Ken Ota

Master Aïkido and Judo

Sensei Ken Ota lived through WWII’s Japanese internment era and became a widely loved teacher of manners and movement in the disciplines of ballroom dance and aikido. He would tell his students, “Don’t try. Do.” 

LFundamental to both judo and aikido is the art of the fall. During Kenji Ota’s 52 years as Goleta’s premier sensei in both martial arts, he taught more than 10,000 students how to fall gently, safely, and, above all, confidently. Or, as his wife, Miye Ota, described it, “to land as a cat.” Ken Ota, who died in November at age 92, operated out of a dojo he and his wife built — cinderblock by cinderblock — on Magnolia Avenue in the heart of Old Town Goleta. The structure was joined at the hip to Miye’s thriving beauty salon, where she made matrons of Goleta’s pioneering families look like the movie stars found in her waiting room’s glamor magazines

Sensei demonstrates a throw with the help of four black belts under the famous chandelier..

As a martial arts instructor, Ota emphasized speed, timing, and rhythm. He went to elaborate lengths to help students overcome their natural fear of gravitational inevitability, setting up cushioned crash pads and ever-taller barriers. Then he’d hold a stick horizontally aloft even higher still. They learned to throw themselves further and faster, developing confidence in their ability to land without damage.

At Ota’s memorial service, countless such stories were told. “Don’t try,” he would press his students. “Do.” One remembered lifting weights early in the morning with Ota, who was decidedly unimpressed by the student’s number of reps. “Fifteen is not a number,” Ota barked. “’Ow’ is a number.” Another student remembered Ota giving him a pencil with erasers on both ends, the point being, “It’s okay to make mistakes.”

The most repeated of all Ota’s many aphorisms, however, was, “If you can’t teach, you don’t really know it.” As a teacher, Ota could be demanding. On occasion, he’d softly whack students with his staff to correct their form. But he was forbearing of mistakes if effort was made. Ota taught by expectation. Based on the outpouring of stories told at his memorial service, it clearly worked. “He trusted us,” said one speaker. “He left us alone to become the people we needed to be and gave us the tools to do it.”

ByNick Welshsource: Santa Barbara independent Photo credit: Steve E. Miller

nick welsh October 17, 2023

Sifu magazine

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