OTANI SENSEI ENBUKAI

It is with great sadness that New York Budokai announces the death of our teacher and founder, Yoshiteru “Raymond” Otani, after a long battle with heart disease. He was 75 years old.

A native of Osaka, Otani Sensei was a descendent of a middle-ranking samurai family from the area. He began training in swordsmanship and other martial arts as a boy. His first, and, he told me later, most important teacher was his father.

As a high school student, Otani Sensei had amateur competitive status in sumo. He studied iaido, kendo, judo, jodo and other styles. After the Pacific War, Sensei worked to support his family, who had lost basically everything, and put himself through college. He moved to the US in the 1950′s to pursue various business opportunities, eventually teaching judo at the McBurney YMCA in New York City. He traveled back and forth to Japan frequently and continued his training, adding, among other things, TenShinSho Jigen ryu iaido to his repertory. After awhile, he added iaido, kendo and jodo to his teaching repertory and taught at various locations around New York. He founded New York Iaikai (later New York Budokai) in the 1960′s. (I once asked him why he didn’t teach iaido from the beginning. He told me he was concerned people wouldn’t understand Japanese swordsmanship. Judo was something with which people were already familiar.)

When I first met Otani Sensei in 1986, he was still a relatively young and strong man. Even though he was not teaching judo at that point, one of his favorite things to do in the dojo was to take on the biggest guy there and show us some technique, which always ended with the big guy on the floor, writhing in pain. He told me that size didn’t matter, as long as you had good technique.

Sensei always encouraged our practice, no matter what our limitations might be. As the only woman in the dojo for many years, I especially appreciated his words of encouragement. “No matter who you are,” he would say, “if you study and practice even a little bit every day, you will learn something.” At the same time, he would sometimes lose patience with students who were lazy, or made excuses for why they couldn’t come to the dojo. “The only two reasons to miss the dojo are your family, and your job,” he would say. “After that, there is no reason not to practice.” Contrarily, he could also become upset with dojo members who were too ambitious, and tried to learn too many complicated techniques before they were ready. For Sensei, basics were always most important: “Even if you practice only Shohatto,” (the first form), “you will really learn.”

First his career (Sensei was an educational and business consultant), then his health kept Sensei from coming to the dojo regularly after awhile, but he still managed to come by about once a month to train us and check our progress. After his health dramatically declined in 1997, Sensei retired from teaching, as travel to the dojo in Manhattan from his home in Queens became too exhausting. As a result, we brought the dojo to him, organizing group lunches at his favorite Chinese restaurants around his neighborhood in Flushing. Sensei always enjoyed meeting new students and answering questions. He knew a lot of people in the martial arts, including Ueshiba Morihei and Donn Draeger, and he could tell great stories about them.

Sensei still came into the dojo to test students, after which we would go to a restaurant, usually in Chinatown. We also took him on outings to Sotheby’s when they had Asian art and antiques shows. Watching him examine and comment on swords was a great educational experience. He most recently came to a test back in December, during a raging snowstorm. I asked him if he was worried about the weather that day, and his response was typical: “I don’t care.” I had the pleasure of telling nervous dojo members that we were not postponing the test – if Sensei was willing to brave the snow, then we’d better be there, too. As was often the case, Sensei was absolutely right to insist. That test was the last time he saw our iaido.

Otani sensei was one of a kind, and one of the few surviving people to have begun his martial arts training before the Pacific War. He was a great teacher and a friend to many of his students. We miss him more than we can say.

Otani Sensei is survived by his wife, Michi and his three daughters, all of whom are successful professionals, and their families. He is also survived by his many students past and present. We were lucky to have him.

by Deborah Klens Bigman, PHD

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