Wado-Ryu Martial Arts

It would be virtually impossible to discuss and trace the history and origins of Wado Ryu Karatedo without discussing and tracing the life and martial art of its founder, O'Sensei Hironori Ohtsuka. The two cannot be separated, nor should they viewed apart. Like the cloth of a finely sewn scroll or dogi, the two are inexorably woven together -- Ohtsuka Sensei is Wado; Wado is Ohtsuka Sensei.

[warr] At the age of six, under the tutelage of his father, Ohtsuka Sensei began training in basic jiu jitsu. As his studies progressed, his seemingly natural abilities grew commensurately, eventually bringing his father to the realization that there was nothing further he could teach the boy. If he was to continue, he must do so under the instruction of someone with abilities that surpassed his own. That someone was Yokiyoshi Tatsusaburo Nakayama; a renowned master of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jiujutsu, and the style's Chief Instructor.

And so, at the age of thirteen, Ohtsuka Sensei began his formal training in [oht] earnest. Sixteen years later -- sixteen years spent in rigorous, austere training and complete devotion to the art that had become so much a part of Hironori Ohtsuka's life -- Nakayama Sensei presented him with the Menkyo Kaiden, or certificate, of Full Proficiency in the art of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu, naming him at the same time as his successor. It was an auspicious date; June 1st, 1921, Ohtsuka's 29th birthday. 

It was clear now that the path of his life had been chosen -- the path of Budo. But within months, that path would take its first turn; a turn that would bring the young Jujutsuka face to face with a man from the Island of Okinawa who would later earn the title of the Father of Modern Karate; Gichin Funakoshi.

In the Fall of 1922, Ohtsuka Sensei found himself contemplating his future. In his family's eyes, particularly his mother's, that future centered on guaranteeing their son's [wado] security. His studies at Waseda University had earned him an associate degree in economics, and his position at the bank seemed secure, along with his financial future. Such good fortune would leave most young men at the age of 30 quite satisfied, indeed. But Ohtsuka Sensei was anything but satisfied. He longed to become a professional martial artist, devoting his life to the pursuit he loved. To his parent's dismay, that pursuit was heightened as Ohtsuka read a newspaper article one morning. 

The story centered on Crown Prince Hirohito's recent visit to Okinawa. The article said that while there, Hirohito was entertained by a dancing performance and a demonstration of tode or karate, which was at that time a little-known Okinawan martial art. The news article also mentioned that a certain Okinawan school teacher, Gichin Funakoshi had been [funakoshi] invited by the Crown Prince to travel to Tokyo to perform this local martial art before the Emperor of Japan at a public hall in Tokyo. Ohtsuka Sensei immediately made plans to attend. Impressed by what he saw of  Funakoshi's karate, Ohtsuka Sensei sought the schoolteacher out following the performance, and introduced himself. Equally impressed by this young man's spirit and knowledge of classical Budo, Funakoshi invited Ohtsuka Sensei to train with him during his stay in Tokyo. 

As a result of the immense popularity generated by Funakoshi's demonstrations of karate, he elected to extend his stay in Japan indefinitely, holding nightly classes at Tokyo's Meishojuko Meeting Hall, which was quickly renamed the Meishojuko Dojo. Otsuka trained virtually every night at the Dojo -- absorbing every move, technique and nuance of this new art; and mastering it's simple, but effective methods with astonishing speed. In the space of a year, he had mastered all of the techniques and kata as taught by Funakoshi, and by 1924, had become his chief assistant instructor; an event that raised more than a few eyebrows, particularly among Funakoshi's Okinawan students. [ohtsuka] Nonetheless, his natural abilities could neither be ignored or denied, and on April 24 of that year, Funakoshi-san named Hironori Ohtsuka among seven men to receive the first Black Belts ever presented in modern karate; ceremonially presenting each with a strip of black cloth with their Certificate.

As the relationship and bond strengthened between the two, Funakoshi gradually began to rely more and more on Ohtsuka Sensei. Organization of classes, demonstrations, and guidelines fell to his business discretion, and  instruction of advanced students became his exclusive responsibility. By all appearances, his lifelong dream of becoming a full-time martial artist had been realized. Indeed, reality had eclipsed even his own early imagination. At the young age of 32, Hironori Ohtsuka was already being counted among the hierarchy of contemporary Budoka. 

The other side of the reality, however, was that Ohtsuka Sensei was far from satisfied with what he had attained. While Funakoshi's karate had undeniably opened new vistas, he felt -instinctively- that something was missing. Funakoshi's kata and the philosophies behind them had become second nature to him; his understanding of them was obvious, and his ability to convey those philosophies as an instructor, was evident. But in his heart, as he continued to teach, he sensed there was little or no common sense behind those philosophies -- no practical application for self-defense. The movements were too rigid, too tense, too...confined. And in point of fact, no avenue of testing those philosophies was open; Funakoshi eschewed sparring of any kind at any level of contact [ueshiba] . Something was missing. And so, at the same time he was fulfilling his new responsibilities to Funakoshi, Ohtsuka Sensei continued to learn, absorb -- and expand his knowledge; privately seeking out and training with other  well-known sensei; including Kenwa Mabuni - the founder of Shito Ryu - Choki Motobu, and most notably, the great Morihei Ueshiba; founder and renowned spiritual Master of Aikido. It was he who would help Ohtsuka discover the missing link in his dream, and begin the quest to the awakening of Wado.

Like Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu, Aikido was a direct descendant of the purest forms of classical Aikijujutsu. With the exception of Shindo Yoshin Ryu's inclusion of atemi (hand strikes and kicking techniques) Aikido's power lay in its reliance on the body's natural movements; emphasizing breathing, relaxation, and the control of Ki -- the natural energy that Buddhism taught flowed through all living things. Where most forms of karate -specifically Okinawan karate- seemed to emphasize generating an internal and external tension in the execution of techniques, Ueshiba's philosophy of Aikido was completely the opposite. He believed that the secret lay in blending with and redirecting an opponent's Ki -- flowing naturally with it -- not meeting it's force with force.

For Ohtsuka Sensei, it was as if he had awakened from one dream, only to begin another; a dream that from the beginning, seemed crystalline in its clarity and simplicity. A dream in which he envisioned blending the basics of Funakoshi Sensei's karate with the natural movements, evasive techniques and practicality of Shindo Yoshin Ryu together with the spiritual principles of Aikido. It was a dream of a new Budo -- a new Way -- a Way of Harmony -- ...like water flowing across stones.

As his skills increased, Ohtsuka Sensei began to incorporate more and more of the practical concepts of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu, Aikido's spiritual principle of blending of Ki, along with the influences of Kenwa Mabuni, Choki [ohtsuka] Motobu and other eminent karate sensei he had trained with, into the karate classes Funakoshi-san had placed under his instruction. Moreover, he did not limit his introduction of these new ideas into basic techniques alone, but began to weave them into the very fabric of Funakoshi's karate -- his kata. While many of the students under Ohtsuka Sensei immediately saw the advantages, others saw something altogether different; a dilution of their master's art. The most vocal of those was Funakoshi's son, Yoshitaka, who wasted no time in informing his father of what he believed was tantamount to an act of betrayal.

Although there are varying reports of the factual sequence of events that occurred over the next period of time, it is undisputed that Funakoshi viewed Ohtsuka Sensei's introduction of these new ideas as intrinsically contrary to the core of his teachings, and publicly criticized him for doing so. For Yoshitaka, however, his father's rebuke was not nearly sufficient, calling for Ohtsuka's public expulsion, "...for the good of the Shotokan movement."* While many martial arts historians write that the two men's mutual admiration for each other remained intact, it had become evident that Ohtsuka Sensei's reputation and style of instruction had grown to not only rival that of Funakoshi's, but in the eyes of many -- had surpassed the aging master's. For both, it was clear that the road they had mutually traveled was diverging, and in 1930, Ohtsuka Sensei bid farewell to Funakoshi-san's Dojo for the last time.

[nippon] Over the next four years, strengthened in spirit by the number of students who followed him from Funakoshi-san's Shotokan Ryu, Ohtsuka Sensei continued to teach; establishing the primary techniques and kata of his newly-evolving style, and registering as an independent member of the Nippon Kobudo Shinko Kai - the Japan Martial Arts Research Association. Constantly honing and refining the concepts that lay at the heart of the new Budo he had envisioned years earlier, he focused much of his attention on applying practical defense from formal art. It was during this period that the seeds of his greatest contribution to the martial arts began to grow -- the Kihon Kumite Katas. Originally 36 in number, the Kihon Kumite Katas were wholly and completely Ohtsuka Sensei's -- in concept, development and application. In blending the purest principles of Jujutsu, Aiki, and Karatedo, history would show that he had created much more than simply 36 new kata. He had truly created a new form of Budo -- a new karate -- that was greater than the sum of its parts.

[wado] As word of his new style spread throughout the martial arts community, so did Ohtsuka Sensei's reputation. In 1934, encouraged by the number of young men seeking his instruction, he formed the Dai Nippon Karatedo Shinko Kai (the All Japan Karatedo Research Organization), the parent organization of today's Wado Ryu Karatedo Renmei. It was auspicious beginning in an important year -- for Ohtsuka Sensei the karateka and Ohtsuka Hironori the man -- for 1934 was also the year of the birth of his son, Jiro, his pride and heir apparent; the man who would one day wear his father's Black Obi. Ironically, though, the Karatedo that had come to life through him that same year, was nameless. But true to the old Zen proverb, that too would change.

Late in the 1938, the Dai Nippon Kobudo Tai Kai (the All Japan Classical Martial Arts Festival) invited Ohtsuka Sensei to its Fall Festival, to demonstrate the style of karate that had become the subject of so much discussion and controversy. When asked to name his style prior to his demonstration, Ohtsuka was initially taken aback, never having formally given a name to this new style. As legend has it, mere minutes before his performance, he registered the name, "ShinShu Wado Ryu", or, 'New Style Way of Harmony School". The following year, when the Dai Nippon Butokukai requested that all martial arts in Japan formally register their styles and chief instructors' names, Ohtsuka Sensei formally registered the name Wado Ryu ~ Way of Peace and Harmony.

As the years passed, Wado Ryu, like Ohtsuka Sensei himself, grew in prominence, becoming one of the most highly regarded traditional martial arts in Japanese culture. In 1966, that high regard was made manifest when Emperor Hirohito himself awarded Ohtsuka Sensei with his homeland's highest honor -- The Kyuokujitsusho, The  Grand Order Of The Rising Sun -- presented for his dedication to the introduction and teaching of Karatedo. In 1978, the Royal Family's Higashi No Kuni no Miya, President of the prestigious Kokusai Budo Renmei (International Martial Arts Federation) awarded Ohtsuka Sensei the title of "Meijin", or 'Master'; the first such honor ever bestowed upon a Karateka in Japan.

The contributions made by Hironori Ohtsuka cannot be limited to the world of Karatedo, or even the larger world of martial arts. More than one-hundred years after his birth, and nearly twenty years since his passing, tens of thousands of people -- people from all walks of life, of every faith and creed, and in every corner of the world, have, in some way been affected by the simple, but powerful message that lay within the core of his karate. A message that continues to be reflected in karateka everywhere -- like the reflection of the moon, floating on the water.

"The Way is not meant as a way of fighting. It is a path on which you travel to find your own inner peace and harmony. It is yours to seek and find."  Hironori Ohtsuka. 6.1.1892 ~ 1.29.1982