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
The karate world has lost a true luminary and keeper of the old ways. Oyata Seiyu (Title: Taika), 10th Dan of Ryu Te, passed away in Aberdeen, South Dakota this week.
The following is a detailed clip from the Kansas Star Obituary:
He married Robin Swope on Feb. 12, 1977, in Louisburg, KS. Oyata is survived by wife Robin; daughter Masami Oyata-Slocum and husband, Jeremy Slocum of Seattle, WA; son Masaki Oyata of Las Vegas, NV; two granddaughters, Ashlea and Amberly Slocum and two grandsons, Jacoby and Isaacson Slocum, all of Seattle, WA.
He was born on Oct. 19, 1928 in Kita- Daito of the Ryukyu Islands, located 200 miles east of Okinawa, Japan. He was educated in Osaka, Japan, and then returned to his native Okinawa after World War II.
Oyata Sensei's exact age is subject to some speculation, reported alternatively as 1928 or 1930.
This loss comes on the heels of the passing of Jim Logue, one of Oyata's senior students.
A Unique Heritage
Oyata Sensei was integral in the transmission of old style karate to the United States and eventually the world. He was one of a scant few Okinawans both knowledgeable and willing enough to share some of the more subtle aspects of complete karate life protection. He served as an extremely important catalyst in the broader understanding of concepts like tuite and kyusho.
Despite his reputation Oyata Sensei may actually be underappreciated for how unique his story is, starting with an ancestral line that stems back to the bold martyr Janna Teido Oyakata. Janna was a councilor to King Sho Nei during the fated "Satsuma Era" of Okinawan history. Janna was Pro-Chinese/Anti-Japanese and often voiced his opinions on the matter of trade and fealty. More than once he convinced his king to shirk the heavy tributes demanded by the Japanese.
In 1609, when the Satsuma Samurai successfully invaded the Ryukyu Islands, Janna was taken with King Sho Nei as a captive. Whisked back to Japan, Sho Nei was forced to sign documents acknowledging Japan as the rightful and historic owner of all things Ryukyu. He was also forced to sign an apology for his malfeasance in neglecting the Japanese tributes.
The king signed the documents dutifully, but Janna refused. He knew that the Japanese had no real historical claim on the Ryukyus and that the demanded tributes were baseless and greedy. Unfortunately, his obstinance led to a quick demise as the Samurai disposed of him on the spot.
At first, many Okinawans believed Janna's disobedience caused them excessive trouble and harm (an idea which the Japanese gladly cultivated). However, as time passed and historical evidence of the invasion came out, the truth of Janna's patriotism was revealed and he became a revered figure.
After the Satsuma invasion the Janna family lost their name in shame and were referred to instead as Sinda (death). This later changed to Ikemiyagusoku, and changed once again some years later to Oyata (source: John Sells, 2000).
One of a Kind Training
Oyata Sensei's own story was almost ended before it truly began. At age 15 he was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Navy during World War II. He was slated to be a Kaiten Pilot, which was a manned torpedo used in suicide runs. Fortunately he was captured by Allied forces before being deployed for the first and last time.
His detainment ended roughly two years later, allowing him to return home to Okinawa. It was upon his return that his life as a karateka would begin in a most unusual way.
Jim Logue told the story during his 2010 interview:
After WWII, Oyata sensei worked for the US Army delivering food and supplies to the outer islands on the east coast of Okinawa. He traveled to six different islands using an amphibious vehicle visiting an island each day. His route took him through the seaside town of Teruma where he noticed an old man groveling for fish in small pockets of the coral reef during low tide. This man was very unusual because he still wore a warrior’s top knot.
After asking some of the local villagers, Oyata sensei found that this was Uhugushiku, a retired warrior whose family had a long relation to the nobility of Okinawa. Since his job was dangerous, he thought that maybe, this man could teach him some martial arts that he could use should he be robbed of his supplies. Although he had received martial arts training in the military, there was no in-depth study.
He befriended Uhugushiku by offering to take him to the deeper waters in his amphibious vehicle to catch bigger fish. After learning that Oyata Sensei’s ancestors were also from the warrior class, Uhugushiku agreed to teach him.
The Uhugushiku family was noted for their skills in weapons and Oyata’s sensei’s first lessons consisted of learning the bo. He eventually learned many weapons from Uhugushiku in addition the the bo; sai, kama, nunchaku, jo, Tonfa, chizikun bo, tan bo, manji sai, surichin and nunti bo. He was taught kata, concepts and fighting techniques. There were also discussions about history, language and culture so the he could better understand the arts of life-protection.
Uhugushiku also introduced Oyata Sensei to Wakinaguri, a large man of Chinese decent. Wakinaguri’s family dates back to the original 36 families sent to Okinawa as emissaries. Wakinaguri was the 6th generation to receive his family art and having no immediate family, he agreed to teach the young Oyata.
Lessons with Wakinaguri consisted of concepts and principles rather than repetition of drills. He learned how to make technique more effective and how to use this knowledge to read kata and decipher the code hidden within. As part of his training, Uhugushiku introduced him to the family scroll, much like the bubishi, but in greater detail. This scroll is more than 20 feet in length and contains 100’s of pictures depicting many techniques and concepts. Just before Wakinaguri’s death, Oyata sensei was presented with a copy of this scroll that he continues to use today for continued study.
Uhugushiku Sensei died in 1950, prompting Oyata to branch out in his martial explorations. Having a strong base in the Chinese aspects of karate, Oyata desired a teacher who was both knowledgeable and "rough". His search led him to Nakamura Shigeru of Okinawa Kenpo.
Nakamura Sensei had a broad mixture of experience, ranging from formal Shuri Te of Itosu/Chomo/Yabu, to Tomari Te of Motobu Choki, to the Chinese arts of Kuniyoshi Shinkichi. Nakamura was able to provide a strong basis in kata and fighting for Oyata. In addition, Oyata had the opportunity to train under and alongside other highly skilled members of the Okinawa Kenpo Renmei. He spent time with Uehara Seikichi of Motobu Udundi, Toma Shian of Seidokan, and Odo Seikichi of Okinawa Kenpo. Each had noteworthy strengths in tuite, striking, weapons work, etc.
Oyata's early experiences with Uhugushiko and Wakinaguri, combined with his days in Okinawa Kenpo, resulted in a wonderfully unique and effective art.
Coming to America
Oyata Sensei's first arranged visit to the United States came in 1968, but it wasn't until 1977 that training in the U.S. picked up steam. Oyata Sensei ended up moving to the states full time in order to guide his quickly growing western contigent.
In order to avoid confusion and any political complications, Oyata Sensei opted to call his particular brand of karate Ryukyu Kempo. It was a term that encompassed the broad essence of Okinawan fighting arts while still being distinct. Unfortunately, as time passed other martial artists decided to use the name "Ryukyu Kempo" in order to simulate a connection to Oyata, even if it was as thin as meeting him during training seminars.
Realizing the problem at hand and the lack of effective legal recourse, Oyata Sensei opted to changed the name of his style to Ryu Te, combining the first kanji character from Ryu-kyu and the last from kara-te. This time Oyata Sensei sealed the name legally, protecting it from excessive misuse.
At a time when American karate was experiencing something of a rut, Oyata Sensei revealed exciting and effective aspects that many westerners were unfamiliar with. His ability to apply punishing tuite techniques and extremely fast kyusho knockouts caught the attention of many martial artists who were becoming disenfranchised with the relatively thin or incomplete training they were receiving.
Ryu Te Carries On
Oyata Sensei's expertise has been mimed and faked by many martial artists looking to capture just a bit of his mystique. This is unfortunate. But luckily there are many high quality direct students that truly carry on the way of Oyata Sensei's art. These skilled men and women are part of a fantastic lineage of karate and we are all richer for their efforts to carry on Oyata Sensei's dream.
I’m very happy to present this interview with Jody Paul Hanshi. Counted among some of the earliest westerners to experience karate on the island of Okinawa, Paul Sensei has a rare combination of influences. He is a senior practitioner of Seidokan and Motobu Udundi, as well as having extensive experience in Okinawa Kenpo Karate/Kobudo and Shorinji Kempo.
Paul Sensei has distinguished himself through years of military service and deligent training. Some of his accomplishments include being a part of the inaugural Seal Team Two, as well as being one of the first western students accepted by Uehara Seikichi into the previously closed Motobu Udundi system.
Paul Sensei has continued to pass on the lessons taught to him by his instructors, and brings a special energy to each of his classes.
I recently had a chance to sit down with him and ask a few questions about his training and theories surrounding the martial arts.
JP: I was listening to a couple of guys talking about it. Actually it was judo. Later I watched them throwing each other around and I thought that was kinda neat. I got into karate because of watching the judo guys.
MA: How old were you when you made the leap into karate?
JP: I was about 19 or 20 at that time.
MA: When did you enlist in the military?
JP: It was about 1960. Around 1962 we had the cuban missile crisis. I was involved there, and it was one thing or another for the next several years. Soon after I retired it got a little better, haha.
MA: As I recall you were involved with the Navy throughout your career, including the Seals. What can you tell me about the early days of the Navy Seals?
JP: back in 1960, around March or April, Lt. Commander Roy Boehm was the Officer in Charge of Team Two. That was right in time for the cuban crisis. Team Two was comprised of the new navy seals and the UDT teams.
MA: Were you handpicked to be part of that team?
JP: Yes, most of the guys selected were divers and UDTs.
MA: When you were stationed in Japan, because of your experience in karate, did you immediately try to get involved with martial arts?
JP: Yes I did.
MA: Who did you end up connecting with?
JP: I trained with Watanabe Sensei, who was one of master Doshin So‘s students. Then from there, I continued with So Sensei in Shorinji Kempo.
MA: Was the training regimented?
JP: In Japan it’s a lot more regimented than Okinawa. everything is very stand in line, and so forth.
MA: How did they take to you as a westerner? Was there any friction?
JP: A little bit of…skepticism. of course. but overall fair treatment. I think in some instances I got more preferential treatment because they wanted to make sure I got it right, haha.
MA: What ultimately led you to transfer to Okinawa?
JP: Okinawa was the departing point to Vietnam in the early days. We staged a lot of people out of Okinawa. I didn’t have a choice in that matter. My teacher (Doshin So) had trained years and years before with some people on Okinawa, and I had a letter of recommendation from him to show to Okinawan sensei.
MA: Did you spend any time in Vietnam itself?
JP: Yes, I spent a bit more than three tours there. I got to come back to Okinawa between and after.
MA: When you had your letter of recommmendation, which Sensei did you choose to go to?
JP: I went to Toma Shian Sensei and Uehara Seikichi Sensei.
MA: Was there something in particular that stood out about Toma Sensei?
JP: Ohh yes, he was very strong. His techniques were similar to what I learned in Japan and I felt comfortable doing his style. In kumite, weapons, and everything he does you could sense the power.
MA: Could you describe a bit about the Okinawan training culture?
JP: In the dojo it wasn’t quite as regimented as it was in Japan. It was loose, people were warming up and training on different areas of the floor. There wasn’t as much ‘yes sir no sir’. There was respect of course. Another thing I noticed was the kids that would run through the dojo. You might be working out and doing kata and a little one would run under your feet. It was more of a family environment. It was like one big family. Everyone would take care of each other.
MA: Did you find that there was a lot of opportunities for cross training, or perhaps teachers visiting each other?
JP: Yes, a lot of times. For Toma Sensei, he had one kata for each weapon. if you wanted anything more advanced, he would send us over to Odo Seikichi Sensei. he would say “you need to do more weapons, you go see Odo.” Odo Sensei was happy with that too. They were both of the same mindset.
MA: Speaking of Odo Sensei, could you describe your time with him? You were one of the earliest westerners to train with him.
JP: He was an integral part of my kobudo and karate training. I did a lot of the tuide for his forms and his weapons forms. It was quite similar to what Toma Sensei did. Back then a lot of it was similar to each other, there were only different nuances depending on how the person was built and how they liked to act. There were a lot of common threads. Odo sensei could show you 20 minutes of connections to a 2 minute question. And that was great because I was always asking why, how, how comes…, he was always happy to share. Odo also had a very good way of showing you new forms, he explained it to you very well.
MA: Could you talk a bit about what day-to-day training was like? Was there a certain amount of time you trained, and was it the same time every day?
JP: The training wasn’t a strict regiment of a certain number of kicks, punches etc. We would go to the dojo or beach and do some basics. We would train some punches and kicks and throws in the ocean with water up to our neck. Then get out on the beach and do some running (Uehara Sensei was always good for this kind of training). It was very very hot there, so you couldn’t train for as long. We would work out for an hour and then have a beer break. It was tough for me to go back to training after one of those.
In the dojo at night, you could bring a gallon milk jug of water and a six pack of beer. You would drink the water during the class and then the beer after. We would hear a lot of interesting stories and ideas then.
MA: Uehara sensei is an interesting story because he comes from the Motobu Udundi line, which has a unique history and flavor to it. could you talk about how you met him and came to train with him?
JP: Uehara sensei is one of the people I was introduced to by So Sensei. when I got to Okinawa and started training with Toma Sensei I saw that Toma was friends with Uehara (With the rengokai coming together, Toma Sensei got a chance to learn more of the toide from Uehara Sensei). Everything fell into place then, I went to visit with Toma and began training after that. Uehara Sensei was a very interesting person. He was very close with his students, which I enjoyed a lot because he took a lot of time with his students individually.
MA: Toma sensei had a lot of power and impact with his method, while Uehara Sensei’s style features a lot of flow and dynamics. Was it difficult trying to learn Uehara Sensei’s methods at first?
JP: Ohh yes, every time I would punch and kick Uehara would say “ohh…you do like shorinji ryu” (back from my Japan days). He spotted me right away. It took several years for me to get used to the ideas of hard and soft. The older I got the softer I got I guess, haha.
MA: What was Uehara Sensei like as an instructor? Did he demonstrate a lot and was there a lot of conversation?
JP: Doing the toide techniques, he would demonstrate a lot. Then everyone would break up and try to do it. Uehara Sensei would then come around to each person and correct things and fix us. He didn’t teach everyone the same way. I asked him this question one time – “why does so-and-so do it this way, a little bit different than me”, and the answer was that my body was different than the body he had. If you were powerful like Toma Sensei, he would have you punching real strong, but the long tall skinny guys couldn’t do it the same way so he adjusted what would work for them.
MA: When you came back to the US, were you given instructions to begin a school or organization?
JP: Toma Sensei had requested that I start a school and association. I came back in 1970, but in 1984 we brought Toma Sensei to Pennsylvania. at that time we started our first association. We had a big seminar and formed the first USA Seidokan association where Toma Sensei appointed the different officers.
MA: Did you spend a lot of time at tournaments in the earlier days?
JP: Not that much. I went to a few of the original tournaments. To me it didn’t show what the arts were all about anyway. Also I wasn’t used to pulling punches and kicks which was a problem. Master Odo and Master Toma tended to fight with bogu gear and hard contact. so if you got in the “ring” you hit the other person. Here if you did that they would throw you out. That’s what happened to me at least. I never denied my students the experience though. If they wanted to give it a try I would support them and go with them.
MA: With your experience across Okinawa Kenpo, Seidokan, and Motobu Udundi, how important do you feel natural movement is to success at higher levels?
JP: Kihon, basics, and everything is set in iron because you have to learn the core of the movements. Without that you can’t get into doing natural stancework and techniques later on. So it’s important, but not without the earlier stuff.
MA: Modern karate tends to be a mix of business and training, the balance of which can be difficult. What do you see as necessary for keeping the Okinawan spirit of karate alive?
JP: Toma Sensei always wanted us to open schools, and if you do that you have to have some business with it too. Here in the states that’s just the way it is. Uehara Sensei didn’t believe as much in having a formal school where you charge money for classes and so forth, so he never did that. I think if we stay true to the art and the way that we learned, the original way that we learned from our teachers and carry on what they were trying to give us, martial arts can still go a long way.
MA: Thanks a lot for your time and insight Paul Sensei!
To learn more about Jody Paul Sensei visit “Tales From the Western Generation”. The book contains extended interview content as well as extensive Q&A with other karate seniors.