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Interview 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.

DT: Where do you come from originally?

EO: 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.

DT: What sort of upbringing did you have?

EO: 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.

DT: What made you move?

EO: 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 with karate.

DT: Please tell me how that happened?

EO: 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.

DT: Shima the student of Nagamine?

EO: 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.

DT: What was training like?

EO: 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 for that.

DT: Describe to me, if you will, the training program.

EO:There 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.

DT: I understand that when you finished high school you went to mainland Japan.

EO: 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).

DT: Did you still train.

EO: 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.

DT: How did you end up in Los Angeles?

EO: 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.

DT: What was it like being one of the first in the field?

EO: 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.

DT: And yet karate spread very rapidly.

EO: 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.

DT: When did you come back to Los Angeles?

EO: 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.

DT: Did you find this frustrating?

EO: 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.

DT: Is this still the case.

EO: 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.

DT: Do you maintain your contacts with Okinawa.

EO: 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.

DT: Do you ever regret beginning karate.

EO: 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.

DT: How about your personal training. You look incredibly fit!

EO: 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 marathon.

DT: 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

EO: 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.