Shito-Ryu Karate Trailblazer: Fumio Demura

Shito-ryu karate legend Fumio Demura, as photographed for Black Belt magazine.Ask the average karate practitioner to name the main styles of Japan, and chances are he’ll rattle off shotokan, goju-ryu and wado-ryu with no trouble. But unless he’s really up on his art, there’s a good chance that he’ll stumble over the name of the fourth major style, snap his fingers and ask quizzically, “What’s the name of that other one, again?”

That other style is shito-ryu, and any karate student’s puzzlement about it is somewhat understandable.  Shito-ryu is relatively unknown outside Japan, even though it’s perhaps the most interesting of all the Japanese systems. Shito-ryu is really a combination of several styles. For instance, it adopts the quick, strong moves of shotokan and blends them with the slow, heavy breathing aspects of goju-ryu. Another noteworthy feature of shito-ryu is the emphasis that some of its instructors place on making their students proficient in kobudo (traditional weaponry), including the bo, sai, naginata and nunchaku.

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Probably the biggest reason shito-ryu is still relatively unknown is that until quite recently, few attempts were made to export the style. Certainly, its practitioners haven’t been nearly as aggressive in sending sensei to other countries as have the followers of shotokan.

The results of this stay-at-home policy are apparent: Few martial artists know it abroad, and the other Japanese styles dominate the foreign field. In the United States, shotokan is the most widespread. In Europe, wado-ryu is very strong. Meanwhile, goju-ryu is well-known — in good measure because of the worldwide publicity given to two of its most prominent, and flamboyant, practitioners: the longhaired Gogen “The Cat” Yamaguchi and the barrel-chested Mas Oyama.

In the United States, there’s only one shito-ryu instructor. That’s surprising in view of the fact that America has more karate players by far than any other country outside the Orient, and there’s such a profusion of styles taught here. (Estimates of the number of U.S. karatemen run as high as 50,000.)

A few years ago, we were discussing this point in Black Belt’s offices with Fumio Demura, a muscular fifth dan who’s shito-ryu’s sole representative in the United States. Although little-known abroad, he’s one of the more recognized karateka in Japan. He won the All-Japan Karate Championship in 1961 and serves as his style’s representative in Tokyo, where he operates five dojo. He’s also much in demand to give demonstrations with the bo, sai and other weapons because of his advanced skill.

“I think the big reason why foreigners know so little about shito is that the style is most prominent in the western area of Japan, a good distance away from Tokyo,” Demura said. “Foreigners who come to Japan tend to concentrate in Tokyo, where they are not exposed to the style. In Tokyo, it’s the shotokan and goju styles that are strong, and it’s these styles that visitors usually pick up.”

Demura got to the United States almost by accident. Running true to shito-ryu form, he’d been content to stay in Japan and build up his style in the Tokyo area. But he was temporarily sidetracked by a persuasive American karateka who coaxed the reluctant Demura to cross the Pacific and introduce shito-ryu into the United States.

The American responsible for Demura’s odyssey to the New World is Dan Ivan, a jack-of-all-trades of the martial arts who operates several dojo in Southern California. Ivan holds a first-degree black belt in karate, kendo, judo and aikido. He learned the arts in Japan, having spent half a dozen years there. Ivan accompanied Demura to our offices and explained how he happened to run into the man who’s now head instructor at his schools.

“I had gone to Japan last year to look for another instructor for my dojo,” he said. “My black belt is in shotokan karate, so naturally I was looking for a shotokan man. But everywhere I went, people kept talking about Demura. Finally, when I got to meet him, I was impressed right from the start. I was especially impressed by his fine attitude. I have met some karate men who were excellent technicians but whose attitude left much to be desired.

“But you take Fumio, now, he has a fine outlook. For instance, when a student who’s had some previous karate training comes to the dojo, Demura always asks them what they learned first in karate. Usually, they tell him that they learned stances or exercises or techniques. Then Fumio tells them that the first thing they learn in his dojo is good manners. I consider myself quite fortunate to have gotten Fumio to come to this country to teach in my dojo.”

One of Demura’s first converts to shito-ryu was Ivan. “Fumio’s instructing me, and I hope to take my exam for black belt later this year,” Ivan said.

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Shito-Ryu Karate vs. Japanese Styles

“Actually, all the Japanese and Okinawan systems are similar in many respects,” Demura said. “And surprisingly enough, I find that in the basics, the Chinese systems have much in common with ours. I never had a chance to study Chinese systems before I came to the United States, but this is what I’ve noticed in observing the practitioners of the Chinese arts here.”

But he pointed out that it’s in many of the details that the various karate systems differ. For instance, in some styles, the students fight from a short stance. In others, they fight from a more spread-out stance.

“You can quite often tell a goju man by the way he stands — he will fight from a short stance,” Demura said. “The wado man has a different type of short stance. The shotokan man, on the other hand, will fight from a longer stance. The method of throwing punches might vary a little from system to system, also.”

The shito style is more flexible than the others as far as the fighting stance goes, Demura insisted. Shito-ryu people will fight from both long and short stances, and move back and forth between the two.

Shito-ryu combines many of the hard, fast techniques of shotokan with the slow breathing of goju. These latter techniques, called sanchin, are muscle-building methods based on dynamic tension. In this respect, shito-ryu clearly shows its Okinawan origins, where sanchin techniques have been highly developed.

“My style comes from Okinawa, where there are two great schools,” Demura said. “One is called Higaonna, and the other is Itosu. Higaonna and his student, Chojun Miyagi, established the goju school. From Itosu, there is another style followed by many Okinawans. Itosu has nidan and sandan forms, and goju has punching and breathing forms. My style has both elements.”

Demura stresses two things when instructing his students. One is a strict emphasis on the basics, which he believes are neglected in the United States. “Too many instructors don’t teach what karate is really all about,” he said. “They will just give instructions in punching or kicking or something else. But they don’t teach why a certain punch or kick is good for a certain part of the body.”

This emphasis on developing all parts of the body physically is the second part of Demura’s mission. He’s powerfully developed himself, and he stresses the bodybuilding and health-giving aspects of karate practice.

“You know, when I was in Japan, I once worked for a pharmaceutical firm, and as part of the job, I had to visit many hospitals,” he said. “I have always thought that hospitals and medicine are very helpful for the sick, of course, but I think that good karate exercise and bodybuilding are even more important and beneficial.

“Karate is a really good form of exercise. And it can be done by old as well as young people. A lot of people complain that karate is too much hard work. But each person can vary and control the amount of work he puts in. As a result, even little children and women can take up the art beneficially.

“There’s another thing about karate: You don’t need anyone else to be able to practice it. Football needs other people to help play it. Swimming needs water and a good climate. But in karate, you need nothing outside yourself.”

American Karate

Demura had some interesting things to say about American tournaments. For one thing, he pointed out that Americans compete to a far greater extent than do the Japanese. For instance, in Japan, they don’t run major tournaments in which white belts participate as well as black belts. In Japan, the karate students are expected to have learned their basics thoroughly and be of black-belt status before being allowed to go up against one another. Among other benefits, it saves a lot of wear and tear on the body.

“There are a lot of accidents in American karate tournaments because the basics are not practiced enough,” Demura said. “The contestants don’t have a real grasp of the fundamentals. They practice for maybe six months, and then they go in. But for speed, good timing and the ability to stop kicks and punches, they need basics, basics, basics.”

Demura was insistent on another thing, and that’s the need to provide good judging at tournaments. He agreed with Black Belt’s assessment that most tournament judging in the United States is below par. And he should know what he’s talking about, for he’s a top referee in his own country.

“In the United States, you don’t even have a school for refereeing,” he said. “You don’t have to have a regular school, just an informal one where people can meet perhaps once a week to learn refereeing techniques.

“Then all the people who will be officiating should get together starting, say, six weeks before the tournament so they can familiarize themselves thoroughly with the rules and judging. They must check one another to see how one would call a half point and how another one might call a full point. Then they would have to standardize these things.

“If the tournament is just going to be among people from the same school, then the refereeing is not quite as big a problem as when many different styles are competing. But in the United States, where contestants from so many different karate styles are competing, it is essential that these meetings be set up before the tournament.”

Demura also had some encouraging words to say about karate in America. For one thing, he thinks the level is improving. And having so many styles to learn and choose from can be a big help. But as he pointed out, all the tournaments in the world aren’t going to be that big a help unless the contestants have had a thorough grounding in fundamentals first. This is the area he believes needs the greatest development, and it’s what the man teaches.

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Source: Black Belt Magazine

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