Biography and Profile of Mas Oyama

By Robert Rousseau, Guide

Mas Oyama Biography Introduction:

Masatatsu Oyama (Mas) fought bulls.  He may have taken on an amazing Muay Thai fighter who went by the name of Black Cobra.  He certainly competed in exhibition fights against American wrestlers during a tour of the United States, and went on a couple of karate sabbaticals to the mountains for over a year.  In the end, he is known as the father and founder of Kyokushin Karate, perhaps the world’s first full contact style of karate.But even more than that, when you really consider his life, one can see that he was a risk taker, someone who lived life without fear of what might happen.  Consider the following quote, and then move on to find out more about his life below.

“If you have confidence in your own words, aspirations, thoughts, and actions and do  your very best, you will have no need to regret the outcome of what you do. Fear and  trembling are lot of the person who, while stinting effort, hopes that everything will  come out precisely as he wants.”

Date of Birth and Life Span:

Masatatsu Oyama (Mas) was born on July 27, 1923 in Gimje, Jeollabuk-do, Korea.  His birth name was Choi Young-Eui.  He died on April 26, 1994 in Tokyo, Japan at the age of 70 from lung cancer.  Oyama was a non-smoker.

Early Years:

Consider Oyama’s life to be akin to general martial arts history.  Over the years, via manga, movies, a lack of documentation, the passage of time, and more, his life has been sensationalized.  Thus, for nearly every thing stated about him, someone might offer a counter argument. Regardless, here is what is widely believed regarding his early years.Oyama was born Choi Young-Eui in Gimje, South Korea during the Japanese occupation. He was the fourth son of Sun Hyung in a family with seven children (6 boys and 1 girl). He was sent to live on his sister’s farm in Manchuria at the young age of nine.  It is said that he had to walk about six miles on a small road to attend Yongree Primary School every day.

Oyama’s first martial artsexperience happened when he moved to Manchuria (age nine), via a Korean seasonal worker named Lee.  At age 12 he returned to Korea, after having progressed a great deal with Lee.

In March of 1938, when Oyama was 15 years old, he left for Japan in his brother’s footsteps to train at the Yamanashi Youth Aviation Institute.  While there, he was required to choose a Japanese name.  He chose Oyama Masutatsu (大山 倍達), which is a transliteration of ‘Baedal’ (倍達) . ‘Baedal’ was an ancient Korean kingdom known in Japan during Oyama’s time as “Ancient Joseon”. ‘Masutatsu’ can also be pronounce ‘baitatsu’ in Japanese.

Why go to Japan to become a pilot?  Well, Oyama looked up to and wanted to follow a Japanese General by the name of Kanji Ishihara.  Ishihara was against the invasion of Asian neighbors, which Oyama had experienced firsthand in Korea.  Unfortunately for Ishihara, others did not hold his views, and he was reportedly ostracized by the higher ranks of the Japanese Army.

During these years, Oyama continued to train in the martial arts, working in the disciplines of both boxing and judo.

Kamikaze Pilot:

Perhaps as a glimpse of things to come, Oyama wanted to serve in the Imperial Army during the war and went after this goal with fervor.  He was rejected the first few times he applied to be a Kamikaze pilot, perhaps because of his Korean background.  However, he eventually sent a letter to the highest ranking officers in the army written in the blood from his fingers.  And that seemed to do the trick.”After the general saw I wrote in my own blood he knew I was ready to serve. The next week I was supposed to leave as Kamikaze, never returning to my home country.”  On the day of his mission, his mission, his airplane malfunctioned.

The situation left him believing that it was all hardly happenstance.

“I had breakfast with my comrades ready to serve our country,” Oyama later said on a TV program. “In the evening when I returned for supper, the chairs were empty. There were no words to describe what I felt but I know I was given a chance to do something.”

Further Martial Arts Training:

When World War II ended in defeat, Oyama left the aviation school.  This was a tough time for those in Japan, quite obviously, making it perhaps even harder for a foreigner like him.  He began “Eiwa Karate Research Center” in Suginami ward but closed it when he realized that he was an unwanted Korean whom no one would even rent a room to.  He eventually found somewhere to live in Tokyo, where he would later meet his wife.In 1946, Oyama enrolled in Waseda University School of Education.  There he studied sport science.

After observing a student training in Okinawan karate, Oyama became interested and contacted the Shotokan dojo.  He became a student of Gigo Funakoshi there, the second son of Shotokan founder Gichin Funakoshi.  He often trained in solitude, feeling like an outsider in a foreign land.  Soon after, Oyama attended Takushoku University in Tokyo and was accepted at the Gichin Funakoshi’s dojo (again, the founder of Shotokan).  He trained there for two years, then moved onto Goju-ryu karateunder So Nei Chu.

He eventually achieved 8th dan status in Goju-ryu under Gogen Yamaguchi (the head instructor of Goju-ryu in mainland Japan).

Beyond the aforementioned, Oyama, through the facilitation of judoka Masahiko Kimura, found his way to the Sone Dojo in Nakano, Tokyo, where he trained for four years and achieved 4th dan status in kosen judo.

Mountain Isolation:

In Tokyo after World War II, Oyama found himself in fights with the U.S. Military Police quite often.  During an interview “Itsumitemo Haran Banjyo” (Nihon Television), Oyama said the following regarding this.”I lost many friends during the war- the very morning of their departure as Kamikaze pilots, we had breakfast together and in the evening their seats were empty. After the war ended, I was angry- so I fought as many U.S. Military as I can, until my portrait was all over the police station.”

Given his pent up rage, So Nei Chu recommended that he retreat to a lone mountain and find peace.  Oyama went to Mt. Minobu in Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan, planning on a three year stay of training in the martial arts.  A student names Yashiro went with him, but snuck away in the night.  Oyama only received monthly visits from a friend, prompting him to question his decision.  So Nei Chu replied to a letter from Oyama indicating his doubt by suggesting that he shave off an eyebrow so that he would be too embarrassed to be in front of people; hence, helping him to stay the path.

Oyama stayed on the mountain for 14 months but was forced to leave when his sponsor ceased supporting him.  After he won the Karate Section of Japanese Martial Arts Championships, he began to feel regret that he had not finished the three years that he had hoped to.  Thus, he went into solitude once again on Mt. Kiyosumi in Chiba Prefecture, Japan, where he stayed and trained for 18 months.

Founding Kyokushin Karate:

In the early 1950’s (1953 or 1954, depending on the source), Oyama opened up his own karate dojo called Oyama Dojo in Tokyo.  They practiced outside initially, eventually moving into a ballet school in 1956 behind Rikkyo University.  Via martial arts demonstrations, the reputation and school grew.  Along with this, in 1964 Oyama moved the dojo into the building that would become the Kyokushin main dojo and world headquarters.  There he officially founded the International Karate Organization Kyokushin kaikan (IKOK or IKO).  This served as the organizing force behind the growing amount of schools being taught within the kyokushin system.During the same year that he opened up the IKOK, Oyama’s dojo was challenged by Muay Thai practitioners.  Oyama, believing that his karate style was best, sent three of his students- Kenji Kurosaki, Tadashi Nakamura, and Noboru Osawa- to Thailand to fight.  They won two out of three of the bouts, serving as a boost to Kyokushin’s reputation (see Great Karate vs. Muay Thai fightsfor more on this and other battles between the styles).

Within Japan and abroad (the United States, Netherlands, England, Australia, and Brazil), Oyama handpicked instructors and sent them to spread the word/open schools.  Promotion in the form of demonstrations often accompanied this.  In addition, he held the All-Japan Full Contact Karate Open Championships every year to help promote.  By making it an open tournament where practitioners of any martial arts stylecould compete, he once again proved his confidence in his own style of fighting.

Kyokushin was perhaps the first full contact style of karate.  Along with this, practitioners regularly compete in full contact tournaments, where the rules often disallow the use of gloves, and allow kicks to the majority of the body, and hand strikes to the body only.  Kyokushin truly professes a belief in powerful strikes designed to incapacitate quickly.  In other words, power is considered very important.

Mas Oyama’s Exploits:

It is often hard to determine which of these exploits are fact vs. fiction, as Oyama’s reputation lead to perhaps some glorifying.  But here is what we believe/suspect.

  • Bull Fighting:During the 1950’s, Oyama began fighting bulls.  In 1957, when he was 34 years old, a bull fight nearly killed him when a bull struck him in the back, tearing him open.  There is no question that he in fact did fight many, many bulls.  It has been said, that he fought 52 of them, in which he killed three and chopped of the horns of 49 with a single shuto strike (chop with the side of the hand).
  • U.S. Fights/Demonstrations:In April of 1952, Oyama traveled to the United States.  He stayed there for one year, demonstrating karate on national television and in public.  He also participated in several exhibition fights against boxers, wrestlers, and more.  It has been said that he fought against 270 opponents, defeating them all, often with a single attack.
  • Fighting the Black Cobra of Muay Thai:Did Oyama compete against a man called the “Black Cobra” in Muay Thai?  It has been said that he did, though proof is lacking. What we do know is that some profess he defeated this supposedly amazing Thai fighter by an aerial triple kick.  Other accounts indicate that he won the fight with round kicks to the body.
  • 100 Man Kumite: Oyama was the first karate practitioner and the inventor of the 100 man kumite.  In essence, kumite battles between participants range between one-and-a-half and two minutes in length. The idea is to get through fights against fighters with similar skill, one after another.  Oyama completed the 100 man kumite three times over three consecutive days, surviving each battle along the way.
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