His parents could only hope Earl Yonemura would learn some when they sent him off to the Shobukan dojo and into the care of the legendary Sunao Migita. Perhaps judo — "gentle way" as it is translated — would calm their 7-year-old son whose antics had outgrown the family’s small Kapalama home.
The war had ended and so had the ban on most things Japanese, including language schools and martial arts. It was 1947, and the Yonemuras saw an opportunity to get young Earl out of the house for a few — hopefully constructive — hours.
They never dreamed that the path they put their son on would lead him down a road to such great success.
Sixty-three years after tying his first obi, Yonemura has become Hawaii’s first ninth dan (degree) black belt. The 70-year-old received his certificate in the mail in April and the distinctive all-red obi last Tuesday.
"I never did think about getting a ninth degree, thought I’d die before that happened," Yonemura said. "It’s something you don’t think about. Eighth (degree) was good enough and even getting the eighth was a surprise.
"I was kind of naughty growing up, and my parents sent me to judo so I wouldn’t be in trouble. The philosophy of judo helped me all my life. It teaches you so many things. It becomes part of your life."
The discipline his parents hoped for was realized, from the military to the bowling alley to the classroom. The Saint Louis School graduate coached championship judo teams while serving at Air Force stations in Texas and Asia. And he was a professional bowler with three perfect games on his fascinating resume.
Although Yonemura’s bachelor’s and master’s degrees are in accounting, he instead had a lengthy career as a general contractor in Honolulu and on the Big Island. Currently, he’s working on a doctorate in computer science through an online program from the University of Florida.
"My family asks what I’m going to do with it," Yonemura shared. "I have no idea but I’ll have it. Maybe my friends will call me, ‘Doctor.’"
One thing that has eluded the 2-handicapper in golf is a hole-in-one. Yonemura said he’s come tantalizingly close twice, once each at the Mililani and Barbers Point golf courses, where the ball hung on the lip of the hole but wouldn’t drop.
For all of his accomplishments, Yonemura has remained humble. He has told few about his promotion to ninth dan.
"He is so deserving, such a generous guy," said Robin Mori, the former judo coach at Kamehameha Schools who will establish the sport at Damien Memorial this school year. "When I was hired at Kamehameha, I asked if he would help me out. We kind of adopted him as a father.
"These higher degrees are about what you give back to the sport, sharing the knowledge. It is such an honor to receive a new belt. And now his goes from red-and-white to pure red."
(Black belts are traditionally worn by competitively ranked judokas from first through fifth dan. A red-and-white belt is given for service from sixth through eighth dan. Red is worn by ninth- (kudan) and 10th-degree (judan) holders.
Yonemura retired from his business in 2000 following a stroke. He said his doctors credited his years of judo with his recovery.
"I couldn’t walk or talk for a few years," said Yonemura, who also is recovering from recent foot surgery. "But I always stayed strong in my mind. I knew in my mind that I would walk and talk again."
And continue on the "gentle way" that has become his life.
NOTES: For nearly half of his life, Yonemura went by the last name of Onishi, which was that of his stepfather. He began using his original surname 20 years ago.