In 1912 a French born priest who spoke Japanese came to Los Angeles and said the first Catholic Mass for the Japanese Catholics. In 1921, Maryknoll, a U.S. based missionary society of priests, brothers and nuns took over the mission in Los Angeles to serve the needs of the Japanese Catholic community. The mission established an elementary school, and, in 1939, added a chapel. The first of several generations of Japanese Americans enrolled. Along with a strict academic curriculum, the mission fostered Japanese ethnic heritage, culture and language. Because Japanese Catholics represent a very small portion of people of Japanese heritage, Maryknoll’s doors were open to all faiths.
As a youngster Tsutomu Ohshima had practiced the arts of sumo (wrestling), kendo (swordsmanship) and judo. At the end of the Second World War, judo and kendo were banned by the occupation forces. He eventually enrolled at Waseda University, one of the most prestigious universities in Japan. At Waseda, Mr. Ohshima found karate and joined their club where he trained directly under Master Gichin Funakoshi, considered the founder of modern karate and the man who introduced karate to mainland Japan from Okinawa. In 1952, he was appointed captain of the karate club and also developed the four-corner judging system still in use at modern tournament.
In 1955, Tsutomu Ohshima arrived in the United States to continue his studies after graduating from Waseda. His reputation had preceded him and he was asked to teach karate to adults. In 1956, he started formed the oldest continuing karate organization in America. Mr. Ohshima recognized the opportunity to spread karate and Japanese culture as well as dispelling misconceptions of the Japanese.
In 1963 a Maryknoll nun, Sister Mary Bernadette, met Tsutomu Ohshima and invited him to take over Japanese language instruction for the retiring teacher. By then, he was teaching karate at several locations, including as a faculty member of Cal Tech in Pasadena. What free time he had was spent translating Master Gichin Funakoshi’s texts. He initially declined. However, he eventually surrendered to Sister Bernadette’s resolve.
The new Japanese teacher instilled strict discipline. He demanded that students consistently put forth their best efforts. When students misbehaved or forgot homework assignments, they were sent to the hallway to hold heavy books, bibles always conveniently available at the Catholic school, over their heads. For repeat infractions or bending arms Ohshima Sensei added additional volumes. He was particularly dismayed to find that many Japanese-American children had trouble properly pronouncing their names in Japanese. He immediately set out to correct them. Boys and girls were disciplined equally which particularly impressed the young boys. He emphasized showing respect, recognizing obligation and knowing the difference between right and wrong.
John Teramoto, then an eighth grade student, approached Mr. Ohshima in the courtyard one day. John had heard rumors that the new Japanese language teacher knew karate. Mr. Ohshima only admitted to knowing “a little.” Recalls John, “I didn’t even know what karate was, but I knew I wanted to learn something from him … there was some kind of aura about him; something heroic… So, I asked him if he could teach us (karate).” Mr. Ohshima refused John’s request three times in order to see just how serious John was about training. Finally, Mr. Ohshima relented and allowed John to get some students together. With its first 60 students, 6th, 7th and 8th grade boys, Maryknoll Karate Club in 1963 became the world’s first elementary school karate club.Over the years, the club flourished. Girls were encouraged to practice. Several hundred Maryknoll students passed through the dojo doors. Many students were also treated to instruction, both in karate and in Japanese, from Mr. Ohshima’s “substitutes.” These included his wife, Yoko, and several of his juniors from Waseda University, including, Sadaharu Honda, Shoji Okabe and Yasunori Ono. Occasionally, if Sensei was unable to teach an afternoon karate class, he would send us an intense brown belt from Caltech named Jim Sagawa.
As the Japanese-American population assimilated and prospered, it became less centralized within Los Angeles. Families moved to outlying suburbs and could no longer send their children to downtown Los Angeles. Further, as a missionary society, the Maryknoll order suffered from a shortage of religious staff to serve their overseas missions. Thus in 1995, the school was closed. The Maryknoll facility was rededicated as a Catholic and community center locally servicing both religious and secular needs, including the Maryknoll Karate Club. Today, many groups, classes and clubs use center facilities. Shotokan Karate of America moved its administrative offices to the center after the sale of its Los Angeles Dojo property.
Throughout the years, the Karate Club has remained active by bringing in new members and supporting the center’s community efforts. Today, the Maryknoll Karate Club is responsible for organizing the west coast summer special training and for conducting the annual Nisei Week Exhibition and Tournament. Each year, Maryknoll members continue its Annual Chicken Teriyaki Bingo fundraiser to support the Shotokan Ohshima Dojo Building Fund.
Active Maryknoll senior black belts include: John Teramoto (godan, fifth degree black belt, Maryknoll class of 1964) currently Curator of Asian Art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in Indiana and leads the karate groups at Butler University and in the city of Indianapolis (www.butlershotokan.org/ and www.indianapolisshotokan.org/ ).
Local godans continue to lead practices and manage the dojo. Kei Teramoto (godan, class of 1967) is executive vice president of SKA. José Rivera (godan, class of 1967) is active in the dojo and at Maryknoll. James Uyeda (godan, class of 1973) is a Los Angeles attorney in private practice. Frank Lee (godan) is the accounting manager for one of LA’s major construction firms.
Paul Tabe (yodan, fourth degree black belt, class of 1970) lives in Antwerp, Belgium, and leads practices for Belgium Shotokan ( www.belgiqueshotokan.eu ). Jerome Williams (godan) is a Substance Abuse Counselor, in 1996 he founded the South Los Angeles Dojo. Yodan Martin McGrail†, corporate director for Landec Corp., in 2005 founded and leads the Central Coast Dojo in Pismo Beach, California ( www.pismoska.org/index.htm ).
Jane Uyeda (sandan, class of 1979) teaches Japanese language and culture in Napa, California and helps lead practices at the San Francisco dojo. Other Sandans currently include: Philip Lynn, a Garden Grove physician; Philip Sugino, Senior Counsel for Honda North America who established Torrance Shotokan, and Gary Domingo, senior project manager for Commsult Group, who practices in New Jersey.
Many other active black belts and other members contribute their efforts to strong practice and successful dojo activities. Many inactive dojo alumni continue their generous, and well appreciated, support.