Osamu Ozawa

There were some differences but not between the masters such as Yamaguchi, Funakoshi, Mabuni, et cetera. All those differences lay between the young students and not the masters.

Osamu Ozawa

Osamu Ozawa is one of the most respected Japanese masters to have taught in the west. Until his death, he was the highest-ranked Shotokan master in the western hemisphere. His life had many highs as well as lows. Through everything he endured, his Karate always remained central to his life.

Descended from the Takeda the samurai clan, Ozawa was born in Kobe, Japan on 25 November 1925. His brothers, Jun Sugano and Mitsuru Ozawa would also become noted martial artists.

Ozawa first encountered Karate in 1937 when his cousin Daiichiro Aizawa visited Kobe. He showed a young Ozawa some techniques. Aizawa would go on to become one of the highest-ranking Wado-ryu masters.

In December 1938 Ozawa began training with Shito-ryu founder, Kenwa Mabuni, who had relocated from Okinawa to the Japanese city of Osaka. At the time there were no Karate dojos is in Kobe, so he would travel to Osaka for one and a half hours to train. He did this for two years.

In the early days of Karate, it was not considered a respectable pursuit by many Japanese. During a very nationalistic period in Japanese history, anything with Chinese or Okinawan roots was viewed with suspicion. It was for this reason that Ozawa kept his training secret from his parents. When they did find out he had to plead with them to continue his training. They finally relented, provided he achieved good grades at school. He made sure he did.

In March 1942 Ozawa entered Hosei university aged 17 years. It was at this time he was introduced to Shotokan Karate. He tried out with 80 other students for the Karate club where Shotokan founder Gichin Funakoshi was the Chief-Instructor, with Kimio Itoh was the team captain. By the time he graded for 1st Dan time under Funakoshi in September 1944, only six of the original eighty students remained, due to the severe nature of the training.

October of 1944 saw Ozawa drafted into the Japanese Navy, where he volunteered to be a Kamikaze pilot.

On 29 July 1945 Ozawa along with four other pilots drank their last cups sake in honour of Emperor Hirohito and climbed into the cockpits of their planes for the last time, to meet their destiny. He wrote a goodbye letter to his family thanking them for everything they had done for him.

Like the three other planes, a bomb was attached to Ozawa’s old plane, to maximise the damage it could do. Shortly after take-off, his plane crashed, and he was pulled from it before the bomb exploded. He woke twelve days later from a coma. He had a punctured lung and ruptured eardrums. He had broken his arms and legs and had partial loss of vision.

To prevent him from aggravating his numerous injuries Ozawa had been strapped to his bed. This turned out to have saved his life. During this time Emperor Hirohito announced the Japanese surrender on radio. On hearing the news six of Ozawa’s fellow patients committed ritual suicide. He was upset that he could not have done the same. Having been brought up on the importance of duty and honour he felt shame and dishonour for not completing his task. This feeling would remain with him for a very long time.

After release from the hospital, Ozawa returned to his home in Kobe to find that it had been devastated due to sustained bombing. He finally tracked his family to Arima City. His family thought him dead and a funeral service for him had already been given.

In November 1946, Ozawa returned to Hosei University where he resumed his studies. He was a different man. He had lost a lot of friends and comrades during the war and was slowly recovering from his injuries. He eventually resumed his Karate training.

Ozawa graduated in March 1948 from Hosei University with a degree in Economics. By this time, he had been graded to 2nd Dan by Funakoshi. He had started teaching Karate at a local YMCA.

In April 1949 the first organised collegiate Karate demonstration took place in Tokyo. Many “old boys” i.e. former collegiate karateka had returned from the war and were interested in the future of collegiate Karate. Ozawa was invited to a meeting to discuss this topic.

The following month saw a major meeting take place to discuss and plan for Shotokan Karate. Almost every ranking Shotokan practitioner, from the oldest to the youngest, were present. All the top universities, i.e. Keio, Takushoku, Hosei, Senshu and Waseda had representatives present at the meeting. It was here that the foundation was laid for the formation of the Japan Karate Association (JKA).

By 1952 Ozawa was establishing himself as one of the most respected television directors in Japan. Over his career, working at a network station based in Osaka, he made over 700 programs. Because he spoke English he was able to work with some of the biggest American stars of the time, including Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.

In 1954 Ozawa was awarded his 4th Dan. He was appointed the Chief Instructor of the Kansai branch of the JKA, that consisted of clubs in Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto. This was an interesting time The JKA and the expansion of their version of Karate. There were those that did not want to see the fledgeling JKA succeed. During his time as, Chief Instructor he encountered bribe attempts and when these did not work, verbal threats. Two attempts were made on his life. In the most serious attempt, he survived a samurai sword attack that almost severed his arm. He carried a scar from this attack for the rest of his life.

November 1954 saw Ozawa sponsor one of the biggest martial arts (Budo) demonstrations of its time. The event was held at an auditorium in Kobe and was attended by over 10,000 spectators. They watched demonstrations given by the JKA Technical Director, Masatoshi Nakayama, and also Teruyuki Okazaki. There were also demonstrations given by other top Shotokan practitioners.

By 1964, Ozawa now a 5th Dan, had seen the growth of JKA Karate. Instructors were now being sent around the world. He resigned from the position of Chief Instructor, passing it to his brother Jun Sugano.

Ozawa had made a film called “Nippon Budo Emaki“, which was about the largest martial arts demonstration in Japan’s history. He had quit his successful television director position and formed his own film company. He had dreams of making it big in Hollywood.

On 22 December 1964 Ozawa arrived in the United States with the aim of selling his film. His first stop was Honolulu, Hawaii where he stayed the night with Masataka Mori, who was teaching in Hawaii for the JKA. The following day He flew to Los Angeles where he was met by Hidetaka Nishiyama.

Ozawa struggled to find a buyer for his film. He sustained himself by teaching private Karate lessons to celebrities such as Natalie Wood and Rock Hudson. During the day he pursued his tv/film career. He did this for the next three years.

In 1967 Ozawa opened his first dojo in the United States. It was in San Gabriel, California.

Disillusioned with the movie business Ozawa decided to open the first pachinko parlour in Los Angeles. Pachinko is a popular Japanese game that is a cross between a pinball and slot machine. This turned out not to be at a successful venture for him. The business was closed by the police, who claimed he was running an illegal gambling establishment. He found out later that it was due to the influence of the mob that his business had been forced to close.

Feeling disgusted and let down by Los Angeles, Ozawa moved to Las Vegas. As gambling was legal in Las Vegas he opened several pachinko parlours. Initially, he rented space from some of the casinos. However, he soon ran into problems with the mob, who indirectly controlled many of the casinos. The casinos feared that pachinko would compete with their own lucrative slot machines. They soon stopped renting him space.

Ozawa was stuck with $100,000 worth of pachinko machines he could not use. To make matters worse, his home was robbed, and the thieves took everything he owned.

This was a dark time in Ozawa’s life. He had to pawn his watch to get money to buy food. He would sometimes play poker to make money. He purchased a gun, contemplating suicide. Luckily a friend talked him out of it.

For the next couple of years, Ozawa worked as a poker dealer in several major Las Vegas hotels. It was while working at the Hacienda Hotel that his boss found out about Ozawa’s Karate training. His boss asked him to teach his son. Ozawa agreed, and his boss helped him find an empty building where Ozawa could teach his son and other students.

In 1977 Ozawa opened a storefront Karate school near the Las Vegas strip. Within three years the school was bringing in enough revenue that he was able to quit working as a poker player and become a full-time instructor.

In January 1981 to promote the opening of a new bigger dojo, Ozawa organised the 1st Traditional Karate Tournament. The event was held at the Maxim Hotel and Casino in front of 150 spectators. Twelve instructors were invited to give talks and demonstrations. Only thirty competitors competed. Only Shotokan practitioners we invited to give demonstrations. The instructors included Takayuki Mikami; Yutaka Yaguchi; Shojiro Koyama; Ray Dalke; Frank Smith; and James Field. Little did anyone know that this tournament would go on to become one of the biggest and most prestigious tournaments in the world. Ozawa’s new dojo opened on 1 February in Las Vegas.

Following the success of the first tournament, Ozawa held the 2nd Traditional Karate Tournament, at the Aladdin Hotel in 1982. Again, the tournament was only open to Shotokan practitioners. However, at the event held the following year at the Maxim Hotel, the tournament was opened to all traditional Japanese and Okinawan styles of Karate. The event had grown in size to around 400 spectators watching 200 entrants compete. There were around 40 instructors from various styles demonstrating their techniques. From Shotokan, there was Takayuki Mikami. From Shito-ryu Fumio Demura was in attendance. Kiyoshi Yamazaki and Junki Yoshida represented Ryobukai. Hagashi-ha Shito-ryu was represented by Minobu Miki.

By January 1985, the tournament had been rebranded to Traditional Karate Tournament International. Ozawa’s and the tournament’s reputation were growing both nationally and internationally. The tournament was able to attract renowned instructors, from traditional styles of Karate, such as Teruo Hayashi and Hirokazu Kanazawa to the tournament. Much of the tournament’s success was that it had become a showcase for traditional styles of Karate. At the 5th annual tournament, they were 3000 spectators, 1000 Participants from North, South and Central America Europe and Japan. They were also 100 instructors.

At the 6th annual tournament in 1986, Ozawa was presented with his 8th Dan by Dan Ivan who was acting as a representative of the International Martial Arts Federation (IMAF). This made him the highest-ranked karateka outside of Japan. The certificate was signed by Prince Higaskikuni, President of the IMAF. At the time Ozawa became one of only four people presented with a certificate signed by a member of the Japanese Royal Family.

By 1989 Traditional Karate Tournament International had become one of the biggest annual events in the traditional Karate world. Ozawa managed to negotiate a sponsorship of the event by the Kirin Beer Company. He also negotiated a deal with Bally, who at the time was one of the biggest hotels in Las Vegas. The deal guaranteed the hotel rental of 400 of its rooms. 50 rooms were also provided for distinguished guests and instructors. These Ozawa paid for at his own expense.

In November 1993, Ozawa married the 33-year-old Colombian, Magaly Cruz. The following year at the 14th Traditional Karate Tournament International, he and his new wife held their wedding reception at the event. Exhibitions were given by Shito-ryu master, Kenzo Mabuni and Goju-ryu master, Teruo Chinen.

1995 saw Ozawa pass the reins of running his dojo to one of his top students, James Tawato.

The 18th Annual Traditional Karate Tournament International was hosted by Ozawa for the last time on 12 April 1998. Another successful tournament saw demonstrations given by Jun Sugano and Stan Schmidt of the JKA and Kenzo Mabuni. Two days later Osamu Ozawa died from natural causes in a local Las Vegas hospital. He was surrounded by his wife Magaly and James Tawato and a few other close students. Ozawa was survived by his wife and their two sons Toru and Douglas.

The 19th Traditional Karate Tournament International held in 1999 was renamed the Ozawa International Karate tournament in honour of him. It was hosted by Magaly Ozawa and James Tawato. The event continues to be one of the biggest tournaments in the world of traditional Karate.

The life of Osamu Ozawa was an eventful one, where the facts were stranger than fiction. Apart from his personal success, he will be forever remembered for introducing the United States and the wider world to many of the top Masters of Japanese and Okinawan Karate. He showed that it was possible for the various styles of Karate to coexist in mutual respect.

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    • Barry Rodgers on October 19, 2019 at 10:09 pm
    • Reply

    Hello Patrick. I will try ti be brief. I recognize two different dates for the establishment of the JKA – May 1949 and November 1948. The JKA website states November 1948. This is a recent revision as previously the JKA site mentioned two conflicting dates – May ‘49 and Nov ‘48. The folks at the JKA are clear that the JKA was founded in 1948. Nishiyama also referenced 1948; however, Nakayama suggests 1949. There is plenty of info on a May 1949 meeting. However with the JKA insistent that 1948 was the founding year some confusion still exists. Would you have any information to help identify what exactly happened in 1948?

    1. Hello Barry.

      You are correct. In my research I have come across both dates and have tended to use the 1949 date. However, it is my understanding that the 1948 date is when Funakoshi’s students got together after the War and suggested forming the association. I believe the 1949 date was when they formally established the JKA. This is just my interpretation and I open to correction.


    • Darren C. Walker on December 9, 2022 at 5:24 am
    • Reply

    I worked for Mr. Ozawa in his restaurant, Café Ninja. He was a great man to work for and to know, as is James!

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