Masami Tsuruoka was born in 1929 in Cumberland, British Columbia. At the end of the war, he moved with his family to Kumamoto, Japan. During a trip to Tokyo he chanced to see a karate demonstration; he was so impressed that he resolved to learn this art, and upon his return to Kumamoto began to study Chito-ryu karate with Dr. Chitose.
By 1956, having attained the rank of nidan, he returned to Canada and started working in Toronto. At this time he was holding down two jobs during the daytime, and was not practicing karate at all. However, he also held a shodan in judo, which he was practicing in the evenings and introducing some karate.
Then, in 1957, Tsuruoka began teaching karate in a small gym on Danforth Avenue. Among the original students were Ned Paige, Benny Allen and Doug Harder. Ned Paige, recognizing that Tsuruoka had something valuable to offer Canadians, urged him to open his own karate club.
Accordingly, in 1958, he rented an old bowling alley on Queen Street, near Roncesvales Avenue in the west end of Toronto, where he began teaching karate seven days per week. At this time he was still working full time at his daytime jobs. Thus began Tsuruoka Karate, the first karate dojo in Canada.
Among the first members at the Queen Street dojo were Benny Allen, Qai Wong, John Matsumoto, Jim Imamura, Ned Paige, Shane Higashi and Tsuruoka’s son David. His wife, Kei, also began to teach women’s classes. The next wave included Al Bourque, Bill Doyle, Lonny Pike, Murray Sutherland and Monty Guest and his brother Nathan. The third wave of students (1963) included Hal Henschel, Fred Boyko, Don Hooper, Mas Takano and Frank Foulkes. The club remained at the Queen Street location until about 1964.
Meanwhile, in 1962, Tsuyoshi Chitose, Tsuruoka’s teacher in and the founder and head master of the Chito-ryu style of karate, appointed Tsuruoka Sensei as the chief representative of Chito-ryu karate in North America. This position was later assumed by Shane Higashi, Tsuruoka’s first black belt.
During the occupation of Japan, several American military personnel had undertaken karate training at the Yoseikan-the Chito-ryu head dojo in Kumamoto. In the early 1960’s Tsuruoka Sensei got in touch with these former Chito-ryu students in order to develop a Chito-ryu karate organization in North America. Notable among those was contacted was Bill Demetrich of Kentucky, who came to Toronto on various occasions to train with Tsuruoka Sensei. Demetrich is currently the chief representative of Chito-ryu karate in the United States.
In 1963 Tsuruoka organized the first karate tournament in Canada, “The First Canadian Karate Open Championship.” In the same year he began teaching karate at the University of Toronto, which became the first university karate club in Canada. In 1967 the first inter-university karate tournament was held between Ontario universities, the University of Toronto team, with Frank Foulkes as team captain, winning the championship.
Many of Tsuruoka Sensei’s students during this period were instrumental in the spread and development of karate in Canada. Among these is Shane Higashi. Higashi initially opened as an affiliate Tsuruoka club, but afterwards when on to develop his own organization in various parts of Canada. We should also mention Alcide Bourque, who later returned to New Brunswick, where he still heads the Tsuruoka organization in that province. Also during this period, people like Andre Langelier, George Sulvaine and Vern Cleux regularily drove in from Ottawa to receive instruction. These people went on to introduce karate in the Ottawa region.
During this period, one student, Jim Merrileo, an American living in Rochester, drove to Toronto every Sunday for about five years without missing a single workout! Merrileo was instrumental in introducing karate to New York state. “Tug” Wilson, a well known fourth degree black belt in judo, came to Toronto from Winnipeg for three months to learn karate from Tsuruoka Sensei. Wilson introduced karate to prairie provinces, and continued to make the trek to Toronto to improve his skills under Tsuruoka’s tutelage. Also during this period, Tran Quan Ba, a university professor teaching karate in Montreal, affiliated himself with the Tsuruoka organization in Quebec.
In about 1965, Tsuruoka moved his dojo to a more central site, choosing a location on Yonge Street, just south of Bloor Street, above the Golden Nugget Tavern. The club stayed at this location until about 1971. Notables who began their training under Tsuruoka during this period included Ted Jungblut, Suenori Tominaga, Dick Smeelen, Bill Carr and Gaylord Lindal.
Around 1971 the club moved to what was the former location of the Kidokan Judo Club (Canada’s first judo club, started in British Columbia by Stephen Kamino), above an automotive repair shop at 328 Dupont Street. Tsuruoka Sensei stayed there for a few years, after which he relocated to more spacious premises on the second floor, above a sports car garage, on Davenport Road, near Avenue Road. The club remained here until 1980, when, through the generosity of Gerhard Moog, one of Tsuruoka’s students and a well known Toronto developer, it moved to the location in the Canada Square Building, at the southwest corner of Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue.
It has been many years since Tsuruoka Sensei opened the first official karate school in Canada. Long known as “the father of Canadian karate,” he can justifiably take pride in the fact that, largely through his untiring efforts, karate has grown from three students in a small rented office in 1957 to tens of thousands of students across North America. Tsuruoka Sensei himself has personally graduated thousands of black belts.
Over the intervening years since 1958, there has been a gradual influx of many different styles of karate from Japan as well as from other countries. However, the karate world in Canada is permeated with Tsuruoka Sensei’s original students and their “descendants,” and the many teachers of other styles have been profoundly influenced by his teachings. In Newfoundland, Joe Gillies, Wing Au and Ed Lannon come to mind. In Prince Edward Island there is Allen Hertz. In New Brunswick there are Al Bourque and Tran Quan Ba. In Ontario there are Andre Langelier, George Sulvaine, Vern Cleux, Ken Dozono, Kenny Wu, Steve Churney, Ted Jungblut, Kim Dunn, Tom Racey, David Tsuruoka, Bill Carr, Shane Higashi, Suenori Tominaga, Roy Reaney, Brad Jones, Monty Guest, Qai Wong and Mas Takano. In Manitoba there is Harold Abosh. In Alberta there is Fred Psaidl. In British Columbia there are David Akutagawa, Warren Mauer and Gord Kirschner. In Nova Scotia, Ron Fagan.
Many thousands of people from all walks of life have trained under Tsuruoka Sensei’s firm hand. It is fair to say that all of them have been touched by his spirit and, in some small way, have become better people. In the world of Canadian karate, wherever you go you will find the shadow of Masami Tsuruoka.