Karate teacher has worldwide allure

Students flock from around the globe to study under Tetsuhiro Hokama in southern Okinawa

by Joe Carroll

On first seeing him, it’s hard to understand why people cross continents to meet this diminutive 65-year-old wiry gray-haired man, shaking his head in dismay as some of his karate students struggle to get a grip on the art of fighting with sticks.

But come they do, in droves, from across the world to pay homage to Tetsuhiro Hokama at his karate dojo in Okinawa. Housed in an anonymous four-story concrete building, on a street full of four-story concrete buildings, in a suburb of Nishihara in the southern part of the island, the dojo is surprisingly small — about 10 by 15 meters.

One clue to Hokama’s magnetism is the ragged, faded pink belt around his uniform — many moons (and washing cycles) ago it was red, identifying him as a 10th “dan,” the highest possible rank in the Gojuryu style. While he is clearly in great shape for his age, he no longer has the same physical presence he once had — aging posters and newspaper photographs all around the dojo walls show a formidable-looking fighter.

Not that this matters to his students. Black-belts from Canada and France visiting the dojo one day in July talked about Hokama in hushed tones of reverence. For them, his dojo — and indeed all of Okinawa Island — is something of a shrine to which they’ve come on pilgrimage.

Shannon Mercier credits “Hokama-sensei” with his rapid recovery from a motorcycle accident two years ago — a recovery that confounded his doctors. “My right leg was crushed, broken in nine places from the knee downward and I had two metal plates inserted,” the 42-year-old recalls. “The surgeons said I had a ‘catastrophic’ injury — for most people it would take two years before they would even consider going back to work.”

But within nine months, Shannon was not only working as a carpenter again but had already returned to his home dojo in Canada. His motivation to get back on his feet, he says, was the trip he’d signed up for before the accident, to train with Hokama “in the home of karate.”

He will always have pain in his right leg, but for now Mercier is ecstatic just to be here.

“Meeting Hokama-sensei has just made the trip that bit more mythical, mystical and magical. Being able to stand on his dojo floor and have him instruct us is just priceless.”

Before and after training, it’s clear that Hokama is tremendously charming. “Don’t break my glasses,” he warns, pointing to the windows as the Canadians start to flail 2-meter-long bamboo sticks. “A Germany broke that glasses over there and a French broke these glasses here,” he says in broken English.

Still, he is an excellent communicator. Hokama taught history in high school for 31 years and worked in a number of universities, somehow finding the time to write around 17 books as well.

While there was much good humor during the breaks in training, in the practice sessions Hokama became serious and pulled no punches when it came to assessing his students’ performance.

“No, no, no, no, not like that,” he berated them as they evidently failed to follow his instructions to the letter. “Flick your wrists . . . no, 90 degree.”

Far from being downcast in the face of criticism, the Canadians seemed delighted. After all, this is why they had traveled more 10,000 km — to be taught by a “master.”

What is so special about him that practitioners from 137 countries have visited his dojo? For Chris Doyle, a seventh dan, who brought a party of 23 from his club in Ontario, part of the reason is simply Hokama’s vast knowledge.

“He’d say, instead of just hitting someone hard in the center of the stomach, maybe you should move it here, where there is a floating rib and the floating rib has a nerve center, a pressure point — he has more accuracy and technique.”

Earlier, during the day’s training session, Hokama was observed gently placing his bare foot on top of an opponent’s and, with curled toes, exerting pressure on just the right spot to send the man tumbling to the ground.

Another factor in Hokama’s reputation is his lineage. He learned Gojuryu from a teacher who in turn had been taught by Chojun Miyagi, the founder of this particular style. But it soon becomes clear that for Doyle, Hokama is much more than simply an expert fighter, and karate is much more than just a sport.

“It’s a physical means to a spiritual beginning,” Doyle says. Karate increases a person’s self-confidence, while the relentless training purges them of any aggression, he says.

Joanne Plaxton, one of Doyle’s students, says, “If you train over and over again, until your body knows where to go and your mind goes quiet, your spirit comes out and flows through you. You don’t necessarily see the spirit, but you hear it in ‘kiai,’ the yell at the end of the ‘kata’ (a karate routine).”

Plaxton, her husband and teenage daughter train together at Doyle’s dojo. “The family that kicks together, sticks together,” she jokes. The trip to Okinawa set them back around $15,000 (about ¥1.3 million) in total, but she wasn’t complaining. “It’s an incredible big deal to be where it all started — the spirit of karate is here. You can just feel it.”

Plaxton’s 11-year-old daughter, Cathryne, was no less enthusiastic. “When most people think about karate they think about violence, kicking and punching, but that’s not really what it’s about. It’s about defending and I guess being more calm.”

Another junior member on the trip, Holly Thompson, 14, agreed, adding: “Karate makes me a better person. The first thing they teach you is that you can walk away, that’s the easiest way of self-defense. It’s the opposite of what you might think — you can do something, but you don’t have to.”

Holly’s 13-year-old brother, Matt, admitted he’d “had to use karate a couple of times in school,” but insisted “I never threw the first punch.”

If Hokama is aware that many of his international students regard him as something of a guru, he doesn’t show it and betrays no trace of pomposity. But clearly he too believes that karate has its religious aspects. “Philosophy and psychology are very important inside karate. Meditation (is) very important.” He goes on to say how karate also teaches respect for one’s parents, ancestors and teachers. “Respect is God — God is inside, not outside.”

The irony that many of his most ardent fans live overseas isn’t lost on Hokama. He is scathing of the local politicians who over the years, he says, have paid only lip service to Okinawa’s rich heritage.

“They are no good, only talking, (it) makes me very angry because they are only speaking karate is important but not museum making.” According to Hokama, the collection of books and memorabilia that he has amassed on the second floor of his dojo is the only karate museum in Okinawa.

Given that scores of karate followers make their way to Hokama’s door every year — and there are equally fanatical visitors to other Okinawa dojo as well — it’s surprising that more isn’t made of the area’s karate history. But as long as its martial arts heritage remains relatively low key, those who do make the long trek to this isolated island get to leave with the feeling that they’ve discovered for themselves something very special.