In the pantheon of the world’s most respected karate masters, few come anywhere near the same height of legendary status as Shihan Fumio Demura. Beginning his martial arts studies as a sickly child in a Japan still reeling from the aftermath of World War Two, Shihan Demura rose to become renown as one of the greatest karate practitioners to ever walk the face of the planet.
Immigrating to the United States in the 1960’s, Shihan Demura would only grow into a more mythical figure in the karate world after not only serving as the stunt double for Pat Morita in 1984’s “The Karate Kid”, but also largely forming the basis of the Mr. Miyagi character. So closely would Shihan Demura prove to be associated with the Miyagi character, that he would later serve as the very subject of the 2015 documentary film, aptly titled “The Real Miyagi”!
Today, Shihan Demura sits down with KFK to share a look back on his life in martial arts, along with his role in The Karate Kid films, and his appearances in both “The Real Miyagi”, and the upcoming documentary on Pat Morita’s life, titled “Pat Morita: Long Story Short”.
Esteemed greetings Shihan Demura, thank you so much for your time today. Hope you’re doing well?
Hi Brad, I’m doing great, thanks for having here on Kung Fu Kingdom.
The pleasure is all ours! Well, let’s kick off with some basics about how you first began in martial arts; what different disciplines have you studied, and who would you credit as your biggest influence in the martial arts?
I started when I was seven years-old, right after the second World War. I didn’t have the strongest body when as a kid, so I wasn’t able to do a lot of different kinds of exercise, but one of my neighbors taught martial arts, and he became my sensei and my biggest mentor in martial arts. He started me out in Kendo, and later in Karate.
You were trained well, for sure. So, what can you share about coming to America in 1965, and your experience in overcoming prejudice and discrimination against Asians in the country at that time?
Well, coming from Japan, it was really hard to get a visa to come to the states at that time. Fortunately, I had a friend at the American embassy in Tokyo who helped me get it. There was definitely a lot of discrimination I had to overcome when I got to America in the 60’s. I had trouble finding an apartment because a lot of landlords didn’t want to rent to Japanese people, and one time I had a kid sign up to study with me, and the next day, he came and asked for his money back and told me, “My father said I can’t learn from a Jap.” So there was definitely prejudice that I and a lot of Asian immigrants had to face but martial arts was something that gave us a bridge of hope to make it.
Absolutely. On that note, you’ve written several books on martial arts. What are your thoughts on martial arts books being used a teaching tool? Do they work better as a supplement to real training?
I think books can a great supplement to martial arts training, but ultimately, it’s best to have a live instructor to train with. You also need a lot of illustrations for a training book, and if you look in some of the older books out there, you’ll see maybe five or six movements missing from a particular kata or what have you. So any book needs to be very in-depth and step by step in its illustrations and explanations in order to really get the essence of the art across.
Well, on that topic, YouTube is also full of martial arts instructional videos. What are your thoughts on the martial arts instructional material available there?
YouTube is pretty good for demonstrating techniques and kata, but unfortunately, a lot of people tend to watch the videos without really absorbing the techniques being demonstrated. You really want to have some direct instruction to understand it properly.
Looking at your work in movies now, you’re well-known for having served as Pat Morita’s stunt double in the original, classic martial arts coming-of-age film, “The Karate Kid”. What interesting stories can you share about making “The Karate Kid”. Did you experience any injuries or mishaps for example?
Pat Johnson was the stunt coordinator on the film, and he called me up to help train Pat Morita for the film. They based a lot of the Mr. Miyagi character on me, things like having Daniel-san washing my car and painting the fence. I did a lot of the fight choreography as well – such as the scene of Miyagi saving Daniel-san from the bullies. Pat Johnson let me orchestrate that scene and a lot of things in the film however I wanted to. I didn’t experience any injuries while making the film, although every time I jumped the fence in that scene, I split my pants, every time! We’d stitch them up, but they’d just split again, and we spent five days shooting that scene.
Now there’s something we didn’t know! You also worked on the subsequent films of the series, “The Karate Kid Part 3” and “The Next Karate Kid”? What memorable stories can you share about making these films and working with Hilary Swank?
“The Next Karate Kid” was probably the hardest film in the series to make, because we had to come up with some new kind of gimmick for the film that hadn’t been seen before which is why we settled on the idea of karate-dancing. Hilary Swank didn’t have any prior martial arts experience, so we had to train her for the film and use a stunt double for the more complex choreography but she was really dedicated to learning everything overall, I think she did well in the film.
Great to hear this from you. You also later appeared in the 1998 television special “Masters of the Martial Arts” with Wesley Snipes. What stories can you share about making that with Wesley?
I actually wasn’t familiar with Wesley before that, so when I met him backstage for the first time, I didn’t know who he was at first until someone there told me about him. That made meeting Wesley Snipes for the first time kind of a funny experience, but we got along really well and just joked about that misunderstanding, and he’s a very solid karateka.
Definitely. You also appeared in and served as stunt coordinator for 2009’s “Ninja”. What memorable stories can you share about making “Ninja” and working with Scott Adkins and director Isaac Florentine?
Well, a lot of ninja movies have a lot of flash gimmicks to them, but I really enjoyed being able to demonstrate the bo staff and kamas in “Ninja” in a very traditional way. I very much enjoyed working with Isaac Florentine, and I think the movie turned out pretty well because of his deep understanding of martial arts. It was also my first time meeting Scott Adkins, and he’s super good at what he does as well.
No doubt about that. Moving forward now, you were also the subject of the documentary about your own life story, “The Real Miyagi”? What can you tell us about how that came about?
Well, it was my student Kevin Derek who got a hold of me about doing the film a few years ago. Overall, “The Real Miyagi” for me was just a really great experience getting to reminisce about martial arts and “The Karate Kid”, and I was really happy with how it turned out.
On that note, you also have another documentary in the works titled “Pat Morita: Long Story Short”. What can you share about making this film on the life of Pat Morita?
That was also Kevin Derek who contacted me about doing a documentary on Pat Morita. I was really close with Pat from The Karate Kid films, so “Long Story Short” is kind of our love letter to his role as Mr. Miyagi. I’m in the film with a lot of the cast and crew, including Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, Martin Kove, and Pat Johnson, and it really goes into the story of the impact Pat Morita had as Mr. Miyagi.
Well, we really look forward to seeing it. On that note, what are some of your personal favourite martial arts or action movies and who are some of the people in martial films today that you respect?
I really like samurai movies, so movies like “The Last Samurai” and “Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman”. I also really enjoy a lot of Michael Jai White‘s films, and a lot of the movies Billy Blanks used to do too.
Great choices! Do you still train nowadays?
Well, I still teach karate, but unfortunately, due to being on dialysis several times a week after I experienced kidney failure, I just can’t train like I used to. That also kind of dictates what my diet is like today. For example, I can’t eat anything with salt now, and I don’t eat a whole lot of bread. I also have to drink two bottles of water a day, as well.
We’re really sorry to hear that, Shihan Demura, we hope that you’re able to maintain stable health as long as possible moving forward. Leading off of that topic, what’s the most daring stunt you’ve ever done?
That was probably in “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, where I played Hyena Man and had to do a scene with a tiger, a rhino, a bear, and a bull. They were all real animals, so they had to be really well-trained and doing that scene with them was pretty difficult, as some of them weighed over six hundred pounds.
Woah! That’s certainly daring. What’s the most serious injury you’ve ever experienced and how did you work around it?
I experienced a heart attack when I was working on the television series “Ohara” with Pat Morita. I thought at the time I was just experiencing a really bad cold, but we found out I’d actually had a heart attack while on the set, so the producer sent me to the hospital, so that ended up being it for me on “Ohara”. That was actually the first of three heart attacks I’ve had in my life, and it was doing martial arts all my life that really helped me get through those.
Incredible. Glad to hear you made it through that! So, what are some of your other hobbies outside of martial arts?
I like collecting swords, and I really like to go fishing too.
I mainly like to listen to Japanese folk music. In Japan it’s called “Enka”.
What are some things in life that you really: like and dislike?
I much value loyalty in people, and I dislike people who are seriously cocky.
Loyalty is a most admirable warrior trait indeed! Looking back, what would you say is your proudest accomplishment so far?
I think my proudest accomplishment is just being able to pass on the art of karate to so many great students, and that’s the main thing I want to keep doing going forward in life.
With you on that. Well, as we get ready to sign off Shihan Demura, what special message would you like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom readers, karate practitioners and those who follow you around the world. What warrior wisdom has really helped mold you into the respected Grandmaster karate icon you’ve become?
Well, when I was a little kid, I was very sickly and learning martial arts was what helped me to overcome that. Sooner or later, we all need help with something, and that’s something I think everyone should live; be willing to lend help to people because you’ll need it someday yourself. And whatever you do in life, no matter how big or how small, always make sure you give it your best.
Sound advice there, thank you Shihan. Thank you so much for your time sharing your life story as The Real Miyagi today. Domo arigato!
Thanks Brad. It’s my pleasure to share everything with you all today on Kung Fu Kingdom!
We hope you liked this interview with the living legend of karate that is Fumio Demura. What did he say that resonated with you the most and what are your fondest Mr Miyagi moments from The Karate Kid franchise? Let us know in the comments below, join in the conversation, share this on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter & Instagram. (Be sure to awaken your own Karate Kid – Enter the FUniverse of KFK’s other interviews too!)