Support the news
Anthony Mirakian died March 31 in Watertown, Massachusetts. He was 82 years old. In the karate school he ran for over half a century, where some of his students trained for decades, he was their Sensei—their great teacher.
In photos, Sensei Mirakian is always unsmiling, his eyes so fierce they could stop a train. But in life, he never used martial arts for attack. He ordered older students to walk away from threatening situations, and younger students not to brag about what they were learning. The tools of karate were like the tools of nuclear deterrence: necessary to perfect, but much too dangerous to put into action.
Karate didn’t exist in Cuba, where Sensei grew up. His family wasn’t actually Cuban; they were Armenians who had fled their country during the genocide, eventually immigrating to the United States. It was in Okinawa, during the Korean War, that Sensei discovered the defensive art called “empty hands”. By day, he was an Air Force weapons technician, moving tons of heavy equipment. By night, five times a week for six hours, he studied in a dojo miles from the base—Goju Ryu Karate, a combination of opposites: sun and moon, hard and soft, linear and circular movements. “Study” is an understated verb to describe his education: two hours of preparatory calisthenics in 85-degree heat and humidity, followed by 4 hours of blocks, kicks, punches and throws. Students were chosen for moral character as well as physical strength.
Back in the United States, he introduced Goju Ryu to a country that hadn’t yet heard of Bruce Lee. The Okinawan Karate Academy of Watertown offered three classes a week, with a childrens’ session on Saturday afternoons. Sensei, the first Westerner ever to have earned a black belt—often reminded his wilting students that the lessons he taught were far less rigorous than the ones he had taken. After an opening meditation and stretching, he might begin the class by walking along the stomachs of his students as they lay in a row. There were choreographed movements called Katas that could take years to learn, then line drills, and finally, sparring. Inattentiveness was unacceptable. Arm bruises were standard.
His wife Helen, a patient woman, only half-jokingly called herself his “karate widow”. Their daughter Doreen didn’t practice martial arts, but she continues to oversee his Academy. “Empty hands” was Sensei’s great life passion, and his family accommodated him. Yet the only advertising was by word of mouth. No one runs a dojo to make money, and so, for decades, he also worked as a purchase material inspector at Raytheon.
When Sensei Mirakian no longer had the physical strength to lead classes, senior students took on the teaching. But he sat behind the registration desk near the front door, overseeing the room with fierce eyes. It was still his kingdom.
Did you know Anthony Mirakian? Share your memories in the comments section.
Support the news