Little did I know at that time in my life that destiny might have charted my course. Despite my hostile surroundings, I was at the right place at the right time and on the precipice of a new life.Dan Ivan
At times, Dan Ivan’s life has read like a work of fiction. His exploits in occupied Japan after World War II, as a member of the Criminal Investigations Detachment (CID), are legendary. However, it is as a pioneer of American martial arts, that he is best known. He has trained with a who’s who of martial arts greats, including Isao Obata, Gogen Yamaguchi, Gozo Shioda, and Ryusho Sakagami. He was one of the first foreigners to hold black belts in the four major Budo arts of Karate, Kendo, Judo, and Aikido.
Daniel Donald Ivan was born in 1930 in Alliance, Ohio, to Daniel and Edith Ivan. His mother, a cook, later remarried. He had five siblings, three sisters and two brothers.
Ivan and his family lived in the tail-end of the Great Depression (1929 – 1939). There were no jobs and very little to eat. His experiences during this time would help him years later empathise with the Japanese in occupied Japan.
As a teenager, Ivan was a delinquent and was well known to the local police. He used to jump on freight trains as they slowed down while making their way through Alliance. He soon became involved in more serious activities. He was well on his way to becoming a criminal.
In 1945 Ivan joined the US Army aged fifteen. He lied about his age, with the help of the local Alliance police. They were probably happy that they wouldn’t have to deal with his growing list of petty criminal activities.
As part of basic army training, Ivan learnt unarmed combat. This got him interested in martial matters. After basic training, he received his first posting to Guam and the South Pacific.
Ivan was deployed to occupied Japan in 1948. This was a difficult time in the country. There were many hardships for the population, including widespread food shortages. Foreigners were viewed with suspicion and as invaders.
As a member of the Criminal Investigations Detachment (CID) of the Army, Ivan was responsible for investigating crimes involving US military personnel. His duties included resolving bar brawls; dealing with car accidents; drug trafficking; prostitution; and embezzlement.
Ivan learnt to speak Japanese. His job was a dangerous one. Many Japanese were still loyal to the Emperor and saw the Americans as invaders. He sometimes worked undercover. This was one of the reasons he wanted to learn martial arts. He wanted to handle the dangerous situations he sometimes found himself in.
Japanese and martial culture fascinated Ivan. Because he was stationed in different parts of Japan, he had the opportunity to train with masters from various styles. It was during this time that he met noted martial arts historian, Donn Draeger, who was also stationed in Japan.
In 1948 Ivan began his love affair with martial arts. He started learning Judo at the famed Kodokan. He was one of the first foreigners to do so after the war. He trained under Judo great, Kyuzo Mifune. The training he received helped him survive on the streets during his undercover work.
Ivan began training with another martial arts legend, Gogen Yamaguchi of Goju-ryu Karate. However, because of the political climate of post-war Japan Ivan was asked by the Kodokan to stop training with Yamaguchi.
1950 saw Ivan awarded his first Japanese Budo black belt in Judo.
In 1954 Ivan began training in Shotokan Karate under Isao Obata, an early Japanese student of Gichin Funakoshi. He also had the opportunity to train with Masatoshi Nakayama, the Chief Instructor of the Japan Karate Association (JKA) and Kenji Yamamoto. He had taken up Karate following an incident where his Judo had not proved enough.
Ivan returned to the United States following the end of his tour of duty in Japan in 1956. He continued his Shotokan training with Tsutomu Ohshima and Hidetaka Nishiyama, who both had dojos in Los Angeles.
1956 saw Ivan open his first Karate dojo in Southern California, where he taught Shotokan. He would eventually have eight dojos in the area. Three years later he would establish the Japan Karate-Do Federation, becoming Chief Instructor.
In 1963 Ivan was awarded his black belt in Kendo. On a trip to Japan, he was introduced to Fumio Demura by Donn Draeger. Ivan asked Demura to teach him Kobudo. Having no place to train, they trained at Draeger’s home in Inchigaya, just outside Tokyo.
Two years later, Ivan acted as the sponsor for Demura to come to the United States. Demura became the Chief Instructor for Ivan’s dojos. A Shito-ryu practitioner, Demura, in respect to Ivan, learnt all the Shotokan kata so that he could teach them at the school. Ivan, in turn, started learning Shito-ryu Karate from Demura.
In 1970 Ivan was elected Director of the team that represented the United States at the 1st WUKO World Karate Championships held in Tokyo, Japan. In the kumite event, Tony Tulleners of the United States was joint third with Dominique Valera, John Carnio came second, with Koji Wada becoming champion.
1972 saw Ivan elected to the Black Belt Magazine’s Hall of Fame as “Man of the Year“. He won the award for his tireless work in promoting Karate in the United States.
At the 1975 WUKO World Championships held in Long Beach, California, Ivan gave a Karate demonstration with Demura, in front of a crowd that included many great Japanese masters.
By 1988 Ivan had been the Chief Instructor of the Japan Karate-Do Federation for thirty years. That year he stepped down from the position and handed the reigns to his student, Paul Godshaw.
Free from his duties as Chief Instructor, Ivan continued training at his dojo and promoting his thoughts on Karate through his writings. In 2002 he co-authored “Japanese Karate: A Warriors Spirit” with Godshaw.
The Okinawan people have always believed that all Karate is one and that the different styles are just different aspects to Karate. It was not unknown for a master of one style to send his student to another master, to learn some useful technique. A Shotokan practitioner, Ivan never saw anything wrong with expanding his knowledge by learning other styles or arts. He recognised that the different Karate styles had more in common than differences.
Ivan was awarded his 8th Dan by the International Martial Arts Federation. A zen priest, who was a descendant of Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa, presented him with the award.
In 2007 Ivan faced the toughest battle of his life. Some years earlier he had been diagnosed with bone cancer.
In August 2007 Ivan was presented with a lifetime award from the Nikkei Games Karate Committee. He had been hospitalised at the time.
On 14 November 2007 Dan Ivan lost his battle with cancer. He died at the VA Medical Centre in Loma Linda, California. Although his body eventually succumbed to cancer, he remained mentally strong to the end. A remembrance service was held in honour of him on 9 December by the Japan Karate-Do Federation.
Ever the pragmatist, martial arts were more than something to be practised in the dojo for Ivan. As a CID investigator in post-war Japan, it became a matter of life or death. His experiences helped establish him as a true pioneer of American martial arts.