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Guest Post: Memories of Taira Shinken

This Guest Post is by Mario McKenna of the Okinawa Karatedo Kitsilano Dojo in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Mario is an instructor of Tou'on-ryu Karatedo and Ryukyu Kobudo. He is the English translator of Kobo Jizai Goshinjutsu Karate Kenpo (Kenwa Mabuni, 1934) and Seipai no Kenkyu Kobo Jizai Karate Kenpo (Kenwa Mabuni, 1934). His article Okinawa Kata Classification: An Historical Overview appears at the Hawaii Karate Seinenkai website. Mario also has an excellent Karate Blog.

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When asked about his days training under Taira Shinken, Minowa answers with bright eyes and a wide smile underlying the respect and admiration he has for his teacher. Minowa described Taira Shinken as a true gentlemen in both word and deed. In fact Minowa felt a little embarrassed at times that his teacher would speak so gently and politely to him and the other students often referring to him as, "Minowa-san" (his family name with the polite suffix meaning "honourable"). He was also amazed at the example Taira Shinken showed him and his fellow students through his daily life.

Even while suffering from stomach cancer, Taira continued to teach and practice Kobudo although he was clearly in pain at times! In fact on several occasions Minowa recalled that after demonstrating a Kata, Taira would toss the weapon to the floor and would sit down immediately to rest; having given his all to the Kata's performance. Taira's manner and example left a deep impression on Minowa who has strove his whole life to live by the example set by Taira.

Minowa described Taira Shinken's teaching style as highly individual. He commonly would "tailor" the Kata to the personal style of the individual he was teaching. This characteristic teaching style of Taira therefore increased the variation of the same Kata between his students. However Minowa stressed that among Taira's students in Okinawa, the variation was relatively minor and that the largest variation in Kata and execution of technique occurred with Inoue Motokazu who lived on the Japanese mainland and saw Taira Shinken infrequently. Minowa also stressed that Taira's tendency to "tailor" technique to the individual was not an uncommon means of instruction on Okinawa and had quite a long tradition. The relative consistency of Kata and technique between Taira's closest students on Okinawa was also due to, in part, to the years of training they had spent together under Taira and the relatively close ties they maintained after Taira's death in 1970.

During Minowa's training under Taira Shinken, it is interesting to note that there were no yakusoku kumite (prearranged fighting sets) except for the Bo vs. Sai and the two man Bunkai (analysis of Kata technique) for Sakugawa no kon sho. Individual techniques did exist for certain weapon combinations (eg. Bo vs. Tonfua) which were largely based upon Kata techniques, but there was no systematic or organized weapon sets. For Minowa Sensei, a lack of yakusoku kumite (prearranged fighting sets) for the weapons meant that students could not learn how to use and apply the weapon in a realistic (although controlled) setting. In addition there were no Kata for the Tichu (small tapered triangular wooden rod), Yonshaku Bo (4' staff) and Sanbon Nunchaku (three-sectional-flail). Again a lack of kata for these weapons meant that systematically teaching the weapon to students was difficult because there was no organized means to do so, i.e. Kata.

Therefore Minowa began to develop Kata for those weapons which lacked them several years after his return to Amami. Although Minowa had been thinking and experimenting with ideas for both Kata and Yakusoku Kumite, it wasn't until 1986 that he began to formalize his ideas with the help of Yoshimura. The result were Katas for the Sanbon Nunchaku, Yonshaku Bo and Tichu which were developed between 1986 to 1988. It was also at this time that he began to make prearranged fighting sets for each weapon, although he predominantly focused on these fighting sets beginning in 1988 to the present.

Minowa, like his teacher Taira Shinken, is still seeking out and learning new Kobudo Kata from other teachers in order to preserve them. He has recently for example, visited the dojo of Shorinji-ryu master, Nakazato Joen, to learn a Bo kata. Although at present he has not introduced these new kata into the teaching syllabus. At 36 Katas, the syllabus of the Shinshu Kai is already quite lengthy.

Mario McKenna