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Roy Murakami walks around with a kind of a smirk on his face. He cracks a joke at a young kid, reaching down to help him with a leg lift. He tells another kid to "loosen up, Paco," with the diction of a football coach. He fakes a horrified groan after watching a young black belt, noting that "the kid looks raggedy today."
Then, out of the corner of his eye, Murakami sees a 12-year-old walk onto the mat without stopping to bow completely.
"TWENTY PUSHUPS NOW!" he barks.
The kid falls flat on his stomach.
Murakami is a pleasant, unassuming man with a sixth-degree black belt in judo. He is a pillar of the San Fernando Valley's Japanese-American community, just as his father was, and just as his children may be.
Like all good judo senseis (teachers), Murakami is extremely self-effacing. But the walk gives him away. Murakami walks like a sensei, with short, slightly springy steps and always-level shoulders. It's subtle, this walk, but it emanates a strong sense of control. And it runs in the family.
Has Taught 30 Years Free
Murakami, 55, teaches judo at the Japanese-American Community Center on Branford Street in Pacoima. He has taught there for more than 30 years, three nights a week, free. His father, Seigoro Murakami, founded the dojo (studio) in 1927, after leaving a farm town in central Japan. One of Roy's sons, Michael, is a nationally ranked competitor, a member of the highly regarded California State University, Fresno judo team and a likely successor as sensei at the Valley dojo.
The Pacoima dojo is not known today as a magnet for black belts, since most who study there are young and new to the sport. The day has long passed when students were exclusively Japanese, or when the dojo was a major force in regional competitions. There are dozens of other dojos in the city, including several in the Valley.
Dojo Was First in Area
But this place deserves to be celebrated, according to those who know it--the place, and the people who run it. The Murakami dojo was the first in the area and the only one so dominated by a single family.
"Everyone involved in judo in this part of the state knows the Murakami name," said Toshio Tosaya, a former president of the Southern California Kudokan judo Black Belt Assn. and a former student of Seigoro Murakami. "In Southern California, they will always be one of the sport's first families."