The Once and Future King: Okinawa Kenpo, A History (Part 1)

The late great Shigeru Nakamura tells us  “there is no RyuHa (meaning there is no such thing as a style) in Karate.”  In one noted meeting to a group of younger karateka, Nakamura continues:  “Karate originates from the same universal ‘body’ of knowledge.  Karate consists of many singular unique expressions of the same body of information.”

Okinawa Kenpo of Oregon

Shigeru Nakamura, (1894-1969).

Shigeru Nakamura firmly believed there was no “one style” of karate.  He thought the divisions of karate styles would only bring the downfall and demise of a great combat tested martial art.

Nakamura explains the reference to karate master, Kenwa Mabuni-not only as a great karateka of the another era of Okinawan karate greats, but also noting Mabuni as a colleague and close family friend.  “However,”  Nakamura  points out that “‘this time’ “we are faced with the destruction and extinction of our own life protection arts. This preservation of these Ryukyu Ti, tests our will, confidence, resolve and spirit in these troubled times.”  The year was 1949. Okinawa had just been the primary witness and battlefield to one of the all time horrific battles in military history, the infamous Battle of Okinawa.  This singular act wiped out entire families and generations Okinawan civilians including, Okinawa Karate masters.  The list is too long to provide. Keep in mind, to give one perspective, on the impact of the Battle of Okinawa I provide the following  three examples:  Choki Motobu is killed in 1944. Chomo Hanashiro is killed in a firefight in 1945. Chotoku Kyan dies of starvation in Okinawa in 1945.  As unpleasant as this sounds, this was the background that the Okinawan people were undergoing. Okinawa was in a fight for it’s life, culture and heritage. This era  began Okinawan karate’s ascent out of World War Two’s ashes. At this time in 1949, a newer class of young karateka were attending their first series of instruction from the great master Shigeru Nakamura, One of those young students was my karate sensei, the late Seikichi Odo.

Odo Name outside residence, Gushikawa, Okinawa

No Karate No Peace. Know Karate Know Peace.

The philosopher George Santayana reminds us that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In other words, in order to understand the present, we must study the past.  This applies for everyone practicing any martial art, including Okinawan Karate; and especially if you HAPPEN to be an Okinawa Kenpo ‘stylist‘ of some kind. I was asked recently by a dozen karate sensei about the ‘nature’ and ‘state’ of Okinawa Kenpo today. Now mind you- what I mean by Karate Sensei is this:  these individuals are not first or second year karate practitioners. With the exception of one person-all are current chief instructors of respected dojos that practice some form of Okinawa Kenpo, Ryukyu Kempo, Okinawa Kenpo Kai, Hawaian Kempo, Ryukyu Te, Ryu Te, Classical, Traditional and Koryu types of Okinawan karate, etc. from around the world.  Should I blame Facebook? Maybe. Is the universe telling me to publish all of those interviews with karateka I have had an opportunity to meet? Possibly. Did I read the “Karate Code” by my friend Jesse Enkamp, and get inspired?  Sure. I think Jesse’s book brings forth a very important aspect in karate that goes at times, missing: the wisdom of “Why we do” Karate.

Okinawa Kenpo: A style or an eclectic study group

Is Okinawa Kenpo a traditional style? Is it an eclectic blend of multiple mixed martial arts that at one time, formed a common bond to ‘investigate’ the dynamics of the deeper techniques and logistics of the Ryukyu arts?  In order to understand Okinawa Kenpo, a practitioner at a certain time must understand Okinawa Kenpo’s history.  Understanding Okinawa Kenpo’s history and its influences will help the student and teacher of any kind of Okinawa Kenpo better convey the true treasure that Okinawan Karate can provide for the student and teacher. In my opinion, Okinawa Kenpo is best explained in two general categories: The Politics of Okinawa Kenpo and The Practice of Okinawa Kenpo.

The Politics of Okinawa Kenpo

When a practitioner of Okinawan Karate, especially Okinawa Kenpo hears the word “politics” the blood pressure usually goes up, the head may throb slightly or it might be another visit to my close friend “Mr. Machiwara.”

Mr. Machiwara

I gave a series of lectures recently to a group of martial artists.  I stated “ the gravest of errors that we commit is that if we literally ignore, avoid or simply nullify the talk of the “politic” (philosophically speaking) in karate.” To this extent, ignorance becomes the Sensei.  If the “politics” becomes typically one sided, (e.g. few published works from one point of view in several notable martial arts magazines) and without filling in data and factual information that can be verified independently through primary source material,  the “political”  becomes “historical”; the opinion and conjecture becomes data and simple misinformation is taken for granted as information. In turn, these narrow opinions, half truths and out right fabrications go from what would was once considered myth to being seen as reality.

This happens all the time. It is not unique to Okinawa Kenpo.

If there is a question about ‘politics’ in modern Okinawa Kenpo- the real politics begins clearly in 1955 with the formation of the Okinawa Kenpo Renmei (OKR) formed by Shigeuru Nakamura and Zenpo Shimabukuro.  The three key elements of the politics of Okinawa Kenpo were the following: [1] The practice of the ‘traditional ways’ [2] the practice of full contact Jiyu Kumite; and [3] The practice and transmission of both empty handed forms and kobudo in the same dojo curriculum.

Does this phrase sound familiar? “They don’t practice the ‘old ways’ any more.” Nakamura sensei published this about Okinawan Karate in 1955 NOT 1985! The uniqueness of the OKR was that it not only comprised of the who’s who of the Okinawa Karate circa the 1950s, but there were two other factors: [1] the advocation and practice of full contact sparring (versus the point system or non contact fighting); and [2] the practice and teaching of curriculum development of both karate and kobudo under the same dojo roof.  In the modern history of Okinawan Karate, it was not until the 1980s that nearly all styles of Okinawa karate or kobudo fully incorporated several selected weapons and/or empty handed forms into their curriculum.  This may not seem like nothing in today’s mixed martial arts world, but it certainly was revolutionary for it’s time.  The primary purpose of the Okinawa Kenpo Renmei was (ironically)  to quell politics– the eventual goal was to have “one united Karate” under one banner.  Nakamura firmly believed, if there is “no Ryuha, we are united in Karate.”  As noble as these efforts were, two things significantly affected the course of Okinawa Kenpo Renmei’s development. In January of 1969, Shigeru Nakamura passed away. Later that year in the fall, Zenpo Shimabukuro passed away as well. This sent a shock wave to both the dojos and the students and instructors that belonged to this Okinawa Kenpo Renmei.

The Practice of Okinawa Kenpo

Relatively speaking, very little has been written on Okinawa Kenpo or the Nakamura family.  A closer examination of birth records, census data, personal letters and published articles show another picture of Okinawa Kenpo then and now.

Several verified scroll and scroll writings have shown that the lineage of what now is known in Ryukyu University academic research institutions circles as the  “Kuniyoshi-Nakamura line” began well before 1800.  Upon further examination and cross examination with maritime records, documents of family records, scrolls, ship manifests with trade route accounts, it is clear the line of modern Okinawa Kenpo goes further back than most imagined. It begins with the a man titled, Naha “Bushi” Sakiyama, with his break with the Okinawan royal court to form his own RyuHa to teach those outside the royalty and anji circles in 1472. Keep in mind Tode “Karate” Sakugawa, the “father” of Okinawan Karate was born in 1733.

The mention of  history of modern Okinawa Kenpo is important because the man who inherited this 500+ year old Ryukyu Ti system in 1925, had blended his famlly’s Ti style with one of the oldest systems of the Ryukyu islands. The paradox of Shigeru Nakamura comes into play only when after all his training, his family martial arts lineage, his RyuHa martial arts lineage combines.  He still concludes  there is “no style” in Karate.

Shigeru Nakamura certainly attended Icchu middle school in the south of Okinawa, in Shuri where he received training by the finest karate men at the time.  What is found in family letters and records show his uncles (Tei’ichi Nakamura and Ko’kichi Nakamura) were peer practitioners with the likes of Chomo Hanashiro, Yabu Kentsu and Ankoh Itosu.  Itosu, Kentsu and Hanshiro would visit the Nakamura compound in the north just outside of modern Nago city.

Tei’ichi Nakamura was famous for his ability to subdue and grapple bears. Yes BEARS. However, he also had a spiritual side to him. In the 1918 Tei’ichi Nakamura traveled to Los Angeles, California to help establish a Buddhist temple. In the 1920’s he helped sponsor Okinawan karate teachers to come to Hawaii and the mainland United States, including Chokki Motubu to Hawaii and Yabu Kentsu to Los Angeles, California. Ko’Kichi Nakamura was a master of Bojutsu as well as consider a “Bushi” (Uchinanchu for the word “martial arts /master expert”) of the Sai and the Nunchanku.

In the early 1920’s Shigeru Nakamura along with Kenwa Mabuni develop body armor for full contact sparring.  By the early 1930’s Nakamura introduces the Jiyu Bogu Kumite “armor” in Indonesia, Tawian as well as other areas in Southeast Asia. By 1937, Shigeru Nakamura has standardized  the Jiyu Bogu body armor design and development of methodology for full contact sparring.

Nick Flores, 10th Dan, Okinawa Kenpo Karate Kobudo tells us, “in old Okinawa Kenpo dojos we would have buckets of water during the kumite matches.  This was to revive a fighter if they were knocked out.  We practiced this way with Seikichi Odo in the early 1970s as well. Today, we still maintain this practice within our own dojos.”

According to Taketo Nakamura, Sai Ko Shihan (Supreme Leader/GrandMaster)  of Okinawa Kenpo Karate Kobudo,  there are four tenets to the practice of Okinawa Kenpo:

[1] Maintain and practice the traditional ways

[2] Practice the kata, kihon & kobudo that we have learned from our sensei

[3] Practice Jiyu Kumite with the Bogu body armor

[4] Strive for a Pure Spirit in the practice of Karate

Nakamura holds these principles and the Dojo Kun of Okinawa Kenpo close to his heart. The Dojo Kun that is found in many Okinawa Kenpo affiliated dojos are copies of the very one he personally created himself. Taketo Nakamura is the original calligrapher for all the Okinawa Kenpo Dojo Kun.  The original calligraphy still resides on the wall beneath the picture of Shigeru Nakamura in the Taketo Nakamura’s dojo, in Nago, Okinawa.

Is Okinawa Kenpo a Traditional Style? Well if we are following the teachings of the Kuniyoshi-Nakamura line then the evidence clearly points to YES.  Is Okinawa Kenpo an association that was originally formed in 1955 by Shigeru Nakamura and Zenpo Shimabukuro? YES.

Part 2 of this series will discuss the questions about Okinawa Kenpo in a post-Shigeru Nakamura era.

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