Kei Teramoto presides over last Tuesday night’s practice of the Maryknoll Karate Club, at the St. Francis Xavier Japanese Catholic Center in Little Tokyo. The group has met on the same floor since 1963 and will celebrate half a century of karate this weekend. (Rafu Shimpo photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS)

Rafu Sports Editor

On a warm, sultry evening last Tuesday, the auditorium at St. Francis Xavier Japanese Catholic Center in Little Tokyo began to fill, as a decades-old tradition continued.

Clad in karate-gi, athletes were scattered about the floor, opened like jackknives with their foreheads touching the hardwood that has seen all sorts of activity over the last 50 years – ballroom dance lessons, music performances, political and community rallies, and even the memorial reception for a revered community journalist just a day earlier.

Walking, striding and stretching, the soles of their feet collect the dirt, despite the floor having been swept just a few minutes ago.

Tsutomu Ohshima conducts the first Nisei Week karate exhibition, in a 1957 photo supplied by Maryknoll Karate and Shotokan Karate of America.

“We tried to clean it as best we could, but there’s so much that happens in here,” said Kei Teramoto. “It’s kind of like history right under our feet.”

There’s no shortage of history for Teramoto’s group, the Maryknoll Karate Club, which celebrates 50 years this weekend, with events in Santa Barbara and Little Tokyo.

It was in 1963 that Teramoto’s older brother, John, approached Tsutomu Ohshima, credited with introducing Shotokan karate to the United States, and asked the sensei to train him and his friends.

Oshima flatly refused, insisting that the young men would soon tire of the strict training and quit. It wasn’t until young John arrived with petitions signed by the parents of would-be students that Ohshima agreed.

The newly-formed class gathered at Maryknoll Catholic Church (since renamed St. Francis Xavier) and have trained there ever since.

James Uyeda helps to ensure a student’s technique is correct.

Ohshima is a graduate of Waseda University in Tokyo, where he was the captain of the school’s karate club. Before relocating to the United States in 1955, he had studied and trained under Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of modern karate who brought karate to mainland Japan from Okinawa.

Instantly respected in the U.S. for his knowledge and experience, Ohshima was soon teaching American students. In 1957, he was asked by Tatsuo Inouye, leader of the local judo federation, to hold an exhibition at Koyasan Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo, as part of the Nisei Week Festival.

That 15-minute demonstration is widely regarded as the very first official public demonstration of traditional karate in the United States.

Today, the Nisei Week Karate Tournament continues, hosted annually by Ohshima’s Shotokan Karate of America. Now age 82, the sensei still attends the tournament, seated in the center chair at the judges’ table.

Even a small amount of time spent at one of the Maryknoll practices or at the Nisei Week tournament reveals how a sense of family is perhaps the prevailing bond that has held the Maryknoll club so close for so long. Kei Teramoto, now one of the highest-ranking club members, has seen all three of his daughters train and achieve at Maryknoll.

“We were going to church here, so we kind of grew up with it,” said Beth Teramoto, the eldest of the Teramoto kids and a second-degree black belt. “You find out later that it’s difficult physically and mentally draining, and as kids you don’t like it, but you learn the meaning and value of it pretty quickly.”

Now 27, Beth’s focus on karate strengthened after college, and she credited her mother, Laurie, for holding the girls to their commitment once they started.

Megan Teramoto spars with a fellow club member at last Tuesday’s workout.

Megan, 22 and the youngest of the Teramoto girls, quit for a year at the age of 13 – and soon found herself being lectured by her dad and “a number of other people.”

“I didn’t want to be left out anymore. There’s a lot of functions that go on, and I didn’t want to feel like I had been dismissed from the family,” she said.

“It’s a very tightly-knit community, very close,” said James Uyeda, another of Maryknoll’s highest-ranking members. “In training, everyone endures a lot of rigorous training, so it’s only natural that we form a close bond.”

The bond was evident on that Tuesday night, as members gathered in the old church lunch area after practice to have some refreshments, chat, pluck an ‘ukulele and play a few hands of cards. On a weeknight, the kinship of athletes from their 20s into their 60s kept them laughing until almost midnight.

From left, Matthew Frohwein, Beth Teramoto, Adam Rickabus and Michael Fife use some post-practice time for a round of cards.

“Practice here at Maryknoll has been basically the same for 50 years,” Kei Teramoto said. “Why do young people come? I’d say it’s because of the hard practice. In the beginning, we were sure that it would keep young people away, because it’s hard and they wouldn’t want to do it. But I think now, there are a lot of people who understand that this is not simply fighting, and to follow true, traditional martial arts is hard, but very, very rewarding.”

This weekend’s events will begin with a practice at the home dojo of Ohshima, in Santa Barbara.  A group from Waseda will travel from Tokyo to take part, and Uyeda said he wants to encourage anyone who has trained in Shotokan to join.

On Sunday, Ohshima will lead the noon practice at Maryknoll, then be the guest of honor at the 50th anniversary banquet to be held at the Japanese American National Museum.

In his comments for Maryknoll’s 50th anniversary program, Ohshima wrote, “I never thought you would continue to practice hard for 50 years.”
Citing the hard work and samurai spirit of the Maryknoll club in continuing karate in the U.S. for a half-century, Ohshima wrote, simply, “I am proud of you.”

For more information regarding the 50th anniversary, visit

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