History of Karate: The Story of Gichin Funakoshi Disciple Osamu Ozawa (Part 2)

Terry Wilson interviews Gichin Funakoshi student and shotokan master Osamu Ozawa ... at a Pizza Hut, of all places! An amazing story of a life lived through war, hard times, TV -- and pachinko!

Editor's Note: Continued from History of Karate: The Story of Gichin Funakoshi Disciple Osamu Ozawa (Part 1). His rickety biplane lifted, then suddenly began vibrating. In a matter of moments, the craft plummeted back to earth and flipped end-over-end into a heap. “Even now I don’t drive a car very well,” Osamu Ozawa said in an effort to make a joke out of a not-so-funny situation. “When I woke up, I was in the hospital. My body was all broke.” I watched as Osamu Ozawa’s memories whisked him back to that terrible time. He continued to speak, but his eyes were locked onto images I could not imagine. His voice cracked as he told of how there was almost no medical help, so he was strapped to his bunk to prevent him from injuring himself.

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He lay there completely helpless, able only to listen as the voice of his commander in chief made a historic broadcast to the brave troops who had served him and his nation. “When Emperor Hirohito’s radio speech told us that Japan had surrendered, many committed suicide,” Osamu Ozawa said. “I watched as my friends took their own lives, some with swords, others [with] pistols. Those of us who were tied to our bed would have done it too if we could have. I felt guilty for years.” Unable to move, he watched as his friends committed suicide one by one. This ritual of death was considered more honorable than being captured alive by the enemy. Osamu Ozawa would have joined them if he could have untied himself, but as I said, the winds of fate had other plans for him. Osamu Ozawa: Life After World War II “When the war ended, I went home,” he said. “Thinking that I had died, my parents already had held a funeral service for me. They were glad I was alive; however, I was alive with dishonor, and for me that was like hell.” Sometimes surviving a war when your comrades don’t can be worse than death. Why me? Why them? Honor and duty, which were rigidly instilled and sometimes beaten into Osamu Ozawa from the time he was a kid, plagued him night and day. The proud samurai looked to the heavens for an answer that never came. Then one day a priest said: “Ozawa-san, you can die today — now, even — but for what? I believe you are alive because Japan needs you.” Trusting in a force greater than anything that guides us on earth, Osamu Ozawa returned to Tokyo to finish college. “I had no money," he said, "so with my friend Shinkai, I took a job sweeping floors in an American post exchange. “I had not been there quite a week when about six American women came in. I moved out of their way, but Shinkai accidentally touched a lady’s shoe with his mop. Shinkai instantly dropped to the floor, bowing and apologizing again and again. The woman screamed and cursed him over and over. She then kicked him full in the face as he bowed. His glasses went flying, and blood splattered the floor. “Acting on pure reflex, I grabbed the woman and hit her hard. The American military police came in with their guns drawn. We thought they would shoot us right there, but they took us to jail. Much to our surprise they gave us wonderful food, and of course we assumed this was to be our last meal. Although we could not understand the American prisoners, they seemed to be congratulating us. Later, we learned that the woman we had affronted was the unpopular wife of a captain.” Fortunately for Ozawa and his friend, one of the women who had been present gave a true account of what happened. They were released unpunished. However, they lost their jobs at the post exchange.

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Osamu Ozawa, Gichin Funakoshi and the Japan Karate Association Osamu Ozawa continued to train under Gichin Funakoshi while attending college, and in 1948 he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics and a second-degree black belt in shotokan. While working as an interpreter for the U.S. armed forces at Camp Kobe, Gichin Funakoshi appointed Osamu Ozawa chief instructor for the fledging Japan Karate Association in Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto. “Hidetaka Nishiyama was under me,” Osamu Ozawa recalled. “He was much younger and began his training after the war. I was teaching thousands and thousands. The goal of Funakoshi sensei was to create a national style of Japanese karate. This we did with the permission of the government. However, there were those who did not want the JKA to succeed.” Osamu Ozawa was confronted with everything from bribes to verbal threats, and on two occasions attempts were made on his life. “It was late, and I was walking home,” he said. “I had been drinking sake and was in a very good mood. A man was hiding behind a telephone pole with a sword. When I came close, he stepped from the shadows and tried to chop my neck. I saw him in time and did a quick rising block. My block should have hit his hands where he held the sword, but because of the sake, it struck the blade just forward of the sword’s hand guard. His blow nearly cut off my arm.” At this point, Osamu Ozawa stopped to indicate a long gash in his forearm. “See?” he asked. “This is where the blade struck. I was very fortunate.” The old karate master took a long sip of beer, then continued with his story. “Anyhow, I got him right under the nose with a side snap kick. He was in the hospital for two months.” I anxiously awaited Osamu Ozawa’s next story, about the second attempt made on his life, but it never came. Instead, he assured me that karate organizations no longer use such tactics against each other. He merely said: “That was the way things were back then. It is different now.”

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Osamu Ozawa and the Entertainment Industry Once again, Osamu Ozawa became one with his memories. I watched as his eyes traveled into yesterday. I wanted to ask what he was thinking about, but I sat silently, taking another slice of pizza and waiting for a sign that it was OK to continue with the interview. Suddenly, Osamu Ozawa returned from wherever it was he had gone, and with a good-natured smile he asked, “Did you know I was a television director?” “No, I didn’t,” I replied. “One night a man came to my dojo and asked me if I would like to join a new television network,” he said. “At that time, television was becoming very popular in Japan. But it was a new thing, and nobody had any experience. So they hired people with guts. I became director of the network station in Osaka, and I made 700 programs.” Osamu Ozawa’s programs were big hits — and because he was one of the few Japanese employees who could speak English, he worked with American celebrities when they came to Japan. As a result, he became good friends with people like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. “[Sinatra and Davis] told me I should come to America and direct movies,” he said. “They said they would help. So I quit after working there 12 years. I was 38 when I resigned. Unfortunately for me, the stars who said they would help me in the United States did not.” In 1964, Osamu Ozawa formed a film company and tackled Hollywood on his own. His first film was about the martial arts, but the Japanese director was unable to get distribution, and his project never really got off the ground. “Things did not work,” Osamu Ozawa said. “For three years, I did a few small projects but nothing big. And I had to eat, so I began teaching karate at night and continued to try to work in TV during the day.” The Gichin Funakoshi Disciple Switches Gears By this point, Osamu Ozawa was a fifth-degree black belt and had a successful dojo, but he continued to look for other business opportunities. He found that opportunity in the form of pachinko, a Japanese game that’s a cross between pinball and a slot machine. Osamu Ozawa ordered $100,000 worth of machines and introduced the game to America. However, a California court ruled that his pachinko parlors were considered illegal gaming, and he was raided and shut down. “I found out later that the pinball industry, which was run by [organized crime], decided to shut me down,” he said. “They used their political influence to put me out of business.” Osamu Ozawa then moved to Las Vegas, where games of chance are legal, and opened pachinko parlors there. Once again, he said, the mob feared that his popular game would compete with the casino slot machines, and more pressure was brought down on Osamu Ozawa. In addition to being stuck with more than $100,000 worth of pachinko machines, he was robbed. Someone backed a van up to his Las Vegas home and stole everything he owned, from the samurai sword which had been in his family for generations to the living room sofa. Desperate Material Times, Rich Martial Progress Things got so bad for the former TV executive that he had to reach up to touch bottom. By the mid-1970s, Osamu Ozawa had to pawn his watch for food and eked out a meager living by playing poker. He eventually went to work for the Hacienda as a dealer, which paid $21 for a full day’s work. “I was asked by my boss to teach his son karate,” Osamu Ozawa said. “But I had no place to teach. So he let me use an empty building to teach his son and other students.” Osamu Ozawa continued to work for the hotel and teach karate until he could make a living teaching full time. In 1986 Osamu Ozawa was promoted to eighth-degree black belt, the highest shotokan rank in the Western world. “There are perhaps two ninth degrees alive today,” Osamu Ozawa said. “We may have awarded a 10th degree, but I think only after the person’s death.” Osamu Ozawa told of how he was awarded his eighth degree by a Japanese prince, and we ordered a second pizza and began to talk about movies. “Karate Kid was a good film: Wax on, wax off,” he said, laughing. “I liked that. [Daniel-san] learned good values and learned karate from the mind, which made his spirit strong. “In ninja films, they jump 20 feet straight up in the air,” he continued. “Of course, that’s impossible. And in [other] movies, someone will defeat many men at a time. In real life, it is very difficult to knock out even one person. But Karate Kid was ichi bon (No. 1). That movie showed discipline and taught karate in a very educational yet entertaining way. That’s the kind of karate movie I would like to see more people make.” Osamu Ozawa's Perspective on Masters in the History of Karate The next topic was somewhat deeper: I asked the respected master who of all those he has studied under was the greatest martial artist of all. He quickly replied: “Oh, that’s easy. Funakoshi sensei, naturally. Funakoshi was No. 1. Why he is No. 1 is not technical and not because he was my teacher. He was not the best technician, and some people will be angry that I have said that. But I am telling the truth. Funakoshi sensei was very intelligent, a self-educated man who made many sacrifices to bring karate to Japan. It was a great honor to have trained under him.” Once again, Osamu Ozawa drifted from the pizza parlor, and although I could not see where his mind had taken him, I was sure he was visiting his old friend and honored teacher.
* * *
During my long drive back to San Diego, I tried to imagine what Osamu Ozawa had seen when he drifted away during our interview. His eyes had locked onto history, and I could only turn the pages for him. But for a little more than four hours, I watched, listened and learned from a man who has come full circle with his destiny — and from his storie, my foundation as a martial artist grew stronger and wiser. The experience reminded me of an old adage: The path to understanding and learning in the martial arts is a never-ending road that many will travel only as long as there are those who are willing to keep the road open. Osamu Ozawa was one such person. 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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