Scenes with O-Sensei

Food For Thought
In the course of my karate training, I made three pilgrimages to live at the home of and train with Tsuyoshi Chitose (1898-1984), 10th dan master and founder of Chito-Ryu karate: in 1977, 1979 and 1980. Each time I was humbled by the master’s openness and generosity, letting young, ignorant foreigners intrude on his family life. He shared his table and leisure time as readily as his knowledge of karate, demanding in return only a sincere effort to learn his art.

I particularly remember meals together, where the whole family would gather in the kitchen, usually after a grueling workout. We’d begin by holding our chopsticks in front of us, almost in a prayer position, and say, “Itadakimasu,” giving thanks for what we were about to receive, and then dig in.

Typical meal scene with O-Sensei, in 1977. From left: Tsuyoshi Chitose, Mama-san, Mitsuko-san (hidden), Reiko-san, myself and David Green of New Brunswick, Canada.

Though the kitchen was the one place in his Kumamoto home with Western-style chairs and table, I’d sometimes see O-Sensei sitting cross-legged on his chair. He would only take his concessions to modern living so far. When he caught me looking, he laughed.

At meals, O-Sensei and I were co-conspirators. If his wife or daughters served him something he didn’t like, he’d make face and, when they weren’t looking, quickly shove the offending dish across my way. I’d have to eat the food before the women cottoned on. At lunch, we would often have an instant coffee. O-Sensei loved to dump packet after packet of sugar into his cup. His wife and daughters would utter outraged warnings and try to stop him. If he managed to fly under their radar, he’d take a long, satisfied sip of supersweet coffee, his eyes twinkling in sly triumph.

* *

With breakfast O-Sensei usually ate a raw egg. He broke it into a shallow bowl, set aside the shells and tilted it into his mouth as if it were an oyster, swallowing in one, two gulps. At the end of the meal he poured green tea into his rice bowl, picked up a yellow pickle with his chopsticks and swished it around the bowl’s inner surface to dislodge the last sticky grains of rice. Then he drank the tea-rice-pickle mixture so not a morsel was wasted.

* *

O-Sensei often held court at the table. He’d give long, intricate talks on the martial arts to his son, the current Chito-Ryu Soke, and son-in-law, Ken Sakamoto, now the head of Ryusei Karate-Do. With wholly inadequate Japanese, I couldn’t follow the thread of the lectures, to my great and lasting detriment. But I noticed that as the master spoke, his hands would move with intricate, flowing open-hand motions, as if he were trying to bless or exorcize his bowl of curry rice.

At the same time, his wife, the soul of kindness, who insisted we call her “Mama-san,” would in an unconscious manner copy his hand gestures. Though I was told she didn’t practise karate, I theorized that she was a secret master, who would provide backup if her husband ever needed it.

* *

After the meal was done, we would give thanks by saying, “Gochisosama deshita,” accompanied by a bow in our seats. In the evening, we’d often retire to the living room next door, sit on the tatami mats and watch samurai dramas on TV.

Western Enlightenment
The Chitoses were a traditional Japanese family in which the women served the men, taking care of meals, laundry, housekeeping and more. As family patriarch and peerless karate man, Dr. Chitose kept himself above mundane household concerns. He didn’t eat a piece of food that wasn’t served to him. If you asked him where the rice cooker was – an appliance that had stared him in the face for years – he probably couldn’t tell you. He was always the first to immerse himself in the hot water of the family bath and was chauffeured, usually by his son, to any appointments he had.

One time I made a mistake of offering O-Sensei the small monthly amount of money I paid to cover my room, board and training at the honbu dojo. He made a face and shook his head. Like a samurai, he considered matters of money beneath him. I didn’t make that mistake again. From then on, I always made sure my monthly payments were given directly to Mama-san, who accepted them with a polite bow.

I actually first met O-Sensei in 1973 in Toronto, Canada, when he traveled to North America to conduct clinics with Kugizaki-Sensei. With a serious back injury at age 16, I am out of gi. The young brown belt on the far left is Alan Hayashi, a friend and the nephew of my teacher, Higashi-Sensei.

Even as a pampered young man in my 20s, I was sometimes abashed when, during a meal, my rice bowl or soup bowl would get low. Suddenly, Mama-san or one of the Chitose daughters, Reiko-san or Mitsuko-san, would spring out of their seats, hold out their hands and ask, “Okawari?” Would I like more? I would nod my head, give my thanks, “Arigato,” and new food would appear before me.

I didn’t exactly object to this arrangement but had some vague idea that future girlfriends in Canada wouldn’t be impressed by my placid acceptance of status quo.

I didn’t have the courage to make my demonstration of Western enlightenment in front of the master. So I waited until the tail end of one meal when I was left at the table with Reiko-san and her husband, Sakamoto-Sensei. Looking at my nearly empty rice bowl, Reiko-san asked, “Okawari?” I held up my hand to let her know she needn’t bother.

With Reiko-san and Sakamoto-Sensei tracking my progress in silence, I got up, walked over to the rice maker, scooped myself a fresh helping and then sat down.

Sakamoto looked at his wife for a moment and then pushed her out of her chair. She took his rice bowl, filled it and came back to the table meekly bobbing her head, saying in a high, squeaky voice, “Hai, hai, hai . . .”

After placing the bowl in front of her husband, Reiko-san sat down again and then she and Sakamoto-Sensei burst into laughter. I left the table feeling vaguely humiliated.

During my second trip to Japan, in 1979, I traveled with my friend Eric Peters to live with O-Sensei and train from April to August. To finance the trip, I had dropped out of university – to the consternation of my parents – and worked as a waiter.

When we arrived, mornings were cold and the Chito-Ryu honbu was an open-air dojo with bare, almost clay-like earth in O-Sensei’s backyard. The ground was so chilled that when we trained at dawn our feet would freeze, but never enough to go numb. No matter how much we swept the ground with bamboo-branch brooms before training, small stones would remain that would send stabbing pains through sensitive feet used to wooden dojo floors.

Shot in the backyard of the Chitose home, in 1977, before there was an enclosed dojo and the weight room was transformed into a bunkhouse for visiting students. Front (from left): Yasuhiro Chitose (now known by his father’s name), O-Sensei and Mr. Kuzahara (a school teacher). Rear: David Green, Shane Higashi, Hidemichi Kugizaki and the patriotic writer.

In his 80s, O-Sensei left the early morning instruction, during the cold months, to his son and son-in-law. As we worked out, we would hear him moving through the house. He would stop at the family shrine, make an offering to his ancestors, accompanied by the ringing of a bell. He watered plants in front of the windows and fed his talking mynah bird, Kyu-chan, who would sometimes screech out what sounded like:“Rohai-sho!”

Although engaged in other tasks, O-Sensei always kept one eye on our training. Often he would whip open the sliding doors to the house and correct our technique.

* *

One May morning, when the weather warmed up, O-Sensei appeared in the backyard for our 6 a.m. training, dressed in gi and a red-gold belt. After some light limbering up, he led us through a class, which he continued to do until we left Japan, during the hot and humid days of August.

As a teacher, O-Sensei was wise and patient and very hands-on. Instruction was tailored to the needs of the individual student. And the core of his method was to demonstrate what he wanted us to do. He wasn’t the kind to stand at the front of class, with arms folded in front, and bark orders.

If he asked you to attack him and, out of deference to his age, you lobbed a soft one, O-Sensei would look disgusted, slap your hand away and say, “Again.” Then you would attack with a sharp technique and inevitably find yourself on the ground, with some damn stone sticking in your back.

Coming from Canadian karate in the 1970s, which was all kicks and punches and shiai kumite, I was surprised by how much of O-Sensei’s karate involved throws, joint locks and subtle evasions. Fortunately, I had taken judo when I was younger and Eric had trained in aikido, so we had some idea of how to fall. But we were used to doing it on mats, not hard ground.

* *

After breakfast, Eric and I would walk a couple of kilometers to a Mr. Donuts, for coffee, donuts and games of Space Invaders. Along the way we would pass the same small businesses, and came to recognize some of the people inside. In one narrow storefront space, I would always see a young man with long black hair engaged in the labor-intensive work of making tatami, the traditional straw mats used as flooring in Japanese homes. Although we didn’t speak, we’d give each other a friendly nod, both of us curious about the other exotic figure.

At Mr. Donuts, one pretty young cashier was friendly to me. After weeks of heavy coffee consumption, I finally screwed up my courage to ask her out, only to find that she had just quit the job. Her much-less-friendly replacement had no idea where she had gone.

After coffee we would, at least three days a week, return to the dojo, put on running shoes and our gi pants, and then run up a small local mountain, do kata on top and then run home in time for lunch. Later in the afternoon, we usually trained by ourselves in the dojo. At these times, the master might appear at the sliding doors to the house and give one-on-one instruction. Once, as I tried to do Sanchin, O-Sensei demonstrated the proper breathing and muscle tension for me.

Sports and Sake
Sometimes in late afternoon, we would drive with young Chitose-Sensei to a remote area in the mountains, where we would teach karate to farm kids at an elementary school. In awe of the foreigners at first, they soon couldn’t get enough of us, asking rapid-fire questions we didn’t understand. We finally found common ground when the kids discovered that we knew Rock, Paper, Scissors, which they wanted to play with us endlessly.

We were invited to go to the school when it celebrated “Sports Day.” At first, this seemed to only involve sitting with parents in a tent under the sun, enjoying copious amounts of food and drinking beer and sake as the kids exerted themselves. Well into our cups, Eric and I discovered that we were expected to participate in a relay race. As I recall, our team won, though I am not sure that either of us was able to run in a straight line.

Each week we would drive from the honbu dojo to teach children in a remote rural area in the mountains. Their parents thanked the foreigners by getting us drunk on the kids’ Sports Day and then making us run a race.

Getting foreigners drunk and then challenging them to a sporting contest seemed to be a common tactic. On another occasion in the country, tipsy on sake and beer, Eric and I had to take turns stepping into the middle of a circle drawn in the earth. One by one we had to take on the small, sturdy farmers who wanted their chance to topple a giant foreigner in a sumo match.

* *

In the evening, before dinner, we would have another karate class, sometimes at the honbu dojo and sometimes at one of the two local self-defence forces bases. Confident in his technique, O-Sensei was never afraid to have students learn with other senior Chito-Ryu instructors, such as Inomoto-Sensei and Kugizaki-Sensei.

After dinner, especially in the overwhelming heat of summer, Eric and I would often take to the streets of Kumamoto to try to slake thirsts that wouldn’t go away. We would stop at each block along our walk and get another pop from one of the ubiquitous vending machines. The more we drank, the thirstier we seemed to get. I had heat-induced visions of filling a large salad bowl with ice and root beer, and then tipping it into my face, part of it gulped down and the rest bathing me in cool relief.

And sometimes we would go out for more food. Although the Chitoses fed us plenty, the combination of three or four workouts a day and the summer heat had Eric and I thin as wraiths. Near the Chitose’s house was a Korean restaurant where we would barbecue various meats at our table, dip them in sauce and wash them down with cold Sapporo beer. With limited funds, we went on such extravagant dining excursions only occasionally. And even less so when word of our nocturnal dining came back to Mama-san, who scolded us about wasting our money.

* *

According to young Chitose-Sensei, his father trained diligently all his life, always looking for ways to improve his technique and conditioning. Even in the later years of working in a medical practice, he was more likely to ride up steep mountainous roads on bike than go by easier means.

O-Sensei often took Eric and I out on errands with him. When walking, we were always two steps behind him, on other side, towering above his small frame. We fancied ourselves as yojimbo, or bodyguards, which was also the title of our favorite Toshiro Mifune samurai flick.

When Eric and I accompanied O-Sensei on errands, we walked on either side of him, two steps behind, imagining ourselves as yojimbo (bodyguards), ready to defend him with the ferocity and skill of a Toshiro Mifune samurai character.

In our spare time at the dojo, we read and re-read Hagakure, an 18th-century tract on the duties of the samurai, which posited that the way of the samurai was death, and the best way to live your life was as if you were already dead. So we imagined ourselves perishing in a glorious attempt to save O-Sensei’s life from mysterious attackers, and always scanned the crowds and doorways around us for peril. Though truth be told, if anyone ever accosted us, O-Sensei probably would have shoved us aside to take care of things himself.

(The Hagakure also declared it was unbecoming for a samurai to run or hide under gutters in order to avoid rain. He would get wet no matter what he did, so better to accept the soaking. Armed with this dubious wisdom, I would nonchalantly stroll down the middle or a road or sidewalk in a deluge while everyone else dived for cover.)

We accompanied the master on a meeting, in Kumamoto, he had with Ryoichi Sasagawa (1899-1995), a billionaire industrialist who was a major supporter of the martial arts and one of the founders of WUKO (World Union of Karate-Do Organization). We walked behind O-Sensei into well-appointed offices, waited interminably, were ushered into another waiting room, waited interminably, and then we finally met Sasagawa.

I felt uncomfortable in the presence of Sasagawa, who seemed more interested in the two foreigners than O-Sensei. He pressed on each of us a card with his strange Waterology philosophy.

I’m not sure what the meeting was about. Though I guess it made sense, given O-Sensei’s status as a karate master and a founder of the defunct FAJKO (Federation of All Japan Karatedo Organizations) (other founders included Gichin Funkakoshi, head of Shotokan karate, and Kenwa Mabuni, head of Shito-Ryu) and Sasagawa’s enthusiastic patronage of karate.

Later I learned that Sasagawa had been imprisoned by the Allies as a war criminal, had subsequently made his money through boat racing and gambling, and was reputed to have ties to the underworld.

* *

According to Sakamoto-Sensei, a powerful and well-known leader from another karate style once came to O-Sensei’s house. He wanted to test O-Sensei’s karate, so attacked without provocation. The master flattened the ill-mannered visitor with a single kick to the groin.

Eclectic Training
Training with O-Sensei, you never knew what would come next. One morning, young Chitose, Sakamoto, Eric and I sat in formal seiza as the master lectured us on the finer points of technique. Eric and I only had glimmers of what was being talked about, so were caught off guard when O-Sensei turned to Eric and gave him a command.

O-Sensei had trained his body to such a degree, he could do amazing things with it.

Eric stood up, uncertain what to do. As O-Sensei did some breathing exercises, Sakamoto-Sensei translated: “Eric, grab his balls.” Eric still didn’t move. He wasn’t sure if he had heard correctly and could see his future in the style becoming bleak if he didn’t properly understand.

Sakamoto-Sensei repeated more forcefully: “Grab his balls!”

So Eric walked forward and gingerly groped the master’s crotch outside his gi pants. Instead of defending himself, as I expected, O-Sensei stood still. After a moment Eric stepped back and looked at his hand in amazement, surprised at what he didn’t find. As some sumo wrestlers are reputed to be able to do, Chitose-Sensei had the ability to retract his testicles inside his body at will, a cunning defence against groin attacks.

According to Sakamoto-Sensei, he gained this skill through constant training in the kata Sanchin. Apparently the inward and upward spiraling tension of the kata somehow did the job. It is said that you have to execute the Chito-Ryu version of Sanchin 10,000 times to master it. Perhaps at the end there is an unexpected payoff for the diligent student.

Later Eric claimed that he would never wash his hand again, to commemorate the demonstration of bodily control – a promise that I am happy to say he eventually broke.

* *

According to Sakamoto-Sensei, one characteristic of O-Sensei’s kata was that one movement flowed into the next. There were no stops in the motion or energy flow.

Painful Training
During one evening class, a former student of the honbu dojo turned up for a workout. He had left Kumamoto to go to university in Kyoto, where he became captain of the karate team. After class he came over and introduced himself.

Apparently, in an important tournament, he had lost a match to foreigner with a long reach. To fix the shortcoming in his technique, he wanted to practise kumite with tall foreigners, and I fit the bill.

While Sakamoto-Sensei is a lot of fun to drink with
(picture taken in 1991), he is more serious when sparring.

I agreed to meet him the next afternoon at our dojo. As I recall, our encounter was an inconclusive, seesaw affair. He would attack and I would back up. Then I would attack and he would back up. Neither of us seriously tried to dominate the match. As we fought, I noticed that O-Sensei came to the window a few times to watch us.

During the next morning’s workout, O-Sensei announced that we would do kumite and ordered me to face Sakamoto-Sensei.
I was shocked. Never before had free sparring been part of O-Sensei’s classes. We would do lots of basics, kata and bunkai, but sparring was something we did at other Chito-Ryu dojo. However, today we would fight, and apparently without the protective bogu (armor) that was supposed to be a characteristic safety measure of the style, researched and advocated by O-Sensei.

As I rose to my feet, I recalled with excited confidence an encounter at another Chito-Ryu dojo a few weeks previous. A senior student led the class at a fanatical pace, with hundreds of pushups, sit-ups, punches and kicks. At the end, his teacher asked Eric and I to accompany him and his student to a secluded clearing nearby, the mountains providing a dramatic backdrop.

The karate teacher explained there that he and his student liked the Kyokushin-kai style of fighting, allowing full body contact and even kicks to the head, without protective equipment of any kind. Wouldn’t we like to give it a go?

I faced the senior student first. Though nervous, I was fueled by avid participation in the Canadian tournament system and multiple workouts a day at the honbu dojo. I rushed in with a flurry of punches and kicks, overwhelming my opponent. Then Eric took his turn, kicking him around some more. At the end, the teacher said to us, “Good.” Then looked at his own battered student, shook his head in disgust and said, “No good.”

As I walked to my place across from Sakamoto-Sensei, a more worrying train of thought occurred to me. Sakamoto was the most fanatical of our early morning workout crew, driving full-force toe-tip kicks into makiwara in order to be able to pierce an opponent’s rib cage to strike a lung (his description), building his body up with the traditional Okinawan training tools, such as chishi (basically a stone or cement weight on a wooden handle), and practising Sanchin religiously.

One Saturday night (the night we would paint the town red, since Sunday was the only day with no classes scheduled), Sakamoto and I sat in a yakitori bar, eating skewers of barbecued meats basted in sweet sauce and drinking tall bottles of cold beer. Talking about tournament kumite, he twisted his face in scorn and declared it no good. He said that the only fight should be to the death. And he recalled that while in the Japanese self-defence forces he received instruction in a number of different martial arts. Not liking the technique of one instructor, he challenged him to a match and knocked him out.

So, with trepidation, I bowed in against Sakamoto. I hoped that this would be more of a friends-doing-light-sparring thing than a death-match thing. But Sakamoto adopted a low side stance and glared into my face. Lightly bouncing on the balls of my feet I decided to counter his rooted posture with the mobile footwork of the tournament fighting I knew. Suddenly I rushed in, then bounced back. He didn’t react. I feinted again. Sakamoto still didn’t move. He was flat-footed and I was floating like a butterfly. I could win this!

I decided that I would move in as fast as I could with a bee sting of a reverse punch to the body and then withdraw before Sakamoto could respond. I charged in for the strike. When I had committed myself, Sakamoto spun around on his front foot and whacked a hook kick to the side of my head, sprawling me on the ground.

With the dojo spinning around me, I got to my feet. O-Sensei explained that in kumite you shouldn’t just back up. He then went through ways to move diagonally off the attacking line and respond with counter strikes.

Peevish, I thought that O-Sensei could have just told me this. I guess there’s nothing like a kick to the head to drive a point home.

The Art of Doing Nothing
In June, rainy season began in Kumamoto, often providing a break from the schedule of workouts in the outdoor dojo. One morning I awoke before class time in the bunkhouse in the Chitose backyard, used to house visiting students. Hearing the rain hitting the roof, I sighed with relief, knowing class was cancelled, and went back to sleep.

Mr. Kuzahara from the dojo decided we needed to experience other Japanese culture besides punching and kicking, so brought us to a tea ceremony conducted by his mother and her friends.

Later I woke to the voice of young Chitose-Sensei calling, “Eriku, Pitaa, gohan desu yo!” Eric and I went in, ate breakfast, returned to the bunkhouse and promptly fell back to sleep. We awoke at noon to “Gohan desu yo!”, went into the house and had lunch. Then we returned to our bunks, rain still falling, and sank back to sleep.

At 6 p.m., we awoke again to “Gohan desu yo!” and ran through the rain to the house to have our evening meal. After dinner, we returned to our beds and, yes, went back to sleep.

We were so tired from our schedule of workouts and lulled by the noise of the rain and heavy air, we slept more than 24 hours.

* *

One evening, young Chitose-Sensei went off to teach a class somewhere else, leaving his father to lead the evening workout at the honbu. The first kata the master had us do was Shihohai. Partway through, O-Sensei stopped us so he could walk through the class and test our stances, slapping our legs. As he did this, he lectured us. One point led to another and the lecture grew longer and longer, as everyone in class held their position, their arms and legs shaking.

The talk went on and on, and Eric and I were particularly afflicted, since not only did we endure the physical pain of holding our stances endlessly, we couldn’t follow what the master was saying, to distract us from our suffering.

I don’t know how long we stood there but I thought I was going to pass out from fatigue and boredom. We were finally saved when a noise from the carport signaled that young Chitose had returned home. Springing back into action, O-Sensei continued the count for the kata, finally releasing us. When his son came around the corner he eyed us suspiciously. Perhaps he wondered how many times his father had made us do the kata for us to look so drawn. Our class ended there.

* *

According to young Chitose-Sensei, his father reached his peak prowess in karate at about age 65, his continual advances in technique and development of internal power offsetting the deterioration of age. After that his skills began to decline somewhat in the face of the inevitable, but remained impressive right to the end.

Drinking and Dancing
Although you can see older pictures of O-Sensei with a cigarette in his fingers, he had given up his vices by the time I met him. Visiting instructors would sometimes salivate over his overflowing liquor cabinet, which was never opened.

Well, almost never. One of O-Sensei’s most senior students was Masaru Inomoto, who was in the Japanese self-defence forces and taught karate and kobudo there. Once a week Eric and I would train with him and his rugged students at the base, going through a security checkout to reach the practice area. On the first day, looking at our intense, worried expressions, Inomoto-Sensei told us that we needed to “smile more.”

O-Sensei’s Okinawan dances would
have karate techniques hidden within them. (Picture provided courtesy of the U.S. Chito-Ryu Karate-Do Federation, 1971.)

Inomoto-Sensei was such a devoted practitioner, he had moved to a house on O-Sensei’s street to be close at hand. I recall walking by his house to find him hanging upside down by his legs from a wall outside his property, doing sit-ups.

Inomoto-Sensei would sometimes come by the honbu to spend time with O-Sensei. One evening, I recall, the master received him in the living area at a low table. Although O-Sensei was seated comfortably cross-legged at the head of the table, Inomoto-Sensei knelt at the side of the table, in formal seiza posture. Mama-san entered the room with a tray of Suntory whisky, a bucket of ice with small tongs, and a glass. With formal grace, she put these things in front of Inomoto-Sensei, adding a few cubes of ice in the glass and pouring in a couple fingers of whisky. He bowed to her but did not take a sip right away.

Inomoto-Sensei stayed with O-Sensei, talking for a couple of hours. Not once did his formal seiza position waver. And even though the level in the bottle went down steadily, Inomoto-Sensei’s measured, polite speech didn’t slur or change. The only sign of his drinking was a slight redness in the cheeks and around the eyes.

At the end of their evening together, Inomoto-Sensei did a low, formal bow and walked a straight to put on his shoes so he could go home. Both O-Sensei and Mama-san came to the front hall to see off their honored guest.

* *

O-Sensei had a fondness for other arts. To entertain us, he would pull out a jyamisen, a three-stringed Okinawan version of a guitar constructed with snake skin and plucked upright, and accompany himself as he sang a slow, dirge-like song. He also loved to do traditional Okinawan dance and would occasionally demonstrate moves for us. It was remarkable how similar his dancing techniques were to his karate.

A Long History of Weapons
When we went to visit Inomoto-Sensei each week, besides karate he would instruct us in kobudo, in the bo and oar. He had studied with Akamine-Sensei (1925-1999) at the headquarters for Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai in Okinawa. O-Sensei also knew the founder of the organization, Taira Shinken (1897-1970), who reputedly ran seminars at his dojo.

Like any good Okinawan dojo, the honbu had all manner of traditional weaponry – bos, sais, oars and so on – available for use. The practice of weaponry, just like the practice of kata application (bunkai or kaisetsu), was always part of Okinawan karate or todi. These two elements were largely lost when the art was exported to mainland Japan. With judo and jujitsu, the Japanese didn’t care about the grappling, throws and joint locks embedded in kata practice. With a proud history of weapons, including sword, spear, and bow and arrows, why did they need these Okinawan weapons?

One of O-Sensei’s most senior
and trusted students, Masaru Inomoto is not only an expert karateka, he has high ranks in kobudo and iaido.

One afternoon at the honbu, during my personal practice, I decided to concentrate on the oar kata taught to me by Inomoto-Sensei, Tsuken Sunakake, which opens by dodging an attack, doing a side strike and then using the oar paddle to flick sand in the attacker’s eyes, so he (or she) can be easily cut down. I picked up one of the black-and-white striped oars (kai or eku) and launched into the kata.

As I practised, O-Sensei came to the window a couple of times to see what I was up to. Before long, his son opened the door connecting the house and dojo, and led me to his father’s room. This space was dominated by a family shrine where the doctor offered daily prayers, incense and egg cups of rice to the hovering spirits of his departed ancestors. I was instructed to lift down a pole-like object mounted along one of the rafters. The master slid back its covering and passed me a spear whose shaft had been blackened from long handling; its head was tapered and had the darting beauty of a snake’s tongue. I hefted it and it balanced easily in my grip, well-suited for the stab and stroke of battle. Indeed, I was told that it was an ancient spear, responsible for the death of more than 10 men. Chito-Ryu kobudo had come from a long (and proven) tradition, which I shouldn’t forget.

Although O-Sensei sent us to learn with Inomoto-Sensei, I had stepped over the line by practising another style’s techniques in the dojo. After that, if I wanted to practise kobudo during the day, I would walk around the block to a small playground near Inomoto-Sensei’s house. A couple of times, when I saw O-Sensei being driven on some errand, I’d have to duck down.

* *

According to Inomoto-Sensei, he started studying karate under O-Sensei when he was 18 years old. Since he was a judo man before this, O-Sensei often used him for demonstrations of bunkai. Recalling this would take place in a narrow room, Inomoto-Sensei indicated with a hand motion what being thrown by the master was like: he would hit the wall and then slide slowly down onto the floor, like something from a cartoon.

A Toehold on the Future
During the height of summer, in July, we went to another dojo to practise sparring. During one drill, a young Japanese karateka stepped forward quickly with a lunge punch and literally kicked the nail out of my big left toe. Although the accident was quite painful, I consoled myself with the thought that it would have felt much worse if done slowly by way of torture.

Since the toenail was whole, including the square end of its root, I took advantage of the opportunity. I mailed it to my sister with a note: “Look at what they are doing to me!” Thirty years later she has not forgiven me.

The day of the official opening of O-Sensei’s new dojo, in the summer of 1979, was blisteringly hot and I was kneeling on a foot with a toenail ripped out. I didn’t know whether to scream or faint. The row of instructors behind O-Sensei (from left): Tashiro-Sensei, Kugizaki-Sensei, Sakaguchi-Sensei and Sakamoto-Sensei.

Not wanting to miss workouts, I wrapped my toe in a bandage and hobbled on. By the next day, however, the bandage had dried into a bloody mess and stuck painfully to my toe. In the honbu dojo, I sat while young Chitose-Sensei tried to slowly work off the long bandage , making me wince. Sakamoto-Sensei looked on sympathetically.

When O-Sensei saw what was going on, he slid open the screen door to the house, stepped onto the floor of the dojo and said something with disdain in his voice. Both young Chitose and Sakamoto raised their voices in protest. O-Sensei walked purposefully towards us and I realized with alarm he wanted to rip the bandage out of the wound. Enough of this mollycoddling.

The two young men continued to argue with the master, who would not be dissuaded. The master circled us, looking for an opening. Sakamoto shadowed him, keeping his body between O-Sensei and me. Aware of the doom moving around us, young Chitose continued his doctor’s work undeterred.

I couldn’t help but admire, and be grateful for, the young protégées’ spirit and determination, standing up to the master in this small matter.

* *

When I say that O-Sensei stepped out of the house onto the dojo floor, I mean floor, not ground. For we had just built the first enclosed dojo in the Chitose’s backyard, in the summer of 1979. I had contributed only brute labor, helping to haul materials.

Soon after the toenail incident, we had an official dojo opening, attended by senior Chito-Ryu instructors, as well as dojo members. We had to sit in formal kneeling position, seiza, for what seemed like hours. At the best of times, I can stay in seiza comfortably for one or two minutes before my knee and ankle joints are set afire with agony. But on top of this, I sat on my heels, driving my mutilated toe into the unforgiving hardness of the floor.

If this weren’t enough, it was one of the hottest days of a really hot Japanese summer. Despite the black netting thrown across the skylights of the dojo, it was as scorching as a furnace inside. I alternated between wanting to faint and leap to my feet to scream like a wounded animal.

I could hear the festive noises of the nearby Chuo Puru, a public pool. Happy music played from its loudspeakers and I could picture the floating helium penguin sent into the sky to announce that the pool was open. I heard kids slipping down the long slide into the cool water below, and the squeals of families cavorting in the wave pool. I knew that some people would escape the pounding sun in a shaded area, where they could enjoy large bowls of shaved ice, flavored with syrup. I wished them all an early death. The Shinto priest droned on and on at the front of the dojo. . . .

Finally, the ceremony ended and the new dojo was laid out with low tables, laden with food and drink. We drank beer and sake. It’s a Japanese custom that you have to keep your fellow drinkers’ glasses filled. So if they start to drink quickly, you must do the same, so they can fill your glass, so you can fill theirs, in an ever-escalating process. The net result was, as my Australian friend Charlie Kudlic likes to say, “the sake cups flew like bullets.” And everyone had a good time.

Although the ceremony was painful, I was proud about he small part I played in building O-Sensei’s first enclosed dojo. Sacrificing my toe for the training of future karateka seemed a small price to pay.

* *

According to Sakamoto-Sensei, in some pictures you see O-Sensei in an open-handed kamae (ready posture), with the first two fingers extended on each hand. Apparently O-Sensei trained these fingers particularly hard, so that if he used them to block a punch, he could break the attacker’s limb.

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.

Memory and Regret
Anyone who met Dr. Tsuyoshi Chitose is sure to have their favorite memory of him. I recorded mine in Kime, the defunct newsletter of the Canadian Chito-Ryu Karate-do Association, in 1984, shortly after O-Sensei’s death of an aneurysm:

Mine took place on a blistering August day when most of the Chitose family were on errands or at work and I was on my way to the local store to buy an ice-cream, but passing the dojo door my attention was arrested. The master stood alone in his gi. Though black netting had been drawn across the dojo skylights to soften the sun’s hammerstroke, it was still a sauna inside. From the weapons rack on the wall he drew a long, carbon black pair of sais and slowly, deliberately went through a sequence. A sai swung out for a block, flipped back, he punched twice with the butts, an arcing strike, then he turned and proceeded in the opposite direction. Perhaps it was a sequence he had never gotten down to his satisfaction and hoped to polish with a bit more practice. He launched into it again but partway through his memory failed him: one sai wavered in the air and he bowed his head as he tried to remember.

My heart cried for him to finish. With his shrunken limbs, rounded middle and eyes yellowed with age he seemed a far cry from the trim young man with blinding speed who had given a command performance for the emperor of Japan. I watched him flounder in the heat without the strength, the articulation or the fame of former days and wondered what the point was. Wasn’t this reminiscent of Muhammad Ali climbing into the ring for a last beating, or the pathetic spectacle of an aged beauty queen trying to strut her stuff one more time? He found his place, finished the sequence, then started again. I did not turn my head away. Instead I watched in wonder.

He was not playing to me, or any audience. The battle was, as it had always been, with himself. In the early days of his training in Okinawa he had caught a view of something and dedicated his life to it. Something by its very nature unobtainable and inexpressible, yet he pursued it with all the talent and energy he possessed: through world wars, atom bombs, the deaths of friends, family and the world he knew. It, in turn, sustained him. And in his fading days in a strange new world of Formica tables and chairs, it sustained him still.

If the passage is overwritten, I can be forgiven, since I was a young man. But the idea of O-Sensei as someone who strived for improvement in his art throughout his life, whether others were looking or, not is something that still inspires me. I have to cling to such images because I don’t have his words.

As they say, youth is wasted on the young. And I am the original dumb blond. If I could go back, I’d do it all differently. I’d have studied Japanese and whatever karate history was available. I would have have asked O-Sensei questions. What was your life like in Okinawa? Why did you change your name? What were your teachers like? Why did you keep this kata and ignore that one in your curriculum? Why did you change kata? Did you agree with the decision to change the kanji from “todi” (China hand) to “karate” (empty hand)? How do you feel about the Japanization of your Okinawan art? And the list goes on.

I didn’t do this. Back then only a few people went to Japan to train. I had the sense that it was enough just to show up. And karate scholarship was not as prominent then. But my negligence went further. I didn’t take pictures, so depended on the kindness of others for my visual record. I didn’t even bother to take notes about training, figuring that I would remember. And if I didn’t, I could always have another kick at the can.

To be realistic, it is unlikely that I would been able to grill O-Sensei about his life, as a 20-something shodan. If I had tried, I would have been shut down quickly, Japanese hierarchy and customs being what they are.

So all I have are images and longing. I sometimes picture myself sitting again at the master’s dinner table, listening to him tell his stories . . . only this time I understand.

—Peter Giffen, 5th Dan, Barrie Ryusei Karate