Kiyoko (Miko) Teller passed away late January 2023. She was a respected practitioner of karate and renowned for her skills in odori, Okinawan dance. She will be remembered and missed by many people in Okinawa, The United States, and across the world.

Young Kiyoko-san. Image courtesy of Akemi Nix.

Kiyoko’s Lasting Impact on Okinawan Culture in the West

Born and raised on Okinawa, Kiyoko Chinen met military man Robert Teller during his Vietnam-era tour of duty. After a courtship on the island, Kiyoko agreed to travel back to the United States with Robert and they were married shortly after. She knew little English and had no existing relatives in Pennsylvania but was a brave spirit and flourished in her new setting, starting a family and establishing roots in the community.

Despite the distance, Kiyoko retained a love and connection to her home island. She returned often, sometimes for extended periods, with her husband and children. While on Okinawa she continued her diligent study of odori which made her a very rare cultural asset and valued event demonstrator. She exposed her children to a variety of wonderful instructors and artists as well, generating a love for Okinawa in them as well.

Kiyoko-san’s personality and power came through not just in her art, but her everyday way of living. She had no difficulty making her presence felt (even senior sensei Oyata Seiyu couldn’t help but get swept up in her enthusiasm):

Seeing Kiyoko’s demonstrations in naginata, kobudo, and dance were often the first time many westerners got a taste of old Okinawan culture. It stood in stark contrast with much of what had been taught in the early days of martial arts in the United States. Kiyoko also helped facilitate many visits of Okinawan masters to the United States, operating as a cultural bridge, translator, and introduction maker.

Goshin no Mai

I first met Kiyoko-san in 2015 when she was leading a seminar on “Goshin no Mai”, an Okinawan dance with deep roots in karate. For generations odori had contained key elements of old style “ti” and was a reliable way to preserve these techniques by hiding them in plain sight. The subtleties of the dance (footwork, body movement, rhythm and timing) all played key roles in the proper expression of the art. While fundamentals like rhythm and timing could be easily removed or compromised as karate worked its way into mainstream schools, competition, or military usage, they remained carefully preserved in the dance, often by the women of the village.

Kiyoko-san knew of this tradition and worked diligently to preserve forms from across the island.

Goshin no Mai was difficult to execute. On the surface it seemed like a serene walk around the dojo floor, but once diving into the control and balance of the footwork it became obvious why this dance (and others like it) required such diligence to master.

After the seminar Kiyoko-san was kind enough to chat with us in class. She had a way of being funny, blunt, and kind at the same time. That genuine nature made her easy to like.

Kiyoko-san in Okinawa

In 2016 Robert and Kiyoko Teller were kind enough to invite me along with them as they traveled to Okinawa. Having never been to the island, it was an honor for me to accept the invitation.

That Okinawa trip was memorable in many ways, but seeing Kiyoko back in the place of her birth, surrounded by her vibrant and loving family, was a wonderful experience.

The “Okinawan Spirit”, which we talk about frequently in karate circles, was apparent the moment we arrived. Kiyoko-san’s sisters, Akemi and Rumi, met us at the airport. When first seeing each other, the sisters laughed, hugged, and danced. They quickly whisked us away to settle in for the evening. The next day we attended the Shimabukuro Gyoza Dance Institute New Year’s Party where dancing and karate demonstrations commenced.

Kiyoko-san and Akemi-san with the New Years participants and demonstrators.

Kiyoko-san’s sister Akemi had adopted a love for martial arts and dance as well, and the two frequently conversed about such matters. Nieces, nephews, siblings, extended family, and old friends flowed in and out to visit Bob and Kiyoko. They shared joyful stories over plentiful meals and caught up on new happenings. It was clear that while Kiyoko may have lived far away, she was never far from the family’s hearts or minds.

A Life of Diverse Endeavors

Kiyoko-san’s creative energy extended into other pursuits beyond martial arts. She took great joy in cooking a wide variety of traditional and modern dishes and was also an avid painter, selling her work at local markets and craft stores.

Achieving high levels of excellence in so many artistic pursuits is a rare quality, but Kiyoko-san treated it as part of everyday life. In-so-doing, she truly expressed the Okinawan way. A love of life, community, family, and personal expression.

Her loss will be felt deeply by many, which speaks highly of her time with us.