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Scenes with O-Sensei

 

The Long and Short of It
The first time I came to Japan, in 1977, I visited O-Sensei after participating the IAKF world karate championships in Tokyo. An American competitor had kicked in the pelvis so severely that I had to be hospitalized, and when I met O-Sensei in the company of my teacher, Shane Higashi, and fellow competitor and Chito-Ryu member David Green, I was hobbling, barely able to walk. Getting in and out of cars, I had to lift my leg with my hands because it hurt too much to raise it with my leg and hip muscles. I despaired at coming all the way to Japan and then being too injured to practise at the honbu.

While the performance of Shotokan kata in Chito-Ryu dojo was a source of tension between Canada and Japan, the curriculum also wasn't standardized in Japanese dojo. Here we are performing Heian Yondan for one instructor. The difference, I guess, is that at every Japanese dojo I ever visited, Chito-Ryu kata were the main focus.

O-Sensei examined me and announced that I would be able to practise in three days. Three days later, I donned my gi and waited in the backyard dojo for instruction. When O-Sensei gave us a command, I shouted, “Osu!” as we did in Canada to show that we understood a direction. The master spoke to his son, who informed me that his father didn’t like that word because it was used by gangsters. (Instead I should say, "Hai.")

I was determined to redeem myself by performing the deepest, most impressive zenkutsu-dachi I could during basics. O-Sensei spoke to his son again, who told me that in Chito-Ryu we don’t use zenkutsu-dachi, the long signature stance of Shotokan karate.

My head reeled. I had to relearn my karate from the ground up, including how to do the shorter Chito-Ryu front stance, using inward tension and a turned-in front foot (to protect against groin attacks), called then hangetsu-dachi and later known in Chito-Ryu as seisan-dachi. At the time I could not understand why Chito-Ryu in Canada, under the leadership of Masami Tsuruoka-Sensei (my teacher’s teacher), was so different than what was done in Japan.

When I returned to Japan, in 1979, the issue of the differences between Japan and Canada came to a head. Before coming to Japan, Eric and I had been invited by Tsuruoka-Sensei to come to his Toronto dojo once a week to practise kumite. We did this for more than a year and benefited enormously from the expert instruction of the Father of Canadian karate. We also respected Tsuruoka-Sensei’s many dedicated students.

One day in Kumamoto, Eric and I were ordered to attend a meeting with young Chitose-Sensei and other senior Chito-Ryu instructors. They asked us about our visits to the Tsuruoka dojo and what we learned there. When questioned about the kata performed, I said it was mostly a kumite class, but when we did kata they were usually Shotokan kata (the Heian kata, Bassai-Dai, Empi, Jion, etc.) and only occasionally a Chito-Ryu kata like Shihohai, but done in low Shotokan stances.

Before coming to Japan, I had done a grading for my nidan in front of Tsuruoka-Sensei (and failed). Asked what kata I performed, I responded that I was only instructed to do one: Bassai-Dai.

We had one more meeting like this with senior Chito-Ryu people and then were brought before O-Sensei and questioned in a similar manner. During the meeting O-Sensei looked extremely despondent, staring off to the distance and sighing, as if he had a hard decision to make.

I'm not sure why this suddenly became such a pressing issue in Japan, what brought things to head. It was obvious that a lot of thought and soul-searching had gone on before Eric and I were questioned.

Eric and I were there when O-Sensei spoke to Tsuruoka-Sensei on the phone about this situation. I do not know if this was the conversation in which the boom was actually lowered, or whether Tsuruoka-Sensei had phoned in response to some official notification that he had received. O-Sensei had a long, difficult conversation with Tsuruoka-Sensei and then with Tsuruoka-Sensei’s wife. At the end of the conversation, Tsuruoka-Sensei had me put on the phone. He asked that I come to see him when I returned to Canada.

Back from Japan in August, I went to Tsuruoka-Sensei’s dojo and met with him privately in his office. I told him what I had been asked and how I had answered. He thanked me, offered no recriminations and then I left.

While a lot of hurt feelings attended the split between Tsuruoka-Sensei and the Chito-Ryu organization, and still linger, I think in many ways the situation was natural and necessary. In the development of his karate – if I may be allowed an opinion on someone far my karate superior – Tsuruoka-Sensei had a lot in common with the pioneering Shotokan instructors, such as Nishiyama-Sensei, with their scientific analysis of technique, stress on body mechanics and well-thought-out, standardized curriculum. It was natural for Tsuruoka-Sensei to want to pursue his own ideas in teaching karate. And it was just as natural for O-Sensei to want someone in charge in Canada who represented his karate in a manner that he approved. He appointed Higashi-Sensei as his representative that year.

 

 


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