From Okinawa to Rhode Island

From Okinawa to Rhode Island

Sensei Al Gagne, of the Okinawan Temple Karate Studio, demonstrates how to use the Kama, a bladed sickle attached to a long wood handle. At 70 years old, Gagne is already planning his next trip to the birthplace of karate – Okinawa. (Breeze photo by Jackie Roman)
Sensei Gagne brings traditional karate to the Ocean State

SMITHFIELD – Sensei Al Gagne is very clear about what students at the Okinawan Temple Karate Studio at 200 Pleasant View Ave. in Smithfield learn every day: “All we do is karate.”

It might sound like Gagne is stating the obvious, but what he really means is, “This is not Hollywood karate.”

That means no calisthenics, like jumping jacks or push-ups, or anything included in middle school gym class.

Instead, the 70-year-old Gagne – a sixth-degree black belt himself, teaches students the traditional Okinawan karate system through intensive two-hour classes.

Gagne says there are a few other aspects that make Okinawan Temple unique:

• Unlike other studios, there’s an age minimum of 16 years old for achieving a black belt, the same as in Japan.

• To build a stronger connection to Japanese culture, students learn some basic Japanese reading and writing, mostly Katakana.

• Before students can qualify for a black belt, they must complete a written exam in addition to a physical exam. The exam covers Japanese history and requires a score of 80 or above.

• At the start of each class, students bow and say, “Onegaishimasu, sensei,” which translates as, “If you would please, teacher.”

This adherence to tradition and emphasis on respect is what Gagne says helps his students not only learn karate, but master life.

“I want their future to be better for them, so I’m giving them a candle that’s lit and I hope they can keep the flame alive,” he said. “I am a teacher to a better way of life.”

The sensei’s own journey in karate began more than four decades ago.

“I was a victim of bullies when I was a child,” Gagne said. “I never wanted to feel that fear again.”

He enlisted in the military in 1969, weighing just 115 pounds, and began taking karate classes while serving in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in New Mexico.

He returned to Rhode Island in 1972 and began advancing further with the help of his first teacher, Vince Weigand, who studied under Fusei Kise and Hohan Soken while in the U.S. Army and serving in Okinawa.

Gagne has traveled to Okinawa, the birthplace of karate, five times, twice with his mentor Weigand and three times with his own group.

This year Gagne brought two students, a 51-year-old man and a 16-year-old high school student, with him to the Okinawan Prefectural Budokan in NaHa City to participate in the Okinawa Traditional Karate-do International Seminar.

“We get to meet 10 grand masters of each of the 10 Okinawan karate systems, “ he said. “It’s going back to the roots.”

For those looking to brush shoulders with the grand masters of karate, there’s hope – Gagne is gearing up for a 2020 trip.

He’s sure he’ll be up for the trip. After all, he said, “I’m still improving all of my skills.”