Hienori Otsuka – Founder of Wado-Ryu Karate

Hienori Otsuka was born in Shimodate City, Japan on June 1, 1892. He began his martial arts training at a young age when his great uncle, Chojiro Ebashi began teaching him jujitsu and by the age of 5 he was learning Shindo Yoshin Ryu jujitsu under the tutelage of Shinzaburo Nakayama, the third Grand Master of the style. 

Shindo Yoshin emphasises the importance of grace and the natural flow of movement. It was inspired when its founder, Yoshitoki Akiyama, observed how while the more ridged trees would often fall, the willow would survive even the harshest winters by bending and flowing with the elements rather than working in opposition to them. 

This concept stuck with Otsuka and the idea of using an opponent‚Äôs own movement and energy against him became an integral part of his martial arts philosophy. From 1910 Otsuka attended Waseda University and while there, studied several styles of jujitsu and other martial arts, drawing the best techniques from them and even innovating some of his own. 

Not content with just learning self-defence, he also became adept at healing through manipulation of the body‚Äôs vital points and through the art of bone setting. After the death of his father in 1913, he was forced to quit university and Otsuka became a banker but continued to excel at martial arts. In 1920, at the age of 28, he obtained the highest rank in Shindo Yoshin Ryu jujitsu which enabled him to succeed Shinzaburo Nakayama to become the fourth grand master of the style. 

Hienori Otsuka and Gichin Funakoshi 

Hienori Otsuka was first introduced to karate in 1922 when Gichin Funakoshi, who would later found Shotokan karate, was invited by the Japanese Education Department to demonstrate his style of Okinawan martial arts, (then known as tode or te). Impressed with the spirit of this newly introduced art, Otsuka met with Funakoshi and soon after became his student. 

Within a year, he had learned all of the fifteen kata Funakoshi had to teach though some of the movements and techniques were difficult at first for Otsuka to interpret. To further his knowledge, he also learned kata from Kenwa Mabuni, another well respected Okinawan martial artist who would go on to found Shito-Ryu karate. 

Otsuka excelled at karate and as well as being the chief instructor of Shindo Yoshin Ryu jujitsu, he also became an assistant instructor at Funakoshi‚Äôs dojo in Japan. However, while Otsuka loved kata, he believed karate training held too much emphasis on it so developed yakusoko kumite (pre-arranged fighting with a partner) in order to bring a more offensive and fluid type of training to the art. 

In May 1924, he and Funakoshi demonstrated yakusoko kumite for the first time, after which it became a fundamental part of the syllabus at Funakoshi‚Äôs dojos. Towards the end of the 1920s, conflicts emerged between Funakoshi and his assistant instructor over the introduction of jujitsu techniques and the practice of jyu kumite (free sparring), which Funakoshi did not approve of; soon after Otsuka would leave his master‚Äôs school in order concentrate on developing his own style. 

The Development of Wado-Ryu 

This new style was recognised as an independent system in May 1934, though at this time was known as the Dai Nippon Karate-Do Shinko Club. The following year on the recommendation of Kano Jigoro, the founder of Judo, karate was recognised as a martial art in Japan though initially as an extension of judo. 

In 1939 the governing body of Japanese martial arts, the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai, requested all karate styles be registered and it was at this point that Otsuka officially registered the name Wado-Ryu. 

There are three major concepts that can be said to make Hienori Otsuka‚Äôs karate stand out from other systems, they are; 

  • Nagasu – The ability to deflect an attack without using harsh blocks. 
  • Inasu – The ability to move the body out of the line of attack while simultaneously using defensive and offensive techniques. 
  • Noru – The ability to judge the effectiveness of a counterattack while an oncoming attack is still in progress. 

In contrast with most karate styles, the stances in Wado-Ryu when training are high to encourage speed whereas with other styles, lower stances are used within the kata and during training to help strengthen the legs. 

Otsuka also believed that there was no need to have too many kata within karate and in his book Karate-do Vol.1 published in 1970, he standardised nine kata for Wado-Ryu, which were the five Pinan kata, Naifanchi, Seishan, Kushanku and Chinto. In the book he stated, ‚ÄúWado-Ryu has only nine katas, which is already too many if you want to train seriously‚ÄĚ. 

However over time, perhaps largely due to competing in tournaments against other styles, many Wado-Ryu instructors added other kata to the syllabus and today, Bassai, Jion, Jitte, Niseishi and Rohai are all commonly practiced by exponents of Wado-Ryu. 

Wado-Ryu as a World Martial Art 

Wado-Ryu was a success from its early days and many new dojos soon sprung up early on in Japan, so much so that Otsuka became the head karate instructor for the country in 1944. Through the 1940s a number of future great masters began their karate training including Tatsuo Suzuki in 1943, Hienori Otsuka‚Äôs oldest son and namesake in 1945 and Teruo Konoin 1947. 

The style continued to grow through the 1950s with the first All Japan Wado-Ryu Karate Championships being held in 1955. The next major development came around 1963 when a team of three Wado-Ryu ambassadors from the Nihon University, Suzuki Tatsuo, Arakawa Toru, and Takashima Hajime, where sent to Europe and America to spread the teachings of karate. 

The art was a big hit and from around this time representatives from all the major styles were systematically sent to the West to encourage the growth of karate. In 1981, Otsuka decided to retire leaving his son as head of the Wado-Ryu organisation. This unfortunately caused somewhat of a rift and saw some high-level instructors brake away to form their own association. 

Just two months after his retirement, the great master passed away on January 29, 1982 at the age of 89. Despite the rift in the association that would ultimately leave the style with three main branches, Hienori Otsuka left a legacy that is practiced by millions of people from all walks of life. Wado-Ryu is considered one of the four main styles of karate and is to this day one of the most popular and well-loved martial arts systems in the world.