Article - Dr. Tsuyoshi Chitose, October 18, 2021 - June 5, 2021
by Peter Giffen
Although there are a few in Japan more comfortable with the myth than they were with the man (they didn't like his management style), those of us who traveled half way around the world to train with Dr. Chitose have precious memories. We were taken in by him, provided with food, shelter, transportation and what amounted to a surrogate family. The master bore an almost 24 hour scrutiny by the outsiders he housed, yet he laid bare his life ungrudgingly, from the most intimate moments with his family to the nights he hacked phlegm from lungs raked by illness. Indeed, we were left with the impression he felt gratitude, an obligation to those who had come so far to learn his art. Each of us in turn took home more than the sum of the parts of his instruction: our lives were forever colored by a gentle man.
The memories that rise in my mind are random and have no special significance except, after they have passed, there is a lingering feeling as if I were in his house again and he had just walked through the room and gone, only half noticed.
Meals at the doctor's house were intimate affairs since the family, visiting relatives and foreigners were usually thrown together in a small kitchen. Though most of the sitting at the Chitoses was done on the floor, here we sat on chairs around a Formica tabletop. The master took these modern contrivances in stride, but sometimes registered a silent protest by sitting on his chair cross-legged. Conversation and food were plentiful and Dr. Chitose often held court on karate, demonstrating moves with his hands. To the uninitiated it might have looked as if he were exorcising his plate of curry-rice. At the end of a killing sequence he would punch and say, "Pa!" This was the signal that we could dispatch our food.
Mealtimes were also used to sharpen English language skills. The doctor's supply of words was not large but he wielded those he had with extraordinary cunning. One time he pointed at himself and said, "Buddha," to indicate his religion, then slapped his hands and recited a mantra in case I wasn't sharp that morning. "You?" he said pointing at me, then crossing himself. "Christian?" Not waiting for my response, he threw back his head and laughed and laughed. I scowled at my rice. I wasn't, and didn't get the joke anyway.
With breakfast he usually ate a raw egg. He broke it into a shallow bowl, set aside the shells and tilted it into his mouth as if it were an oyster, swallowing in one, two gulps. At the end of the meal he poured green tea into his rice bowl, picked up a yellow pickle with his chopsticks and swished it around the bowl's inner surface to dislodge the last sticky grains of rice. Then he drank the tea-rice-pickle mixture so not a morsel was wasted.
Dr. Chitose's skills were not confined to karate. One day sat in the Chitose's backyard with my friend Eric as he played a mouth organ. The summer's heat had given him a touch of the O1' South and he blew soulfully. (I contributed to the moment by not bursting into song.) The doctor was on his morning rounds: feeding his birds and watering the jungle of potted plants that advanced on the house. Standing by the cage of his favorite bird, a mynah -- whom he had taught to screech, "Ro Hai Sho!" -- he listened to the music a while then waved us into the house. Inside the master knelt on the living room floor, tuning his jamusen, a three-stringed Okinawan version of a guitar constructed with snake skin and plucked upright. He sang several Okinawan ballads, his voice faithfully following the stately rhythms and holding the many sustained notes. He was roundly applauded. Dr. Chitose was also a master of Okinawan dance and performed on several festive occasions.
However, not all summons to the house were so entertaining. I had learned an oar kata from another style and was practicing it in the dojo, which, of course, caught the doctor's eye. He looked for a minute, went away, came back and looked once more. Before I could row too far out of favor, young Chitose opened the door connecting the house and dojo, and led me to his father's room. This space was dominated by a family shrine where the doctor offered daily prayers, incense and egg cups of rice to the hovering spirits of his departed ancestors. I was instructed to lift down a pole-like object mounted along one of the rafters. The master slid back its covering and passed me a spear whose shaft had been blackened from long handling; its head was tapered and had the darting beauty of a snake's tongue. I hefted it and it balanced easily in my grip: well-suited for the stab and stroke of battle. Indeed, I was told that it was an ancient spear, responsible for the death of more than ten men. Chito-Ryu kobudo had come from a long (and proven) tradition and my time could best be spent in its study rather than dabbling elsewhere.
As family patriarch Dr. Chitose did everything he could to ensure life was not dull for his family. For example, he might be sitting on the tatami in the TV room, holding the baby that a daughter has deposited in his arms. The daughter, pumping water from a thermos into a teapot, and his wife, 'Mama- san' watch the manic performance of a talk show host. Off to his left, his son writes some business correspondence in a neat hand. It is a domestic scene, a happy one, one that would be gently received by most men's eyes, but for the doctor it lacks something: it is too smooth sailing for a man who loves rough seas. Besides, it is hot, the baby is heavy and he feels his right to sleep is as great as the child's. So he says something. What he said on these occasions I don't know, but can only admire the effect his words had. First there is silence, then it breaks loose all at once: the daughter wails an entreaty; Mama-san clicks her tongue and utters a reproach; and staring wide-eyed, young Chitose launches into rapid-fire talk, trying to dissuade his father, or at least soften his stance. His job done, the doctor ignores the outcries. He makes a face at the baby and bounces her playfully in his lap.
The master's workouts were usually served with large dollops of kata and bunkai. To act as his partner or fall guy during his applications demonstrations was always an honor, just as getting wounded for your country is. He demanded authenticity from an attacker. If out of deference to his age or general discomfort at taking a swing at him, your punch lacked authority, he would make a sour face and growl, "Mo ichi do!" (One more time). Once he decided that you were a threat, there was no question of faking a fall -- all consideration was given to negotiating the ground hurling up at you.
In class he sometimes had us perform katas individually. It always unnerved me to have Dr. Chitose, his son and son-in-law (Ken Sakamoto) kneeling side-by-side, watching as I tried my hand at the family business. At the end of the kata the master would either say, "no good," or else, "good," and sometimes even, "very good." As you trained with him longer the 'goods' and 'very goods became more frequent. The elation on these occasions was only slightly tempered by the glares of young Chitose and Ken Sakamoto which said they felt differently. And in honest moments with yourself, you knew your delivery was still flawed. The master's judgement had not become deficient; a genuine effort could touch him regardless of technical flaws. It was up to the two young protégés beside him to smooth those out. With eight decades of training under his belt, he well knew the pitfalls, the hardships, the temptations to quit encountered along the way. He also realized a word of encouragement from him got a lot of mileage. "Very good." Please keep on trying, he was saying, it's worth it.
Of course, among the random memories of those who knew Dr. Chitose lurk the special ones. Mine took place on a blistering August day when most of the Chitose family were on errands or at work and I was on my way to the local store to buy an ice-cream, but passing the dojo door my attention was arrested. The master stood alone in his gi. Though black netting had been drawn across the dojo skylights to soften the sun's hammerstroke, it was still a sauna inside. From the weapons rack on the wall he drew a long, carbon black pair of sais and slowly, deliberately went through a sequence. A sai swung out for a block, flipped back, he punched twice with the butts, an arcing strike, then he turned and proceeded in the opposite direction. Perhaps it was a sequence he had never gotten down to his satisfaction on and hoped to polish with a bit more practice. He launched into it again but part way through his memory failed him: one sai wavered in the air and he bowed his head as he tried to remember.
My heart cried for him to finish. With his shrunken limbs, rounded middle and eyes yellowed with age he seemed a far cry from the trim young man with blinding speed who had given a command performance for the emperor of Japan. I watched him flounder in the heat without the strength, the articulation or the fame of former days and wondered what the point was. Wasn't this reminiscent of Muhammid Ali climbing into the ring for a last beating, or the pathetic spectacle of an aged beauty queen trying to strut her stuff one more time? He found his place, finished the sequence, then started again. I did not turn my head away. Instead I watched in wonder.
He was not playing to me, or any audience. The battle was, as it had always been, with himself. In the early days of his training in Okinawa he had caught a view of something and dedicated his life to it. Something by its very nature unobtainable and inexpressible, yet he pursued it with all the talent and energy he possessed: through world wars, atom bombs, the deaths of friends, family and the world he knew. It, in turn, sustained him. And in his fading days in a strange new world of Formica tables and chairs, it sustained him still.
- Peter Giffen