I’m very pleased to present this interview with Kimo Wall, Kyoshi. After World War II and throughout the Vietnam era a handful of Air Force, Navy, and Marine members had the opportunity to learn classical karate directly from the masters on Okinawa. Much of this learning took place before sport and business made karate a global phenomenon. Kimo Wall is one of those “koryu” practitioners working hard to preserve the old ways as they were handed down to him.
As a marine stationed on Okinawa before and after the Vietnam conflict Wall Sensei had the opportunity to learn Goju Ryu directly from Higa Seiko Sensei. He also became a student of Matayoshi Shinpo and a friend of Odo Seikichi, two of the great kobudo luminaries in Okinawan history.
Wall Sensei was one of the early influencers of western karate as he brought back Goju Ryu, Kingai Ryu, and even Thai massage. Wall Sensei eventually became one of the most traveled instructors in the world, sharing his art throughout the Americas and beyond.
Please enjoy this Q&A as Wall Sensei shares some of his experiences and theories on classical martial arts.
MA: You began training in Goju Ryu when you were 6 years old. Who was that training with and how long did it last? Was the dojo you attended one of the first Goju programs in the United States?
KW: My training began in Kamuela, (Waimea) Hawaii, in 1949. Hawaii wasn’t an actual state yet, believe it or not, so I don’t know if it counts as an early US program.
As a kid I had a breathing problem. One day the mother of a playmate of mine (who also happened to be the wife of a karate instructor in our community) mentioned that she could help me with some breathing exercises that would make my lungs and heart stronger. I will never forget it. It was a simple warm up and stretching exercise and after a few days we started something like San Chin with lots of deep breathing and slow punching but no turns. Just walking forward and backwards doing the same thing concentrating on posture, relaxing and listening to my heart and lungs. Before long, I could hear my heart beat and the air going deeper into my lungs. I did this for several weeks. It didn’t take much time to get my breathing and heart in good shape.
The formal karate teachers in my village were Walter and Sam Higa, (Higa is a common name in Okinawa) father and son. The father, Sam, had learned in Okinawa sometime before WWII. He had studied with Master Miyagi Chojun and Higa Seiko in the early days of its development. I know he studied under Master Higa Seiko because he sometimes received letters from him and sent a letter of introduction with me when I went to Okinawa in the Marine Corps. Sam Higa Sensei immigrated to Hawaii with his wife, Haruko and son, who was born in Okinawa. I think they arrived in Hawaii about 1939. In 1949 Sam Sensei was about 60 years old and Walter was about 35. Walter learned from his father and Master Higa Seiko from an early age. Sensei taught katas Gekisai ichi and ni, Sanchin, Tensho, Saifa, Seiunchin, Shisochin, Seisan, Naihanchin, (Naihanchin was a part of Master Miyagi’s training in the early years) and Kururunfa. There were more katas in Master Miyagi’s system but I think that was all Sam Sensei learned before he immigrated for Hawaii. I only studied up through Shisochin. Sam Sensei passed away in 1968 and Walter passed away in 1988.
Wall Sensei demonstrating Higa Seiko’s Tensho:
MA: What led you to join the Marines in 1961, and were you stationed on Okinawa right away?
KW: I joined the Marine Corps in 1961 after working in Vidalia, Ga. for a few months. I went to Boot Camp at Parris Island, SC, Infantry Training at Camp Lejeune, Weapons Training at USMC Schools, at Quantico, Va. and other schools during my first year, then I was sent to Okinawa.
MA: Could you tell us a little bit about your time in the Marines, where you were moved around to, and how long you stayed in?
KW: I was in the Marine Corps for ten years. After Boot Camp and my schooling, my first duty station was Camp Pendleton, Ca. and on to Okinawa. I returned to the States and went to the Cuban Crisis from Camp Pendleton. Then I returned to Camp Pendleton and shipped out to Okinawa once again. After that I returned to Quantico, Va. followed by the Marine Barracks in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Finally I returned to Okinawa and SE Asia. I left the Marines in 1970 and returned to teach at the University Of Puerto Rico, Universidad del Sagrado Corazon, and Roosevelt-Baldrich. I trained with some of the best young men and women in Puerto Rico. Some are still training today.
MA: How did you first meet Higa Seiko Sensei on Okinawa? What made you decide that this was the individual you wanted to study with?
I met the Higa family at their dojo in Yogi Machi, Naha, Okinawa. I came with a letter of introduction from my teacher in Hawaii. My teacher had studied before with Master Higa Seiko before WWII, before he immigrated to Hawaii. The Higa dojo, Sho Do Kan, was a typical dojo of the times. It was old and in a residential area. Master Higa lived with his son and daughter-in-law, their two sons and, soon, a little girl. Their home was a nice home just in back of the dojo. I always considered it my home dojo, but I also studied at Sho Rei Kan in Koza City. I’ll explain that more a little later.
At the same time I met Master Matayoshi, who lived in an extra room in the dojo. He lived there with his wife and daughter, and soon, his son. He had recently returned from living in Kawasaki, Japan where he had lived since WWII. Master Matayoshi lived in the Higa dojo until about 1972.
It was interesting because I met Master Matayoshi on the first day that I went to Sho Do Kan. He was in the dojo with Odo Seikichi Sensei. I didn’t know Matayoshi Sensei at this time so I introduced myself and he said Higa Sensei was with Takamine Sensei in Naha and would be back soon. He said to just wait. So I got a little familiar with him and Odo Sensei. Wow, it was quite a surprise. Odo sensei seemed like a very relaxed fellow, sitting and drinking tea, maybe around 5′ + tall. He stood up to do a kata, slow and easy. He faced the kami dana and bowed, then turned to the dojo. His eyes and his manor seemed to change, he was so fast and smooth and jumped so high. I had never seen much about other styles before and he really made an impression on me. I think the kata he did was Chinto. His movement was like lighting and kiai was so strong. When he finished, I’ll never forget, he just melted back down to the floor, like nothing had happened. Master Matayoshi did Kakuho kata. They looked amazing. I was just a kid (19) in the Marines and here I was watching two of the best martial artists in the world.
MA: What was day-to-day training like at the Sho Do Kan dojo?
KW: I think the training was like most Goju Ryu dojos or other styles on the island. From 7-9 each night we trained. Strong warm ups, a lot of hojo undo with many implements, basics, lots of kata and imi-wa niwaka touben (bunkai). For several years there was training after the 7-9 class at the honbu dojo, sometimes until midnight. Most senior students came to this session where Higa Sensei and Takamine Sensei taught. We trained with many hojo undo implements. After training we had tea and cake or sushi and always went to local public bath, sinto, for 15 cents. In those days most homes in Okinawa didn’t have baths. In the Marine Corps, while stationed in Okinawa, I had mostly night duties so I spent most of my days at the dojo. It was like a lot of private lessons from the great masters. Master Higa passed away in 1966.
At the dojo I met many life long friends from Okinawa, such as Master Takamine, Gibo, Kanai, Kyuna, Ushiro, Yamagawa, Yamashiro, Gakiya, Tamano, Shinoda and especially Odo Seikichi who was a great teacher of Okinawa Kenpo. He came to our dojo to study Kobudo, Sanchin, and Tensho with Master Matayoshi.
My peers in the dojo helped to inspire me to be as good as I could be. I spent many special, private hours in the dojo doing extra training.
MA: Could you share an interesting story about Higa Sensei that people might not know?
KW: Once Higa Sensei was visiting Masanobu Shinjo Sensei in Koza. He was on the street when a young boy asked him to watch his shoeshine things for a moment. Koza is just outside of Kadena Air Base and of course, many GI’s. One GI was a little drunk and stopped and asked Higa Sensei to shine his shoes. Sensei did not speak much English at all. The GI got a little heated, “Papa-San, shine my shoes!” Master stepped back and said “waiting.” Maybe the GI thought Sensei was ” waiting” for some action. He rushed Higa Sensei and landed on the ground. Angrily, the GI started to swear at Sensei. Sensei again said, “WAIT!” He picked up the shoeshine box and punched it so hard it went flying across the street and Sensei hardly moved is body. The GI was so surprised; he looked where the box had gone, looked at Sensei, and apologized.
MA: You mentioned the term imi-wa niwaka touben when discussing your day-to-day training. Could you break down what that phrase literally means, and if it is different than the typical western idea of bunkai? Is it similar to the term used by Bill Hayes Sensei called ti chi ki?
KW: Good question. Bunkai means to analyze, which means that a punch, or kick, that is thrown at you is blocked. In most bunkai that you see everything is blocked until the end of the kata, and then someone wins. In a real situation, you must end the altercation as soon as possible. You would never have the chance or opportunity to do a whole string of movements. The term imi-wa niwaka touben was explained to me with those words, and in other several ways. There are meanings in the Okinawan languages that can’t be explained in simple terms. It kind of means, after a block or a movement from a sudden confrontation, what will you do? By training your kata for many years you will respond with the right answer. This means lots of work.
Video below demonstrates base level Gekisai Sho Bunkai:
You can break any Okinawan kata down and find the meaning behind “What would you do after the block, or movement, that you do?” The answer is, “punch, kick or throw, TO KILL, as quick as possible.”
Bill Hayes Sensei. Great Okinawan martial artist and most respected. Yes, I believe his term ti chi ki is similar to what I have said. He is another person who has had combat experience and knows “What would you do after the block”?
MA: Did you study with Toguchi Seikichi at the same time as Higa Sensei?
KW: Actually I never trained personally with Toguchi Sensei. He lived in Tokyo all the time that I was in the Marines but came to Okinawa once in a while. I met him in Okinawa around 1969 and then in New York City in 1972. He and Master Matayoshi came for a demonstration for Sho Rei Kan. Then, at the end of 1972, he came to my wedding in Okinawa.
During my Marine Corps years I trained mostly with Higa Seikichi Sensei, Matayoshi, Takamine, and a few other sensei. Master Higa Seiko was always there until he passed away in 1966. His son lived at the dojo so I was with him everyday. When Seiko Sensei passed away his son, Seikichi, was not the senior dojo member. Takamine Sensei was. In 1989 there was a celebration turning the dojo over to the son, Master Higa Seikichi. Many Sho Do Kan senior members were there including Toguchi Sensei from Sho Rei Kan. Me and some of my students from UMASS attended the ceremony.
In 1968 I met Toshio Tamano and Nobuharu Shinoda, from mainlad Japan, who studied at Sho Rei Kan, Master Toguchi’s Okinawa dojo in Naka-No-Machi, Koza, Okinawa. They were karate club captains at their universities in Japan. I went to a demonstration where I saw their students do two man katas with Fukyu, Gekisai, Gekiha, and Kakuha, with bunkai. I was really drawn to the idea and later I joined to learn more about it. It turned out to be very valuable to my training and my own ideas. I talked about this at Sho Do Kan. I learned that Master Toguchi had been a student of Master Higa Seiko for thirty years. In the ’50’s he was working on his ideas at Sho Do Kan dojo, but according to tradition he opened his own dojo. Of course, he was a master in his own right with many followers.
The training was very close to training at Master Higa’s Sho Do Kan. Master Toguchi studied with Master Higa very well before developing Sho Rei Kan. Master Toguchi made his Sho Rei Kan dojo because he developed his own kata and ideas, so out of politeness he started his own Kan. He was even helped by Master Higa for setting up his dojo in Koza. That was just a few years before I first went to Okinawa. That was a great point in Master Higa’s personality. He was very kind and understanding.
I had a similar reason for starting my own Ko Do Kan dojo. I adopted some of Master Toguchi’s ideas and I studied Kobudo under Master Matayoshi. However, there is still a strong family tie between me and Sho Do Kan. When I go to Okinawa I only study at Sho Do Kan. At the memorial of Master Higa Seiko’s 33rd and Master Higa Seikichi’s 3rd anniversary of their passing, in 2002, the only foreigners there were me and my students from the States, Jay Schwarzman, Dan Rajic, Brian Conz and Ivan Shiff.
Click here for Part 2 as Wall Sensei discusses experiences with Matayoshi Sensei, Odo Sensei, and more. He also provides thoughts on spreading the martial arts to the West.