Personal Aide to Matsutro
Otani Sensei from 1947.
Privilege and Honour
I t has been my privilege and
honour to have known Mr. 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
A fter 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 shoesI climbed the stairs to find myself in a
bare freezing whitewashed roomunder 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 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 Otani
apologised for not practising, 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.
I n recalling these memories
it is astonishing to realize how things were then. There were no
Judogi’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.
A bout 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 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
gruelling 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.
B eing 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 enquiring if
I was ill, on hearing my bleary mumblings he berated me for
wasting time that could be used for practising 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
T ime 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 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
dumfounded and it was then that I saw another side of Mr Otani’s
He said angrily “ You forget I
am also a yellow colour , 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 the M.O.S.J.A.
J udo was growing and the
A.J.A. and the B.J.A. were formed. Declining offers to join
these organisations he founded the M.O.S.J.A. which with the
arrival of Mr Kenshiro Abbe merged to become the B.J.C.
O ne 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.
A nother 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”!
O nce 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.
M r Otani taught for
many years at evening institutes and an incident happened in
which I was able to help him.
O ne 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 apologising, in view of his experience, oversight, etc.,
that there was to be no question of his taking an examination
Kenshiro Abbe sensei
O ne 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
T o 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
H aving 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.
W ith Mr 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.
H e is bringing in a new age
and has my best wishes, my respect and whole hearted support.
Some Incidents in Thirty Years
of Mr Otani’s Judo
I n 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.
W ith 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.
E ven 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.
I n 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”.
T o 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
A ll teachers have their
favourite 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,
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
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
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!!
Posted on behalf of Sensei
Bill Stopps by Henry Ellis
Co- Author of Positive Aikido.