Maryknoll Dojo

In a back street of L.A.'s Little Tokyo district is a small Japanese Catholic center called Maryknoll that is home to one of SKA's oldest dojos. There are many remarkable things about Maryknoll Dojo. Its first practice was organized by a thirteen year old child: John Teramoto, now a godan living in Lawrence, Kansas. During Maryknoll's early years it was the world's only elementary school karate dojo. And it has had an incredible roster of instructors: Yasunori Ono, Shoji Okabe, and Sadaharu Honda, all of whom succeeded the most venerable of them all, Tsutomu Ohshima. One recent Sunday, John told me about how Maryknoll got started.

"In 1963 our Japanese instructor for generations, Mrs. Chujo, got ill suddenly. There was a nun named Sister Bernadette who had heard about Sensei, so Mr. Ohshima was brought in. We didn't know anything about him. I remember asking him in the yard if he knew any judo, or kendo or something like that. He said he knew a little karate. I didn't know what karate was, but I knew I wanted to learn something from him, so I asked him if he would teach us. There was some kind of aura about him; something heroic--I'm not sure what it was. He refused three times to see how serious I was; then finally he said go ahead and get some students together. We started with 60 students: 6th 7th and 8th grade boys."

"At the first class, Mr. Ohshima told us a little about Master Funakoshi and about karate. He said 'If you ever get in a fight using karate, I'll punch your nose and kick you out!'"

"I heard this and thought: Shoot! Then what are we doing this for? I felt bad about all those other guys."

"We would practice from 3:20 to 4:15 when the bus left. For the first few weeks we did gedan barai gedan barai gedan barai gedan barai and many of the guys got bored and quit. I asked Sensei if we could do something else, so we did age uke. We didn't really know who he was. That was one of the most rewarding things: to find out gradually the quality that fate had given us."

"In Japanese class some of the kids were goofing off, so he said, 'If you don't want to pay attention, just go to sleep. Put your head down.' I thought it might be trick or something but the only way to find out was to test it, so I put my head down. That was it--no punishment, no trick. But then I didn't learn any Japanese."

Jose Rivera, a Maryknoll yodan who also had Mr. Ohshima as a Japanese teacher, explains "He didn't let us get away with anything. He taught us 100 conversational phrases and 100 proverbs, which we had to memorize. If you didn't do your homework, you had to stand outside holding a bible over your head. Members of the karate club had to stand in kibadachi!"

Yet John recalls his first impressions of Mr. Ohshima in the dojo. "When he first did Heian Shodan, we saw a totally different persona. I thought: I don't want to ever meet this guy in a dark alley! This was the same guy who was dancing around, playing games with the kindergartners, singing songs."

In the dojo, "We did what I thought was a rigorous practice, but now I see it was more guidance than practice: how to see things correctly. Sensei wasn't trying to make karate men, he was trying to make men."

The lessons didn't let up as the years went by and younger boys like Jose and John's brother Kei Teramoto were allowed to join. Kei says "Sensei used to always tell us about respect and obligation. You have to know the difference between right and wrong. Be strong young men, don't be selfish."

Sensei's lessons must have worked, for not only is Maryknoll Dojo still going strong, it has an outstanding record of service to SKA. Every year Maryknoll organizes the Nisei Week exhibition and tournament, several bingo fund-raisers, and summer special training at Cate school for some 300 people. Its members have individually given even more, taking on responsibilities as diverse as management of BBC and care of Mr. Ohshima's lawn.

One might say that humility is another Maryknoll tradition, for even after reciting this formidable list of contributions, Jose nevertheless demurs: "I don't think we do all that much. We trained with Sensei many years; we know his commitment to us, so we're showing an equal commitment to him. All that Sensei has offered to us--I don't know how we can repay him for it."

Return to Archive of Legends