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Okinawan Koryu Karate

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by Kenji Ushiro

Aiki News #98 (1994)

Aikido practitioners often think of karate in terms of sparring competitions and kata demonstrations, but the original style of karate is quite different. On August 5th, 1992 we visited the dojo of Kenji Ushiro, who practices a classical style of karate, based on the Okinawan art before its introduction to mainland Japan. Although the kata of Shindokai koryu karate can be used in actual fighting situations, the ultimate secret teaching of this school is to not make enemies. In this article, we are pleased to introduce Mr. Ushiro and his sensei, Nikichi Zaha, head instructor of the Shindokai. In future issues we plan to present the five basic kata of Shindo-ryu in a way in which we hope will benefit aikido practitioners.

When you start to learn something, you must be motivated. But although motivation is very important, there are even more important factors such as the level of the teacher, the quality of the school or system, your environment, and your values and beliefs. It is particularly difficult for a beginner to find out what an instructor’s level actually is. However, the first style and teacher you select are likely to form the foundation of your technique, and the techniques you learn first are not easy to cast aside. Thus, the selection of your first teacher sets the stage for your later development. In other words, instructors have important responsibilities towards their students, and should be aware of this fact.

In the context of training, an individual’s rate of progress and technical level may differ within a single style, and this difference becomes even clearer when compared to other styles or other martial arts. Personal progress and technical level are not measured in the same way, so we should not confuse the two. Technical level exists on a relative scale, while personal progress is an absolute concept. However, in reality, both theories and values differ between styles, so it is very difficult to use a vertical scale, and it is almost impossible to compare styles relatively.

When we consider this with an open mind, at least in budo, the technical level should be evaluated on a vertical scale. We should participate in training exchanges to increase our technical development even if we have different values and ideas.
I have been working with Yoshinori Kono of the Bujutsu Keiko Kenkyukai Shoseikan [Martial Arts Training Research Association] and I have been inspired in many ways as a result of our training exchanges. Kono Sensei works with many martial artists of different styles, and he evaluates my karate honestly. If he were to say that my karate is not so good, I would learn something; if he were to say that my karate is good, I would also learn something. I believe that a great deal can be learned through such training exchanges. Kono Sensei is continuing his own pursuit of budo and I am excited to see how it will develop in the future.

I also have my own goals. I hold the image of Zaha Sensei’s karate in my mind and I intend to make it mine someday, but I am still far from achieving this dream. It is not a matter of instruction-the only way is to just do it or feel it. Because of this I can tell whether it will be helpful for me to practice with a particular person or not. Kono Sensei practices and studies my techniques, so I am happy to train with him.

In training exchanges it is important to have the sort of relationship in which one can ask, “How does one plus one become two and a half? Isn’t it two?” I like to say this straight out, but I don’t like to ask useless questions. Constructive opinions and questioning are important.

In training, it is not just quantity, but quality that is important. As Kono Sensei says, there is a difference between training with an understanding of theory and training without such an understanding. It is not meaningful to train by merely doing a certain number of repetitions. What do I mean by the difference between quality and quantity? For example, there are training methods for developing strength, posture, and the explosive reaction speed required for budo. You can repeat a grab one hundred times, but what happens if you can’t do it even once under certain conditions? In karate, it is more important in some situations to be able to throw only one punch than to be able to do one hundred. That single punch is not always the result of practicing one hundred times. Thus, we must think about the quality of practice.

I practice karate as a martial art, so the basic idea is to be able to prevail when applying techniques. To achieve this, you must have confidence in your technique and your responsibilities. If you can gain confidence, you will be able to envelop other people within yourself. You can see a person’s heart by looking into their eyes. You will know when a person is not dangerous. Futile fighting is not the way of martial arts. There is a saying in karate, “Not to be hit, not to hit,” and these words are important. You must be able to block any attack.

I began karate when I enrolled in college, and I was eager to train. At first there were about fifty or sixty members in the club, but only five remained when I graduated. I stayed at the college two extra years, and in my fifth year I competed in the Second All-Japan Karate-do Tournament. I competed in many other tournaments as well.

I started to question my karate in about 1975, after having moved to Osaka from Miyazaki in 1973. The occasion for this change in direction was my meeting Nikichi Zaha Sensei, head instructor of the Shindokai. Zaha Sensei was also the head instructor of my college karate club, but since he lived in Osaka he came to Miyazaki only twice a year for promotion examinations, and I did not really know him. When I was in the club, I felt he was too great for a student like myself to have contact with. My approach to karate changed totally after I saw Zaha Sensei demonstrate and listened to what he had to say, and especially after learning his way of kumite (sparring), throwing techniques, and joint techniques.

One time, Sensei and I went to see the All-Japan College Karate Individual Tournament, held at the Osaka Central Gymnasium, in which a senior of mine was competing as a representative of Kyushu. In the match, my senior’s opponent from Takushoku University took a left stance. Sensei commented that my senior was in trouble when he feinted at his opponent. Immediately afterwards, my senior received two upper roundhouse kicks and was knocked unconscious. He won the match on a foul. There was an announcement asking if anyone who knew my senior was present, so we went to see him. His jaw had been broken.

Another example of Zaha Sensei’s understanding of karate also occurred at the All-Japan Tournament held at the Osaka Central Gymnasium. Sensei and I were watching the tournament from the main seats; Sensei indicated one fellow, remarking that he would probably win the tournament. He won, just as Sensei predicted, but he merely commented, “I question his skill from a budo perspective.” Another example occurred when I was doing kumite with Sensei at his home. As I took my stance, he asked, “Are you planning to kick, Mr. Ushiro?” “Now, a punch?” before I could even make a move. I was shocked and wondered how Sensei could read my intentions. I asked how he could foresee my movements, and he replied that with the stance I had taken I was only able to kick, or could only throw a punch. I hadn’t noticed-though I understand clearly now-that I only kicked using a certain stance, and only punched with another.

Through these experiences, I began to realize that something was wrong with my karate. At the same time I was really excited about this Zaha Karate that was so different from my own.

Since then, I have become aware of many things which I hadn’t previously noticed, and I can see the difference. In particular, my approach to speed and power has totally changed. Now I can say that I was headed in the wrong direction.
I started to have difficulties because I could see the differences and understand the meaning behind them, but I could not move the way I wanted to. What I had learned so completely before prevented me from changing my movements. Everyday, I tried to forget and throw away what I had previously learned. The training was very hard but I had hopes of improving, so I enjoyed it. I believed that this was the first step in moving the way Sensei showed me.

What is speed, or power? My karate had previously depended on power. But I noticed that it was precisely this power that was bothering me. Now I know that power is not necessary. Sensei often told me to apply techniques without power, but when I tried to do as he instructed, all my techniques were weak. I did not know how to apply techniques without using my power. I finally found out that real power comes from explosive speed, and that speed comes naturally from a correct stance-in fact, all of karate is based on correct posture.

It is very important to understand such things to learn karate. It makes a great difference in your techniques when you aren’t aware of them. I might be going too far, but I would say my entire world view has changed as a result of my learning these concepts.

Sensei often reminds us of three things at promotion examinations, “Metsuke, shisei, shunpatsu ryoku” (eyes, posture, explosive power). I always keep these words in mind, both for myself and when I teach.

Offense and defense are one-this saying is especially important, particularly in the Shindokai. If you understand the true meaning of defense, your techniques, approach to kata, and sparring all change. There is no word for receiving or blocking in the Shindokai. We say, “Imagine that your opponent is attacking you with a knife.” If you block a knife thrust with your bare hands you will get cut. The word bogyo, or defense, when used at the Shindokai refers to offense, and we teach that defense and offense are one-a punch becomes a block and a block becomes a punch. Thus, blocks are hidden beneath the offense, and offense is hidden beneath the defense.

The stance for simultaneous offense and defense must be a good one, on an angle along which your opponent cannot attack. For example, even if you think you are attacking with a perfect stance, your attack might not be good enough. Instead, you might end up in an even worse position, because your opponent’s level of defense is better. At the Shindokai we use the term bogyo for this principle of offense and defense being one.

Zaha Sensei often says that the ultimate goal of budo is to win without fighting your opponent. Thus, one should not make enemies-you must love your opponent and respect him. To accomplish this, you must be disciplined and have self- confidence. Gentleness and severity must live together in you. Do not try to defend without confidence. Have confidence in your techniques. Thus, I think you need to study and work to improve your techniques so that they are genuine.

You can “win without fighting” through hard training, and you will be able to read your opponent’s mind by looking into his eyes. This is common sense in martial arts training and it is very important.

Kenji Ushiro Profile

Born in Miyazaki, 1949. In 1967, entered Miyazaki University Karate-do Club, the third oldest karate club in Kyushu. Ushiro was dedicated to mastering competitive karate and he competed in many tournaments. He moved to Osaka after graduation and met Nikichi Zaha, head instructor of the Shindokai. He started to question the competitive style of karate and began to learn Okinawan Zaha style karate directly under Zaha Sensei.

Ushiro believes that the most dangerous weapon against bare-handed martial arts is the sword, and so he started to learn Muso Jikiden-ryu Iai. Since then he has won over ninety iaido demonstration competitions. He is also very busy as a computer programmer, and teaches Okinawan koryu karate on the side. He is dedicated to the spread of Zaha Karate. Shindo-ryu Renshi 5th dan. Iaido 5th dan.

Shindo-ryu Okinawan Karate and Nikichi Zaha Shihan

Shindo-ryu karate was founded by Okinawan karateka Choshin Chibana, and is related to Shorin-ryu, the traditional style of Okinawan karate. Choshin Chibana was born in Shuri, Okinawa in 1885. He learned shurite (karate) from Munehide Matsumura and Yasutsune Itosu. Later, he developed his own style known as Shorin-ryu.

Nikichi Zaha was born in Naha City, Okinawa on March 5, 1914 and started to learn karate under Choshin Chibana as a child. He also learned from his older brother Jiro Zaha, who taught at Chibana’s dojo and was one of his best students. Jiro, who died during World War II, was so strong that it is said whenever there was a fight, it usually stopped when somebody said, “Call Zaha.”

Mr. Nikichi Zaha later moved to Osaka and became an assistant instructor under Morijiro Sakihama, a student of Kinjo Kanemori, himself a fellow pupil of Nikichi Zaha. Zaha became a shihan at Miyazaki University Karate Club in 1951.

Formerly Zaha’s school was known as Goju-ryu Shindokai, but in order to preserve Okinawan koryu karate he rechristened it Shindo-ryu Karate-do Shindokai in 1983. He is dedicated to maintaining classical karate as a budo and he teaches young people.

Karate as seen through the eyes of an aikidoka by Stanley Pranin

Standing face-to-face with an expert karateka like Ushiro Sensei was an enlightening and humbling experience. The first and most obvious surprise was the incredible speed with which Ushiro Sensei delivered his punches and kicks. Watching a karate tournament or a boxing match on television and standing opposite a highly-skilled opponent are two entirely different matters.

It became apparent to me that the level of speed and timing with which someone of Ushiro Sensei’s ability moves precludes any possibility of a “response” to the attack. In other words, the attack is so well-timed and executed that there is no time or space left to recognize and respond after the attack has been launched. The only possible alternative is to fully anticipate the timing of the opponent’s attack and initiate the movement oneself. This is a dimension of hyper-awareness often mentioned and demonstrated by aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba; however, for most aikidoka such a level of execution remains an unreachable ideal.

Setting aside a discussion of whether or not it is theoretically possible for an aikidoka to deal with such speedy attacks, the reality of the matter is that it is highly unlikely that he would succeed simply because aikido practice tends to be slow-paced by comparison. How can one reasonably expect to suddenly muster the skills to handle the powerful and rapid attacks of expert karateka or boxers when the pace of our aikido training is so casual? Realistically speaking, either we must scale down our expectations of the effectiveness of aikido techniques in an actual confrontation, or modify our practice to include safe training against rapid, powerful attacks.

To be able to practice in such a manner, it would first be necessary for aikidoka to acquire the basic attacking skills that are so sorely lacking now. This would mean incorporating rudimentary punching and kicking skills into our aikido practice. I am sure that a proposal to introduce karate or boxing type movements into aikido practice would be controversial and meet much resistance. Yet I see no other alternative. The weak, unrealistic nature of attacks in aikido training remains one of the great weaknesses of the art and is one of the most common causes of criticism.
As all practitioners know, aikido practice as it is now is based on a sort of “gentlemen’s agreement.” We execute relatively simple, slow attacks and patiently wait to be thrown. Such an approach may well be necessary for training beginners and for the sake of safety, but advanced students need to confront increasingly stronger attacks and unpredictable maneuvers on the part of the attacker in order to continue their progress.

During our visit to Ushiro Sensei we were accompanied by Yoshinori Kono Sensei who demonstrated an interesting two-hand maneuver that he is currently working on to deal with rapid attacks. It is an interesting approach and, for want of a better description, it looked something like an abbreviated iriminage. If my understanding is correct, the stimulus to develop this movement came as a direct result of the training exchanges between Ushiro Sensei and Kono Sensei. Personally speaking, my eyes have been opened to the many benefits of friendly exchange practices among budoka of different styles with an eye toward self-improvement and mutual understanding.