Taira Shinken – Restorer of Okinawa Kobudō
By Andreas Quast
(Note: all pictures given here are from the author’s private book collection)
Taira Shinken was born in Maja, Nakazato-son on Kume Island on Saturday, June 12, 1897. This is the accepted date, although a driver’s license issued by Gunma Prefecture in December 1935 gives his date of birth as June 13th, 1901.
He was the second oldest among four sons. His father’s name was Taro, his mother’s name Kamado. His ancestors were a wealthy family, descended from the Yamahiga Dunchi of Kume Island. This bloodline he inherited from his natural mother, who bore the name Maezato. Although later he was adopted into the Taira family, his surname still remained Meazato in the official family register. In his later years he would thus often used either the name Maezato or Taira. In addition, according to Okinawan custom he also had a child’s name, which in his case was Mousa (corrupted form of Maushi), which approximately translates to “true bull”.
After graduating at the elementary school in Nakazato, the now poor family finances forced him to pursue an employment in the mining of natural phosphate on Kita Daitō Island, situated about 360 km east of Okinawa. This meant heavy physical labor that had to be patiently accomplished on a daily basis. One day he got involved in a mine accident: when a support post broke and the gallery collapsed, Taira contracted a fracture of his right leg and only barely escaped from inside the gallery to save his life.
In order to receive treatment and to recover from the fracture he returned to Kume Island, were he led a scanty life. After his full recovery he set out to find work on Minami Daitō Island, situated approximately 400 km east of Okinawa. While working on the island the great deal of walking required for the job caused him great inconvenience and his old injury considerably disabled him. This was also noticed by his co-workers, who mocked him for being a cripple, causing him bitter times every day. However, keeping his patience and perseverance up, he hoped for his colleagues to eventually understand the circumstances and to show some compassion. Yet, the cold-hearted attitude displayed towards him didn’t change in the slightest. When one day they all jointly paltered with him particularly bad, the limits of his patience were exceeded, and he fled the island.
Thereupon he made the important decision to not resign to his fate and decided to move on to the Japanese main island with the intention to train jūdō. Since that time fate befriended him little by little. And eventually in Tōkyō he met Funakoshi Gichin (1870-1954), an expert of Okinawa karate.
In 1922, under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, the first Sports exhibition was held in Tōkyō. On occasion of this event the Department of Educational Affairs of Okinawa Prefecture sent Funakoshi to Tōkyō, where he explained and demonstrated Okinawan karate. Originally it was intended for him to immediately return to Okinawa after completion of this project, but Funakoshi received requests to teach karate from all directions.
The legacies of the Okinawan teachers, to whom he owed so much – namely Asato Ankō (1828-1914) and Itosu Ankō (1931-1915) – provided him the incentive to stay in Tōkyō and to start serious efforts for the teaching and dissemination of karate. At the time, Funakoshi Gichin served as president of the “martial union” of Okinawa, the Shōbukai, and the authorities of the prefecture were of the opinion that he was best suited for the deployment for this purpose. At that time, Funakoshi and Taira met in Tōkyō.
Funakoshi was fifty-two years old at that time and a mature expert of bujutsu. In contrast, there was the twenty-five year old Taira, full of youthful vigor. In those days Funakoshi had a position at the Meisei-juku, with which he made his living and the dōjō of which he was allowed to use for karate lessons. Taira formally entered this school and passionately devoted himself to the training of karate. Snappish he endured the continuous training day and night.
The Meisei-juku was a dormitory for students from Okinawa prefecture, which had been built in Tōkyō-bu Bunkyōku-ko Hinata in 1913. The first director of the dormitory was famous historian Higaonna Kanjun (1881–1963), second director was Kamiyama Seiryō (1882–1978), and third director was Higa Ryōtoku (1892–1975). Among the residents of the dormitory were Matayoshi Kōwa (1887–1953), Nakayoshi Ryōkō, Toyogawa Zenyō (1888–1941), Inamine Ichirō (1905–1989) and others. The Meisei-juku played a major role for Okinawan politics and economics, and gave rise to many leading figures.
And in the Meisei-juku Funakoshi Gichin in 1922 established his base for karate training in Tōkyō, which was the first formal karate dōjō on Japan’s main island. Later he relocated his dōjō to Toshima-ku Zōshigaya, which was to remain a cradle of karate training in Tōkyō for a long time. By Funakoshi’s sowing, Okinawa karate instantly began to bear fruit throughout the whole country, powerfully spread further and finally reached the whole world.
In those days Funakoshi had only a few other students besides Taira, and they lived a simple and poor life sharing room and food. During a demonstration, in which Funakoshi presented karate kata, it had been reported that Taira smashed six wooden boards of about 3cm thickness each. Sometimes he would even break one wooden board of 12cm thickness with a thrust of the phalanx of his right middle finger. In those days Taira taught karate along with Funakoshi in the following schools:
- Toyama Military School
- Chūō University
- Waseda University
- Japanese Medical University
- Keiō University
- Hōsei University
- Agricultural College Tōkyō
- the “Hall of the Nation” University
- the National University
In his book Karate-dō Ichirō, Funakoshi mentioned that he recommended Taira Shinken to Yabiku Mōden (1878-1941), when the latter had come to the capital in 1929. Taira seized the opportunity and began training in Ryūkyū Kobudō.
Yabiku Mōden was born in 1878 in Shuri Gibo-chō just around the time the transformation from the Ryūkyū fief to Okinawa prefecture took place within the Japan-wide abolition of the old feudal domains and the establishment of prefectures. Yabiku had three brothers and one sister and was the eldest son of the family. In his youth he was of rather small physique. He learned karate from Itosu Ankō, kobujutsu from Chinen Pēchin Sanda, Tawada “Mēgantū” Shinboku, and besides from Kanagusuku “Kanī-usumē” Ufuchiku. Finally, Yabiku became an expert of bujutsu himself. In the prewar years, Yabiku and Ōshiro Chōjo (1887-1935) had the status of the leading figures in Okinawa kobudō. These two persons particularly contributed to the development and diffusion of kobudō and put great efforts in teaching the younger generation.
Every day Taira Shinken trenchantly trained under Funakoshi and Yabiku and completely devoted himself to the cause. Background of this were probably the memories of bad treatment by his “colleagues” on Minami-Daitō Island. Over time, with the training of mind and body and the mastery of the art, however, the bitterness gradually subsided. Far away from Okinawa, in Tōkyō he developed into an excellent trainer of karate and kobujutsu who trained passionately and made great progress.
As a result, he earned the trust of his two masters, who recognized his abilities and achievements, and his understanding of the training in the martial arts. With the official permission of Funakoshi and Yabiku, in 1933 he thus opened a branch Dōjō of Shōtōkan in Ikaho Onsen, Gunma Prefecture, where he began his independent teaching activity in karate and kobudō. In February the same year he invited his revered teacher Yabiku Mōden for a seminar. This event has been preserved in a photograph. In the same year Yabiku granted to him the certificate of shihan in bōjutsu and saijutsu, signed August 15. Taira continued his training with Yabiku from 1929 until July 1940.
In 1934 or 35 Taira invited the Shuri-te and Naha-te expert Mabuni Kenwa, who lived in Ōsaka at the time, for instruction in karate and kobudō. Mabuni stayed six months straight in Ikaho. On this occasion, chiishi and saijutsu constituted the core of the training, and Taira also learned the excellent Sesoko no Kun and others. Taira remained Mabuni’s student for six years, until September 1940.
In order to understand the above mentioned details: Taira Shinken had received exact instruction from all three teachers – Funakoshi, Yabiku, and Mabuni. The creditable achievements of master Mabuni with his Shitō-ryū in the region of and around Kyōto and Ōsaka and of master Funakoshi with his Shōtōkan in the region of and around Tōkyō and their efforts related for the spread and development of Okinawa karate are a well-known fact.
In 1938 the Karate-dō Taikan was published, written and edited by Nakasone Genwa. In this magnificent record and masterpiece of modern karate twenty photographs of Taira Shinken with the old-style Shūshi no Kon (pp. 51-55) as well as relevant explanations (pp. 275-298) are found. The names of each and every master, who was active in training and dissemination of karate and kobudō at that time within Okinawa Prefecture were listed in the Karate-dō Taikan.
Seeing the sudden spread and development of karate in mainland Japan, he deeply regretted that kobudō with its long history was following the path of decay even in its birthplace Okinawa. With Funakoshi Gichin‘s permission this led to the decision to return to his homeland in 1940.
Since then he continued his research on kon, sai, tonfā, nunchaku, surujin, tinbē, tekkō, nichōgama etc. in Okinawa, including the development of his own ideas, as Jigen no Sai etc. He opened a kobudō dōjō in Naha and began to exchange with people involved in the local karate scene. Since that time he gave kobudō training in Okinawa and on the Japanese mainland.
In those days, however, Japan at a rapid pace moved towards war. 1941 the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred and 1944 the war in the Pacific raged ever more violently. The resettlement of old people, women and children from Okinawa to Kyūshū and Taiwan began. In those days many of Taira’s students were drafted into the Army and Navy, while Taira vigorously continued to exercise in the martial arts.
The war grew worse ever more. In the course of the forthcoming Japanese defeat in 1945, one of the fiercest battles of World War II took place on Okinawa. Termed the “Typhoon of Steel”, this sad chapter of history resembled hell itself. No stone was left unturned and the island was razed to the ground. The civilian citizens were drawn into the chaos of the general mobilization war of the opposing sides, whereby the tragedy was magnified. Life and limb, goods and chattels, precious cultural heritage, Okinawa itself was almost completely destroyed.
Taira participated in the “Encouragement of Fighting Spirit” as was demanded by the Navy Department and with several students and showgirls from the Tsūji district made hospital visits to army and marine soldiers, where they would perform martial arts techniques. In 1945, when the defensive battle in Kunigami district began, Taira participated as a member of the so-called Defensive Forces.
After the Japanese surrender in 1945 all those who had narrowly escaped death gathered in the ruins of the districts of Shuri and Naha or surroundings, and began the reconstruction. Taira returned to Kume Island immediately after the war. There he could not bear to see the hard life of the islanders. In negotiations with the U.S. armed forces, he received a generator and a GMC passenger transport truck from privatized military equipment, which was immediately sent to Kume Island. By this for the first time there were electrically powered lamps in Kume Island, and furthermore the truck was used to transport people. This glowing love for his homeland fits well with Taira’s passion for karate and kobudō.
Although some karate and kobudō masters had lost their lives, such as Hanashiro Chōmo, some major karate experts fortunately survived the perpetual chaos, plucked up new courage and again started the training of karate and kobudō. Taira resumed personal instruction in karate and kobudō in Okinawa since about July 1948.
In 1955, in order to continue and further establish the Ryūkyū Kobujutsu Kenkyūkai founded by the late Yabiku Mōden, Taira established the Ryūkyū Kobudō Hozon Shinkōkai in Naha Higawa. From about November 1958 he more frequently visited the Japanese mainland regions in order to teach what he called Ryūkyū Kobudō.
In October 1960 he received from Fujita Seiko, the director of the Nihon Kobudō Kenkyūsho, the title of a Honorary Teacher (meiyo shihan).
1962, at the establishment of the headquarter of the Kokusai Karate Kobudō Renmei with president Higa Seikō, Taira was proposed and elected vice president of the association.
Higa Seikō’s Gōjū-ryū dōjō in Yogi was just a stone throw away from Taira Shinken’s tenement, and Miyagi Tokumasa reports how he would pass it by many times after training during his University years. Later, on a summer day arguably in 1964, Miyagi visited Taira at his home and conducted many interviews and asked a lot of questions. The appearance of his apartment during his visits made it obvious that Taira lived a “poor but honest life”, to put it in one of the Okinawan proverbs. Usually almost all bujutsu experts of that time were thrifty people. Later Taira moved to a different location, but Miyagi continued to visit him at least from time to time.
On July 1, 1964, the president of the Zen Nihon Kobudō Renmei, imperial Prince Kaya Tsunenori (1900-1978), granted to Taira the title of hanshi, the highest title in budō. In August of the same year Taira he published the Ryūkyū Kobudō Taikan.
Sometime in the mid-1960s, every night karate and kobudō demonstrations were performed in a first class traditional restaurant for travel groups from outside the prefecture. Higa Yūchoku, Miyagi Tokumasa and other well-kown experts would often demonstrate kumite, bōjutsu, and breaking boards. They would often be there together with Taira Shinken. Owing to occurring criticism on the performance of traditional Okinawan karate in restaurants, this practice was discontinued.
In 1968, the deputy director of the press department of public relations of the American civil government of the Ryūkyū Islands, Samuel Kitamura, recommended the practice of martial arts in the Kubasaki High School and Oroku High School, which were affiliated to American military bases and thus attended by American students, and received a favorable evaluation. The press department of the civil government as well as the newspaper “Morning Star” (the official newspaper of the U.S. Pacific Command) made a large scale report about it. This in turn attracted the attention of the Government Commissioner at the time, Lieutenant General Lambert, who absolutely wanted to see the ancient martial arts of Ryūkyū introduced to the United States. He, therefore, inquired via Mr. Kitamura whether Taira would like to introduce these ancient martial arts to the Americans for a better understanding, and Taira agreed. 15 different types of weapons of Ryūkyū Kobudō, different types of weapons handling methods and demonstrations, explanations of the kata etc. were photographed and filmed and sent as a gift to the National Museum of the United States in Washington. Thus preserved and exhibited at the United States of America, it is a matter of much pride for the Okinawans.
When it became known that his disease was incurable, his best students visited him every day, staying at his bedside and obtaining his instruction to pass on the traditions of the kobudō kata to the future and forever. On July 16, 1970, Taira’s dōjō in Naha-shi Yorimiya was designated the headquarter of the Ryūkyū Kobudō Hozon Shinkōkai. The goal was the detailed preservation and promotion of the traditional martial arts of ancient Ryūkyū. What was this all about? The answer is found in a later program of the Ryūkyū Kobudō Hozon Shinkōkai, where the situation and reasons of 1970 is clearly described:
“Although kobudō is supposed to be developed and disseminated internationally, the headquarter must not be moved to other prefectures or other countries because Ryūkyū Kobudō was created and developed in our Okinawa, and because we have to preserve it for our children and grandchildren.”
At this occasion, the Okinawan students that had trained Ryūkyū Kobudō for many years gathered and were granted teacher’s licenses (shihan menkyo), souvenir photos were shot, and a board election conducted, in which the founder Taira Shinken was unanimously elected first president of the Ryūkyū Kobudō Hozon Shinkōkai. The general assembly at this day was composed only of the Okinawan students and friends of Taira Shinken (Akamine Eisuke, Kinjō Kazufumi, Nakasone Kūshin, Nagaishi Fumio, Minowa Katsuhiko, Nakamoto Masahiro, Higa Yūchoku and others).
In the last two to three days prior to his death, still unusually vigorous, Taira individually summoned his uchi-deshi, had them demonstrate martial arts in front of him and gave final instructions. At this time, Taira had various picturesque dreams, which he told the students about. He spoke of a dream of broad realms of lotus flowers standing in full bloom, and that a white crane just had flown with five or six beats of its wings from the head of his bed, whereupon the students all looked at each other in astonishment.
On September 3rd, 1970, at the age of seventy-three years, Taira Shinken passed away due to stomach cancer in his flat in Naha-shi Yorimiya 290, banchi 6.
Matsumoto Yukio, an old friend of Taira Shinken since 1928 and director of the Shōtōkan dōjō in Hamamatsu, described Taira as Funakoshi’s most senior student and favorite pupil, with whom he lived together under one roof. Given the photographs from his youth he really had a good physique and delivered a powerful impression. With his protruding jaw bones, his broad-bony figure and dark skin, Miyagi Tokumasa described him as actually appearing like the typical Okinawan himself and characterized Taira as a good-natured old man of gentle nature.
It had also been handed down in written form that Taira had an aversion against the trend of those days, namely the trend of self-manifestation, bouncing embellishments, and the spread of inappropriate historical reports as self-advertisement. His attitude towards such persons was like “I cannot believe it!” Instead he was convinced that one should never praise self-painted pictures. On the other hand, when from time to time Matsumoto Yukio talked about his own failures, Taira rejected this as an unreasonable humility, because such sincerity regularly evokes misunderstandings. Instead Taira told him “The failure will not repeat itself the second time,” and “Your achievements are in your own hands.”
Higa Yūchoku of Kyūdōkan fame called Taira his “great older brother” and reported that Taira used the method of consulting each karate dōjō director and to travel around for instruction. According to Higa, in conversations on the walk each of us has to walk one day, Taira used say “To live a long live – this is bu (the martial arts).” Taira led a difficult life without making a sour face. While studying kobudō, he would forget to sleep and to eat. And also being extremely busy with instructing the students and developing the Ryūkyū Kobudō Hozon Shinkōkai, Higa never once heard a complaint from his great older brother. “In this way keeping his faith” noted Higa, “he was a person that led a happy life. This is the picture I carry in my heart of my great older brother.”
Following Taira’s funeral, his older brother – who still lived in Kume Island – for the first time put forward the entire kinship’s opinion that Taira Shinken’s remains should be transferred to his homeland of Kume Island. They reasoned that he was a person of Kume Island and that he had earned great merits in the power generation and land reclamation of the island. But, as he wouldn’t even talk about his own meritorious achievements, only a few of his students and friends from Okinawa and Japan understood this point. The gentlemen from Kume Island, on the other hand, where surprised by the many experts from the world of Okinawan karate participating at the funeral.
During his lifetime Taira Shinken would not speak of other renowned masters of karate. And that Taira’s grandfather Kanegawa no Gibu had been a master of kobudō is not known in general (this was noted for the first time in 1972 by Taira’s close friend since 1928, Matsumoto Yukio). This is proof that Taira had no desire for self-manifestation, but in fact was a person of modest and polite character.
Taira Shinken studied karate with Funakoshi Gichin Sensei and kobudō with Yabiku Mōden, and both with Mabuni Kenwa. Throughout his life he immersed himself in the spread and teaching of kobudō. Thanks to Taira Shinken, Ryūkyū Kobudō did not disappear. And he reached his goal to bequeath it for posterity. Just like Funakoshi, Mabuni and others with their development from Tōdījutsu to Karate-dō did Taira Shinken complete the restoration of Ryūkyū Kobudō.
© 2015, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.