Judo Master Quietly Continues the Legacy

Nielsen is a Studio City free - lance writer

Roy Murakami walks around with a kind of a smirk on his face. He cracks a joke at a young kid, reaching down to help him with a leg lift. He tells another kid to "loosen up, Paco," with the diction of a football coach. He fakes a horrified groan after watching a young black belt, noting that "the kid looks raggedy today."

Then, out of the corner of his eye, Murakami sees a 12-year-old walk onto the mat without stopping to bow completely.


The kid falls flat on his stomach.

Murakami is a pleasant, unassuming man with a sixth-degree black belt in judo. He is a pillar of the San Fernando Valley's Japanese-American community, just as his father was, and just as his children may be.

Like all good judo senseis (teachers), Murakami is extremely self-effacing. But the walk gives him away. Murakami walks like a sensei, with short, slightly springy steps and always-level shoulders. It's subtle, this walk, but it emanates a strong sense of control. And it runs in the family.

Has Taught 30 Years Free

Murakami, 55, teaches judo at the Japanese-American Community Center on Branford Street in Pacoima. He has taught there for more than 30 years, three nights a week, free. His father, Seigoro Murakami, founded the dojo (studio) in 1927, after leaving a farm town in central Japan. One of Roy's sons, Michael, is a nationally ranked competitor, a member of the highly regarded California State University, Fresno judo team and a likely successor as sensei at the Valley dojo.

The Pacoima dojo is not known today as a magnet for black belts, since most who study there are young and new to the sport. The day has long passed when students were exclusively Japanese, or when the dojo was a major force in regional competitions. There are dozens of other dojos in the city, including several in the Valley.

Dojo Was First in Area

But this place deserves to be celebrated, according to those who know it--the place, and the people who run it. The Murakami dojo was the first in the area and the only one so dominated by a single family.

"Everyone involved in judo in this part of the state knows the Murakami name," said Toshio Tosaya, a former president of the Southern California Kudokan judo Black Belt Assn. and a former student of Seigoro Murakami. "In Southern California, they will always be one of the sport's first families."

The story of the Murakamis is heavy with familiar traditions. A rice famine sent Roy Murakami's father and grandfather to the United States at the turn of the century, where they hoped to make their fortunes and return to Japan. Seigoro settled in the San Fernando Valley, opened a nursery and studied judo at night.

Judo, at the time, was central to Japanese-American culture. Every good community center had a dojo, along with a temple, a language school, and baseball and football fields.

Tireless Volunteer

Seigoro Murakami was apparently both an excellent judo student and a tireless volunteer. In the '20s and '30s he set up dojos in San Fernando, Ventura and North Hollywood, driving back and forth endlessly to oversee classes and competition. His son, Roy, rode along to many of these classes, eventually helping with the teaching.

But it may have been during World War II that the family was best known. With 10,000 other local Japanese-Americans, the family was sent to the Manzanar relocation camp near Lone Pine, in the Owens River Valley. Not surprisingly, the camp population included most of the area's judo talent, including dozens of senseis.

Roy Murakami remembers practicing judo three or four nights a week during his four years at the camp, under the eye of a council of teachers led by his father. He remembers winning a few of the camp's annual tournaments, once in his age group and once in an open division.

'Saved Spiritual Lives'

To many who used it, and to many who only watched, the Manzanar dojo was the saving grace of the camp. "It was a real sustaining force," said Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, a camp veteran and author of a book called "Farewell to Manzanar." "The sides of the dojo were built to slide open so everyone could watch. The dojo gave a lot of people something to do. It probably saved a lot of spiritual lives."

It is Seigoro Murakami who sits at the center of old pictures of the camp's judo club, often with sons Roy and George at his side. "He was a figure of authority," said Tosaya, another camp veteran. "He was one of the leaders at the camp."

Roy Murakami continued competing when the family returned from the camp. He never placed in national competitions but did take several regional prizes. In the years after Manzanar, he helped his father rebuild both the business and the local dojo. He married and became the father of five, the oldest of whom is now 28.

Retired From Competition

Roy is a sixth-degree black belt today. He retired from competition in the 1960s, after his children were born. Over the years, he has continued to teach at the San Fernando dojo, which recently celebrated its 59th anniversary. The business still thrives, having been renamed "Sego Nursery," after Roy's father.

Many of Roy's peers, not to mention his children, believe he could have made quite a bit of money opening a private dojo, where he would have received a salary and probably fielded older, stronger classes.

But Roy plays all of this down. "There are different things that people like to do. Staying where I was is one of them. I competed for a while, then I took over when I had to. There's a lot of people out there who are better than me."

The Murakami legacy was underlined in 1984, when the Japanese judo team chose to practice at the Pacoima dojo during the 1984 Olympics. And, at the community center, the staff is quick to stress Roy's part in that legacy. "The Murakami family is a foundation stone for this center," said Jim Kuranashi, president of the center. "But Roy is a very quiet person and he never gets the credit he deserves."

Son to Follow Footsteps

Michael Murakami joins his father at the dojo on summer nights, when he's on vacation from college. Most summer days are spent at the nursery, working with the family. When he graduates from Fresno State, Michael expects to return to the Valley, probably for good.

"Sure there are times when you get bored," he said. "But that's a part of anything. I like competing and I like teaching."

Michael, at 22, is one of two third-generation black-belts in the Murakami family. Laura, his 27-year-old sister, teaches once a week at the dojo, occasionally participating in local exhibitions.

But only Michael still competes. In last year's collegiate nationals, he took second in his weight division, according to his father. He still has two years of eligibility, and his goal is to win next year.

Only Needs 'Will Power'

His coach thinks he might have a chance. "Michael's father and grandfather obviously taught him well," said Harvo Imamura, the president and head instructor of the Fresno State judo team. "He started young, and he has the talent. It's only a question of will power."

His dad thinks he might have a chance. During classes at the dojo, he sometimes watches while his son works with the brown-belt students. Occasionally he offers advice, suggesting a closed stance, a lower center of gravity, a quicker turn and so on.

They look a lot alike. Michael is shorter than his dad, a little larger in the shoulders. But just as unassuming and just as quiet.

Michael never saw his father compete, but he still feels the weight of the traditions. He says he welcomes them and hopes someday to preserve them. He hasn't heard anything about his father retiring, but he also hasn't asked.

"Things are pretty good the way they are," he said, with predictable self-effacement.

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