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.
The bo is one of the most popular and widely utilized kobudo implements. It's length and dynamics have made it a mainstay on the tournament circuit. However, using the bo for combative purposes is a unique challenge and much of the flair used in forms gets abandoned in a hurry.
Odo Seikichi Sensei with Dennis Branchaud
There's a reason almost every ancient culture developed a polearm style weapon: it's simple and effective. The long range allows the user to stay at a relatively safe distance while impacting the opponent. The dual wooden ends allow for devastating combinations of blows, blocks, and sweeps.
Of course, as with any weapon, the inherent strengths of the bo provide gaps for weakness. At close range the bo becomes unwieldy and loses it's primary arc of power. The lack of a cutting edge, while allowing for lighter weight, also reduces the ability to cut through clothing, armor, and flesh.
One of the real "secrets" to learning how to use the bo effectively (ie maximizing strength while minimizing weakness) is to find balance in mobility.
Depending on who you watch the bo can be a very linear and poky weapon or a sweeping, twirling, arcing weapon. Too much of either is a bad thing and provides the opponent with obvious "suki", or gaps in mindset and posture.
Let's look closer at the two imbalanced extremes of bo usage.
The bo can be a dazzling, elegant instrument of artistic expression. It can spin so fast that the eye can no longer trace the ends. Some mythology states that the bo could be spun so fast that it could block arrows. In a static environment with careful planning….that might be true. But in a combative environment such excess motion and dependence on fine motor skills would tire the user and put them at risk.
Wasted motion is an indulgance that bo combatants can't afford. Extreme spinning of the bo or transitioning from end to end may feel productive, but in actuality it provides a large series of gaps for skilled opponents to capitalize on.
Think about it this way: when sparring, bouncing lightly on your toes makes you feel lighter and more mobile. However, it also allows a skilled opponent to gauge your timing and maneuverability. You might not automatically lose because of it, but you certainly don't give yourself an advantage.
Excessive bo spinning and manipulating is the same way. When spinning, the hands are committed to a certain pattern. The pace and pattern of that movement can act as a predictable cue. While it's true that some spinning can leave the opponent guessing as to where an attack might come from, there are far more drawbacks than gains when relying too much upon it.
In my experience, bo "spinners" tend to spin just until the action gap gets close. They then regrasp the bo and assume a more predictable posture. The moment in between spinning and regaining posture is a highly exploitable gap. Even if they don't conclude the spinning, the rhythm of the spin is easily disturbed, and thus once again provides an opening.
The opposite of wasted motion is just as dangerous. Static immobility manifests in styles that are overly dependent on linear movement. In these situations bo thrusting and strikes are often accompanied by long stances with emphasis on power in each strike. The problem with this method is that the inherent liveliness of the bo, that unpredictable nature, is lost.
Taking advantage of the bo's full length and dual edges requires smooth, consistent action without a lot of starting and stopping. Striking with the front end, stepping, and then striking with the back end is far too lengthy a process when it comes to weapons combat. Furthermore, keeping the bo in an immovable posture is a great way to get a piece of it cut off against an edged weapon or struck out of your grasping front hand.
Static users often need to shorten their stance and lighten their grip. Too frequently these individuals clamp onto the weapon the way they might grasp the safety bar on a roller coaster, holding on for dear life. The bo should be held firmly but gently. Sword practitioners will be familiar with this advice.
Striking a Balance
The methods described above probably seem diametrically opposite, leaving little room for actual success with the weapon. In truth, a little bit of both when used in the right context can maximize effectiveness.
A few fundamental factors need to be in place at all times:
- The feet should be available, light, and naturally spaced to enhance mobility. This means avoiding deep, static stances except during moments of hard impact when the whole body is transmitting force, but then quickly returning to natural stance.
- Awareness of centerline control should be maintained no matter which posture the bo is in.
- Distance should be maintained as much as possible to stay within the ideal striking range of the bo while minimizing the opponent's effective striking range.
By using proper fundamentals the bo can strike, retract, swing, retract, extend, pull back, all in a continuous arc while the feet make slight distance adjustments. In a moment's notice the bo can snap into a centerline posture and create linear techniques to overwhelm an unsuspecting opponent, and at will revert back into fluid strikes from unpredictable angles.
The great thing about working with the bo in a combative manner is that frivolous and unwieldy techniques will be quickly revealed as dangerously ineffective.
I recommend finding someone who is skilled with a shinai and allowing him/her to strike at you with speed and freedom. You'll quickly learn the sensation of failure as fancy tactics turn into desperate backpeddling while bamboo whips passed your head.
Should you waste too much motion you'll rarely find yourself in prime position to capitalize on openings. Should you be too static you'll find your bo quickly knocked off centerline and your distance encroached upon.
Aim for smooth, consistent balance and your opponents will start to wonder if perhaps they should study the bo as well!
Thanks for dropping in! I've got some interesting news – IkigaiWay will be moving to Colorado. Actually…the website is staying right here but I will be moving.
This is a big change for me as I am a born and bred Pennsylvanian. I've visited Colorado multiple times, but planning the full time move has been a complex and educational process. Over the next two weeks I'll be packing up what remains of my belongings, driving out, and settling near the mountains in an area just south of Denver.
While I still love Pennsylvania (my immediate and martial families are here), opportunities for my significant other to attend grad school and work in her field are just too tempting to pass up. We'll head back east in 2-3 years, but for now we're westward bound.
The Martial Plan
One of the tricky (but exciting) things about this move is figuring out how I'm going to approach training and teaching. I plan on visiting a bunch of nearby schools just to get a sense of the local flavor and see what's happening. I'd also like to broaden my experience with arts I have little experience in (perhaps bjj, qigong, kung fu…who knows?).
I'll then have to decide if I want to start my own program fresh or work as an adjunct program with a nearby school. If I start my own program I'll be able to teach my full curriculum of Okinawa Kenpo Karate, Classical Kobudo, Toide, Swordsmanship, etc. If I work with a local school I can offer whatever doesn't interfere with their main program.
I'd also like to start up a series of seminars. Seminars are a great way to share pieces of information and cultivate cross exposure of styles and experiences. They're also not too difficult to execute and can range in size from multi-school events to single dojo visits.
I've gotten to train with some great individuals over the years, and they've been generous with their knowledge. I've only extracted a small fraction during my time, but I'm still motivated to share the classical ways as much as I can. My curriculum will take shape pulling from the following material:
Weapons Conflict Forms: Bo vs Bo, Bo vs Tonfa, Bo vs Sai, Bo vs Kama, Bo vs Tinbe Rochin
Japanese Budo: Iai forms, sword vs kobudo, weapons fighting, budo mindset
Mental Aspects: Okinawan culture, mindset of learning, martial science vs martial art, martial arts writing, self defense awareness, wellness
Are You In The Area?
For most of you these little life updates are just for fun, but if you live in Colorado or one of the adjoining states we might be able to plan something cool together! Reach out and tell me about yourself and your school, and how I might help:
Keep an eye out for more updates as the program evolves. I look forward to meeting some Western artists and contributing to the martial culture in whatever way I can.