This is a continuation of the interview with Kimo Wall, Kyoshi. Wall Sensei is a senior Goju Ryu and Kingai Ryu practitioner, studying directly under some of the great masters of Okinawa while stationed on Okinawa as a marine. In part 1 Wall Sensei discussed his early training and experiences with Higa Seiko Sensei. In part 2 presented here Wall Sensei will discuss Matayoshi Sensei, bringing karate to Western cultures, and more.
MA: Could you discuss your relationship with Matayoshi Shinpo Sensei, the great White Crane and Kobudo luminary?
KW: Master Matayoshi was quite a unique Master. He was very sharp and disciplined, but he had a most pleasant and comical personality. When I was in the Marine Corps my duties usually required me to be on post at night, so I spent my days with him. Master Matayoshi taught me all the Kobudo that I know except Chizi-kun-bo (aka tekkos) and two training Bo kata that I developed. Plus, he taught me his Kingai Ryu kata that he learned from Gokenki.
Wall Sensei performing Chizi-kun-bo:
I spent many wonderful years with the Matayoshi family. For 10 years the family lived at Higa Sensei’s dojo in Yogi Machi. Then Matayoshi bought land on Sobe hill in Naha and built his beautiful dojo and home. When he moved, it was only a few miles from Yogi Machi, I went to both dojos to continue my training in Kobudo, usually training in the daytime. Like in the Marine Corps, most work I got in Okinawa was night work. When I became a civilian, Sensei helped me get jobs when I was on the island, like teaching English, unloading ships, working at Naha city market, etc.
Master Matayoshi and family visited me and my wife in California. Sensei came to the States several times and my students and I hosted him. Sensei and I took a round trip tour of all America and Puerto Rico from LAX back to LAX in my Plymouth Voyager van, except flying to PR.
Wall Sensei performing Matayoshi kata Hakutsuru no Mai:
In 1992 Sensei and I were invited to participate at the Butokukai in Kyoto, Japan, with demos from all of Japan’s top martial arts.
MA: What was the butokukai demonstration like in 1992? Did you demonstrate anything yourself?
KW: The Butokukai, in Kyoto, Japan, happens once a year. The top Martial Arts Masters of Japan and students get a chance to demonstrate in the Great Hall of the Butokukai. That year I was given the honor of demonstrating with Master Matayoshi. He did White Crane kata from Gokenki and I did Pichurin and Kama.
|Butokukai with Master Matayoshi, 1992||Wall & Matayoshi at Butokukai|
I’m sure you are familiar with Master Wally Jay, from Hawaii. He did his Small Circle jiujitsu and Sensei Patrick McCarthy, did Tonfa and Sai. I think we were the only foreigners there. It was a great honor for me. I will never forget how amazing Master Matayoshi’s Kingai Ryu kata was and how much he was respected by the whole group of demonstrators and the government officials.
MA: Where did Matayoshi Sensei collect his extensive kobudo and white crane repertoire?
KW: Master Matayoshi’s extensive repertoire of Okinawan Martial arts was taught to him by his father, Shinko. He learned Shorin Ryu Karate from his father. The Kingai Ryu was taught to him by Gokenki, a Chinese immigrant from Fuchou, Fukien, China. He learned Goju Ryu from Master Higa Seiko and Grand Master Miyagi Chojun.
MA: The Matayoshi Kingai Ryu has very well preserved elements of white crane. Was Matayoshi Shinko (father to Shinpo) the senior student of Gokenki? Also, did the Matayoshi White Crane System involve Kyusho vital point striking as well as seizing and gripping techniques?
KW: Yes, Matayoshi Kin Gai Ryu is a very powerful and complete system. Gokenki taught several people his system, especially Matayoshi Shinko. I know Shinko Sensei was a top student of Gokenki. Gokenki was a tea merchant from Fuchou and Shinko Sensei was a customer of his. In the beginning, Gokenki was a guest at the Matayoshi home. Eventually, Gokenki stayed in Okinawa, married and had a family. He has many family members there today.
Matayoshi Shinpo performing Kingai Ryu kata Hakkucho:
The vital point, Kyusho, was taught only after you reached a high level of proficiency. Not many people reached that point. But, it is very similar to what we are taught in Goju Ryu. Like Goju Ryu, it came from Fuchou and some things are the same.
MA: You mentioned eariler (in part 1) that Odo Seikichi Sensei was at the Sho Do Kan with Matayoshi Sensei on your first day there, and you got to know Odo Sensei more over time. Did you train directly with Odo Sensei at any point, and if so what was that training like?
KW: Yes, I met Odo Seikichi Sensei on my first trip to Sho Do Kan dojo. It was one week after I was on the Island. I was a Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps and was new on the Island. You had to stay on base in those days for one week taking indoctrination course about Okinawa.
I took a bus to Naha bus station. Almost nothing had been rebuilt. Homes, highways, big buildings, stores and banks were very quickly built after WWII. Kokusai Dori was mostly dirt road in those days. From the station I took a “sukoshi cab”. The driver knew exactly where the dojo was.
Right after my first meeting with Matayoshi and Odo Sensei I became a member of the dojo. Odo Sensei came once in a while to train the Sanchin and Tensho kata with the karate class. This was after 9 PM, when older men trained with Seiko Sensei. On the weekends Odo Sensei came to train Kobudo with Master Matayoshi and that is when we became friends. His dojo was on the way to my Marine base so I gave him a ride home many times.
I was a beginner in Kobudo at that time and Master Odo was a very high level student. He had even trained before the war with Master Matayoshi’s father, Shinko. I trained, usually in the day time, with Master Matayoshi, but on the weekends Odo Sensei came and he and I both studied together. His kata was higher than mine as he was a very advanced student. Often, he would get information from Master Matayoshi and train by himself. I always had the chance to watch his training. I was amazed at his skill and power. He could make the Bo quiver with power at the end of each technique. After a few years I was studying the Kama and he was studying it with me. He knew another Kama kata but this one was a new one for him, so we shared the time together. I could always remember, he was what I would aspire to be like.
Odo Sensei was a very confident martial artist. He had trained with Master Nakamura up in Nago for many years who was a very respected leader in Okinawa Kenpo. Until he passed away, every time I went to Okinawa, Mr. Nakasone from SHUREIDO would call Odo Sensei and he would come to Naha to meet me. Sometimes we went to Nakasone’s home or to eat soki soba at a restaurant. Mr Nakasone is another wonderful person who became very close to me. I will make this story a little quick.
Mr. Nakasone trained karate and at that time he had a sports store (this was around 1967). His store sold general sports equipment, baseball stuff mostly, but he had someone who could make gis. So I had one made through him. I suggested that he should concentrate on martial arts equipment. There was a growing amount of karate students, mostly GIs. Finally he did give up regular sports and did only martial arts equipment. A friend of mine, Toshio Tamano Sensei, made the first SHUREIDO emblem and I made the first ad, in English, for his store. If you have been to Naha, Okinawa, you must have gone to SHUREIDO. You will see what a great businessman he is.
MA: As a westerner, did you ever feel like you were being kept in an ‘outer circle’, different from how the Okinawans trained amongst themselves? How long did it take for the Okinawans to trust you given the wartime history between America and Japan, culminating in the Battle of Okinawa?
KW: I don’t think I was ever kept in an outer circle from anyone in the dojo. The only thing that separated us was the language but I had many friends who helped me. I learned to take notes in the Marines so I took many notes and had a friend try to explain things to me. Some things are complicated, even for Okinawans to understand (like the meaning of what comes after bunkai). It is very deep and you must love what you are doing and be there for a long time.
Trust happened right away. Understand, the Japanese caused a lot more damage than the Americans. They caused the Okinawans to commit suicide (the term “suicide cliff” is well known in Okinawa). My wife’s father was shot by the Japanese army for stealing food from a garbage can to feed his family.
There was even a Statehood Party on Okinawa at one time. In our modern times, Communism has done a job in Okinawa as well as rape by a few American GIs, but there are many cases that you never hear of such as rape done by Okinawans themselves and many other foreigners. I think most Okinawans are very welcoming to Americans and have really benefited from the U.S. Forces paid to be there. You talk to any American who has spent many years on Okinawa and they can tell you the same. I love Okinawa, the people, and its culture.
MA: What were the early days like starting a program in the USA? Did people understand what you were trying to teach?
KW: In the States, at first, I only taught in the Marine Corps. I began teaching in Puerto Rico in 1965 while stationed at the Marine Barracks, San Juan, Puerto Rico. A lot of Marines and Sailors trained but I had a few civilians in the dojo and some are still training today. Then when I got out of the Marine Corps, 1970, I returned to the University of Puerto Rico to teach again. In 1965 I think true karate was very much unknown in PR, but from my dojo we developed a large group of very strong and talented followers.
MA: What was your primary objective in establishing Kodokan Goju Ryu?
KW: It was to help promote Okinawan Goju Ryu Karate and Kobudo outside of Okinawa. KODOKAN means “Home of the Ancient Ways”.
MA: What have been the biggest challenges in growing the Kodokan while maintaining a level of quality and integrity in your art?
KW: Time, is the answer. If you have a chance to live on Okinawa, military is the best and cheapest way. Go there and live with the dojo and learn from the people. I lived in Okinawa for a long time. Since those times I traveled a lot and didn’t spend enough time with most students to take them to higher levels, but I am very proud of those who have been able to continue and I see them often. Puerto Rico, Guatemala, California, UMASS, Tennessee, New Mexico, Arizona and the list goes on.
MA: What inspired you to investigate Thai style massage and physical therapy?
KW: In the Sho Do Kan dojo there was a teacher who taught acupuncture and herbology on Saturdays. I took advantage of this and studied until he passed away. Many teachers in the old days practiced some type of healing. It was the dojo responsibility to help anyone who might get injured in training. That inspired me to study more about ways to heal people in my dojo. I studied Thai Massage in Chiang Mai, Thailand and received a teaching diploma from The Traditional Medicine Hospital and The International Thai Massage Center. It is used in Thailand by Mauy Thai fighters at all boxing camps for healing and therapy. It is a proven and effective means of healing and conditioning. In Thailand it is known as THE FAMILY HEALTH SYSTEM.
MA: How has your training changed as you have gotten older? Are there any forms or training methods which you have come to prefer? Is there anything you did as a youth which you would warn others against?
KW: I am almost 70 so I don’t put as much time on rigorous training. Kata and meaning is important. Just grow old gracefully. Don’t smoke, don’t drink, have faith and believe in God.
Train hard train often. Always practice kata with Sanchin/Tensho. Replace fear and doubt with knowledge and understanding. Open mind, joyful training. Train everyday. Really LOVE what you are doing.
All our katas were developed by Grand Master Miyagi Chojun. Unfortunately, there was WWII that destroyed Okinawa and set it back several years. He passed away before he finished his development of Goju Ryu. Now, we who love Goju Ryu must find our way through the kata. I don’t think there is any ‘Superior Kata’. All have their importance and meaning. Grand Master Miyagi said, “The secrets of Goju Ryu are in the kata”. So, we must always study kata…even the simple kata. Gekisai Sho has a whole system within itself.
MA: Wall Sensei, thank you very much for giving us some insight into your training and personal history. We thank you for your continued efforts in preserving the old ways of karate and kobudo!
Not all styles of karate possess a version of Seisan…but enough do to warrant a rather ubiquitious reputation, causing some practitioners to refer to it as the “universal” karate form. A bold nickname, but perhaps a well deserved one. Styles that have Seisan include: Goju Ryu, Shorin Ryu, Uechi Ryu, Shito Ryu, Okinawa Kenpo, Ryukyu Kempo, Ryute, Ryuei Ryu, Wado Ryu, Shotokan, Chito Ryu, Koryu Uchinadi, Seibukan, Seidokan…you get the idea. This kata is well traveled.
When different versions of Seisan are viewed in close succession they clearly exhibit unique stylistic quirks, yet preserve common aspects of some original pattern or set of concepts. That being the case, this “walking tour” article intends to do two different things:
- Establish a few bits of historical info that provide insight into the possible origins of the kata.
- View different styles of Seisan so as to observe and appreciate how each ryu has grown the form over time and made it “their own”.
Let’s get started!
The Historical Tidbits You Need to Know
It is evident that the many varieties of Seisan originating from Okinawa do NOT stem from a single, central practitioner. In fact, it appears that multiple individuals went to China at various times and brought back bits, pieces, and versions which conjealed and fractured over time.
One of the big defining points in karate’s history was after the fateful invasion of the Satsuma Samurai in 1609. It was then that records and stories began to take shape in meaningful ways. Throughout the 1800s the Meiji Restoration was taking hold and karate on Okinawa was developing into three nebulous, sometimes interweaving prongs: Shuri Te, Naha Te, and Tomari Te.
Two foundational versions of Seisan were imported/created at this time, one predominantly via Shuri Te and the other Naha Te. Both Shuri and Naha had strong roots in Chinese Chuanfa, especially from the Fuzhou Region (the Okinawans had a settlement in Fuzhou and Kume Village was a fairly direct historical connection). From that launch point we can analyze the backgrounds of both foundational forms, starting with the trickier one.
The Shuri Te variety of Seisan is very difficult to pin down lineage-wise. To see what I mean, read the following two quotes, both from respected researchers:
“Noted senior Okinawan karate authority Hiroshi Kinjo (b. 1919) states that there is no evidence of a Seisan kata being passed down in the “Shuri” lineages of Sokon Matsumura and Anko Itosu, and that the familiar “Shuri” lineage Seisan versions such as the Hangetsu of Shotokan and the Seisan of Kyan lineage systems, should be referred to as Tomari Seisan. His reasoning is that the so-called Oshiro Seisan as presented in the 1930 “Kenpo Gaisetsu” by Nisaburo Miki and Mizuho Takada was actually passed down from Kosaku Matsumora to Kodatsu Iha to Kinjo’s own teacher Chojo Oshiro of Yamaneryu Bojutsu fame.” – Joe Swift on Fighting Arts
“Then there is the kata Seisan. It was a kata taught by Soken Matsumura. If Itosu’s primary karate teacher had been Matsumura, surely he would also have taught this kata. But he did not. An explanation for the absence of Seisan can be found in the existing Tomari te (Tumaidi) traditions. For example, the continuing Tomari traditions as were passed down through the Oyadomari brothers of Tomari, as well as those of the Matsumora ha Tumaidi (Tomari te) as passed down to Tokashiki Iken, also lack the kata Seisan, as does the tode passed on by Itosu. Seisan was not a Tomari kata.” – Tom Ross on Fighting Arts
Ahh buh? Well someone had to have it, the darn thing is all over the place!
Despite common belief, Matsumura was not the only teacher of Itosu Ankoh. Itosu was also heavily influenced by two Tomari gentleman named Tomari Gusukuma and Matsumora Kosaku, as well as one Naha based individual named Nagahama who was an expert at body conditioning. Therefore, either of the quoted suppositions above could be true. Itosu could have never learned the form from Matsumura because Matsumura didn’t have a chance to teach him and/or Matsumura didn’t know it, OR Itosu may never have learned the form from Gusukuma/Matsumora because they didn’t utilize it. Furthermore Itosu may have actually learned the form from either branch but forgot it or chose to pass it on selectively.
Noted researcher Patrick McCarthy seems to believe that Seisan existed in both lineages:
“Arguably, the martial art-like traditions in an around the old castle capitol of Shuri predate those elsewhere on the island. As such, the Shuri-based version of Seisan is believed to be the oldest. While several, if not many, other proficient Bujin are known to have resided in the Shuri district prior to the time of Matsumura Sokon [1809-1898], he is regarded as the father of its karate movement; hence, Matsumura Seisan “is” the oldest version.”
“Kinjo Sensei sometimes refers to Seisan as Jusanpo (i.e 13 steps/ways). This Tomari version was taught to him by his teacher, Grandmaster Oshiro Chojo. It originally came from Oyadomari Koken by way of Iha Kotatsu who passed it onto Oshiro. Kinjo sensei believes the Tomari version of seisan may be the “cross-over” Okinawan representation from old Chinese quanfa (i.e. possibly the version from Aragaki or Kume).” – Patrick McCarthy, also pg. 73 of “Classical Kata of Okinawan Karate”
Many other resources seem to reinforce the idea that Matsumura was responsible for a variety of Seisan, some of which are:
- “Okinawa Island of Karate”, George Alexander, pg.100
- “Unante”, John Sells, pg. 258
- “Katas of Shorin ryu Seibukan”, Kim Mitrunen & Tommi Prami
It is stated that Matsumura Nabe, grandson of Matsumura Soken, learned and passed along Seisan to Hohan Soken. Unfortunately, the history and circumstances surrounding Nabe are difficult to verify. Kyan Chotoku is also often cited as learning his Seisan from Matsumura or one of his disciples (Sources: Graham Noble, Bill Hayes, others). Some individuals have suggested that Matsumora Kosaku is responsible for Kyan’s Seisan, but it’s known that Kyan added Tomari flair to a few of his pre-existing forms so the case may be made that the end product of Kyan’s form was based in Shuri and flavored in Tomari.
As mentioned earlier, both Shuri Te and Naha Te had strong Chinese roots, but Shuri Te was more apt to changing and “Okinawan-izing” things. Both branches did it, but Naha seemed a little more inclined to preserve Chinese elements.
Two men, Aragaki Seisho and Higaonna Kanryo, are the forefathers of what is considered “mainstream” Naha Te (mostly thanks to the titanic efforts of their disciple Miyagi Chojun). These men both travelled to China and definitely secured a version of Seisan there. In addition, Nakaima Kenri and Sakiyama Kitoku made travels as well (at one point traveling together) and brought back versions. Let’s also not forget Uechi Kanbun who was an avid student and preserver of Chuanfa. Each important individual constituted a separate spawning point under the Naha umbrella.
The final unmentioned “branch” of Seisan development is that of Funakoshi Gichin. In his writings Funakoshi explained that Itosu Ankoh and Itosu Azato were his primary teachers. Nevertheless, he also had extensive contact with Aragaki Seisho/Higaonna Kanryo of Naha Te and Iha Kotatsu of Tomari Te during his time as a teacher in Tomari (Source: Patrick McCarthy). As such his version of Seisan, which would become Hangetsu, took on a life of it’s own as he developed it for the Japanese masses.
One thing most researchers agree upon is that the movements for Seisan, in all of it’s original variations, were likely imported from Fuzhou, China. Specifically, it seems likely that it was part of the training regiment of the White Crane families who resided there (MORE specifically, Kinjo Akio suggests that it derives from the Yong Chun White Crane branch). Over time Seisan has grown on Okinawa while fading in China to the point where a direct mirror form can no longer be found in Chinese styles. The variations found on Okinawa contain pieces of the original concepts, stylistically emphasizing different ideas and growing in ways that agree with the overall construct of each Okinawan method.
That all being said, I think it’s time to view some kata! Let’s pay attention to the differences and similarities between each style, keeping in mind their roots in Naha and/or Shuri as well as their shared history reaching back into Fuzhou.
The Walking Tour (Right This Way!)
The following video is from Yamaguchi Goshi, student of Yamaguchi Gogen (The Cat). The form has distinct Goju characteristics and highly emphasizes rooting and breathing technique. As a Naha Te form you’ll notice an above average usage of open hand vs fist, although both striking methods make an appearance.
Kanazawa Hirokazu aptly performs the Shotokan variation known as Hangetsu. You’ll notice similar tension in some spots with increasing pace in later sections. This changing dynamic hints at the multiple influences on Funakoshi as he developed the form. You’ll also notice big wide stances and arm/leg movements which became signatures of Shotokan as it developed.
Founder of Wado Ryu, Hironori Ohtsuka, was a direct student of Funakoshi Gichin and an important Shotokan practitioner. It should be no surprise that the Wado Ryu variety of Seishan (aka Hangetsu aka Seisan) closely relates to the Shotokan version. Tatsuo Suzuki Sensei demonstrates.
Tang Soo Do
One thing we haven’t mentioned yet is the expansion of karate outside of Okinawa and Japan. The Korean art of Tang Soo Do traces much of it’s lineage to Shotokan Karate. We see here Nathaniel Verbeke perform a Tang Soo Do version of Seisan which shares many of the same qualities as the two previous videos. you’ll notice a little high kicking sneak in; Tang Soo Do is Korean after all.
Isshin Ryu traces it’s Seisan through Tatsuo Shimabukuro, a student of Chotoku Kyan and other Shuri influences. As such, this is the first form on the tour that could be considered predominantly “Shuri Te”. It is important to note that the practitioner in the following video, Angi Uezu Sensei, executes the kata while incorporating specific Isshin Ryu concepts like the vertical punch. Despite this being Shuri instead of Naha, the embusen remains similar especially in the opening three strike sequence and the turns to the side and back. One trademark of Kyan flavored Seisan is an “Ananku” like sequence toward the end.
Kyan Shorin Ryu
The next clip comes to us via one of Kyan Chotoku’s direct students: Shimabukuro Eizo. You’ll notice slightly higher stances and less emphasis on the hard breathing than in Goju and Shotokan versions. While the footage is quite old and seen at a distance, you’ll still be able to notice the rigorous pacing and application of body movement.
Don’t be fooled, we are still in Kyan country. In fact the father of our next performer is often considered the individual with the most personal time spent under Kyan. Watch as Shimabukuro Zenpo, son of Zenryo, demonstrates the acceleration, snap, and percussive power of Kyan style Seisan. Although the very end appears slightly different, you’ll still notice the twisting technique to finish the final opponent.
For the next video we go back to Naha Te, but not in the standard Goju way. In fact, the next performer was not heavily influenced by the popular Aragaki/Higaonna/Miyagi chain and instead traces his roots to Nakaima Kenri. Sakamoto Tsuguo became well known for his Annan form, but he performs a skillful Seisan as well. Despite the Naha nature of Ryuei Ryu and it’s close connection to China, you’ll notice Sakamoto Sensei emphasizing the speed and acceleration of the form not unlike Kyan style. You’ll also notice he shares the high stances utilized by Kyan and Tomari styles.
Tomari Seisan / Okinawa Kenpo
This next one offers an interesting dilemma. We can surmise from historical context that there probably was a Tomari Seisan at one point and it may have been influenced by Aragaki Seisho, Matsumora Kosaku, and Iha Kotatsu. However, there is a Tomari Seisan floating around in modern culture that is completely unrelated to these men.
Tomari Seisan as it can be found today traces back to Ryukyu Kempo, a style named by Oyata Seiyu. Interestingly, Oyata received his Seisan from Nakamura Shigeru, the same man who taught Odo Seikichi of Okinawa Kenpo. Not so coincidently, the “Tomari Seisan” of Ryukyu Kempo and “Seisan” of Okinawa Kenpo are identical. The snag is that Nakamura Shigeru’s Seisan came from Kuniyoshi Shinkichi. Kuniyoshi was one of the primary students of Sakiyama Kitoku, the travel mate of Nakaima Kenri (Ryuei Ryu) and one of the individuals who brought Seisan concepts back to Okinawa. Sakiyama is largely grouped into the Naha vein of things, and Kuniyoshi lived in Nago village. As such, Okinawa Kenpo’s Seisan has virtually nothing to do with Tomari, and thus Ryukyu Kempo’s Seisan also has little to do with Tomari. It might be argued that both Nakamura Shigeru and Oyata Seiyu had Tomari influence in their arts, which is true (Nakamura with Motobu Choki and Oyata with earlier experiences before Okinawa Kenpo). But as we have seen many instructors were influenced by Tomari, some much more than Nakamura and Oyata (namely Kyan), and thus we would be teeming with Tomari Seisans if everyone affected by Tomari was labelled as such. Furthermore, the Okinawa Kenpo Seisan is well documented to have come from Kuniyoshi and is preserved in form by both Okinawa Kenpo and Ryukyu Kempo. Possible differences in bunkai alone would not warrant such a geographical name change.
As of this writing I have not uncovered the explanation for this matter.
View below two examples of “Tomari Seisan” followed by an “Okinawa Kenpo Seisan”.
Last but certainly not least is Uechi Ryu. Uechi Kanbun spent significant time in China and developed an art which preserved Chinese elements more than most. In the following video Uechi Kanei, son of Kanbun, demonstrates his version of Seisan. Notably, Uechi Ryu was originally taught with just three kata: Sanchin, Seisan, and Sanseirui. You’ll notice similarities to other versions of Seisan in the beginnings of Kanei’s pattern, but pretty soon significant differences emerge. The most unique aspects come in the form of persistent open hand usage and lengthy additional concepts toward the middle and end of the form.
That Wraps It Up
I hope you enjoyed this stroll through one of the most frequently practiced kata of our time. When viewed back to back it becomes easier to see some of the common threads. Seisan’s opening sequence has some interesting differences between Naha and Shuri but follows a very consistent structure. Various karate styles have taken the form and used it to express the functional concepts of their system. On one hand the growth of the form over time has moved it away from it’s roots; on the other hand the kata has grown into a distinctly effective Okinawan method.
I imagine if you do this form it is probably subtly different than many of the examples of above. Let those subtleties inform your training and give you ideas about the breadth and possibility of Seisan!
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. Sokon is said to have 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 begun 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