Hitting, kicking way to peace A U.S. karate icon in W. Phila. aims to quell violence in Guyana.

Posted: May 26, 2009

Standing in front of his karate class in West Philadelphia, the gentle grandfather turned warrior as he barked crisp commands.

"Open your mind to your opponent!" ordered Teruyuki Okazaki, his posture as erect as the slender gold staffs of large American and Japanese flags flanking him.

For 48 years, legions of acolytes from around the world have studied at his spartan gym at 45th and Locust Streets, absorbing the lessons of Okazaki, the highest-ranking Shotokan karate master in the world.

At 78, Okazaki, the only living student in the United States of the founder of modern karate, moves with the grace and fluidity of an athlete in his prime. His is a fighting system that wastes no motion: Punches and kicks are delivered with cobra-quick speed and precision; blocks can be used simultaneously for defense or attack.

Except that is not really the point, Okazaki is quick to add.

"The martial arts are about more than physical development, self-defense, and competition. Most important, they are about continually striving to perfect one's character," he is fond of saying.

To that end, in 1977 he founded the International Shotokan Karate Federation, a 50,000-member organization with participants in 30 countries. At its core is a simple tenet: Practiced properly, the discipline is a path to peace.

In the fall, Okazaki will take that message to Guyana, at the invitation of its president, Bharrat Jagdeo.

"They have a lot of violence there," Okazaki said of the South American country. "The president wants to learn how to change people mentally."

As he has done here, Okazaki - who teaches martial arts at the University of Pennsylvania as well as at Temple, Drexel, Thomas Jefferson, and West Chester Universities - plans to set up Shotokan clubs on college campuses throughout Guyana, with course credits offered. This year, he also will instruct in the Philippines, Mexico, and Britain.

Okazaki came to the United States in 1961 to promote the teachings of Gichin Funakoshi, a native of Okinawa who introduced karate - literally, "empty hand" - to Japan in 1921. Funakoshi was a sickly teenager who became the star pupil of two martial-arts masters; they introduced him to classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, and philosophy as well.

Credited with creating the discipline of Shotokan (from his pen name Shoto, or "wind in the pines"), Funakoshi preached that true courage comes from avoiding confrontations, not instigating them. "When two tigers fight," he has been quoted, "one is bound to be hurt. The other will be dead."

Funakoshi, who died in 1957 at 88, laid down the precepts that his students should always follow to handle all manner of life's obstacles, including: Seek perfection, be respectful and faithful, and refrain from violence.

Okazaki, who admits that as a youth he was eager to "kick butt," recalls taking his first test to become a black belt under Funakoshi's eye. Okazaki nailed every physical challenge - and failed.

Funakoshi, he said, offered only one cryptic explanation: Keep training. Finally, after contemplating quitting, he understood.

"A master can read your mind," he said. "My mind was wrong."

That lesson has not been lost on Okazaki's oldest pupil here, Norman Axe, 79, a black belt from Wynnewood. He has studied under the master - Shotokan's single 10th-degree black belt - for 40 years and says he has never been in a scrap, despite several severe provocations.

"It's easy to be hit hard or be aggravated by words, unless you know how to sidestep," Axe said.

Okazaki, who stands about 5-foot-5 and weighs about 150 pounds, drilled that reminder into a recent class reserved only for black belts. "Never power against power," he exhorted.

He demonstrated various advanced techniques that left his proteges panting at the end of their session. His hands and feet were blurs as he flowed from one movement to the next, his stance - like Funakoshi's admonitions for a well-spent life - always based on a stable foundation. He seemed scarcely winded, as serene as a woodland brook.

When the day comes that he can no longer show correct form, he said, he will retire as an instructor.

That day seems a good while off. After the class thanked him, he bounded over to a 220-pound seated onlooker and helped him to his feet.

The irony was not lost, but he did not make mention of it. He bowed.

"I do my best" was all he said.

Contact staff writer Dwight Ott at 856-779-3876 or dott@phillynews.com.

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