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Coronavirus Victims: Shotokan Karate Master Teruyuki Okazaki

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

More than 3,800 people in Pennsylvania have died of COVID-19. One of them was Teruyuki Okazaki. Okazaki was an influential figure in the martial arts world based in Philadelphia.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

He taught at the Philadelphia Shotokan Karate Club and was a 10th-degree black belt. In 1961, he moved to America from Japan. His teacher sent him as sort of a karate ambassador, someone to help popularize the martial art in the U.S. It was meant to be a short-term assignment.

HIROYOSHI OKAZAKI: I think I remember he told me it was about, like, six months or so.

KELLY: But he ended up staying a lot longer, says his nephew Hiroyoshi Okazaki. He remained in the U.S. for more than 50 years.

CHANG: In the early days, Okazaki's training regimen wasn't quite action-packed enough for Philly residents.

OKAZAKI: For example, you know, learning, like, straight punch - you know, you're going to train that for a few months, so it's kind of very - you need a lot of patience.

KELLY: So he only had a few students at first, but he switched up his teaching style, made it a little more accessible. And at the same time, the United States experienced a wave of interest in all kinds of martial arts.

OKAZAKI: Asian martial arts became very popular after that. Bruce Lee came out, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is "Enter The Dragon," the first martial arts film produced by a major Hollywood studio. Black Belt Hall of Fame, undisputed martial arts champion and international film star Bruce Lee...

KELLY: Bruce Lee did not practice karate. But nonetheless, the popularity of martial arts in the U.S. exploded.

CHANG: But Okazaki's success lasted decades after that. Hiroyoshi says that's because his uncle understood that karate was about more than just fighting.

OKAZAKI: It's almost like a church in a way. People come in and train and learn how to - not only how to defend themselves but develop confidence and learn to respect yourself and respect others.

CHANG: That's why for many, Okazaki's dojo was such an important presence in West Philadelphia.

OKAZAKI: He could have moved to anywhere to teach karate, right? But I think he stayed because the community need a place like dojo.

KELLY: Teruyuki Okazaki - he was 88 years old. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.