A Tribute To Matsutaro Otani Sensei

Matsutaro Otani

Privilege and Honor
It has been my privilege and honor to have known Mr. Matsutaro Otani for the past thirty years. What can I say about such a man? Reflecting back over the years I well remember my first encounter with him, I was seventeen then, interested in wrestling and gymnastics when I heard of a man who taught “ju-jutsu” over a stable in Harlesden, London.

A Winters Night 1947
After several fruitless winter evening journeys, all those years ago in 1947, I was at last rewarded by a flickering light down a dark mews. Kicking the snow from my shoes I climbed the stairs to find myself in a bare freezing whitewashed room under slates that were glittering with frost . A man was absorbed in cleaning some oil lamps and hearing me, looked up, smiled, asked me what I wanted, When I started stammering something about Japanese wrestling he indicated to me to sit down and continued to clean his lamps.

In the ensuing nervous silence (on my part) I was able to study his unhurried and calm movements as he completed his task. His friendly and serene manner communicated itself to me as he lit the four lamps, the dojo no longer seemed bleak and icy but cheerful and warm in the glow of the gentle oil light.

Call me Smiler!
I do not remember what took place then. But as no other members appeared, Mr. Matsutaro Otani apologized for not practicing, locked the dojo and we walked to the bus-stop. To my astonishment over two hours had passed. As the trolley bus appeared, I asked how shall I address him “Mr Otani, Sir, or what?” As he stepped onto the bus he laughed and said “ Why, what everybody calls me, Smiler of course”, So began an association that lasted thirty years.

Recalling memories
In recalling these memories it is astonishing to realize how things were then. There were no Judo gi’s available and you manufactured your own out of surplus ( if you could get one) naval hammocks. Much boiling and scrubbing was necessary (no launderettes then) to render them reasonably flexible, a quick sawing movement from a lively opponent could remove the skin from the back of your neck.

About that time there were only three Judo clubs of note. The Budokwai, Ealing JudoClub and the Jubilee ( Mr Otani’s club). Visitors were frequent from the Budokwai including Mr Gleeson and Mr Jack Turner. Between Ealing and Jubilee a very friendly rivalry existed and randoris were hotly contested. The emphasis was upon skill, makikomis were never seen. Indeed, any throw (except Tomonage or Yoko Sutemi) that caused you to fall with your opponent was a cause to be reprimanded by Mr Otani and in those days that was not so light a thing.

Strict Discipline
A member ( now a high ranking grade) recently confessed to me that on acquiring his black belt he high spiritedly began to bounce everybody around, after a few grueling sessions for his opponents Mr Otani quietly took him aside and said if he didn’t allow any lower grades to throw him and ease up a little he would have to leave the club. He had obtained his knowledge and skill through other high grade’s indulgence and it was now his turn to conduct himself as they had towards him.

Another Incident
Being single in those days I used to have late nights and spend time lazing in bed, one Saturday morning about midday (give or take an hour or so) I awoke to find Mr Otani peering at me and anxiously inquiring if I was ill, on hearing my bleary mumblings he berated me for wasting time that could be used for practicing and, willy nilly, I had to arise and that very afternoon. I recall he graciously allowed me time for a cup of tea before setting off.

Judo expands and so does the problems
Time passed and other clubs began to spring up, new members joined and suddenly the Jubilee Club seemed to be torn with bickering and argument. One Sunday morning we were about to practice when Mr Matsutaro Otani called us together and demanded to know what the grievances were about. After one or two minor complaints one of the new members boldly suggested the reason for the trouble was that one of the committee members was coloured (this member was missing that morning) Many of the old members including myself were dumbfounded and it was then that I saw another side of Mr Matsutaro Otani’s character

He said angrily “ You forget I am also a yellow color , Judo is for all, let nobody here forget that,”! This was one of the very few occasions I saw my teacher furious. Shortly afterwards that complaining person and his faction left and a harmonious period again resumed.

The Founding of Masutaro Otani Sensei Judo Association
Judo was growing and the A.J.A. (Amateur Judo Association) and the B.J.A. (British Judo Association) were formed. Declining offers to join these organisations he founded the M.O.S.J.A. (Masutaro Otani Sensei Judo Association) which with the arrival of Mr Kenshiro Abbe merged to become the B.J.C.

One day whilst travelling on a bus, I was expressing my concern over the hopeless task ( to me) of competing with the other organisations. Looking at me he said “No matter how hopeless the task a man sets himself, if he doesn’t struggle and easily gives up, he may as well be dead.

Another time he was being courted by a well known club in South London. We were invited there and made very welcome. Later in the evening the Chief Instructor proceeded to give a demonstration lesson on a particular throw, finishing with a flourish he bowed to Mr Otani and said he hoped it was satisfactory, Mr Otani rose and bowed back “Very good”. Returning home that night I sounded off in a fine old frenzy over (to my mind) incorrect instruction of that particular throw and asked why he had replied “ Very good”. He said mildly that, first, we were guests in that club, secondly, to correct an instructor in front of his pupils was unthinkable, and lastly, as I was useless at that particular throw anyway I should hold my tongue”!

Once when invited for a friendly evening at Windsor Judo Club which at the time had its dojo in the “Star and Garter” (where the famous American boxer Sugar Ray Robinson trained), we were on the coach when one of our team was bragging good naturedly about his contest and his confidence in its outcome. Mr Otani admonished him saying “Your attitude is incorrect and truly deplorable, you should not say you are going to beat your opponent , but you should say, if asked, you hope not to lose “. All I remember about that “ friendly” evening was I sported a black eye for a week afterwards.

Mr Matsutaro Otani taught for many years at evening institutes and an incident happened in which I was able to help him.

One day he called me in to show me a letter from the “authorities” requiring him to be examined as to his ability and qualifications in Judo. His indignation was not concerning the exam but that the examiners were probably people he had taught years ago and were now sitting in judgement over him. I thought , and a brainwave came to me, knowing how officialdom works we composed a letter saying Mr Otani would be pleased to attend the exam , however, as it is a Japanese sport it was only fair that to avoid any ambiguity and to get the correct nuance of the sport, he would answer their questions also in Japanese. To our delight a letter arrived apologizing, in view of his experience, oversight, etc., that there was to be no question of his taking an examination whatever .

Kenshiro Abbe sensei
One further example of this remarkable man’s approach to life was during the first time Kenshiro Abbe came to this country and devastated the best of our dan grades in the country. People who remember him taking on black belts at the Royal Albert Hall display in 1963 still speak of it with reverence. However, on returning to our dojo Mr Otani announced that his own Judo was now old fashioned and obsolete and we must now learn Mr Abbe’s method and in this he included himself.

To me it was shattering, here was a man who could calmly throw away a lifetimse work and start again at the beginning without turning a hair. At this moment my esteem for my instructor crystallized and I knew whatever happened in the future, that incident would cancel anything. Mr Otani began to study these new techniques but fortunately Mr Abbe spotted what was happening and pointed out that the style and method of Mr Otani was now so rare that he must keep teaching it to preserve such a unique skill and knowledge.

The Passing of a Legend
Having practiced with both men, I would say that in randori with Mr Otani I always felt I had thrown myself in some frustrating and mysterious way, but a practice with Mr Abbe it seemed as though a sudden release of explosive energy hurtled one to the mat.

I feel sad younger members of our organisation did not see my teacher in his prime – I did – and I will always be thankful for that chance remark that enabled me to meet such a man. His affect on people was amply demonstrated by a number of friends who attended his funeral. Who, when seeing him appear in the dojo did not notice a change in the very atmosphere and make a more conscious effort to practice his Judo more skilfully.

With Mr Matsutaro Otani’s passing we have seen the last of the Old Time greats, an end of an era and a new one beginning. His own instructor was the famous Yukio Tani whom he held in affection and great esteem. I once asked “ Who taught Yukio Tani ?” and he answered “Why, his father”, and “ All Yukio Tani’s forebears were Judomen”. And so I now think we see this tradition repeated with his son Robin Otani becoming our new instructor.

He is bringing in a new age and has my best wishes, my respect and whole hearted support.

Some Incidents in Thirty Years of Mr Matsutaro Otani’s Judo
In 1947 I had my first randori with Mr Otani, – I appeared in the dojo proudly wearing my homemade jacket with ex-army shorts to match. I was requested to demonstrate a few break fall’s, so I threw myself enthusiastically around the mat doing (so I imagined) magnificent break fall’s. I must be fair at this stage and admit I had a book called “Ju-Jitsu” by Unenishi and diligent study of this book had convinced me that I knew it all. However, after this “brilliant” display Mr Otani smiled and said he would practice with me. After a kneeling rei (standard practice in those days) I confidently seized Mr Otani’s jacket and attacked, (No hesitation here, I had a useful cross buttock and I was going to use it) a fierce push and I nearly fell over, a quick pull and there was nothing to pull, again, leaping for my throw I grabbed nothing – I couldn’t understand it, Mr Otani appeared to be standing still and I was rushing around the mat like a lunatic. Taking a deep breath (it was getting difficult) I feinted and managed to secure a good hold, exultantly I applied leverage and heaved, it suddenly seemed I was trying to lift a house, or perhaps , on reflection, a church.

With the rich blood pumping into my face and my eyes bulging out of their sockets I staggered back to face Mr Otani and fell over, I laid on my back for a long moment, climbed to my feet, reached out and somehow, fell over again! What was happening?

I took another step and again I was looking up at the slates.

Even today after many years of practise I still marvel at the sheer magic of that skill, at no time was I aware of being thrown or hurt in any way, just simply I would keep finding myself flat on my back. Mr Otani at no time appeared to be doing anything, it was as if I was obeying his will and nothing else.

A range of emotions swept over me, frustration, nervousness and confusion. Mr Otani smiled, soothed me and said “ Have a rest now” but no, I wanted to wrestle on the ground . Mr Otani obligingly laid upon his back and waited. Recalling my reading of strangulation techniques my hands were soon locked around his neck and applying pressure after a little scuffle, In which I was on top. Watching carefully for submission (I had really studied that textbook! ) I exerted myself even more. Mr Otani didn’t seem to be discomforted at all and actually appeared to be smiling. Gradually, a lethargy began to creep over me and Mr Otani’s face started to fade and grow dim. The next thing I remember was coming awake from a very deep sleep (which in fact, It had been!) and being helped to my feet and being led back to the form where I sat for the remainder of the evening. In spite of my (feeble) protests I was not allowed to practise anymore that evening. Sitting there watching the others practise, the dojo would occasionally seem to change shape and the mat would appear to tilt alarmingly. As I departed from the dojo Mr Otani laughed and said “Next week, you learn to do properly”. I stayed in bed all of the next day feeling very feverish.

King Kong
In the early days at the Jubilee Club (before all these prohibitive rules came into being) It was deemed quite reasonable to put on the odd leg or wrist lock and sometimes for a treat one managed to get a neck lock on a fractious opponent! Although this sounds dangerous to people nowadays, one watched closely for a signal to surrender and release the victim almost before he tapped. However, one day a visitor arrived and started using methods that even by our liberal standards seemed a trifle unruly. His locks and throws were carried out with such vigorous abandon that he made King Kong look like a benevolent old uncle. One of our members fighting for survival in a ferocious randori with him felt moved to protest at the mauling he was receiving. When the visitor had left and we settled down to nurse our bruises, Mr Otani spoke a few words over this conduct.

“Never” he said, complain during a randori that this or that lock is not allowed, If he gets such a hold on you, try your utmost to get out. He then emphasized”, After your practise you may quietly tell him such and such is not permitted”.

To the general relief of us all we never saw that visitor again, although for several weeks afterwards we all gave nervous starts whenever the dojo door clicked open!!

Favorite Sayings
All teachers have their favorite sayings and these were some of Mr Otani’s.

To become 1 st dan you must practise with 1 st dans.

A new opponent may catch you with his best trick once – the second time he tries he should find it difficult and – the third time impossible.

If you have one hour for practise and there are thirty opponents, that gives you two minutes with each so you had better be quick.

He also became irritated, if during a hard randori you allowed your mouth to open to gasp for much needed air. “Close your mouth” he would cry “ What are you, an animal?”.

One day I was changing for a practise when I found I had mislaid my belt. Mr Otani lectured me most sarcastically. “You“ he ended up saying “Are like a soldier going into battle without his rifle!” I never forgot my belt again.

At a practise one day at the London Judo Society, ( a club run by Mr Chew and a Mr Dominy) I found myself engaged with a chap called ( I think) Cribben, who I believe was at that time their club champion.

He was lean, and rangy and (so I thought) tailor made for my style. What a mistake that turned out to be!!! Having secured his favourite hold he proceeded to Hanegoshi me all around his dojo. At the next session in our own club I asked Mr Otani what I should do against such an opponent . He showed me a simple method to nullify the hold and said “ You didn’t use your head, all you could worry about was your own throw which didn’t come off”. I protested that he was always telling me not to think too much during practise. “That is quiet right” he replied, “ But, I didn’t say stop using your head altogether!”

Time passed and on one occasion we were giving a demonstration at the Elstree Club.

In those days we used to invite members of the audience to come onto the mat and try their skills at beating us.

Well, It was my turn to face the opposition and a rather tough man about my own age accepted the challenge. As he was donning the jacket a member in the audience urgently whispered to me “Watch out, He’s an ex-commando and he has been boasting all week just what he’s going to do to you lot!” A dark cloud suddenly spread over my innocently happy disposition and the young man appeared to grow even larger as he stepped onto the mat, It was extremely fortunate I had been forewarned for without any preliminaries he launched himself at me and tried everything except kicking ! (in fact, I was hard put not to do a bit of kicking myself). However, using our principals of non resistance to the utmost I survived his attacks and he very soon began to puff and slow down. I suddenly realised he must be feeling as I had felt when I first encountered Mr Otani.

He attempted another rather frantic onslaught and although, I say it myself, he walked into the best Kata Seoie I have ever performed. The thud as he landed on his back was music to my ears and completely winded him as I didn’t dare attempt to cushion his fall too much in case he wanted to continue. He couldn’t have been very popular as the applause that greeted the throw was quite gratifying.

Going home on the 52 bus afterwards I was jubilant over my success. Mr Otani was pleased but tempered my delight by saying – “You were lucky, if he had known a little more the result may have been a little different”. However, he went on, “ If you ever encounter another opponent like that one, get a shime-waza on him quickly and send him to sleep, but, “he laughed” make sure I am nearby to bring him back to life!