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 Maryland.

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 States.

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 come.

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 training dojo.

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.

Chotoku Kyan

Kise breaks red brick 1960
Private class with Hohan Soken
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 hit it.
Maeshiro 8th Dan 1960

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

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