Spotlight: Tsutomu Ohshima – Strict Eyes

….at least my black belts know that what they are learning is not for the ego, or just for street use or for competition, but for their own soul
and their own life.

Tsutomu Ohshima

Known for his serious, penetrating gaze, Tsutomu Ohshima was a direct student of Karate founder, Gichin Funakoshi. He was one of Funakoshi’s last direct students. He has been a pioneer of American Shotokan Karate.

Tsutomu Ohshima was born on 6 August 1930 in China, where he spent his early years. His father, a martial arts expert, was born in Nagasaki, while his mother was born in Hiroshima. His grandfather had been a samurai.

Ohshima’s martial arts training started at an early age. In 1935, aged 5, he started Sumo training. He continued until he was 15 years old. In 1938 he started practising Kendo, training until he was 15 years old. If that was not enough, he started Judo in 1939, training until the age of 13.

In 1947 aged 17 years Ohshima enrolled at Waseda University to study economics. He soon joined the Waseda Karate Club. His seniors at the club included Hiroshi Noguchi, the first club captain; Shigeru Egami; Toshio Kamata-Watanabe; Tadao Okuyama; and Matsuno Shibuya. For many years his friends and family did not know he practised Karate.

By 1948 Ohshima was training directly under Shotokan founder, Gichin Funakoshi. He was 18 years old and Funakoshi was 78. By Ohshima’s own admission, it wasn’t until years later, when he was teaching, that he came to appreciate the teachings of Funakoshi.

Ohshima was promoted to 3rd Dan in 1952 by Funakoshi. It was around this time that he became Captain of the Waseda Karate Club. By this time Funakoshi was now in his 80s. Many new students viewed him as an old man from a bygone era. When he came to the club to teach, many of the students chose not to attend his classes. As club captain, Ohshima made it his duty to make sure that students attended Funakoshi’s classes. Failure to do so would result in not being allowed to grade.

Ohshima was a fierce competitor, in the inter-university matches that frequently took place. In these matches, there were sometimes contention between competitors. It was around this time that he helped formulate an arbitration system that could be used in competition. Two referees and four corner judges were made a part of matches, rather than a single referee. This helped generate a certain amount of respect for officials from the competitors. Importantly, the general public would be given a better image of Karate.

In 1953 Oshima graduated from Waseda University with a degree in Economics. The following year he was selected to teach Karate to personnel of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), alongside Masatoshi Nakayama, with whom he became lifelong friends.

1955 saw Ohshima move to the United States to continue his economics studies. He enrolled at the University of Southern California based in Los Angeles to pursue his studies.

Oshima taught his first Karate class in the United States in January of 1956. Some of his fellow Japanese students had heard of his Karate fame back home in Japan. They managed to persuade him to teach them. Ohshima taught classes in the Japanese business district of downtown Los Angeles.

Word soon got around about Ohshima’s Karate classes. He was seen teaching a small band of American students. The training was extremely hard, but the students stuck with it. To mark the growing success of the classes, Ohshima and his students sent Funakoshi a letter and a basket of Californian fruits. It is said that Funakoshi cried when he received the basket and read the letter.

Ohshima was promoted to 5th Dan by Funakoshi in 1957. This was the last promotion he received. On 26 April of that year, the founder of Shotokan Karate, Gichin Funakoshi died.

1957 also saw Ohshima appointed by the California Institute of Technology ( Caltech) to teach Karate as part of their Physical Education curriculum. He established the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) Karate Club in Pasadena. This was the first university Karate club in the United States. Before establishing the club he had received permission from Funakoshi before he died.

The Nisei Week is an annual festival celebrating Japanese American culture and history. The festival is held in the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles. At the 1957 festival, Ohshima organised the first Japanese Karate tournament held in the United States.

In 1959 Ohshima founded the Southern California Karate Association (SCKA), one of the oldest Karate association is in the United States. SCKA was a non-profit association with all the tuition fees going towards the operation of the dojo. Ohshima supported himself by being a radio announcer for a local Japanese station in Los Angeles.

Ohshima had to return to Japan in 1960. Before returning he sent a letter to Japan seeking a replacement, to look after his students. Eventually, the position was offered to Hidetaka Nishiyama.

In Japan, Ohshima was approached by the family of Funakoshi to translate his book “Karate-do Kyohan” into English. Honoured by the request he did so, with all 19 kata in the book being demonstrated by him.

In 1961 Ohshima and Nishiyama met to agree on the details of Nishiyama instructing Ohshima’s American Karate group. They agreed the following:

  • Nishiyama would only stay for a year.
  • Both men would find a suitable replacement for Nishiyama after a year.
  • The American group would remain politically neutral, not been affiliated to the JKA or any other Shotokan Karate group.
  • Nishiyama would continue to teach Funakoshi’s version of Shotokan Karate.

Nishiyama arrived in Los Angeles in November of 1961 to take up his new teaching position.

Henri Plee and the French Federation of Judo and Karate Organisation invited Ohshima to France to teach. This was not his first visit to France. He had previously been invited by the Ministry of the Interior to conduct a survey on Karate organisations in France. He had been dismayed by what he found. At one club he visited there were over 40 black belts. This was surprising for a country that had been practising Karate for a short time. Many of the black belts did not have the necessary Karate foundations. During this visit, he made it his mission to instil some basic foundations. On his return visit to France in 1962, he taught several courses in Paris.

In December 1962 Ohshima returned to Los Angeles to visit his old students. He was dismayed to find that Nishiyama had made changes. The American group was now affiliated to the JKA and were learning their version of Shotokan Karate.

Ohshima decided to remain in the United States to rebuild his American group. This led to some friction between Ohshima loyalists and Nishiyam followers. After a few months, Nishiyama left the dojo with two- thirds of the students. He opened a new dojo on the same street. With a fall in membership and unable to maintain the running of the dojo, Ohshima moved the club to a different area of Los Angeles. These were tough times for him.

Ohshima continued his close relationship with France. In September 1964 he founded France Shotokan Karate (FSK). The aim of FSK was to promote Shotokan Karate according to the teachings of Funakoshi.

The latter part of the 1960s saw Ohshima establishing his version of Shotokan in the United States. In 1965 at the 2nd International Karate Tournament held at Long Beach, California, he was head referee and also gave a kumite demonstration to a large audience. 1968 saw him named Black Belt Magazine’s “Japanese Instructor of the Year“.

In 1969 Ohshima renamed the Southern California Karate Association (SCKA) to Shotokan Karate Association (SKA), in recognition of his black belts who were now opening dojos across the United States.

The first WUKO World Championships was organised by the Federation of All-Japan Karate-Do Organisations (FAJKO) in 1970. FAJKO sent invitations to Japanese instructors in various countries, to send teams to compete in Tokyo. The invitation was sent to Ohshima in the US. Ohshima formed a committee of Japanese instructors residing in the US, to select a team to represent the United States. The committee consisted of Fumio Demura; Gosei Yamaguchi; Kiyoshi Yamazaki; and Hidetaka Nishiyama. Dan Ivan was selected to head the US delegation to the World Championships.

During his time in the United States, Ohshima has continued to teach Funakoshi’s Shotokan. A strict but fair teacher he has continued to receive awards. In 1980 he was the inaugural recipient or Black Belt Magazine’s Publisher’s Award. 1988 saw the Caltech Alumni Association bestow him with an honorary membership for his services to the Caltech community. 1993 saw him receive a teaching award from Caltech’s undergraduate Student Organisation.

On 22 May 1994 around one hundred Caltech alumni gathered in the university’s gymnasium, to honour Ohshima on the occasion of his retirement. He had been a Caltech staff member for 37 years.

A new central dojo was opened in Santa Barbara, California on August 2000. It was named Shotokan Ohshima dojo.

Ohshima retired as a Chief Instructor of SKA in August 2018.

Tsutomu Ohshima has been a pioneer of Shotokan Karate in the United States. He has continued to teach Shotokan Karate as taught to him by Gichin Funakoshi. For him, Karate has always been about perfecting one’s character and spirit. It is this lesson that he had tried to pass on to his students.

Author: Patrick Donkor

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