O: Otani


Otani. A name that was long forgotten until Martin Ball asked us to investigate Otani, his mentor and a pioneer of judo in the United Kingdom who had also wrestled professionally in this country.

We discovered that this  exotic Oriental who wrestled in Britain between 1932 and 1938 was, unusually for wrestling,  the genuine item. He was Masutaro Otani, and British National Archive records confirm that he was born in Nagasaki, Japan, on 25th March, 1896.

On 29th May, 1930 the Portsmouth Evening news referred M.Otani as the partner of Yukio Tani “a famous Japanese wrestler.” The two men gave a ju-jitsu demonstration followed by a wrestling exhibition between Miss Dolly Marion and Mr John Campbell.

Our earliest references to Masutaro Otani as a wrestler occur in 1932. On January 9th at Edinburgh’s Waverley Market The Scotsman reported that “O-Tani, the Japanese Ju-jitsu wrestler” met J. McGregor in a catch as catch can style wrestling match.  The Japanese man  showed a lack of knowledge of the style but was elusive enough to force a points decision loss.

We could not find any wrestling references to him as  Masutaro Otani but as simply Otani or O’Tani. References to his mentor, Yukio Otani, and to his ju jitsu experience established  that Masutaro Otani  and the wrestler known simply as Otani were one and the same person. In 1956 the London Gazette listed Masutaro Otani  as a sword maker and Physical Cultural Instructor living at 10, Stuart Road, London W3.

Masutaro Otani took up judo in 1917 and studied  for two years under 2nd Dan Seizo Usui. He arrived in Britain in 1919 and two years later  joined the Budokwai and studied under Hikoichi Aida. In 1929 Masutaro Otani  was appointed trainee assistant to his mentor Yukio Tani.  

Wrestling as early as January, 1932 is proof enough that widespread reports of him competing in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics are inaccurate. We did find a newspaper cutting in the Aberdeen Press and Journal of 2nd August, 1932 that reported Otani defeating Stockton in the middleweight final  of the Olympic Games. Presumably this was the basis of the false claim.  But this was Otani with the initial K.  Yet this K.Otani was misleading too as the wrestler concerned was not K.Otani but Kotani, that is Sumiyuki Kotani

Otani’s weight has been given as between 8st 6lbs and 9st 6lbs, usually towards the lower end of the scale. His matches were inevitably against men who were two stones or more heavier than himself.

We uncovered many examples of Otani wrestling between 1932 and 1936. An open air tournament featuring Michael McGill, Black Adonis, Billy Riley, Jock Garner, Otani, Pat Allister, Ben Sherman and Eddie McGrath. Most of his matches were in the midlands and northern England. Opponents included Harry Smith, Billy Riley, Golden Hawk, White Owl, Carver Doone, Doulas the Turk and Tony Mancelli amongst many others.

On 1st  February 1934 the Western Daily Press, whilst reporting a match between Otani and Harry Smith, stated that Otani was the pupil of Yukio Tani. Yukio Tani had arrived in Britain in 1901. Masuta Otani was Judo Instructor to Oxford University for six years, and Cambridge University for five years.

Otani married Philippa Upton in Kensington and their first son, Tomio, was born in September, 1939. During the Second World war he  was interned in a prisoner of war camp in the UK. Promotion to 4th Dan was from Yukio Tani and eventually Otani achieved 7th Dan.

On January 13th 1977 the Liverpool Echo reported the Cheshire and Wirral area of the British Judo Council held their grading at Cammell Laird Sports Club under Masutoro Otani, 8th dan and President of the British Judo Council.

7th Dan Kenshiro Abbe came to Britain in 1955, teaching judo at the London Judo Society. In 1958 Abbe formed the British Judo Council.He was President of the BJC until he returned to Japan in 1964, at which time he was succeeded by Masutaro Otani, until his death in 1977. On his death the next President was the son of Masutaro and Philippa, Robin.

Page added 25/04/2020

Reviewed 16/03/2022