A Tribute to Sensei Johnston

I wanted to post this beautiful, heartfelt essay from one of Sensei’s amazing student (Tony A.) . Sensei is so proud of all of you.

Sensei David Johnston died yesterday. Outside of my family, no person in my life did more to shape me as a young man than him. I simply can’t imagine my life without him and Shotokan playing a role.
Sensei was the truest of originals. Born and raised in the Lake District, his first love was rock climbing in the early days of the sport. He continued with it until the very end, marking each milestone birthday with an impressive new climb. He was masterful at violin since childhood, and again until the very end, practiced alone multiple hours per day. As a young man, Sensei moved to London and briefly worked as an ad man during the counterculture heyday. Proud of his snakeskin boots, bell bottoms, three-martini lunches, and the fact he’d regularly see the Stones and play a bar the size of the dojo, as he’d tell us decades later over sushi or his favorite pizza. His own band auditioned Robert Plant and passed on him, shortly before Mr. Plant met a guy named Jimmy Page.
In the mid-1960s, Sensei’s life changed forever as he watched a karate demonstration from Senseis Kanazawa and Enoeda. These were the first instructors to leave Japan to spread Shotokan, having learned themselves from Master Funakoshi and Nakayama. True pioneers. Sensei gave up everything for karate, and he lived in the moment the rest of his days. Over his career he was the right-hand-man to Senseis Eneoda, Kanazawa, Okazaki, and Yaguchi (all mythical in karate stature, each now with their own wikipedia pages), spanning from the UK to the East Coast to Colorado, before moving to Los Angeles and then Orange County, removing himself from the politics of martial arts and teaching Shotokan independently.
When I say Sensei gave up everything for karate, I mean it. There was never any money to be made. There were no “brand ambassadors” or sponsorship, and there certainly wasn’t any social media on which to brag, humble-brag, or project an image. Sensei could barely bring himself to advertise locally with small flyers; it’s a miracle I and others found him. The *only* reality and reward to him was hard work in the dojo and respect for the art. Full stop. Sensei lived and died in the oldest tradition, dedicated to his art, touching the lives his many students, while living the life of a content pauper in the most purposeful and dignified of ways.
I first met and trained with Sensei in 1999, and I never worked harder for anyone ever. His final dojo was still new back then, and there were some classes where I’d be the only person to show up. I was all of 17 years old, Sensei was somewhere past 60. I’d push myself until my vision would go black. Then he’d tell me to start the kata over from scratch, or do another round of sparring, so I did. The details he could see (and be right about) were endless. The work was never finished. His longtime students would travel 90 minutes from Los Angeles or Ontario on Sundays, and they were the best karate-ka and people I’ve ever trained with. When I needed the dojo most, it was there, and when I’d catch my breath after class, Sensei and I talked Zen Buddhism, we talked Minor Threat, we talked Tarantino movies. He’d describe his favorite line in Repo Man, then walk me through a Chopin piece, because that came up too.
Sensei expected a lot from everyone in life. Too much sometimes, realistically speaking, but no more than he had earned or expected from himself. You simply couldn’t argue with the man. He worked so hard, sacrificed and forewent so much, stared down heartbreak and the early loss of his wife, and continued on following the truest spirit of karate. No glory except his dojo, the legacy of his students, and his tattered black belt, five decades old and turned all but completely white by the end.
Knowing and training under Sensei has been a rare honor, the likes of which in this world are fewer by the day. More than anything, Sensei’s high standards stay with me, and I think that’s how he’d like to be remembered. His passing has made me reflect on how much of his teaching I still carry, and how much I’ve changed, and processing it all won’t happen overnight. For now, I’m thankful he’s at peace, and I’m grateful to all his students for caring for him in his final days. I’m lucky to call you friends and dojo-mates, and Sensei was very lucky and grateful to have you in his time of need. Oss.

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