Caltech Karate Club Salutes Retiring Instructor

[Originally published in newsletter Shotokan, 1994]

Thirty-seven years--it's a long time by anyone's standards, and an especially long time if it's devoted to teaching karate to what must be the oddest collection of aspiring martial artists on earth. On Sunday, May 22, a hundred alumni returned to the Caltech campus to pay tribute to Mr. Ohshima's patience and sacrifice in teaching them for so many years.

It has always been an improbable relationship, for a man of Mr. Ohshima's prowess to teach martial arts to students far more at home in the lofty realms of science and mathematics than in the world of hand-to-hand fighting. Yet the rich results of this odd combination were abundantly clear at a practice held to pay tribute to Mr. Ohshima's Caltech career. Most retiring professors can expect little notice beyond a department-sponsored dinner and a gold watch. For Mr. Ohshima, the sentiment flowed most strongly not from the institute administration, but from those most touched by his years of service: the students themselves. Present in the Caltech gymnasium was an honor roll of Caltech Karate Club alumni, many of whom traveled a far distance (notably Jim Sagawa and Karen Roberts, who flew from Japan) to be present.

While those of us who organized the event were gratified that all the Caltech seniors (nine sandans, five yodans, and one godan) were able to attend, perhaps even more significant were the surprising numbers of lesser-ranked alumni who came. Some folks who have not practiced karate in a decade or more dug their gis out of the attic, traveled to Pasadena, strapped on their white belts, and courageously joined us on the floor. It was a moving demonstration of how much Mr. Ohshima has affected the many thousands he has taught, even those who lasted only a short time.

The event began with a huge group practice in which Caltech alumni were joined by hundreds of well-wishers from other southern California dojos. After a rousing session of kihon and a few group kata, most retired to the sidelines while a good-will tournament was staged. A team of Caltech brown belts competed with other collegiate teams from the Cal State Universities of Fullerton, Long Beach and Northridge. Much to everyone's surprise (given the usually non-athletic nature of Caltech students) the home team won, but Mr. Ohshima later explained, "Of course Caltech won the competition; I have been training them in jiyu kumite for two months!" It was, everyone agreed, a major advantage. Thanks go to the visiting teams and dojo leaders Chris Hunt and Sam Abboud for participating; we look forward to future bouts.

Next, demonstrations were held. The current Caltech club members (including five still-giddy jiyu kumite fighters) performed a perfectly synchronized Heian Nidan. Then yodans Steve Bankes and Dan Erwin showed long-distance jiyu ippon kumite. After that, individual kata were made by a number of senior alumni: Pam Logan, Dan Erwin, Cyndi Jung, Karen Roberts, Manfred Chiu, Jeff Ross, Phil Morgan and Steve Bankes. The afternoon's highlight came when we were treated to Jim Sagawa's demonstration of Jion.

In the evening we reconvened at Caltech's Athenaeum, in a dining room rich with old-world opulence. After dinner, moderator Steve Bankes called various Caltech alumni to the podium. David Gabai, nidan and current member, began by saying, "Let me tell you the story of my life..." Then he proceeded to do just that, tracing his karate career from its beginning at Harvard under Tom McDonnell (Caltech class of '78). For five years as a "ronin mathematician" David moved about the U.S. practicing under various Caltech alumni: Richard Weinapple (class of '77), Randy Tagg ('77), Jeff Ross ('72), Phil Morgan ('71), Steve Roe ('76), and Jim Sagawa ('63), until finally he worked his way to the source: "The mathematics department at Caltech offered me a position as Associate Professor with tenure. I came down here to interview and met institute president Marvin 'Murph' Goldberger. He told me how my field was really important to the math program here and about Caltech's excellent reputation. I listened to this for awhile, and then I interrupted and said, 'listen, what's really special about Caltech is Mr. Ohshima.' Murph's mouth just dropped open and he looked at me with totally uncomprehending eyes. I think even to this day he still just doesn't get it."

With each speaker we went back further in time, to the earliest days of the Caltech Karate Club. We heard entertaining stories of early morning kibadachi practice in the Trustee's Room, and expositions straight from the heart, like Steve Roe's "He taught us to touch something real."

Then John Asmus, class of '58, came to the podium. His Caltech degree has led him to a fascinating career restoring Italian painting and sculpture using lasers and other high-tech methods. While on the job in Florence, Italy he once had opportunity to boast to a colleague: "I've studied physics with Richard Feynman." No reaction. Then later, "I took chemistry from Linus Pauling." Still no response. Then one morning the co-worker arrived with a fat lip and a welt under one eye, and John learned that the man had just competed in a martial arts tournament, so he remarked, "I was taught karate by Tsutomu Ohshima." Upon hearing this, the co-worker went wild with admiration and delight, and begged John to get Mr. Ohshima's autograph for him. To conclude his speech, John explained how his life has come to be so fulfilling and successful: "It was what Mr. Ohshima taught," he said, "coraggio--courage."

The Caltech Karate Club is grateful to all the alumni who came to celebrate Mr. Ohshima's career at Caltech, and to members of local SKA dojos who joined us in our celebration.