Meeting Tokumura Kensho

Teri and I were at the IHOF after party, scoping out people to interview for the blog, handing out T-shirts, talking trash with the sensei — just being ourselves. In the lobby, we spotted an Asian gentleman.

“Is that Tokumura Kensho?” Teri asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said squinting at the man in question. “I think so.”

Teri grabbed a passer-by, got a positive ID and we rushed forward hoping to snag an interview. Before we could introduce ourselves, however, Tokumura Sensei recognized Teri from the tournament and engaged her in conversation about sparring.

Now, in an earlier post, I had said that Tokumura Sensei was a first generation student of Grand Master Shimabuku, but his importance in martial arts is bigger than that. Tokumura is a Rok Dan in Isshinryu (sixth degree blackbelt) and a Hanshi Kudan (9th degree blackbelt) in Gojo Ryu and created his own martial arts style called Tokushin. When he was a teenager, studying Isshinryu under Grand Master Shimabuku, he was the person most likely leading the American first generation students (Armstrong, Long, Mitchum, Nagel, etc.) in their katas. (A pretty thorough biography is posted on and can be found here:

The Language Barrier

As I was saying, Tokumura Sensei recognized Teri and had something important he wanted to tell her about the sparring competition. Our main issue was a small language barrier. English is not Tokumura’s first language, and Teri’s and my knowledge of Japanese is limited to swearing and a handful of random nouns.

“Competitors three mirrors. (He made a gesture that looked like it meant small.) Unsafe,” said Tokumora. Then, gesturing to himself, he added “Umpire two mirrors.”

We smiled at him encouragingly, hoping he would continue and we’d be able to figure out what he wanted to tell Teri. He repeated himself, “Competitors three mirrors; umpire two mirrors.”

OK, we obviously weren’t getting this. “Three mirrors?” asked Teri. (Gotta love her, she always knows what to do in all sorts of social situations. I would have just kept nodding like an idiot.)

At this point it became obvious we weren’t going to break through the language barrier without a bit of help. Tokumura Sensei called over Sensei Jeff Perkins for assistance.

“Competitors three mirrors,” he said.

“Three meters,” Perkins clarified.


Tokumura placed Perkins to one side of him and pulled Teri to the other side. Gesturing between the two of them he said, “three meters.” Then he pulled them closer to each other, pointed at Perkin’s feet, then Teri’s and said “unsafe.” Teri and Perkins frowned in puzzlement.

At this point, I was starting to feel a little jealous that this famous karate-ka had recognized Teri and was sharing his knowledge with her. But, because I was not part of his demonstration, I had a clear view of what he was showing us.

“Oh…I get it,” I called out. “The lines in the sparring ring were too close together and it was causing a safety issue!”

Tokumura gave a quick nod of agreement, gestured to himself again and said “umpire two meters.”

“And the ring’s center judge should be two meters back from center,” filled in Perkins.

I was feeling pretty proud of myself as Tokumura and Perkins told us that in Okinawa competitions, the start lines are three meters apart. It gives the competitors the opportunity to approach one another more slowly and to see what the other person is doing.

In my limited experience, the start lines for sparring here in the U.S. are more varied. I’ve seen them at three meters, one meter and everywhere in between. I think we change it up depending on how much space is available and who is putting the tape down on the floor. (Or, in all fairness, different associations may have different rules about the placement of start lines.)

A Cultural “Exchange”

The rest of our limited time together was a crash course in Okinawan manners. I presented Tokumura with a Fat Karateka shirt, bowing as I handed the shirt to him. Tokumura Sensei insisted Teri take a picture of me presenting him the shirt, which was a little more awkward because I kept trying to peek at Tokumura while I was bowing to him. (That’s a no-no in Okinawa.)

“Keep your eyes down,” Perkins called from the sidelines. I was trying. I’m a very curious person by nature and this part of Okinawan culture is very hard to do in practice. Finally, I closed my eyes, so I wasn’t tempted to peek and the picture was taken.

We watched Tokumura Sensei take a business card that was offered him by another Karate-ka. “Oh, I know about this,” I whispered to Teri. “In Japan, you take the person’s business card in both your hands and you make sure they see you actually reading the card.”

“And you don’t put it away in your pocket in front of the person,” Perkins added.

This knowledge came in very handy, because Tokumura handed Teri his business card and said if she (we?) were in Okinawa, we could visit him at his dojo for a workout. It took all our self control not to jump up and down while squealing like children.

We said our goodbyes and left feeling like we had just met our favorite rock star. (Coincidently, Perkins said that accompanying Tokumura on his tour of the U.S. was a lot like being part of a rock star’s entourage. Apparently, the enthusiasum of those who get to meet Tokumura is pretty awesome.)

See You Later
The next morning, as we were packing our car to leave Knoxville, we ran into Sensei Perkins and Tokumura Sensei in the lobby of the hotel. We waved to them and, on a whim, I bowed to them and said “Hagimemashte.” Typically this is something you say when you meet someone; kind of like “how are you” or “it’s a pleasure to meet you.” But again, my Japanese is mostly limited to swear words, so I didn’t have a lot of words to pick from. (I think I made the right choice.)

Tokumura’s face lit up. (In Japan — and I assume in Okinawa, too — people really appreciate it when you try to speak Japanese…even if you totally butcher the language. It’s the gesture of trying that is appreciated.)

“No,” said Tokumura, “Matte ne.”

Teri and I looked at Perkins. “It means ‘see you later,’” he said with a small grin.

“Matte ne!”