top of page

By: Masutatsu Oyama

Oyama, Mas--What is Karate A.jpeg
Oyama, Mas--What is Karate B.jpeg

What is Karate?


By Masutatsu Oyama

(Tokyo-News Co., 1958/1959, 98 pages/144 pages)




Review by Christopher Dow



Few in the karate world have had the impact on the art as Masutatsu Oyama, whose name is synonymous with the art of Kyokushin Karate, which he founded. Surprisingly, Oyama was Korean, rather than Japanese, though he spent most of his life in Japan and became a Japanese citizen in 1968.

Oyama was born Choi Young-Eui in Gimje, Korea, in 1923. Because Korea was then under Japanese occupation, he was sent to northern China to live with an aunt. While there, at age 9, he began studying Chinese kung fu, which Oyama calls kempo, with a neighbor farmer named Lee. In 1938, he moved to Japan, hoping to become a pilot in the Japanese air force. That didn’t pan out, perhaps for the better since many of his fellow flight students died in kamikaze raids during World War II. But he did gain his new name, Masutatsu Oyama, which he chose because it is a transliteration of the word “Baedal,” which referred to an ancient Korean kingdom.


All through this time, Oyama grew into a martial arts fanatic, becoming a student of Shotokan Karate founder Gichin Funakoshi. But because he was a foreigner in a strange land, he tended to remain isolated and trained in solitude. (1) In addition to training with Funakoshi, he also studied with Nei-Chu So, a senior student of Goju-ryu Karate founder, Chojun Miyagi.


In post-war Japan, Oyama went around with a chip on his shoulder because of Japan’s defeat, and he admits to getting into frequent fights with American military personnel. “After the war ended, I was angry—so I fought as many U.S. military as I could, until my portrait was all over the police station.” (1) 


To assuage his anger, Oyama moved to Mt. Minobu to live in isolation. There he built a shack and lived and trained on the mountain for fourteen months. The conditions were spartan, the environment harsh, and the training was hard, but the worst, according to Oyama, was the loneliness.


He finally came down from the mountain to win the karate section of the Japanese National Martial Arts Championships, and he credited his time on the mountain for making him a stronger and fiercer karateka. After the championships, he once again retreated to a mountain—this time Mt. Kiyosumi, and trained there for eighteen months. Not long afterward, in 1953, he opened his first dojo.


A major feature of Oyama’s system—which he came to call Kyokushinkai, which translates as “the ultimate truth”—involves “breaking,” or the destruction of various sorts of objects using only barehand techniques. He believed that breaking was the only way to truly determine if one’s offensive capabilities were thoroughly ingrained and fiercely focused. Karate without breaking practice, he declared, “is no more useful than a fruit tree that bears no fruit.” He broke boards, clay roof tiles, blocks of ice, bricks, and stones.


But the breaking feats he became most famous—and infamous—for came during matchups between himself and angry bulls, during which he would sometimes knock them unconscious—or even kill them—with a single blow, and chop off their horns while they were still alive. Oyama gives the number of his bovine victims as “sixty or seventy,” but most reliable sources say they numbered fifty-two. Was it all bull? Oyama student and 10th Dan Jon Bluming says that Oyama would wrestle the bull to the ground then chop at the weakest area, and that he never fought a full-grown bull. However, he did have a reputation for being nearly as rough with his students as with the bulls, and injuries were common among them. (See the review of Martial Musings by Robert W. Smith for more on Bluming.)


During this time, he traveled all over the world, giving karate and wrestling demonstrations, and eventually opening dojos in more than a hundred countries. With his reputation assured, Oyama instituted the All-Japan Full Contact Karate Open Championship, and this eventually spun off into the World Full Contact Karate Open Championships, held in Tokyo every four years. He also wrote more than eighty books on the martial arts, some of which have been translated into other languages. His life and adventures have been featured in books, feature films, and manga.


His first book, What Is Karate?, was written in 1957 and published the following year. I’m going to discuss the first edition first, then the second edition, published in 1959. What is Karate? is a less-than-effective effort despite the fact that it is one of the earliest books in English on the art and by a true master. This is a large format book (8¼ x12), and that potentially gives the book sufficient real estate to do just about anything. But fully 20 percent of its scant 98 pages are occupied by photographs that depict Oyama—or occasionally others—either training or fighting. And I’m not talking here about photos that depict kata or self-defense applications, of which there are plenty, too. Instead, these are just beauty shots, ranging from professional-appearing work to simple snapshots, and include four pages of full-page color photos that are poorly reproduced. Plus, the font size is a bit large to make up for the paucity of the text. So, despite Oyama’s caveat that limited space prevents him from displaying any more than the first four or his kata in the instruction chapters, a whole lot of space is wasted on the extraneous photos, and he could have put in more instructional material had he chosen to eliminate some of the photos. Besides, it seems sort of foolish to complain about lack of space in a book, to which can be added almost any number of pages.


About forty pages are devoted to the instruction chapters, which graduate from the four fundamental kata through several forms of beginning kumite (practice fighting). A chapter on training methods comes next, and as can be expected considering the author, some of this this is pretty grueling stuff. Tamashiwari, or breaking, follows, but there is no real instruction, just several pages of photos of karateka breaking a variety of materials. Specific self-defense applications are the subject of the next chapter, some against weapons, some for women, some using an umbrella as a weapon.


A short chapter titled, “A fighting-bull eaten by promoters,” is next, and it contains more about Oyama’s bull-fighting. After that, he talks about his travels in the United States and some of the martial artists he met there—mostly wrestlers, boxers, and strongmen. The final chapter consists of a couple of pages of snapshots of Oyama in his travels.


I have to say that this is a somewhat failed effort. I think the problem is that Oyama set out to write with no clear idea of what he wanted to write about or how to construct a book text. Is this book about Oyama or his karate? Well, both. But like most instances of multitasking, something has to give way, and focus is what is lacking here. On the one hand, this is a memoir of his life experiences and rigorous training, and while that material—which occupies the first forty-five and final ten pages, is interesting enough, it is not really a good lead-in to the instruction section. While the history of karate is laid out in some detail, it is probably no more or less accurate than dozens of other similar but occasionally differing recountings of martial arts history. Further, the text lacks a clear definition of Kyokushin Karate and its precepts and principles. You can extrapolate those, but it’s all between the lines. The instructional material is generally adequate, and even though it is very basic, it is the mainstay of this book.


I have to take exception with the chapter titled, “Karate and Moral Culture.” In this chapter, Oyama waxes eloquently and at length about how karate serves primarily to strengthen the body, mind, and spirit and how it helps develop character and ethics. As he does so, he criticizes those who practice karate solely for the purpose of fighting, saying that “the great masters, Meijin and Tatsujin, so-called of olden times were never known to use it violently throughout their lives.” And then he fills his book with photos of violent karate encounters and him wrestling bulls and chopping off their horns. He claims, as stated earlier, that breaking is a critical part of karate, but what, pray tell, is the purpose of beating innocent animals to death by the dozens and causing them intense fear and pain? Unfortunately, he discusses abusing these bulls with the same blasé tone he uses to talk about breaking bricks or stones. Sorry, Master Oyama, but the morality part completely escapes me. And it is a sad fact that Oyama’s brutality towards his victim bulls is the one thing he will be remembered for the most.


Another major problem with this book is that the unnamed translator was seriously incompetent. Truthfully, the language of most of the book isn’t so bad that you can’t read it, but it is generally awkward and occasionally mystifyingly convoluted. For example, from page 19:


As I was shocked so much that I had certain doubt I have never thought of before—why should I train myself in such primitive methods against my will civilized times?


Note that there are no typos in my retype of this sentence. And while this is one of the worst examples, occurrences of really bad use of language abound throughout the text. Fortunately, when Oyama released the revised edition of What Is Karate? in 1959, he not only expanded the text, he had a much more competent translator—and very likely an editor, too—assist him. On page 121 of the new translation, the above mind-twister now reads:


In this civilized day, why should I train myself in such a primitive way as this? Training could be done in town if I wished.


The revised edition not only is better translated, it is a more complete picture of Oyama’s karate, though still pretty basic. Having the same dimensions as the first edition, the revised book is half-again as long as the first edition and makes better use of its space through a slightly reduced type font and the paring down of extraneous photos, though the poorly reproduced full-page color photos have grown in number from four to eight. But over all, the expanded real estate of the book provides more room for the stuff that is germane to a book like this, and Oyama takes advantage of it by including more instructional material.


The second edition also enjoyed a needed structural alteration by ordering the chapters in a more story-telling way. As with the first edition, Oyama gives a history of karate—and of the martial arts in general—that, in basic outline, agrees with most such histories. I think, though, that he tends to take liberties with the flow of martial ideas throughout the Eastern world to downplay the roles that nations and cultures other than the Japanese have had in the development of the martial arts. For Oyama, karate is the pinnacle and the only “true” martial art, though he credits Shaolin and other martial arts for their additions to the martial arts world. Well, he achieved 10th Dan, so he certainly reached the pinnacle of his art, but lots of martial artists are equally confident about their own styles. However, he admits that his great breaking skill was dependent on strength and power, but that he once met a Chinese kung fu expert who could break things just as easily but with relaxation and no apparent use of strength. This gentleman’s skill, Oyama says, far outweighed his own.


Next come the obligatory photos on fist forms and kicking styles, then it’s on to the form and technique instruction chapters. This material is twice as long as in the first edition, so it has been enhanced significantly. But even so, it’s all pretty basic. You might be able to start your karate career with this book, but you’d need a lot more to really get anywhere.


Oyama states that karate is superior to other sports because it doesn’t require special equipment. But then he turns around an advocates the use of barbells, dumbbells, wooden horses, jump ropes, and various objects to strike, such as a makiwara, hanging paper, sand boxes, and punching bags. And don’t forget all those boards, bricks, roof tiles, and stones you’ll need when you start breaking stuff. He even has a chapter on how to fold a gi and tie the belt, and as far as I can tell, uniforms are as much “special equipment” as a makiwara.


In the revised edition, Oyama saves the memoir material for the last chapter, which is combined with his reminisces about his karate tour of America. The material here is somewhat expanded and much better translated than the same material in the first edition.


What Is Karate?—even the first and faulty edition—was probably much more significant when it first appeared, being one of the earliest expositions on karate to appear in English. While the first edition is merely a curiosity now thanks to its many and severe faults, the revised edition made up for it. But if you’re interested in either of these books, the first edition goes for as much as $250 on Amazon. However, unless you’re a die-hard Oyama disciple, I’d suggest you save your money and spend it, instead, on Oyama’s next book, This Is Karate, published a few years later and reviewed below.



1  “Mas Oyama.” Wikipedia,

Oyama, Mas--This is Karate B.jpeg

This Is Karate


By Masutatsu Oyama

(Japan Publications, 1965, 368 pages)




Review by Christopher Dow




In a sense, the title of this book says it all. If Oyama’s first book, What Is Karate?, posed the question, the appropriately titled This Is Karate definitively answers it. In his introduction, Oyama states that it has been ten years since he wrote What Is Karate?, though actually it was seven. But what a difference those seven years wrought. Despite the obvious similarities, this book does not replicate What Is Karate? The earlier book contains some basic kata not included in this volume, so perhaps the two—at least regarding the second edition of What Is Karate?—should be taken as companion pieces.


Like What Is Karate?, This Is Karate is a large format (8½" x 11”) hardbound book, though it is two-and-a-half times as lengthy as What Is Karate?’s revised edition. As with its predecessor, it contains lots of photographs, though it eschews the large—and poorly reproduced—color photos that comprised some of the dross of the first book. This Is Karate contains a huge number of photos. I didn’t count them all, but in his foreword, Oyama states that there are some 10,000. I don’t doubt him.

The structure of This Is Karate follows a familiar martial arts manual format, beginning with some extraneous introductory material that consists of fifteen pages mostly containing photos of karateka in various poses and fighting positions. The one interesting element is the spread on pages 22–23, which depicts a karateka performing a complete kata in a string of 73 photos that wind across the two pages. In critiquing martial arts books, I’ve become interested in how various authors, photographers, and book designers work together to display the dynamics of movement arts in static photos. Some methods work, some don’t. Using strings of photos is not new, though most such strings are often sketchy and presented in ordered rows, but the way it’s done here is more dynamic than most cases. Oyama usefully employs similar, more detailed strings in the instruction section to help demonstrate the flow of the kata.


Brief chapter one is the obligatory introduction to martial arts in general and karate specifically. After that, over the course of eight pages, Oyama lays out in words and charts how his system is structured and how the techniques of striking, kicking, and blocking work together. Next, the author goes into more detail on how to use the hands and feet as weapons. This sort of stuff can be found in a great number of martial arts manuals, but Oyama goes into more detail than most authors.


Preparatory calisthenics occupy the next chapter, and while some are pretty basic, others would provide a grueling workout of strengthening and stretching exercises that include a two-finger handstand as their climax. Stances, balance, and walking and turning are thoroughly dealt with next, each photo accompanied by a useful foot-weighting chart.


Part two of the book, which is about 125 pages, covers basic training techniques. The instructions are verbally detailed and fully illustrated. Most of the specific kata instructions show photos of Oyama performing the technique along with photos of students demonstrating the technique’s potential martial use. There is more space devoted to instruction here than some martial arts books have in total, and Oyama isn’t done yet. The next two section contain special techniques and drills. In the introductory text to this section, Oyama relates the expertise of his teacher, Kotaro Yoshida, through an anecdote of Yoshida learning to catch flies in mid-flight with a pair of chopsticks. This ability has become so much of a martial arts trope that it has turned into a joke. Really, is it possible? Oyama says, yes, and he further claims he often saw Yoshida do it, and he gives the methods where the master learned to do this trick, which he could perform up until the age of 50.


And still there’s more. In the following section, Oyama goes on for thirty pages about techniques and training for breaking anything from boards to bricks, roof tiles, stones, and blocks of ice. If that’s your sort of thing, then this chapter is for you. (See my review of Tamashiwara: The Art of Breaking Bricks and Boards with Your Hands and Feet, by Renardo Barden.)


Applications occupy the next section, which is about fifty pages long. The applications range from simple defenses against various sorts of grabs to what to do if you’re attacked from behind or while lying down, and so forth. The use of basic weapons, such as a walking stick, are included.


The final section, titled, “Significance and Background,” is an extended essay on karate, its uses—physical and spiritual as well as martial—origins, development, and schism into various schools and styles. A significant portion of this section is given over to the correspondences between karate and Zen, and a smaller one to karate's correspondences with music and rhythm. I found Oyama’s history of the development of the martial arts interesting, though it often is at odds with other such histories on some points But then, those others are all at odds with each other, too. For example Oyama links the I Ching, which he terms the I-chi-ching, with Zen rather than with Taoism, which he completely ignores even during his brief discussion of the Wudang martial arts, such as tai chi. And since the history of the martial arts is lost in truly murky depths, who’s to say which version is the most accurate and true? Oyama believes his version; so be it.


There also is Oyama’s interesting take on the difference between kung fu styles in northern and southern China. I’ve heard several “reasons” for the differences in northern and southern styles, including the idea that northerners had to dress in more clothes, making bending and squatting cumbersome, so they developed more upright styles of kung fu, while the southerners dressed lightly and thus developed lower styles. Oyama says that the northerners developed their legs and kicking due to their propensity for riding horses in the mountainous terrain, while the southerners developed their upper bodies due to the fact that they had to row boats on the plentiful rivers in southern China—a view of a number of martial arts historians.


A discussion of karate’s future closes out the main text, and the appendix contains information on the gi and how to treat it, various bowing procedures, training equipment such as weights, bags, and other devices, and a two-page chart of vital striking points. Next are a number of photos of students practicing together in training halls, along with a description of the formalities involved in becoming a student. A nice index closes out the book.


Is this the definitive work on karate? Probably not, but it’s pretty close—well written, sumptuously illustrated, and authored by a major karate master who really delivers the goods. There is some interesting material here, even for the general martial arts reader, particularly in the lengthy final chapters which digress on history and philosophy rather than dwelling on instruction. However, for a reader more immersed in Chinese martial arts terminology, Oyama’s use of Japanese names and terms can be a bit of a challenge at first. For example, when he uses the word “kempo,” he does not mean Kempo/Kenpo Karate but “Chinese kung fu.” Shaolin is “Shao-lin-ssu,” Bodhidharma is referred to as Daruma Daishi, and so forth.


So, for those who aren’t into karate, there’s probably not enough here to buy this book, but if you are a karateka, you probably ought to own a copy. This is one thorough book on the art. Plus, it’s warm, honest, straightforward, and above all, humane. For example, from page 277:


Never be a slave to money. When a very mighty opponent attempts some unjust or unlawful act, one must stand boldly and fight . One must also always bravely resist attempts by the powerful to violate his rights. Finally, one must never become wrapped up in affairs of manipulating or buying up other people with money. All this, too, is a part of the faith of the man who practices karate. The real victors are those who win the battles of everyday life. Those who lose are the people who are completely engrossed in matters of the world. We must have faith and trust and live as people without losing the daily battle of life. This is the karate creed.


I think that a person who wishes to learn karate but is without an instructor could actually get a significant start in Oyama’s art by studying the methods in these pages and applying them in real life—especially if they had someone to practice with. And even those with instructors could gain a great deal by studying this book. Kudos to Oyama for authoring such an encyclopedic work. Heck, you’ll get a workout just lifting this book to read it. But be aware that you’ll pay for the privilege. Used copies of This Is Karate go anywhere from about $40 to $700, with most in the $200 range.

bottom of page