The Bouncer - Chapter 1
|(Copyrighted, all rights reserved, Yasuhiko Oyama. Reproduction in part or whole is strictly prohibited.)
This book is based on the true story of Soshu Shigeru Oyama. I first published the book in Japanese, with the title, "US Karate Adventure". For the English version, I changed the title to "The Bouncer" to better appeal to a Western audience. When doing the first English translation, I worked with Ray Melick, a reporter with the Birmingham News, who was my student at that time, because my English wasn't quite good enough to do the translation by myself. Now, I am working on a new revision of this book, but in the meantime, I want to share with you the previous version. These are the first two chapters. I hope you enjoy it.
It was just before the end of an afternoon class when my assistant, who also served as secretary and janitor, burst into the New York City dojo.
It had been a good class in my dojo. About thirty students had shown up on an early January afternoon, and I had put them through a spirited workout. Now, with only a few minutes remaining, we had begun kumite—fighting.
As a rule, I never stopped class for anything, especially the telephone. My assistant had strict orders not to disturb me during a class, but to take messages so that I could return the calls later.
I could tell that this was different. His face was taut and white as he stepped inside and said, “Saiko Shihan, it’s the telephone.”
“Who is it?” I yelled at him.
He came up very close to my face and, in a reverent whisper, said, “It’s from the White House. It’s President Ronald Reagan’s secretary, a Mr. Ryan.”
I just looked at him. “The White House?”
All of my students froze in mid-action and looked at us.
I asked again, “The White House?”
He nodded slowly and said, “Osu.”
I ran straight to my office and picked up the phone. A man identified himself as Frederick J. Ryan, and said, “The President wants to see you on January 24, at 3:30 in the Oval Office of the White House. Please arrive one hour early, at 2:30, at the Executive Office Building.”
I hung up the phone, fighting to control my emotions. I sat back in my chair and tried to remain calm, but I couldn’t. I was so full of emotions, so happy, so excited, so tense.
The President of the United States wanted to see me.
It was like a dream. I felt like Cinderella being invited to the ball. Who would have thought, all those years ago when I left Tokyo to bring Kyokushin Karate to America, that one day I, Saiko Shihan S. Oyama, would be invited to meet the President of the United States?
So much had happened over the last twenty years – the whole world had changed and so had I. Who would have imagined that Japan would become a major force in the world’s economy, a technology giant, advertising during every major sporting event? Japan had reached America and made its mark, and I was beginning to realize that I, too, was part of that historic process.
In 1965, very few Japanese were leaving their country. The people who did were the elite, sent to bring home Western technology and methods to help Japan rebuild after the destruction of the Second World War. Growing up in Tokyo, I had always dreamed of going to a foreign country, to lands across the sea, and of the adventures I would have there. I am not sure I ever really believed it would happen.
Then, one day in early 1965, Mas Oyama, the director of the international Kyokushin Organization, called me into his office.
“We have a branch in New York,” he told me. “The branch chief’s name is Mr. Richard Bonner. He has a karate school there, but he requests a Japanese instructor. You are my chief instructor. I think you can do the job. You go.”
And that was that.
On June 17, 1965, I said goodbye to my family and friends at Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport, and prepared to board a Northwest Orient flight. It would take me to Anchorage, Chicago, and finally, New York City. It was my first time on an airplane and my first time to leave the country. No astronaut heading into the unknown of space could have felt any more alone than I did that day, getting on the plane.
As I boarded the plane, I quickly saw that I was the only Oriental onboard. Now it is different. Today, nearly every airline that stops in Japan has Japanese flight attendants, or at least someone on board who speaks Japanese, but at that time, there was no one on board who spoke my language. I suddenly understood how easily westerners could assume that all Orientals look the same. I was experiencing the same thing; as I gazed up and down the plane, all the Americans and Europeans looked identical.
My heart was pumping through my chest, and I was too frightened to look anyone in the face. If someone looked at me, I quickly looked at a wall or the ceiling – anything to avoid having to make eye contact.
My English was not very good. I could sometimes sing the alphabet all the way through without forgetting any letters, but only sometimes, and never without singing that simple kindergarten tune. I could also count to 10 because I had learned the song, “One little, two little, three little Indians.” If a number went past 11 or 12, it was beyond me.
I had been so excited about going to the United States. I was thirty years old, and, at 5-foot11, taller than the average Japanese. I was going to go to America and teach karate, and it would be a great adventure.
Now that the day had arrived, my worries suddenly overshadowed my dreams. Sure, I was taller than the average Japanese, but I only weighed 130 pounds. My friends kidded me that someone could use my ribs as a washboard. After all, in all the movies and pictures, Americans were all so big and strong. I dreaded meeting men the size of John Wayne. What if my speed and power, my technique, wouldn’t work on Americans? What would I do then? How would I get back home? How would I live?
My mother watched me that day and could see me struggling with both fear and excitement. Finally, she took me aside and said, “If you don’t go now, you will never go. And for the rest of your life, you will always blame yourself for missing this opportunity.”
“Son, don’t do that,” she said. “Go on with your dream.”
When I felt as if I had become ninety percent worries, I found the ten percent of confidence that I had left in me and concentrated on that. I remembered my childhood dreams of adventure in faraway lands, and how I believed there was some place out there waiting for me.
Still, now that I was face to face with the reality of my dreams, I was frightened. Sometimes it takes great courage to really live your dreams.
As I entered the cabin of the plane, I moved like one of those remote control robots. Everyone was staring at me, and their eyes pierced my back like daggers, or so I imagined.
I found my seat and looked out the window at my family and friends standing at the gate. They waved and called, “Banzai! Banzai!” I don’t think they could see me. I had become one of the specks in a row of windows full of people who were strange to me.
I have never felt so lost and alone as I did when the airplane’s engines roared to life and began taking us down the runway. Soon we were in the air, and my family and Haneda Airport faded away, then Tokyo, and eventually my entire country of Japan.
There was no turning back. My dream was becoming a reality, and I had no choice now but to continue moving toward it.
After a few minutes in the air, a strange thing happened. My heart began to slow down and my palms ceased to sweat. My breathing even returned to normal. I found that I could look around at the other people on board, and even began to look them directly in the face. They would smile at me, and I found that I could now smile back.
Knowing that there was no return, I accepted my fate, and my excitement at the adventure ahead returned.
In the seat next to me was an American G. I. whose name, I believe, was Jim. He had been in Japan with the U. S. Army, and was returning home. He was really excited and he talked a lot – sometimes too much, as it later got on my nerves.. But he was funny, and he could speak a little Japanese. With his bit of Japanese, my dictionary, and a considerable amount of sign language, we were able to carry on a conversation.
I was able to explain to him that I was going to the United States to teach karate. Jim looked me up and down and said, “Really? Are you sure?” I knew what he was thinking. It was the same thing that I had been thinking only a half hour before.
We also had another conversation that involved more sign language. Jim used his hands to make what I know now is the universal sign for the female shape. He then cupped his hands away from his chest and said, “American girls, big.”
Then he said, “Japanese girl is pancake,” as he rubbed his hands flat on his chest.
I laughed, and he started laughing too. Some things are the same between people everywhere, I guess. While it may not have been great conversation, our attempts to communicate helped me relax.
Getting on the plane had been so exciting. Most of the first leg of the flight, I spent staring out the window, watching everything that passed below. After several hours of sitting in the same seat without moving, I wasn’t so excited. I began to feel like I was in prison, and I couldn’t wait to get back on the ground.
It was about an eight hour flight from Tokyo to Anchorage, and another seven or eight hours to Chicago. When we landed in Chicago – to refuel the plane, I guess, -- we were allowed to get out of our seats and off the plane. It was supposed to be a brief rest stop, allowing up to get off the plane and walk around a bit. I was just relieved to touch the ground.
It was around midnight when we touch down in Chicago. My ideas of Chicago came, of course, from American gangster movies I had seen. I imagined the city as a huge, exciting town where something was always happening. But it was dark, and all I could see from the airport was other planes. Beyond that, nothing was visible.
Jim caught up with me as we entered the gate area, and suggested that I walk with him. We started walking through the terminal building, to the next gage, and the next, and the next. We turned left, then right, then left, past gate after gate, until I was completely lost. I knew that if I had to get back to our gate alone, I couldn’t make it.
We weren’t supposed to be in Chicago very long, and it was getting late. I began to worry that it was past the time that we were due back. I started thinking that it was a mistake to have followed Jim, but without any idea of how to get back on my own, I had no choice but to stay with him.
Jim found a telephone and told me he wanted to make a call. He pointed to a chair and told me to sit. I did, but he could tell by my expression that I was worried. He told me not to worry, to just sit down.
He started talking into the telephone and five minutes went by, then another five. He got real excited, and then seemed almost to cry. I could tell that he was having a very emotional conversation.
Jim started making big gestures with his hands as he talked. I didn’t understand what was going on. In Japan, we talk quietly on the phone, without my outward show of emotion. Old people, though, who were unused to the telephone, often bowed to the phone while talking and when hanging up. For the most part, the telephone was still not very popular in Japan. We didn’t use them very often, and made very little motion while using them.
So, this was the first time I had ever seen someone express himself so physically on the phone.
Every now and then, Jim would look over at me and reach out his hand as if to tell me not to worry. I knew that my face was getting tighter and tighter with the tension. I was worried, and I didn’t care whether Jim was talking to his mother, father, wife or lover, I was very eager to get back to our gate.
I stared at him, trying to use my force of will to make him hang up the phone. Even though he wasn’t looking at me, I’m certain he could feel my eyes burning through him. He turned to smile at me. I got up and walked over to him, putting my face inches away from his and pointing to my watch.
At that point, Jim smiled, hung up the phone, and started running. That let me know we were in trouble. I ran after him and, as we ran, he tried to talk to me. I didn’t know what he was saying, but I don know what I was saying to him. If I had known how to curse, I would have called him every name he’d ever heard, and then some.
We finally reached our gate, and my worst fears were realized. There was no one there.
I felt as if someone had punctured the soles of my feet, and all my power was seeping out of my body onto the floor. It was as if I was slowly deflating and I could barely keep from falling.
There were two airline employees at the gate, sorting tickets and doing paper work. They saw us at the same time we saw them, and all of us froze, shocked into immobility.
Then Jim started talking to them very fast, and they started talking to him even faster. I couldn’t understand a word, but I could feel the power in their voices. Their words shot out like bursts from a machine gun.
My heart just kept pounding. I was praying, doing everything I could just to stay in an upright position. Jim pointed at me, and I realized he was using me as his excuse for being late. He was blaming me, but I couldn’t defend myself. I had only been taught simple phases of English, like “I am a boy” and “this is a pen.” I knew nothing that would explain my side of the story. I could only stand there and pray.
The whole scene probably lasted only a minute, but it seemed like hours had passed. Finally, one of the Northwest Orient people jerked a phone from under the desk at the gate and started talking into it. The other guy shoved me toward a different door than the one we had come through and we started running again.
We jumped down a flight of stairs, and burst through a second door. I was nearly knocked backward by the scream of jet engines and the cold air of the runway. The airline employee jumped behind the steering wheel of one of those mobile stairways they used for boarding planes. Jim and I jumped onto the staircase and we began racing across the tarmac.
No one said a word. The feeling between us was colder than the night air. The airplanes towered above us, looking like angry monsters. We got almost all the way out on the runway before catching up with our plane. It sat in the middle of the runway, making a terrible noise, as if the very plane was mad at us for making it stop.
The man moved the stairway into position next to the plane, and we ran up and climbed through the doorway. A big guy in uniform – the captain, I guess – was waiting for us inside. He started yelling as soon as we got inside. He shook a long finger at us, like a razor-sharp knife. His words sounded like bullets.
I dodged around him and headed for my seat. Everyone on board stared at me, and I could feel the emotion, something like hate, that came from their eyes.
I quickly strapped myself into my seat, and closed my eyes tightly. Almost immediately, I was soaked in sweat. Jim sat down next to me and gave me a very ingratiating look. He tried to apologize, but all I wanted to do was bust his face open.
Instead, I kept my mouth shut and didn’t talk to him anyone.
The flight from Chicago to New York took a couple of hours, and I had just begun to regain my composure when, suddenly, the captain started talking over the plane’s intercom. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, and immediately became nervous again. I was afraid he was talking about Jim and me, apologizing to the other passengers for our stupid mistake. I was afraid that everyone was going to get angry at us all over again.
Then I heard him say the words, “New York,” and realized we were approaching our final destination. People began stirring, putting on coats and gathering their belongings.
The plane banked sharply, and what had to be the biggest city in the world appeared in my window. It stretched out as far as I could see, and it was bigger than I had imagined. For the first time, I felt like I was really in the United States, and I was overwhelmed by the thought.
A chill struck at my heart in those last few minutes in the air. A beautiful as the city looked outside my window; I couldn’t help feeling that there was a serpent in the garden, waiting to devour me. The old doubts I had left behind in Tokyo surfaced again.
The landing was smooth and uneventful, and suddenly I was in America.
Everyone began to get up, but before I could stand, Jim turned to me and spoke for the first time in a long time. I think he apologized again. I forced a smile and said, “Osu.” “Osu” means patience, respect and appreciation.
We got up and followed everyone off the plane. The captain and crew were standing on the ground, saying, “Thank you and good-bye” to the passengers as they left. I could tell they were really exhausted and didn’t mean what they were saying. I didn’t look at them; I didn’t want to make eye contact. I just wanted to get on with everything.
We were guided to immigration. There, we joined other groups of travelers, and I saw a couple of Oriental people. Everyone was quiet, waiting patiently in line. Each and every face looked tired.
The waiting caused my heart to begin to jump again. I saw the immigration officer asking people questions and I knew that I didn’t know enough English to be able to respond. I started feeling guilty, like I was a spy about to be exposed.
Finally it was my turn. I walked up to this big, fat official and handed him my passport and the paper with my sponsor’s name and address. He looked at my passport, and then said something to me. I just pointed my finger at the paper and said, “Ahh.” He said something again, and I started sweating. My face got red, and my heart wedged in my throat. I pointed at my passport again, helplessly. I just knew something was wrong and they weren’t going to let me in the country.
The immigration man didn’t change his expression, but stamped my passport and pointed to the other side of the desk. I didn’t waste any time passing through and joining the other people that had cleared immigration.
I was directed up a hallway, toward two sliding doors. They opened automatically into the area where our luggage to appear. Crowds of people were gathered, and everyone was talking and laughing, even singing. I looked around for the other people who had been on my flight and followed them to our luggage. I quickly found my one suitcase and headed for the line to go through customs.
I found myself standing in a line behind a little child and his mother. The boy was speaking perfect English, and I was amazed. It seemed like magic to me that such a young child could speak such good English. Obviously, I was still thinking in Japanese.
My turn came, and I put my suitcase in front of the customs man. I opened my suitcase for him. I had one pair of pants, two shirts with collars, five pairs of socks, five dogi (karate uniforms), and a couple of pairs of underwear.
This man had a ball-point pen that he used to poke around in my luggage. At one point, he hooked his pen on my underwear. He looked at me, and I looked at him; both our faces turned red. He quickly slung my underwear off his pen and said, “O.K.” Then we both started laughing.
The next doors were big double doors that slid open automatically. Just as I got to them, they rolled back to reveal what seemed like thousands of faces, all lined up on either side of a narrow walkway, staring at me. It was as if a curtain had parted and I had walked out onto a stage.
Actually, it was the arrival area, where people waited to meet passengers. They were leaning over a short railing on either side of the walkway, intently watching the doors and hoping to see whoever they were supposed to meet.
My face went red again. I felt as if I were in a show. I wandered through the crowd, a walk of about fifty meters. I walked slowly because I kept expecting someone to reach out and grab me. My sponsor, Richard Bonner, was supposed to meet me at the airport.
I kept walking until I passed completely through the line and reached the center of the airport terminal. No one called my name. No one reached out to touch me on the shoulder. No one was there to meet me.
I stood there, all alone.
Around me, people were being greeted – by wives, girlfriends, brothers, and friends. There was so much hugging and kissing and crying…so much emotions. I was overwhelmed. People in Japan don’t show emotion like that. I’d never witnessed a scene like that a Haneda Airport.
I had no idea who was supposed to meet me. Anyone could be Mr. Bonner, or his messenger. Every time I caught someone’s eye, I smiled, hoping that this person or that person was the one. I just kept on smiling.
Half an hour passed, then an hour. My face was getting tight from the constant smiling. My facial muscles were starting to cramp, and I was no longer sure that I was actually smiling. Perhaps my face was just locked in a grimace.
The airport lobby was getting quiet. The crowds thinned out, and I finally put my suitcase down in the center of the terminal and sat on it. There were chairs in the corner and against the walls, but I was afraid to sit along a wall. Whoever was coming to meet me might not see me if I was not in the center of the room. I didn’t want there to be any doubt that I was waiting for someone.
It was getting late, and I was beginning to wonder what to do. I started missing my family in Tokyo, but I messed the dojo even more. I wanted to work out, to train, to sweat.
I had been sitting there alone fro about two hours when the outside doors opened and a big Caucasian man dashed into the lobby. He was holding a poster that I couldn’t read, but I had a feeling that this was the man I was supposed to meet.
I stood up, looking at him hopefully, and he held the poster up in my direction. On the poster was written, in Japanese, “Sensei Oyama.” I called to him, “Osu. Yes.” He came over to me and stuck out a huge hand to shake mine. I was so excited that I grabbed his hand with both of mine and held on.
He said, “You Oyama-san?” It was Japanese, but spoken with a strange accent. He pointed to himself and said, “I am George.”
He began to explain why he was late. I didn’t understand a word he was saying, but I didn’t care. I was so happy that he was there, and that I wasn’t alone any more.
I found out much later what had made him so late. George had had a flat tire on the highway, and his car didn’t have a spare. He had to take the flat off, pick it up, and physically run to a service station to get it fixed. Then he had to run back, rolling the tire in front of him, put it back on the car and drive to the airport.
His name was George Gonzalez. He was only a little taller than me, but his chest was three times the size as mine. He was well built like a weight lifter, only he was very graceful in his movements. I knew then that he trained in something.
George reached to pick up my suitcase and said, “This is all? Just one?”
I nodded my head and George smiled. I couldn’t tell what he meant, but I knew he wasn’t making fun of me. I could tell that he cared about people, and knew even then that we would become great friends.
Before his big hand could get my suitcase, I said no, that I would carry it. George smiled and took it right out f my hand.
We stepped outside the airport terminal. The air was crisp and clean, especially after the air inside the terminal building, which had been so humid. New York air felt colder to me than Tokyo air.
As we walked to the parking lot, George talked. I think he was asking me about my flight and how I felt. I didn’t understand him, but I appreciated his caring. I just kept nodding and saying “Osu. Osu.”
We got to George’s car, and I was overwhelmed. It was the biggest car I had ever seen. Although I couldn’t tell him, I wanted to say that I thought it was a gorgeous car. I said, “Very nice.”
George burst out laughing. We got in, and he pushed a button that made the roof start closing. That surprised me even more. In Japan, I drove a three-wheel truck for the dreamed Daihatsu Company. To me, a car that big, with a roof that moved, was magic. I never dreamed I would ride in a car like that.
Later I found out that this was a junk car that could be bought for a couple hundred dollars. George didn’t have much more money that I did. I just didn’t know that then.
George pressed the button that closed the roof, and started the car. We got on a highway that was much bigger than any Japanese highway. I was even more surprised as I realized that this was really a big country.
We drove through the city, past some of the tallest buildings I had ever seen, and on out into an area where there were trees and flowers. George told me that we were not going to the dojo, that the dojo was closed. We were going to a nightclub where Mr. Bonner was waiting for us.
It was a simple message, but it took about twenty minutes to get across. George was having to use sign language and the little bit of funny-sounding Japanese that he knew.
I wanted to see the dojo, but I couldn’t explain that to George. I just agreed with whatever he said, nodding and saying, ‘Osu.’ George picked up on the word, “Osu,” and took to repeating it to me after everything he said.
Soon, our conversation was something like, “Osu?”