Kiyan Toru Sensei is a prominent Okinawa Kenpo instructor training and teaching in Okinawa. He is a longtime student of Kina Toshimitsu who studied directly with the style founder Nakamura Shigeru. Kiyan Sensei has been working diligently to help spread the art of his teacher and keep Okinawa Kenpo alive in the place of its origin.
During my visit to Okinawa I had the great pleasure of visiting Kiyan Sensei’s class and training with his wonderful students. One in particular, Josh Simmers, was instrumental in making a connection with Kiyan Sensei and helping facilitate this interview. I thank them both for their time and generosity.
The following is some of the story and highlights from Kiyan Sensei’s already remarkable career as an Okinawa Kenpo practitioner and teacher.
Q: Kiyan Sensei, thank you for agreeing to this interview! I’d like to start by getting to know you a bit better. Could you explain a bit about your childhood and what originally lead you to karatedo?
I was born in 1959 in Naha, Okinawa. My father owned a bookstore as I grew up. I spent a lot of time in that store but eventually found baseball. I became a big fan of baseball right away and decided to play. Up until I was about 15 I only played baseball. But one time I broke the bone around my eye and got an operation. While I was recovering I ended up going to the movies – Bruce Lee was playing.
When I saw Bruce Lee on screen…it was like a thunder shock. I thought to myself, “This is the one! I need this!” I watched Enter the Dragon 18 times in the theater. Some days they would kick me out, but other days they wouldn’t catch me so I could just watch the movie over and over again.
It was during this time that I began searching for a karate school. I found an Okinawa Kenpo school run by Master Kina (Toshimitsu) in Shuri. Very quickly I learned that the dojo was very different from a movie. I was just a skinny guy in high school, but it didn’t matter. We were fighting and I would get beat up everyday. One day I said, “Sensei please teach me how to be different. Teach me how to block and fight.” But he just kept making me do basics and makiwara and then kumite.
Q: When you first joined the dojo did you try to mimic Bruce Lee?
Ohh yes, and they would laugh at me. They tried to tell me it was just a movie.
Q: Did you have to quit baseball due to your injury?
Yes I did. but the timing was ok because I joined University and an Okinawa Kenpo club there. So I just focused on karate, karate, karate.
Q: When you first met Kina Sensei, what was your impression of him and the dojo?
Kina Sensei was very kind and seemed gentle. However once I became a regular student he became much more strict and didn’t hesitate to tell me what he thought.
One interesting thing was that Kina Sensei would often work out with some students before the beginning of class. I saw them working makiwara and kata. Whenever I asked a question Kina Sensei would not answer. One day I asked why he wouldn’t teach me and he said, “I don’t teach – you have to steal. Steal my technique.”
Q: What was the structure of the class like? Did it have formal stretching, warm-ups, etc. like in modern dojo?
No, not so much. It was always more like individual training. Sometimes one person would be on makiwara, while a small group did kata, etc. This was the way Nakamura’s Sensei dojo operated, so Kina Sensei ran his dojo the same way.
Q: In regards to the Okinawa Kenpo style – did Kina Sensei ever tell stories about Nakamura Shigeru Sensei?
Yes, all the time! Kina Sensei would often explain that Nakamura Sensei favored using 45 degree angles toward the opponent. He believed that there was no reason to retreat. Nakamura Sensei also stressed using the makiwara and taking walks in the Okinawa mountains. He believed technique should be simple and effective.
Q: How did Kina Sensei and Nakamura Sensei first meet?
When Kina Sensei was about 14 his father told him that he needed to study karate if he wanted to be strong. Kina Sensei said ok, and so his father told him to go to the dojo in Nago. The Nago Dojo, run by Nakamura Sensei, was very famous at that time.
Q: After studying karate with Kina Sensei directly for years, how did your karate progress as you grew older?
I competed often. I was doing well and placed 2nd at my high school tournament and got a few “fighting spirit” awards. I noticed though that sometimes I focused on how strong my opponents were, and I wouldn’t do as well. One day Kina Sensei told me to close my eyes and think only about winning; that there was only winning and believing in technique. He said that first I had to win the battle against myself, then I could win against my opponents.
In 1978 I won the 1st All Okinawa Bogutsuki Kumite Open Karate Tournament at Tomishiro Festival. I competed in both kata (performing kusanku) and kumite. I continued to compete and do well, but then I went to Tokyo for two years as a missionary. When I got back I resumed my training and was able to win another championship and kept winning for three years.
Kiyan Sensei performing the opening of Kunsaku Kata.
Q: That is a great run as a competitor. How did things progress from there?
When I achieved my yondan ranking Kina Sensei gave me approval to open a dojo in Naha. This was around 1987. At that time when starting a dojo it wouldn’t be uncommon for someone to come and challenge the new school. If the challenger won, the dojo owner was supposed to take their sign down. It had the same feel as the old days when fighting was life or death. The stakes were very high.
In my first two years I had someone come who was famous in the area. These challenge fights were full contact except punches to the face, so I was able to use front kicking technique to finish the fight and win.
I also opened a school at Camp Kinser, a Marine Corps base in Okinawa. I’m short, especially compared to the Americans on that base. So one day an American came into my dojo and asked to see the sensei.
I said, “Yes, I am the sensei.”
He said, “Are you sure? Show me then.”
I asked, “Why?”
“I don’t think you’re a sensei,” he said.
“So what do you want to do?”
“Ok!” I said. “What about the rules?”
“Whatever you want.”
“Ok, let’s do full contact because you look like a boxer.” I said.
So one of my students put us at a distance to each other and we started. He began to close the distance but I kept kicking him in the legs. He fell down three times. Eventually he gave up and asked me, “why did you keep kicking me?” I said, “you looked like a boxer and probably used boxer rules. I decided to use technique to gain an advantage.”
After that he joined my school and even made it to black belt.
Q: You mentioned that in some of your fights there was full contact but no punches to the face. Was that common?
Yes, we didn’t use bogu kumite gear all the time, especially in challenge matches. So in those cases we had to control punches to the face. Still make contact, but show control.
Q: In the martial arts world we see a wide spectrum of hard and soft styles. Where do you think Okinawa Kenpo fits on that spectrum?
My opinion is that Okinawa Kenpo has both. For example, during defense when fighting…relaxed, soft. When attacking…quick and strong. It reminds me of Bruce Lee, who always admired Muhammad Ali. Ali was always smooth and always cycling, never too stuck. I think that is true for the way Okinawa Kenpo should be used as well.
Q: With the passing of Odo Seikichi Sensei and Oyata Seiyu Sensei there has been less of a connection between America and Okinawa for Okinawa Kenpo specifically. However, you’ve made strong efforts to connect with American practitioners. How did this come about?
My first visit to America was when my friend and I got tickets for very cheap to Los Angeles. I was very impressed when arriving there. The people were very kind to me. This was actually one of the experiences that made me decide to get a job on an American military base in Okinawa.
Despite my good experience, one of my Okinawan sempai told me to act like my life was in danger at all times in America, and that I shouldn’t trust anybody. He was very paranoid and thought I was taking risks by going to America. He made me nervous.
One day I was in New York after a seminar and wanted to see the sights. So I went to the subway and tried to figure out the ticket system. An American man came up to me and asked what I was doing.
I said, “Trying to get a ticket to ride the subway so I can see the statue of liberty.”
“Ohh you don’t need that, just follow me.” he said.
So he took me through the lines without a ticket and traveled with me to see some of the great sights. I learned later that my trip on the subway shouldn’t have been “free”, but the gentleman I was with was very nice and helped me see the city. When I told my sempai back in Okinawa about this, he told me I was lucky and that if I had gone one more hour with this guy I would’ve been killed. “A blind man doesn’t mind grabbing a snake,” he said.
Personally, I believe that there are good and bad people everywhere, in America, Okinawa, or anywhere else. I don’t like the idea of never trusting anyone. I liked the idea of connecting with people in America.
Q: Kina Sensei is your primary sensei, but did you have a chance to study with Odo Seikichi Sensei as well?
No I did not, but I did have a chance to visit the dojo. I went with Eddie Erazo who was a student of Odo Sensei. The students from our dojo wanted to do full contact kumite but Odo Sensei’s dojo was more focused on kata and kobudo that day. So it was fine, we got to watch.
Q: Do you still stress full contact fighting in your dojo to this day?
I think it is important to have as an option, but I do not push people into it. If they want to do it, that is ok. If not, that is ok too. There is no shame. I know that Master Kina suffered from broken ribs and more injuries because of so much fighting. I broke things too. One time I injured my arm and couldn’t fight, so Master Kina strapped the arm to me using a belt and told me to use the other arm to fight. I don’t think it’s good to force that much.
Now when Master Kina talks about fighting, he is a fan of the modern gear. He likes that people aren’t getting hurt. Perhaps he has changed some of his mindset as he has gotten older.
Q: Could you discuss the usage of kata in your teaching and curriculum?
When I first started with my sensei I noticed he only taught one kata for three years – Naihanchi Shodan. Many people quit and got bored of it, so he decided to start teaching Pinan Nidan and Seisan as well. He considered those kata simple but important.
Whenever I teach I make sure we do those three kata as well. Depending on the class and student level we will work on the other kata in the curriculum (12 empty hand kata total), but Naihanchi Shodan, Pinan Nidan, and Seisan are always practiced.
My sensei told me that if a student can do naihanchi properly, they can do any kata properly. Pinan Nidan helps understand all the Pinans. Seisan helps understand the “advanced” kata.
He also told me that Nakamura Sensei’s favorite kata was Seisan, followed by Niseishi. The Nakamura Dojo is where the Niseishi kata first started being taught publicly.
Q: How does kobudo (weapons) play a part in your curriculum? We know that Nakamura Sensei was a weapons practitioner, and of course Odo Seikichi Sensei became famous for his skill in kobudo.
Kina Sensei was skilled in weapons as well and learned from Nakamura Sensei and Chibana Kenko Sensei. He learned bo, nunchaku, tonfa, and sai, but became very proficient with the sai. I always liked empty hand karate and kumite because it was more practical for real street fighting. But my sensei told me I should do more kobudo, so when I was younger I began studying weapons. After I started I became addicted to weapons and began winning championships. However, I couldn’t stop. My personality is that I tend to get focused on one thing and forget about other things. It was hurting my other training. So eventually I decided to stop kobudo altogether and focus on empty hand. Maybe I’ll get back to weapons now that I am older.
Q: Since the time you started your karate journey, how do you think karate has changed in general on Okinawa?
I think it is getting more popular in recent years. There are many more seminars. I think that is good for us. Okinawa Kenpo is a smaller style compared to Goju Ryu, Uechi Ryu, etc., but people are starting to watch and ask questions about what we do.
Q: On Okinawa today are there any dojo(s) that maintain a “no foreigners” policy?
No, not that I have seen.
Q: Are there any active Okinawa Kenpo dojo(s) in Okinawa that are not directly related to you and Kina Sensei?
When Nakamura Shigeru Sensei passed away he had a son, but the son was not senior in the style. Odo Seikichi Sensei stayed associated with Nakamura Sensei’s family style, but other senior students like Kina Sensei, Kinjo Sensei, and Miyazato Hiroshi Sensei began to teach on their own.
Q: Where would you like to see Okinawa Kenpo grow in the future?
From what I have seen there is only 5-10% of karate in Okinawa that is the smaller styles (Okinawa Kenpo, Ryuei Ryu, Isshin Ryu, etc). My dream is to grow Okinawa Kenpo to so that I can share it with so many more people. I want to meet and grow with other sensei in Okinawa, United States, and worldwide. I don’t want everyone to come under Kina Sensei – I think it is best for everyone to stay in their own associations. There’s too much worry about who’s #1. We can just be a collection. My sensei is sad because of so much separation, and I don’t want to do that anymore.
Q: Do you have any advice for individuals who are studying karate and want to learn the art more deeply?
My personal opinion is that you should come to Okinawa. Especially if you are over the rank of 7th dan. I think it is the only way to understand the spirit of Okinawa.
I remember my sensei saying, “when you are a white belt…don’t forget this feeling.” I think it is important to continue to meet new people and be thankful when you meet someone who is stronger than you. We must also remember our ancestors and what they gave us.
Q: Any final words or thoughts for the readers?
I would just like to say that karate is my life, Okinawa Kenpo is my life. Kina Sensei is like my father. I’m very proud of my style and my students and I want to help Okinawa Kenpo grow and share seminars around the world.