Spotlight: Isao Obata – The Traditionalist

I am a student of karate. In my teaching, I only tell others who study of things I have learned. I believe that karate is an ever learning process and I find that the more I learn of the art the more ignorant of its vast potential I become.

Isao Obata

Although Isao Obata dedicated his life to the pursuit of Karate excellence, he never considered himself a master. He was one of Gichin Funakoshi’s first Japanese students.

Isao Obata was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1904. His father, Kyuichi, was descended from samurai lineage. He owned several silk mills, which meant the family moving around a lot because of his work.

Obata’s mother, Toyoko, was a very religious woman. She had converted to the Methodist form of Christianity. Isao was the oldest of her three surviving children, two boys and a girl. She had lost two sons, who had died in their infancy.

Due to his father’s work, Obata attended several schools in his youth. This included three grammar schools and one junior high school. It was during this time that he developed an interest in martial arts. At school he had the opportunity to study Judo, Kendo, and Kyudo.

In 1922, the year Gichin Funakoshi arrived in Japan, Obata enrolled at Keio University to study economics. One of the most respected and toughest universities, Keio was located in Tokyo. His father, Kyuichi, was extremely proud that his oldest son had made it to university.

During his first year at Keio, a friend of Obata’s gave him a copy of Funakoshi’s book “Okinawa Kenpo Karate“. He was fascinated by what he read and wanted to learn more.

1923 saw Funakoshi establish his first dojo at Keio University. He was appointed the university’s Karate sensei. Among the first students to join the new dojo were Obata and Yasuhiro Konishi. Obata would train Funakoshi for the next thirty-five years. He eventually became the first captain of the Keio Karate Club.

On 1 September 1923 the “Great Kanto Earthquake” struck Japan. Registering a magnitude of 7.9 on the Richter Scale, devastated the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama. An estimated 100,000+ people died. The Keio university dojo was among the many buildings to be destroyed in Tokyo. Also the plates for Funakoshi’s book ” Okinawa Kenpo Karate” were lost.

Within a year of the earthquake, Obata and his fellow students had rebuilt the dojo. On 15 October 1924 Funakoshi resumed teaching at Keio University.

Obata became a dedicated follower of Funakoshi. He trained with him every moment he could. He was a keen follower of his philosophy. By 1926 Funakoshi had promoted Obata to black belt, for his dedication and progress.

In 1927 Kyuichi Obata died from a heart attack. He was only 53 years old. He had got to see his son Isao practising Karate and was extremely proud of him.

After graduating from University Obata eventually travelled to Manchuria in 1932. By this time Manchuria had been taken over by the Japan’s empire expansion. Many Japanese nationals had moved to Manchuria. Native Manchurians were not happy with this and anti-Japanese sentiment was common place. He served as economic adviser to the Manchurian Aviation Corporation. He was also responsible for scheduling air routes and operational activities.

Martial arts were in important part of Obata’s life. He gave private Karate lessons to friends and to a few select students. He also practised Kyudo, the Japanese martial art of archery. He found that it helped improve his Karate technique, through the development of his mind alongside his body.

In 1955 Obata mother, Toyoko, introduced him to a prospective bride, Miyako. The couple were married the same year in Tokyo. After the ceremony they returned to Manchuko, Manchuria.

Miyako Obata had not known much about her new husband’s Karate . However, she witnessed his strength in an incident that occurred shortly after their return to Manchuko. He had attempted to settle a fight, when one of the antagonists threw a punch at him. He blocked the punch with such force that his opponent was flung aside. He didn’t have to throw a punch.

1940 saw Obata return to Japan for the National Kyudo Tournament, held at the Meiji Jingu Shrine in Tokyo. Representing the Manchurian Territory, he won the tournament. He became recognised more for Kyudo than for Karate.

In the early 1940s Funakoshi promoted Obata to 5th Dan. This was the last promotion he ever received.

During the height of World War II Obata resided in Manchuria with his wife. His brother, Saturo, have been made a captain in the Japanese Imperial Army. In 1945 Saturo Obata died in the battle of Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Deeply affected by his brothers death, Isao Obata and his wife returned to a devastated Tokyo.

With his brother dead, Obata took up the responsibility of caring for his mother and sister. He took a job with the Hirano Seiko Company, an international trading company.

At the end of the war in 1945, Japan was occupied by American forces. All martial arts were banned in the country. In 1948 when the ban was eventually lifted, Obata resumed his training with Funakoshi at Keio University.

On 27 May 1949, Obata, alongside Shigeru Egami, Masatoshi Nakayama, and others, helped establish the Japan Karate Association (JKA). He became the JKA’s first Chairman. Funakoshi was made Honorary Chief instructor, with Nakayama becoming Chief Instructor. Other appointments included:

  • Kichinosuke Saigo becoming President
  • Masatomi Takagi becoming Administrator
  • Kimio Itoh becoming Director of Administration
  • Hidetaka Nishiyama becoming Chief of the Instruction Committee

In 1950 Obata helped form the All Japan Student Karate Association. He also established the All Japan University Students Karate League. The league was comprised of student clubs from all universities, practising a variety of Karate styles. The All Japan Students Karate Association was an amateur organisation that did not have any professional instructors.

Like his mentor, Funakoshi, Obata was always looking to promote Karate. In 1953 he was invited by Emilio Bruno, the head of Strategic Air Command (SAC) Physical Education program to tour army bases in the United States. The tour lasted two months and he demonstrated Shotokan Karate to US Army Personnel.

Since it’s inception in 1949, the JKA had become increasingly commercial, with some instructors being paid for teaching Karate. These instructors usually didn’t have any independent source of income. However, some karateka like Obata believed that instructors should not be paid for teaching Karate. They also didn’t like the sport-orientated direction Shotokan Karate was taking. In 1954 Obata and the Keio University Club left the JKA.

On 26 April 1957 Obata’s friend and mentor, Gichin Funakoshi, died. Funakoshi had a profound effect on his life.

Through the 1960s to the 1970s Obata taught Karate at Keio, and Meiji Yakai universities. He also taught Karate to SAC personnel stationed in Japan. Even after he had retired from work, he continued his teaching schedule.

The October 1972 issue of Black Belt Magazine featured an interview with Obata, one of the very few that he gave in his lifetime. In the article he bemoaned the state of Karate, believing that it was a dying art. He was particularly worried about the growing trend towards Sports Karate.

Isao Obata died in 1976. It should not be underestimated the impact Obata had on the growth of Karate. As a senior student of Gichin Funakoshi, he travelled the country with him, demonstrating Karate. His tour of SAC bases eventually lead to instructors like Tsutomu Ohshima and Hidetaka Nishiyama being invited to teach in the United States.

As a disciple of Funakoshi, Obata made it his mission to transmit his lessons and Karate to new generations of students.

Author: Patrick Donkor

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