Spotlight: Tetsuji Murakami – The Karate Missionary

Tetsuji Murakami was a Karate missionary, teaching Karate across Europe and North Africa during the infancy of the art outside of Japan. He was one of the first Japanese instructors to settle in Europe. He was a fearsome instructor that scared and inspired his students in equal measure. He would eventually come under the influence of Shigeru Egami who would change his outlook on training.

Murakami was born in Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan on 31 March 1927. His father was a successful wine merchant.

Growing up Murakami was not interested in martial arts. He was more interested in swimming and running. Like all Japanese boys of the time he had to learn either Kendo or Judo. So he chose Kendo. In time he would eventually reach the grade of 2nd Dan.

Japan during World War II was a difficult place to be. By 1945 Murakami had finished High School. Unable to attend university he started working with his father at the wine merchants.

While working for his father Murakami started learning Karate in his spare time. He searched out Masaji Yamaguchi, a former student of Kenwa Mabuni. Initially Murakami had wanted to see what made Karate so dangerous in the view of the general public. He soon found that it was about perfecting one’s character. Although the training was rigorous he loved it and trained every day. In 1949 he was awarded his 1st Dan, three years after he had started training.

In the early 1950s Murakami started learning Aikido at the Yoseikan under the leadership of Minoru Mochizuki. He later spent some time training at the JKA headquarters.

In 1957 Murakami was invited to France by Henri Plee through Jim Alchiek. Alchiek had met Murakami during his time at the Yoseikan. Murakami arrived in Paris on 3 November. He started teaching at Plee’s dojo at Montagne Sainte-Genevive on a one-year contract. The terms of the contract were very strict and restrictive. Being in a foreign country and not being able to speak the language made things a little difficult. Despite the language barrier he was able to get his message across in the dojo.

During his time at Plee’s dojo Murakami had the opportunity to meet many karate-ka from across Europe and North Africa. His skills were impressive, so when his contract with Plee was over he had the opportunity to teach courses in Germany, Britain, Algeria and Italy.

Murakami opened a dojo in Paris on rue Cambonne. His no-nonsense dojo soon became the place to train. When the singer Elvis Presley was stationed in Germany with the US Army, he visited the dojo on several occasions to train with Murakami.

In 1959 Vernon Bell of the British Karate Federation (BKF) invited Murakami to the UK to teach. Outside of the dojo students recalled that the slightly built Murakami was very pleasant. However, in the dojo he was strict and his training could be severe. There are stories of a student so traumatised that he ran from a training session crying. Despite this Murakami’s training course were well attended by BKF members. Apart from the training sessions he also conducted a number of gradings, the first by a Japanese Karate instructor in Britain.

In 1959 Murakami also visited Italy on an invitation from Vladimiro Malatesti. Like Bell and Jurgen Seydel of Germany, Malatesti had met Murakami on a training course held at Plee’s Paris dojo.

Between 1959 to 1964 Murakami travelled across Europe and North Africa giving various courses and conducting gradings. In 1962 he opened his dojo in Mercoeur Street in Paris. During this time it was mistakenly assumed that he was the European Representative for the Japanese Karate Association (JKA). Although he had studied with the JKA, he mainly taught the Yoseikan style of Shotokan Karate.

Vernon Bell had been in correspondence with Jurgen Seydel and Masatomo Takagi of the JKA. Bell and the BKF members felt betrayed when the found out that Murakami was not from the JKA. They felt especially betrayed when they found out any grades bestowed by him would not be recognised by the JKA.

On 22 January 1964  the BKF formally accepted the JKA’s invitation to become their agents in Britain. The BKF severed its ties with the Yoseikan association and thus Murakami.

Despite Murakami’s issues in the UK, he continued teaching across the rest of Europe. In 1964 he started visiting the former Yugoslavia, introducing Karate into the country. With the help of Zeljko Ilyadica, a former judoka, Karate took hold in the country.

In 1967 Murakami travelled back to Japan for a two-month stay. During the visit he was introduced to Shigeru Egami. Egami, a student of Gichin Funakoshi, had been conducting his own research into how his Karate could be improved. Murakami started training with Egami and was impressed with the new way of training.

On his return to France, where he now lived, Murakami decided to officially follow the teachings of Egami. He established a new association called the Murakami-Kai as a way of gathering all of his students under a single banner. However, this change in direction did not go down well with some of his students and as a result he lost many students. Murakami was resolved in his decision to follow his new path.

By 1974 Mitsusuke Harada was Egami’s most senior student in Europe. Harada did not want to teach in France any more. He had previously run into immigration issues and had had some issues with another Japanese instructor. After some behind-the-scenes negotiations Murakami was promoted to 5th Dan, thus gaining access to all Harada’s students in France. It has been suggested that this was because the Japanese did not want a non-Japanese instructor heading to the Shotokai Association in France.

In 1976 Murakami became Egami’s official European representative for Shotokai Karate. That same year he organised for Egami to visit Europe. He did the same again in 1978.

On 8 January 1981 Shigeru Egami died from a brain tumour. He was only 68 years old. On hearing the news Murakami flew to Japan to attend the funeral of the man who had changed his Karate path.

For the next couple of years Murakami worked tirelessly to continue the teachings and legacy of Egami. Although his training was still tough, he had undergone a change which seemed to bring him an inner peace. In 1986 he established the Association Shotokai-France.

On 24 January 1987 Tetsuji Murakami died from an incurable disease after a long illness, in his adopted city of Paris. He was only 59 years old.

In 2007 Murakami students organised a memorial to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his arrival in France. It also commemorated the 20th anniversary of his death and 80th anniversary of his birth.

Thirty years after Murakami’s death his book “Master Tetsuji Murakami’s Katas” was published by his students Pierre-Jean Boyer and Luis de Carvalho. The book features Murakami performing the 16 basic katas of Shotokai. Egami had been planning a book of his own, but died before it could be published. Out of respect for his master, Murakami had not wanted his book published before Egami’s.

Tetsuji Murakami is a true pioneer of European Karate. It is a little sad that he is only really known by his dedicated students and not the wider Karate world. Although he was considered a fearsome instructor, with some of these methods bordering on bullying, it is important to understand that he was a product of his time. He was teaching in the manner that he had been taught. There was also the fact he was teaching in a foreign land and there was a language barrier. However, he is living proof that Karate is a lifelong pursuit that it can have a transform a practitioners life. In time he became one of the respected and sought after instructors.

It is important to remember that Murakami was the first was one of the first in a long line of top Japanese instructors to teach the wonderful art of Karate outside their native Japan.

Author: Patrick Donkor

5 thoughts on “Spotlight: Tetsuji Murakami – The Karate Missionary

  1. Sorry for your serious mistake when you don’t tell that in 1960s he came to Portugal for course and that in this very year of 2019 the portugueses associations followers of Murakami commemorate the past May the 50th aniversary.

  2. Dear Patrick Donkor I’ve here, in Pdf, the book ‘ The forgotten Samurai ‘ ( in portuguese ‘ O Samurai Olvidado ‘ ) which is more complete than that. I’ll have my very pleasure to send you if you want, but is all in portuguese.

    1. Fernando. That would be great. I look forward to receiving it. I’m sure I will be able tof ind someone who can help with the translations.

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