He is perhaps the most celebrated traditional sensei in America today, and for good reason. Master Fumio Demura was the first professional martial arts showman. He wrote the first best-selling books on Okinawan weapons. He was the inspiration (and stunt double!) for Mr. Miyagi in the original Karate Kid films. And he was a champion fighter back in his native Japan. This year, we’ll celebrate this living legend’s legacy at the 2018 Martial Arts SuperShow.
As a youth, Master Fumio Demura was so shy he couldn‘t speak without stuttering. He was so frail that he flunked his first white belt test. When he immigrated to the United States in 1965 to introduce shito-ryu karate to Americans, he so struggled with learning English that it brought him to tears. Yet Master Demura, 79, overcame all of these obstacles and rose to astonishing heights in our industry. For decades, and all over the Western world, he’s been universally heralded as a superb technician, a dynamic showman and the consummate traditional sensei. A charismatic leader, he has built an organization with thousands of students.
America’s First Professional Showman
Martial arts veterans with good memories know that Master Demura was America’s first professional martial arts performer. Many years before creative genius Ernie Reyes, Sr. of San Jose, California took the art of martial arts performances to the next level, Demura laid the foundation for Reyes and others to follow. Master Demura, the performer, transcended the routine martial arts demonstration with innovations that thrust it into the realm of legitimate show business. He accomplished this feat before anyone else in our industry gave it any serious thought. It was back at a time when the vast majority of martial arts demos were raw and unrefined.
From 1968-74, Demura launched the first paid, professional martial arts performances in America. He formed a troupe of dynamic black belts, trained them in stagecraft, and presented a series of daily demonstrations at Japanese Village & Deer Park, a southern California tourist attraction. Among those troupe members were Sho Kosugi and Steven Seagal, both of whom went on to star in motion pictures.
Books and Movies
In the martial arts world, Master Demura is perhaps just as well known for the series of books he’s authored on Okinawan weapons, in particular the one on nunchaku. In 1970, he wrote his first book, Shito-Ryu Karate, to further introduce his style. But it was his how-to book, Nunchaku: Karate Weapon of Self-Defense, published in 1972, that sold hundreds of thousands of copies and introduced this popular Okinawan weapon to martial artists everywhere for the first time. This was a full year before Bruce Lee made the weapon famous in Enter the Dragon.
Demura followed up with books on the bo, tonfa and sai, but the nunchaku book remains one of his most enduring legacies.
Master Demura also cut a sideline career in entertainment. He’s had roles in dozens of motion pictures, television shows and documentaries. He received enormous recognition in the martial arts industry for being the inspiration for the beloved Mr. Miyagi character, portrayed by the late actor Pat Morita, in the original Karate Kid films. (See sidebar story, “About The Real Miyagi.”)
Pathway to America
Despite the superb technical mastery for which he later became renowned, Fumio Demura was not a gifted athlete when he started his martial arts training as a youth in Japan (see sidebar story, “From Flunking His First White Belt Test to Becoming the All-Japan Karate Champion!”). But once he had developed that picture-perfect craftsmanship, it turned out to be, unexpectedly for him, the path to his destiny in the United States. It would, in fact, mark the biggest turning point in his entire life.
The Rest Is History!
The rest is what they call history. Ivan and Demura were train and businesspartners for decades and, from their Santa Ana, California headquarters, launched a large chain of schools. From the day the two combined their skills, their business climbed steadily to a profound level of growth. Roughly 300 students were actively enrolled at their custom-built headquarters. At one point, they oversaw more than 20 dojos in southern California alone, with branches throughout the United States.
But Demura’s migration to the United States wasn’t without its share of problems. Besides the difficulty of adjusting to the new culture, he suffered a frustrating battle with the English language.
“I cried in bed for two days,” he admits, “because it was so hard to communicate. Even today, I can’t always say the right words. The translation, for me, has been very difficult.”
But one thing that wasn‘t difficult for the impeccable showman was doing what he did best — performing. And for that quality, he became a sensation throughout American karate. In addition, at his school he taught his main karate classes himself every day.
A Near-Death Setback!
For Fumio Demura, America really has been the land of opportunity. By all accounts, his life here has been a huge success. But, as has been the case since he was a child, life still throws down the gauntlet and presents him with challenges that need to be overcome.
Such was the case in 2011, when he suffered a severe stroke that put him in a coma in the hospital and temporarily took away his ability to move his right arm and leg. He was given just a 5% chance of recovery and — perhaps miraculously — he survived!
In 2015, he experienced kidney failure which required him to undergo daily dialysis. But he met both challenges head-on, as would a warrior. Demura has regained much of his lost movement, and his kidney functionality is greatly improved.
Despite those health setbacks, Demura still devotes considerable time to the martial arts — as he’s always done.
Perhaps it’s easy now for readers to understand how Master Demura built so much universal respect among martial artists from all arts and styles. Fighters respect him because he was fighting a champion. Performers admire him for his flawless technique and because he set the early standards for professionalized demonstrations. Instructors honor him for teaching life skills long before it was fashionable to do so.
All of that has made him revered as the consummate traditional sensei. This is what we’re recognizing him for when we present Master Demura with the MAIA Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2018 Martial Arts SuperShow on July 1-4 in Las Vegas.
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