The founder and Shihan – aka grandmaster – of Mojo Dojo Karate in Tam Junction recalls taking karate classes as many as six days a week in high school, but having a difficult time with the basics. He remembers hearing a woman in the class calling him “a hopeless case,” a verbal blow that led him to quit karate – until he realized his brother, four years younger, was going to stay with it.
“I couldn’t let him get ahead of me, so I got right back in there,” he says with a laugh.
Henry says he actually contacted the woman many years later and “she had no recollection of saying that and couldn’t imagine that she ever would,” he adds. Real or imagined, the moment sparked a fire in Henry and his love for karate. Henry Shihan James Henry is a Master Instructor of Beikoku Wado-ryu, a Japanese style of karate. He earned his 1st degree black belt as a teen and was ranked in the yop 10 in the Northeast region, winning more than 300 trophies and competing in the USA Open Karate Championship and USA Karate Junior Olympics.
That fire continues to burn today at Mojo Dojo, where Henry can be found presiding over classes every day.
Henry’s brother, Shihan Fred, also earned the rank of Judan, 10th degree black belt, and runs the “headquarters dojo” for Beikoku Karate-do Goyukai (BKG) in Long Branch, New Jersey, the Henry family dojo for decades. Henry’s mother, 87-year-old Shihan Katsuko Suzuki Henry (aka Mrs. Shihan), often assists classes at the BKG Dojo to this day.
On a weekday afternoon, a new group of dedicated karate students cycles through Mojo Dojo approximately every 45 minutes, starting with preschoolers and kindergartners and aging up as the afternoon progresses. They each begin the same way: by reciting the Mojo Dojo’s student creed: “I am developing myself in a positive manner, avoiding anything that reduces my mental growth or my physical health. I am developing self-discipline, bringing out the best in myself and others. I am using what I learn in class constructively and defensively, helping myself and my fellow human beings, and never being abusive or offensive. Osu!”
Henry was born in Massachusetts into a military family – an African-American father and a Japanese mother – that lived all over, from New York and Florida to Japan and Pacific Grove, California. Shihan Isaac Henry Jr. first began practicing karate, according to family history, when he fell so deeply for his wife’s date walnut cookies that he found himself putting on way too many pounds. What began as an exercise in losing weight became a practice he stayed with until he passed away seven years ago at the age of 82.
“He was still out on the floor right to the end,” Henry says.
James Henry started practicing karate in grade school on Governor’s Island, where the family lived at the time. “I can still remember learning some of our forms and walking home in the dark practicing, as kids do when they learn something new,” Henry says. “I remember really liking what I was doing – it was fun.”
Henry got a job right out of high school at Bell Labs and then earned a degree at Monmouth University while doing so. He worked for a variety of telecom providers for nearly 30 years, tiring of East Coast weather and relocating first to the Los Angeles area and then to the Bay Area in 1993.
All the while, Henry maintained his love for karate and a desire to teach it. He did just that in 2000, leading after-school classes at Marin Country Day School, where his kids attended and where he continues to teach. He then taught at the former Zenergy and later Mojo Fitness space – now the home of Endurance – on Madrona Street in downtown Mill Valley, as well as ad hoc classes at Scout Hall, the Homestead Valley Community Center, the Strawberry Recreation Center and Stagedoor Dance in Sausalito.
Mojo Dojo has grown steadily ever since – 2016 was its best year on record – and Henry, who runs the business with his wife Linda, says he’s been able to expand it from him being the only instructor. That includes Adam Korn, a fifth degree black belt in the Shotokan style of karate who Henry calls “a wonderful instructor.”
“Like anything else, the teachers are everything,” Henry says. “Each has their own personality. A student might walk in and really enjoy karate from this instructor but had they trained under a different one, they might not have had the same connection.”
Since Mojo Dojo largely uses its space on weekday afternoons and evenings, Henry has also added a pair of subletters to maximize the use of the space: Jake and JT Peterson’s workout business Ripped Body Fitness, and Mill Valley Aikido, Jason Yim and Rob Okun’s practice that focuses on aikido, the martial art that has similarities with jujitsu and judo. Henry is also a student at Mill Valley Aikido.
“I’ve always had a fascination with aikido, and to have it right in my dojo, I can’t let this opportunity go by,” Henry says.
Since opening in 2007, Henry’s Mojo Dojo Karate has promoted more than 30 students to black belts. But it’s clear that Henry draws joy from the small moments of teaching every day, from preschoolers to teens. And whether it was fact or fiction, it all comes back to that “hopeless” moment.
“It’s important to really understand how kids’ brains work,” Henry says. “The patience and love that is displayed on the floor is the key. The screaming sensei you see in the Karate Kid movies – we don’t do that. I love the relationships built with our students and their parents. Karate is in my blood, and teaching it is my calling.”
The 411: Mojo Dojo Karate is at 247 Shoreline Hwy. In Tam Junction. MORE INFO. NOTE: Mojo Dojo is seeking part-time instructor for its youth program. "Love of kids is mandatory, patience is required and knowledge of karate is helpful, but can be learned," Henry says. Email if interested.