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Mas Oyama: Legend or Myth?

Barry is a former US Marine who has studied martial arts for almost 40 years. He has belt rankings in numerous arts.

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Mas Oyama began his martial arts journey very early in life. At the age of 9, he studied Southern Chinese Kempo Karate. He joined the Japanese Imperial Army at the age of 15. He enrolled in the Youth Air Force Academy. Shortly thereafter, he began to study Shotokan karate under Gichin Funakoshi. Later, he also practiced Goju Ryu Karate as well as Judo. He achieved advanced rankings in both Judo and Karate before training on his own. He went on to author several books and develop his own form of karate.

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Mt. Minobu

Mount Minobu is well known in Japanese karate lore. The legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi, author of "The Book of Five Rings," claims that he was inspired to develop his famous double sword style while training there. Mas Oyama isolated himself on the mountain for eighteen months. While there, he trained daily. He had a veritable, if not literal, jungle gym. His days consisted of jumping over bushes, lifting huge boulders, smashing his hands and feet into trees, and standing under cold water falls. His evenings were spent in meditation, pondering Buddhist texts and scouring martial arts manuals.

Apparently, his training worked. In 1947, he entered the All Japan Karate Tournament and won. He then spent another year on Mt. Kiyosumi to further his individual training.

Oyama and the Bull

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Karate Bullfighter or just a Load of Bull?

In 1975, a movie was released that was purportedly based upon the life of Oyama. The movie is entitled "Karate Bullfighter" (also released as "Champion of Death"). The movie stars the well-known actor Sonny Chiba. This movie helped to solidify and expand the legend of Oyama. But the question we must ask is how much of the movie is real and how much is fiction.

Before we get to the bullfighting, we need to know that in the early 1950's, Mas toured the United States. He performed his feats of strength and prowess, including his breaking skills. Some say he took on all challengers in no-rules fights, swiftly defeating them with his one-punch "God hand." This is an exaggeration. The matches were "no-holds-barred" wrestling. This is where the bullfighting video comes into play.

The video (which can be found online) shows Oyama wrestling a bull and ultimately chopping off one of its horns with his bare hands. Jon Burning, a former student of Oyama's, explains the video. The bull was old, and the horn was loosened by farmers to give the appearance that Mas had chopped it off. The video was not "real," but rather was meant as a publicity stunt to promote Oyama as a wrestler. Jon and others encouraged Oyama not to use the video, or else westerners would think that his karate was fake. The video resurfaced some years later. From that video, legends grew of Mas defeating numerous bulls with his bare hands, even killing some with a single strike. There is even a story that he was once gored by a bull and almost died. I can find no evidence to support these claims.


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Truth of the Legend

Mas was dedicated to training. He hardened his arms, legs, and hands to the point that it was said his blocks were painful. He was able to perform breaking feats, such as chopping stones and breaking the tops off bottles.

He developed the 100-man kumite, where he fought a different opponent for 100 hundred rounds and was still standing. Since then, there have only been about 20 people to do the same. Naomi Ali became the first woman to do so in 2004.

Oyama is the founder of the KyoKushin School of Karate. The first World Open KyoKushin Tournament was held in 1975. Videos of his tournaments are available online and they are worth watching. The rules allow for full contact, with closed fist punches to the body, leg kicks, and kicks to the head and face. There is some blood and the occasional knock-out.

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What we can learn from Oyama

Three things we can learn from Oyama:

1) Train in more than one art.

2) Train hard in nature.

3) Be careful of self- promotion


In Oyama, we have a man dedicated to making himself the best he could be. He can serve as an inspiration to us all.


A human life gains luster and strength only when it is polished and tempered.”~ Masutatsu Oyama

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