Masutatsu Oyama (commonly known as Mas Oyama) was born Choi Yeong-eui in Gimje, Korea on July 27th, 1923. Korea had been under Japanese occupation since 1910 and would remain so until 1945. When he was young boy he was sent to Manchuria in northeastern China to live on a farm with his sister. It was there that he had his first introduction to the martial arts.
Mas. Oyama recalled his first teacher later in life. A man he referred to as “Mr. Yi” who worked on his sister’s farm. Mr. Yi began teaching the style known as “18 hands” when he was 9 years old. When he was 12, Oyama returned home to Korea and stayed with an aunt near Seoul, while he attended school. There he continued his martial arts training studying Taiken, a Korean form of Kenpo.
Early years in Japan
In 1938, at age 15, he went to Japan to attend Yamanashi Aviation School and follow his dream of becoming a pilot. There was a significant amount of discrimination against Koreans in Japan at that time. He decided to change his name and chose the surname of the family that took him in when he moved to Japan… “Oyama”. The Japanese transliteration of “Baedal” is “Masutatsu”. Historically, “Baedal” is another name for the ancient Korean empire of Gojoseon.
After arriving in Japan he first trained in boxing and Judo (his older brother had started teaching him boxing while still in Korea). When he heard about karate, he visited the Shotokan, the first official dojo of Gichin Funakoshi. It was built in 1936 at Mejiro but was destroyed just 9 years later by allied bombing in 1945 as WW II came to a close. There he trained under Funakoshi’s third son, Yoshitaka “Gigo” Funakoshi. He later entered Takushoku University and trained under Gichin Funakoshi himself. His progress was so rapid that by the age of 17 he had already earned his 2nd dan and 4th dan at 20. Around this time it is said he also became more serious about judo (particularly Kosen Judo rules that included ground fighting and submissions) and would go on to earn a 4th dan in Judo.
In 1943 he joined the Japanese Imperial Army and continued his martial arts training with the Butoku-kai. This was the official martial arts organization in Japan as sanctioned by the Imperial Japanese Government. It was considered the most reputable organization by all Japanese martial arts, including kendo, judo, kyudo, and karate. He was stationed at an airfield near Tokyo. In an interview he once talked about what it was like to have breakfast with friends who were Kamikaze pilots and then not see them there at dinner. Towards the end of the war, he had an altercation with an officer which resulted in his striking the man. The investigation showed he was provoked so the charge was dropped. However, because of the incident, he was going to be sent south to the Pacific Theatre. The transfer was stopped when Japan surrendered at the end of WW II.
Post WW II/Dedicating his life to Karate
After WW II Oyama began training in Goju-ryu with Nei-chu So, a fellow Korean from the same province. Nei-chu So was a personal student of Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Goju-ryu. Nei-chu So was said to be the leading expert of Goju in Japan at that time, second only to Miyagi himself.
Oyama begin getting in fights with US military servicemen who were part of the occupying forces in Japan following WW II. He was angry that his adopted country had lost the war and about the deaths of so many of his friends. He is also said to have killed a man. The man was harassing a woman at a dance and when Oyama intervened the man pulled a knife. Unbeknownst to him, the man was wanted for murder. When the man attacked him Oyama struck him once in the head, killing him. Oyama felt great remorse over this, even though it was self-defense. He felt even worse when he discovered that the man he had killed had a wife and son. He quit martial arts training for several months and moved to the woman’s farm to help her. Only after she forgave him and told him that she did not hold him responsible for her husband’s death did he leave.
Although Mas Oyama returned to karate, he struggled with doubts about what direction he should take with life. Nei-chu So, his teacher in Goju was also