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The History of Wado-Ryu Karate
By Frank Johnson


The history of Wado-Ryu is somewhat of a complex affair, which is what you would expect. Master Ohsukas life spanned one of the most eventful times in history, with the first and second world wars to mention just two of the major events. Most people's lives in Japan would take some following. 

In the 1980's I was editor of Wado-World magazine I received hundreds of articles from all over the world. I also interviewed many of the world's top Wado-Ryu instructors and talked with Master Ohtsuka himself, researching all my material and recalling the many conversions I had in Japan in the 70's. I have tried to piece the Wado-Ryu story together completely unbiased and without political infighting. I am sure that more information is out there but as old Masters die it is getting less and less reliable. 

The Wado-Ryu story begins with the birth of Hironori Ohtsuka on the first of June 1892 he was the eldest son of Tokujiro Ohtsuka and his wife Sato. Ohtsuka’s father was a Doctor of medicine, practicing at Shimodate City Hospital and because of this he had high social standing with a good income for the times, so he was able to look after the family well. 

Ohtsuka said he was a sickly child so his mother and father decided that some kind of martial arts would build him up. In the Spring of 1897, aged 5 years old he started school and his mother's grandfather called Chorjiro Ebashi was asked to instruct him in Ju-jitsu. He was shown punching, kicking, throwing, locks and vital points. Ohtsuka was to say later this got him interested in martial arts for the rest of his life. 

H.Ohtsuka 15 years old at school

In 1905 - he went to Shimozuma middle school, it was here that he joined the Shintoyoshin-Ryu school of Ju-jitsu under Tatsusaburo Nakayama. It is said that the founder Akiyama was at a Shinto shrine in Tenmangu when he noticed a willow tree bending with the weight of the snow on its branches and yet how it yielded to the weight of the snow thus avoiding damage. From these studies he developed a style with around three hundred movements; this style was to play a major part in later years as Ohtsuka developed the Wado Ryu style. 


In 1910 Ohtsuka went to Waseda University where he studied business, while there he continued to study other martial arts visiting many clubs mainly Ju-jitsu schools. There is a lot of speculation over which ones. In 1913 it is believed his father died and in 1917 he started work at the Kawasaki Bank. 

H.Ohtsuka aged 18

H.Ohtsuka aged 18

In July of 1922 Gichin Funakoshi was invited to give a demonstration of Okinawa Karate (formally known as Tode) by the Japanese education department. Ohtsuka was impressed with the new art form and went to visit Funakoshi at the Meiseijuke (house of Okinawa students) he asked him if he would teach him all he knew about this Art of the Ryu Kyu Islands. 

1925 saw the death of his mother. And in 1928 he left the Kawasaki Bank to become a full time bone setter (it seems bone setting was a common sideline learnt by top martial artists and no doubt with Ohtsuka’s father being a doctor he was into healing arts). It is said that the bone setting practice was not too successful as he was always out training or teaching martial arts, and that he neglected the business a little. 

It is said that by the end of the 1920's Ohtsuka had developed quite a lot of the Wado-Ryu movements and he registered himself as a member of the Nippon-Kobudo-Shinko-Kai (Japanese Martial Arts Federation). It was around this time that Ohtsuka began to drift away from Funakoshi. Master Funakoshi had awarded him Dan grades. Some of his contemporaries said that Ohtsuka wanted to do more fighting. Only they knew and sadly they are no longer with us to put the record straight. Whatever reason, it seems Master Funakoshi and Ohtsuka maintained a profound mutual respect for each other. By May of 1934 Ohtsuka's karate was recognised as an independent style.

H.Ohtsuka aged 31

H.Ohtsuka aged 31 recieveing an award from Funakoshi Sensei

Lots of different versions of when he named the style Wado-Ryu have been put toward, I asked him myself in 1977. When did he think of the name, his reply was sometime in the 1930's but he could not remember the exact date. In 1938 he first thought of calling it Shinshu-Wado-Ryu a sort of patriotic name for Japan. But in light of the times building up to the second world war you can quite understand why he may have reconsidered this, in any case two years later just the words Wado-Ryu were registered. It is interesting to note that at a major demonstration in Kyoto on the 5th of May 1940 the words Wado-Ryu were used in the programme. The war years were a bad time for all kinds of martial arts, with many top students losing their lives. In 1944 the Dai Nippon Budo-Kai asked him to become chief instructor of karate for Japan. 

When the war ended in 1945 martial arts were forbidden. Ohtsuka continued to practice and teach in private, a lot of clubs pretended to be doing boxing to get round the ban. 

In the 1950's karate was allowed again and Wado-Ryu prospered in its popularity. Firstly it was mainly in Universities, then small private clubs, little by little they began to grow in number In the middle to late 1950's competitions began to get more popular. 

The 1960's saw Wado-Ryu gain popularity overseas, in 1963 Ohtsuka sent a three man team to do major demonstrations in the U.S.A and Europe comprising Tatsuo Suzuki. Toru Arakawa and Takashima Sensei. Tatsuo Suzuki has been a major force in bringing Wado-Ryu to many students outside Japan. 

In 1966 Ohtsuka was awarded Kun-Goto-Soukuo Kyoku Ju-jitsu Show from the Emperor of Japan Hirohito for his dedication to karate, and in 1972 he was awarded Meijin the ultimate title in martial arts. Ohtsuka continued to practice and perform demonstrations almost up to his death. 

He died on the 29th of January 1982. 

H.Ohtsuka, Funakoshi, Motobu, Mabuni meeting

H.Ohtsuka, Funakoshi, Motobu, Mabuni

H.Ohtsuka aged 15 at school
Middle front row

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