Son shares his father's love of judo
May 19, 2005
Meghan Mullan
Staff Writer

Christopher Anderson/The Gazette

Judo teacher Kevin Tamai watches as Abel Kwong, 9, demonstrates how to throw Tarsis Mendonca, 8, both of Beltsville, to the mat during a Tuesday class at the Beltsville Community Center.

Kevin Tamai was just a toddler when his father introduced him to judo, a Japanese martial art form.

Kevin Tamai's father, Kenneth Tamai, originally from Hawaii, covered the basement floor of the family's home in Landover with two-inch thick mats and began wrestling with his six children when they were youngsters to teach them the basics of judo, which in exact translation means "the gentle way."

The basement studio turned into lessons for local children at elementary and middle schools and soon the lives of Kenneth Tamai and his six children were dedicated to spreading the ancient form of martial art across the Washington metropolitan area.

In 1968, Kenneth Tamai opened the Hui-O-Judo Club in Berwyn Heights as a family studio to teach both competitive and recreational judo to students of all ages.

The studio, known by the Japanese word "dojo," originally was located in the Berwyn Heights fire station but that soon became too small.

In 1981, the club moved into the Beltsville Community Center where it meets now, and is led by Kevin Tamai, 38, the oldest son.

Kevin Tamai estimates that over the 35 years his family has been involved in teaching judo in the local area, they've taught "several thousand" students.

At the Beltsville community center, on blue foam mats covered with a cloth, about 20 local judo students dressed in clean simple cotton robes, roll on the floor, pin partners and grapple with new moves.

At the same time, Dianne Tamai Jackson, the youngest daughter and a 2005 USA Judo National champion, practices kata, a choreographed sequence of judo techniques, with her partner Karen Whilden.

Whilden and Jackson move harmoniously toward each other, then grab each other around the neck and Whilden bends, lunges and throws Jackson over her head and behind her. Jackson's body lands with a tremendous thud. She sits up with precision and rejoins the choreography to take another throw.

Although judo players are often thrown, they receive a lower rate of injury because of the focus around safety, Tamai said.

From the back of the mat, Kevin Tamai, talks intently with his young students, urging them to find "your judo"--the move that works best for each person.

"What makes a good move for you might not work for someone else. It's a constant learning process," he said.

Judo is about respect, loyalty and devotion, Kevin Tamai said. It is good physical fitness, but it is also about dealing with life, power and force.

Judo was developed in Japan in 1882 by Jigoro Kano, a 5-foot tall, 90 pound man who could take on sumo wrestlers using leverage, momentum and strategy.

Judo is about redirecting an attacker to knock them off balance. It's about moving out of the way of someone's force and redirecting the energy so that no one gets hurt, he said.

Chris Howell, a Hui-O-Judo student, came to the Beltsville club to learn about how to effectively defend himself and his loved ones without causing harm, he said.

While working in Ethiopia as a missionary in 1990, Howell was with his wife when someone attacked her. He immediately responded with violence and ended up severely injuring the assailant.

"I only knew brute force," he said. "I want to be able to take control of a situation."

Now, a Judo student and teacher, Howell brings his daughter Jasmine, 11, from their Howard County home to the Beltsville club.

For Mark Smith a Hui-O instructor who began judo at age 8 while living on a military base, judo was a way out of trouble. He was caught breaking into a building with other children and was given a choice of learning judo or going to a juvenile correctional camp. He chose judo, which has now become his way to help other youth.

Teaching judo to children is at the core of club philosophy, he said. It's about teaching values, structure, discipline, loyalty and dedication, he said.

Judo stresses respect for elders, safety and cleanliness. Children must wear sandals when leaving clean mats and help with setting up for practice.

Last year, Kenneth Tamai died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 71 while on a trip in Hawaii to visit his family and Beltsville mourned, Kevin Tamai said.

Students who had not seen their teacher in years called to say that Kenneth Tamai had been their father figure.

"Your father was my father," students said to Kevin Tamai.

For Kevin Tamai, who does not have his own children, judo is a way for him to share his love and passion and to be a father to many.

E-mail Meghan Mullan at