Master Hironori Otsuka

Founder of Wado-Ryu Karate
June 1, 1892 – January 29, 1982

Master Hironori OtsukaModern karate has its beginnings so far in the past that its earliest history is lost. What we do know is that the roots of Wado Ryu come from the martial arts traditions of China, Okinawa, and Japan. Those elements came together in the last century due to the efforts of a most amazing Japanese martial artist named Hironori Otsuka.

Karate is a term which originally meant “T’ang hand”. This is in reference to the T’ang Dynasty of China from which the Okinawans adapted many karate concepts. In the 15th and 16th centuries the Okinawans had developed a system of unarmed combat called Okinawate or Tode or sometimes simply Te. This art was supposedly enhanced by the influence of Chinese emissaries in the 17th Century, who introduced kata, or forms, and other Chinese principles. Among the kata believed to have been introduced were, notably, Kusanku and Chinto which were named after the men who introduced them. This was at a time when Okinawa had come under the control of Japan and Okinawans were required to surrender their weapons or be executed. The empty handed fighting arts may have been studied so that the Okinawans might defend themselves from their conquerors. More recent investigation reveals that the “Pechin” class, who were responsible for law and order as well as for the military, probably developed the empty handed fighting systems of Okinawa.

In 1933, Funakoshi changed the kanji, or written form for “karate” from one that meant China (T’ang) hand to one which meant empty hand (though pronounced the same). The term “empty hand” carries with it many Japanese Zen connotations appropriate to the concept of a “do” or “way” and was probably more acceptable to Japanese, due to the political situation at that time. Mainland Japan already had several indigenous empty hand combat arts (i.e., jujitsu, aikijitsu, aikido, kenpo and judo), and many Japanese found karate to be highly compatible with these existing systems.

Okinawate is often described as having developed in three main areas around the towns of Naha, Tomari and Shuri and was taught secretly for centuries, usually within families. We often associate different emphasis in internal, external, and linear techniques as being representative of the tode from these three areas. Over time this art also came to be called karate jitsu (Chinese-hand fighting art).

Hironori Otsuka Family Portrait

Hironori Otsuka (standing lef) with his mother, brother, and sisters.

Master Hironori Otsuka was born June 1, 1892 in Shimodate City, Ibaragi (or Ibaraki) Prefecture, Japan, as the first son (second of four children) of Tokujiro (a doctor) and Sato, his real name was Kou (Hironori is the name that was used for the martial art). As a boy he listened to his mother’s uncle Chojiro Ebashi, a samurai and the official martial arts instructor of the Tsuchiura Clan, tell thrilling stories of samurai exploits. This may well have been where the first seeds were sown that would later be some of the guiding principles and philosophies of Wado Ryu Karate.

Hironori Otsuka

Hironori Otsuka in 1912

He was a sickly child of weak disposition, and it was decided that the practice of the martial arts would help to strengthen his constitution. In 1897, when he was five years old, Otsuka began to study Koryu Jujitsu under Ebashi. In 1905 Otsuka entered the Ibaragi Prefecture, Shimotsuma junior high school. It was at this time he started training at the dojo of Yokiyoshi Tatsusaburo Nakayama (1870-1933), who was a teacher in his junior high school, in the art of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujitsu. Whereas most schools at that time stressed throwing or grappling techniques, this school stressed atemi (striking and kicking techniques). His martial arts training continued even when, in 1911, he entered Waseda University to study business administration. It was during this period that he began studying atemi style Kenpo, while he continued his studies in Shindo Yoshin Ryu. When his father died in 1913 he was forced to quit school and return to Shimodate to work at Kawasaki Bank as a result of his mother’s increasing concern for his infatuation with the martial arts.

Eight years later, after much dedicated study, he overtook the mastership of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujitsu from Nakayama after being honored with the “Menkyo Kaiden” (Certificate of Full Proficiency) in that art, making him the Fourth Grand Master of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujitsu. This was on June 1, 1921, his 29th birthday, and was an outstanding accomplishment for a man so young.

Gichin Funakoshi

Gichin Funakoshi

Meanwhile a little before the beginning of the last century, karate jitsu began to be taught in public schools in Okinawa as a means of physical exercise for youth and as a way of preparing them for military conscription. Hirohito, while Crown Prince of Japan, saw a karate demonstration while on a visit to Okinawa and subsequently asked that someone come from Okinawa to demonstrate karatejitsu on mainland Japan. The Okinawans, wanting their art to be represented by a refined, gentlemanly person who was also an accomplished martial artist, chose Gichin Funakoshi to represent their art. Funakoshi was a Shurite stylist and was accomplished in poetry and calligraphy.

A first visit by Funakoshi was not successful, as the demonstration was given primarily to representatives of samurai families who were not much interested in an empty-handed art but a later demonstration in May of 1922 at the first public sports festival in Tokyo caused a great deal of interest in karate. Otsuka heard of this visit and journeyed to Tokyo to witness the demonstration and afterwards met with Gichin Funakoshi at the Meisei Juku (a residence for Okinawan students) where he was staying at the time, and they spent many hours discussing ideas about the martial arts. Funakoshi was asked to stay and teach his art, and in September, agreed to accept Otsuka as a student of his karate.

Otsuka immediately saw the advantages of combining the karate of Funakoshi, especially the kata, with the techniques and principles of Shinto Yoshin Ryu Jujitsu. Because of his martial arts skill, he was able to grasp the principles of karate very quickly, it took him only one year to learn the 15 katas that Funakoshi brought with him from Okinawa. By 1924 Otsuka had become his chief assistant instructor, which raised more than a few eyebrows, particularly among Funakoshi’s Okinawan students and on April 24th of that year Otsuka became one of the first seven men to receive the rank of ShoDan (black belt) in karate. He soon introduced the concept of yakusoku kata (pre-arranged fighting techniques), which was warmly accepted by Funakoshi.

Hironori Ohtsuka and Gichin Funakoshi perform Demonstration

(1 & 2) Ohtsuka (uke) demonstrates Tantodori (defense against knife attack) with Shimizu Toshiyuki (tori).
(3 & 4) Gichin Funakoshi (uke) demonstrates Idori technique (defense in sitting position) with Otsuka (tori).
Images from Gichin Funakoshi's book "Karate-do Kyohan"

In September of 1924 Funakoshi and Otsuka went to Keio University Kendo Hall and introduced themselves to Yasuhiro Konishi, (who most likely introduced Otsuka to both Kenwa Mabuni and Choki Motobu), and asked him if they could use the dojo to practice their Okinawan karate. Konishi was interested, and an Okinawan karate club was formed as a subsidiary of his Kendo dojo. In their early days at Keio, traditional Japanese jujitsuka would come to issue challenges to Funakoshi and his new fighting system. As was the standard etiquette these challenges were met by the senior students, in this case Konishi and Otsuka, who were never once defeated. After his victory the challengers were then lectured by Funakoshi on the benefits of karate. One story recounted in the “Nihon Budo Taikei” tells of a meeting at Konishi’s dojo between Motobu and Funakoshi, also present was Otsuka, and a judo 4th degree who was accompanying Motobu. It was obvious that Motobu was intent on making mischief. Motobu arranged a challenge, in which the judoka took a grip on Funakoshi’s collar and sleeve. Motobu then said, “Now, you are so proud of your basic kata, show me what value they have in this situation. Do what you wish to escape.” It was obvious that the odds were against Funakoshi, the much younger judoka having established a firm grip, but he gamely tried to disengage with soto ukes and uchi ukes, with no success and was finally lifted up and thrown against the wall of the dojo. Otsuka was then asked to try his luck. He rose to the challenge and with his jujitsu background, had no difficulty in dealing with the situation. A story is told of another time when he was teaching at Shichi Tokudo, a student named Kogura from Keio University, who was a 3rd degree in Kendo, for reasons unknown, decided to face Otsuka with a razor sharp sword. The other students watched in horror as Otsuka watched his adversary calmly, and as Kogura made his move and leapt in with a would-be lethal blow, Otsuka swept him off his feet.

In 1927 he left the bank at Shimodate and became a medical specialist treating martial arts injuries, (setting bones and resuscitation), in order to devote more time to the martial arts. He was now free to devote his time exclusively to his studies. Undistracted, he sorted through a variety of styles and techniques, rejecting the trivial, retaining the significant, refining the essential, combining the strengths of many, while using the warrior’s code as his basic philosophy. He studied many styles and with many people including, Yoshin Koryu Jujitsu from Motoo Kanaya (ca. 1919-1921). He also began to train with Kenwa Mabuni (the founder of Shito Ryu Karate, 1889-1952), Choki Motobu, (a student of Bushi Matsumura (the founder of Shorin Ryu, 1796-1893)), Yasutsune (Anko) Itosu, (creator of the five Pinan katas, 1831-1915), and Yasuhiro Konishi, (1870-1944), and others, from whom he learned much additional information, especially concerning kata. During the late twenties it is known that Otsuka was on good terms with both Morihei Ueshiba (founder of Aikido, 1883-1969) and Gogen Yamaguchi (founder of Gojo Ryu, 1909-1989), while it is not documented whether Otsuka ever studied under them or not.

Hironori Otsuka Karate Club Dinner

Left to Right: Kanken Toyama, Hironori Otsuka, unknown, Gichin Funakoshi, Choki Motobu, Kenwa Mabuni, Genwa Nakasone, Shinken Taira

In 1929 Otsuka started the first karate club at Tokyo University, and the next five years would see him continue to establish clubs in many other universities. At about this time, February of 1934, Jiro Otsuka was born. Hironori Otsuka had two sons and two daughters. On April 1, 1934,Otsuka started his own school under the name of Dai Nippon Karate Shinko Club (Dai = great, Nippon = Japan, Shinko = to promote). At this time Otsuka was teaching at his home in Kashiwagi, Shinjuku, and his most prominent students were listed as Eto and Kawakami (both of Meiji University), Kihara (Agriculture University), Hirakawa (St. Paul University), Lee (Chuo University), Shimizu (Japan Dental College).

Hironori Otsuka Throw DemonstrationConstantly learning, teaching, building and never content with the status quo, he was among the first to study ways of organizing the kumite techniques of the dojo (at that time taught in a manner that frequently resulted in injury) into controlled methods of free-style fighting that could be used in competitive matches. He was also the first to develop kumite kata for karate, which would become a major innovation adopted by many styles. He introduced different kinds of body shifting techniques, a more upright stance for mobility, and reliance on evasion and counter techniques. He also introduced throws and joint locks into the repertoire. As described by Masafumi Shiomitsu, 8th degree, Wado Ryu may be considered a synthesis of four elements: Shurite Karate Do, Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujitsu, Toda Ryu Kodachi, and Yagyu Ryu Kenjitsu. To the linear techniques of Shurite are added the body movement principles and grappling techniques of Shindo Yoshin Ryu, the nagasu techniques of Toda Ryu (which is a system of fighting with short sword against longer weapons), and the movement and flow of Yagyu Ryu style of swordsmanship. From these sources are defined several principles which are fundamental and particular to Wado Ryu.

After Otsuka began to teach his karate at Tokyo University, he began to have conflicts with Funakoshi over the introduction of jujitsu techniques and the practice of jyu kumite (free sparring), of which Funakoshi did not approve and in 1935 there was a parting of the ways. Research seems to suggest that most of the problems between Otsuka and the Shotokan group seemed to have centered around Funakoshi’s third son, Yoshitaka (also known as Gigo, 1906-1945). It is also possible that resentment and embarrassment over a money issue contributed to the separation. By the time he resigned from the bank Otsuka had saved 1000 yen for his retirement. He put 200 yen toward a fund he set up for the purpose of building a permanent dojo for Funakoshi. Other supporters of Funakoshi also contributed bring the total to about 700 yen. Meanwhile Funakoshi’s eldest son, Giei, had allegedly been accumulating gambling debts and pressured Otsuka to loan him some of the money from the fund to pay off some of these debts. Otsuka bowed to the pressure and called a meeting of the other senior students to approve the loan to Giei. Out of feelings of loyalty to Funakoshi it was decided to loan the money but unfortunately Giei never paid the money back. Then to compound an already delicate and embarrassing situation, Giei implied that Otsuka had kept the money for himself. Anyway, it seems that senior Shotokan black belt Genshin Hironori suggested to Yoshitaka Funakoshi that for the good of the Shotokan organization Otsuka should be dismissed. Another Shotokan senior student, Mitsusaka Harada, confirms that it was Yoshitaka who expelled Otsuka from the group. Obviously something happened because in 1934 Yoshitaka Funakoshi replaced Otsuka as the instructor of the Waseda University Karate Club.

In May of 1938 the Dai Nihon Butokukai, a governing body for Japanese martial arts, honored him with the title Renshi Go. In 1939 Otsuka wanted his students and new style to be represented at a martial arts festival coming up in Kyoto. Otsuka and his students had discussed a new name for the organization between 1934 and 1939 and when the martial arts board in Kyoto asked Kihara the name of his organization, he listed it as Shinshu Wado Ryu Jujitsu. After the name registration Otsuka was advised by Master Gihachiro Kubo (the successor of Yagyu Shinkage Ryu in the Tosa Clan) that since the characters for Shinshu and Wa both can be representative of Japan, his name was rather redundant. The term wa means peace or harmony, but it also represents Japan as a shortened form of Showa, which was the name for the era of Emperor Hirohito. Otsuka heeded this advice and the next year, on May 5, 1940, while participating in the “Celebration for 2600 B.C. and 44th. Butoku Festival”, when requested to submit the name of the founder and the official name of the style by the Dai Nihon Butokukai, Otsuka registered the shortened “Wado Ryu” along with Shotokan, Shito Ryu and Goju Ryu. This was a big step for Wado Ryu because this occasion is considered to be the first official naming of the karate styles.

At the Dai Nihon Butokai registration in 1940 Otsuka registered sixteen katas. These were the five Pinan katas: Naihanchi, Kusanku, Niseishi, Passai, Chinto, Jion, Jitte, Rohai, Wanshu, Seisan, and Suparempei. He also registered thirty-six kihon kumite katas. It was believed in order to have a new style registered a founder would need quite a voluminous syllabus. This might have been the reason for this number of katas. In 1970 ‘Karatedo Vol. 1’, by Otsuka, was published. He said, “Wado Ryu has only nine katas, which is already too many if you want to train seriously”, and presented nine Wado Ryu katas, the five Pinans, Naihanchi, Kusanku, Seisan, and Chinto. He originally studied the Pinans under Funakoshi (Funakoshi was called Pinan Sensei in Tokyo, today they call these katas, Heians), but modified them after working with Mabuni and also incorporating some ideas from Shindo Yoshin Ryu. He said he took Naihanchi from Motobu. Both Kusanku and Chinto are very similar in Shito Ryu and Shotokan. It is obvious that he took Seisan from Funakoshi (Shotokan today, calls this kata Hangetsu), in no other style is Seisan performed in this way. Passai of Shito Ryu, Shotokan and Wado are basically the same, but Otsuka took his directly from Funakoshi. Jion, Jitte, and even Jiin seem to be katas of similar type, they are basically the same in Shito Ryu and Shotokan. He may have studied Niseishi under Funakoshi but he later modified it to Mabuni’s way. Otsuka’s version of Rohai is Rohai Sho, from Mabuni, while Funakoshi ran Rohai Ni. It is probable that he took Wanshu straight from Funakoshi. As the years went by many organizations added back many of the old katas but with so much time elapsed it is not surprising that these katas were run a bit differently from one school to the next. For some reason many Wado organizations failed to add Suparempei back into the kata set. Suparempei was taught to Otsuka by Kenwa Mabuni. By streamlining the Wado Ryu kata set Otsuka was stressing quality over quantity. Today, Wado Ryu schools run only ten Kihon Kumite katas, culled from the original thirty-six.

Hironori Otsuka KihonThe kanji that Otsuka used for “kata” was different than other styles. The kanji they use (also called “Igata”) means “mold”, standardized, not transformable, and not changing. Otsuka believed kata should not be like that but should be alive and able to conform and change as situations dictate. He taught that while doing any part of a kata you should not think of the move before, or after, but live only in the moment of the particular action leaving you able to deal with whatever may happen.

In 1942, Otsuka obtained the title Kyoshi from Dai Nihon Butokukai. During World War II he was involved with the treatment of wounded soldiers returning from the war. In the immediate aftermath of World War II the newly formed Wado organization got it’s first permanent home. The dojo was located in front of the Tsukiji police station, in Tokyo, and was large enough to accommodate 24 tatami. He only remained there for three years then relocated to the gymnasium of the Nakano Primary School in the north of the city.

Otsuka’s abilities and dedication brought him fame and honor, bestowed from many quarters. As well as founding Wado Ryu Karatedo Renmei he was vice-chairman of the All Japan Karatedo Federation, a founding member of the Kokusai Budoin (International Martial Arts Federation), and Director of the Japan Classical Martial Arts Promotion Society. In 1966, Emperor Hirohito honored him with Shiju Hoosho Medal (Fifth Order of Merit, Cordon of the Rising Sun) for his contributions to karate. Otsuka was still actively teaching at the Tokyo Dental College when on October 9, 1972 he became the first karateka ever honored by Prince Higashi Kuni No Miya, the younger brother of the emperor, and the president of the prestigious Kokusai Budo Renmei (International Martial Arts Federation). Prince Higashi Kuni No Miya bestowed him with the title of Meijin, this made him the head of all martial arts systems within the All Japan Karate do Federation. Otsuka held this title until his death.

Otsuka Hironori JiroOtsuka was as unique and full of vitality as the style of karate he founded. Even an above average man in his 70’s or 80’s would probably have been content to rest and let others continue his work but Otsuka was not. Never believing that he or even the martial arts in general had learned all that there was to know, he continued to practice. Putting on his gi he would train every day for twenty minutes on just one technique and continue this for a full month. He remarked one time how he enjoyed walking on the unbelievably crowded streets of Tokyo so he could practice smoothly weaving and twisting without letting anyone touch him. Otsuka was a very moral man and always showed great concern for his students. Many of his students, now senior instructors, called him a gentle man and considered him a father figure. Otsuka’s belief in karatedo as a powerful means for spiritual and moral improvement is reflected in his poetry and writing on the subject. Otsuka, weighing about 120 pounds, and standing 5’5″, was willowy and lean. He maintained relatively good health throughout his long life. He never drank, and even though he was a heavy smoker until he was in his sixties, maintained a health conscious regime to the end. He preferred to walk when possible and when riding trains would stand rather than sit, in order to challenge his balance. When asked about his secrets for good health and longevity he said, “I never fret about the past. I concentrate on the present and plan for the future”. With his health failing, on November 20, 1981 Otsuka abdicated his position of Grandmaster of Wado Ryu. In front of, and with clear agreement and acknowledgment of all his leading students, Otsuka appointed his son Jiro, as Grandmaster of Wado Ryu Karate Do. On January 29,1982 Master Hironori Otsuka passed away. He practiced karate up until his death and at the age of 89 was the oldest practicing karateka. His son Jiro took his father’s name along with the mastership of the Wado style at his father’s death. Otsuka formed one of the most complete systems of self-defense ever devised. A fitting epitaph for him could surely be a statement made by him; “the difference between the possible and the impossible is one’s will”, for surely to this giant of a Budoka nothing could seem impossible.

Due to Otsuka’s commitment and innovation of technique, Wado Ryu has rapidly become one of the most popular karate systems throughout the world. Unfortunate conflicts in 1981 shortly before the death of the founder, caused Wado to be split into two organizations, usually referred to as Wado Ryu and Wado Kai. Wado Ryu Karate is directed through the Wado Ryu Karate Do Renmei in Tokyo, Japan, which is headed by Hironori Otsuka Ni Dai, 10th degree and son of the founder. Wado Kai is represented by JKF Wado Kai in Japan, headed by Eichi Eriguchi. In 1989 a third major organization, Wado Kokusai (Wado International Karate Federation) was founded by Tatsuo Suzuki Sensei in London, after splitting from Wado Ryu Renmei. Wado Kai organizations retained the original symbol of a fist enclosed by a dove. Wado Ryu Karate Do Renmei has adopted the kanji for “wa” enclosed by the dove as it’s symbol, and the Wado International Karate Do Federation has adopted the rising sun enclosed by the dove as it’s symbol.

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Many thanks to Shihan Wayne Tyler and David Everett sensei for the extensive research and guidance in the creation of this biography of Master Otsuka. Many sources were used in this article. All mistakes however, are the author’s own. Donald Morris, 5th Dan Wado Ryu November, 2009