Taira, Shinken (1897-??)
Taira Shinken was born as Maezato Shinken on the tiny island of Kumejima
in the village of Nakazato, in what is now Okinawa Prefecture, on June
12, 1897. He was the second son of three boys in his family and as a child
acquired the nickname "Mosa", meaning rascal, due to his mischievous
nature (Nakamoto, 1983).
Although officially recorded in the census records as Maezato Shinken,
he often used the name "Taira", his mother's maiden name (Ryukyu
Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai, 1977). Be that as it may, he graduated from Nakazato
Jinjo Elementary school and later began work at a mine in Minami Jima.
It was during his days working in the mine that Taira Shinken's life was
During one of his shifts at the mine, he was caught in a cave-in and
buried alive! Badly injured and with a broken leg he somehow managed to
dig his way to safety. After the accident he returned to Kumejima to rest
and recuperate. However, as a result of the accident Taira was left with
a limp to his right leg which he carried for the rest of his life (Ryukyu
Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai, 1977). After he had recovered he travelled to
Kita Daito Jima to continue his work as a miner; however, his co-workers
were merciless in their taunts toward Taira calling him "useless"
or "worthless" because of the limp in his right leg (Ryukyu
Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai, 1977). At first Taira felt deeply embarrassed
and ashamed, but then resolved to make his body stronger and decided that
Bujutsu (martial arts) was the best means to reach his goal (Ryukyu Kobudo
Hozon Shinkokai, 1977).
So at the age of 25 he left his work and travelled to the Japanese mainland
intent on studying Judo. In Tokyo, however, he had a chance meeting with
Funakoshi Gichin Sensei who was working towards popularizing Karate on
the Japanese mainland (Nakamoto, 1983). Taira was deeply impressed with
what Funakoshi Sensei said to him and reconsidered his plan of studying
Judo. He formally entered Funakoshi Sensei's dojo as an Uchi-deshi (live-in
student) in September of 1922 and studied with Funakoshi Sensei for the
next eight years, becoming his assistant instructor and one of Funakoshi
Sensei's closest students (Nakamoto, 1983). During this time Funakoshi
and Taira Sensei travelled extensively in the Kanto area demonstrating
and promoting Karate at various Colleges and Universities, including Chuo
University, Ritsumei University, Meiji University and Nihon Medical University.
During these demonstrations Taira often performed tameshiwari and would
break six boards at a time with a shuto (knife hand strike) (Nakamoto,
Taira's interest in Budo did not stop at Karate, and in May of 1929,
with Funakoshi's recommendation, he entered Yabiku Moden Sensei's Dojo
to study Ryukyu Kobudo (Nakamoto, 1983). Mabiku Sensei, like his colleague
Funakoshi Sensei, was working for the promotion of Karate-do as well as
Ryukyu Kobudo on the Japanese mainland. In fact, both Mabiku Sensei and
Funakoshi Sensei were quite well acquainted having both received instruction
in Shuri-te from Itosu Sensei on Okinawa (Alexander, 1991). During his
study under Mabiku Sensei, Taira Sensei mastered the use of such weapons
as the Bo (6' staff), Eku (oar), Sai (metal truncheon), Tonfua (right
angled hand truncheon), and Nunchaku (wooden flail) (Nakamoto, 1983).
From the example his two teachers demonstrated, Taira worked hard to master
what he had learned from both of them. After his training was completed
in 1932, he was granted permission to open a dojo in Ikahononsen city
in Gunma prefecture where he taught Karate and Kobudo. In the following
year, 1933, Taira received his Menjo (formal teaching license) in Ryukyu
Kobudo from Yabiku Sensei (Nakamoto, 1983).
Taira's thirst for knowledge of Kobudo and Karate-do led him to invite
Mabuni Kenwa Sensei, an acquaintance of Funakoshi's, from Osaka in 1934
to receive instruction in Kobudo and Karate-do techniques. Mabuni Sensei
graciously accepted Taira's invitation and taught him until his return
to Okinawa in 1940. During those six years, Taira housed and paid Mabuni
Sensei for his instruction and under the close scrutiny of Mabuni Sensei,
Taira expanded his knowledge of Kata and techniques of the Bo and Sai
(Nakamoto, 1983; Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai, 1977).
Early Experimentation in Full Contact Fighting
During his time teaching in Gunma Prefecture, Taira Shinken began to
experiment with the idea of full contact weapons sparring. A photo taken
of him in 1934 shows him in a patchwork of armour consisting of boxing
gloves, rounded metal shoulder pads and chest protector (Bishop, 1996).
The armour he was attempting to develop had to be flexible enough so as
not to hinder movement, but also strong enough to resist the blow of a
staff (Bishop, 1996). He also fashioned Bo and Sai from bamboo, based
on the design of the Kendo shinai (Sells, 1994). He also developed an
over-sized makiwara (striking post) for the Bo in order to improve accuracy
and build power (Nakamura, 1983; Sells, 1994).
Taira's early attempts at developing full contact weapons training were
later abandoned possibly due to a shortage of materials and supplies due
to Japan's ever growing involvement in World War II. After Taira's death
his most senior student Akamine Eisuke continued Taira's early attempts;
however, Akamine focused exclusively on developing full contact competition
in which both fighters use a staff. By using the breastplate, helmet and
gloves of modern Kendo along with carbon-fiber staffs padded at each end
and by restricting the areas which were legal to strike for competition,
Akamine produced a somewhat realistic and safe means for practicing full
contact weapons training in a competitive environment (Bishop, 1996).
Origin of the Manji Sai
It was during his time teaching in Gunma Prefecture that Taira allegedly
developed the Manji sai and its accompanying kata. The manji sai is a
metal truncheon resembling the shape of a swastika (See Weaponry of Ryukyu
Kobudo). Although the manji sai has had a long history in China and Okinawa
(where it is commonly employed at the end of a 6' staff and is referred
to as a Nunte Bo) Taira's inspiration for the weapon supposedly came after
visiting a local Buddhist temple located outside the city to pray for
the success of his newly opened dojo. There he saw a large Manji (the
ancient Sanskrit symbol of life and rebirth) which resembled in Taira's
eyes a Kobudo weapon (Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai, 1977). Almost instantly
Taira was inspired as to how to create a weapon from its unique shape.
Immediately after he returned to his dojo, he formulated his ideas for
both the construction of the Manji sai and the sai kata Jigen no Sai.
The kata itself is based upon techniques Taira had learned in other sai
kata, with one unique difference. The Jigen no sai kata takes advantage
of the Manji sai's unique shape (both sides of the weapon having a sharp
point) and employs many double handed thrusting techniques (Minowa Katsuhiko,
personal interview, 1996).
It is interesting to note that the kanji that Taira selected for his
new kata, Jigen no Sai can be translated as the "foundation of love
/ compassion". Taira's choice of kanji may be perhaps due to the
source of his inspiration: a Buddhist symbol.
Promoting Ryukyu Kobudo
In 1940 Taira returned to Okinawa and shortly after the death of Yabiku
Sensei in 1941, established the Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinko-Kai, the association
for the preservation and promotion of Ryukyu Kobudo in Naha based on the
organization of Yabiku Sensei's Ryukyu Kobujutsu Kenkyu Kai (Nakamoto,
1983; Bishop, 1996).
The curriculum of Taira's Hozon Shinkokai included instruction in the
use of nine different weapons and their respective Kata which he had learned
throughout his years of instruction or which he had created himself. He
also continued to make frequent trips to both the Kanto and Kansai areas
to teach and promote Kobudo on the Japanese mainland. His students on
the mainland was a veritable "who's who" of Karate greats, such
as Sakagami, Ryushou (Shito-ryu), Hayashi, Teruo (Shito-ryu), Kuniba,
Shogo (Goju-ryu) and Mabuni, Kenei (son of Shito-ryu founder Mabuni, Kenwa)
(Sells, 1994). In addition, in the early 1960's Taira published the first
comprehensive book on Ryukyu Kobudo in Japanese entitled, "Ryukyu
Kobudo Taiken" which added greatly to popularize the art on Okinawa
Later in the 1960's Taira formalized and strengthened his association
by appointing his students to different positions within the Shinko Kai
and established testing and licensing standards for his students. Also
in 1963, to further the growth of Karate-do and Kobudo at an international
level, the Kokusai Karate-do Kobudo Renmei was formed with Higa Seiko
as chairman and Taira Shinken as vice chairman. Later in 1964 Taira Shinken
was recognized as a master teacher of Kobudo by the All Japan Kobudo Federation
and was awarded his Hanshi certification (Nakamoto, 1983; Ryukyu Kobudo
Hozon Shinkokai, 1977).
After Taira Shinken's death his favorite and most trusted student, Akamine
Eisuke, took over the position as the chairman of the Ryukyu Hozon Shinko
Kai, while the rest of the students took over various positions within
the organization. In an attempt to expand Ryukyu Kobudo, Akamine Sensei
opened his own dojo in Naha in 1971, naming it the Shinbu Kan (Bishop,
1989; 1996). This was followed by other students of Taira Shinken such
as Minowa, Nakasone, Inoue and Nakamoto opening their own respective dojos.
Published with permission of Mario McKenna of the Okinawa Shinshu Kai:
www.geocities.com/Colosseum/Bench/4784/ (Edited for punctuation and clarity)