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To stanch pandemic losses, a venerable local karate dojo launches a GoFundMe page

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                                Sensei George Kotaka, right, of International Karate Federation on Kaimuki on Saturday.


    Sensei George Kotaka, right, of International Karate Federation on Kaimuki on Saturday.

Before shutting down in March, as the novel coronavirus began spreading throughout Hawaii, the Kaimuki-based International Karate Federation was teaching 100-110 students islandwide, said sensei George Kotaka, whose father, sensei Chuzo Kotaka, founded the dojo in 1966.

Since then, enrollment has fallen about 20%, with roughly 70-80 students taking online karate classes at a 50% price reduction, George Kotaka said, “because I felt you can’t charge the full amount as for an in-person session, and I knew parents of our students were being laid off or having to stay home with their children.”

As revenues shrank by more than half, the landlord refused the family’s requests for flexibility in meeting the $6,500 monthly rent on their dojo. IKF received CARES Act funding for three months’ rent, Kotaka said. And his parents were dipping into their savings to cover expenses.

Kotaka’s mother, Hiroko Kotaka, “who’s really the backbone of the company and does all the books, told me she didn’t know how much longer we could go on.”

In late October, when Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell ordered a partial, Tier 2 reopening that permits gyms to operate at 25% of capacity and allows in-person fitness classes of up to five people, the restrictions were too much. George Kotaka found himself confronting the possible closure of the small family business that provides his sole livelihood as well as that of his parents, sister Mari Kaneshiro and niece Taylor Kaneshiro.

The family has taught Kotaka-Ha Shito-Ryu, the style of karate developed by his father, to generations of local families.

The gloomy prospect of closure, however, was soon dispersed by a ray of hope when Julie Yuen, the mother of two IKF students, proposed she start a GoFundMe page. The page launched last week and seeks cash donations toward recouping the dojo’s losses and positioning it to survive the coming, uncertain months as in-person instruction gradually reopens.

“My sons, ages 10 and 8, have really benefited from (IKF) lessons,” said Yuen, director of communications at Mid-Pacific Institute, one of a dozen schools islandwide where IKF provided after-school karate classes before the pandemic.

“My 8-year-old has learning differences and responds to some teachers more than others,” she said. “Sensei (Kotaka) was one of those able to connect with him.”

Yuen said her son is thriving in karate because Kotaka “treats all his students with respect, understanding, a combination of warmth and discipline — and whether he’s correcting or praising you, it sounds the same, not making people feel bad or striving for praise.”

“Some people are born to teach, give and serve, and we should help them continue to do that,” Yuen said.

She also had a personal impetus for the GoFundMe page, said Yuen, whose own family runs a small business, Disco Mart in Waipahu, which was started by her immigrant grandparents 73 years ago.

“My mom is running (Disco Mart) now with my auntie since my grandfather passed away, and I was thinking about the Kotakas and how our own family business is like a person, and when we are not running it anymore, it’ll feel like my grandparents died all over again.”

In this economic crisis, she said, it is crucial to support all small, local family businesses, which “really are the lifeblood of our community.”

The Kotaka family legacy began in 1962, when Chuzo Kotaka won the All Japan Karate Championship, the most prestigious karate tournament in his home country of Japan.

In 1965, age 23, Kotaka came to Oahu on a goodwill tour to teach karate around the world, and decided to make Hawaii his home, founding International Karate Federation in 1966.

“My mother picked (karate) up in the early ’80s when I started at the age of 3, and she started with me,” George Kotaka said.

According to its website, IKF is the only karate school in the United States to have produced two World Karate Federation World Champions, as well as medalists in each of the past six WKF World Championships since 2002.

Kotaka said he was extremely grateful to Yuen for starting the GoFundMe page “out of the sheer goodness of her heart.”

Having raised more than $8,000 of its $45,500 goal as of Thursday, in just over a week, the fundraiser has shown the family “just how strong our community connection is.”

Kotaka added he’s hopeful revenues will begin rising, and now they’ve started reopening limited in-person classes this month.

The dojo provides PPE to students, who wear masks and social-distance, and floors are mopped and all surfaces students touch are sanitized before and after each class, during which both doors are left open and the air conditioning and a newly purchased HEPA filter air cleaner are run.

IKF’s GoFundMe campaign, which closes Dec. 31, can be found at karate-federation.

Correction: Julie Yuen said her mother is running Disco Mart with her auntie since her grandfather died, not her father, as reported in an earlier version of this atory. Her father is alive and well.
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