One Man’s Mark
Taira Shinkenâ€™s impact on the modern study of Ryukyuan weapons
By Douglas Daulton
When most western students of Okinawan and Japanese martial arts take their first serious look at the history and traditions of their respective arts, one of several names is likely to come to their immediate attention. For judoka, it is Kano Jigoro. For aikidoka, it is Ueshiba Morihei. And most karateka, regardless of style, know the name of Funakoshi Gichin, founder of Shotokan karatedo.
Each of these men was responsible for forging modern arts from the historic combative traditions of their cultures. Kano and Ueshiba largely built their arts from the koryu jujutsu and aikijujutsu traditions of mainland Japan.  Funakoshiâ€™s Shotokan karatedo was derived from suidi or shurite, a Ryukyuan art from the Shuri region and the foundation for most Shorin-ryu karate ryuha (style/school).  While Kano, Ueshiba and Funakoshi were all accomplished in their arts of origin, their legacies are largely creative and expressive of their own ideas.
Technically, each of these gendai budo (modern martial arts) diverges significantly from the classical traditions from which they were derived. Today, most karatedo and judo dojo around the globe have strong sportive elements woven into the curricula. Likewise, many aikido dojo have developed a quasi-religious tone as a result of Ueshibaâ€™s strong emphasis on spiritual development.
None of this diminishes the accomplishments of these teachers or those who have chosen to study their arts. In fact, in the years since their inception, each of these arts has developed a broad, global following. So, the popularity of these arts may well be linked to the innovations made by each teacher to make their art(s) of origin more accessible to modern Japan and later, the world.
In recent years, long time practitioners of gendai budo have begun looking deeper into the past for answers not easily found in their modern, sanitized practice. As a result, senior exponents of Japanese koryu (ancient ways) such as Nishioka Tsuneo of Shinto Muso Ryu Jo, Otake Risuke of Katori Shinto Ryu and Sawada Hanae of Tendo Ryu have achieved greater recognition outside of mainland Japan. This is due in large part to writer/practitioners such as Diane Skoss, Meik Skoss, Dave Lowry and Ellis Amdur choosing to share their insights and experiences with the rest of the world.
In the Ryukyu Archipelago, serious practitioners of karate and Ryukyu kobudo seek instruction and counsel from teachers like Onaga Yoshimitsu, Minowa Katsuhiko and until his death in 1999, Akamine Eisuke. Of these influential teachers, Akamine and Minowa were direct students of Taira Shinken, as were Inoue Motokatsu, Sakagami Ryusho, Hayashi Teruo and several other prominent practitioners of Ryukyu kobudo. Now widely considered the father of modern Ryukyu kobudo, Taira was a student of Funakoshi, an admirer of Kano and a contemporary of Ueshiba. Above all, he was clearly dedicated to preserving and promoting the martial traditions of the Ryukyu Islands.
PRESERVING THE PAST
â€œAll of us concerned with the ancient martial arts of Okinawa owe a debt of gratitude to the late Shinken Taira, who developed the foundation on which all future work in the field must proceed.â€
During the last decade, Taira Shinken has moved in the public eye from an obscure historical figure to a teacher and preservationist of the highest order. More grounded in the preservation of Ryukyuan culture than its adaptation to the modern era, Tairaâ€™s legacy, though perhaps not as widespread, is equally as important as the contributions of Funakoshi, Kano and Ueshiba. As a result, much has been reported regarding the early life and training of Taira Shinken.
Tairaâ€™s grandfather, Kanegawa Gibu, introduced him to Ryukyu kobudo and tiâ€™ . Taira was a frail youth and therefore looking for an activity to help him build strength and muscle tone. As kobudo and tiâ€™ do not emphasize or rely on physical strength, Taira did not find his grandfatherâ€™s art particularly appealing at first. Instead, reports of Kano Jigoro and his emerging, vigorous martial art of judo greatly intrigued him. So as a young man, Taira left the Ryukyus to study judo under Kano. However, fate did not lead him to the study of judo.
Rather, Taira studied karate-do under Funakoshi Gichin from 1922 through 1929. Some have speculated that Funakoshi also taught Taira kobudo. Whether or not Funakoshi actually taught Taira kobudo, he was certainly instrumental in his development as a kobudo practitioner and teacher. Through Funakoshi, Taira was introduced to Yabiku Moden and Mabuni Kenwa.
A student of Anko Itosu and Chinen Sanda, Yabiku was a preeminent teacher of Okinawan weapons for his generation. In 1929, Taira began the study of Okinawan weaponry under his instruction. In 1933, Yabiku awarded Taira his formal teaching license in Ryukyu kobudo. From 1934 to 1940, Mabuni expanded Tairaâ€™s kobudo knowledge, primarily with the bo and sai. In addition, Mabuni introduced his eager student to nahadi, the tiâ€™ of Naha, Okinawa.
Taira went on to study under Oshiro Choju and Fujita Seiko. In 1959, Taira discovered Higa Seichiro, Higa Raisuke , Akamine Yohei and Higa Jinsaburo ; Yamane-ryu bojutsu teachers of Tomigusuku Village. Contemporaries of Yabiku and students of Chinen Sanda, these men profoundly influenced Tairaâ€™s bojutsu. Though he tirelessly continued his research, these men and Kamiya Jinsei were probably Tairaâ€™s last formal kobudo teachers.
MARKING THE FUTURE
An inkan is a stamp that acts as oneâ€™s official signature on letters and documents in Japan. If one receives a genuine certificate of rank or letter of endorsement from a teacher in Okinawa or Japan, it should bear the red seal of the teacherâ€™s inkan. In addition, the certificate should be stamped with a second seal, so that one half of it appears on the document and other half appears in the signatoryâ€™s book of record. Much like an American notary seal, this second inkan makes the document an official public record. In short, the inkan is the key means of authenticating important documents in Japan and Okinawa.
In Okinawa, when a studentâ€™s technique clearly reflects that of his teacher it is said that he has his teachersâ€™ inkan on him. A prolific traveler and ardent teacher of Ryukyu kobudo, Tairaâ€™s unique inkan can be seen in three very important ways: his curriculum, his written works and most importantly, his students and, by extension, their students.
Taira recognized the Ryukyuan weapons traditions as a cultural asset, albeit a dying one. So one of his over-riding goals was to capture as many weapons waza (techniques) and kata (forms) as possible from the older generation before they passed on. Over time, he became known for traveling far and wide to accomplish this goal. Devorah Dometrich recallsâ€¦
â€œAkamine Sensei often said that when Taira Sensei heard of a famous fighter or new instrument being used as a weapon, he sought out that individual to further his research.â€
Higa Yuchoku (Shorin-ryu), Uechi Kanei (Uechi-ryu) and Soken Hohan (Matsumura Orthodox Shorin-ryu) were some of the many teachers with whom Taira associated and shared. Soken remarked that â€¦
â€œSome of their [village] kata had five or maybe ten movements. Taira, my friend, would go to the village and learn these kata. He says that he learn 500 kata this way! â€¦Some of these kata had only three or maybe five movements. 500 kata, yes, now that is funny but he was a history collector.â€
With an eye to accurate preservation, Taira constantly refined his curriculum as new information came to light. In 1943, he established the Ryukyu Kobudo Kenkyukai (Ryukyu Kobudo Research Society) to provide a means to pass on his research. Shortly before his death in 1970, Taira changed the name to Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai (Society for the Preservation and Promotion of Ryukyu Kobudo) to more accurately reflect the goals of the organization.
In addition to building his curriculum and organization, Taira was adding a training element that ultimately permeated all of his waza and kata and as a result become part of the signature of Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai. Again, Devorah Dometrich shares a story from Akamine Eisuke:
â€œTaira Sensei and Higa Yuchoku of Shorin-ryu were friends. Higa Sensei was a student of Chibana Chosin and a well-known teacher of tiâ€™. During his research, Taira discovered his kobudo relied primarily on positioning and timing and lacked the explosive hip technique and power, known as gamanku, found in tiâ€™.â€
At the time of this revelation, Tairaâ€™s ability to demonstrate hip techniques was significantly limited by his age and an ankle injury he had sustained in his youth. However, he insisted that his students understand how to apply gamanku. So, Taira asked Higa Yuchoku to infuse his system of kobudo with gamanku. At Tairaâ€™s request Higa sat on many Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai test boards to ensure the proper development of gamanku. After Tairaâ€™s death, Akamine Eisuke continued this practice until Higaâ€™s death in 1995.
The Written Word
Taira first wrote about Ryukyu Kobudo in 1938 when he contributed a chapter to Nakasone Genwaâ€™s Karatedo Taikan (Encyclopedia of Karate-do). In his chapter, Taira demonstrates Shushi / Kongo no kon and lists the following bo kata: Shushi no kon, Sakugawa no kon, Yonegawa no kon, Shirotaru no kon, Tsuken bo, Sunakake no kon, Teruya no kon, Choun no kon, Shichiyanaka no kon and Sesoko no kon. Ever the diligent researcher, Taira points out that many variations of each kata exist on Okinawa.
In 1964, Taira published Ryukyu Kobudo Taikan (The Encyclopedia of Ryukyu Kobudo), the first comprehensive book about Ryukyu Kobudo in Japanese. n addition to many historic photos of Taira, his teachers and students, the original text includes several complete photo series of Taira performing various Ryukyu kobudo kata and waza as well as descriptions and illustrations of bo waza. 
Once quite a difficult book to find, the Yoju Shorin publishing company issued a reprint in 1997. Though originally intended to be the first volume in a series, Tairaâ€™s subsequent manuscripts have yet to be published.
Ryukyu Kobudo Taikan was only available in Japanese until 1999 when author Patrick McCarthy published an English language translation as part of a larger work issued by Tuttle Publishing. Currently, Master Publications is scheduled to publish another translation by Eihachi Ota. Available as a limited edition in early 2001, Otaâ€™s translation will apparently include all of the photographs and illustrations found in Tairaâ€™s original work.
TAIRA’S STUDENTS, HIS LIVING LEGACY
When a teacher dies, the students often scatter like a brood of mice. In Okinawa, this is called the nezumi (rodent) effect. This phrase does not necessarily imply that the scattering students have the unseemly characteristics often associated with rodents. Rather, it is used to describe the separate, yet natural paths that emerge as different students of the same teacher recall the ways in which they were taught and, in turn, inject their own insights and thoughts into their own teaching.
Over time, one can see that the resultant paths, though distinct, are clearly related. All of Tairaâ€™s deshi fall into one of two groups: Okinawan or Japanese. Defined in part by ideological differences, but primarily by geography; these teachers are directly responsible for the spread of Tairaâ€™s kobudo well beyond the borders of both Okinawa and Japan.
Akamine Eisuke (Shinbukan dojo, Funakoshi-ryu karatedo)
Akamine Eisuke was born May 1, 1925 in the last years of the Taisho Era. Until his death on January 13, 1999, he lived in the Nesabu section of Tomigusuku, the small village in southern Okinawa where he was born. In 1942, at the age of seventeen, he began the study of Yamane-ryu bojutsu (staff art) under Higa Seichiro, Higa Raisuke, Akamine Yohei (no relation) and Higa Jinsanburo. 
In 1959, Akamine met Taira when he came to study with Akamineâ€™s Yamane-ryu teachers. One day, the Higas asked Taira to demonstrate tekko (metal knuckles), nunchaku (horse bridle) and sai (truncheon). Akamine had never seen these weapons before. He was so impressed with Taira’s waza that he became Tairaâ€™s deshi (disciple). In addition to Ryukyu kobudo, Akamine also studied Funakoshi-ryu karatedo under Tairaâ€™s guidance. 
In his later years, Taira primarily taught in the garden at Akamine’s home. The torrential rains common in Okinawa often interrupted training. In 1970, at Tairaâ€™s request, Akamine built a tin roof over the garden and enclosed two sides. It was in this dojo that Taira issued Akamine’s shihan certificate; the only such certificate he ever issued in Okinawa. After Taira succumbed to cancer in 1970, Akamine finished the remaining two sides of the dojo with traditional stacking windows to provide ventilation. Once completed, Akamine named the dojo the Shinbukan in honor of his teacher.
Later that year, the board of directors of Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai elected Akamine as the second president of the organization. Throughout his tenure, Akamine kept the name, structure and goals of Taira’s organization intact and coordinated the Taira Shinken Embu Taikai; memorial demonstrations held on the first, seventh, thirteenth and twenty-fifth anniversaries of Tairaâ€™s death. In addition, Akamine continued Tairaâ€™s tradition of research and, with the help of his own deshi, Devorah (Yoshiko) Dometrich and Takara Sachi Yoshi, brought several kata back from near extinction.
After Akamineâ€™s death, his son Hiroshi assumed the role of the third president of the organization. While Akamine Hiroshi is now responsible for the Okinawan Honbu dojo, in 1977 his father appointed Dometrich as the Beikoku so Honbu Cho (President, Sole United States Headquarters). Today, they and other deshi of Akamine â€¦ such as Inomoto Masaru (Japan), Shinzato Yoshihiko (Peru) and Takara (Okinawa) â€¦ ardently teach Tairaâ€™s kobudo around the world.
Minowa Katsuhiko (Uechi-ryu karatedo, Shinshukai)
Minowa Katsuhiko resides in Naze city on Amami Oshima, an island in Kagoshima Prefecture. Besides being a direct student of Taira Shinken, Minowa was also a dedicated student to the late Uechi Kanei. After Tairaâ€™s death, he remained an active member of Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai and attended several of the Taira Shinken Embu Taikai. Retired from full-time teaching in 1987, Minowa still makes time for his most dedicated students, including author/historian Mario McKenna.
Founder of the Bunbukan and student of Kobayashi-ryu founder Chibana Chosin, Nakamoto Masahiro was the first of Tairaâ€™s Okinawan students to publish his own research on Ryukyu kobudo. A prolific writer, he has published several books including: Okinawa Dento Kobudo: Shoukyu sono kata to oyou (Traditional Okinawan Kobudo: Beginner kata and application), Chuugoku Okinawa Karate-do Kobudo no Genryu (The source of Chinese and Okinawan Karate-do and Kobudo), Gendai Chuugoku Bujutsu no Shoga (The Writings and Paintings of Modern Chinese Martial Arts Masters), and Okinawa Dento Kobudo: Sono Rekishi to Tamashii (Okinawa Traditional Kobudo: Its history and soul), one of the most widely read and referenced books on the subject.
Nakasone Koshin was another direct student of Taira Shinken and one that kept a low profile. Retired from active teaching, Nakasone now resides in Yokohama and was previously a consultant to Inoue Motokatsuâ€™s Ryukyu Kobujutsu Hozon Shinko Kai.
Shimabukuro (Tatsuo) Shinkichi (Isshin-ryu)
A karate student of Kyan Chotoku, Miyagi Chojun and later Motobu Choki; Shimabukuro (Tatsuo) Shinkichi is the founder of Isshin-ryu karatedo. Although he began his study of Kobudo under Yabiku Moden, the majority of his instruction in the art came from Taira. Akamine, Minowa and Nakamoto all treated Tairaâ€™s kobudo as a distinct art, wholly separate from the various styles of karate-do. Shimabukuro did not take this approach. Instead, he incorporated Tairaâ€™s kobudo into the overall Isshin-ryu curriculum.
Tairaâ€™s other well-known seito (students) on Okinawa included Yagi Meitoku (Goju-ryu Meibukan), Yagiâ€™s American student Anthony Mirakian, Uechi Kanei (Uechi-ryu) and Nagaishi Fumio who now resides in Hawaii.
Sakagami Ryusho (Itosu-kai Shito-ryu karatedo)
Sakagami Ryusho, Tairaâ€™s first Japanese deshi, was a budo â€œrenaissance manâ€. A student of kendo, iaido and jodo, Sakagami began the serious study of karatedo under Mabuni Kenwa and eventually founded the Itosu-ha Shito-ryu karatedo. Though he began his Ryukyu kobudo studies under Yabiku Moden, Sakagami did most of his training under the direction of Taira Shinken.
Sakagami was an avid researcher and writer. He contributed several small books or pamphlets to the growing pool of research. In later years, some of these were assembled to form Nunchaku and Sai: Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts, one of the three books he ultimately produced. Ultimately, Sakagami folded Ryukyu kobudo practice into his curriculum and slowly moved away from Tairaâ€™s organization.
After his death in 1993, his son Sakagami Saadaki was named president of his organization. His leading western exponent, and one of the most well known karate men in the world, is Fumio Demura. A former All-Japan karate champion, Demura moved to California which now acts as his home base as he travels the world teaching karate and kobudo.
Inoue (Gansho) Motokatsu (Yui Shin Kai karatejutsu, Ryukyu Kobujutsu Hozon Shinkokai)
A student of Fujita Seiko, the fourth Head Master of the Koga Ninja-ryu, and Konishi Yasuhiro, founder of the Shindo Shizen-ryu; Inoue (Gansho) Motokatsu was Tairaâ€™s primary student and supporter in mainland Japan. Either Sakagami or Konishi introduced Inoue to Taira.
An early Taira supporter and member of Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai, Inoue received his Hanshi certificate from Taira on August 1, 1969. Not long after Tairaâ€™s death, Inoue broke away from Akamine Eisuke and the organization their teacher had founded to form the Ryukyu Kobujutsu Hozon Shinkokai.
Without question, Inoue was among Tairaâ€™s most well-known and influential deshi. A prolific writer and teacher, he contributed five books and two videos which describe his interpretation of the techniques, forms and applications of Tairaâ€™s kobudo. Inoue Motokatsu passed away in 1993. Today his organization is lead by his son, Inoue Kisho. His senior western exponent is Julian Mead of Great Britain.
Perhaps because of Tairaâ€™s close ties to Mabuni Kenwa, the bulk of the other Taira-influenced mainland Japanese students are practitioners of Shito-ryu karate or one of its derivations. For example, Hayashi Teruo (Hayashi-ha Shito-ryu, Kenshin-ryu Kobudo) and Kokuba Shogo (Shito-ryu) have both incorporated Tairaâ€™s kobudo into their curricula.
Some historians estimate that Taira is now responsible for 70 – 80% of Ryukyu kobudo taught around the world today. Despite their respective technical and personal differences, Tairaâ€™s true legacy rests with all of his students. An eclectic historian and practitioner, Taira was a man of uncommon foresight and vision. Through his example to his students and the generations that followed, he laid the groundwork to help preserve this piece of Ryukyuan martial and cultural heritage. In doing so, he left his indelible inkan on the martial arts community and the world.
For more information on Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai, contact:
Ms. Devorah Yoshiko Dometrich
Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai – Beikoku So Honbu
690 Huff Road
Dry Ridge, Kentucky 41011 USA
Phone/Fax: (859) 824-3792
The author offers his sincere thanks to Devorah Yoshiko Dometrich, Takara Sachi Yoshi and Mario McKenna for providing much of the background information and many of the photos provided for this article. In addition, I offer my thanks to Julian Mead, Harry Cook, David Chambers and Patrick McCarthy for additional background information. Finally I would like to thank Devorah Yoshiko Dometrich, Julian Mead, Mario McKenna, Dave Lowry, Joe Svinth, Harry Cook, David Chambers and Colin Hislop for their careful review and commentary on the manuscript for this article.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
In 1983, Doug Daulton began training in Matsubayashi Shorin-ryu karate under William George and later under Frank Grant. In 2000, he attained the rank of sandan. In 1990, he began his study of Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai under Devorah Yoshiko Dometrich and attained nidan in 2001. He also studies Shinto Muso Ryu Jojutsu. Should one have questions or comments regarding this article, please feel free to write him at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Mark Bishop. Okinawan Karate: Teachers, styles and secret techniques, 2nd Edition (Tokyo: Tuttle, 1999).
- Mark Bishop. Zen Kobudo: Mysteries of Okinawan Weaponry and Teâ€™ (Tokyo: Tuttle, 1996).
- Devorah Dometrich & Doug Daulton. Taira Shinken: Father of Ryukyu Kobudo, dir. Doug Daulton, narr. Devorah Dometrich, videocassette, Cincinnati, Ohio: Kansha Productions, 2000.
- Mario McKenna. â€œTaira Shinkenâ€™s Legacy,â€ Insight into Martial Arts (Sep/Oct 1999): 18-25; (Nov/Dec 1999): 44-48; (Jan/Feb 2000): 52-53; (Mar/Apr 2000): 42-45.
- Mario McKenna. â€œTaira Shinken,â€ Okinawan Karatedo Kenkyukan Website, (May 13, 2000) http://www.geocities.com/Colosseum/Bench/4784/TairaShin.html .
- Nakamoto Masahiro. Okinawa Dento Kobudo: Sono Rekishi to Tamashii [Okinawa Traditional Kobudo: Its history and soul] (Naha: Okiinsha, 1983).
- John Sells. â€œThe Kobudo of Shinken Taira: Pied Piper of Weaponry, â€ Budo Dojo Magazine (Spring 1993): 23-26.
- John Sells. Unante: The Secrets of Karate. 2nd (Updated) Edition. (Hollywood, CA): W.H. Hawley Library, 2000).
- Taira Seizo. Taira Shinken Embu Taikai 25 [The 25th Anniversary Memorial Demonstration of Taira Shinken] (Naha: Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai, 1995).
Some dates in this chart conflict with dates provided for the same events reported in the works cited. Where conflicts occur, the dates in use are taken from â€¦ Devorah Dometrich. Personal journals of conversations with Akamine Eisuke. (1974-1999).
Dates surrounding Tairaâ€™s instruction by Kanegawa, work and injury in the mines of Ishigaki-shima and introduction to Higa Yuchoku have no supporting citations. These dates reflect the authorâ€™s hypothesis based on the collective information reviewed.
- Original Japanese: http://www.geocities.com/Colosseum/Bench/4784/Pamphlet.html.
- English translation: http://www.geocities.com/Colosseum/Bench/4784/PamphletEnglish.html.
- E-mail: email@example.com.
- Bishop. Okinawan Karate: Teachers, styles and secret techniques, 2nd Edition: 125.
- Dometrich. Interview with author. (November 17, 2000).
- Ryukyu Kobujutsu Association â€“ Great Britain. Ed. Julian Mead. 2000 http://www.rkagb.com.
- Sells. Unante: The Secrets of Karate Second Edition: 343.
- Taira. Taira Shinken Embu Taikai 25.