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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 6, 2001

Harry Eto, martial arts teacher, dead at 94

By Walter Wright
Advertiser Staff Writer

Harry Setsuo Eto, a barefoot Kaua'i plantation boy who literally helped build Honolulu and at middle age became a world-renowned martial arts teacher, will be remembered by family, friends, co-workers and students today at 6 p.m. Honpa Hongwanji services in Honolulu.

Harry Eto discovered martial arts at age 47 and became a world-renowned sensei.
Eto, born Aug. 9, 1906, to immigrant parents who found Hawai'i plantation life even harder than the life they left behind in Kumamoto prefecture, Japan, died June 26 in Kuakini Hospital after suffering a series of strokes. He was 94.

His life was a lesson, and Harry Eto was student and sensei alike.

"Physically I am nothing," the 5-foot-3, 120-pound aikido teacher said in 1995. "I don't have any strength."

But he routinely swept the mats of the dojo at Central YMCA and across the United States with men twice his weight. His advice was: "If your opponent wants to hit you, say, 'Thank you, please hit my head,' then step out of the way and help him down."

Eto grew up on miso soup and rice and home-grown vegetables in Hanama'ulu, wearing his one shirt and pair of pants to walk an hour to school, until he quit after eighth grade to work for $1 a day in the canefields.

Part of a family fired for leading plantation strikes in 1921, Eto became a carpenter's apprentice, moved at 19 to Honolulu to work by day and study by night, bought some land and built his Kalihi house at 20, married housemaid Lillian Kawano at 24 and started a family.

Despite prejudices against Japanese, he advanced to foreman, helping build the old Kress Store and many other landmark structures.

He barely escaped the draft — in Japan — when he went there briefly in 1940 to see his aging father, who had returned to his homeland.

At 47, the steady worker, who was sending daughters Nancy, Helen, Jeanette and Dorothy through school, discovered a new life. At a class taught by Tohei Koichi, creator of the Shin Shin Toitsu style of aikido, Eto was stunned at the practice that relied on ki, or inner strength, to send "all the judo boys" flying across the room.

In 1998, at age 92, still teaching and practicing, Eto was promoted to eighth-degree black belt.

He was caregiver to his wife before her death in 1997.

Granddaughter Adria Imada remembered the spry man who never looked old and could catch flying cockroaches in mid-air.

"I wanted him to stay alive," she said, "so that if I had children they'd be able to share my grandfather."

And tell them, perhaps, as he told all his students, "Just relax."