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At 86 years old, Sensei Seikichi Iha leads a seasoned troupe of blackbelts and amateurs through their exercises at Lansing’s Original Okinawa Karate Dojo. He ensures his students’ fists connect, shoulders are straight and kicks reach proper height.
It is a small dojo, fitting only a dozen or so students, but has been home to Iha since 1974.
As a group of black belts practice their “kata” routines in a flurry of punches, strikes and shouts, Iha weaves between glancing blows and examines his students with a gentle demeanor, as if walking through a garden.
However, behind his calmness is the mettle of a seasoned karate master. Iha is formally known as Hanshi 10th Dan of Okinawan Karate and U.S. branch chief for the Okinawa Shorin-yu Karate-do association overseeing a network of over 20 dojos.
This makes him the highest-ranking sensei. The title was bestowed upon him in of Okinawan karate outside of the island 2001.
Different from other forms of karate on the Japanese mainland, Okinawan karate started in the 1600s when the Kingdom of Ryukyu banned all weapons from the island. As a result, borrowing from Chinese martial arts, Okinawan martial arts became a secret exclusively taught to the ruling class for 250 years before it was dispersed more widely.
And though Okinawa — defined by its extravagant cherry blossoms and tropical climate — was Iha’s home, most of his early childhood was spent embroiled in the worst days of World War II.
“It was poor land,” Iha said. “Every day it was, ‘What do we do now?’ There were not many schools, and most of them closed.”
After the battle of Okinawa, the largest amphibious landing in the Pacific Theater resulting in 100,000 Japanese and 50,000 American casualties, it took 80 days for American forces to overtake the island. Two thirds of the Japanese forces were obliterated.
“It was all destroyed. I did not like the war — there was no food and it was not a good life. I would rather make peace myself through karate.”
Iha said seeing the realities of war made him commit to a life of camaraderie.
“War was before, but now we make friends.”
His uncle Maesliro Sabuyo first gave Iha a taste of the martial arts, though his methods were unorthodox, Iha said.
“He just taught me how to punch; he was more like a streetfighter,” Iha said. His uncle was famous for a double kick move like a “fighting chicken,” he added.
The desire to practice karate for Iha was simple.
“I wanted to be strong,” Iha said. It also passed the time. “We had no place to go. After the war, there was nothing there and nothing to do,” he said.
Iha entered the world of formal karate when he was sent to to train under master Gusukuma Shinpan in 1950. Adept in karate, Shinpan was in his 60s and worked as a school teacher by day.
“At the time Shinpan started, karate was still like a secret. Shinpan opened it to teach more people. He always taught patience,” Iha said.
Shinpan was also a renowned acupuncturist who had a practice to make ends meet.
Before the war, Shinpan had taught karate at the immaculate Shuri Castle in Okinawa, which was almost completely destroyed during WWII. His post-war teaching quarters were constricting and often forced students to back into a wall while practicing their “kata”— a routine of repetitive punches and kicks.
After training Iha for four years, Shinpan died in his sleep. Iha was left studying under Katsuya Miyahira in 1954, with whom he spent the next decade honing his skill. He was Iha’s sensei until he died in 2010. Like Iha, Miyahira was also a Tenth Dan Hanshi.
He was such a nice person, Iha said. Another teacher of note in Iha’s past was Choshin Chibana. Like Iha, Chibana was a sensei well into his 80s.
“He always said that karate’s most important thing is it is healthy,” Iha said. “He told everybody it is not special, but not easy.”
According to the North American Shido-kan Karate-do association 40th anniversary magazine, an 80-plus-yearold Chibana said he still had “a long way to go.”
Katsuya assigned Iha abroad to teach in the Philippines, where karate was rapidly growing in popularity.
While there, he served as an adviser to the Latino Gonzales dojo in Manila for 11 months, only to leave the country shortly after infamous dictator Ferdinand Marcos came to power in 1965. Marcos was known for corruption, extravagance and extrajudicial killings: Amnesty International reported 70,000 imprisoned, 34,000 tortured and 3,240 documented as killed during his reign, which ended in 1986.
For a time, Iha went back to Okinawa to teach karate, but answered the call to come to Los Angeles in 1967 to further the discipline.
“Coming to America was like living in a different world.” Better yet, karate was popular in the City of Angels, he said.
After teaching at the Okinawan Karate Club for five months, he opened his own “Shureiken” and “Shido-kan” dojo. It was at the height of the U.S. karate craze with Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris vying for roles in nearby Hollywood and Iha would cross paths with them many times.
However, there was a problem with teaching karate in L.A. The market was oversaturated.
“They didn’t need me,” Iha said. Iha was invited to come to Lansing by visiting senior students of Tadashi Yamashita. Harold Armour, founder of the MSU Shorin-ryu Karate Club, invited Iha to lead the East Lansing dojo.
But this wasn’t the same karate Iha knew.
“Lansing needed karate, and everyone who was an instructor wasn’t teaching it right.”
Buying a one-way ticket to Lansing, Iha chose to move out to the Midwest to instruct karate the right way. He was not scared — only broke, he said.
“It wasn’t really karate here. Every time the kata changed,” Iha said.
Iha said he found out an instructor in Lansing took drugs. “Drugs and karate are not a good combination. I didn’t want this kind of stuff. I knew I needed my own place.”
The first few months were hard. He rented a one-bedroom apartment and bounced around a few other rented spaces in Lansing, scarcely making ends meet.
Armour then advised Iha to lead the East Lansing dojo and present dojo, which he renamed Original Okinawan Karate.
“I liked smaller dojos, because I can see what I’m doing,” Iha said.
Marian Reiter, an Michigan State University graphic artist, was one of his early students.
“I was a little nervous coming into the dojo. It was impressive to meet him. Although he is very quiet and settled, when we got out on the floor, he was very intense. Initially, he is very focused on the movements of his students,” Reiter said.
She found it moving to learn how living through the war and its aftermath molded Iha's character.
“In difficult times, he is so caring about people. He will always reach out for friendship and is a very kind person,” he said.
Age has not slowed his commitments to himself and his students, Reiter added.
“It is inseparable, and he practices every day and has training equipment he developed himself, always looking at how to make things better,” Reiter said. “As he is working through age-related things, he is always working through creative ways to get better.”
Sara Adelman, an MSU chemistry grad student and fourth degree black belt, grew up in the dojo. Her mother took classes there when she went to MSU.
“My mom used to say he was the Michael Jordan of karate,” Adelman said. “I am just now beginning to realize how good of a teacher he is. Something he said maybe even five years ago makes sense now.”
The most important thing Iha taught her is to work with other people, she added. “He emphasizes friendship, learning and cooperation. I can see that at work,” Reiter said.
“I am so happy to see everybody and watch everyone here. It makes me very happy,” Iha said.
Mayor Andy Schor issued a proclamation in April 2018 declaring April 20 as “Sensei Iha Day” in Lansing. It said:
“Sensei Iha has served his community tirelessly for decades through various organizations, public demonstrations and his longtime motto ‘friendship, cooperation and learning.’ His teachings of self preservation through healthy practice of movement arts and self-defense has positively impacted thousands of people of all ages.”
For his 88th birthday, or “Tookachi,” Iha’s students will take him back to Okinawa for karate demonstrations, visitations to memorials of his former sensei, a beach party and a visit to Shuri Castle in 2019.
The secret to a good leader is recognizing the power dynamic with your students, Iha said. “How good you are, you cannot decide for yourself — karate makes it that way. What you put out is what you get. If you are mean to a class, they will be mean to you back. If you are nice, they are nice back.”
Iha stresses even though it is best to be prepared, friendship, learning and cooperation is the ultimate goal.
“If you want to make friends, you have no time to make enemies.”
For more information on Original Okinawan Karate, visit www.ihadojo.com/index