Focus and Commitment
The Biography of Devorah Yoshiko Dometrich
By William Jansak and Douglas Daulton
On October 18, 1997, the board of directors of Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai (The Society for the Preservation and Promotion of the Ancient Martial Ways of the Ryukyu Islands) promoted Devorah Yoshiko Dometrich to kyoshi nanadan (seventh degree black belt). The event marked the first time in the history of Okinawan kobudo or karate that a woman has been awarded this rank. However, this achievement is far from the most remarkable in a life punctuated by good fortune and readiness of heart, mind and body.
The First Step on the Path
Born in Covington, Kentucky on May 2, 1951; Devorah was a fighter from the very beginning. From her earliest memories, she was a tomboy with an affinity with weapons and fighting. At age fourteen, two neighborhood boys challenged her to try training at the Yoseikan karate dojo (school) where they practiced.
Never one to back down from a challenge, she enrolled at Yoseikan, which was owned by William Dometrich, a local police sergeant. Dometrich and his wife Barbara took an immediate liking to Devorah. Over time, they developed a strong bond that ultimately led them to adopt her. They would provide their new daughter with an outlet for her competitive and combative fires: Chito-ryu karate.
William Dometrich is a student of Dr. Tsuyoshi Chitose, the founder of Chito-ryu karate. As Chitose’s senior representative in the United States, Dometrich takes the study of martial arts very seriously. As a Buddhist priest and police officer, he places high value on the development of character and integrity. Through daily training, he passed these values on to Devorah.
After just one year of training and while still a white belt, Devorah entered the first National karate Championship, held at the United States Armory in Washington D.C. in May of 1966. She placed first in kata (form) and then began kumite (sparring) competition. As there were no eliminations or divisions based on rank or weight, she had to face every single contestant. After about eighteen, consecutive, two-minute matches, she emerged the winner. Current competition structures are much less grueling. So, her dual victories are a result of her dedicated training and the quality instruction received from her father.
During these formative years, Dr. Chitose visited the Dometrich family several times. Upon meeting young Devorah, he had difficulty pronouncing her name. So he said, “From now on you will be called Yoshiko”.
In April of 1972, Devorah Dometrich entered the United States Air Force (USAF) and was assigned to the Judge Advocate Group at Lockhorn Air Force Base in Columbus, Ohio. Shortly after her arrival, she was asked to teach the classes of a Shotokan karate club whose instructor was taking an assignment in Vietnam. Now a nidan (second degree black belt), this would be her first dojo. While teaching, she also trained for competition. In 1974, she was crowned Grand Champion at the JKA National Karate Tournament in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The USAF has always appreciated competitors who represent them well. After Dometrich’s victory, they asked her what they could do in return. She asked for an assignment in Japan. Because Dr. Chitose and the Chito-Ryu Honbu dojo were in Kumamoto, Japan, her only thought was to go to there. However, the closest the USAF could get her was Kadena Air Base (AB) in Okinawa. To Dometrich, that was close enough.
By December of 1974, she was assigned to the 376th Strategic Air Command in Okinawa. At the time, she had very little knowledge of Okinawa. All she knew was that Dr. Chitose and karate were both originally from Okinawa. While Okinawa was not her intended destination, in her own words, “The greatest gift the Air Force has ever given me was sending me there.”
The Brown Subaru
Finding a dojo was not as easy as she had expected. At the time, it was still quite rare for someone to come from the US to Japan with any rank in the martial arts. In addition, many of the other soldiers on Kadena Air Base who practiced karate were still beginners. As a result, Dometrich was often challenged when she presented herself as a nidan. At one dojo, the head instructor made her spar with his senior student who was a bit too aggressive. In the course of their match, Dometrich broke his nose. She was politely asked not to return.
She wrote her father and asked for help in finding a dojo. One day at work, she received a telephone call from a Naval officer that she had never met. He said an unidentified Japanese man had asked her to meet him at the front gate at 4:00 p.m. Not sure what to expect, she decided to keep the appointment. At 4:00 p.m., a brown Subaru pulled up and two Japanese men got out and bowed to her. One opened the back door of the car. At the time, she did not speak Japanese. So without a word, she got in the car.
Dometrich remembers “I was a little leery at first and thinking ‘What the heck am I doing in this car with these two guys.’ I was trying to figure out where I was. I had only been in Okinawa for a couple of weeks and had no idea where we were going. No one spoke the whole ride. It was pouring down rain and about all you could hear in the car were the wipers going back and forth.” She started to count traffic lights to keep track of how far they were taking her. Just about the time she was going to jump out of the car and run, they stopped in the town of Itoman and climbed eight flights of steps to an apartment. When they entered, she saw a picture of Dr. Chitose and knew she was safe.
Her escorts were Inomoto Masaru and Chigiri, students of Dr. Chitose who were stationed in Okinawa with the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force. Her father had called Dr. Chitose who, in turn, called Inomoto. He had a difficult time trying to contact Dometrich because she worked in a classified area of Kadena AB. In his call to Inomoto, Chitose referred to Dometrich as Yoshiko. From there, the name stuck with her. To this day, she is known as Yoshiko in Okinawa and all her certificates from Okinawa bear that name.
An Introduction to Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai
The Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force shared Naha Air Base with the USAF. About fifteen Japanese soldiers stationed there were from Kumamoto and studied Chito-Ryu karate under Inomoto. Dometrich received special permission to enter the Japanese base to train with Inomoto and the soldiers from Kumamoto. One day, the soldiers left and Inomoto took out the rokushaku bo (six foot staff). Dometrich watched as he began doing a kata. She asked where he had learned the kata because she had never seen it in Chito-Ryu karate. He said, “Akamine Sensei”.
Today, Dometrich recalls that she knew then that kobudo was her destiny. She told Inomoto she was overwhelmed with the waza. That night, Inomoto showed her some basic bo waza (techniques). There was only one bo. So, Inomoto would demonstrate waza and hand her the bo. She would attempt the waza and return the bo to him to correct her mistakes. They went back and forth all evening. At Dometrich’s request, Inomoto agreed to ask permission for her to come to Akamine’s dojo.
Dometrich made her first trip to Shinbukan, Akamine’s dojo, in January of 1975. While they were driving to the dojo, Inomoto told Dometrich she was only permitted to watch and was never allowed to bring a camera into the dojo. After the long drive from Kadena to Tomigusuku Village, they arrived at the Shinbukan.
The dojo was twenty-five by thirty feet, small by modern standards. The floorboards were spaced almost an inch apart and one had to be careful not to catch one’s toes in them. The back wall was actually the back of Akamine’s house. The opposite wall was the kamiza (dojo shrine). The walls on either side were like old-fashioned wooden windows that slid and stacked up to allow sunlight and air to enter the dojo.
Compared to the military style of many modern, western dojo, the Shinbukan was far less structured. However, the teaching was no less intense. When they arrived, students bowed in on their own. When Akamine came in, they greeted him and resumed their training. Usually, each student was working on something different in the mirrors located on the front wall. Akamine would go from student to student, observing their waza and making corrections.
Dometrich remembers their first meeting, “Akamine Sensei was a very small man, much smaller than me and I only weighed 110 lbs. He was so agile and had a presence about himself. He was a very soft-spoken man and said very little. I sat and watched quietly. Every so often, he would ask Inomoto a question about me. Back then, Sensei spoke only Hogen. I didn’t know much Hogen or Japanese then and could not understand. But, I knew they were talking about me because they would glance at me as they spoke. At the end of class, everyone knelt down and did a formal bow. I joined in with them, first to the kamiza and then to Sensei. Everyone changed clothes and left. Not a word was said to me.”
For two weeks, Dometrich visited the dojo every day and repeated this ritual. Like many Okinawans, Akamine’s parents were killed by American soldiers during in World War II at the Battle of Okinawa. Understandably, he was very hesitant to accept an American student. One night, Akamine looked at her and said in Hogen “Get your gi on.” She did not understand. So, he grabbed her T-shirt collar and motioned for her to put her gi on. After she had dressed, he handed her the tetsuo bo (iron staff). For over two hours, he directed her through bo kihon (basics).
The tetsuo bo weighed at least 20 pounds, roughly one fifth her body weight. Dometrich recalls, “The next day, I was dead from my shoulders to my fingers and thought I’d never be able to raise my arms again.” She returned to Akamine’s dojo that night and he handed her the tetsuo bo again. After an hour, as she reached the peak of exhaustion and frustration, Akamine took the tetsuo bo from her hands and replaced it with a wooden bo. Not a word was spoken, but in that moment, they formed a bond that would last the rest of their lives.
Life in Okinawa
In the spring of 1975, Kadena AFB held a beauty pageant. Dometrich’s commanding officer commented that it was too bad all she could do was break boards and bricks and was incapable of anything feminine. Always up to a challenge, she promised she would win the contest if he would give her the time off from work. True to form, she won the contest and was featured in Stars and Stripes as well as local newspapers in Okinawa and her hometown of Covington, Kentucky. The articles brought the USAF a great deal of positive press and she took this opportunity to ask to be reassigned to Naha Air Base. This new assignment eliminated the daily, three hour round trip to the dojo. For the remainder of her time in Okinawa, Dometrich would spend most free moments training.
Dometrich and Inomoto trained constantly. They practiced kobudo everday before and after work. During their lunch hour, Inomoto taught Dometrich iaido (way of the sword) of the Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu line. In addition, they studied karate twice a week. Weekends found her at Inomoto’s home training and spending time with his family. On Saturdays, Akamine privately taught her and Inomoto from noon until 4:00 p.m. After Akamine’s class, they would study iaido again. On Sunday mornings, she and Inomoto taught karate to the children of Japanese servicemen.
In 1976, Akamine held his first kobudo shiai (tournament). Dometrich won second place in bo, sai (truncheon), tuifa (millstone handle), and nunchaku (rice flail). Her strong overall performance earned her Grand Champion; Second Place. In March 1976, Dometrich traveled to Kumamoto where she passed her shodan (first degree black belt) test in Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu iaido. By early 1977, she had attained the rank of sandan (third degree black belt) in Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai.
With her tour in the USAF almost over, Dometrich asked to be discharged on Okinawa. At first, the USAF balked. At a time when there were not many women in overseas assignments, the USAF did not want a single female to be discharged in a foreign country. She stood her ground and on February 7, 1977, was honorably discharged from the USAF in Naha, Okinawa. Rather than returning home, she remained in Okinawa and continued her training with even greater intensity. Prior to her return to the USA in April 1977, Akamine awarded her a teaching license and appointed her the head of Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai – Beikoku So Hombu (United States Headquarters).
Back in the USA
Shortly after her return to the United States, Dometrich entered the Kentucky Police Academy at Eastern Kentucky University. After graduation, she became a police officer in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. Later that year she met state trooper, Paul Herbst. They were married in 1979. In 1980, she and Paul moved to Arizona where they graduated from the Arizona Highway Patrol Academy. In 1981, missing the grass and rolling hills of their home state, they returned to Kentucky where they resumed their careers in law enforcement.
Throughout her career in law enforcement, Dometrich excelled in her work. In addition to her patrol duties, she taught interrogation, patrol procedures, accident investigation, and firearms for the Justice Cabinet of Kentucky. She also maintains her firearms instructor license from the FBI and NRA. Today, she and Paul raise cattle and horses on 90 acres of Kentucky farm and woodlands called Rifle Ranch. In 1996, Dometrich retired from police work to fulfill her giri (obligation) to Akamine Eisuke by teaching Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai throughout the United States and Canada.
Of the time she lived in Okinawa, Dometrich recalls: “My strongest memory of Okinawa is the feeling of being home. People call the place they were born home. It is hard to describe. But, I did not find myself until I was in Okinawa. Who I was; what I was; where I was going and what I wanted to do with myself: I discovered these things as I matured in Okinawa. It was there that I found myself. So, I was reborn in Okinawa so to speak.”
Between 1988 and 1998, Dometrich returned “home” six times. Each visit, she stayed between one and three months, the maximum time allowed on a tourist visa. In 1995, she assisted Akamine with the Taira Shinken Embu Taikai (Memorial Demonstrations on the 25th Anniversary of Taira Shinken’s Death). In 1997, Akamine asked her to return to Okinawa to assist in teaching the kobudo clinics held at the first Okinawa Karate and Kobudo World Tournaments.
After fulfilling her commitment to the World Tournaments, she stayed in Okinawa for three months. Each day she trained kobudo and iaido from noon into the early hours of the next morning. She maintained this exhausting schedule every day without fail. Under Akamine’s guidance, she and Takara Sachi Yoshi reviewed old texts and resurrected three forgotten kata: Chatanyara no Kon (the oldest bo kata), Yakaa no Sai, and Kyushaku Bo, which utilizes the nine-foot bo.
During this trip, Dometrich was introduced to Onaga Yoshimitsu, a teacher of ti, the origin of karate. Onaga was a life long student of Higa Yuchoku, friend and contemporary of Taira Shinken, founder of Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai. Taira had called on Higa to help him infuse Ryukyu kobudo with gamanku (hip technique). With this in mind, Dometrich became Onaga’s deshi (student) and began her study of ti. She credits Onaga with opening her eyes to a new level of waza.
After her promotion to kyoshi nanadan, Dometrich was featured in Okinawan newspapers and a special television news report. She was then invited to become the first foreigner to participate in the traditional Okinawan Suna Hiki festival as a member of the Wakasa group. Past members of this group include Taira Shinken and Higa Yuchoku. Dometrich recalls being humbled by the honor of participating in this historic event. In March 1998, she traveled to Okinawa to visit Akamine and train with Onaga. During this trip, she went to Kumamoto and where she tested in iaido. Committed to maintaining close ties with her brothers from the Shinbukan, Dometrich has hosted both Inomoto and Takara twice since 1995.
Following in Taira’s Footsteps
From 1977 to 1986, Dometrich introduced Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai to the United States via demonstrations. She found most western martial artists lacked knowledge or understanding of the value and history of the art. In 1986, she began holding a regular kobudo class on Sunday mornings at the Yoseikan Dojo. Her senior students fondly remember these “marathon sessions” which began at 7:30 a.m. and often lasted well into the afternoon. Open to all interested students, Dometrich used these classes as a bridge to unite practitioners in all styles of martial arts.
Today, Dometrich follows Taira’s example: traveling, teaching and ensuring the quality of the next generation of Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai practitioners. To date, she has chartered twenty-five shibu (branch) dojo and has taught clinics in over 50 dojo across North America. Currently, Dometrich maintains a regular monthly class in Cincinnati, Ohio with her senior students, most of who now have students of their own. When asked how she built her organization, Dometrich replies “One student at a time.”
Loss of a Mentor
On Wednesday, January 13, 1999, Akamine Eisuke passed away. With him, a piece of Dometrich died. She recalls: “Akamine Sensei nurtured my young self. At twenty-two, I was cocky with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. Everyday without fail, Akamine Sensei nurtured me through this maturing process. He molded my heart as well as my waza.”
When she returned to the States, they maintained their close bond. “When trying to make major decisions that would affect me for the rest of my life, Akamine Sensei was very understanding of what I was going through. He was never disappointed in me. Even when I had no money available to go to Okinawa, there was always contact between us.”
“It is waza, not kata, which defines a martial art.” Dometrich recalls Akamine teaching. “Too many Westerners are obsessed with kata; kata is not karate, and kata is not kobudo. Waza is karate, and waza is kobudo. Sensei Akamine never taught me a kata; he only taught waza. Kata are learned from one’s sempai (seniors) or peers.”
Dometrich also shares the focus of Akamine’s technical instruction: “The most important aspect of waza is gamanku (hip technique).” She believes it is extremely important because power, generated by the proper movement of the hips, is often neglected in modern kobudo training. Dometrich often reminds her students, “Technique is in the wrist. Power is in the hips. Finally she says, “Gamanku is the fundamental teaching of all Ryukyuan busaa (fighting arts). The presence of gamanku distinguishes genuine, potentially lethal waza from the baton-like twirling of weapons often seen in modern tournaments.”
Though a part of Dometrich died with Akamine, it is clear a part of him now lives in her.
From the Yoseikan, her father’s dojo to the Shinjinbukan, Onaga’s dojo, Devorah Yoshiko Dometrich has always had a drive and a spirit that would not be denied. As she puts it, “Karate is an attitude. Kobudo is an attitude. Life is an attitude.” Akamine Eisuke made his skills, knowledge and heart available to the young Dometrich. In turn, she opened herself to receive all he had to offer. Today, her students benefit from her commitment, effort and hard-won knowledge.
It would be simple to view Dometrich up as an example of an extraordinary, compelling woman. However, that would be too simple. Instead, it is better to see her as an extraordinary human being. One who has lived her life with an awakened sense of muchimi: “readiness of the heart and mind”.
About the Authors
William Jansak has studied Chito-Ryu karate under Lawrence Hawkins Jr. for 16 years and has attained the rank of sandan. Since, 1988, he has studied Ryukyu kobudo under Devorah Yoshiko Dometrich. In 1995 he attained the rank of nidan. Currently, Bill teaches Ryukyu kobudo at three dojo across Greater Cincinnati.
In 1983, Doug Daulton began his study of Matsubayashi Shorin-ryu karate under Bill George, Steve Rafferty and later, Frank Grant.In 1990, he began his study of Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai under Devorah Yoshiko Dometrich. He also studies Shinto Muso Ryu Jojutsu.
For more information on Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai:
Devorah Yoshiko Dometrich
Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai Beikoku So Hombu
690 Huff Road
Dry Ridge, Kentucky 41011
Phone/Fax: (859) 824-3792