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Masutatsu 'Mas' Oyama - Founder of Kyokushin

Masutatsu Oyama was born as Choi Young-Eui (최영의) in Gimje, South Korea, during Japanese occupation in July, 1923. At a young age he was sent to Manchuria to live on his sister’s farm. Oyama began studying martial arts at the age of 9 from a Korean seasonal worker who was working on the farm. His name was Lee and Oyama said he was his very first teacher. The story of the young Oyama’s life has been sensationalized in manga and movies so the line between fiction and facts has become obscure.

In March 1938, Oyama left for Japan following his brother who enrolled in the Yamanashi Aviation School Imperial Japanese Army aviation school. Sometime during his time in Japan, Choi Young-Eui chose his Japanese name, 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 pronounced as ‘baitatsu’ in Japanese. Oyama was inspired to go to Japan by General Kanji Ishihara who was against the invasion of Asian neighbors (as a consequence, he was ostracized by higher ranks of the Japanese Army), to carve out his future in the heart of the Empire of Japan.

Post–World War II

In 1945 after the war ended, Oyama left the aviation school. He founded “Eiwa Karate Research Center” in Suginami ward but closed it quickly because “I soon realized that I was an unwanted Korean. Nobody would rent me a room.” He finally found a place to live at in Tokyo. This is where he met his future wife whose mother ran a dormitory for university students.


In 1946, Oyama enrolled in Waseda University School of Education to study sports science. Wanting the best in instruction, he contacted the Shotokan dojo (Karate school) operated by Gigō Funakoshi, the second son of karate master and Shotokan founder Gichin Funakoshi. He became a student, and began his lifelong career in Karate. 

Oyama attended Takushoku University in Tokyo and was accepted as a student at the dojo of Gichin Funakoshi. He trained with Funakoshi for two years, then studied Gōjū-ryū karate for several years with “So-nei Chu” (소네이쥬, 1907–?), a senior student of the system’s founder, Chojun Miyagi, and was eventually graded to 7th Dan in the system by Gogen Yamaguchi who at that time was the head of Goju-ryu in mainland Japan.

Korea had been officially annexed by Japan since 1910. During World War II (1939–1945) there was much unrest throughout Korea. At this time, Mr. So suggested that Oyama retreat to a lone mountain for solace to train his mind and body. He set out to spend three years on Mt. Minobu in Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan. Oyama built a shack on the side of the mountain. One of his students named Yashiro accompanied him, but after the rigors of this isolated training, with no modern conveniences, the student snuck away one night, and left Oyama alone. With only monthly visits from a friend in the town of Tateyama in Chiba Prefecture, the loneliness and harsh training became grueling. Oyama began to doubt his decision, so he sent a letter to the man who suggested the retreat. Mr. So replied with encouragement to remain, and suggested that he shave off one eyebrow so that he would not be tempted to come out of the mountain and let anyone see him that way. Oyama remained on the mountain for fourteen months, and returned to Tokyo a much stronger and more fierce Karateka.

Oyama gave great credit to reading “The Book of Five Rings” by Miyamoto Musashi – a famous Japanese swordsman, to change his life completely. He recounts this book as being his only reading material during his mountain training years.

He was forced to leave his mountain retreat after his sponsor had stopped supporting him. Months later, after he had won the Karate Section of Japanese National Martial Arts Championships, he was distraught that he had not reached his original goal to train in the mountains for three years, so he went into solitude again, this time on Mt. Kiyosumi in Chiba Prefecture, Japan and he trained there for 18 months.

Founds Kyokushin

In 1953 Oyama opened his own karate dojo, named Oyama Dojo, in Tokyo but continued to travel around Japan and the world giving martial arts demonstrations, including the fighting and killing of live bulls with his bare hands. His dojo was first located outside in an empty lot but eventually moved into a ballet school in 1956. Oyama’s own curriculum soon developed a reputation as a tough, intense, hard hitting but practical style, which was finally named Kyokushin, which means ‘the search for the ultimate truth,’ in a ceremony 1957. He also developed a reputation for being ‘rough’ with his students, often injuring them during training sessions. As the reputation of the dojo grew students were attracted to come to train there from inside and outside Japan and the number of students grew. Many of the eventual senior leaders of today’s various Kyokushin based organizations began training in the style during this time. In 1964 Oyama moved the dojo into the building that would from then on serve as the Kyokushin home dojo and world headquarters. In connection with this he also formally founded the ‘International Karate Organization Kyokushin kaikan’ (commonly abbreviated to IKO or IKOK) to organize the many schools that were by then teaching the kyokushin style. In the same year, his dojo received a challenge from Muay Thai (Thai Boxing) practitioners. Oyama, believing that no other style was comparable to his, accepted the challenge and sent three students (Kenji Kurosaki, Tadashi Nakamura, Noboru Ōsawa) to Thailand who won 2 of the 3 fights, thus redeeming the reputation of his karate style.

After formally establishing Kyokushin-kai, Oyama directed the organization through a period of expansion. Oyama and his staff of hand-picked instructors displayed great ability in marketing the style and gaining new members. Oyama would choose an instructor to open a dojo in another town or city in Japan. The instructor would move to that town and usually demonstrate his karate skills in public places, such as at the civic gymnasium, the local police gym (where many judo students would practice), a local park, or conduct martial arts demonstrations at local festivals or school events. In this way, the instructor would soon gain a few students for his new dojo. After that, word of mouth would spread through the local area until the dojo had a dedicated core of students. Oyama also sent instructors to other countries such as the United States, Netherlands, England, Australia and Brazil to spread Kyokushin in the same way. Oyama also promoted Kyokushin by holding The All-Japan Full Contact Karate Open Championships every year and World Full Contact Karate Open Championships once every four years in which anyone could enter from any style.

As a side note: Oyama also took up Judo so that he would have an understanding of the art’s ground techniques. Masahiko Kimura Judo Legend then introduced Oyama to the Sone Dojo in Nakano, Tokyo, where he trained regularly for four years, eventually gaining his 4th Dan in this discipline.

Public demonstrations

Oyama tested himself in a kumite, a progression of fights, each lasting two minutes, and each after the featured participant wins. Oyama devised the 100-man kumite which he went on to complete three times in a row over the course of three days. 

He was also known for fighting bulls bare-handed. Oyama had many matches with professional wrestlers during his travels through the United States. Oyama said in the 1958 edition of his book What Is Karate that he had just three matches with professional wrestlers plus thirty exhibitions and nine television appearances.

Later years

Later in his life, Oyama suffered from osteoarthritis. Despite his illness, he never gave up training. He was holding demonstrations of his karate, breaking objects.


Oyama wrote over 80 books in Japanese and some were translated to other foreign languages.

Final years

Before dying, Oyama built his Tokyo-based International Karate Organization, Kyokushinkai, into one of the world’s foremost martial arts associations, with branches in more than 120 countries boasting over 10 million registered members. In Japan, books were written by and about him, feature-length films splashed his colorful life across the big screen, and comic books recounted his many adventures.

Oyama died at the age of 70, on April 26, 1994, of lung cancer. He was a non-smoker. His widow Chiyako Oyama, made a trust foundation to honor his life-long work.

Hanshi Steve Arneil- Founder of the IFK

Steve Arneil (born 29 August 1934) learned directly from Masutatsu Oyama and was a senior instructor in Oyama's International Karate Organization (IKO) until 1991, when he resigned from the IKO. Arneil is the founder and President of the International Federation of Karate (IFK), holds the rank of 10th dan, and holds the title Hanshi. He and his wife settled in the United Kingdom in 1965.

When he was 10 years old, his family moved to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), and he began training in kung fu, judo and boxing there. At age 16, he was selected to represent Northern Rhodesia in rugby. By the age of 17, Arneil had earned black belt status in judo, and he had also practised kenpo and karate. He moved to Durban, South Africa, for tertiary studies in mechanical engineering.

In Durban, Arneil trained at a judo dojo (training hall) that also offered karate training. He made a practice of going down to the harbour and asking arriving Japanese people if they practised karate; if they did, he would invite them to training at the dojo. In 1959, Arneil left South Africa, bound for Southeast Asia.


Arneil travelled to China, South Korea, and Hong Kong before arriving in Japan. He trained in a few karate styles, including ShotokanWado-ryu, and Goju-ryu (under Gogen Yamaguchi).[7] In the course of these studies, the name "Oyama" was mentioned to him by several people, including Yamaguchi, and this aroused his curiosity.


In January 1961, through Donn Draeger, Arneil began to study Kyokushin karate under Masutatsu Oyama.He recalled that, unlike the other karate schools he had visited in Japan (who had welcomed him with minimal reservation), Oyama's Kyokushin school was selective; on their first meeting, Oyama told Arneil, "Remember, you asked me to train, I didn't ask you. You don't follow the rules, you out. Understand?"

Arneil was promoted to the rank of 1st dan in Kyokushin karate on 15 May 1962, and attained 2nd dan on 16 April 1963. He was later 'adopted' by Oyama, to allow him to marry a Japanese woman in 1964. Of his wife, Tsuyuko Arneil, he has said, "She worked in a bank, and she supported both of us when I was training. I didn't have time for work." Arneil estimated that he trained an average of six hours each day during his time in Japan, with training normally commencing at 10:00 AM and concluding between 10:30 PM to 1:00 AM the next morning.

On 22 May 1965, Arneil became the first person to complete the 100-man kumite after Oyama himself. The 100-man kumite took him around 2 hours and 45 minutes to complete, with each round scheduled to take 1 minute and 30 seconds (but a round ended if he managed to knock down his opponent). In an interview in 2005, Arneil said, "I did not have to beat everyone I fought, that would have been ridiculous! I just had to keep going, I had to have the spirit not to give up, no matter what they threw at me." On 10 July 1965, Arneil was promoted to 3rd dan.

United Kingdom

Originally, Arneil had planned to return to South Africa, but Oyama asked him to go to the United Kingdom to help establish Kyokushin karate there; accordingly, he and his wife travelled to London in 1965. The move was not an easy one. Arneil recalled: "We were greeted by stares, the same stares we had faced in Japan, only this time they were directed at my wife. The war was still on, you see, and the Japanese were seen as the enemy. We had travelled half way round the world and we still faced the same prejudice that we had faced in Japan. That was very hard for both of us." The couple tried to move to Australia, but this failed; Arneil said that "it is purely by chance that we ended up staying in England."

In late 1965, Arneil and Bob Boulton founded the British Karate Kyokushinkai (BKK) organisation. The BKK's first full-time dojo was opened in Stratford, east London. In May 1966, Arneil received promotion to the rank of 4th dan. From 1968 to 1976, he was the Team Manager and Coach for the All Styles English and British Karate team which, in 1975/76, became the first non-Japanese team to win the karate World Championship. Arneil was promoted to 5th dan on 15 January 1968, and to 6th dan on 7 October 1974. In 1975, the French Karate Federation awarded him the title of "World's Best Coach." On 6 August 1977, Arneil was promoted to the rank of 7th dan in Kyokushin karate.

Later Life

Kyokushin's 5th World Tournament, in 1991, was a significant point in the history of the IKO. Arneil stated simply, "It was a fixed tournament." He claimed that political and financial pressures contributed to the situation, but that "the decider was when Sosai [Oyama] was supposed to meet me in Switzerland, and he didn't come. I didn't want to be involved in the politics anymore. I left the IKO, not Kyokushin." That same year, Arneil and the BKK resigned from the IKO, and Arneil then founded his own karate organisation, the IFK.

Arneil is currently the President of the IFK and the BKK. On 30 May 1992, the British karate community awarded Arneil the rank of 8th dan for his services to karate in the UK. On 26 May 2001, IFK country representatives awarded him the rank of 9th dan at their meeting in Berlin. Arneil has written several books on karate, including Karate: A guide to unarmed combat (1975, co-authored), Modern Karate (1975, co-authored), Better Karate (1976, co-authored), and Teach yourself: Karate (1993, co-authored). On 23 July 2011, Arneil was awarded 10th Dan at the 3rd IFK U-18 World Tournament by the IFK as recognition for his commitment to Kyokushin Karate.

2015 celebrated the 50th anniversary of the British Kyokushinkai Karate (BKK) organisation with main celebrations taking place at the 39th British Open Knockdown Championships in Crawley on the 17th October.

Steve Fogarai
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