Updated: Nov 18
1800s Japanese Martial Arts Teacher Faces Off with Masterful and Dominating Brute
By Dave Lowry
How can the rules of sport or competition influence a martial art? Often, in the dojo, we assume that karate’s sporting aspects are — or, at least, can be — kept separate from the traditional elements of the art. Perhaps. It’s worthwhile, however, to consider that the application of any rule has consequences, good and bad, that may not be immediately obvious.
Oishi Susumu was a swordsman in southern Japan in the early 19th century. He mastered a school of swordsmanship and another school of the spear, and in 1832 he traveled to Edo, now Tokyo, where he
began visiting dojo and issuing challenges.
Japan at this time had largely been at peace for two centuries. The days of battlefield combat were distant, the stuff of myth. Individual combat, mostly in the form of duels, had become the most common way blood was spilled among the samurai. Instead of combat, the warrior proved himself in competitive matches, usually with wooden or bamboo weapons.
At the same time, armor intended not for the battlefield but for these contests evolved rapidly. Swordsmen experimented with all sorts of protection. They also monkeyed around with substitute weapons for their matches. The wooden bokken was supplanted by various forms of shinai made of bamboo, often split and bound together or encased in a bag. This allowed for heavy contact without risk of serious injury. These tools were the predecessor of today’s kendo shinai, but they did
not look much like the modern sword-substitutes, in part because they did not have a fixed length or weight.
Oishi found a way to exploit these innovations. He stood nearly 6 feet tall, exceptional for a Japanese man of that era. His size gave him an advantage in reach. He accentuated this by crafting a shinai that was more than 5 feet long. (Modern kendo rules limit the length of shinai to approximately 4 feet.) Essentially, Oishi was carrying a staff into his matches. And he carried it into many of them.
Contemporary accounts characterize Oishi as brash, an “in your face” kind of guy. He actually supported himself by extortion: After establishing a name for himself by winning a number of matches, he would go to a kendo dojo and threaten to challenge, defeat and publicly humiliate the teacher. To prevent his students from abandoning him should this happen, the teacher would pay off Oishi.
In addition to his oversized shinai, Oishi used a face mask that was sharply creased along the centerline. It looked something like a blunt beak. The shape of the mask meant that strikes and thrusts would likely glance off. It was very difficult to make a conclusive and obvious attack against him.
Oishi’s technique was not sophisticated. Using his long shinai and his long arms, almost exclusively he relied on a katate-zuki. Using his rear (left) hand, he would make a one-handed thrust, driving his shinai into the throat or the mask-covered face of an opponent. He could keep himself at a safe distance while making this devastating attack, unleashing it long before his shorter opponents, with their shorter shinai, could even get within range.
Eventually, of course, Oishi found the limitations. He was depending on tricks and manipulations of equipment instead of skill. His antics came to the attention of Otani Seiichiro, a fencing teacher in Edo. Otani, a master of the Jikishinkage ryu, was known for his severe training. Even with the protection of armor and using bamboo swords, classes under Otani were rigorous and bruising, and contusions were expected. Knockouts were a daily occurrence. (To give you some idea, in the dojo of Otani’s most famous disciple Sakakibara Kenkichi, members would don their helmets and then repeatedly ram their heads, full force, into the pillars of the dojo to get accustomed to the blows that were to follow.)
Unlike many other teachers, Otani did not flinch when approached by Oishi. Some accounts, in fact, tell us that Otani challenged him. Whatever the details, Oishi was beaten badly and publicly. He survived, however.
The fight was with shinai, Otani’s much shorter version against Oishi’s super-sized weapon. Otani went on to create his own system of swordsmanship, which he taught and passed down to his son.
It’s an interesting story and ends as we would like it — with the braggart the guy who manipulated circumstances in a way we disdain, getting his just deserts. Despite Oishi’s behavior, what should stand out is that Oishi’s exploitation of the rules and circumstances of kendo in those days is really not “unfair.” To the extent there were regulations, he met them. He just used them to his advantage.
Oishi’s mentality lives on in the sporting areas of budo. Canny strategists do their best to use the rules to their advantage. And there are consequences for this. When, for instance, was the last time you saw a point scored in a karate contest with a knee or elbow strike? These strikes are legal, but they are very difficult to use, so they’re virtually never part of the karateka’s arsenal.
Consequently, in many karate dojo, the moves receive little attention even though they are effective in a dangerous situation. Or consider judo. As grappling skills in other combat arts evolved rapidly, contestants in judo began to rely more and more on mat work to win. Throws, in many judo tournaments, have become almost desultory, mere openings to get into ground work.
As Oishi demonstrated, wherever there are sporting contests, there will be rules. Wherever there are rules, there will be conventions. And people will exploit those, and that will change the art. Good? Bad? Who knows? But inevitably it happens.
Dave Lowry has written Karate Way since 1986. For more information about his articles and books, visit blackbeltmag.com and type his name into the search box.
This article was originally published in a July 2022 edition of Black Belt Magazine