With Eihachi Ota of Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu
Eihachi Ota is
one of the true pioneers of Okianwan karate in the United States. Like most
of his countryman he is quiet, self-effacing, and modest, and as a result,
is known only to long-term students of traditional karate. This interview
was conducted in the Dragon Times office.
Where do you come from originally?
I was born on Yaeyama Island, one of the most southerly islands in the Okinawan
chain. On a clear day we could look to the south and see Taiwan.
What sort of upbringing did you have?
My father was a farmer who supplemented his income by working as a carpenter.
Our community, of which my father was the headman, was very small. Never more
than100 people. Our island was so tiny that it was almost impossible to find
a place on it from which you could not see the ocean.
What made you move?
My father insisted that his six children have an education so when I was about
13 we moved to Naha City on Okinawa. Shortly after that I came in contact
Please tell me how that happened?
Well, actually nothing happened, I suppose you could say that I was just exposed
to karate for the first time. One of our neighbor's friends did Goju-ryu and
they used an old U.S. Army kitbag for punching practise. This got me interested
enough to join the high school karate club. From there I became a member of
Shima Sensei's Matsubayashi Shorin ryu dojo.
Shima the student of Nagamine?
That's right. Shima Sensei was one of Nagamine Sensei's top students. Nagamine
Sensei would not permit kumite so Shima Sensei and a few others opened a branch
dojo where they could practice sparring by turning part of his house into
a dojo. When I started training in the late 50s my instructors had just got
their dan grades. The other senior instructor was Chokei Kishaba.
What was training like?
Like life at that time, very hard. We didn't have any money, and food was
less than abundant, so it followed our pastimes too were simple and hard.
Shima sensei didn't ask for a teaching fee, but we were expected to provide
water. Okinawa is a small island in a vast ocean so there always has been
a severe shortage of drinking water. Sometimes we didn't even have the money
Describe to me, if you will, the training program.
were never more than ten members in the dojo, and by the early sixties we
were taught as a class and not individually as before. However, we were expected
to train on our own a great deal; classes were basucally for the instructor
to correct you. I and my friend Nohara, practised before the group training
often, sometime hitting the makiwara for thirty minutes at a time. Class training
was gruelling and consisted mainly of basics and kata. After class we would
do weight training-bench presses and squats-and we also used the chi'shi training
weight like the Goju-ryu people do. We also studied the bo. As we had a close
connection with the Nagamine Dojo there was never a problem getting an instructor.
I understand that when you finished high school you went to mainland Japan.
That's right. One day Shima Sensei asked me what I was going to do when I
graduated. I told him the truth-I had no idea. He urged me to study, and I
am thankful that he did. Shortly after that I took his advice and enrolled
in the Electronics Institute in Kamata on the mainland (a suburb of Tokyo).
Did you still train.
Of course, but I only trained by myself. Between college, study time and the
various jobs necessary to keep body and soul together, I had no time for formal
training at a dojo. After three years I graduated and went home.
How did you end up in Los Angeles?
About a year after I got back to Okinawa I moved to Los Angeles. I started
out by helping a Kobayashi Shorin ryu instructor who had a dojo at Olympic
and Crenshaw. At this time instructors Kubota, Oshima, and Nishiyama were
already active on the West Coast and I often gave demostrations for them.
What was it like being one of the first in the field?
It was difficult teaching karate to Americans at this time so a lot of instructors
modified the training to make it easier and less demanding. They had rent
to pay and if you trained the students hard as we had been trained back home,
they left and went to an "easier" dojo. Students wanted to learn quickly and
easily which is not really possible in the case of karate. As a result there
was a conflict of interests between the instructors, who knew the students
had to work hard to improve, and the students who wanted to improve by didn't
understand that they had to work really hard to do so.
And yet karate spread very rapidly.
Yes it did-although in many cases it was not real karate! Shorin-ryu became
very strong on the East Coast, but in Los Angeles we continued to teach the
old way and it was difficult therefore to keep students. Then I had a problem
with the immigration people. I couldn't understand why they would bother with
me as I was so poor, but decided that, under the circumstances the best idea
might be to see a little more of America. With the help of Takayoshi Nagamine
who sent me a ticket, I went to Ohio and together we toured around giving
seminars and doing demonstrations.
When did you come back to Los Angeles?
In 73 or 74. My old students and friends wanted me back and helped me to re-establish
myself on the West Coast. I was still so poor that I had to live in the dojo.
Soon after karate became very popular and like mushrooms dojo sprouted everywhere.
We kept it traditional however, so we were not greatly effected by the boom.
It seemed to me the more popular karate became the lower the standard went,
and the more the standard was lowered, the more popular karate became.
Did you find this frustrating?
Extremely! If you did your very best to teach people correctly and make them
really strong, they would leave the dojo or even sue you for making contact.
If you wasted their time and money by taking it easy and teaching them kid's
stuff, they thought you were wonderful and would train regularly. This is
why karate deteriorated so much in the U.S.
Is this still the case.
It was for a long time but it started to change several years ago, and now
the trend is being reversed, and the standard is improving. Students are training
harder and practising basics and kata more seriously, so I have great hopes
for the future. There's also a lot of good material out there, videos, books
and other serious publications, that we didn't have before and these help
to educate and inform.
Do you maintain your contacts with Okinawa.
I did for a very long time, but became tired of the politics and let things
loosen a little in the past few years. My seniors in Okinawa wanted to control
everything in America as they do back home, but without any experience of
America they didn't understand the different culture and customs and this
caused a great deal of friction. I still respect them a great deal, especially
as far as their knowledge of karate is concerned, but I'm not sure if their
plans for the development of karate overseas will work.
Do you ever regret
No I don't. Karate has had a positive influence on me, and still does. I enjoy
my training and wouldn't train if I didn't. Karate is for life, you never
learn it completely you just keep practising in order to improve. Perhaps
that is its fascination.
How about your personal training. You look incredibly fit!
I have been training intensively over the past year or so. I still train with
weights, I run everyday very hard, and tomorrow I am running in the Los Angeles
Anyone who has
seen your video "Once A Secret" will want to know where you learned the twin
kama method you demonstrate with one kama swinging free on the end of a cord.
I know several people who have bought the video just for that! Where did that
method come from
A fellow student at Shima Sensei's dojo showed me when I was a brown belt.
I thought it was fascinating and practised it a lot. I must warn you, however,
it's dangerous. I have scars all over my body to prove it from my early days
of training, and you need good instruction if you are to master it.