Even at 100 years old and scooting about in a wheelchair, Miye Ota remains — as ever — an orchestra conductor for whom the orchestra has always been superfluous. A commanding woman, Ota held court at a birthday celebration held in her honor on Saturday, August 25, at the dojo she and her now-deceased husband, Ken Ota, built cinderblock by cinderblock back in 1964.
About 40 guests showed up to the martial-arts-dance instruction studio — replete with two glass chandeliers — located on Magnolia Avenue in Old Town Goleta. Most were former students who have since passed the age of retirement. There they had learned all about the art of falling in the Otas’ aikido classes or the art of dancing in the couple’s ballroom dance courses.
But as Miye Ota stressed Saturday, the Otas had always been about a lot more than martial arts. As many of the guests recounted, they also learned something about respect and discipline, lessons many explained they were not ready to accept from their own parents. If the Otas functioned as parents in absentia, the ties established decades ago clearly remain strong. One former student drove down from Berkeley; she’s now collaborating with Miye on the teacher’s memoirs. They’re also in the process of creating a new nonprofit to keep the family dream and dojo alive with the Otas’ son, Steve, now 70, at the helm.
Miye grew up a Nisei outside of Guadalupe; Ken a Nisei from Lompoc. The two met while held at an internment camp during World War II. Then as now, Miye Ota was glamorous, earthy, shrewd, smart, salty, fun, sexy, and utterly determined. Ken never knew what hit him. Immediately after the war, Miye opened a beauty salon in Philadelphia. “I had nerve,” she said with a laugh. She laughs a lot. The family moved back to the Central Coast — this time to Goleta — in 1948. She would be one of the founding members of the Goleta Chamber of Commerce — and the only woman on the board. “When was that?” she was asked. “When you’ve lived as long as I have,” she replied, “You can’t keep track of all the decades.” Then she laughed again.
She talked much about her chi, her energizing life force. She’s outlived so many friends and loved ones, she said, but even so wakes up calm and relaxed. “That’s my chi,” she said. Miye talked about being able to withstand a kick to the gut by an accomplished street fighter long ago; he was exasperated he couldn’t simply push over so seemingly slight a woman. “That was my chi,” she said. When she recounted the incident to her husband — famous for his dignified reserve — he replied, “I would have just farted.” This brought out an even bigger laugh.
At the birthday celebration, Miye greeted her guests with vivid recollections and commentary specific to who they were. She pushed and prodded as well, dragooning a few up to the stage to be test subjects for one former student, now an accomplished stage magician. His trick was as metaphysical as it was magical: Only one of his two human guinea pigs would be tapped on the shoulder; the one who felt it would be the one who wasn’t touched. “How often do we touch someone without even knowing it?” he asked. Miye, he said, had touched his inspiration.
Miye Ota, there’s no doubt, is a bit of a diva. But her divinity has always been about bringing out the best in others, sometimes whether they wanted it or not. With a great big whoosh of her arms — from the ground up to the sky — Miye wished everyone in the room a big happy birthday. “It’s all about you,” she said. “We’re all celebrating this together.”