Sensei James H. Coffman 7th Degree Black Belt
James (Jimmy) Coffman 1977
Named James H. Coffman, I was born in Sibley hospital, Washington, DC on
January 31, 1943 and raised in Maryland. I currently live in Maryland.
In 1959, when I was sixteen-years-old, I was first introduced to karate by a guy
that was dating my older sister Lois. Ski was stationed at the Navy station in
Ski told me he learned karate while stationed in Japan. He was teaching me
blocks, kicks, and punches, basic street techniques. Once I was exposed to real
karate for myself, I found out just how little Ski really knew.
It all started when I went into the Air Force. I was assigned to Lackland, Air
Force Base, San Antonio, Texas for boot camp. I was 17 years young.
After boot camp, I received my orders, I was to be stationed in Okinawa. By
complete luck, I was sent to the very island where karate was born. Fusei Kise
(my karate teacher) was at his peak of hard training, he was a Yon-Dan (4th
degree black belt) and in his early twenties. At that time, he was not worried
about just making money. He was building his reputation on Okinawa as a hard
ass karate-ka. Had I arrived just a few years earlier there may have been
apprehension about teaching an American, had it been a few years later I would
not have been trained in the pure utilitarian karate I was taught. By 1965 the
karate that I learned on Okinawa was fast disappearing, watered-down, and
commercialized under the flood of well-heeled American soldiers that would
pour in by the tens of thousands during the Vietnam War.
When I first started training with Kise, he had no American students, no
cynicism, and no concept of teaching karate for a profit. He was twenty-five
years old—close to my own age—a scrappy, rebellious, and very hard
conditioned fighter, who knew the most senior karate teachers in the world. He
lived for karate in a place and time where there were no lawsuits or worries
about getting sued or retaining enough students to pay rent on his dojo. His dojo
was a part of his home.
The art he taught and practiced was driven by its street effectiveness, and honed
in real—and sometimes violent—fights in and out of the dojo. Kise taught me
the same way he taught the Okinawan students in his dojo. For the three and a
half years that I would live in Okinawa, I had no distractions—no family, few
bills to pay, an easy job—and no preconceived notions about karate from Bruce
Lee films, or Kung Fu TV shows.
My first gi (karate uniform) cost three dollars. My lessons at the dojo cost $5.00
per month. A monthly bus pass to and from the dojo was about $2.50. Classes
were five dollars a month, seven days a week, and we trained every day. There
was no air-conditioning, fans, or heat; none of the amenities we have here in the
Once on Okinawa I was assigned to work as a driver for a small Okinawan,
named Fusei Kise. I was a kid with a chip on his shoulder as big as an aircraft
carrier. Though I initially treated my new partner with impertinence, I would
soon learn Kise was one of the toughest karate practitioners on the island. Many
people think of karate as Japanese, it was an Okinawan named Gichin
Funakoshi who first introduced it to Japan in 1922.
The islands of Okinawa are halfway between China and Japan. For hundreds of
years, the Okinawan’s played one off the other—trading with both—until
samurai warriors from Satsuma in southern Japan invaded, conquered, and
subsequently banned all weapons. Kise, studied under Shuzen Maeshiro, a
Hachi-dan (8th degree black belt) who learned the craft from a famously small
fighter, named Chotoku Kyan (born 1870), who had been instructed by the
famous Okinawan Master, Sokon Matsumura. I studied under a direct relative
of Sokon (Bushi) Matsumura himself, Hohan Soken, a lineage as pure as they
What got me hooked on Karate was when I found out that Kise could break a
red brick with his bare hands, I was mesmerized. I asked him to prove to me
that he could truly break a brick with only his hands. He complied with my
request. I picked up my camera and we drove to the housing area, where I
pulled a brick from a garden edging. I watched Kise break a standard red
brick with just his hand. From that moment on—from my very first day of
work in Okinawa—I became Kise’s puppy.
Kise’s dojo: the building was maybe twenty feet wide by eighteen feet long, plus
or minus, with two open windows, and a sliding door to enter. The building
served as both Kise’s home and his dojo. It was divided by a wall that ran
down the full length, one half his living quarters, and the other half his
I remember my first training day, we entered the tiny dojo through a sliding
wooden door. I followed the example of my new companions, all young
Okinawan boys, ages from about 16 to 20. I took off my shoes before stepping
up onto the dojo’s floor. It appeared that Kise had built the dojo himself
because the floor was nothing but a bunch of random wooden boards and the
walls were unpainted cinder block. Two bare light bulbs hung from open
rafters. Sliding pieces of wood covered windows at each end of the room. On
one wall across from the doorway hung a white sign painted with karate
techniques. The tops of a few karate uniforms, known as “gi,” lay on the floor.
Kise paired me with the only black belt other than Kise, Miyagi. Even though
Miyagi was about my height and age, he was strongly built. I later found out
that he was the karate teacher at his local high school. I could already tell he
was good. He was the class leader—the tough guy everybody respected. He
worked so hard during class that his uniform, pants and top would become
completely soaked with sweat. In later classes, after we started fighting, he
would jump up, grab the rafters, and kick me right in the face. After that I set
a goal, telling myself: “He’s the one I’m going to beat.”
I never heard the currently fashionable word “grappling.” We never caught
someone and twisted or locked them, and tried to avoid ending up on the
ground at all cost. If you had to catch someone, you hit him at the same time.
If you swept him off his feet, you hit first, then hit again as he went down. Kise
would always say: “No judo! The same time it takes you to catch, you can hit.
Hit, no catch. Hit!”
On the 20th day of December 1961, I became Fusei Kise’s “First American
black belt” earning my Sho-dan (1st degree black belt rank). I had been
training each and every day, five hours a day. I was completely obsessed with
Kise, and his Art.
After I received my Sho-dan, I started training with one of Kise’s teachers,
Hohan Soken while continuing my training with Kise.
Soken was known as a teacher of teachers, a thin, small man with white hair,
he was in his seventy’s at the time. Upon our first meeting, Soken asked: how
many days per week do you train? “Seven,” I said, each and every day.
“Well,” he said, “how much are you willing to put into your training?”
“Whatever it takes,” I told him. “I’ll do whatever it takes.” Truthfully, in
those days, if Kise had told me to go AWOL, I would have gone AWOL.
He laughed, explaining: “Not everyone who takes karate gets good at karate”.
If you’re trained wrong, you can take karate for thirty years and still not be
any good. Karate is forever; it’s for your whole life. It’s not for a year or two,
and it’s not only twice a week, as most train. At the time, the opportunity to
train with Soken didn’t mean anything to me. Now people, as I, cherish any
connection at all to Soken, no matter how tenuous. Soken was a great and
very revered karate master on the island. I was young and had no knowledge
of his advanced skill and what he could teach me. Today, to have trained a
day with him, or even to have simply shaken his hand, is considered
something like having been in the presence of a karate God. A week later, we
took the bus back to Soken’s house right after work—this time with gi, bo,
and sai. This is when I became-Soken’s first American student, 1961. We
returned every week thereafter for a couple of hours. But a few weeks after I
started training under him, we started working on one-step techniques. Soken
would show a technique using Kise as uki, and then oversee Kise and me
working together on the technique. That’s when I first started to realize that
Soken was special. I knew just how strong Kise was, but Soken could bend
him over in pain. Sometimes Kise would jump back and wince after a hit.
Even though Soken was mild-mannered, he had a mean streak somewhere
deep inside—like all great karate-ka. If he could hurt Kise, I knew he was someone to be respected.
Kise breaks red brick
Private class with
Kadana AFB class
When I reached Fourth Dan in November 1963, Kise gave me eight pages of
detailed anatomy charts, which listed targets and explained—in both Japanese
and English—how to attack them. I don’t know who originally created them, but
they bore Maeshiro’s chop (name stamp), so I know that’s where Kise got them.
When we went over the charts, I would point to things and he’d show me how to
Maeshiro 8th Dan
Kise had me wear boguzuki, (protective fighting gear) headgear, and gloves every
time we sparred; we occasionally tried to hit each other with weapons, but mostly
in the context of drills and one-step self-defense techniques. With a weapon, there
aren’t many blows exchanged with out causing damage. If any real fight lasts more
than a few seconds, you’re doing something wrong, but that’s especially true with
a weapon. You can’t strike a person with a razor sharp kama or a sai many times
without killing them.
During my training with Kise, he would often take me to visit other dojos on the
island to expose me to the various styles. Kise and his students belonged to the All
Japan Karate-Do League (AJK) of which Nakamura, Shigeru (1894-1969) was the number one
Okinawan representative. Shimabukuru, Zenryu (1908-1969) was second in command. Maishiro, Kise’s
instructor, was third in command on the island. He was the Koza city branch
official. I had been taken to Grand Master Nakamura’s home in Nago several
times, a two to three hour bus ride from Kadena, as well as fighting at Grand
Master Shimabukuru’s dojo,
Nakamura Sensei 1961