma Samurai successfully invaded the Ryukyu Islands, Janna was taken with King Sho Nei as a captive. Whisked back to Japan, Sho Nei was forced to sign documents acknowledging Japan as the rightful and historic owner of all things Ryukyu. He was also forced to sign an apology for his malfeasance in neglecting the Japanese tributes.
The king signed the documents dutifully, but Janna refused. He knew that the Japanese had no real historical claim on the Ryukyus and that the demanded tributes were baseless and greedy. Unfortunately, his obstinance led to a quick demise as the Samurai disposed of him on the spot.
At first, many Okinawans believed Janna's disobedience caused them excessive trouble and harm (an idea which the Japanese gladly cultivated). However, as time passed and historical evidence of the invasion came out, the truth of Janna's patriotism was revealed and he became a revered figure.
After the Satsuma invasion the Janna family lost their name in shame and were referred to instead as Sinda (death). This later changed to Ikemiyagusoku, and changed once again some years later to Oyata (source: John Sells, 2000).
One of a Kind Training
Oyata Sensei's own story was almost ended before it truly began. At age 15 he was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Navy during World War II. He was slated to be a Kaiten Pilot, which was a manned torpedo used in suicide runs. Fortunately he was captured by Allied forces before being deployed for the first and last time.
His detainment ended roughly two years later, allowing him to return home to Okinawa. It was upon his return that his life as a karateka would begin in a most unusual way.
Jim Logue told the story during his 2010 interview:
After WWII, Oyata sensei worked for the US Army delivering food and supplies to the outer islands on the east coast of Okinawa. He traveled to six different islands using an amphibious vehicle visiting an island each day. His route took him through the seaside town of Teruma where he noticed an old man groveling for fish in small pockets of the coral reef during low tide. This man was very unusual because he still wore a warrior’s top knot.
After asking some of the local villagers, Oyata sensei found that this was Uhugushiku, a retired warrior whose family had a long relation to the nobility of Okinawa. Since his job was dangerous, he thought that maybe, this man could teach him some martial arts that he could use should he be robbed of his supplies. Although he had received martial arts training in the military, there was no in-depth study.
He befriended Uhugushiku by offering to take him to the deeper waters in his amphibious vehicle to catch bigger fish. After learning that Oyata Sensei’s ancestors were also from the warrior class, Uhugushiku agreed to teach him.
The Uhugushiku family was noted for their skills in weapons and Oyata’s sensei’s first lessons consisted of learning the bo. He eventually learned many weapons from Uhugushiku in addition the the bo; sai, kama, nunchaku, jo, Tonfa, chizikun bo, tan bo, manji sai, surichin and nunti bo. He was taught kata, concepts and fighting techniques. There were also discussions about history, language and culture so the he could better understand the arts of life-protection.
Uhugushiku also introduced Oyata Sensei to Wakinaguri, a large man of Chinese decent. Wakinaguri’s family dates back to the original 36 families sent to Okinawa as emissaries. Wakinaguri was the 6th generation to receive his family art and having no immediate family, he agreed to teach the young Oyata.
Lessons with Wakinaguri consisted of concepts and principles rather than repetition of drills. He learned how to make technique more effective and how to use this knowledge to read kata and decipher the code hidden within. As part of his training, Uhugushiku introduced him to the family scroll, much like the bubishi, but in greater detail. This scroll is more than 20 feet in length and contains 100’s of pictures depicting many techniques and concepts. Just before Wakinaguri’s death, Oyata sensei was presented with a copy of this scroll that he continues to use today for continued study.
Uhugushiku Sensei died in 1950, prompting Oyata to branch out in his martial explorations. Having a strong base in the Chinese aspects of karate, Oyata desired a teacher who was both knowledgeable and "rough". His search led him to Nakamura Shigeru of Okinawa Kenpo.
Nakamura Sensei had a broad mixture of experience, ranging from formal Shuri Te of Itosu/Chomo/Yabu, to Tomari Te of Motobu Choki, to the Chinese arts of Kuniyoshi Shinkichi. Nakamura was able to provide a strong basis in kata and fighting for Oyata. In addition, Oyata had the opportunity to train under and alongside other highly skilled members of the Okinawa Kenpo Renmei. He spent time with Uehara Seikichi of Motobu Udundi, Toma Shian of Seidokan, and Odo Seikichi of Okinawa Kenpo. Each had noteworthy strengths in tuite, striking, weapons work, etc.
Oyata's early experiences with Uhugushiko and Wakinaguri, combined with his days in Okinawa Kenpo, resulted in a wonderfully unique and effective art.
Coming to America
Oyata Sensei's first arranged visit to the United States came in 1968, but it wasn't until 1977 that training in the U.S. picked up steam. Oyata Sensei ended up moving to the states full time in order to guide his quickly growing western contigent.
In order to avoid confusion and any political complications, Oyata Sensei opted to call his particular brand of karate Ryukyu Kempo. It was a term that encompassed the broad essence of Okinawan fighting arts while still being distinct. Unfortunately, as time passed other martial artists decided to use the name "Ryukyu Kempo" in order to simulate a connection to Oyata, even if it was as thin as meeting him during training seminars.
Realizing the problem at hand and the lack of effective legal recourse, Oyata Sensei opted to changed the name of his style to Ryu Te, combining the first kanji character from Ryu-kyu and the last from kara-te. This time Oyata Sensei sealed the name legally, protecting it from excessive misuse.
At a time when American karate was experiencing something of a rut, Oyata Sensei revealed exciting and effective aspects that many westerners were unfamiliar with. His ability to apply punishing tuite techniques and extremely fast kyusho knockouts caught the attention of many martial artists who were becoming disenfranchised with the relatively thin or incomplete training they were receiving.
Ryu Te Carries On
Oyata Sensei's expertise has been mimed and faked by many martial artists looking to capture just a bit of his mystique. This is unfortunate. But luckily there are many high quality direct students that truly carry on the way of Oyata Sensei's art. These skilled men and women are part of a fantastic lineage of karate and we are all richer for their efforts to carry on Oyata Sensei's dream.
I'm very happy to present this interview with Jody Paul Hanshi. Counted among some of the earliest westerners to experience karate on the island of Okinawa, Paul Sensei has a rare combination of influences. He is a senior practitioner of Seidokan and Motobu Udundi, as well as having extensive experience in Okinawa Kenpo Karate/Kobudo and Shorinji Kempo.
Paul Sensei has distinguished himself through years of military service and deligent training. Some of his accomplishments include being a part of the inaugural Seal Team Two, as well as being one of the first western students accepted by Uehara Seikichi into the previously closed Motobu Udundi system.
Paul Sensei has continued to pass on the lessons taught to him by his instructors, and brings a special energy to each of his classes.
I recently had a chance to sit down with him and ask a few questions about his training and theories surrounding the martial arts.
JP: I was listening to a couple of guys talking about it. Actually it was judo. Later I watched them throwing each other around and I thought that was kinda neat. I got into karate because of watching the judo guys.
MA: How old were you when you made the leap into karate?
JP: I was about 19 or 20 at that time.
MA: When did you enlist in the military?
JP: It was about 1960. Around 1962 we had the cuban missile crisis. I was involved there, and it was one thing or another for the next several years. Soon after I retired it got a little better, haha.
MA: As I recall you were involved with the Navy throughout your career, including the Seals. What can you tell me about the early days of the Navy Seals?
JP: back in 1960, around March or April, Lt. Commander Roy Boehm was the Officer in Charge of Team Two. That was right in time for the cuban crisis. Team Two was comprised of the new navy seals and the UDT teams.
MA: Were you handpicked to be part of that team?
JP: Yes, most of the guys selected were divers and UDTs.
MA: When you were stationed in Japan, because of your experience in karate, did you immediately try to get involved with martial arts?
JP: Yes I did.
MA: Who did you end up connecting with?
JP: I trained with Watanabe Sensei, who was one of master Doshin So's students. Then from there, I continued with So Sensei in Shorinji Kempo.
MA: Was the training regimented?
JP: In Japan it's a lot more regimented than Okinawa. everything is very stand in line, and so forth.
MA: How did they take to you as a westerner? Was there any friction?
JP: A little bit of…skepticism. of course. but overall fair treatment. I thnink in some instances I got more preferential treatment because they wanted to make sure I got it right, haha.
MA: What ultimately led you to transfer to Okinawa?
JP: Okinawa was the departing point to Vietnam in the early days. We staged a lot of people out of Okinawa. I didn't have a choice in that matter. My teacher (Doshin So) had trained years and years before with some people on Okinawa, and I had a letter of recommendation from him to show to Okinawan sensei.
MA: Did you spend any time in Vietnam itself?
JP: Yes, I spent a bit more than three tours there. I got to come back to Okinawa between and after.
MA: When you had your letter of recommmendation, which Sensei did you choose to go to?
JP: I went to Toma Shian Sensei and Uehara Seikichi Sensei.
MA: Was there something in particular that stood out about Toma Sensei?
JP: Ohh yes, he was very strong. His techniques were similar to what I learned in Japan and I felt comfortable doing his style. In kumite, weapons, and everything he does you could sense the power.
MA: Could you describe a bit about the Okinawan training culture?
JP: In the dojo it wasn't quite as regimented as it was in Japan. It was loose, people were warming up and training on different areas of the floor. There wasn't as much 'yes sir no sir'. There was respect of course. Another thing I noticed was the kids that would run through the dojo. You might be working out and doing kata and a little one would run under your feet. It was more of a family environment. It was like one big family. Everyone would take care of each other.
MA: Did you find that there was a lot of opportunities for cross training, or perhaps teachers visiting each other?
JP: Yes, a lot of times. For Toma Sensei, he had one kata for each weapon. if you wanted anything more advanced, he would send us over to Odo Seikichi Sensei. he would say "you need to do more weapons, you go see Odo." Odo Sensei was happy with that too. They were both of the same mindset.
MA: Speaking of Odo Sensei, could you describe your time with him? You were one of the earliest westerners to train with him.
JP: He was an integral part of my kobudo and karate training. I did a lot of the tuide for his forms and his weapons forms. It was quite similar to what Toma Sensei did. Back then a lot of it was similar to each other, there were only different nuances depending on how the person was built and how they liked to act. There were a lot of common threads. Odo sensei could show you 20 minutes of connections to a 2 minute question. And that was great because I was always asking why, how, how comes…, he was always happy to share. Odo also had a very good way of showing you new forms, he explained it to you very well.
MA: Asking questions seems to be a western approach to learning. Did they ever seem to mind it?
JP: It depended a lot on what you asked. Sometimes they minded, but other times they would jump right in to explain. Toma sensei's English wasn't too good so he usually would grab you, throw you to the mat and say "you do this way". You could feel where it was hurting, so you got the picture.
MA: Did that generation ever have big training gatherings?
JP: It was more of a "sharing students" type of perspective. Students would go to certain instructors depending on their interest and the instructor's area of expertise. but sometimes we would have a big function on the beach or something like that. It was an outing where we all brought our gis and worked out.
MA: Could you talk a bit about what day-to-day training was like? Was there a certain amount of time you trained, and was it the same time every day?
JP: The training wasn't a strict regiment of a certain number of kicks, punches etc. We would go to the dojo or beach and do some basics. We would train some punches and kicks and throws in the ocean with water up to our neck. Then get out on the beach and do some running (Uehara Sensei was always good for this kind of training). It was very very hot there, so you couldn't train for as long. We would work out for an hour and then have a beer break. It was tough for me to go back to training after one of those.
In the dojo at night, you could bring a gallon milk jug of water and a six pack of beer. You would drink the water during the class and then the beer after. We would hear a lot of interesting stories and ideas then.
MA: Uehara sensei is an interesting story because he comes from the Motobu Udundi line, which has a unique history and flavor to it. could you talk about how you met him and came to train with him?
JP: Uehara sensei is one of the people I was introduced to by So Sensei. when I got to Okinawa and started training with Toma Sensei I saw that Toma was friends with Uehara (With the rengokai coming together, Toma Sensei got a chance to learn more of the toide from Uehara Sensei). Everything fell into place then, I went to visit with Toma and began training after that. Uehara Sensei was a very interesting person. He was very close with his students, which I enjoyed a lot because he took a lot of time with his students individually.
MA: Toma sensei had a lot of power and impact with his method, while Uehara Sensei's style features a lot of flow and dynamics. Was it difficult trying to learn Uehara Sensei's methods at first?
JP: Ohh yes, every time I would punch and kick Uehara would say "ohh…you do like shorinji ryu" (back from my Japan days). He spotted me right away. It took several years for me to get used to the ideas of hard and soft. The older I got the softer I got I guess, haha.
MA: What was Uehara Sensei like as an instructor? Did he demonstrate a lot and was there a lot of conversation?
JP: Doing the toide techniques, he would demonstrate a lot. Then everyone would break up and try to do it. Uehara Sensei would then come around to each person and correct things and fix us. He didn't teach everyone the same way. I asked him this question one time – "why does so-and-so do it this way, a little bit different than me", and the answer was that my body was different than the body he had. If you were powerful like Toma Sensei, he would have you punching real strong, but the long tall skinny guys couldn't do it the same way so he adjusted what would work for them.
MA: Did Uehara Sensei ever talk about why he decided to open up his style to non-family students? This was rather unprecedented in the Udundi line.
JP: To me that was a hands-off topic. They never really discussed that with me. That was mostly a matter for the family itself.
MA: When you came back to the US, were you given instructions to begin a school or organization?
JP: Toma Sensei had requested that I start a school and association. I came back in 1970, but in 1984 we brought Toma Sensei to Pennsylvania. at that time we started our first association. We had a big seminar and formed the first USA Seidokan association where Toma Sensei appointed the different officers.
MA: Did you spend a lot of time at tournaments in the earlier days?
JP: Not that much. I went to a few of the original tournaments. To me it didn't show what the arts were all about anyway. Also I wasn't used to pulling punches and kicks which was a problem. Master Odo and Master Toma tended to fight with bogu gear and hard contact. so if you got in the "ring" you hit the other person. Here if you did that they would throw you out. That's what happened to me at least. I never denied my students the experience though. If they wanted to give it a try I would support them and go with them.
MA: With your experience across Okinawa Kenpo, Seidokan, and Motobu Udundi, how important do you feel natural movement is to success at higher levels?
JP: Kihon, basics, and everything is set in iron because you have to learn the core of the movements. Without that you can't get into doing natural stancework and techniques later on. So it's important, but not without the earlier stuff.
MA: Do you have any tips for individuals who have good kihon but are trying to get to that next level?
JP: Sure – relax and train. When Toma Sensei would see something that's not quite right he would just say "…more practice".
MA: Modern karate tends to be a mix of business and training, the balance of which can be difficult. What do you see as necessary for keeping the Okinawan spirit of karate alive?
JP: Toma Sensei always wanted us to open schools, and if you do that you have to have some business with it too. Here in the states that's just the way it is. Uehara Sensei didn't believe as much in having a formal school where you charge money for classes and so forth, so he never did that. I think if we stay true to the art and the way that we learned, the original way that we learned from our teachers and carry on what they were trying to give us, martial arts can still go a long way.
MA: Thanks a lot for your time and insight Paul Sensei!
Recently I had a chance to chat with Adam over at Low Tech Combat. He asked me some great questions surrounding traditional martial arts and their suitability for self defense training. Check out the interview here.
Low Tech Combat is a great site focused on applicable, scientific means of self defense proven through study and case scenarios. I’ve always enjoyed Adam’s work there and was pleased to represent some of the traditional side. Although I hardly speak for everyone, I felt like it was a good chance to discuss the differences between classical and traditional training, and how valuable each can be to real self defense.