Master Shigeru Nakamura and
the History of Okinawa Kenpo Karate
On January 21, 1969, Mr. Shigeru Nakamura, the Grand Master of the
Okinawan Kenpo Karate-Do Association, passed away in his hometown of Nago City,
Okinawa. He was a man of extraordinary character and karate talent. His entire life was devoted to the pursuit of the way of Okinawan
Karate-Do. His death represented a tremendous loss to all, and particularly
to the world of karate. He will always be remembered for his many contributions
to the development of Okinawan Karate.
The roots of Okinawan Karate can be traced back to Indian Kenpo, which
was the basis of Chinese Kenpo. Buddha established Buddhism around the
5th century B.C. Approximately 1000 years later, the 28th Bodhisattua was
born. He would come to be known as Dharma, third child of the king of Southern India. He left home after the king died and studied Buddhism for
more than 40 years. At that time, India followed the caste system. Even
though Dharma would have been at the top of the caste system, he rejected
it and attempted to reform it’s followers. When he realized that such
a grand scale reformation was impossible, he left his homeland for the
neighboring country, China. He settled at the Shaolin Temple at Mt. Kosan
of Honan Province where he began to teach Zen Buddhism. He also taught one
of the Indian Yoga Methods as a way for the monks to enhance their physical
strength. This method was developed and became the origin of Chinese Kenpo,
also known as Shaolin-Ji-Kenpo.
These teachings eventually spread outside the mountain where Chinese
Kenpo became more fully developed. Between the 13th and 19th centuries
Chinese Kenpo flourished in popularity, and, as a result, many practitioners
developed into prominent masters. These masters often used their superior
skills to protect government officials. When King Satto of Okinawa opened
trade with China, many of these Chinese kenpo masters brought their martial
arts expertise to Okinawa. Chinese kenpo was merged with the Okinawan’s
native Kenpo to create a unique method of fighting arts.
According to well documented history, an official guard named Kushankun came to Okinawa in 1786. Kushankun’s ability astonished the
Okinawan people. Two Okinawans in particular, Sakugawa from Akata
Village in Shuri and Yara from Chatan Village, were so impressed with
kushankun that they committed, themselves to follow his teachings. Sakugawa
would later travel to china to further his martial arts study. After
several years of training, he returned to Okinawa where he would come
to be known as “Chinese Hands Sakugawa’. He taught his art to many
students who would eventually become masters themselves. But it was not
until late in Sakugawa’s life when he would accept a young man who would
become his most famous student, Sokun Matsumura.
Sokun Matsumura (1787-1890) of Yamakawa Village in Shuri later became known as the father of modern karate-do. He studied under Sakugawa
from the age of 14. To increase his knowledge, he learned from a Chinese
guard called “Iwa’ and then traveled to China where he studied for many
years. Matsumura passed on his mastery to his finest student, Anko Itosu
(1832-1916), and to many others.
While Matsumura was establishing his name in the Shuri area, another
famous karateka was developing. His name was Kitoku Sakiyama, of Wakuda
Village in Naha. Sakiyama had studied under one of the guards of the Chinese
officials. Because of his tremendous ability, he was given the same respect
and admiration for his karate as Matsumura. In 1839, Sakiyama accepted an
invitation from one of the guards to travel to Fukien Province in China to
further his study in the martial arts. Sakiyama studied in China for over
four years under the tutelage of Lau Loon Kon who was the Chief Martial Arts
Instructor of the Military Academy. Upon returning to Okinawa, Sakiyama
passed on his secret teachings to Shinkichi Kuniyoshi of Kumoji Village, Naha
City. Kuniyoshi would eventually further educate Shigeru Nakamura in the
Shigeru Nakamura was born on January 20, 1894 in Nago City. His father
was a close friend of Anko Itosu’s most senior student, Kentsu Yabu(1866-1937).
Nakamura’s father wanted his son to have the finest education possible.
He sent Shigeru away to the prestigious First National Okinawan Junior High School in Shuri. For five years Shigeru followed his father’s wishes
to become educated and also devote himself to the study of karate. The
Karate teacher at First National was Chomo Hanashiro (1869-1945) who was
regarded as one of Itosu’s greatest students (Itosus’ other famous pupils
consisted of, Gichin Funakoshi(1863-1957), Chotoku
Yabiku, Kenwa Mabuni, and many others). In fact, it was none other than
Itosu himself who appointed Hanashiro to the prestigious position of teaching
the students at First National. In addition to Master Hanashiro, Anko Itosu
and Kentsu Yabu came to the school once a week to teach the students karate.
Nakamura was indeed very fortunate to be able to study under three of the
greatest karateka in history. He took full advantage of this opportunity,
using his great ‘nagumasa”, spirit of perseverance, to master karate-do at
an extraordinary pace. Upon his graduation and return to Nago, his dedication
and aspiration for karate grew even stronger. He learned that Shinkichi
Kunioshi, successor to the late Sakiyama, had moved to Nago. He asked
Kunioshi to help him further his karate training. Kunioshi was so taken
by Nakamura’s determination to learn that he decided to pass on his secrets
of Chinese Kenpo to him. Nakamura began a hard, disciplined practice under
Kunioshi that would continue for about ten years. Nakamura’s basic skills
were firmly ingrained from his First National days. His mental and physical
capabilities expanded at an unbelievable rate, enabling him to
master Kunioshi’s teachings.
At the age of 75, Kunioshi passed away. Nakamura was deeply saddened
by this. He swore to honor his great teacher and made a commitment to follow
in Kunioshi’s footsteps and spread the art of karate-do. Thus, Nakamura
established the first Okinawa Kenpo Karate dojo in Nago City. By this time,
Nakamura had developed the same powerful fist as Kunioshi who had been known
as “The Iron Fist Warrior”. This reputation spread throughout many villages,
and, consequently many students came to Master Nakamura for lessons.
At that time, all Karate teachers in Okinawa were teaching kata but
neglected to teach free style fighting because they felt it was too dangerous. Nakamura valued the importance of
jiyu-Kumite (free style
fighting) as well as kata. He openly stated to the Okinawan public that
jiyu-kumite, was the actual application of kata, therefore, no
jiyu-kimite, no karate. He invented protective equipment which consisted of a modified
kendo mask, chest protector and gloves. Using this protective equipment,
Nakamura was able to teach “bogu-tsuke kumite” (full contact fighting with
protective gear). This was the first time in the history of karate that
students could practice their fighting techniques at full power and full
speed without worry of serious injury. This method of fighting was considered very important to Master Nakamura. He criticized the method
of non contact fighting as being impracticable and ineffective. Although
he received much criticism from other old fashioned schools, his method
became more widely accepted with the passage of time.
By the 1960’s, the merits and values of bogu-tauke kumite were acknowledged by many karate associations and dojos, as well as high school
and college karate clubs. Many karate tournaments adopted Master Nakamura’s
method. Karate had also become quite popular in Japan at this time. The
Japanese criticized the Okinawans for not placing enough emphasis on kumite.
These allegations insulted Master Nakamura. He sent his students to compete
in major tournaments throughout Japan. His students consistently became
top winners, showing their skills and spirit. They showed the Japanese that
Okinawan karate was not merely ‘dance karate” as the Japanese described it
but was indeed quite formidable.
Having accomplished almost everything he set out to do, Master Nakamura
still had one goal left, to unify all styles of karate. It made him very
sad to see that karate schools were not in agreement with one another. They
were hostile and jealous of each other, not respecting each other's styles.
There was constant argument about which style had the best method and skill.
Nakamura openly criticized the other senseis for their destructive egos. He
held meetings to try to unite and form one powerful organization which
would include all the styles in Okinawa. Unfortunately, at the age of 75,
he passed away before he could see his dream come true.
Even though Master Nakamura is no longer with us,
the memory of his
wonderful personality, skills, and accomplishments are carved deeply into
the pages of modern Okinawan Karate history. He was a true pioneer who
devoted his life to karate in the hope that one day it would be unified
into one strong organization.
Unfortunately, like other great masters such
as Funakoshi of Shotokan and Ueshiba of Aikido, some of Master Nakamura's
students failed to follow his choice of successor. Heeding to their own
greedy desires, certain students left to form their own organizations.
This is a direct slap in the face to all of Master Nakamura’s
goals and ambitions. In spite of this, Master Nakamura’ s organization, the Okinawa Kenpo Karate-Do Association continues to grow and thrive. It is
well recognized in Okinawa and headed by Master Nakamura’s son, Taketo
Nakamura, and is also established in the United States where this author
has acted as U.S. Representative since 1972. As one of Master Nakamura’ s
senior students, I believe it is my responsibility to carry on his spirit
and goals to further the development of Okinawa Kenpo Karate throughout the