I’m pleased to present this interview with Ronald Lindsey, Shihan, Shorin Ryu Matsumura Seito. Lindsey Sensei is a senior American karate practitioner and military veteran. He was on Okinawa during a very interesting time and had the opportunity to train directly with a number of top masters.
I had a chance to discuss a wide variety of topics with Lindsey Sensei, ranging from his time with senior karateka to his efforts to bring karate back to the United States. We also discussed the nature of martial arts organizations and how Americans were viewed on Okinawa.
The interview below contains a mixture of video, historical photos, and q&a. Please enjoy!
Q: Could you provide us with a brief outline of when you decided to enlist in the military and where it took you geographically?
I actually did not enlist; I was commissioned from the Cadet Corps at Texas A&M University. I could have played professional football but I chose to serve Uncle Sam as an officer instead. I was in the U.S. Army Military Police and went to Okinawa, Korea, the Philippines and so forth. I also went TDY numerous times to South Vietnam. TDY means temporary duty. The years that I served as active duty military were 1968-1969-1970 and for a number of years after as reserve officer. I was first stationed on Okinawa in 1968.
My main job was training military dogs. At one time I had over 300 German military police dogs. We were training sentries and scout dogs; I actually wrote the lesson plan and carried out the program to train the first drug detection dogs ever used in the military.
Q: According to your biography your study of martial arts began in 1963 in Shotokan. This would have been while you were still in the United States. Who did you study with and what prompted you to take it up?
I was from a little town called Hallettsville, Texas. We didn’t have any karate schools there. The summers when I was not at Texas A&M, I worked in Houston Texas. During this time I trained in Shotokan at Japan Ways in the Southern part of Houston. The karate training was good, but it was nothing compared to the football training I got during my college years. What we actually did at Texas A&M was probably the hardest football practices ever conducted in the game, and that was under Gene Stallings, a protégé of Bear Bryant. They made us fight against each other during the off season program. It was not Asian Fighting but it certainly was combat training. In the end there were less than 44 boys who did not quit Gene Stallings’s program out of about 140 athletes who were there when the program started. That was very rigorous training. You learned not to hesitate. This gave me an edge even when I went to Okinawa and participated in karate training, especially bogu sparring.
I don’t recall who was teaching at Japan Ways at that time, but I did pick up a number of kata including the Heian and Tekki forms, so I had some familiarity with karate training when I got to Okinawa in 1968.
Q: When you heard you were going to be stationed on Okinawa did you have karate in mind right away or were you entirely focused on military responsibilities?
The military aspect had to be the number one priority. Nevertheless, I looked for karate as soon as possible. There were two things I wanted right away when I got to Okinawa – I wanted to improve my karate and I wanted to find a Japanese Samurai sword. I was able to accomplish the former. Actually, I only saw four Japanese swords the whole time I was there. At that time on Okinawa you had to have written permission to even own one.
Q: You studied under a number of top tier masters, but who was your first teacher on the island? What drew you to him over other options?
The very first style I studied was Uechi Ryu under Seiyu Shinjo. My wife and I lived in a little housing development called Morgan Manor near Kadena Village. To get there you had to go around the Kadena Village traffic circle. On that circle was Sensei Shinjo’s dojo. This is the father of the now famous Kiyohide Shinjo.
A short time after joining Sensei Shinjo’s Dojo I was on duty as the Armed Forces police duty officer in Okinawa (all company grade officers in the First MP Group were required to serve about once per week as duty officer). One of the Duty Officers “check points” was to check the MP Sub-station in Koza. While I was at the sub-station I told one of our interpreters about how I started karate. He said, “ohh, the person who owns the store next door also does karate”. So I went over there and ended up meeting Seizan Kinjo (alt. spelling: Seizen or Seisan), whose parents actually owned the store. Seizan Kinjo lived either on top or behind the store at that time and was a student of Shorin Ryu Matsumura Seito under Grandmaster Hohan Soken and Master Fusei Kise. Matsumura Seito was a direct Shorin style stemming from the famous Matsumura Sokon.
I started training with Kinjo Sensei. We would meet at that store and then go down a nearby alley to Sensei Kise’s dojo where we would work out. At that time I was the only American in the dojo. The training was about 50% kata and 50% bogu gear fighting.
Q: Could you tell us what Seizan Kinjo was like as an individual? Was he stern, fun loving, etc?
His personality was jovial and easy to get along with. He was really strong for his size. At that time in my martial arts career he was the type of teacher I needed. We did kata training but it was not very strict. What he wanted to do was teach both bogu gear fighting (fighting with kendo like armor) and then real fighting techniques. Much of what we did was called tuite but was different than the tuite you see nowadays.
The tuite we did on Okinawa , at least that I learned, was mostly pressure point hitting. The only major difference between our tuite and regular karate was instead of striking we used compression with our thumb or one of the knuckles of the fingers. Now it seems like a lot of modern tuite is almost like jujitsu; we didn’t really do that. Encounters in those days were over in a second or two…or half a second.
Q: How did your training with Seizan Kinjo Sensei eventually lead to your studying with Hohan Soken Sensei?
Well Soken Sensei was the head of the system, so everybody drifted toward him. Especially the summer of 1970 I would go with Seizan Kinjo and we would train in Soken’s dojo.
Q: Was Hohan Soken able to practice/demonstrate/conduct class himself or had old age relegated him to the sideline?
The thing about Hohan Soken is this – he, and people of that generation, did not have formal classes. You did not have classes where you lined up, bowed in, and things like that. They did not use formal terms for a lot of things, you were expected to watch and follow and they would correct. They didn’t focus on a lot of verbal bunkai discussion. Some people found him to be stern but I did not think that. He was very capable for his age and he would demonstrate, counter, and so forth.
Yuichi Kuda said Soken taught 50/50 kata and fighting techniques. I found him to do more fighting technique training than say Sensei Odo (Okinawa Kenpo), who focused more on kata.
Q: Did Soken Sensei have much of an issue with you as a foreigner?
No. That is the biggest falsehood that I hear about American karate is that the Okinawans didn’t like us or train us. Think about it this way – I was side by side with Okinawans training at the same time. When did these Okinawans supposedly learned ‘special techniques’ separate from what I learned…at 3 in the morning? We were there, they were there, it was all the same thing. Sometimes we had difficulty with understanding the language, but that was the only barrier.
Q: Do you feel as if the Okinawans would make character judgments on foreigners and restrict certain teachings as a result?
Not particularly. If a person came to the dojo regularly he received training. Now, there are certain levels of absorption that have to take place before you are able to learn certain things. Some things they tried to teach you and you may not have been capable of learning. Many Americans that studied on Okinawa returned to America shortly after their time there. Now they may have received a black belt rating while there, but they also may have quit practicing or may have never received another teacher.
Had they gone back and found a teacher, the second levels and third levels of learning may have gradually sunk in, but there is a time element involved that cannot be shortened due to the physical and mental level of absorption. On Okinawa, unless a person was a real “jerk”, they received training. In some cases senior students would show us advanced stuff when the senior sensei wasn’t looking.
Q: Could you describe some of the unique characteristics of Matsumura Seito? How much emphasis did Soken Sensei place on Hakutsuru forms and techniques over other methods?
Hohan Soken’s style compared to other Shorin Ryu styles is different. In Soken’s style there was not a lot of block-then-punch and there was no fighting or punching with the hand chambered on the hip; chambering the fist was mainly done only during kata. The hands were always out in front and techniques were done at one time, block and strike at the same moment. Tai sabaki, body change, was used at all times.
Soken’s karate was never associated with the karate that was brought into the Okinawan public schools systems. They (my Okinawan teachers) called Soken’s karate “straight karate”. They meant it was a straight line from Matsumura Soken, through Matsumura Nabe, to Hohan Soken. Other styles of karate that were being modified and put into the school systems they referred to as “school karate”. “Village Karate”, like Soken’s style, was considered by my teachers to be unaltered and different from the school styles.
In Soken’s style the hands were held open and the finger tips were used heavily. A lot of pressure points were used and low kicks. For example, Hohan Soken did not have a back kick. He would just change body 180 degrees and use a low front whipping kick. He did not bring his knee up, he would cock the heel backwards slightly and then whip the foot up from the ground, using the big toe as the impact point.
Hakutsuru was seeded throughout the whole style. A lot of the village karate kept many of the techniques that were discarded in school karate.
Hohan Soken performing Passai Sho, narrated by Ronald Lindsey:
Q: Did Soken Sensei have any anxiety about the changes going on in karate, especially in terms of modified techniques and kata in school karate?
I have a letter in my book where Chibana Choshin wrote to Hohan Soken, inviting him to the meeting in 1956 (where they started the first Okinawan Karate Renmei) to discuss these matters. Soken was troubled at times with the idea that karate was changing and so forth. He made very little changes in his own style from what he learned when he was younger. Some changes were made of course as he got older because he had to adjust what he was capable of doing and what he understood.
Q: There isn’t much known about Hohan Soken’s teacher, Matsumura Nabe, and the other direct students of Matsumura Sokon. Did Soken Sensei ever discuss his teacher or that generation?
It’s important to understand the Okinawan culture in regards to this, especially people of Grandmaster Soken’s generation. They were old and it was considered disrespectful to ask questions like that. They would offer some little things sometimes. One time Soken Sensei told a story of Matsumura Nabe doing his kata and Funakoshi Gichin (the founder of Japanese Karate) was caught watching Nabe Sensei’s kata through a hole in the fence. Besides such stories from time to time he didn’t say much. I know he looked for Matsumura Nabe when he returned to Okinawa in 1952 from Argentina. It seems that Nabe died sometime around World War II or just prior to the War.
In regards to Matsumura Nabe – the “Nabe” was actually just a nickname. If you look at his name when you see it written in Japanese it is never written in kanji, it’s always in hiragana which means it is a pronunciation instead of “picture writing”. Yuichi Kuda said that Nabe was a “baby san” name. Nabe’s last name might not even have been Matsumura, it could have been something else. I have some more extensive research in my book, but off hand I recall that Matsumura Nabe may also have been called Nagahama Nabi no Tanmei and maybe even Ko Ishigawa (Okinawa no Bushi No Te pg.136-137).
The Okinawans often had multiple names throughout their lives. Sometimes they would use their wives maiden surnames. In the case of Nabe specifically, there was a period in his life when he was on the run from the Japanese. He supposedly hid out on Ishima for a while. He might have actively avoided the use of the name Matsumura.
There is little recorded history of Matsumura Nabe and karate in general, and even worse a lot of historic objects were destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa.
Q: How much focus did Soken Sensei place on bunkai during training?
Generally The Okinawans didn’t teach bunkai. The trick was to ask them leading questions. If they showed you something you would have to tell them that it wouldn’t work, then they might show you something a little more. Bunkai, as it appears today, is a non-Okinawan need. The real secret to Okinawan karate is not bunkai, it’s the coordination of trying to perfect kata. That, combined with the principles of shuhari, lead to exceptional coordination and understanding. When your coordination is really good you can do many things as a reflex action; this is the last step in shuhari.
Mr. Kuda would say “your bunkai good, his bunkai good, everybody’s bunkai good”.
A lot of time when asked about bunkai they showed a technique that didn’t resemble the kata. Sometimes information would only come after a bit of quiet discussion, or nudging, or coercing.
Q: Could you talk about when Fusei Kise began his study with Soken Sensei and what role he played in the dojo?
Fusei Kise was a senior in Soken’s dojo, although he was not the only senior. Soken Sensei had what we called the ‘big 5’ – Arakaki Seiki was his senior student. I believe Arakaki’s father and Soken were boyhood friends. They both grew up in Nishihara Village. Arakaki was #1. Mitsuo Inoue was second. In addition there was Kohama Jushin, Nishihira Kosei, and Nakazato Hideo. Those five guys were from the Nishihara village area and studied more with Soken than many others. That being said, there were others that studied too, including Kuda Yuichi, Fusei Kise, Nishimei, Takaya Yabiku, Ushiro, and Saha, etc. Many people also came to Soken Sensei for specialized training, say in the sai or bo or fighting techniques. Even Shinken Taira came to him on some occasions. He had a lot of students.
There is often discussion regarding whether or not Kise was the direct successor to Soken Sensei, and if Kise received a Menkyo Kaiden (scroll of direct transmission). Let’s go ahead and look at that a bit. This should be read with the understanding that I studied with Kise; his skill and mastery of Matsumura Seito are not being called into question.
First of all, it would have been out of character for an Okinawan of Soken’s generation to issue a Menkyo Kaiden to anyone. That was not a widely used Okinawan method of the time; it was more based in Japanese arts and only came into practice later as Japanese influence gained momentum in Okinawa. As such, I do not believe Kise Sensei received a Menko Kaiden from Soken.
Hohan Soken died in 1982. At that time Kise Sensei claimed that he was the successor to Matsumura Seito. I wrote an article back then entitled “The Last Samurai” covering that issue. After extensive research I found no declared heir by Hohan Soken. Arakaki Sensei went directly to Kise and asked if he received a Menkyo Kaiden from Soken, and the answer was no.
Kuda Sensei also said no, that this transmission did not occur and that the successorship would go by age starting with Arakaki.
I have been told that in Kise’s dojo there was/is no Menko Kaiden from Grandmaster Soken.
Hohan Soken had a falling out with Kise in the late 1970s. I don’t know how well they mended those fences before Soken died.
I have been told that Soken Sensei denied Kise permission to use the name Shorin Ryu Matsumura Seito, which I think was the wrong thing to do. Certainly Fusei Kise was an expert in Soken’s art. I think that after a number of years went by and people started dying, including Arakaki, Kise took whatever legal action was needed to get permission to use that name. I also believe it was correct for Kise to use the name Matsumura Seito due to his hard work and dedication to the style.
Of course there is the matter of the Japanese Government recognizing Kise as a progenitor of Soken’s style. I don’t think the Japanese government can truly take a family art and give it to another person. They can provide permission to use the name, but can the government give the style over to someone? I think not.
I could be wrong on this topic…but my research has been thorough and I have spoken with a good many Okinawans on this subject, all of whom were close to the situation and tend to agree with me.