Senseis honour Karate Canada founder

Senseis from across B.C. gathered at Kohan Gardens and Nikkei Internment Memorial to honour Sensei Masami Tsuruoka

Sensei Scott Hutcheson of Beaver Valley Chito Ryu Karate joined MP Alex Atamanenko and senseis from across B.C. at Kohan Gardens and Nikkei Internment Memorial in New Denver on Saturday to honour the founder of the National Karate Association of Canada, Sensei Masami Tsuruoka, in a special memorial ceremony.

Sensei Tsuruoka was the seminal figure in the birth and evolution of karate in Canada. Born in Cumberland, B.C., his Japanese heritage would also make him a victim of one of Canada’s worst assaults on its citizens in its 148-year history.

During World War II, Tsuruoka and his family had all their possessions seized by the federal government and were moved to Tashimi and then to the Rosebery internment camp near New Denver. In all, some 27,000 Japanese-Canadians had their property appropriated, then were detained for years in camps without charge or trial, while others were deported to Japan. The internment began in 1942 and, in some areas, lasted until 1949, four years after the war ended.

“As Canadian citizens we have to say never again,” said Atamanenko at the ceremony. “A group of people because of their race or beliefs have all their possessions taken away, and get sent somewhere to survive, never again.”

Tsuruoka wanted to make one last visit to New Denver on the shores of Slocan Lake and the place of his family’s internment, but died in October of last year.

Thanks to a grant from Columbia Basin Trust, Hutchinson, in honour of Sensei Tsuruoka, planned the memorial and karate clinic, with an invite to local dignitaries, Senseis Gord Kirschner (head of Tsuruoko Ryu) and Rick Penner (KBC’s Referee Executive Director), and karate practitioners to attend and pay their respects and gratitude.

“It was a privilege to fulfill his dying wish,” said Hutcheson. “I felt it was an obligation to do it, and I’m sure his family and students will greatly appreciate the gesture.”

In 1945, after the end of World War II, Tsuruoka and his father left B.C. for Japan and at age 17 he began the study of Chito-ryu karate under Dr. Tsuyoshi Chitose. He received his first degree black belt at age 20 and after continuing his study and receiving his third degree black belt, moved back to Canada in 1956.

When Tsuruoka began studying with Chitose, karate was at the point where two eras crossed: the old ways of Okinawa and the new ways of post-war Japan. Tsuruoka was one of the first students of the group that was to reshape modern karate.

Sensei Tsuruoka went on to establish the National Karate Association of Canada (Karate Canada), serving as its first president. He opened the first karate school at the University of Toronto in 1962, and initiated the first karate competition in Canada, the Canadian Open Karate Championship, in the same year. In 1973 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the Pan-American Karate Union elected Tsuruoka first vice-president, and he was awarded Order of Ontario in 1999.

His contribution to martial arts in Canada is unparalleled, but he also influenced a number of American practitioners. Tsuruoka was the referee in Chuck Norris’ World Championship match in 1969, and Bruce Lee wrote Tsuruoka to ask advice about North American culture and teaching before achieving legendary status on the big screen.

In the still garden of Kohan with the waters of Slocan Lake and the Valhalla Mountains looming in the background, Penner couldn’t help but observe, “Historic and moving in such a serene place.”

Atamanenko, a fourth Dan black belt in Shotokan karate, paid homage to Sensei Tsuruoka’s legacy, and thanks to those in attendance, it’s one that continues to thrive today.

“He forgave Canada for what it did to him and his family and he came back and accomplished all this,” said Atamanenko. “A lot of us wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him and we have to recognize that. He was an innovator and he survived.”

In 1986 Prime Minister Brian Mulroney offered an apology and compensation of $25,000 to those Japanese-Canadians dispossessed and imprisoned during the War.