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Fumio Demura: The Life of a Legend

Updated: Mar 28

Fumio Demura

by Christopher Cockrell

The word "legend" conjures up images of larger-than-life figures who have performed unbelievable feats over the years. In the realm of martial arts, certain names immediately come to mind: Miyamoto Musashi, Mas Oyama, Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris. To that list, I would add two-time Black Belt Hall of Fame inductee Fumio Demura. Demura’s accomplishments are numerous: He holds a ninth-degree black belt in shito-ryu karate. He founded the Shito-Ryu Karate-Do Genbu-Kai International organization. He was an accomplished tournament fighter in his day and is still regarded as a master of Okinawan weaponry. He’s been an actor and an author, but perhaps most important, he’s a teacher with tens of thousands of followers around the world.

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Fumio Demura is the kind of black belt other black belts look up to — which is why many high-profile martial artists have ended up on his doorstep in search of instruction. They include Dolph Lundgren, Billy Blanks, Steven Seagal and Richard Norton, as well as the aforementioned Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris.

The martial way is a path Demura began walking as a youth. Now, at age 78, he’s still following the path, and he’s still preaching and teaching in an effort to help others do the same.

Fumio Demura


Fumio Demura was born on September 15, 1938, and grew up in the city of Yokohama, Japan. With the world at war and an economic depression rolling across his nation, hardship was a frequent visitor at the Demura house. At times, he says, his family found it impossible to afford basic necessities like shoes. With his typical stoicism, he simply says he went through “many sad things.”

Around that time, Demura recalls, he had a neighbor named Asano, who was a kendo teacher. The martial art fascinated the boy, and he longed to take lessons. Sadly, his family lacked funds to buy the necessary equipment. In the spirit of improvisation, the youth set about carving a tree branch into a makeshift shinai so he’d be able to practice. It was a lesson he’d remember.

Later, when Demura was introduced to a famous shito-ryu karate practitioner named Ryusho Sakagami, his martial arts career was poised to blossom. Sakagami, third master of the Itosu-Kai organization, took the promising pupil into his charge, unknowingly launching the boy on what would become the adventure of a lifetime.

Fumio Demura


By the early 1960s, Demura was gaining fame as a karate practitioner. He’d reached the rank of first-degree black belt in 1956, and in 1961 he’d won his first major tournament, the All Japan Karate Championship. In addition, he’d begun studying kobudo, or traditional Okinawan weaponry, under Taira Shinken. And then the Americans entered the picture. Donn F. Draeger, a martial arts practitioner and world-traveling scholar, became acquainted with Demura through the Japanese martial arts grapevine, and soon after, he introduced Demura to Dan Ivan. Ivan operated a handful of karate schools in Southern California, and after getting a chance to see Demura in action, he knew he had to find a way to get this guy to the United States.

The process happened in fits and starts. Demura arrived in the States in 1963, but it wasn’t a permanent relocation. His first engagement was for a one-year teaching spot, after which his visa ran out and he was forced to return to Japan. Almost immediately, Demura longed to go back. “This was a mistake,” he said to himself on arriving in his home country. “I should’ve stayed in the United States.” Japan was too small, too confined for the karateka. In America, he felt he had more room to move and room to grow the martial arts.

Demura found his way back in 1965 and settled in California, where he opened a dojo. He built a reputation for riveting demonstrations that displayed consummate skill, speed, accuracy and

technique. The performances garnered the newcomer some badly needed attention. It was badly needed because of the national mood. For most Americans,

World War II was fresh in their memory. Still adjusting to what to him was a foreign culture — which meant his command of English was a work in progress — Demura was viewed with suspicion by many Americans. He often encountered prejudice in the community he was trying so hard to become part of. The successes outnumbered the setbacks, however, and he persevered.

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With his growing reputation as a martial arts master, Demura eventually found his way to Hollywood courtesy of his friend, a professional wrestler who competed under then name “The Great John L.” Demura landed an audition for 1977’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. Before starting work, he signed an agreement without taking the time to digest the details. It turned out to be a release regarding fights that would involve lions, tigers and bears. The experience proved an interesting one, to say the least. Throughout the ’70s, Demura worked with a number of martial-artists-turned- actors, including Bruce Lee, whom he personally trained in the use of the nunchaku, and Chuck Norris, who came to him wanting to learn traditional karate to supplement his kicking-based tang soo do skills. “He’s a super-good martial artist,” Demura says of Norris. 

“Not just a fighter — a martial artist. I respect Chuck, and he respects me.” But it was Demura’s association with Pat Morita, as well as stunt coordinator and fight choreographer Pat Johnson,

that led to his involvement in what would become one of the most iconic martial arts films of all time.

Demura was initially eyed for the role of Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid. As you probably know, Miyagi is the wise old master who takes the awkward Daniel- san under his wing and teaches him martial arts. But there was a problem. “I look through the script, and I see ‘Miyagi, Miyagi, Miyagi,’” Demura says. Realizing that he didn’t have the language skills to carry such an important role, he bowed out, and the part went to Morita, who went on to receive an Oscar nomination (Best Supporting Actor) for his efforts. But Demura stayed on as Morita’s stunt double and assisted with the fight choreography.

Fumio Demura


For Fumio Demura, America really has been the land of opportunity. By all accounts, his life here has been a success. He runs an established dojo and karate organization with students around the world. He’s rubbed shoulders with nearly everyone who’s anyone in the martial arts, and he’s found success in Hollywood.

But as has been the case since he was a child, life still throws down the gauntlet and presents him with challenges that need to be overcome. Such was the case in 2011 when he suffered a stroke that put him in the hospital and took away his ability to move his right arm and right leg. Or when he experienced kidney failure in 2015, which required him to undergo daily dialysis. But he met both challenges head-on, as a warrior. Demura has regained much of his lost movement, and his kidney functionality is improved. Despite those health setbacks, Demura devotes considerable time to the martial arts — as he’s always done.

Unfortunately, that’s left him with some concerns about the state of karate. “There are not too many traditional groups left,” he says. With karate’s push to become an Olympic sport — which, on August 3, 2016, achieved success — he fears that the art is losing its -do, the focus on being a way of life rather than just a way of fighting. He says karate is about more than being a “mean, strong guy”; it’s about being a better person and a better citizen.

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Demura also takes issue with the way karate is often viewed as merely an activity for children. Referencing movies and TV shows like Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, he says, “The image today is that karate is only for kids. It’s shown as a kid’s game, but it’s not. It’s an adult’s game.”

But perhaps more than anything else these days, Demura is focused on the challenge of preserving his legacy. “I don’t want to lose my art,” he says, which is why he’s pouring his energy into propagating the style. Having become, in essence, a shito-ryu missionary, he wants to make sure it doesn’t pass away when he does. For that reason, when Demura was approached by his student Kevin Derek about making a documentary a few years ago, he was thrilled. 

The result was "The Real Miyagi," released in 2015. Demura says that he was honored to be part of the production and hopes that, if nothing else, viewers will walk away having learned one crucial life lesson: “If something happens, don’t give up,” he says. “Look at me — I set the example.” He hopes the many ups and downs of his life in the martial arts will provide inspiration for everyone who watches The Real Miyagi long after he’s gone.

About the author: Christopher Cockrell is a freelance writer and martial artist.

This article originally appeared in a 2021 edition of Black Belt Magazine.

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