Roy Murakami describes judo as a form of respect. To learn it involves a lot of falling and seemingly endless combinations of offensive and defensive moves.
These moves and falls are a modern adaptation of a form of combat called jujitsu, which was popularized (and made deadly) by samurai warriors in feudal Japan. The art was almost lost when it was rediscovered by Japanese professor Jigoro Kano, who died in 1938. In Kano's hands it became a sport that emphasized speed and balance, not physical size.
At the dojo where Murakami teaches--a low brick building attached to the side of the Japanese-American Community Center in Pacoima--the sport is a form of behavior. All the students learn to bow before their elders and before they enter or leave the mat. They also learn to listen closely to the sensei, or teacher, stand very still in his presence and never interrupt him.
"You have to help them control their minds," Murakami said. "Self-discipline is something kids are lacking today."
About 20 of the youths at a recent class had come to acquire this discipline. Most were from the nearby communities of Pacoima, San Fernando and North Hollywood. A handful had attained the rank of brown belt or higher, and most appeared to be in their late teens or early 20s.
As all the classes do, this one began with warm-up exercises, followed by tumbling practice and ended with the students pairing off to practice their moves. Michael Murakami spent most of his time with the brown belts, throwing them onto the mat and allowing himself to be thrown.
The dojo itself is unassuming. It is lined with faded pictures and a dusty trophy case. The pictures include a shot of the judo staff at the Manzanar relocation center for U.S. residents of Japanese descent during World War II, with Roy's father sitting in the middle.
On one wall, next to a portrait of the founder of the sport, is a huge American flag. Along another wall is a row of folding metal chairs, usually filled by parents and friends.
Roy says his classes have become progressively younger over the years, and progressively less Japanese. Today's students include children of every ethnic group, as well as children of almost every shape and size.
With all of them, Murakami is remarkably good natured but firm. He cracks jokes and issues orders for sit-ups in about the same proportion, moving regularly from one group to another.
Murakami has some favorites in these classes, and he suspects there may be some future black belts among the students. But he says that isn't the point.
"You want them to be good enough to never have to use it," he said. "It's a matter of respect."