Born: January 12, 1929 (Cumberland, British Columbia)
Died: October 10, 2014 (Toronto)
Member: Order of Ontario (1998)
Masami Tsuruoka was the father of karate in Canada. He opened the first karate club in the country in Toronto in 1958 and held the first tournament in 1962.
Tsuruoka, a tenth-degree master addressed as O-Sensei, served as the first president of the National Karate Association of Canada. He also helped found the Karate Ontario Association.
“Karate’s supposed to be a defensive sport,” he told Paul King of the Canadian Magazine in 1972. “But I don’t think of it that way. Its main purpose is to build confidence, teach etiquette and create respect for others. Some people come to me for a fast self-defence course. There’s no such thing with karate. It takes years of dedication. Karate does give you confidence in combat, but our primary purpose is to teach self-control.”
Born in 1929 at Cumberland, a mining town, on Vancouver Island, young Mas was 13 years old when his and 30 other families in the area of Japanese and Japanese-Canadian origin were forcibly evicted and sent to internment camps. Tsuruoka was first sent to Tashme, a settlement of tar-baby shacks hastily set up on a site 22 kilometres east of Hope, B.C., just outside the 100-mile exclusion zone of the coast. The men in the camp worked at a sawmill or on constructing the highway to Princeton. (Tashme was named for three men on the British Columbia Security Commission — Austin Taylor, J. Shirras, and F.J. Mead, taking the first two letters of each surname.) Conditions in the camp were primitive, as the shacks had neither running water nor electricity. Tsuruoka was later sent to a camp at Rosebery, a hamlet north of New Denver in the Kootenays.
At war’s end, with Japanese-Canadians still barred from returning home to the coast, Tsuruoka and his father moved to Kumamoto on the Japanese island of Kyushu. The city had been ravaged by fires caused by bombing raids late in the war. It was there the slight, young man, weighing just 128 pounds, was beaten by a gang of street toughs and became determined to learn to defend himself. He first studied judo before taking up karate, gaining a first-degree black belt in 1949.
Tsuruoka returned to Canada in 1956 and, the following year, offered his first karate clinics at Mac’s Gym in Toronto. He opened Canada’s first karate club in 1958 in a space above the Lakeside Bowling Alley in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. In 1965, he moved the club to a space above the Golden Nugget Tavern (now Burgundy’s) on Yonge Street, south of Bloor. After six years, the club moved a few times before the developer Gerhard Moog offered a permanent space at the corner of Yonge and Eglinton.
The inaugural karate tournament Tsuruoka organized soon became known as the Canadian International Open Karate championship, drawing competitors from the Japan, South Korea, South Vietnam and the United States.
In 1963, he organized a karate club at the University of Toronto, the first on a campus in Canada.
In 1965, the Canadian National Exhibition Karate Championship was won by Fred Boyles, one of Tsuruoka’s pupils.
Known for establishing the Chito-ryu style in Canada, he later developed and taught his own, known as Tsuruoka-ryu.
Tsuruoka was among the five inaugural inductees into the Canadian Black Belt Hall of Fame in Toronto. In 2013, the hall introduced a lifetime achievement award which is named for Tsuruoka.
“All that breaking of boards with the fists and stuff is just show biz,” he once said. “When we put on exhibitions, people expect it, so we do it. But we don’t emphasize it in our courses. Anybody could do it, in fact, without any training. It only requires confidence.”