Cecil T. Patterson Keeping the Wado Flame Burning
By Jim Mahanes © 2002


Cecil T. Patterson is proof you can’t judge a book — or a martial artist in this case — by it’s cover.

Having been named the highest-ranking occidental in the Wado system by the founder himself, one might think it odd to see such a man wearing a white belt.  But for Patterson, wearing a white belt after 45 plus years of training is the only natural thing to do.

“’Master’ is a word that’s thrown around a lot today, but it’s literally impossible for someone to master any style in a lifetime.  .....It’s the goal to work toward, but it’s rarely attained. The only master is the Grandmaster of any style.

“Master Ohtsuka was a fabulous person, very meek, kind, gentle.  To look at him, you’d never know what he was actually capable of doing.  I don’t think any five or six people...young people...could have touched him.  He was just amazing, yet, when he taught us how to throw a basic front punch, he’d say he couldn’t do it correctly — if he couldn’t do it correctly, who could?  I feel like I’ll always be a student of this art.  For that reason, I wear a white belt.”

Patterson has devoted his life to keeping the flame of traditional Wado Ryu alive as head of one of the largest karate organizations in the United States, the US Eastern Wado Ryu Karate Federation.

Now some 20,000 members strong, the USEWKF was founded under a directive of Wado Ryu founder and Grandmaster Hironori Ohtsuka, who gave Patterson the daunting task of helping spread his art to America.

Like many of the patriarchs of the early American martial arts movement, Cecil T. Patterson was introduced to karate in the early 50s, as a serviceman stationed in Japan following the war.  It was not his first introduction to budo, however, but the one that would change his life.

After falsifying his age and joining the Navy at the 15, Patterson ended his first tour of duty and returned to his East Tennessee home and began pursuing a career in law enforcement.  That is when he was introduced to simple self-defense tactics used by the FBI.  While it had little to do with budo, it sparked a desire to learn more about the art of self-defense.

A reinduction in the Navy soon took Mr. Patterson from the Tennessee hills to the small village of Iwakuni, located on the banks of Japan’s Inland Sea, where he was formally introduced to and accepted as a student of Sensei Kazuo Sakura - one of Ohtsuka’s high ranking senior students.

The training was hard, taking place six or seven days every week for hours upon hours each day.

One must understand that back in those days an American could not simply go into a martial arts dojo and start training.  After several attempts he finally accepted me only due to another American intervening and after talking to Sakura Sensei, he allowed me in the dojo.  Sakura Sensei told me that I would never make it.  At times I thought him correct, but I hung in there and we (Sakura Sensei) in latter years became good friends and eventually helped me with getting the 1st Grand Master over to the U.S.A..

The year was 1955 and Gichin Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan and said to be the father of modern day karate-do) was still actively training.  Though Ohtsuka was considered one of Funikoshi’s top students, the pair had long since parted ways and Wado Ryu had come into its own as a formidable fighting style.

Though it was often intense and grueling training, Mr. Patterson’s devotion and hard worked earned him the rank of Ni-dan (second-degree black belt) within two years, before his tour of duty ended and Patterson was shipped back home.

Once back in the states, he continued to train in Wado, earning his San-dan (third degree black belt) by 1959, and Yon-dan (fourth degree) by 1964.  But it became increasingly difficult to stay true to the style have virtually no Wado senseis in the United States to guide his progress.  He did like many other servicemen and began training whenever, wherever and with whomever he could.  This cross-training brought him in contact with other styles such as Goju Ryu and Shorei Ryu.  He was also introduced to other soon-to-be famous American budoka (martial arts practitioners), such as Robert Trias and Harrold Long.  But Wado remained his first love.

“(Though) I'd been involved in Goju Ryu, Wado Ryu and Shorei Ryu training, for me, Wado offered the best technique,” he said.  “Let me stress that this is the best style for me, someone else may find another style works best for them, but for me, professionally and personally, Wado was best designed for me.”

More than 40 years, and a host of accomplishments later, Patterson will tell you he’s still very much a student of the martial arts.

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Shihan, when asked what sets Wado Ryu apart from other styles, Master Ohtsuka was quoted as saying “We don’t block like other styles.”  Can you expound on that?

“What he was referring to was Taisabaki.”


“Literally translated, Taisabaki means  ‘body shift.’  The concept is simple, if you’re not there, you can’t be hit.

“Most traditional styles of karate inherently teach to block and counter, utilizing strictly limb movement — bone on bone.   Shorei Ryu,  Shotokan, these are good examples, they teach power blocks.

“Wado focuses on side-to-side movements, we don’t meet force with force.  Instead, we work on shifting our bodies to avoid contact.

“The natural movement of the body is forward.  You have to train yourself to move not only backwards, but from side to side.  Wado teaches side-to-side movements along with softer techniques, both of which work off fluid body movements — using soft tap-like or deflecting blocks.  We’d rather move slightly and deflect a technique and keep its energy moving instead of trying to bring an attack to a dead stop.

“This is the essence of Taisabaki.”

It sounds like a relatively simple concept, is it?

“No.  In order for Taisabaki to work, one must be totally relaxed. Your movements from point A to point B must be fluid, just like water running on a downgrade — no distortion.

“That’s hard to teach because there’s too much emphasis being placed these days on speed.  Oftentimes while people are training for speed, they’re not thinking about their technique or foundations.  All they are concerned about is how fast they are.

“There needs to be more emphasis placed on the movement.  One of the best ways to achieve this is through an in-depth study of kata.

“Katas have to be analyzed.  You can learn a lot from kata, as long as you analyze what the kata is trying to teach you.  You can’t just get out there and dance.  Katas were designed to teach combat tactics not just techniques.  Timing, stance, body movement and positioning, form — these are the things you can learn when you look beneath the surface of a kata and start looking at its concept.  It’s only after the concepts of kata are learned can a person ever be truly relaxed and ready for a combat situation.”

As Americans, we seem to have a hard time with relaxation.  I’ve heard a few Asian sensei talk about how Americans use a lot of wasted energy because we aren’t relaxed.

“Well, first of all, I don’t feel it’s just Americans who have problems relaxing, but relaxation of the body is key to any martial art, especially in Wado Ryu in order to perform Taisabaki correctly.  Taisabaki will not work if a person is not relaxed ... this takes a great deal of training.”

How do you teach that state of relaxation to your students?

“I stress the mental facet of the martial arts.  If someone hasn’t been trained in the mental aspects of martial arts, they should try to find someone who will train them.  There’s no question whatsoever, if you train the mind, the physical will develop.

“You don’t train for speed, you train for technique.  Once technique is perfected, speed will come.

“That gets back to training in kata.   Americans seem to always want more.  They don’t stop to realize that simple kicking and punching are not easily mastered, let alone more complex ideas like proper movement, timing, breathing and relaxation.

“Most are just concerned with learning the movements of a kata and learning as many katas as they can learn … they never stop and think about what a particular kata is designed to teach.  Traditional Wado Ryu only has nine katas and Master Ohtsuka felt that even nine katas were too many.  He felt that it’s not how many katas one knows, but how well a person knows the kata he’s performing.”

Shihan, Master Ohtsuka asked you to help establish his art in the United States through the USEWK,  following what I understand was a grueling seven-day, one-on-one training period.  What was that session like?

“Master Ohtsuka arrived around 6 or 6:30 p.m. and wanted to go directly to the dojo and start training ... I talked him out of it and took him to my home and we sat around and talked.  He couldn’t speak English, but he had an English/Japanese dictionary.  He’d find a word and show it to me ... that's the way we conversed.

“The next morning, we arrived at the dojo around 8:30 a.m., and I thought we’d train for about an hour or so and let it go at that ...we finished around 10 or 11 p.m. that night.

“We then went back to my home and sat around and talked until 1 or 2 O’clock in the morning, then we were back at the school the next morning before 8 O’clock.  This went on for seven days.  I learned more about karate during those seven days, than I had in the entire time I was in Japan.

You obviously worked a lot of technical skills and had a lot of physical workouts, but what did you take away from that visit as far as a deeper meaning, on a spiritual level, if you will, of the martial arts? 

“Number One, he mentally built self-confidence in me. Number Two, he taught me relaxation.

“I really didn’t know anything about relaxation.  I wasn’t really taught that in Japan, probably because of language barrier, there was no English spoken in the dojo I was in.  I think I missed that aspect of karate while I was there.  Those were two of the big things he taught me during that first visit.”

Shihan, getting back to Taisabak, how does Wado Ryu utilize that concept?

“The Wado system teaches Taisabaki through several means.  First of all would be relaxation.  But we’re also unique in that we use a 45-degree hip line.  Most systems teach a full hip — squared off to their opponent when punching, kicking or blocking. With the hip at a 45-degree angle, it gives a person more body power, and better reach.  Add that with total relaxation up until the point of contact (focus or kime), and you have the ability to deliver a stronger blow.  This, of course, is a personal belief, based on my training.

“I’ll never criticize any other art or system.  Each organization is as good as its practitioners.  If a Shotokan student works out 16 hours a week and a Wado student works out one hour a week, naturally the Shotokan student is going to be more proficient, that's obvious, there’s no room for discussion in that.”

You mentioned earlier about training in the mental aspects of martial arts, how does that fit in with the concept of Ki and how does that relate to Taisabaki?

“Performed properly, ki should flow like water. People say I sound like a broken record, because I continually stress the comparison of proper movement to water.

“Water is such a strong force. Flowing properly, we all know water can destroy just about anything in its path.

“But water can’t flow unless it is relaxed. If water is frozen it doesn’t flow. If it’s too hot, it boils and can’t flow, water has to be in what could be considered a relaxed state in order to flow. The same holds true for chi and for Taisabaki.  If your ki is not flowing properly, you can never be truly relaxed.

“In karate, everything has to flow like water from what we call the “sake ton” or the diaphragm.  A movement from point A to point B, C, D, or E has to be fluid.  It can’t be ‘step here with the feet, do this with the arms, do that with the hips.’  You have to take all the aspects of every movement and make them flow like one movement.

“In combat especially, you have to move fluidly with your opponent, to create an opening for an attack.  If you and I were working together, I would have to consider any movement an attack.  You don’t necessarily have to throw a technique.  If you move one way or the other, I want to use Taisabaki to get around you or to get in on you in order to perform an offensive technique.

“Taisabaki eliminates the need for tremendous speed because the body is relaxed enough not to have to rely strictly on speed.”

Shihan, like many of karate’s founding fathers, Master Ohtsuka named his son to head his organization after his death.  As we’ve seen with many styles of karate, following the death of the founder, the organization splits into multiple factions with most claiming to be the true essence, or a better version, of the founder’s style.  Wado Ryu is certainly no exception, in fact a majority of the Wado schools in the United States are not affiliated to the Soke (Hironori Ohtsuka II).  You’ve kept your promise to Master Ohtsuka by recognizing his son as the style’s chief sensei.  Why?

“If a person were to have a second father, Master Ohtsuka was that for me.

“Obviously, his death was a tremendous shock not only to me, but to those around me.  When he died, I wondered what was going to happen to the organization.

“As a rule, the oldest son takes command of the federation and when this happens, you’ll have a break away of some people.  This was a great concern of mine — how many people would we lose when this happened?

“Following his father’s death, (Ohtsuka II) and I began correspondence back and forth, which went on for a long time prior to his arrival to America.  During his first visit to America as the style’s leader, he and I talked about the Wado system and the present organization and after a lengthy conversation, I relayed to him that I would follow him as long as he didn’t change any of his father’s techniques and katas, and if he did, well, I would not have followed him.

“But as far as I’m concerned, the man has done a wonderful jobwith taking the leadership role of the international federation and he’s staying with his father’s teachings.  I can’t see any changes he’s made.”

Shihan, in closing, I’ll ask you the same question I asked Master Ohtsuka (II), and the same one I ask everyone:  "What’s the biggest changes you’ve seen in Martial Arts, not just Wado, since you began training?"

“The biggest thing is etiquette. Karate begins and ends with etiquette. There just doesn’t seem to be the same respect today as there was in the 60s and 70s.  For example, at tournaments today, you see participants becoming belligerent and showing no respect to the referees, or their seniors.  This just didn’t happen back in the 60s and 70s.  Back then, senior rank was highly respected by all karateka.

“I feel respect for the rank of black belt has dissipated over the years.  There are a lot of schools today that are not holding with the traditional, ethical backgrounds that should be involved with awarding the rank of black belt.

“We don’t give black belts away.  Those who wear a black belt from our (federation) have earned them through hard work and dedication to the system and the art.  Of course then we tell them that they’re not a black belt, but rather have the potential to become a black belt.”

Do you think Master Ohtsuka I would be pleased with the state of Wado Ryu as it is today?

“Let me put it this way.  I think he would be well pleased with what we (USEWF) are doing today.  As compared to what other people are doing, I don’t know.  That's one of those questions that's difficult to answer.  Yes, I think he’d be pleased with what this organization has done.

After all your years in martial arts, you still seem to have a fire about it, what keeps you going?

"Master Ohtsuka was a man who devoted his entire life to teaching people how to better themselves through Wado Ryu.  I’ve tried to continue with that philosophy.

"My organization started with two people back in 1957, it’s up to over 20,000 people now.  What keeps me going is seeing all the young people that come to us.  Young people we might have taken off the streets, taken drugs out of their lives — it’s been a wonderful experience.”




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