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.
Most of the time I like to keep my posts practical and useful, but sometimes you have to swing for the fences and ask the big questions. There aren't too many bigger than this:
Who are the most substantial influencers in the martial arts universe; the movers and shakers that, without them, the martial landscape would be much different today?
The big disclaimer for this video is that it is a highly subjective topic. There is no possible way my list could be considered definitive. In fact, in a few years I might even disagree with myself! Nevertheless, it is a fun experiment trying to appreciate the real roots of our collective martial culture.
Is your brain churning already in regards to whom you might include on "The Top Ten Most Influential Martial Artists of ALL TIME"? Well, let's find out if you and I agree or disagree. To the list!
If the video doesn't pop up when you click it, just visit the youtube page here.
I really hope you enjoyed watching this little romp through history and present day development. If you feel that your style or system was excluded unfairly I do apologize – there were so many to consider and so few slots available. If it makes you feel any better, I didn't even include the founder of my own style. So I at least ATTEMPTED some objectivity.
When you stop for a moment and really consider the lasting impact of individuals like this it makes you appreciate the complexity of martial development. Without the efforts of just a handful of special people what we know and accept today as martial arts could be completely different.
Consider now the seriousness of your training and your value in preserving martial culture for generations to come. Who might bloggers include on a list like this 100 years from now when they sit down to write on their futuristic brain-implant-computers? Will you be on their list? :-).
I recently had a front row seat to a rather special event. My instructor, C. Bruce Heilman, was promoted to 10th Dan (Judan), the highest attainable rank in traditional martial arts. Heilman Sensei has been training continuously since 1961 and has helped carry on the ways of Okinawa Kenpo as taught by Odo Seikichi.
A Judan promotion is an exciting time, but also one that brings up many questions. For example:
- Odo Sensei promoted Heilman Sensei to 9th Dan in 1997 but subsequently passed away in 2002. How could Heilman Sensei receive a 10th Dan ranking without his direct teacher?
- Why didn’t Heilman Sensei become a 10th Dan right away when Odo Sensei passed away?
- Once a person becomes 10th Dan does that put them in charge of their style everywhere?
These are important questions, and understanding how the highest levels work is healthy for anyone engaging in long term martial arts training. Let’s look back in history at how the 10th Dan first came about, how it manifested in Okinawan fighting arts, and how it appears in the modern world (ending with our specific example of Heilman Sensei).
Menkyo Kaiden – The Early Inheritance Model
Some people may be surprised to learn that the concept of 10th Dan is rather young, historically speaking. The martial arts stretch back thousands of years, but recording rank through ten kyus and ten dans wasn’t developed until the post Meiji era.
Way way back in time, when feudal Japanese Samurai were facing each other on the battlefield, rank was handled a bit differently. First, and most importantly, an individual’s last name determined their class. Peasant-born children stayed peasants while Samurai-born children were immediately Samurai. Training, equipment, and knowledge were thus distributed accordingly. A first born son was often slated to carry on a particular martial style. When the time was right a Menkyo Kaiden was passed from master to son, usually indicating a transmission of full understanding, sometimes accompanied with makimono (scrolls) of secret techniques or family lineage. On certain occassions a son was unavailable, ill, or inferior to an outside warrior, in which case the Menkyo would pass to that warrior instead. On occasion more than one Menkyo was handed out or aggressive political maneuvering occurred after a master’s death, resulting in the splintering of a style.
Okinawans tended to be less formal with their inheritance process. This is mostly because their arts were forced into hiding multiple times, making any written documentation of rank/technique/instructor a patently bad idea. Nevertheless, around the time of Matsumura Sokon we see mentions of documented inheritance. It’s stated that Matsumura Sokon passed down a Menkyo Kaiden to Matsumura Nabe, his grandson. In terms of why Sokon may have been inspired to do so, it is said that Sokon studied Jigen Ryu swordsmanship in Japan for two years. While it’s highly unlikely Sokon received a Menkyo Kaiden himself from Yashichiro Ijuin (his instructor), it’s quite possible he brought the concept back to Okinawa and applied it to his own students.
Chibana Chosin, a senior student of Itosu Anko, referred to this inheritance process on Okinawa as Shihan no Menjo1 (expert teacher/master diploma/certificate). However, the ingrained habit of oral transmission combined with widespread illiteracy made the use of Shihan no Menjo sporadic at best.
The Birth of 10th Dan
Around 1868 Japan was experiencing a nationwide transformation. It was emerging from the tumultuous Tokugawa Period and beginning the hectic Meiji Restoration. During this time Japan was branching out to the rest of the world, attempting to assimilate technology and concepts that could help slingshot it to the front of the global stage.
In 1879 Okinawan King Sho Tai was forced to travel to Tokyo and formally submit to the Meiji rulers. Prior to that, since 1609, Okinawa was the property of the Satsuma clan and subject to their whims. Now the Okinawans were an official prefecture under the emporer2.
This transition caused significant turbulence in the lifestyle of the Okinawans, abolishing their longheld class system, absolving the king of all power, and removing the ever-present Satsuma metsuke (roving informants). It also opened the doors for more public appearances of karate.
In 1922 Funakoshi Gichin traveled to Japan in order to demonstrate some of the benefits of karate training3. The Japanese government was interested due to karate’s potential for making hardier soldiers. While there Funakoshi struck up a friendship with Kano Jigoro, a very famous martial artist and creator of Judo. During their training time together Funakoshi learned of Kano’s Kyu/Dan system which he had appropriated from other Japanese endeavors (such as the game of Go). At first the Kano ranking setup was quite simple – white belts for mudansha and black belts for yudansha. However, after seeing early success, Kano expanded his system into ten kyu and ten dan degrees.
Impressed by it’s organizational potential, and looking to make karate more palatable to the Japanese, Funakoshi quickly integrated the concept into his teaching.
The Very First Judans
In 1933 karate was officially recognized as a modern martial art by the Butokukai (the Japanese governing body in charge of such things)4. But there was a problem – the Japanese weren’t particularly clear on who’s karate belonged to whom. By that time judo and kendo were well established and organized, but karate seemed like a vague mishmash. The Butokukai immediately requested clarification on karate styles, so it was up to the seniors in Japan and Okinawa to actually come up with them.
Around this time (including a few years before and after) names like Shorin Ryu, Goju Ryu, Shotokan, Shito Ryu, Chito Ryu, etc. began cropping up. Since Okinawa was such a small island, it was fairly evident to everyone who the seniors were. Those seniors were tasked with forming official styles.
The first concrete examples of 10th Dan used in conjunction with karate seniors came AFTER early style originators like Miyagi Chojun, Funakoshi Gichin, etc.
It’s important to note that when kyu/dan ranking began making waves in Japan it did not immediately connect with the Okinawan mindset and many seniors chose to avoid it. The Butokukai for it’s part was unreliable in providing standardized ranking and did little to help the Okinawans assimilate. The titles they handed down, like Renshi, Kyoshi, and Tasshi, were often based on political connections and broader national agendas and therefore went mostly to Japanese practitioners5. That being the case, titles and ranks were not common on Okinawa until around 1956 when Chibana Chosin of the Okinawa Karate Federation (OKF) and Toyama Kanken of the All Japan Karatedo Federation (Okinawa Branch) developed their respective organizations. By 1960 an official ten dan system was accepted throughout most of the island and rank began to flow6.
In What Ways Can 10th Dan Be Transmitted?
The transmission of 10th Dan is by no means cut and dry and actually has less historical precedent than might be expected. It’s innate ambiguity has led to frequent misunderstanding and misappropriation. Let’s look quickly at the ways Judan grading has evolved in the modern world, and how it is sometimes undermined.
1. Direct lineage transition. Despite being the cleanest and most historically proper way to transmit grade, “direct lineage” is also the most rare. A direct lineage transition is when one headmaster names a single successor and all students realign under the next leader. In this way, there is only a single 10th Dan (or headmaster) for a particular style. One of the longest successful examples of direct transition in karate is the Motobu family line of Motobu Udun Di. This style was kept in the family for generations, and even managed to name a single successor in Uehara Seikichi even though he was not of the bloodline.
How is it misused? Diplomas of direct transmission are easily faked. Some individuals copy the style and writing of legitimate koryu arts and photoshop their name into the paperwork. Others secure blank diplomas from their instructor’s school and fill out whatever grade they desire. These fake inheritances are getting more difficult to maintain however as technology connects real practitioners all over the world. Where once it was difficult to prove what kanji actually meant on a certificate, or if an individual was truly a student of a particular teacher, modern communication and internet resources provide much easier access to verification.
2. Organizational Promotion. When a senior Sensei passes away it may fall to an organization to do the promoting. This is often seen in large organizations with multiple contigents in different locations who lose a figurehead and need to nominate a followup leader. There have also been historic examples of organizations like the Butokukai who’s primary responsibility was handling rank and monitoring style adherence. This method only functions successfully if each branch of the organization agrees to the same set of codes and standards.
How is it misused? Imagine a 7th dan forming an organization consisting of his students as well as a two other schools. The other school instructors, a 5th dan and a 4th dan, agree to promote the new “organization head” to 10th dan in order to better run their group. The 10th dan can then promote the 5th and 4th dans at will…
3. Councilship Promotion. When a single organization doesn’t make sense, sometimes councils are used. Councils generally consist of multiple senior practitioners of different styles who come together to ensure a general sense of high quality and character in practitioners. On a few different occassions councils were used in Okinawa, especially during the early days of rank promotion when little precedent existed for what rank actually meant.
How is it misused? “Soke Councils” are among the biggest money makers in modern martial arts. For a nominal fee, practitioners can send performance video tapes to a Soke Council that will “review” the tapes and send out rank. Most of the time skill level doesn’t matter, only payments. Coincidently, the members of these soke councils frequently promote each other to lofty ranks in order to better sell their council business to outsiders. Becoming part of a Soke Council, or receiving rank from one, is usually an exercise in marketing rather than quality control.
4. New/Hybrid Style Creation. Throughout martial arts history new styles have come and gone. Some have been named/formed out of sheer necessity, like Goju Ryu of Okinawan Karate. Others have been formed out of political need, or to escape a bad leader, or in rare cases due to sheer uncontainable brilliance from the founder (i.e. Morihei Ueshiba, Bruce Lee, etc). When the new style is formed the creator has the option of labelling him/herself the 9th or 10th Dan of that style. Some new styles withstand scrutiny and grow in popularity, becoming an accepted part of martial culture. Others fade into dissuse.
How is it misused? There is nothing stopping any person from creating a style no matter how insubstantial their skill level. Some individuals create new styles purely for the marketing potential of it, while others do it because they were unable to secure high quality traditional training in any one style. The most frequent way to create a new style is to hybridize existing styles, such as taking karate techniques and mixing them with aikido, judo, Krav Maga, etc etc.
Okinawa Kenpo’s Conundrum
Let’s hop back into history and look at a specific example of stylistic dissemination.
Among the many Okinawans who didn’t warrant particular attention from the Butokukai was Nakamura Shigeru of Okinawa Kenpo. Nakamura was a student of multiple senior practitioners, including Itosu Anko, Chomo Hanashiro, Kentsu Yabu, Motobu Choki, and Kuniyoshi Shinkichi (none of whom were selected for early rank by the Butokukai).
Nakamura’s agenda was to see all Okinawan karate organized under a single banner. He preferred the broad title of “Okinawa Kenpo” so as to encapsulate all the different branches.
Nakamura’s vision would go unfulfilled, but “Okinawa Kenpo” soon became associated with his particular brand of karate. As Nakamura’s health faltered he chose to name a successor: Odo Seikichi. This was not done explicitly through Menkyo Kaiden or a 10th Dan bequethment and no doubt was a difficult decision as Nakamura also had a highly capable son in Taketo. But according to Taketo himself:
“There was much discussion on why Odo Seikichi was selected. I think this way now, as I think back in 1969: My father selected Odo Sensei because he truly captured the essence of what my father Shigeru Nakamura had done. My father felt Odo Seikichi, (and I felt this too) that Odo Seikichi at the time WAS Okinawa Kenpo. People should know if they have directly studied under Odo Seikichi for a period of time, they should know they were being taught how my father taught all of us.” – Nakamura Taketo7
Odo Sensei took the reigns and begun spreading Okinawa Kenpo globally. He also worked deligently to integrate a comprehensive kobudo system with his karate. Meanwhile, Taketo Sensei continued to teach as did other Okinawa Kenpo practitioners such as Oyata Seiyu.
Odo Sensei split his time between teaching in Okinawa and the United States, bringing up a handful of skilled senior students. These students trained deligently and eventually acquired ranks of 7th, 8th, and 9th Dan directly under Odo himself. Unfortunately, when Odo Sensei passed away, he left no clearcut guidelines of inheritance. The senior students were left to carry on as best they could in their own independent ways.
Heilman Sensei’s Organizational Efforts
The loss of a teacher is never easy and often leaves seniors wondering how to maintain the quality of the art. When Odo Sensei passed away Mr. Heilman was ranked 9th Dan (directly from Odo in 1997). Heilman Sensei was also in the process of building out his own organization known as the International Karate Kobudo Federation (which he begun with Odo’s approval in 1991).
In response to growing concerns about the future of Okinawa Kenpo, Heilman Sensei got together with a few other Odo seniors (Joseph Bunch, Larry Isaac, Al Louis, and Vic Coffin, later joined by George Epps and Charles Mann) and formed the Okinawa Kenpo Karate Kobudo Union, the point of which was to uphold high standards in teaching, certification, and preservation of the art. These individuals were not the only Odo seniors nor was the OKKKU designed to be the all-encompassing final word on Okinawa Kenpo. It simply filled a void with checks and balances across each independent organization. Each member had proven themselves to be of high quality and character over the course of decades, therefore acting as colleagues with a shared goal.
Heilman Sensei’s Promotion to 10th Dan
After Odo Sensei passed away Mr. Heilman settled into his position as head of the IKKF and president of the OKKKU, focusing his efforts on the growth and health of Okinawa Kenpo. He had fought serious legal battles over an external attempt to control the Okinawa Kenpo name, a matter which threatened the freedom of the art. In the end Heilman Sensei won, but sadly these events had cascading effects as different legitimate branches of Okinawa Kenpo chose to proceed under different names, including Ryukyu Kenpo, Ryukyu Hon Kenpo Kobujutsu, etc etc.
While Okinawa Kenpo suffered from legal and political complications, every practitioner’s right to continue training in their own way was preserved.
For 50+ years Heilman Sensei trained deligently, first studying Jujutsu with Hank Talbot, then karate with Robert Trias, then karate and kobudo with Odo Seikichi. He became a facilitor of martial sharing, bringing people together not just of Okinawa Kenpo background but also of other styles and methods. One of his main objectives was, and is, a continuation of the original dream of Okinawa Kenpo -sharing between skilled practitioners for the betterment of the art. Individuals like Jody Paul (Motobu Udun Di and Seidokan), Bill Hayes (Shorin Ryu), Chuck Merriman (Goju Ryu), George Alexander (Shorin Ryu), Nick Adler (Isshin Ryu), Patrick McCarthy (Koryu Uchinadi), Miguel Ibarra (Aikijujutsu), and more have teamed up with Heilman Sensei to further that vision.
Recently, the OKKKU directors and a select handful of outside organizations got together in order to promote Heilman Sensei as a reward for his efforts. The rank is not to indicate supreme grandmastership of all Okinawa Kenpo, but to recognize that Heilman Sensei has grown in skill and wisdom to a point where he is trusted as a key component of carrying on Odo Sensei’s dream. He is “his own man” and understands the complexities of the art and how to move it forward.
The actual issuance of the rank was conducted over two weeks, partially at the IKKF Annual Training event and partially at Larry Isaac’s North Carolina Tournament. For a look at the proceedings, watch this brief video:
The promotion was conducted and ratified by the following associations:
|Okinawa Kenpo Karate Kobudo Union (OKKKU)||International Seidokan Motobu Ryu Renmei (ISMR)||United States Karate Alliance (USKA)||International Karate Kobudo Federation (IKKF)|
|Larry Isaac, 10th Dan||Shian Toma, 10th Dan||James Hawkes, 10th Dan||Nick Adler, 9th Dan Isshin Ryu|
|Vic Coffin, 9th Dan||Jody Paul, 9th Dan||David Jordan, 9th Dan||Bill Hayes, Shorin Ryu|
|Al Louis, 9th Dan||Satoshi Yamauchi, 9th Dan||Jody Paul, 9th Dan Seidokan, Motobu Udun Di|
|George Epps, 9th Dan||Shigemitsu Tamaei, 9th Dan||Congratulation letters:||Miguel Ibarra, 10th Dan Aikijujutsu|
|Charles Mann, 9th Dan||Fumio Demora, 9th Dan Shito Ryu||Ron Yamanaka, 9th Dan Goju Ryu|
|Spartaco Bertoletti, 9th Dan Jujutsu||Patrick McCarthy, 9th Dan Koryu Uchinadi|
|Patrick McCarthy, 9th Dan Koryu Uchinadi||Roy Hobbs, 10th Dan Shorin Ryu|
|Robert Bowles, 10th Dan Shuri Ryu||George Alexander, 10th Dan Shorin Ryu|
|Nick Adler, 9th Dan Isshin Ryu||Spartaco Bertoletti, 9th Dan Jujutsu|
|*All rank acknowledgements and congratulations were provided
voluntarily with no monetary compensation on the
part of Bruce Heilman
|Chuck Merriman, 9th Dan Goju Ryu|
Regarding the Associations featured in the chart above: The OKKKU consists entirely of high ranking Okinawa Kenpo practitioners. The ISMR is a respected Seidokan organization closely connected to Okinawa Kenpo, harking back to the days of cooperation between Nakamura Shigeru and Shimabukuro Zenryo who established the original Okinawa Kenpo Renmei with practitioners like Uehara Seikichi, Matayoshi Shinko as well as Odo Seikichi, Toma Shian, Kise Fusei, Oyata Seiyu, etc. The USKA is the highly recognized organization developed by Robert Trias and carried on by James Hawkes and Robert Jordan. The IKKF is Heilman Sensei’s organization, the executive board consisting of quality practitioners from a myriad of traditional styles.
This promotion combines two major methods as described earlier – organizational rank and council rank. The OKKKU is essentially an organization of different individuals studying the same style. Heilman Sensei’s own IKKF students supported the rank (as you might guess), but the executive board, acting as a council, truly ratified it. The ISMR board connected the rank back to Okinawa and provided a more solid link to Okinawa Kenpo’s past. The USKA support provided broader American recognition and connected Heilman Sensei with his training under Robert Trias.
What Does it All Mean?
We’ve covered the core history of the 10th Dan, as well as exploring how one traditional style went about conducting a promotion. But what does that mean for you?
Well, if one thing can be said for certain, it’s that 10th Dan might have different significance in your style than it does in someone else’s. You may have one 10th Dan for your entire system worldwide, or there may be multiple. In fact, there may be MANY, some who have acquired the rank legitimately and others who have not.
Being a 10th Dan is a complex, philisophical endeavor. The promoted individual must exhibit exceptional character and dedication to the art, understanding it with extreme depth. They must also be responsible enough to carry the art forward and develop future students in order to continue the tradition.
Heilman Sensei is lucky to have many amazing artists supporting him, but he garnered that support with decades of hard work. In the modern world rank is often bartered for, bought, or stolen. It’s an obsession born of envy and desire. When high rank happens organically, through traditional channels, it can serve to celebrate careers and bring good artists closer together.
1Pat Nakata via Charles Goodin, 2007. Karate Thoughts Blog.
2John Sells, 2000. Unante, pg 59.
3Funakoshi Gichin, 1975. Karatedo: My Way of Life, pg. 69.
4Pat Zalewski, The Japanese Evolution of Karate Rank, pg. 3.
5Higaonna Morio, 1985. Traditional Karatedo Vol. 1 Fundamental Techniques. p. 19.
6John Sells, 2000. Unante, pg 189.
7Quote courtesy of Gonzo Flores during his interview with Nakamura Taketo