History of Karate: The Story of Gichin Funakoshi Disciple Osamu Ozawa (Part 1)

Until his death on April 14, 1998, Osamu Ozawa was the highest-ranked shotokan karate master in the Western hemisphere. His place in the history of karate stemmed from a fascinating life — the kind most of us only read about. Osamu Ozawa was born in 1925 in Kobe, Japan. His ancestors were samurai, and he was brought up in accordance with that ancient tradition. Osamu Ozawa was forced to endure the strict, even brutal, training that was the norm for forging the mind and body into a deadly weapon. His teachers included Gichin Funakoshi, founder of shotokan karate, and Daiichiro Aizawa, who at the time of this interview was Japan’s second-highest-ranked master of wado-ryu karate.

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When Osamu Ozawa granted me an interview for Black Belt magazine, I dropped everything else on my calendar for the opportunity to meet this living legend from the history of karate. I envisioned a traditional setting for our talk, possibly sitting crossed-legged on a tatami mat and sipping green tea. Instead, he asked me if I would like to go next door to the Pizza Hut. I smiled and knew instantly that I was going to like this man. After all, what goes better with discussing the history of karate than a pepperoni pie? For more than three hours, we sat and talked about his place in the history of karate. It was a conversation I will never forget.

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Japan's Place in the History of Karate “When I was young, Japan was a military state, and the teachers were dedicated to building the young people’s spirit,” the master said. “To accomplish that task, training was terribly hard. It wasn’t technically difficult, but physically it was brutal.” As a schoolboy, Osamu Ozawa was subjected to discipline that would not be permitted today in a Marine Corps boot camp. It would not be unusual for Osamu Ozawa and his fellow students to execute 1,000 kicks and 1,000 punches in one class. To practice a single kata (form) more than 100 times during a workout was routine. “This type of training was designed to break down our will and force us to become stronger by going beyond what we thought we could do,” Osamu Ozawa said. “And when we did kumite (sparring) training, we had no rules at all. We wore no protection, and injuries were very common.” Osamu Ozawa's History of Karate Injuries When I asked if Osamu Ozawa had ever been injured during training, he let out a long laugh and said, “I’ve been broken in many places.” He then began pointing to his nose, chin, ribs — sort of a human road map of injuries. Could modern American students endure the type of training he went through? The old karate master was quick to reply: “No, they could not. And they shouldn’t have to. No one should.” Discipline, Discipline, Discipline This strict training wasn’t confined to the dojo (training hall) during this period of the history of karate. The military-style workouts and harsh discipline were also an accepted training method at home and in the classroom. “If I failed to greet my father every morning, my mother would slap me in the face,” Osamu Ozawa said. “We would also be slapped very hard in the dojo if we failed to salute a teacher or sempai (senior student)," he said. "To make our mind stronger than our body, we were permitted to wear only shorts and a T-shirt in the winter. We rode the train to school, and even though there was a station in front of the school, we were required to get off two miles away [for physical training and discipline].” Cross-Training: An Interesting Aspect of the Japanese History of Karate Training Classes in judo and kendo were mandatory for Japanese students at that point in the history of karate. In addition to these activities, there were also some elective sports. Osamu Ozawa had chosen baseball, but when he was 13, he saw a karate demonstration by his cousin, Daiichiro Aizawa, a master of wado-ryu karate. “I was very impressed by the speed and grace of his techniques and knew instantly that I wanted to study karate,” Osamu Ozawa said. “Besides, I was not very good at baseball. “I trained with my cousin, then when he moved, I began to look for another place to train.” The year was 1937, and there were no karate dojo in Osamu Ozawa’s hometown of Kobe. So he traveled many miles to Osaka, where he discovered a shito-ryu karate school run by Kenwa Mabuni, founder of that system. “I joined that dojo and went there two or three times a week to study,” Osamu Ozawa said. “To get to class, I would leave my house at 5 p.m. and walk to the train station. When I got to Osaka, I had to take another bus to get to the dojo. It took me about an hour and 30 minutes total, one way.” International Concerns in the History of Karate Hit Home Because the history of karate had its roots in Okinawa and China, it was not considered respectable by many Japanese, so Osamu Ozawa did not tell his parents what he was doing. However, like most parents, they discovered his secret, and it was only after much pleading that he convinced them to allow him to continue to study. “I made a deal with my mother,” Osamu Ozawa explained. “I said, ‘Let me train two times a week, and when I come home, no matter what time it is, I will study two hours.’” Osamu Ozawa kept his word, and for two years, he traveled back and forth in the middle of the night to study shito-ryu, then burned the midnight oil over his schoolwork and maintained excellent grades. “When I entered Hosei University, I joined the karate team there and trained under Gichin Funakoshi,” Osamu Ozawa said. “I am the only person in the Western world who started karate training before World War II. The shotokan building was bombed in 1945, so anybody who started after that could not have studied shotokan because Shoto Kan was the name of the building. It was a great honor for me to have been able to train in that building every Saturday.” Training With Gichin Funakoshi Osamu Ozawa said that Gichin Funakoshi was a great man and philosopher; however, Funakoshi’s younger sempai were products of a militaristic national school system and they ran the karate team as if it were a platoon. “The training was brutal, but that was the way it was done then,” Osamu Ozawa said. “We had 50 makiwara (punching boards), and all the students were made to punch it with much force, more than 50 times on our first day in class. The rough straw cut through the skin of many students’ [knuckles]. More than 40 quit on the first day. When they quit, the sempai called them cowards and told them he did not want to ever see their face again. That was the only opportunity students were given to quit the karate class. After that, if someone quit he was badly beaten up by everyone in the class before he was allowed to leave. I had to do this, too, but I did not like doing it. It was hell. The reasoning was [that] it made you more scared to quit than to continue with the training.” Osamu Ozawa paused, and although his body was still in the pizza parlor, his mind had drifted back many years into his path in the history of karate. I watched as his eyes locked on to that special place we all go when we remember things that once were. Moments later, the home movie that was playing in his head ended, and he turned to me and said, “This was our way at the time, and I did not know there could be any other way. I believe now it was too hard, but it prepared me for the difficult times I would face.” How the History of Karate Was Affected by World War II Osamu Ozawa’s fate fell into the hands of the gods of war, and it was during this time that his training and internal strength would be put to the ultimate test. In 1944 he received his black belt from Gichin Funakoshi. Only six of the original 80 who had tried out for the karate team endured so long; three of those six would die in World War II. For Osamu Ozawa, the escalating war resulted in his being drafted into the Japanese navy, where he was trained as an officer and pilot. “One afternoon our commanding officer asked for volunteers,” Osamu Ozawa explained. “And he said, ‘From this mission, you have no chance to return.’ We all volunteered. Each one of us believed it would be an honor to die on such a special mission of such great importance.” Displaying the same dedication and courage that made him a black belt, Osamu Ozawa volunteered to be a member of a secret unit composed of dedicated young pilots who would become known as kamikaze. These intrepid warriors were trained to face certain death by flying their airplanes, which were packed with explosives, into the ships of the American fleet. “We were taught only how to take off and how to hit our target,” he said. “We never expected to return.” And most of them did not return. With a heavy heart, Osamu Ozawa recalled how his friends would fly off, never to be seen again. Osamu Ozawa continued to train, knowing that he too would soon join his comrades. Japan was losing the war, and in a final and futile effort, the emperor committed all Japan’s troops in a do-or-die attempt to stop the advancing Americans. Ozawa was among them. He was prepared to do what his country asked of him, but fate had other plans for Osamu Ozawa. It was a humid morning, July 29, 1945. He sat in a plane rigged as a flying bomb. He carried a sword that had been in his family for five generations. His destination was the American fleet positioned near Okinawa. Because it was a suicide flight, Osamu Ozawa, like most kamikaze pilots, was given an old aircraft to fly. He was in a biplane that was barely airworthy. Waiting for his turn to take off, he watched the first plane lift off successfully. The second one crashed on takeoff and blew up, killing his friend. Osamu Ozawa then received the signal to begin his run. ... TO BE CONTINUED . . . About the Author: Terry Wilson is a seventh-degree black belt in shintoyoshin-ryu jujitsu and a fifth-degree black belt in shorin-ryu karate. He is also a five-time Emmy award-winning TV producer, director, writer and on-camera host/reporter. For more information, visit TerryLWilson.com.
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