My older brother and I have studied a few martial arts over the years, and recently we were discussing why some martial arts flourish and others do not. One style that we both studied while we were in Oklahoma was Ryu Te(琉手), a somewhat obscure version of Okinawan Karate. Having seen Master Oyata (親田)demostrate his techniques at several seminars and summer camps, even to this day I still consider him to be one of the most technically proficient martial artists in the world. If that is so, then why is his style still quite obscure? Wouldn’t it be better known if he were that good?

I remarked that one advantage that Aikido, which we are both currently studying, has over Ryu Te is that Ueshiba was able to train many students to a very high level of proficiency before he passed away, so there was still a solid foundation after he was gone. Of course inevitably there has been branching and fractionation within Aikido ( The Ki Society, Seidokan, etc.) but they all still ‘pay homage’ to the world headquarters in Shinjuku, Tokyo, and acknowledge Moriteru Ueshiba, Morihei Ueshiba’s grandson, as the Doshu or heir. Having a centralized organization and clear succession has enabled Aikido to stay intact, instead of all the students forming their own organizations when the founder dies, as usually happens.

This kind of organization is something that I’m afraid Master Oyata lacks. He came to the U.S. in 1976, at the bequest of several of his top American students. He had had some kind of a falling-out with the board of directors at the dojo he had been training at, and so he decided to try his luck promoting his style in the U.S. He founded his organization and based his headquarters in Independance, MO. He attracted quite a bit of attention in the early 80’s when he was featured in Black Belt Magazine, mostly due to his specialty in striking pressure points to instantly render an opponent unconscious. Due to this notoriety he attracted a fairly large following, and his style flourished in the central states area. Through the next several decades (until the present) though, he seems to have been plagued by insubordinate students. All of his students that were the closest to him at some point did something to offend Master Oyata, and they summarily found themselves booted out of the organization. This even happened to his closest two students, Shiro Shintaku and Jonny Tanaka, during the 6 years that I studied Ryu Te. I suppose insubordination is something that a strict sensei has to deal with, but when you look through the years, what is the common thread? I don’t think it’s insubordinate disciples, but Master Oyata’s short temper. The problem is that when all of your most gifted students are gone, who is left to continue the organization for you after you pass away?

My brother summed up our conversation by saying that in order to promote your martial art well, you have to have 3 qualities. 1) Have superb technique. 2) Be a skilled teacher. 3) Have leadership qualities necessary to create a strong organization. It is this third quality that I fear Master Oyata may lack. Also I believe Aikido’s current widespread success is due to the fact that Ueshiba posessed all three of these traits. 1) Very few people doubt the effectiveness of Ueshiba’s technique. (It may have the steepest learning curve in the world, but once you master them they are quite effective) 2) Ueshiba’s students were all also very proficient and effective, and 3) The current stability of the International Aikido Federation shows Ueshiba’s ability to organize a stable, centralized body that would endure after he had passed away.