Exclusive Interview: Fumio Demura – The Japanese Tiger of American Karate

When it comes to legendary martial arts masters, there’s not too many to choose from these days.

Either they’re dead.

Like Bruce Lee.

Or they’re untouchable.

Like Chuck Norris.

Fumio Demura

But, if you search hard enough, you will find that some masters are still out there; training everyday, sharing their wisdom with passionate Karate-ka in dojos all around the world. You just gotta know where to look.

One of these masters is Fumio Demura sensei.

At least if you ask anybody who’s been around long enough.

A self-made man in his own right, having been ambitious enough to seek out tutelage from such legendary masters as Ryusho Sakagami, Nagamine Shoshin, Teruo Hayashi, Yuchoku Higa, Choshin Chibana, Kenei Mabuni, Kenzo Mabuni, Konishi Yasuhiro and Taira Shinken, Demura sensei resides in sunny Santa Ana, California, a place he ended up in after emigrating from Japan in his early twenties to pursue dreams of success in the land of opportunity – America.

And what a journey it must have been.

Although Demura sensei boasts an incredible resume (it’s actually ridiculously extensive, go ahead and read the four pages yourself), with a 9th dan black belt in Shito-ryu Karate to go along with it, he still calls himself a “white belt”, jokingly admitting to having “a stupid brain that goes too slow” (at least when it comes to technology) – his humble Japanese manners and traditional Karate shining through in every word.

I was fortunate enough to catch Demura sensei for a couple of questions recently – about Karate, life, Hollywood, fears and future.

This article is the result.

Not surprisingly, Demura sensei, who is a strict traditionalist, considers basics to be the most important thing when it comes to mastering Karate. Because, in his own words, “if you don’t have any basics you can’t go up to a higher level” – a saying that echoes the sentiment of many (if not all) great Karate-ka I’ve met during my travels.

Basics are essential.

And if it wasn’t for Demura sensei’s fascination for relentlessly perfecting his basics, a fact which even earned him the East Japan Championships gold in 1957, just one year after he was awarded 1st dan black belt from master Sakagami sensei (whom he had been studying under since the age of twelve), he most likely would have stayed in Yokohama, Japan – where he was born on September 15, 1938 – instead of being sent off to the US in 1965 to spread traditional Japanese Shito-ryu Karate to the Western world.

But things change.

The American Karate scene is now quite different from the Japanese Karate world in which Demura sensei grew up.

So when I ask Demura sensei if, and how, Karate training today is different from when he grew up in Japan, the answer seems obvious: “Sport Karate is like a game, in traditional Karate you learn human life. Today in Karate, we go by law. Fifty years ago there was no such law! It was a much harder training.”

And from what I can gather, that last part is probably an understatement.

Hard work – in Karate, business and life – has never been a problem for Demura sensei. On the contrary, he must have even enjoyed it on occassions – how else do you explain his numerious pioneering martial arts books (including: Shito-Ryu Karate (1971), Advanced Nunchaku (1976), Tonfa: Karate Weapon of Self-Defense (1982), Nunchaku: Karate Weapon of Self-Defense (1986), Bo: Karate Weapon of Self-Defense (1987) and Sai: Karate Weapon of Self-Defense (1987)).

Not to mention his incredible Hollywood career, of which he recounts the following: “I was in show business seven days a week, fourteen hours a day. I had to work hard – but I made it. However, I wish I could have come to the United States earlier, so I could have done more things!”

As if what I’m about to tell you below wasn’t enough:

In the 1980’s, Demura sensei became involved in the Karate Kid series of films (all three of them). He was not only fight-choreographer, but also the stunt double for Pat Morita (actor of Mr. Miyagi). Since then, Demura has appeared in several films and documentaries, including: The Warrior Within (1976) The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977), Shootfighter: Fight to the Death (1992), Rising Sun (1993), Masters of the Martial Arts (1998, presented by Wesley Snipes), Mystic Origins of the Martial Arts (1998), Modern Warriors (2002), XMA: Xtreme Martial Arts (2003) and Ninja (2009).

Of course, he has also produced a number of his own instructional videos on traditional Karate and Kobudo.

All this while building his own Karate organization in the background, dubbed Genbu-kai, which was officially founded in 1999 (“Gen” means “professional”, “original” or “beginning”; “Bu” means “martial” (symbolizing all martial arts) and “Kai” means “organization”).

As you can imagine, and even though his age is slowly climbing towards the 80 mark, Demura is still a busy man these days. At the time of this interview, he was just leaving for the airport to receive another Lifetime Achievement Award – having recently been to both Minnesota and Panama.

But he seems to enjoy every minute of it.

When I finally ask Demura sensei my last question, about his most memorable experience from his vast career, the answer gives a hint to what might be Demura’s secret weapon for his longevity. Coincidentally, it comes from the world of Hollywood:

“I was working in a movie, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and I didn’t know I had to fight with a tiger! But… I had the Karate spirit and still did it. Traditional Karate will not change.”

Indeed it won’t.

At least not with gatekeepers like Fumio Demura.

The Japanese Tiger of American Karate.

12 Comments

  • Andreas Quast
    1st!!!!
    • Always these Germans... ;)
  • Hi Jesse. What a great reminder about basics and the way things have changed over the past 50 years. Did you know that a documentary about Sensei Demura is in production? You can see more at http://www.fumiodemura.com/. The film makers did a great job on their last karate project so I have high hopes that this one will be an awesome tribute.
    • Hi Larry-san! Thanks for your comment and link - I had no idea about the documentary. Looking forward to the finished project, hopefully it will be a work of art.
  • And Sensei Demura received a “Lifetime Achievement Award” at the Irvine (CA) International Film Festival. Photos of the event are pasted on facebook. I wasn't able to attend but on of my neighboring instructors (and movie star) Billy Blanks was there.
  • Shihan Essence
    Osss
  • Andy
    A great Sensei. I learned so much just watching him teach. Not what he taught, but how he taught it, impressively effective.
  • ANDREY
    HOSSU !!INDEEDHIS CHINESE HOROSCOPE IS THE YEAR OF THE TIGER, SAME YEAR AS OKINAWA GOJU RYU MASTER MORIO ...HOSSU !!
  • Paul l
    I love this site!Keep it coming Thanks Paul
  • Masaru Hoshi
    Sensei Demura's documentary is called The Real Miyagi. I watched it on Netflix a couple of weeks ago. It really worth watching it.http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2313306/
  • Fumio Demura is my Sensei for almost 20 years. Living legend.
  • You can certainly see your expertise within the wofk you write. The world hopes for even moore passionate writers such as you who aren't afraid to mention how they believe. At all times follow your heart.

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