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Burb’s Eye View: Marshaling his martial arts collection

Michael Matsuda has come home. He’s already moved in all his stuff — most of which has pointy edges and can hurt you if you even look at it wrong.

Touring his “house,” you see what fuels his passion for all things martial arts. And while the stars of the show at the new Martial Arts History Museum on Magnolia Boulevard are the weapons from around the world, Matsuda is here to tell a much bigger story.

When I visited the museum on a recent Saturday afternoon, I expected to find homages to Bruce Lee, the Kung Fu television series, and the many other Hollywood influences that helped bring the martial arts to the Western world. While there’s plenty of memorabilia to appease casual fans and movie buffs, I found an unexpected education in the evolution of Asian and South Pacific cultures.

The museum isn’t about fighting — it’s not even mostly about fighting. In the small converted office space that still smells of fresh paint, Matsuda is presenting a history lesson with the panache of an experienced marketer and the thoughtful care of a curator.


In this space he is both, but he is also a tour guide and martial arts master. As he took me on a journey from the discipline of the samurai to the Korean styles of tae kwon do and hapkido, he said that martial arts were, for him, a defense mechanism at a trying time.

What more trying time than middle school?

“I was a little weensy kid so the bigger kids would throw me around,” he said. “Eventually, I found a (kung fu) school and I did Shaolin for 13 years.”

Eventually, Matsuda learned — then taught — monkey-style kung fu, a rare and difficult discipline because, as he put it, “people don’t like to be low to the ground.” He is the last teacher of this style in the U.S.


Professionally, he has had a long career in marketing, and his design experience helped form the museum’s exhibits, most of which he created himself. Others have been donated by Hollywood friends of the museum — the terra cotta warrior in the entrance, for example, was carved by Paul Wee, an animator for “The Simpsons.”

The museum began as a road show in 1999 — a booth at various conventions around California. As the booth’s popularity grew, so did the booth itself, and eventually Matsuda leased space for the collection in Santa Clarita in 2007.

When plans for a permanent Santa Clarita location evaporated, museum officials looked elsewhere. They found all the space they would need at a former office near the corner of Magnolia Boulevard and Buena Vista Street. The museum opened in its permanent Burbank location on June 25.

“This is a great city here, and I think we’re home,” Matsuda said.

Just past the shark teeth-laden blunt instruments of the Hawaiian islands, we toured the fighting category that is wholly American — the professional Mixed Martial Arts wall. Beyond that is a timeline of movies’ and television’s influence on the martial arts, and here I found more weapons, this time from “Big Trouble in Little China.” There are another 60 weapons in the museum’s archives; ready to rotate in and out as time goes on and the museum continues to grow.

A small gathering space is where the real mission of the museum will be carried out. Beginning this month, the Martial Arts History Museum will begin a seminar series that will cover samurai swords to sushi to book readings and movie screenings.

It is through these that Matsuda and the museum will tell the stories of the cultures that developed these fighting styles, and how these cultures grew and prospered and lived.

It is two days before July 4, and Michael is impressed that people are walking in off the street on a holiday weekend. He plays the role of greeter and tour guide, and can expound on any of the cultural displays that line the walls and ceilings.


He is in his museum, and he is home.

BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant to Burbank. When he’s not checking his reflection in the cold steel of a ninja star, he can be reached at and on Twitter @818NewGuy.